Premier Premonitions – Desperation Time

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Desperation is showing right now in some teams. At the bottom it’s affecting Sunderland – or maybe they’re suffering more from resignation, Middlesbrough, Swansea and Hull. At the top you can see it in the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal.

The problem with desperation is that it puts on so much pressure that you can’t really play your game the way you know you can. It makes for more cards, both yellow and red, more injuries, more flubbed shots, more penalties and less flowing football.

As we approach the end of the season the race for survival and top four gets tighter and games can get much more difficult. As usual I’ll start with the less-pressured matches but you’ll see signs of desperation as we get further down the list.

Up at Goodison Park Everton will play Burnley. Given the Clarets’ away form this should be a no-brainer to pick, even if Ross Barkley is not quite at his best after that bar fight. The Toffees are still in with a chance of a Europa League spot, especially given Arsenal’s recent displays, but there’s no reason for them to play with desperation. Definitely – or as definite as one can be in this crazy season – a win for Everton.

Tottenham are at White Hart Lane again, this time facing Bournemouth. Given Chelsea’s form, but remembering their difficult match this weekend, a win here is essential to Spurs’ hopes of the title. Harry Kane being back is a real plus but they have to be careful not to take the Cherries lightly. I think they’ll be quite aware of Bournemouth’s ability and will do enough to win.

Crystal Palace follow their excellent form against teams in the top six with a visit by Leicester City. Given the Foxes’ lowly position they may do better than Chelsea and Arsenal did but I doubt it. Christian Benteke’s younger brother Jonathan played for the Palace U23 team against QPR on Monday, having been injured for much of the season. It would be interesting to see them play together – who knows? In any case I expect Palace to win.

Stoke City, on a run of four consecutive losses, host a resurgent Hull City. The Tigers are playing good attacking football at the moment and will give Stoke a run for their money. But the Potters are nothing if not resilient and I expect them to give as good as they get. I would lean towards Stoke, but given Hull’s precarious league position and their much greater need for points I think a draw is more likely.

Swansea City take their sputtering drive for survival to Watford. I continue to believe the Swans are better than their league position suggests and that sooner or later they’ll break out and start winning some matches, and this is the time to start. Llorente is back and Sigurdsson, Carroll and Olsson are playing well, so provided their defence can keep Troy Deeney under control and their desperation doesn’t drive them to do anything stupid I think Swansea will take the points.

West Brom, playing poorly after an encouraging run earlier in the season, host Liverpool. I think the Baggies on their day are capable of beating a Liverpool team that’s not on theirs – if that makes any sense – but it’s not clear whose day it might be. Being without Sadio Mane is clearly a major blow to Liverpool’s firepower but Coutinho has certainly stepped up to fill the void. Given their recent form I’m going for a Liverpool win.

Sunderland take their forlorn hopes of survival back to the Stadium of Light, where they face West Ham. The odds of a Sunderland win are better than expected, given that the Hammers will be without Michail Antonio and Mark Noble, but I still doubt it. Right now the Black Cats are ten points out of 17th place with only 7 matches remaining, so I think they’re sunk whatever happens here. Sometimes that reduction of pressure results in better performances but I think they will just earn one point from a draw.

Middlesbrough at home to Arsenal

Six points this year from twelve league matches and a last win on December 17 explains why Middlesbrough are sitting in 19th place and looking relegation in the face.

With Aitor Karanka in charge they had a terrific defence but were perhaps the most boring team in the league to watch as they seemed afraid to open up on attack. When Steve Agnew took over they tried to change that, resulting in a 4-2 loss at Hull, so have now, it seems, gone back to being boring.

It’s not clear what’s wrong with this team. Their squad seems fairly decent and with Negredo, Gestede, Bamford, and Stuani they would seem to have plenty of firepower. Defensively they’ve been pretty good all season and they have a battling, if not overly creative, midfield as well as the unpredictable Adama Traore.

For this match Calum Chambers is ineligible because he’s on loan from Arsenal, but he’s been injured for quite a bit of this season and it hasn’t adversely affected Boro’s display.

Given the disarray at Arsenal at the moment is this an opportunity for Boro to pick up three points? Much as they need those points I doubt they’re capable even if the Gunners are off their game.

On Monday at Selhurst Park Arsenal were dismal as they fell 3-0 to Crystal Palace and once again their fans rounded on Arsene Wenger. I have to believe the mood around the club is pretty poor, with the manager and players alike feeling besieged. There are rumours of Alexis Sanchez moving elsewhere, perhaps to rejoin Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and given he’s been their best player this season by a country mile it doesn’t bode well for the Gunners’ future.

Again it’s hard to see what’s wrong. They have an excellent squad but somehow they’re not gelling as a team. I only saw highlights of Monday’s match and from what I saw everything good about Arsenal’s display was connected to Sanchez. Are they too dependent on one player?

Boro’s stacked midfield will encourage Arsenal to play the ball into the space behind them to the speedy Sanchez and Walcott, which could cause a lot of problems for the home team. Meanwhile the Gunners’ defence, with Koscielny back from injury and probably Petr Cech in goal, should be capable of dealing with Boro’s forwards.

I would not be surprised by a draw at all and given the desperation on both sides anything could happen. However, I think last Monday’s display will give Arsenal sufficient incentive to play their best, whatever that may be at the moment, and I expect they’ll get the win.

Prediction: Arsenal win 2-1

Southampton at home to Manchester City

Sothampton have little to play for except pride but it’s a very different story for City. Even if not desperation, they’ll be feeling cross-city rivals Manchester United breathing down their necks for that fourth and final Champions League place and will also be hoping to catch Liverpool, just two points ahead.

Southampton are on a good run right now, after an up-and-down season. In their last six matches they have victories over Sunderland, Watford, and West Brom away and Crystal Palace at home. They drew at home to Bournemouth and their only loss in that period came at Tottenham in a very close match.

Defensively they’ve been quite good. Fraser Forster is an excellent keeper and Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens have played very well in front of him. The midfield has also provided a lot of protection through Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis, although Davis was injured and may be back while Romeu is banned for this match.

Up front Dusan Tadic has rediscovered his form, Manolo Gabbiadini has been scoring goals and Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse have all been terrific. Now if only Shane Long would stop trying to emulate Pippo Inzhagi and keep himself onside this team could score quite a few more.

City have had a poor run for a team of their quality, with only two wins and three draws in their last six league matches. The only teams they’ve beaten during that run have been Sunderland and Hull, while they drew with Stoke, Liverpool, and Arsenal and lost to Chelsea. What really surprises me though is that with all the attacking excellence they have they only scored nine goals during that period.

It’s been an interesting experiment playing Jesus Navas at right-back, or perhaps I should say right wing-back. He certainly provides extra width and allows Raheem Sterling to move inside more but also weakens the defence. I wonder how Pablo Zabaleta feels about that? It’s good to see Fabian Delph back from his long injury spell and playing quite well from what I’ve seen.

This could be a heck of a good game if Southampton play as well as they can. City’s defence is vulnerable and Gabbiadini, Tadic and company may well take advantage of that. On the other hand Aguero, Sane, Sterling and Silva are as good as it gets when they’re on song. I think City have the advantage in midfield and will pressure the Saints all game.

This could go either way but I rather think City will be strong enough to get the victory.

Prediction: Manchester City win 3-1

Manchester United at home to Chelsea

There’s got to be a bit of quiet desperation here, as Jose Mourinho desperately tries to justify the money he’s spent on Pogba, Mkhitaryan, and Bailly as well as Ibrahimovich’s salary. He needs at least a top four finish and a spot in the Champions League, but sits currently in fifth place, four points behind Manchester City and only three ahead of Arsenal and Everton.

Given they have the excellent David De Gea in goal and players like Pogba, Ibrahimovic and the others, you have to wonder why they’ve been so toothless and boring so often. Certainly one school of thought is that United have been too dependent on Ibrahimovic’s amazing goalscoring ability, to the detriment of the rest of the team.

Certainly last week against Sunderland United were not finding it easy and would have been level at half-time except for a piece of brilliance from you know who. They eventually won 3-0 but that was after Seb Larsson was somewhat controversially sent off just before half time and the scoreline was made more flattering by a Rashford goal after 89 minutes.

By the way, I agree with the sending off and just wish more referees would punish those reckless, potentially leg-breaking tackles, even if they don’t make contact. Listen to this recent podcast where we discuss a very similar situation.

Chelsea on the other hand are flying, sitting pretty comfortably at the top and playing generally excellent football. The blip against Crystal Palace aside, they’ve shown cohesion and support for each other as a team as well as those moments of individual brilliance we all love to see. Eden Hazard in particular is a joy to watch, but Pedro, Willian, Alonso, Kante, Matic – they all add something special to the team.

Defensively they’ve been very solid, with the back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill playing very well as a unit and Thibaut Courtois behind them. I seem to have mentioned everyone except Diego Costa, but truthfully he’s been playing well too.

I expect United to raise their game given what’s at stake here and who they’re playing. But I don’t think it will be enough. I doubt the United defence can deal with Costa and his supporting cast and I doubt United’s midfield will get much change out of Chelsea’s. The wild card is of course Ibrahimovic, who is capable of producing a goal out of nothing, but unless Chelsea have an off-day or the whole United team raises their game I expect a Chelsea win.

Prediction: Chelsea win 2-1

Thanks for reading and I hope you liked the music. 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 Jonathan Benteke courtesy of cpfc.co.uk
Music by Upstanding Youth

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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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