Premier Premonitions – Coming Down To The Wire

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The season is coming down to the wire. It’s almost done but there are still fierce battles going on at both ends of the table. Chelsea and Spurs are in lockstep at the moment, with Chelsea holding a four-point lead and each team having four games left. Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and yes, even Arsenal, are all fighting for a Champions League place or, at worst, a place in the Europa League. At the other end, Sunderland’s goose is cooked and Middlesbrough are surely going down with them, leaving Swansea, Hull and possibly even Crystal Palace fighting for survival.

Most of my attention this week is on the top end, but if Palace lose while Swansea and Hull win there’ll be some nail-biting going on at Selhurst Park. As always I’ll start with the matches that are less relevant to most of us and now, of course, to the title, Champions League and relegation battles.

Watford take their physical style of football to Leicester, where they’ll at least be happy Emre Can won’t be playing against them. The Foxes have certainly found some form in the last little while and are now comfortably in 11th place with 40 points, the same as Watford. I wouldn’t be surprised if Troy Deeney causes some problems for Leicester’s defence but I think the Hornets’ defence will be beaten for pace, resulting in a Leicester win.

Stoke City take their sorry arses to Bournemouth. It may be interesting to watch this, if only because I think the Cherries will incense Mark Hughes even more. Bournemouth’s style of play is excellent and when they’re in form they’re a pleasure to watch. I think this will be a home win.

West Brom’s recent run of form is so bad it would have got them relegated if they’d started it a couple of months earlier. During March and April they managed a total of four points from eight league matches. They take that awful run to Turf Moor to play Burnley on Saturday, a team that has the 6th best home record in the league. New month, new result? Maybe, but I think the Baggies will go down to another defeat.

Liverpool have an interesting match on Sunday morning against Southampton. Liverpool are struggling a bit at the moment, although still grinding out results, but they may struggle more against this Saints team. I think this will be a close match but since it’s at Anfield the edge goes to the Reds. I expect a home win.

Sunderland visit Hull City, possibly a trip they’ll do again next season in the Championship. This is a key match in the relegation battle but I can’t see Sunderland being able to take points from a team that has rediscovered belief in themselves. It’s always possible that with the pressure off the Black Cats will relax and play some good football but given the Tigers’ predicament Hull will be fighting for everything and I believe will get three valuable points.

Chelsea get an extra day or two for David Luiz to recover before facing Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge on Monday. I would have said it wouldn’t matter even if Chelsea played Roman Abramovic in central defence against this Middlesbrough team, but then Boro surprised everyone last week by scoring two against Manchester City, even leading twice. I guess as a Spurs fan I can hope, but truthfully it’s a pretty forlorn hope. Chelsea will surely get the three points here on their way to the title.

And Spurs take their title challenge to the London Stadium on Friday, where they’ll face West Ham. The Hammers are on a run of draws right now, the last two being scoreless against Everton and Stoke. They’ve had a difficult season, no doubt due at least in part to the change of ground and the loss of the noisy support they always enjoyed at Upton Park. Losing Michail Antonio to injury is a major blow to them since he was always dangerous. Mark Noble, who I’ve often praised over the years I’ve been writing these premonitions, has worked hard as always but seems to be lacking the invention and flair that I admired. Spurs of course want to put pressure on Chelsea by getting the win here that would put them just a point behind. Given the current form of the two teams I have to believe Spurs will get the win, although the Hammers are always difficult opponents.

Manchester City at home to Crystal Palace

Manchester City continue their stuttering season with a difficult home fixture against Crystal Palace. City desperately need a win here to maintain their Champions League position and beat out cross-town rivals United but with their current form there’s no guarantee they can do it.

Two wins, three draws and a loss in their last six league matches is simply not good enough for a team so expensively assembled, from the manager down. City’s home record is particularly odd. Despite their considerable attacking capability they’ve had seven draws at the Etihad in sixteen matches, more home draws than any team except the far more defensive-minded Manchester United. In those sixteen matches they’ve scored 27 goals, the same number as Hull City, fewer than Bournemouth, and far fewer than the other teams in the top four.

Certainly some teams park the bus, making it more difficult to score, but they do so at Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool too. City’s home record seems strange because when they’re on song they play some beautiful flowing football and certainly make opportunities. Perhaps they’re too dependent on individual flashes of brilliance.

Palace this season are one of those annoying teams that plays well against the better teams but not so well against the ones they should beat handily, a factor I’m sure Guardiola is aware of. Their current league position still leaves them a little vulnerable to being caught by both Hull and Swansea, giving them a real incentive to put in their best effort here.

Zaha has been brilliant all season and Townsend has stepped up his game recently to give Palace a threat on both sides, one that Christian Benteke has been able to take advantage of. Their real problem is in defence where they’ve lost Dann, Sakho, Tomkins, and of course Papa Souare, whose horrific accident last September has kept him out for almost the entire season. Wayne Hennessey has been brilliant at times but more often a little shaky, so the probability of City scoring is pretty high.

Nevertheless, Big Sam knows how to play this game, as Palace’s victories at Chelsea and Liverpool show. Actually their away record is far better than one would expect from a team in their position, with six wins and three draws from seventeen matches, seventh best in the league.

Palace could certainly do some damage here but City at this point are very determined to firm up a Champions League slot. I think the combination of Palace’s defence and City’s attack, with Jesus back alongside Aguero, will mean a City win that keeps Palace down in that danger area.

Prediction: Manchester City win 3-1

Swansea City at home to Everton

Swansea’s run-in is surely the easiest of those teams fighting relegation, but for that to mean anything they have to start getting points quickly. The Swans have been playing much better recently but Everton will not be easy opponents.

During April the Swans dominated and easily outshot Middlesbrough without being able to get the win, lost to Spurs, narrowly lost to West Ham and Watford by a single goal in each case, beat Stoke and beat Manchester United at Old Trafford – or would have but for the Rashford dive. Gylfi Sigurdsson has been brilliant, sometimes carrying the team virtually by himself, although the supporting cast has been stepping up lately.

Martin Olsson has been a terrific buy, Leroy Fer is a bit on and off but when on is excellent, Tom Carroll has given them some additional passing quality, Jordan Ayew’s pace and workrate make him a real threat, Fernando Llorente is great in the air, and Alfie Mawson is developing into an excellent centre-back.

The return of Leon Britton has stiffened up the midfield and Jack Cork is another tireless midfielder. I shouldn’t leave out Lukasz Fabianski in goal, who’s kept them in quite a few games with his anticipation and ownership of the goal area. I know I’ve been saying this all season, but this really is a team that should not be in danger of going down.

How do you spell Everton? E-n-i-g-m-a. I don’t think anyone, least of all Ronald Koeman, has any idea what this team is likely to do on any given day. They could have had a real crack at Europa League qualification – and maybe even Champions League – if only they were more consistent. In their last six matches they have just two wins, against Leicester and Burnley, draws at Manchester United and West Ham, and losses to Liverpool and Chelsea. They seem to be a much better team at home than away, despite their late capitulation last week against Chelsea.

The Toffees certainly have some talent, especially among the younger players. Tom Davies, just 18, has caught the eye many times this season, 19-year-old Ademola Lookman is a real find, 20-year-olds Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate look like developing into something special, and Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku are both only 23. That’s a terrific base for the future if they can hang on to them.

The problems come further back. Schneiderlin and Gueye are both 27, with plenty of experience as well as years ahead of them, but the backline of Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams, and Leighton Baines, together with Gareth Barry in midfield, is ancient by Premier League standards.

I can see the pace of Ayew, the drive of Fer, and the skills of Sigurdsson giving this backline a difficult day, and I think Swansea will take three points.

Prediction: Swansea win 2-1

Arsenal at home to Manchester United

This could be a significant match in terms of European qualification, especially if Liverpool or Citeh slip up. At one time this would have been the highlight of the weekend but now that’s less clear. Arsenal are playing without conviction and United are playing – well, Mourinho style. Perhaps they’ll leave the bus at home this time since they really need three points.

What on earth is going on with Arsenal? They look good in flashes but all too often they lack any team cohesiveness and break down into a set of individuals. For my money their best players recently have been Petr Cech and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both of whom still display the drive and desire that’s needed to succeed while remembering that they’re part of a larger whole. Which probably means Wenger will put Ox on the bench for this match.

Sanchez is frustrating, showing great skill and determination but wandering all over the field and looking like he’s trying to impress a potential future employer. He does his best to get the team penalties and free kicks in good areas though, even though it hurts his reputation. Someone said the other day that they almost bought a video called “Sanchez Goes Down”, thinking it was about Arsenal, but it turned out to be porn.

Koscielny labours on in central defence but playing alongside Gabriel can’t be easy. Xhaka is usually a red card waiting to happen – how he escaped a yellow last week is a total mystery to me – and miserable Mesut Ozil is clearly auditioning for the lead role in The Invisible Man. Aaron Ramsey is my personal favourite of the Gunners’ players, but he’s been getting frustrated and as he does so his level of play goes down. He’s a cultured skillful player who needs to be calmly determined and in good control of himself.

As for United, they’ve been one of my least favourite teams to watch as they’ve suffered through a season under Moanin’ Mourinho. Where’s the flair of the Alex Ferguson years? Where’s the joy in playing, the willingness to go for it, the pride in the shirt? They’ve become a poor copy of Chelsea, and you know what Mourinho did to their team last season.

If I seem down on Mourinho it’s because I am. I respect his tactical nous but I think his man-management sucks. His attitude seems to be “if my players aren’t performing as well as they should under me, instead of examining my approach and seeing if I could learn something and perhaps change the way I do things, I’ll just blame the referees and my current team and buy new players”.

Apparently Bailly, Smalling, and Pogba all trained with the team before their Europa League semifinal with Celta Vigo, implying that they should be available for this match, but there’s a rumour that Mourinho may rest some of his players for this match to concentrate on the Europa League, for which he and the club should be hugely fined if it’s true.

Sanchez will no doubt be a thorn to United’s defence while Pogba adds quality to United’s midfield. Giroud could do well against Blind if Smalling or Bailly are not available while Rashford could give Gabriel a roasting. Unless United really do weaken their team I think this will be a stalemate.

Prediction: Draw 1-1

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the article. 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 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain courtesy of goal.com
Music by Simon McBride

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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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