Stop! It’s Hammers time…
West Ham’s blossoming into a Top Six, maybe yet a Top Four team has been one of the most compelling stories of the season.
At the start of the campaign, I – and most onlookers, if they’re honest – probably had the Hammers and their then new manager Slaven Bilic, tagged: ‘mid-table’ and ‘bit of a nutter’.
Since then I’ve have had the felt-tips out. Now read: ‘Top Five’ and ‘actually quite charming’.
If they can take three or more points from their next couple (they go to Leicester next), the pens could be coming out again.
12.45pm West Ham v Arsenal
After two wins in a row – with no goals conceded – another three points here will inevitably reignite PL title talk for Arsenal. A glance at their remaining fixtures will only fan the flames – they face four of the bottom six, plus West Brom at home and a trip to Man City. BUT… they will encounter more resistance at West Ham than both Everton and Watford could muster (combined) in their last two outings.
Score Prediction: A third ‘Desmond’ in a row for Hammers. 2-2
MVP: Dmitri Payet says he doesn’t practise free-kicks. Pah!
3pm Aston Villa v Bournemouth
Bournemouth won’t want their thoroughly excellent season to unravel in the final few furlongs. Getting hit for seven in their last two matches – admittedly against a pair of hefty hitters (Tottenham and a Man City in the mood) – wasn’t good. But the best remedy is a trip to Villa. A win against Norwich is the only blemish on a perfect run of defeats in the last ten. If this was a boxing match, Villa would’ve stopped three rounds ago.
Score Prediction: No prizes for guessing 0-2
MVP: Josh King has been flying and should return from illness.
3pm Crystal Palace v Norwich
If you’d suggested at Christmas that Norwich would be level on points with Palace with five matches left, eye brows would’ve raised. But they could be by end of play on Saturday. Palace’s season of two halves is one of the many curios of this campaign. If Norwich can continue their recent resurgence – seven points from nine – Palace are well and truly dragged into the scrap. Although there were signs of life in the draw at West Ham.
Score Prediction: A point will probably do for both teams. 0-0
MVP: If Yannick Bolasie could deliver half of what he promises… (sigh).
3pm Southampton v Newcastle
How on earth did Newcastle win at Tottenham? It was one of only three times they haven’t surrendered the points away from home. Their current run is nine defeats, but they will take (some) heart from the fact their latest was due to clumsiness rather than ineptitude. Southampton have been unusually skittish this season, but like hosting Newcastle – but then, who doesn’t (except Tottenham). Ten goals in their last three meetings with no reply suggests a comfortable afternoon despite their visitor’s plight.
Score Prediction: Toon a long way from home. And safety. 2-1
MVP: Graziano Pelle tends to pick his matches. But this will be one of them.
3pm Swansea v Chelsea
This season’s run-in presents little more than going through the motions. Then writing off a wretched season, sorting out who is in charge and doing better next time. But which am I talking about? Actually both. Swansea are safe enough thanks to their recent best form of the season: W3 D1 L1. Only Spurs have been better than Chelsea on the road over the last ten matches. With Eden Hazard and Diego Costa absent – possibly for good soon – this is a chance for Alexandre Pato to audition for a leading role in the next chapter of the club.
Score Prediction: The Pato and Pedro show. 1-3
MVP: Pedro gets the nod.
3pm Watford v Everton
The only significance of this contest is the possibility of it being a dry run for the FA Cup Final. Just a point separates them in the PL – which should be a source of as much embarrassment for Everton as it is pride for Watford. Everton’s recent away record is decent though – just on defeat in the last eight (W3 D4). Watford’s is pretty dire everywhere of late. Just a single point and a single goal from their last five suggests they are already thinking about Wembley.
Score Prediction: Fancy a bit better from both sides. 2-2
MVP: Romelu Lukaku can remind Odion Ighalo how it’s done.
5.30pm Man City v West Brom
Call me cynical if you like. But after two outstanding performances – half an hour of blistering attacking at Bournemouth, followed by 90 minutes of real character and no little class in Paris – this has got ‘choke’ written all over it. City turned their nose up at the PL in February (1-3 v Leicester) and firmly have all their oeufs in the Champions League basket. We can expect the team to play PSG to be picked before this one. West Brom will rejoice in spoiling another match and could well salvage a scalp. Half a one anyway.
Score Prediction: All about Tuesday for City. 1-1
MVP: Might not start but Kevin De Bruyne is still their most effective player.
1.30pm Sunderland v Leicester
It is perhaps a cliché to say ‘goals win you matches, but clean sheets win you titles’. But, there – I said it. Leicester’s gung-ho approach was the story of the first half of their season. But the second half is all about the clean sheet. Five 1-0 wins from their last six is the sort of thing that the great Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United teams did when they were winning titles. A month ago Sunderland looked favourites to clamber out of relegation quicksand, but are teetering on the brink again after four draws in a row. On the Brightside, they are two points better off than Leicester were this time last season.
Score Prediction: What else? 0-1
MVP: Jamie Vardy is due one.
4pm Liverpool v Stoke
Stoke are currently two points ahead of their hosts with realistic hopes of European football next season. And they owe Liverpool for their narrow Capital One Cup semi-final defeat. European football will also be at the forefront of Liverpool’s thoughts – their second leg v Dortmund on Thursday. Jordan Henderson finally ran aground in Germany after running on empty for a month – and he isn’t the only one. He won’t be the only change.
Score Prediction: A fourth draw in five for home team. 2-2
MVP: Jamie Vardy has gone five without a goal. But I think he’ll start.
4pm Tottenham v Man United
Aside from keeping hot on the heels of leaders Leicester, this gives Tottenham a chance to underline this season’s redrafting of the seating arrangements at the PL’s top table. Spurs are yet to score against United under Mauricio Pochettino but have never been in better shape. United’s 1-0 wins over City and Everton were no more convincing than they were entertaining. With the FA Cup replay at West Ham in the week, their season could be over in the next two matches.
Score Prediction: No messing. 2-0
MVP: Kyle Walker can make hay bombing on and might get a clean sheet too.
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