Weekend Preview and Predictions: Matchweek 22

Another weekend of important matches is nearly upon us in the Premier League. This slate of games has potential to shake up the table quite a bit. The marquee matchup of the weekend is between a red hot Tottenham Hotspur side and desperate Pep Guardiola-led Manchester City. Manchester United faces a test to stay relevant. Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal all face manageable games, which they must take advantage of.

 

Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur

Man City Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo has been heavily criticized in recent days. He will need to be stellar in between the sticks on Sunday against Tottenham.

The difference in current form between the two sides could not be larger. Tottenham are winners of seven straight in the league dating back to last month. They are also enjoying second spot in the table on goal differential over Liverpool. As for City, they have lost two of their last three including an embarrassing performance last weekend at Everton. City’s slim title hopes and fading Champions League aspirations are on the line this weekend.

The key player in this match will be City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. Bravo was brought in from Barcelona to replaced the out of favor Joe Hart. His play has been heavily scrutinized as he owns the worst save percentage in the league this year. Tottenham is playing too well to not get their chances, but can Bravo make enough saves to keep City in it? Man City’s attack has also stalled recently and must get back on track. Although it won’t be easy against league-best defense. Can City break through? Maybe, but it won’t be enough for three points at home.

Manchester City 1 Tottenham Hotspur 1

 

 

Stoke City vs Manchester United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will look to get on the score sheet against Stoke City.

 

The Red Devils travel to Stoke this weekend in what is always a tricky match to get three points from. Stoke have long prided themselves on tripping up title contenders late in the season and derailing their hopes. If Mourinho wants to keep any chance of a title this year, United must get three points from this match.

One thing to watch for will be who controls the aerial game. This match features the top two aerial sides in the Prem according to WhoScored.com. It is not hard to see why, with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Stoke’s 6’7 striker Peter Crouch featuring in the game. In the end, it will come down to what it always has this season for United, finishing chances. Mourinho’s men will dominate possession, but can they score enough?

Stoke City 1 Manchester United 2

 

 

 

Chelsea vs Hull City

 

Chelsea will reportedly welcome back star striker Diego Costa to the lineup.

 

The Blues have built a seven point lead for themselves already in their first year under the guidance of Antonio Conte. They managed to win last week despite the absence of Diego Costa and the drama surrounding his situation. Costa will reportedly be back on the pitch at Stamford Bridge this weekend against Hull City. The Blues will be heavy favorites to continue to build on their impressive point total.

Unfortunately for Hull, a David and Goliath story doesn’t seem to be in the cards this weekend. The Tigers have only taken four points away from home all season and Chelsea have taken 29 of a possible 33 at Stamford Bridge. Look for Chelsea’s attacking trident of Costa, Eden Hazard, and Willian/Pedro to feast on one of the worst defenses in the league. Unless Conte’s men show up horribly under-prepared, I would expect no problems for the hosts here.

Chelsea 4 Hull City 0

 

Other Matches: 

Arsenal 2 Burnley 0: Burnley is worst in the league away from home, and Arsenal don’t seem in the mood to drop points at the Emirates.

Liverpool 4 Swansea 1: League-worst Swans are badly undermanned defensively to deal with Liverpool’s attack.

Middlesborough 0 West Ham 0: Two stingy, conservative defenses play to a stale mate with no Dimitri Payet to guide the Hammers.

Bournemouth 1 Watford 1: Interesting match up, thinking Watford sneaks one in here to salvage an away point.

Crystal Palace 1 Everton 2: Everton look good were very impressive last week, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them lay an egg here.

West Brom 1 Sunderland 0: West Brom are very sound defensively and aren’t in eighth for no reason.

Southampton 1 Leicester 1: Maybe a bit optimistic for Foxes to get an away point sans Mahrez and Slimani.

 

Why West Ham Should Let Dimitri Payet Leave

No Going Back

It is never easy to lose your best player. Especially in a game like soccer where there are no salary caps. For a team like West Ham United, talent such as French midfielder Dimitri Payet doesn’t come around very often. As a matter of fact, there are many West Ham supporters who would say Payet is the most talented player West Ham has ever had.

It is easy to understand why the Hammers are doing everything in their power to keep Payet. The disgruntled Frenchman reportedly told manager Slaven Bilic that he no longer wanted to play for the club. Payet’s eight goals and eight assists on the season in are perfect examples of his value. If Payet is truly homesick, then there is nothing West Ham can do but send him back to France and cash in on his success.What Bilic and the board need to realize is that they are at the point of no return.

It is very rare in any sport for a player to publicly acknowledge he wants to leave a team and then continue playing for them. The way Payet has handled the situation has turned the fans and his teammates on him. Even if he were to stay, the strain on the relationship between him and cub would be very tough to overcome.

An important aspect to remember is that Payet is 29. He is approaching the twilight of his career in the next few years. West Ham would be foolish to invest massive amounts of money into an aging star. A Payet sale will undoubtedly bring in lots of spending money. West Ham should sell while they still have time to use the money to buy in their bid to stay up.

Scott Hogan has had a wonderful season for Brentford and has caught West Ham’s eye

Replacement?

If West Ham do sell Payet, they will need to replace his tremendous talent as best they can in their relegation battle. One target is Hull City’s Robert Snodgrass. Snodgrass has been a surprise this season and one of the primary reasons that Hull is still competitive. His nine goals leads the team and is one more than Payet. If West Ham snatch him up for cheap they can chose to spend again.

West Ham’s other top target in January is from the Championship. Brentford striker Scott Hogan is just 24, and enjoying a breakthrough season. The Englishman has 14 goals in 25 appearances. A Snodgrass/Hogan combination would surely help West Ham with damage control post-Payet. And the cost of these two players would likely still leave money left over for summer.

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Champions League Prospects for City, Arsenal, Leicester

 

The Premier League has the world wide reputation for being the “best league in the world”. It is by far the most widely covered and pulls in the highest television and media revenue. But year in and your out in the past five years, Premier League teams have consistently disappointed on the big stage of European football. This year, the usual four English teams have already been cut to three after Tottenham failed to qualify for the knockout round. This leaves Manchester City, Arsenal and reigning Premier League Champs Leicester City as the three remaining hopes among English clubs.

Manchester City: Rd of 16 match-up vs Monaco

Sergio Aguero will look to lead Manchester City on a deep run in the Champions League

The Good:

City have been wildly inconsistent in all competitions in its first year under Pep Guardiola. However, they have shown they can beat anyone when playing well. They took down Barcelona 3-1 in the group stages. Guardiola is one of the most highly regarded managers in the world. It is difficult to imagine a Guardiola led side exiting Champions League in the Round of 16. City also have supreme talent on the pitch. Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are two of the premier players on the planet. Raheem Sterling has had a bit of a resurgence under Guardiola.

The Bad:

The inconsistencies previously mentioned that have plagued City this season could very well be their downfall in the Champions League. One bad game and they could be in a hole that they cannot escape. Another concern for City is injuries. Particularly at the back where Captain Vincent Kompany is regularly injured and they have lost Ilkay Gundogan for the season. Monaco leads Ligue 1 in scoring by a large margin and will exploit any City holes at the back.

Arsenal: Rd of 16 match-up vs Bayern Munich

 

Mesut Ozil and Co. face a tough opponent in Bayern Munich.

The Good:

The Gunners have no shortage of talent. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are good enough to play anywhere. Petr Cech is still a top goalkeeper and Laurent Koscielny heads a strong back line. Like City, Arsenal clearly have upside and can have runs of brilliant play. In a brutally difficult Round of 16 match-up vs Bayern, they will need to be near perfect. But if Sanchez is finishing well and Ozil is given the ball in space, Arsenal could surprise.

The Bad:

Most of the bad for Arsenal comes from their opponent. For all of their talent, they are still severely outmatched by Bayern. It will very difficult for Arsenal to gain possession against the midfield prowess of Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago. Arsenal will likely have to resort to striking off the counter attack. This is not something that possession minded manager Arsene Wenger likes to deal with. Wenger also does not have a great track record in knockout stages of the Champions League. Arsenal have been eliminated in the Round of 16 every year since 2010.

Leicester City: Rd of 16 match-up vs Sevilla

 

Riyad Mahrez will play a critical role in Leicester’s Champions League exploits.

The Good:

Well, the tale of two Leicester’s in this hangover season for the Foxes continues into the Champions League Round of 16. Claudio Ranieri’s side has looked anemic at times in its quest to defend its Premier League crown. However, in its first Champions League appearance ever, Leicester won their group to qualify for the knockout stage. Riyad Mahrez has looked significantly better in European competition and is the type of player who can single-handedly win you a game. Strikers Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani also looked impressive in group stages. Leicester are also fortunate to not have drawn a tougher opponent in the Round of 16.

The Bad:

Quick, decisive counter attacking is the trademark style which the Foxes used to stun the world in 2016. However, in European competitions against top opponents, it can be difficult to win using such tactics. Sevilla is a very possession oriented side which will undoubtedly control the matches against Leicester. Can the Foxes find a way to strike swiftly when given a chance? It won’t be easy at this stage in the tournament.

 

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One Signing Each Premier League Contender Should Make in January

 

We are just past the halfway point in this Premier League season. As it stands, six teams are within ten points of the top. January is the final chance for these sides to polish their team as the final dash for the title is in sight.

Chelsea: Tiemoue Bakayoko, Monaco

Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko could help stabilize Chelsea’s midfield.

The Blues have been tearing through the league this season. New manager Antonio Conte has instilled his 3-4-3 formation into the side and Chelsea has rocketed to the top of the league. The brilliant play of summer signing N’Golo Kante has been a large reason behind Chelsea’s turnaround season. The ability to win the ball in the midfield has allowed the Blues to feed their very talented attacking players. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have each enjoyed bounce-back seasons.

If a side is going to run the 3-4-3 effectively, they need excellent defensive midfield play to make up for the one less defender at the back. While Kante and Nemanja Matic have done well thus far, Chelsea is still thin at the position. Bakayoko is just 22 years old and is enjoying a breakout season for Monaco. His dribbling ability through the middle would allow Hazard and Willian to play more wide. From there they can whip in crosses to Costa, one of the best in the air in all of England. Bakayoko’s youth is enticing as Matic is 28 and has been inconsistent at times this season. Although his playing time could be limited initially, Bakayoko will undoubtedly be a big part of the future at Stamford Bridge if Conte is able to acquire his services.

Liverpool: Quincy Promes, Spartak Moscow

Liverpool target Quincy Promes has helped Spartak Moscow to the top of the Russian Premier League

In Jurgen Klopp’s second season at Anfield, Liverpool have arisen as serious title contenders at this point in the season. Their plethora of attacking players, including Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino have been very efficient in the attacking third.

However, Klopp will be without Mane for a large part of the next month. The Senegal international will be participating in the Africa Cup of Nations. The tournament comes at a critical time in Liverpool’s season with matches against Manchester United and Chelsea on there horizon. Promes has had a great season at Spartak. He has netted six goals and also has six assists in the Russian Premier League as Spartak have surprised by leading at this point in the season. It may be tough to coax Promes from Spartak, but Klopp should try. Promes will give Liverpool some width while Mane is away. He can play opposite Mane, which will benefit the Reds when Mane returns from international duty.

Tottenham: Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace

Wilfried Zaha would bring creativity on the wing to White Hart Lane

Once again, Mauricio Pochettino has put Spurs squarely in the title conversation. Tottenham sit third in the table at the turn of the calendar year. Young players have stepped up this season, including 20-year-old midfielder Dele Alli. Spurs are fighting off Real Madrid for his services.

However, Spurs could use an outside threat to compliment their plethora of middle attacking players. Alli, Harry Kane, and Christian Eriksen have combined to score 25 goals in the league this season. All of those players are under the age of 25. 24-year-old Zaha could add to this “young core” that Pochettino has built at White Hart Lane. Zaha, who plays on the left wing at Crystal Palace, would compliment Kane, Eriksen, and Alli in the middle. Zaha is extremely skilled with the ball at his feet and has a tremendous ability to get crosses in from tough angles. Erik Lamela has been underwhelming again this season and Zaha could fill the void for Spurs.

Manchester City: Holger Badstuber, Bayern Munich

Holger Badstuber’s experience at the back could prove invaluable for Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola’s highly anticipated first year at the Etihad has been up and down. A victory against Barcelona in the Champions League showed City’s potential under Pep. However, they have been very inconsistent at times domestically. Their inconsistency, especially at the back, is the primary reason why they find themselves seven points adrift at this juncture.

Man City payed quite a bit to sign promising young English center back John Stones from Everton over the summer. Stones, while very talented and promising, is still raw. There has been more than one occasion where he has looked lost this season. Captain Vincent Kompany’s injury woes have continued and it is difficult to rely on him for an extended period of time. Eliaquim Mangala consistently underperforms when given a chance in the starting XI. Badstuber is very experienced at just 27 years of age. He has 119 caps for Bayern and 31 for the German National Team. While a permanent deal is unlikely, Pep could explore a six-month loan deal for Badstuber. This would give City added security and depth at the center back for the remainder of the season while Stones continues to develop.

 

 

 

Arsenal: Ricardo Pereira, Porto (on loan at Nice)

Ricardo Pereira is a perfect solution to Arsenal’s right-back injury crisis.

Arsene Wenger is notorious for not making moves in the January transfer window, even when his team could really use them. Fifth place Arsenal have been by no means bad this season, but there is always room for improvement at the Emirates.

Promising young right back Hector Bellerin will be out for an extended period of time with an injury and his predecessor Mathieu Debuchy is rumored to be at odds with Wenger and on his way out of North London. This leaves the underwhelming Carl Jenkinson as the only right back on the Gunners’ roster. Ricardo, who is on loan at Ligue 1 leaders Nice from Porto has exploded this season. His 7.6 match rating on WhoScored.com has him placed in their Ligue XI team of the season. He provides sound defending and security at the back. Pereira is also a threat going forward, with a goal and three assists this season. He could be a perfect solution in the interim while Bellerin is injured. And his ability going forward could see him utilized as a wing-back or midfielder when the Spaniard returns.

Manchester United: Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann would be an expensive, but worthwhile signing for Manchester United.

After a disastrous start to the season, Jose Mourinho has begun to right the ship at Old Trafford. Despite being ten points back of Chelsea, things are looking up at Old Trafford. Manchester United have played well throughout the season, but have failed to convert the many chances they create. 31 goals in the League is significantly less than the other five “contenders”.

Griezmann is widely considered one of the best players in the world and would not come cheap. However is precision in the final third is exactly what United need. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a pure striker who doesn’t create, and while Paul Pogba is one of the most creative midfielders in the world, he is limited going forward to do the teams reliance on him from a defensive standpoint. Griezmann would fit right into Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 as an attacking midfielder. He played this role brilliantly for France in this summer’s European Championships where he scored a tournament-high six goals. It also doesn’t hurt that Griezmann is close friends with fellow Frenchman Pogba. The two could do lots of damage if they play together under Mourinho.

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Mourinho has United Rolling, and the Rest of the Prem Should Take Notice

Paul Pogba’s 86th minute header gave Man United a vital three points on New Years Day against a scrappy Middlesborough side.

Bumpy Beginnings

Manchester United entered the year full of optimism following a Summer Transfer Window which saw them bolster their squad. Marquee signings include star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, crafty midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and promising defender Eric Bailly. United also signed young superstar midfielder Paul Pogba for a whopping world record €105 million.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s thirteen league goals have been a major factor in United’s recent success. (Courtesy of, i.dailymail.co.uk)

In addition to on the field signings, the Red Devils were also able to lock down the services of former Chelsea, Inter, and Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. Mourinho has won the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga a combined six times. He also won the 09-10 Champions League with Inter.

For a club who have struggled mightily in recent years in comparison for the lofty standard set under the reign of the great Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho offered a ream of hope that Champions League football, and even possibly a Premier League title challenge were on the horizon.

Autumn was not kind to United, as the club dropped points against lowly opponents such as Burnley, Watford, and Stoke City on their way to dropping as low as eighth after ten match days. The side looked out of sync, Pogba was trying to do too much on his own and prove he was worth his massive transfer fee, and Mkhitaryan was not even making Mourinho’s Starting XI on most match days.

Jose Mourinho signed a three-year contract with the club in May 2016.

Hitting Their Stride

United has gained traction in recent weeks, now winners of six consecutive league matches dating back over a month. Mourinho’s famed 4-2-3-1 formation is clicking as Mkhitaryan and Pogba have been brilliant over the last month.

Pogba’s 8.3 average match rating on WhoScored.com was the highest in the Premier League for the month of December. Ibrahimovic’s 13 goals is only one off the pace set by Chelsea’s Diego Costa.

It took time, but Mourinho has begun to instill a winning culture in the dressing room at Old Trafford. Pogba won four consecutive league titles in Italy before returning to United. Ibrahimovic has won a title everywhere he has been. United are finding ways to win games that they were not winning earlier in the year or last year under Louis Van Gaal.

Take the New Years’ Eve match against Middlesborough for example. United dominated possession and momentum throughout the match and even had a questionable disallowed goal in the first half. This was before conceding to Middlesborough midway through the second half. But Mourinho’s men showed their grit. Anthony Martial equalized with five minutes to go off a great pass from Ibrahimovic. And a minute later, Pogba secured the three points for the Red Devils with an emphatic header into the back of the Middlesborough net.

They are still ten points behind league leaders Chelsea. But sixth-place United are hitting their stride at the right time. If they continue their current form, United are very much a threat for a top four finish, and possibly to challenge for the title if Chelsea continues to slip. A January 15 showdown with rivals Liverpool will give Mourinho and Co. a chance to really make some noise.