Aston Villa v Chelsea
Were someone like Nigel Pearson or David Moyes to step in as Villa manager for the remainder of the season as many reports suggest, I don’t think it would be enough to save the club from relegation. As with many teams that can’t escape the drop, the issue is invariably with the squad and not the man in charge. The players seem to have faced reality and are already preparing themselves for the Championship.
I do feel sorry for Remi Garde. There was nothing he could have done with this squad. He was told there was money for him to spend in January but this turned out not to be the case.
They face a side this weekend who at one point lurked dangerously close to the drop-zone but have since made a recovery of sorts and now sit non-threateningly in mid-table, with their season effectively over. Hiddink has to be commended for the job he’s done since taking over from Mourihno at the turn of the new year. His side remain unbeaten in the league but have crashed out of both the FA Cup and Champions League – two competitions which, had they made further progression, could have pulled their disastrous season out of the fire – and now it seems a case of waiting for the season to come to end so that the work can begin, both with the squad and bringing in a new manager.
Antonio Conte is the favourite for the role, and since he announced he shall step down as Italy coach come the end of the European Championship, it seems very likely the former Juventus boss shall be leading the Blues into the new season.
There are few (if any) games out of Villa’s remaining fixtures where I can see them collecting a point, let alone three, and this is certainly not one in which many will fancy their chances.
Arsenal v Watford
Arsenal fans will be looking at this fixture and be filled with nightmarish visions of just a few weeks ago, when the Hornets put in a brilliant performance to knock Arsene Wenger’s side out of the FA Cup, thus bringing to an end the chance for Wenger to redeem a potentially underwhelming league season with a third FA Cup title on the bounce.
The debate about whether or not Arsenal are still in the title race now comes down to whether or not the top two teams drop points rather than how good a run Arsenal can put together between now and May.
I think it’s all over for Arsenal. This was the time for Arsenal to push to the front of the pack and claim the title, with all of the big clubs underperforming for the majority of the season. But now I think the best they can hope for is a runners up spot and a strong end to the campaign.
With Watford booking an FA Cup semi-final in Wembley against Palace, and looking as though they’ll be hanging around for another top-flight season, Watford can now play with real freedom, with very little excuse not to put out 100% performances from here until the end of the season.
On a side note, I am extremely happy for Troy Deeney. I am a huge fan of his and I was convinced he would score goals in the top-flight. After not registering in his first nine games, I was beginning to have my doubts and felt a little disappointed that he was not living up to his excellent scoring record in the second division. But to date he now has nine league goals and eight assists – not bad for a striker tasting Premier League football for the first time.
I don’t see this being a repeat of their FA Cup clash, in that I think Arsenal this time shall claim the win, and in a sense exorise the demons of that gut-wrenching defeat.
Bournemouth v Man City
You know what? I think Bournemouth will win this match. I mean, why not? Bournemouth are now pretty much safe, and they have no reason not to go out with a bang in these remaining fixtures. I don’t see City being up for this one. It could be a carbon copy of their last game against Norwich, in which they held the majority of the possession, yet could not utilise it fully and did not create nearly enough real changes, in the end walking away with a fairly damning point.
The only difference here is that, unlike Norwich, Bournemouth don’t have an issues with scoring goals. In fact, out of the bottom eight clubs, the Cherries have registered the most league goals this season. You have to think that number could had been even higher were Calum Wilson not put out of action so early into the campaign.
Just three league wins out of City’s last ten means they are firmly out of the title challenge. Not even the Champions League can save Pellegrini from bowing out with nothing to show in his final season as City manager. I firmly believe Paris Saint-Germain shall ease past them and into the semis (and from there into the final, where they shall claim European glory…just saying).
So yeah, Bournemouth to win. You heard it here first.
Norwich v Newcastle
There aren’t many big games this weekend with both sides fighting for something, be it the title, top four or Premier League survival. But this is one, and arguably, this could be the biggest game of the weekend.
It doesn’t scream “big game” when you look at the two opponents, but when you observe the situation down the bottom of the table, and see that a win for Norwich could leave the Magpies six points adrift with seven to play, you realise that this match holds more relevance to both sides than any other game this weekend.
I’ve said it many times before, and guess what? I’ll say it once again. Norwich are staying up, and essentially that means I have Newcastle and Sunderland to join Villa in the Championship next season. But I think you would struggle to disagree. Four of the bottom six sides have sacked their manager during the course of the season, but Norwich are not one of them. I think the players and the board have real faith in Alex Neil, and I believe it is a great sign of togetherness within a club fighting relegation to stick with their man, and see it through to the bitter end, whatever the end may bring. Leicester did it with Pearson last season having been in an even worse position, but it paid off in the end, especially when you look at what they are close to achieving right now.
Benitez apparently has a clause within his contract that will allow him to walk away should the worst occur and Newcastle go down. It mustn’t be a comforting thought for Newcastle fans, who have a man at the helm who has essentially been given cart blanche until the end of the season.
They showed good character to bring themselves level against Sunderland last time out. It was a point that could make the difference between Premier League and Championship football next season.
Newcastle have been shocking away from home all season, having managed just seven away goals and conceding thirty-three.
My money is on a Norwich victory.
Stoke v Swansea
You would say Swansea need just one or two more wins to confirm their survival after an incredibly turbulent start to the season. All plaudits should go to Guidolin, whose appointment came as a big surprise to all Premier League followers and had many doubting the Welsh side would conjure a revival under the Italian, who was making his managerial debut in England.
But Swansea look like they’ll be in the mix once again next season, and fair play to them. Having said that, I still think the sacking of Garry Monk (aside probably from Paul Clement’s bizarrely premature departure from Derby) was the most ill-advised managerial sacking all season.
Stoke, Southampton and Liverpool have been the yo-yo teams this season. They have fluctuated in form so frequently and in such dizzying, unexpected fashion throughout the entire campaign. Out of the three teams, Stoke have scored the least amount of goals and worst off in goal difference. But, if you take just the last six league games in terms of form, Stoke have claimed thirteen points compared to Liverpool and Southampton’s ten.
Jack Butland picking up a season-ending injury in the friendly game against Germany will be a big blow to Stoke. He has been one of the best –performing keepers in the league this season. Some would adamantly argue he has been the very best.
Stoke have the chance to finish in a Europa League spot, which would be an amazing achievement for Mark Hughes, who has worked nothing but wonders since arriving in 2013.
This could be last-in-Match-of-the-Day material, but Stoke won’t care; because I think they’ll claim the win.
Sunderland v West Brom
We are at that point in the season now where teams will really be keeping a firm eye on the teams around them and how they are getting on in their games.
I think regardless of how this match pans out, the last thing Sunderland will want to hear news of at the end is that Newcastle have beaten Norwich in their match.
This is a game Allardyce needs to win I feel. Even a Norwich win could leave them five points adrift of safety. A draw at Norwich would be the best outcome for Sunderland, and an even better outcome would be nabbing all three points against Pulis’s West Brom, who much like a number of other teams in the league, have now little else to fight for except as high a position as possible in the table.
I have a feeling this could be quite an exciting game, with Sunderland being at home and the win being so vital for the club. Also, with opponents like West Brom, who like to put men behind the ball and wait patiently for their chance to break, it will mean Sunderland will maintain most of the possession and try to put attacks together to break down a defensive which has let in less goals than eleven out of the twelve bottom sides in the league.
West Ham v Crystal Palace
Dammit Chelsea! You did it again! Another undeserved point, another draw that should have gone down as a loss.
It was a pulsating game at Stamford Bridge last weekend as West Ham went agonisingly close to over- taking City in fourth position. But again, Chelsea get ridiculously lucky and buy a penalty to bring themselves level with the Hammers with minutes to play. There is a big possibility those two points snatched from West Ham could be what leaves them just short of a Champions League place at the end of the season.
But, the Hammers are still flying sky-high. They host United in the FA Cup quarter final replay at Upton Park in less than a fortnight. It will be an electrifying atmosphere inside the stadium, a stadium in which the last ever FA Cup match will be played before the big move into the Olympic Stadium next season. It will be an emotional night for Hammers fans that night, and if they can beat United, it would be an extraordinary occasion.
But before then, all minds will be focused on the league. Despite Chelsea’s late equaliser last weekend, a top four spot is still well in site for Bilic and West Ham. Thanks to United’s huge win over City, West Ham still reside only a point behind fourth-place city and Champions League football next season is by no means out of the question.
They will be happy to see that their opponents this weekend are the only side in all four top tiers in England yet to pick up a league win in 2016. Now that is a stat Pardew will be desperate to shatter as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately for Palace, I think it will be another game gone by in which they fail to collect three points, and depending on how the teams below them get on in their respective games, it could leave the Eagles facing a real battle to survive relegation. They were fifth at Christmas, remember. Staggering.
Liverpool v Spurs
It was the return fixture of this match back in mid-October in which Klopp announced himself on the Premier League stage for the first time. The match ended 0-0, a disappointing result given the hype surrounding the game in the lead up.
I think the score line shall be a very different one this time.
Harry Kane is now the leading scorer in the league with twenty-one goals. Good on him. He has well and truly shattered the belief that he is a one-season wonder, and I think he will only get better. I feel sorry for Kane and Tottenham in a way. If it wasn’t for Leicester’s incredible season and the fact they are drawing very close to the most incredible and unexpected league victory in English football history, you’d feel Tottenham would be the ones grabbing all of the headlines, with main man Harry Kane being the focal point of the attention.
Liverpool should have won against Southampton last weekend. In fact, the game should have been over at half time. It certainly looked that way at least. All credit to Southampton for dragging themselves back into the game and then going on to win it, but something has to be done about Liverpool’s defence. It will surely be where most of Klopp’s attention shall be focused come the summer. The fact they have dropped more points than any other team this season says it all. It’s now at a stage where there will need to be movement both ways, with new defenders needing to come in and some current ones having to make way.
This will be a great game, with both sides eager to attack and both sides still fighting for the title and a top four spot respectively.
Leicester v Southampton
Ranieiri and Leicester won’t have enjoyed seeing Southampton put in an excellent performance to beat Liverpool last Sunday. With Pelle and Mane also back on form, the Foxes will need to play as well as they have done in the last couple of weeks, and perhaps a little bit better.
Leicester are showing real title-winning form of late. When going for the title, you’ll take wins however they come. You won’t care conceding two or three as long as you score three or four. Winning and taking the maximum is all the matters. But in Leicester’s case, they are going about their business with real class. Not only have they won their last three league games, they’ve also not let in a single goal in each of those outings.
I think they can do it. There is very little to suggest they can’t.
Two international games, two international goals for Jamie Vardy. I think with his performances against Germany and Holland he booked his place not only on the plane to France, but in the starting eleven to face Russia in England’s Euro 16 opener. What a season this man is having.
As for Southampton, a top-six finish and even a Champions League spot is still far from unattainable. Pelle has netted three in two games, having not scored since the first of November. Mane bagged two himself against Liverpool and is back looking like the menace going forward he was before his minor fall-out with manager Ronald Koeman.
I think the game will end a draw, but I still believe Leicester will be celebrating in May.
Manchester United v Everton
Everton’s season is in danger of fizzling out in dramatically underwhelming fashion. You could say it already has, if it weren’t for them booking an FA Cup semi-final place against either West Ham or their Premier League opponents this Sunday afternoon.
Everton’s defence has been utterly laughable all season. The amount of goals they have let in at home especially is shocking, and when you compare the stats with the other end of their team, it really is like two completely different teams. All you need to know about Everton’s season to date can be summed up in one stat: despite sitting just twelfth in the league, they are the fourth highest-scoring team in the league.
A stat like that really does cast a shadow over players such as Romelu Lukaku, who has been brilliant this season, scoring a staggering eighteen league goals and assisting six. But because of his team’s defensive frailties, I would imagine his scoring exploits tend not to be what most Everton fans want to focus on when thinking back over this campaign.
United’s vital win over City last weekend has really heated up this battle for top four.
Should United seal Champions League football for next season, and perhaps get to the final of the FA Cup or even win it, I honestly don’t know what will happen in regards to Van Gaal. Might Ed Woodward keep him on? He’s already handed over £200 million to the Dutchman but the quality of players in return, especially attacking players, has been terribly underwhelming. Will he want to entrust Van Gaal with spending money?
Plus, with sides like City, Liverpool and Chelsea inevitably readying themselves for massive overhauls themselves in the summer, it will mean United will have to be extremely clever in the transfer market in who they bring in. It will not be a time for punting big on so called “potentials”. We need top class players, proven players, players who we know can come in and make an immediate difference. The question is whether or not Van Gaal is still the right man to attract that type of player.
Perhaps Mourihno would be? It’s no secret the Portuguese is very keen on the job, and with his record and status, could be a great pull for big, big players. His appointment is still no where near a certainly, as apparently Ed Woodward and Alex Ferguson especially do not think he would be a perfect fit.
Whether Van Gaal stays or goes, United need to spend big, but more importantly, spend wisely. Had Ibrahimovic not announced it was very likely he would leave PSG in the summer, I would have said we should go all in for Cavani. But now that Ibra is off, it will mean Cavani will get the chance to play in his most favoured role of central striker for the French Champions, which is something he rarely got this season especially, with Zlatan banging in the goals on a regular basis.
United beating Everton at Goodison in October, to be honest, was not something I saw happening. It was also arguably one of our best performances of the season.
I can see United winning here. With Everton in disarray, and Martinez coming under extreme pressure of late, I think Van Gaal and his kids can take full advantage.