Premier Premonitions – Long Blue Shadow

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There’s no question now that there’s a long blue shadow over the Premier League. Chelsea need just one win from their three remaining matches – two of them at home against Watford and Sunderland – to clinch the title.

Most teams have very little left to play for by this stage, other than those trying for Champions League qualification and those in the relegation battle. This is a very busy week with no fewer than fifteen matches, as everyone plays catch-up on their postponed games, leaving each team with one last match to be played May 21.

Watford travel to Goodison Park on Friday to play Everton. I can’t say it’s the most appealing fixture, given that both teams seem to have lost their way recently, but surely Everton will get the win in their last home game of the season.

In the battle of the B’s Bournemouth host Burnley on Saturday. Both teams are safely settled in mid-table and don’t have a lot to play for other than pride and next season’s contracts. Despite Burnley finally getting an away win this season I doubt they can repeat it here. It’s a Cherries win for me.

Manchester City, still battling to keep their Champions League place, host last season’s champions Leicester City in the early game on Saturday. If City play anywhere near the lovely flowing football they displayed against Palace they will romp, but I at least expect them to get the win.

Middlesbrough, in what I expect will be their last Premier League match for some time at the Riverside, face a busy Southampton. This is the third of five matches the Saints have to play in fourteen days, so Boro may have an opportunity to get some points, but I doubt it. I think this will be an away win.

West Brom begin their difficult run-in by hosting Chelsea on Friday in a match that could be the title-clincher. This is by far Chelsea’s toughest match in their run-in. The Baggies are defensively excellent and can absorb a lot of pressure without caving, as long as they don’t give up an early goal or two. Chelsea have two easier matches following this in which to clinch the title so the urgency may not be there. The Blues are a much superior team but I rather think this may be a draw.

Chelsea play Watford on Monday, possibly after they clinch the title and possibly in the clinching match. Whichever way, this will be a celebration for the Blues as they pick up another three points. By the way N’golo Kante, PFA player of the year and Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year, will become the first player to win the league title two seasons in a row with different clubs.

Arsenal have another difficult road game on Saturday, this time against Stoke City. Stoke’s season has been generally disappointing but they’re always a tough opponent. The physical approach of the Potters may pay off against Ozil, Ramsey (who can be quite physical himself but seems a little frail at the moment), and Welbeck. On the other hand, Xhaka may be in his element provided he can avoid cards. I think this will be close and may end up as a draw but the Gunners are definitely the better team and will probably get the win.

Manchester City face West Brom at home on Tuesday in a match that could be uncomfortable for them. The Baggies – as with any Pulis team – are more than capable of putting up a stern defence and looking for a breakaway opportunity. But the form of David Silva and his ability to cut open a defence convinces me that City will get the win whatever Albion do.

Arsenal, another busy club, get a relaxing day at the Emirates as they entertain Sunderland on Tuesday. I still doubt they’ll make the Champions League – although they could if they win all three remaining matches while Liverpool drop points in one of their two games – but they should be far too good for the Black Cats on their current form and will surely get three more points.

Liverpool travel to London to face West Ham on Sunday. The Hammers are another difficult opponent, as Spurs found out last week, and can play a stifling defence. Given Liverpool’s inability to find a way through Southampton last week I have some doubts about their ability to break down West Ham. But dropping points here could mean dropping out of a Champions League position so I expect them to give it their all and get the win.

Southampton play their fourth game of that final five on Wednesday at home to Manchester United, who won’t be any less tired because of their Europa League matches on top of the Premier League. A lot depends on who Mourinho decides to put on the field out of those available, although if Axel Tuanzebe is in any way typical of the young players at his disposal he has nothing to fear. Given the tiredness of both teams I don’t expect anything spectacular and a low-scoring draw seems most likely.

Tottenham take their forlorn title hopes on the road to Leicester on Thursday. Spurs have been on a wonderful run of form but finally crashed down to earth at West Ham. Depending on their result against Manchester United on Sunday, as well as Chelsea’s result on Friday, they may be in full flow or feeling rather muted. The Foxes have finally found their form under the stewardship of Craig Shakespeare and will not be easy to defeat. However, I think Spurs will get the win in any case, whether because they’re still chasing the title or because they know Champions League is sown up and the title is out of reach so they’ll be under no pressure.

Sunderland at home to Swansea City

Sunderland of course are doomed to relegation but, as so often happens, are playing better now the pressure’s off. Meanwhile Swansea are in a dogfight to avoid the drop themselves so will have plenty of incentive but also plenty of pressure.

Last week the Black Cats beat Hull City in Hull, thanks in large part to another scintillating performance by Jordan Pickford, who made a number of fine saves. It would be unfair to put it all down to him though. The defence played pretty well, and Didier N’Dong and George Honeyman had excellent games in midfield.

As usual though, Sunderland were generally poor in attack. The first goal came from an excellent header by full-back Billy Jones and the second one, scored in the 92nd minute as Hull threw everything at them, was surely offside.

Meanwhile the Swans had a pretty difficult task themselves, playing Everton at home, and came away with the win despite having much less possession. Alfie Mawson was the man of the match for me, as he cleared everything coming into the area and kept Romelu Lukaku quiet, no mean feat. His defence partner, Federico Fernandez, was pretty impressive too.

It was hard to find a weakness in this Swansea team on the day. Kyle Naughton and Martin Olsson were excellent wingbacks, Leon Britton worked and worked in midfield, Tom Carroll put himself about more than I’ve ever seen him, Gylfi Sigurdsson’s free kicks and corners were a joy to watch, Fernando Llorente was a big problem for the Everton defence and Jordan Ayew was a constant thorn with his pace and workrate.

Swansea are now a point ahead of Hull and three behind Crystal Palace and could find themselves safe if they win here while Hull lose. I doubt Sunderland’s attack will get much joy against Mawson and company, ably backstopped by Lukasz Fabianski, while Olsson, Naughton, and Ayew will cause problems for Sunderland’s defence with their pace and crossing ability.

This seems a mismatch to me and I really expect Swansea to get the win.

Prediction: Swansea win 3-1

Tottenham Hotspur at home to Manchester United

Tottenham at home to Manchester United is always a juicy fixture, made especially so this season because it will be the last match ever played at the old White Hart Lane stadium. Last season’s equivalent fixture finished 3-0 to Spurs. The season before, it finished 3-0 to United. But this is not the United team of old. It’s much more like Chelsea’s team of old, when everyone thought they were boring.

Tottenham’s home form has been outstanding all season, with sixteen wins and two draws from eighteen matches. What a way to say goodbye to the old ground where I saw my first match 66 years ago (I guess that ages me a bit). Pochettino has done a wonderful job in building a team out of a set of individuals, a team that’s young, hungry, skilled and together in a way that’s not often seen.

Everyone talks about Harry Kane and what he means to the team, but even when he was injured Spurs had excellent results. The defence has been wonderful, whether playing three or four at the back, Wanyama, Dier and Dembele have been terrific at the base of midfield, and Eriksen and Dele have simply shone. Son, despite his difficulty receiving the ball, has come in and done a job, scoring some important goals, and Trippier and Davies have been more than adequate in wing-back rotation.

I would hope that Danny Rose is ready to make his return, even as a late substitute, but I have some doubts. Before his injury he was playing terrific football and proving himself the best in his position in the league, so having him back would be a real treat, even if it’s a little later than we’d have liked.

United have looked smooth at times without being able to turn it into goals. Losing Ibrahimovic has definitely hurt them, since he was the one who could score a goal out of seemingly nothing. But they have good young players in Rashford, Martial, and Lingard who are all capable of scoring and just need some playing time to mature as players.

Michael Carrick is wonderful to watch on the ball, when he looks as though he has far more time than the other players around him and can pick out a safe pass or sometimes a defence-splitting pass apparently with ease. Paul Pogba is coming into his own and showing why he is paid so much money – although far less than Ibrahimovic – and Ander Herrera has been brilliant at times this season, so United’s midfield is in good shape.

United still have problems in defence. Jones and Smalling looked good in the air last week at Arsenal but not so good against quick feet on the ground. Rojo is injured and Blind seems to be out of favour, so probably Eric Bailly will be back for this. As I said above I was impressed by Axel Tuanzebe at right back so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again.

Will United’s focus be on this match or on their European adventures, assuming they get through? Will the players be playing to attract attention from potential buyers as Mourinho looks set to offload some of them or will they be going through the motions? I have to believe the United players, whoever they put on the field, will be up for this match against the number two team in England, and certainly Spurs will be up for it too, if only to maintain their unbeaten streak at home for the entire season.

But I really think this Spurs team will have too much for United and will come out handy winners.

Prediction: Tottenham win 2-0

Crystal Palace at home to Hull City

The early match on Sunday features a real relegation decider, as Crystal Palace take on Hull City at Selhurst Park. Palace are close – but no cigar yet – to being safe while Hull are in desperate straits after their surprising home loss to Sunderland and must win this match.

I’ve said many times this season that Palace are too good to go down, although they’ve tried their hardest to prove me wrong. Right now they’re without Dann, Sakho, Tomkins and Souare in defence, typical of the injuries that have plagued them this season. Last time out, their hammering by Manchester City, they had Martin Kelly and Jeff Schlupp, both really full-backs, playing central defence.

I’ve been impressed with Luka Milivojevic in central midfield, Andros Townsend on the wing, and of course Wilfried Zaha, but Townsend in particular was poor against City and Zaha looked frustrated and petulant. Christian Benteke, who’s been playing well recently, was also very quiet. My biggest disappointment with Palace has been Jason Puncheon, who was so good last season. He seems to have lost his touch and is maybe trying too hard.

And what on earth happened to Hull last week? They seemed to have found their groove and then went out and had a stinker at home to Sunderland, putting themselves deep in the hole. Apart from Andrew Robertson and Sam Clucas there’s very little good to be said about the other starters. Markovic and Elmohamady were particularly poor and got no help from N’Diaye, who had a real off-day.

Of course they had to deal with Jordan Pickford, who was excellent again, and a goal might have changed the whole complexion of the game and helped the Tigers to get their tails up and get a point or perhaps more.

Hull might have a better chance in this match. Instead of Pickford they’ll face Wayne Hennessey, who can be brilliant at times but is far less consistent. Instead of Lamina Kone and the old head of John O’Shea they’ll face a makeshift, inexperienced central defence. But they’ll also be up against pace and skill in Zaha and Townsend as well as the heading ability and positional sense of Benteke. Maguire against Benteke could be quite a battle!

Overall I think Palace are the stronger of the two teams and will get the win, if only because of Hull’s inability to deal with Zaha. If, as I expect, Palace get ahead, Hull will have to throw caution to the winds and come at them, leaving themselves vulnerable to quick counter-attacks leading to more goals. The more I consider this match the more I believe Palace will win and ensure their survival for another season.

Prediction: Palace win 3-1

A little plug for next week’s edition, covering the final matches of the season. It will be an extra special edition, complete with a musical extravaganza – maybe as many as eight musical links! Look for it on Thursday.

Thanks for reading and I hope you like the music 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 Gylfi Sigurdsson courtesy of skysports.com
Music by Dave Brubeck Quartet – Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass and my favourite jazz drummer Joe Morello.

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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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