Premier League Weekend Preview: Round 31
tottenham Hotspur v Portsmouth
Fresh from their astounding 4-4 stalemate against Chelsea in the midweek league fixture, Spurs are showing no signs of playing out the remainder of the season in a meaningless fashion. In fact, it seems as if the players are now playing for places and trying to impress the manager for next season. Skipper Robbie Keane was irate last weekend having been substituted after scoring – and it was he who scored that magnificent late goal to secure a point for Tottenham against Chelsea on Wednesday. That performance just goes to show how far Spurs have come since the arrival of genius manager Juande Ramos. Battling and brave Tottenham have been recently, especially in beating Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final. Not only that, but despite crashing out of the Uefa Cup on penalties, Spurs did overturn a 1-0 deficit in order to force extra time against a very good PSV side. All this adds up to a promising second half of the season for Spurs and though they will still finish mid-table come the end of the Premiership campaign, they have much to be proud of.
Uefa Cup-chasing Portsmouth currently occupy that much-wanted sixth spot in the Premier League, having beaten hot-contenders Aston Villa last week. Portsmouth’s mid-season dip in form, similar of that of Blackburn’s, suggested they may not make Europe come May, however they have recently improved their performance to push up the table. But one man in particular has helped their cause. Jermain Defoe has been in exceptional form for Pompey from day 1 of joining them. His wonderful goals have helped Portsmouth up the table and it will be he who will be vitally important in maintaining this sixth spot for the remainder of the season. Anoher new signing, Milan Baros, has worked reasonably well alongside Defoe, showing at times the flair and link-up play he did at Liverpool. Portsmouth, like Spurs, look set to finish the season on a high.
With such a positive end to the season expected from both these sides, it is quite difficult to predict who will win this game. Portsmouth have thrived away from home this season and it is their performances on their travels that have been the main factor in leading them into such a good position in the League. Spurs on the other hand have improved all-round since the arrival of Ramos. As for who will win this game, I think it will be a very close contest with plenty of goals. Nonetheless, if anyone is to emerge as the winner then it will probably be Portsmouth.
Aston Villa v Sunderland
Martin O’Neill’s Villa side lost sixth-place to Portsmouth last weekend, a game which pretty much summed up their performances over the last few games. Villa have slipped at such a vital time of the season and they will be really looking to win most of their remaining games in order to reclaim that European spot. Ashley Young in particular has been playing quite well recently, but most of his moves and shots have eventually come to nothing. Agbonlahor and Carew have been quite ineffective of late too. If Villa are to win their next few games, they must rediscover that killer-instinct in front of goal.
I tip Sunderland to stay up this season. They deserve to stay in the Premiership due to their ‘never-say-die’ spirit and their magnificent performances in front of their home crowd. The last two times the Black Cats were in the Premier League, I don’t think they made much of an attempt to secure their top-flight status. But this season, under the influential leadership of the ever-feisty Roy Keane, Sunderland have thrived under the pressure and have kept on winning games at home. With pressure so intense at this stage of the season, it is vital Sunderland win some more games at home. Going by their home performances so far this season, I’m sure they will be able to achieve at least two more victories in front of their home fans.
This is Villa’s time to put their patchy form behind them and beat a Sunderland side who rarely perform on their travels. For the Black Cats, I think that all away games are just a bonus for them, and ifor that reason, f they do lose this game, I don’t think it will disrupt Keane’s planning over-much.
Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic
Blackburn Rovers still have an outside chance of making Europe come the end of the campaign, but one thing is for sure, they will have to stop conceding goals and start scoring more. If anything separates Blackburn from their fellow Uefa Cup contenders, it is goal difference. If Rovers do manage to end the season on a high, it would be bitterly disappointing for them to lose out on Uefa Cup football due to goal difference. Yet, this is the way it seems to be going. If you look at the table, it is possible for Rovers to find those four points which would enable them to capture sixth place, but with a goal difference of only plus two, compared to Portsmouth’s and Villa’s plus 13, the question is, can Rovers score enough goals during the rest of the season?
Six points above the drop zone, it seems as if the job is done for Wigan and they are safe. But a closer glance at the table does show there are eight games remaining this campaign and six points will not ensure safety come May. However, their six-point advantage over their counterparts will give the Latics some confidence, knowing they do have some breathing space down at the bottom. And their recent performances reflect a solid position in the league for the moment. If Wigan can just keep rock-hard at the back, they will stay safe.
Blackburn are quite good in front of their home fans and this is an occasion for them to shine and improve that goal difference. Rovers are much better than Wigan and though the Latics may feel they are a long way away from relegation now, a defeat here could leave them reeling again. Both these sides have among the poorest crowds in the league, yet memories of their last meeting, which ended 5-3 in favour of Wigan, could boost the attendance this Easter weekend.
Bolton Wanderers v Manchester City
I am one who strongly disagrees with Gary Megson’s decision to rest all his best side when they played that Uefa Cup fixture against Sporting Lisbon a couple of weeks ago. It seems stupid to deliberately pick a weak side when Bolton had every chance to go through in the competition. After all, the same squad did work extremely hard to qualify for the competition in the first place. And a good Uefa Cup run could have actually helped Bolton’s League form. Imagine how much confidence they would have gained if they managed to reach the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup! That would easily have given them a psychological advantage over their relegation buddies.
However, that is now in the past and Bolton now only have the depressing thought of staying up in the Premier League instead of chasing glory. As for league survival, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Trotters will stay up. Every game they lose pulls them further away from safety and on paper it looks as if they will be unable to win enough games to stay up. Bolton are a very physical side and it is admittedly quite hard to score against them, but sides currently in the top-ten should find it easy to carve their way through Bolton’s shaky defence. Saying that, Bolton can be a good side as showed during their European adventure this season, excelling against the likes of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Such good performances, if reproduced, could keep them out of trouble for the remainder of the season.
Manchester City’s win over Spurs last weekend continued their recent inconsistent form but gave them a much needed victory to keep alive hopes that they can still finish sixth. Sven’s side have slipped recently yet are only two points behind sixth-placed Portsmouth. And with Petrov back from suspension, it seems as if City could make a final push for that spot. Benjani must score some goals though if City are to finish the season well.
I think Man City have enough in them to beat a struggling Bolton side. The Trotters’ physical approach will put City off to some extent, but it is about time Elano and Benjani showed some quality and helped City win. With such a threatening outlook on paper, City should win.
Middlesbrough v Derby County
Still not safe from relegation trouble, Middlesbrough will look to win a couple of games to ensure Premiership safety. Surprisingly, Boro are just as safe as Wigan are at the moment. That is thanks to a struggling start to the campaign. But with defender Wheater being called up to the England squad, it just shows how strong Boro have become at the back. Tuncay is settling into English football and Afonso Alves will score soon. Boro should stay up.
Derby County are terrible away from home yet they have improved slightly since Christmas. Nonetheless, anyone playing the Rams will feel they already have three points in the bag because Derby don’t have much flair going forward. This could be a chance for Derby to claim another point in the league.
Middlesbrough are much better than Derby and three points here will help move them further away from relegation. Boro should win this game, but not by a terrific score-line.
Newcastle United v Fulham
Newcastle United have still got the second worst goal difference in the Premiership, but they are now four points above the relegation zone. Still without a win under Kevin Keegan, one wonders why he was appointed manager in the first place. However, Newcastle have improved game by game recently and they look capable of winning a few games before the end of the season. Michael Owen scored last time out and he will be the shining light in securing safety this season. Once Newcastle find a win, I think they will go on a good run, because they really aren’t half as bad as Bolton or Fulham.
Fulham are terrible away from home and despite a victory last time out, I don’t think they will be able to beat a Newcastle side who have a very passionate crowd at St James’ Park as well some top quality players. Fulham have bought some decent players during the January transfer window, but the likes of Litmanen still haven’t played for the club. It still looks very desperate for the Cottagers.
This is a six-pointer if I’ve ever seen one. Newcastle have the better quality players though and the crowd are desperate to see their side win under King Kev. Fulham’s away form says it all and the best they will get here is a point.
Reading v Birmingham City
Another six-pointer here and this time it is Reading who will be looking to perform in front of their home crowd. A stunning goal against Liverpool last weekend wasn’t enough for the Royals to go on and secure anything from the game so they will now have to win games like this in order to help them stay up. Reading have been very inconsistent this season and this looks set to continue for the remainder of the campaign. But it is this sort of game where they have to win if they are to remain in the league. So long as they can score, they should have no problems.
Birmingham haven’t been that bad of late and they could still survive come May. They are a battling side who can score goals and they have as good a chance as anyone to remain in the Premiership. Alex McLeish is a top-quality manager and his expertise could help Birmingham stay up.
This will be a draw. Both sides are trying to avoid the drop and both are capable of remaining in the league. Though a point won’t help either side much, it will be acceptable. If anyone is to win this game, I think it will be Birmingham.
Everton v West Ham United
Defeated last time out, Everton are now on the back foot in terms of securing that final Champions League spot. They are almost certainly going to finish fifth or fourth, but if they want to pip Liverpool to that fourth spot, they will have to beat West Ham here and then Liverpool next week. Moyes’ side were always going to lose a game after going on an exceptional run of late, but they have to get back on track almost immediately now. With Yakubu and Johnson though, surely they will be able to torment West Ham?
West Ham ended a rotten run of three consecutive 4-0 defeats to beat Blackburn last weekend and get back on track. The Hammers aren’t playing for much but pride now and they will be looking to beat Everton here to give their fans something to shout about. Last weekend’s young hero Sears could be a vital player again in this game.
I think Everton have much more quality than the Hammers and have more to play for. West Ham have a meaningless remainder of the season whereas Everton are chasing Champions League football. Everton should win this game comfortably.
Manchester United v Liverpool
Super Sunday kicks-off with League leaders United facing in-form Liverpool. United opened a three point cushion up at the top with a 2-0 win over Bolton in the midweek fixture. Cristiano Ronaldo scored yet another couple of goals to help his side’s cause and he will be a dangerous threat during this game. On the downside, it seems every time the Red Devils have claimed top-spot this season, they have let it go almost immediately. And a game against in-form Liverpool could see that trend continue. United will have to be very aware of Liverpool’s dangerous forward play. Having said that, Ferguson’s side have a terrific trio themselves, with Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez linking up well going forward. If Rooney and Tevez can perform, United should win.
The league’s in-form side, Liverpool head into this game knowing they have a good chance of beating Manchester United thanks to their recent performances. Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard have been exceptional and with Rafa Benitez shuffling his pack less often nowadays, Liverpool are a team gelling together well. Yet again, I think Mascherano will be the one to watch out for here. He is a world-class player and does his job perfectly. Playing in that sort of Carrick/Hargreaves role, he is able to mop up anything United throw at Liverpool in central midfield. Who knows, if Liverpool can win their next three league games, they could be in the mix again for the title!
Both sides are very good and this promises to be a very tight game. However, I think Liverpool are in good form and shape to secure a win here. It is at Old Trafford and Liverpool have been very poor against United in the League over the last few seasons, but I think that will change here.
Chelsea v Arsenal
Chelsea did have a chance of going level on points with Arsenal during their midweek fixture against Spurs, but a 4-4 draw left the Blues still third and two points behind the Gunners. However, a win over Arsenal will take Chelsea up to second. Chelsea haven’t lost at home in the League in over four years, something which they will look to continue. Their 4-4 draw to Spurs shows their capability going forward, but some weaknesses at the back. Another important factor could be Grant’s team selection. There is a lot at stake here.
Arsenal will have to win this game to keep up the pressure on United. They also want to stay ahead of Chelsea. But with four draws on the trot, the Gunners are hardly on top form. They have suffered most going forward, with the ineffective pairing of Adebayor and Bendtner getting the better of them. I think this is a game for Walcott to shine and if the young man does start, he will add some extra creativity for Arsenal.
This game could go either way. Arsenal are not in top-form but will want to stay second for the time being and keep the pressure on United. Chelsea still believe they can take the title and who can blame them? This is a home game for the Blues where they haven’t faltered for a very long time. If this game finishes in a draw, I don’t think either side will be that unhappy.