A dead-rubber with a quarter of the season to go…
Despite the fact there is still a quarter of the season to run, this week’s Premier League program kicks off with something of a dead-rubber.
Both Aston Villa’s and Chelsea’s fate for next season has been decided for a while. Villa’s was probably sealed when Tim Sherwood was sacked (in November). His replacement Remi Garde was unable to pull a rabbit out of a hat and the team out of its tailspin.
But both have ultimately paid the price for sustained mismanagement over a far longer period than their individual tenures.
Chelsea are also treading water. Their exit in the Champions League was expected, but honourable. The FA Cup defeat at Everton was less so. And less so.
Let the auditioning for next season commence…
12.45pm Aston Villa v Chelsea
Two teams in a strange state of limbo. Both could look radically different next season, both on and off the pitch. Villa will certainly hope so. Seven defeats from eight, with just two goals to show has them limping towards the relegation shredder with no dignity. They face a Chelsea side in good form – on the road, at least. Only Leicester and Tottenham can match their last eight away from home, W4 D3 L1.
Score Prediction: Change, but no change at Villa. 0-1
MVP: No Diego Costa so Willian is the go to guy.
3pm Arsenal v Watford
Going into their last eight matches needing to win at least six, probably seven, perhaps even eight won’t worry Arsenal. They seem only able to summon their best form when their backs are up against the wall. But can they go eight matches without a blip? Just two wins from their last eight suggests not. Watford are the first of classic blip material too – with Villa, Norwich, West Brom and Palace still to come. The Hornets have lost their sting of late though.
Score Prediction: Nowhere near Cup revenge but 2-1
MVP: Danny Welbeck needs a good run-in.
3pm Bournemouth v Man City
Knowing City as we do, there is no way of looking at this as anything but an inconvenience ahead of their PSG tie in the Champions League. Manual Pellegrini will have picked Wednesday’s team before he picks this one. Bournemouth will have their sights on a Top Half finish but haven’t fared that well against them so far – 24 of their 38 points have come from Bottom Half matches. But City have only scored v Aston Villa in their last five matches. And they don’t count.
Score Prediction: No faith in City. 2-1
MVP: Josh King has been flying but faces a late fitness test. In which case Matt Ritchie.
3pm Norwich v Newcastle
This won’t finish 6-2 like the return fixture in October did. Neither team has six goals in them – Norwich have managed just one in five PL matches, Newcastle just one in their last eight on the road (all defeats). Norwich halted their tailspin with four points from the last two, but must win this to maintain any survival hopes. There has been an improvement since Rafa took the reins at Newcastle and the last two weeks on the training ground could bear fruit. It needs to.
Score Prediction: the draw that neither can afford. 1-1
MVP: Georginio Wijnaldum looks too good to go down.
3pm Stoke v Swansea
Both will protest otherwise, but if both finished in the positions they currently hold there wouldn’t be many complaints. Stoke are only a handful of points from a possible European Qualification berth, but such points are hard to make up in the final stretch. Swansea need another point or three to rule out getting dragged into the bun fight below. But three wins from their last four has relieved the pressure on a tough looking run-in.
Score Prediction: Both will take a draw. 1-1
MVP: Joselu has become a big player for Stoke.
3pm Sunderland v West Brom
West Brom’s meek collapse at Norwich might be a hint they have packed up for the season, after a solid run since the turn of the year (W5 D4 L2). Sunderland will be hoping so. Good January business and the scalp of Man United promoted them to everyone’s tip to stay up. But the upturn hasn’t quite turned into results yet. Three consecutive draws and the promise of better to come isn’t enough right now. This match and the trip to Norwich in two weeks will go a long way to deciding Sunderland’s fate.
Score Prediction: Another frustrating draw me thinks. 1-1
MVP: The floor is yours Jermaine Defoe.
3pm West Ham v Crystal Palace
West Ham look far the best equipped to win the three-way scrap between themselves Man City and United for the fourth CL spot. But I can’t help wondering if their pursuit of the FA Cup might dominate the last quarter of their excellent season. Finishing fifth and a Cup Final will do very nicely thank you. Palace also have a big chance of making the Cup Final, but would prefer not to do it at the expense of their PL status. It’s unlikely, but not implausible. So this looks a bigger game for Palace.
Score Prediction: Palace to take a point. 2-2
MVP: Let’s give Michail Antonio some.
5.30pm Liverpool v Tottenham
A quick glance at Tottenham’s all comps form suggests they might be feeling the strain – W4 D2 L2. But a closer look at their PL numbers reveals it is their clear priority this season – W8 D1 L1. Mauricio Pochettino largely – and quite rightly – avoided criticism surrendering the Europa League. Recognising this as Spurs’ best chance of winning the title in several eras – and maybe a few to come. Liverpool are just one of the teams who will be better equipped next time around. But they go into this match with Daniel Sturridge as their only fully fit frontman. No, really!
Score Prediction: A repeat of Jurgen Klopp’s debut. 0-0
MVP: Eric Dier will be full of beans.
1.30pm Leicester v Southampton
The season will be forever remembered for Leicester saying the the rest of the PL, ‘come on then! You score two, we’ll get three…!’. But during the second half of the season they have developed into extremely effective counter punchers who know how to manage games. Eight clean sheets from 12 in 2016 and four 1-0 wins from their last four are the sort of stats that win titles. Southampton are a funny bunch. They look like matching their seventh place last season, but it’s been a roller coaster. Leicester were lucky to nick a point at St Mary’s.
Score Prediction: Business as unusual. 1-0
MVP: Jamie Vardy has gone five without a goal. But I think he’ll start.
4pm Man United v Everton
The win at Man City has given United hope of a Top Four finish. Not for the first time, but perhaps the last. United’s on/off relationship with their CL qualification hopes has swung in synch with the sword above LVG’s head. They are still short of goals – just four in their last six – but the visit of Everton will give them a close look at a purported solution. Romelu Lukaku’s 25 strikes have propped up a dismal season for Everton. You’d expect him to move on in the summer. But he’ll want CL football.
Score Prediction: United to edge it. 3-2
MVP: An audition for Romelu Lukaku?
That’s how it looks from here…
Until next time.
Matt Nesbitt’s short, unspectacular but joyful playing career has given way to a much longer, more successful but immeasurably more rubbish one writing about football and providing betting advice. Email: Matt Nesbitt