The home stretch is upon us in both fantasy and in what is going to be a fascinating race at both the top and bottom of the table. In our little fantasy world, the schedule disruption that has been so absent all season has been visited upon us in the form of matches rescheduled due to the final stages of the Capital One Cup and the FA Cup. Starting two weekends ago managers will look to play out the right strategies to ensure that they have as many of the best players from the best teams for the weeks when those teams have two matches – especially when those matches are against weaker opposition. For me, that meant stacking the deck with Liverpool and Everton players this weekend with a dash of inexpensive Arsenal.
In the real world both the race for the title and the race to avoid relegation will likely go down to the wire. As much as it pains me to say so, I have to give a slight edge to Liverpool in the title race. If all other things were equal, I don’t think they are the best of the teams competing for the top prize. What I do think is that the schedule is their friend down the stretch. Arsenal are playing catch-up and are going to have to win matches against Chelsea and City that they will be underdogs for. City seem to be faltering a bit on the field and they have to travel to Anfield, the Emirates, Everton and Old Trafford. Chelsea continue to fight it out in the Champions League (and they have been less than great following away mid-week matches this season), they have to go to Anfield and this weekend’s home match against Arsenal. Without the Champions League exertions, you’d think that Chelsea should be the favorites but they’ve shown a disturbing propensity to drop points they shouldn’t which keeps me thinking that Liverpool should be the favorites.
At the bottom of the table, it’s hard to call anyone below Stoke (who are currently 11th) entirely safe. Fulham and Cardiff City would have to do something pretty remarkable over their last eight matches to rescue their fate but that third relegation spot could realistically go to any of West Ham, Hull, Swansea, Norwich, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Sunderland. Norwich, given their ugly last four matches and the fact that they’ve already played 30 matches to the 29 (or 27 in Sunderland’s case) of the other relegation-threatened clubs, seem to be the most likely to go down at this point but entertaining relegation scraps in recent years lead me to believe there will be plenty of twists and turns before that is confirmed.
It isn’t quite March Madness – there isn’t much that can match the NCAA Tournament for drama over a short period of time – but the next two months of the Premier League will certainly give us a similar amount of drama over a slightly longer time frame.
On to our regular analysis of today’s Team News and all of the implications for your fantasy team:
Chelsea vs. Arsenal – Willian and Ramires are both suspended for this match. Ordinarily, this would be big news and make Andre Schurrle a very enticing choice but Chelsea only have one match this week which essentially makes them dead to us. On the Arsenal side, the usual suspects - Ozil, Ramsey, Walcott, and Wilshere - may be joined by Tomas Rosicky who faces a late fitness check (I'd expect he'll start given the importance of the match). Both Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are interesting value plays despite the trip to Stamford Bridge - their low prices while playing two matches makes them attractive options.
Manchester City vs. Fulham – Manchester City have two matches but no Sergio Aguero for either of them and no Vincent Kompany for the Fulham match. Stevan Jovetic is back in contention which makes things less clear for City's attacking corps - if I were choosing, I'd go with Dzeko or one of the midfielders (Toure and/or Silva). Negrego's poor form along with the decision to go with only one forward last weekend makes the Spaniard a huge risk in a week when there are a lot of attractive options at forward. At the back, Nastasic is still out and Kompany will miss this one making Demichelis the best bet with Lescott likely getting the one start Kompany misses.
Cardiff City vs. Liverpool – No significant injury news on either side. I'd load up on Liverpool who get Sunderland in midweek as well as Cardiff City. The only real questions here are around guys like Sterling and Coutinho and how you think minutes may be divided between the two of them. Gerrard, Suarez and Sturridge are all pretty vital to have in your team if you can manage the budget.
Norwich City vs. Sunderland – Norwich only have one match so we're ignoring them but Sunderland play two and will be missing only Steven Fletcher who is out with an ankle injury. Not that I think you were considering Fletcher or any of his possible replacements but the replacements are likely the story with PhysioRoom.com not listing an expected return date. That makes the possibility strong that Fletcher will miss midweek as well.
Everton vs. Swansea City – Phil Jagielka has been "close" to returning for a few weeks now but it appears likely that he'll make at least one of the two matches for the Toffees this week meaning that what was going to be a bargain in John Stones may not get even one match and will almost certainly not get two. Oh well. Steven Pienaar is the only other meaningful absence for Everton. Not an easy set of matches for the Swans having to go to Goodison Park and the Emirates but with his price down to 7.27 after last weekend's fruitless substitute appearance, Michu might not be a bad option as a hedge against a team with multiple players from Everton and/or Arsenal on it.
Hull City vs. West Brom – Hull - who have two matches this week while WBA do not - will be missing only George Boyd. The team may not be in it's finest form but the schedule isn't bad if you wanted to diversify your portfolio a little bit by adding a THud or a Nikica Jelavic instead of some of the more obvious choices. Jelavic has been a shooting machine since arriving at Hull City and with the presence of some bottom half opponents he could easily get a higher percentage on and/or into the net.
Newcastle vs. Crystal Palace – Newcastle do have two home matches but with Loic Remy and Mathieu Debuchy both missing these matches it is hard to imagine who you'd want to pick for you fantasy team with Liverpool having the matches they have.
West Ham United vs. Manchester United – Apparently Robin van Persie's legs only had three more goals in them this spring. After scoring a Champions League-saving hat trick against Olympiokos on Wednesday the Dutch forward learned that he'd be out for 4-6 weeks with a knee injury that had initially been labeled as a "minor knock". Bad news for RvP but probably good news for Danny Welbeck and anyone who wants in on a very reasonably priced forward who will likely start for the next month at least. At the back, Rio Ferdinand seems likely to get another start with Nemanja Vidic out through suspension and both Jonny Evans Chris Smalling doubtful. If that persists until the mid-week Manchester Derby it might be all the reason you need to load up on City attackers.
Southampton vs. Tottenham – You can check out the news for both teams if you're so inclined but neither have two matches so it should only be because you're a supporter of one of the clubs or an overall fan of the game that you look. No one on either side should have any fantasy relevance for you this weekend.
Stoke City vs. Aston Villa – Sunday will apparently be a fantasy-free day as Stoke City and Villa are both in the same boat as Southampton and Spurs - just one match = fantasy irrelevance.
Midweek matches (so you have them for reference): Manchester United vs. Manchester City; Arsenal vs. Swansea; Newcastle vs. Everton; West Ham vs. Hull; Liverpool vs. Sunderland.