Premier Premonitions – Teams at the Crossroads

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At the crossroads. Which road will my team take? That’s the question players, management and fans of Swansea, Hull, Burnley, Leicester, Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Chelsea are all asking themselves.

A Chelsea win and Spurs loss would just about clinch the title; a Spurs win and Chelsea loss would blow it wide open. An Arsenal loss would seriously jeopardize their chances of getting into the Champions League. Depending on Thursday’s match between the two Manchester clubs, this weekend could be a real crossroads for both of them. And down at the bottom every match is a potential crossroads except for Middlesbrough and Sunderland, who are surely doomed to take the road that goes down.

Because of Wednesday and Thursday commitments I have to write this before the matches on those days, so the injury situations, league positions, and relative moods at the clubs involved may have changed. I’ll do my best anyway, based on my predictions from last week (Arsenal to beat Leicester, Boro to beat Sunderland, Spurs to beat Palace, and the Manchester clubs to draw).

We’ll begin this week at Stoke with a match that doesn’t have very much meaning. The Potters take on West Ham with both teams surely safe but having a pretty miserable season. The Hammers finally played a decent game, drawing 0-0 with Everton, while Stoke lost at Swansea. I think Stoke are better than their recent form suggests but they looked as though they were feeling tremendous pressure last week, which doesn’t help their game at all. I think Stoke will come out of their funk and get the win here.

Sunderland plod towards the crossroads at the end of their last Premier League season for a while by hosting Bournemouth. The Cherries had a fine 4-0 win over Middlesbrough which suggests, given their up-and-down form, that they’ll be off this week. But even that should be enough to get them a point against a dispirited Sunderland, looking resigned to their fate.

Middlesbrough, also surely doomed, take on Manchester City. City lost their FA Cup semifinal and then have a tough match against Manchester United on Thursday, so may not be at their best. Their injury situation is a little unclear, with Aguero, Fernandinho, Sagna, Silva, and Stones all to be assessed. The only good news – and surprising given he was supposed to be out for the season – is that Gabriel Jesus may be ready, even for this Thursday’s match against Manchester United. But whoever they’re missing, it’s hard to see City slipping up against this Boro side, so I expect an away win.

Hull City take their drive for survival to Southampton. The Tigers will be without Oumar Niasse, who picked up a foolish red card early in the match last Saturday but, as their terrific 10-man display showed, they have plenty of fighting spirit. But they’ll need it all against this Saints team that’s showing signs of getting their flowing football back. I think this will be a home win.

Champions Leicester City, still on the fringes of the relegation battle, travel to the Hawthorns to take on West Brom. The Albion are having a very poor run at the moment with only one win in their last six league matches, while Mahrez and Vardy have come out of their funk and started to get results for the Foxes. On form this should probably be a Leicester win but I have a hunch Tony Pulis will put his boot up someone’s arse and get the Baggies going enough for a win.

Crystal Palace, one of the many teams managed by Pulis during his career, host Burnley. Palace are technically still not safe but the way they’re playing there’s no reason for concern. Meanwhile the Clarets have been dropping gradually down the table to the point where they must now feel threatened. They’ve also now lost Joey Barton, probably forever. A couple of good results for Swansea and Hull and a couple of bad results for Burnley and they could be saying goodbye. Unfortunately for them I expect this to be one of the bad results, with the only good news being that Swansea and Hull are likely to lose too this weekend.

And Liverpool, just conquered by Palace, visit Vicarage Road on Monday to take on Watford. Liverpool are certainly the stronger team but once again they’re showing how much Sadio Mane means to them. Watford’s loss against a 10-man Hull City last week was surprising for a team known for its work rate rather than its skill. Against an eleven man Liverpool – missing Henderson and Mane but with Lallana probably back – I think the Hornets will be hard-pressed to get a point. Add in the Reds’ determination to get a Champions League place and I expect an away win.

Manchester United at home to Swansea City

The early match on Sunday features an Ibrahimovic-less Manchester United up against Swansea City at Old Trafford.

After being accused of depending too much on their main man up front, United have been playing rather well without him as Mourinho is forced to play some of his younger players. Both Rashford and Martial have come through and shown why they deserve more chances to play, which is good news for United fans.

They’ve also lost Rojo, who has been playing rather well in central defence. Last time out they moved Daley Blind to accompany Eric Bailly, which certainly worked against a rather toothless Burnley but they may not find it so easy against the Swans.

The Swans finally showed something of what they can do by handily defeating Stoke City, although they were aided by an errant penalty kick. Gylfi Sigurdsson has been terrific all season, especially with his free kicks and corners, and Tom Carroll and Leroy Fer have provided excellent midfield support, allowing Gylfi to push forward more.

Fernando Llorente is back from injury and so too should be Martin Olsson, whose runs down the left and terrific crosses give Llorente opportunities to score. I really should mention Lukasz Fabianski, who owns his penalty area and gives a lot of confidence to the defenders in front of him.

Despite my criticisms of Jose Mourinho, which are mostly about his bad long-term effect at a club after ignoring the young players and preferring to buy talent rather than develop it, there’s no doubt he’s a great tactician. I expect for this match his focus will be on managing Sigurdsson, since most Swansea attacks come through him.

However, he can’t afford to ignore the pacey Jordan Ayew in open play and the dangers posed by Llorente, Mawson and Fernandez from set pieces. I suspect Fellaini will have a role to play supporting his defence in those set pieces.

Olsson’s pace up against Ashley Young will be interesting, as will Ayew’s pace against Darmian, but I think Herrera may give Carroll a roasting in midfield. I like Swansea and think they’re too good to be in the position they’re in but I think United are stronger. Not an easy match but I expect United to get the win.

Prediction: Manchester United win 2-1

Everton at home to Chelsea

As a Spurs fan I had big hopes of this match. After all, Everton are a good solid team with plenty of skill, a good work ethic and Romelu Lukaku up front wanting to show Chelsea what they missed. But now I’m not so sure.

Last weekend at West Ham the Toffees had most of the possession but lost the majority of the duels, on the ground and in the air, and managed a paltry four shots, none of which were on goal! They were lucky to get away with a point from a 0-0 draw against an off-form Hammers team without Noble and Antonio.

I have no idea why Everton can’t produce the play they’re clearly capable of on a consistent basis. They have plenty of talent in defence, midfield and up front, and they have what seems to be a pretty good manager in Ronald Koeman.

In Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman and Ross Barkley they have an excellent, hard-working, and young supporting cast for Lukaku. Add in people like Kevin Mirallas, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Idrissa Gueye coming through from midfield and you have what should be a scoring machine. Defensively, Phil Jagielka is still one of the best, Ashley Williams is no slouch, and Leighton Baines is as good as ever, all protected by Morgan Schneiderlin and/or Gareth Barry. What’s not to like? And yet … But you know what they’re capable of could happen at any time, perhaps even in this match.

But Chelsea are a difficult team to play against, as Spurs can testify. They have terrific pace and skill in every position and the much-maligned – including by me – David Luiz is playing terrific defence. I thought Luiz thoroughly deserved the Man-of-the-Match award in the FA Cup semifinal for his anticipation and reading of the game as much as his tackling.

Chelsea’s stumbles this season have been very few. They lost to Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, Crystal Palace, and Manchester United, and drew with Swansea, Liverpool, and Burnley. Will they stumble here? It’s possible, if they have a slight off-day and Everton play the way they occasionally do, but I doubt it. I think Chelsea will get the win to maintain their lead over Spurs.

Prediction: Chelsea win 2-1

Tottenham Hotspur at home to Arsenal

Oh boy! My least favourite match to write about. The North London Derby is one of the most difficult to predict because, no matter what the recent form or the relative league positions of the teams, you’re going to get a real battle.

Spurs have had an excellent season and are the only team in the league unbeaten at home. They certainly won’t want to relinquish that record against Arsenal of all teams. The side has been solid all the way through, and have coped extremely well when Harry Kane and Danny Rose were out injured. Defence has been very strong, with the Lloris, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen triumvirate, supported by Wanyama, Dier, and Dembele, limiting opponents to only 22 goals over 32 matches.

Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier at right wingback and Danny Rose on the left have all been excellent. I don’t mean to put down Ben Davies, who’s a very good player, but I don’t think he’s quite on the level of Rose. In midfield Dembele has been a joy to watch and more recently Eriksen has found his mojo and been simply brilliant. Add in Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Son, and Janssen and you have a very strong set of first-choice players.

The problems come from squad depth, where there’s too much of a gap between that set of fifteen players and the next level. It’s a difficult problem to solve, since who wants to be on the bench week after week waiting for a turn when you could be starting every week for another club? If Harry Winks hadn’t been injured the number would be sixteen, making it even more difficult for a Josh Onomah or Georges-Kevin Nkoudou to get into a game.

Arsenal have had a strange season, with fan uprisings, poor results and sometimes brilliance, seemingly at random. Their first-team squad is also very strong but they’ve had a lot of injuries to deal with this season, bringing their next level of player into contention for a place more often than I’m sure Arsene Wenger is comfortable with.

Alexis Sanchez has been great to watch all season, with his skill and industry keeping Arsenal in a reasonable position in the table. I was really impressed in their FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City with the play of Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who provided drive and determination even when the Gunners seemed to be flagging.

Arsenal have talent all over the field and quite a bit on the bench too. I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen of Alex Iwobi, for example, who I’m sure is a future star, and if I know anything about Wenger and his scouting crew there are other excellent young players on their way through the ranks.

So as I said, this is difficult to predict. A midfield battle between either Wanyama or Dembele with Xhaka could provide an entertaining sideshow but the counter-attacking might be more interesting. Both teams have pace, both have scorers, and both have good defences.

I’m expecting a match it will be hard to tear your eyes away from, with a moment of indecision or a silly mistake proving costly. I’m sure Heung-Min Son will not play at left wingback and it’s in fact possible that Danny Rose will be back although Ben Davies is more likely to start in that position. Home advantage does give Spurs a bit of an edge and I really think, with my unbiased hat on, that they should be considered favourites to win, but it will be close.

This match deserves a more driving version of Crossroads, so here’s the Cream version with the best ever rock bassist, Jack Bruce, driving Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to new heights.

Prediction: Spurs win 2-1

Thanks for reading and I hope you like the two different versions of the same song this week. Feel free to disagree with my predictions and leave a comment or two – we appreciate it.
Martin Wills
Tottenham Hotspur Contributor
Twitter @SpursMartin
Header image of Danny Rose courtesy of foottheball.com
Music by Robert Johnson and Cream

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Martin Wills

Martin "The Gentleman" Wills is our Tottenham contributor and lead writer of "Premier Premonitions", online every Thursday.

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