Eleven. A special number in football, especially this week. The number of players on the field for each team, the number of teams still battling for the title, a Champions League place, or Premier League survival and, if I include next Thursday’s delicious matchup between Manchester City and Manchester United, the number of league games we have this week. In addition to those eleven we also have two FA Cup semifinals, giving a situation where seven teams will be playing two games each while one, West Brom, don’t play at all.
What’s more, these eleven matches have some real impact on both the top and bottom of the league, giving me a hard time choosing which ones to focus on this week. But, my decisions are made so here we go, starting with the less important.
On Saturday, Everton and their good but inconsistent form visit West Ham, with their generally poor form. The Hammers will be without the injured Michail Antonio for the rest of the season and will also miss Sam Byram and Mark Noble because of suspension. Everton are of course without Bolasie and Coleman but should be far too much for West Ham to handle. Expect an away win.
Leicester travel to the Emirates to face Arsenal on Wednesday, delayed because of the Gunners’ FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City. It’s really hard to know what to expect here. Arsenal have been pretty dismal recently but if they beat City on Sunday will have a lot of their confidence back and will surely overwhelm Leicester. On the other hand if they’re badly beaten they may be there for the taking, especially since the Foxes have rediscovered their form. But I expect the City match to be close and Arsenal to be in reasonably good shape, meaning they’ll get the win.
On Sunday morning Burnley host Manchester United, hot off their victory over Chelsea. Burnley at home are a good team but it seems to me that United are finally finding their form and becoming the team many people expected them to be much earlier in the season. Given their push for a top four spot I think United will have the drive and energy to get the win here.
Middlesbrough take their fading hopes of survival to the South Coast, where they’ll play Bournemouth. I expect Boro to revert to their defensive style and try to score on a breakaway, while the Cherries try to recover from their 4-0 hammering at Tottenham last week. Bournemouth’s defence was horrible, especially under pressure from high-pressing forwards, but I don’t think Boro can play that game. If they sit back I expect Bournemouth to dominate possession and get the win.
There’s a really intriguing battle on Sunday at Anfield, where Liverpool host Crystal Palace. Both these teams are in pretty good form with four wins in their last six matches and will go into this full of confidence. The Reds will still be without Henderson, Lallana and Mane and now Klavan is injured too, but they have a pretty good squad and have been doing fine without their injured players. Palace have their own injuries but perhaps not to such critical players. Zaha and Townsend will cause problems on the wings and Christian Benteke has found his scoring touch so this is a dangerous team, but without the ineligible Mamadou Sakho their defence is vulnerable. Being at Anfield gives Liverpool an edge and I think they’ll have enough to get the win.
Chelsea follow their Saturday FA Cup semifinal with Spurs with a Tuesday match against Southampton that could be critical to their league title ambitions. The Saints have been inconsistent all season but when they’re on they’re quite a team, so are certainly capable of giving the Blues a match. But a full-strength (assuming no injuries in Saturday) Chelsea eleven should be too strong for them, especially at Stamford Bridge, and will surely get the win.
Hull City, battling Swansea to avoid that last relegation place, hosts Watford. Both teams have three wins and three losses in their last six league matches and both have some significant injuries, although Hull’s list is finally coming down somewhat. Hull’s last two matches were away losses but back at the KCOM I think they’ll have better luck. Troy Deeney could give them some problems but I think Hull’s defence, with Dawson, Maguire, and Ranocchia, will be able to handle him and the Tigers will get the win.
Swansea has perhaps a tougher battle, at home to Stoke City. The Potters have disappointed too often this season but when they hit their stride they’re a difficult team to play against. I still don’t understand why the Swans have performed so poorly this season given the talent in their club. Sigurdsson has been excellent, as have Olsson, Carroll, Mawson and Fer, and yet they keep losing. If they lose this match while Hull win theirs I think the Swans will be doomed, but I doubt that will happen. I think this battle will go down to the wire and could even put Bournemouth in danger as Swansea win.
Crystal Palace at home to Tottenham Hotspur
On Wednesday Spurs take their title charge to Selhurst Park to face Palace in what should be a tight match. Palace will have come off a difficult away match at Liverpool while Spurs will have played an FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea, and I’m sure the mood of both teams will have been affected by those results.
Palace, after playing inexplicably poorly for quite a bit of this season, have now found their confidence and their form. Since the last Saturday in February they’ve beaten Middlesbrough, West Brom, Watford, Chelsea, and Arsenal, drawn with Leicester and lost only to Southampton after a controversial equalizer and a late burst from the Saints.
Wilfried Zaha has been a standout and, as my Palace-loving friend likes to remind me, Andros Townsend has become a real team player with more than one trick up his sleeve. Mamadou Sakho, on loan from Liverpool, has done wonders for the defence and Luka Milivojevic looks like an excellent find.
Spurs of course have been the form team recently, with seven consecutive league wins after their defeat at Liverpool. Harry Kane was out injured for much of that run but other players stepped up and filled the gap, notably Son and Eriksen. In their last match, a 4-0 defeat of Bournemouth, the goals were each scored by a different player, a very pleasing statistic for any Spurs fan. The fact that one was scored by Vincent Janssen from open play was especially pleasing given the hard time he’s had this season.
If Spurs beat Chelsea on Saturday, or even narrowly lose, I expect them to come into this match full of confidence with the only negative being if they were to lose badly. The same is true for Palace’s result against Liverpool. Assuming neither lose badly this could be quite a match.
Overall Spurs have more quality over the field. Ben Davies may have a difficult time up against mostly Zaha and sometimes Townsend, but similarly Palace will have a hard time up against Dele, Eriksen, Son and Kane. I expect this to be fairly low-scoring but I think Spurs have enough to win.
Prediction: Spurs win 2-1
Middlesbrough at home to Sunderland
Whatever slim hopes of survival each of these teams have will be on the line as they meet at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday. Middlesbrough will have had their match on Saturday at Bournemouth and may have their tails up if they surprise me and everyone else by getting a win. Sunderland will just have had a longer rest between games and therefore a little more time to prepare their tactics, assuming David Moyes knows what that means.
Earlier in the season I was praising Boro for playing reasonably good football while losing narrowly, and expecting them to stay up fairly comfortably. But they’ve scored only 23 goals in their 32 matches this season. That lack of scoring, even when they were playing better football than their opponents and deserved a victory, was making them settle for one point instead of three. They have twelve league draws this season when a total more appropriate to their play might be eight draws and four more wins. That would have put them eight points ahead of where they are now and given them a more than reasonable chance of escaping the drop.
Why they can’t score is a bit of a mystery. They have Alvaro Negredo, Rudy Gestede, Patrick Bamford, and Gaston Ramirez available to play up front, supported by midfielders like Marten de Roon and Adama Traore who are also quite capable of hitting the net. Stewart Downing doesn’t score much but has a terrific left foot and puts in some wonderful crosses for his forwards to meet. Steve Agnew had them playing more attacking football in the match at Hull, which resulted in them scoring twice but giving away four goals.
I suspect their biggest problem right now is fighting a sense of frustration and hopelessness. Perhaps an example of the effect that has was Antonio Barragan, generally a good performer this season, strolling back after being dispossessed, leaving his defence a man short and leading to the winning goal being scored by Arsenal.
Meanwhile Sunderland are in even worse shape, firmly rooted in last place three points behind Boro and with a much worse goal difference. In fairness to the Black Cats, they’ve had a horrible season for injuries with some key players out for extended periods. Papy Djilobodji took a while to settle in, started to look good and was then injured and out for some time. The same thing happened to Jan Kirchhoff, probably the best of their midfielders. And of course Duncan Watmore, who was playing some excellent football, was lost for the rest of the season when he injured his cruciate ligament back on December 3.
Sunderland have also had difficulty scoring, managing just 26, three more than Boro, while conceding a whole lot more. The brilliance of Jordan Pickford in net has kept them close in many games they should have lost easily. Jermain Defoe has been a terrific player for them, scoring 14 of their 26 goals and adding a couple of assists, but too often he’s been a lone striker up against two centre-backs, restricting his opportunities.
In my opinion they’re over the hill and in need of a drastic overhaul. John O’Shea, at 35, has been the best of their defenders and Didier Ndong has done a pretty good job in midfield but other than those two, Kirchhoff, Watmore, Pickford, and Defoe this is a team awfully low on Premier League talent. And how many of those will stay following relegation?
Earlier in the season I thought Sunderland’s fighting spirit was their best asset but recently even that has begun to fade as they look more and more resigned to the fact of relegation. Boro, on the other hand, still have their spirit and for that reason I think they’ll get the win.
Prediction: Middlesbrough win 2-1
Manchester City at home to Manchester United
Now here’s a match that’s come at just the right time. Earlier in the season I’d have had no hesitation in predicting a City victory, but now that United have finally got it together while City have stalled it’s much less clear.
This was supposed to be a season in which City could take on the world. They had a new manager, supposedly the best in the world, a stellar squad, and a pile of money to spend. They got rid of some under-performers and added Bravo, Stones, Nolito, Jesus, Gundogan, and Sane, all top quality players. But this City team has performed no better than last season’s City team.
It’s hard to understand why. This is the strongest squad in the Premier League, on paper at least, although they’re often accused of being vulnerable in central defence. Otamendi and Stones are both good players and could walk in to the starting eleven of most teams in the league and their midfield protection, provided by Fernandinho, Toure and/or Fernando, is very strong. And they’re even better when Kompany is fit. They’ve conceded 35 league goals so far this season, behind only Spurs, Manchester United, and Chelsea, so it hasn’t actually been bad.
As for scoring, they’ve hit the net 63 times, behind only Liverpool, Spurs, and Chelsea, so again it’s been reasonable. I’m truly at a loss to understand why they’re not leading the league. Sure they’ve had injuries, to Kompany, Gundogan, and Jesus in particular, but every team loses some of its star players from time to time. Perhaps the expectations were too high and put too much pressure on the players. Perhaps the Toure situation created a gulf between players and management, causing problems in the dressing room. Perhaps the talk of a clean-out at the end of the season is taking away the joy of playing.
They’re certainly a joy to watch when they’re on song, with Silva and de Bruyne pulling the strings, Sane attacking down the left, and Sterling and Aguero coming through the middle.
United are another team with overly high expectations who failed to deliver. They too hired a top manager in Jose Mourinho, started with a reasonably good squad and spent a bundle of money bringing in Bailly, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, and of course Ibrahimovich. Ibrahimovic has certainly come through, scoring seventeen times and adding five assists. The next highest league scorer for United is Juan Mata with six!
For a club with supposed defensive problems they’ve done remarkably well, conceding only 24 times in 31 matches, second only to Spurs. Marcos Rojo, a so-so full-back, has become an accomplished centre-back this season, solving their major problem. Paul Pogba has slowly grown into his role in midfield and is now showing his capability more consistently, and Ander Herrera has been excellent both offensively and defensively.
Mourinho’s tactical master class last week against Chelsea had Fellaini playing mostly a defensive game and making it difficult for Chelsea’s vaunted midfield while Herrera shadowed Eden Hazard and effectively kept him quiet, no mean feat. Will they do that again this week, using Herrera against Silva and Fellaini up against Toure and Fernandinho? Why not?
The problem of course is that if you keep Silva quiet that probably makes more room and opportunity for de Bruyne. Valencia and Young attacking the way they like to do makes more room for Sane and Sterling. It’ll be interesting to see what these two managers come up with.
Once again their respective previous matches will play a role. City take on Arsenal in the FA Cup while United play Burnley at Turf Moor. I expect both to win but neither will be an easy victory and of course any injuries could have a major effect on this game. Given it’s at the Etihad I lean towards City but with the form of United at the moment anything is possible. The tactical schemes of the managers are another unknown that could have a major impact. I’m going to sit on the fence for this one and predict a draw.
Prediction: Draw 1-1
Thanks for reading and I hope you like the rather different music this week. Feel free to disagree with my predictions and leave a comment or two – we appreciate it.