Saturday 16th January
15.00 Chelsea v Everton
Going into this match, Everton are four points ahead of Chelsea so a win for the hosts here would mark an important step forward in their likely vain attempt to secure a Champions League place. Mind you, they would have been just a point behind if they had managed to beat West Brom on Wednesday but instead they endeavored to throw it away late in the game. Mind you, their two goals came by way of the usually goal-shy Azpilicueta and an own goal so maybe they should be happy enough with their solitary point.
On Wednesday, Everton managed to do something no other team has done this season – hold Manchester City to a draw in Manchester. This column had plumped for a dicey Everton win simply because the odds for such were tasty and Everton usually have few problems scoring. Instead, they were held goalless but produced an admiral defensive display in the second half, which saw them leave with a point well earned.
It would go down as an excellent idea if they were to replicate such defensive resilience for the rest of the season. It wouldn’t exactly be the hallmark of a Roberto Martinez team but now that Jagielka is fit again, his presence beside the young John Stones might just allow them play that way. If they can marry the back end with the offensive side of their team, they should kick into gear.
It had appeared that Chelsea themselves had kicked into gear. In fact, their results over the last five games sees them sit 4th in the form table with two wins and three draws so maybe, the previous draw withstanding, it is still fair to assume that they are tentatively on the up. This match, however, will surely test their mettle. We shouldn’t forget how leggy a lot of their players have looked this season and if Everton come with the requisite energy, they will run them close.
Giving that this column has yet to get a single result right this year, all nods toward a result should come with a health warning but, of the two teams, Everton seem to have a bit more dynamism about them and if they can keep their defense as resolute as was seen against City, they look a decent shout for a win here. ToteSport are offering 4/1 for that result.
Sunday 17th January
14.05 Liverpool V Manchester United
Ding-dong, that was some crazy performance by Liverpool against Arsenal on Wednesday. As far from the cultured climes of Italian football as is possible but very much the type of game upon which the EPL sells itself – the best most exciting league in the world. For the first time in a long time, Liverpool looked full of energy and pressed to such a degree that Ozil rarely had a look in, which was just as well because any time Arsenal got forward, Liverpool’s defense looked as dodgy as a nine bob note and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
What about Utd, though? They too were involved in a madcap game against Newcastle during the week which also ended in a 3-3 draw, having thrown away their lead late in the game. In their favour, Wayne Rooney looked like a proper footballer for the first time in a long time, scoring two and setting up the other. If he can keep that form up, there can be little doubt that he will trouble Liverpool’s rearguard.
Whilst many Utd fans were delighted to see their players go about their business with urgency and pace, the manager may not be of the same mind. Louis van Gaal was not best impressed to see his charges throw away their lead and might be of the mind to tighten the leash and temper those attacking flashes. That would be a shame as, Utd do have some excellent players and there is no doubt that they are suffering beneath his autocratic yoke of oppression.
Liverpool have rarely been worse when it comes to defending set pieces and that glaring problem will not have been solved in the last couple of days so free kicks, corners and quality crosses are probably the most fruitful ways to break them down. In their favour, Firmino took both his goals with great aplomb and if Liverpool can keep some of that midweek wind in their sails, they might, just might, beat their illustrious opponents. Liverpool to win with BetVictor offering 11/8.
16.15 Stoke v Arsenal
This could be a cracker of a game. Both these teams have excelled recently and, whisper it, Stoke might just have hit upon some consistency. They beat Norwich 3-1 on Wednesday albeit they were up against 10 men for an hour and their third goal was an own goal. They were far from convincing throughout but their numerical advantage eventually told. The hoary old cliché has it that to win whilst playing poorly is a mark of a good team. Interestingly, none of their recently famed forwards scored. Instead, the wizened warrior that is Jon Walters scored again, his third in four matches.
It’s worth pointing out that Stoke are now in 7th, ahead of both Palace and Liverpool, two points behind the mighty Man Utd and only four points outside of the Champions League. One imagines that Mark Hughes is happy enough with this level of progress at the halfway point of the season, especially as he has had to integrate a number of new signings in addition to dealing with the loss of previously integral players such as Steven N’Zonzi.
As mentioned in the preceding preview, Arsenal were involved in a furious back and forth midweek melee with Liverpool and conspired, late in the game, to throw away their one goal lead. That is what might be described as ‘classic Arsenal’, snatching a draw from the jaws of victory but in fairness, they had to put up with a Liverpool team that played like a bunch of drunken hornets recently kicked out of their nest. Yet they also came from behind twice, once again putting on show of resolve that has become more apparent with each passing month this season. They are earning the right to be thought of as genuine title contenders.
Stoke aren’t title contenders but nor is it likely that they will settle for mid-table mediocrity. They have a number of men who have played with title winning teams before and those players should be looking to make their mark against the best teams in the league, of which Arsenal is one. So who is to win? Maybe no-one. This column reckons that a draw is worth some consideration although, as has been pointed out, literally all predictions this year should be viewed through skeptical eyes. Bet365 has the draw at 11/4.