Weekend Preview & Predictions: Matchweek 21

As we round into January, the chances to make up for past mistakes become fewer and far between. It seems that this is where the eventual champion makes a move every year. This weekend could potentially show a shake up in the table.

Manchester United vs Liverpool:

Paul Pogba (right) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be two of Man United’s most important players Sunday vs Liverpool

A truly classic rivalry between two of the most storied clubs in England. Man U-Liverpool entertains every time these two sides meet. This weekend, the stakes are much higher in a virtually must-win game for Mourinho’s men. United, winner of ten consecutive in all competitions, at least need a point to have any chance of catching Chelsea.

One way they can possibly snag all three is off set pieces and crosses. With players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, as well as Chris Smalling coming up on corners, United will have an advantage in the air. Expect Manchester United to create plenty of opportunities in this game. The real question is whether they will be able to capitalize on those.

For Liverpool, they sit in second, so their situation is not as dire as United’s. However a win and a Chelsea loss would move the Reds within two points. Liverpool will be missing dynamic winger Sadio Mane, who is participating in the Africa Cup of Nations. Exciting Brazilians Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho will look to make up for some of what Liverpool will miss from Mane. Firmino and Coutinho will look to make Man United sorely miss their own Africa Cup of Nations participant. The Red Devils will be without Eric Bailly’s patience and athleticism at the back.

Manchester United 2  Liverpool 2

 

Leicester City vs Chelsea:

N’Golo Kante makes his return to the King Power Stadium on Saturday

Chelsea still maintain a solid grip on the league at this point in the season. The Blues will look to further distance themselves from the pack with a win against reigning champions Leicester. The Foxes have been underwhelming this season, but still remain dangerous at home.

This match got much more interesting Friday, when reports that Chelsea star striker Diego Costa had been dropped from the starting lineup. Costa and manager Antonio Conte had an apparent argument in training and Costa hasn’t trained in three days. This puts an interesting strain on Chelsea from a tactical standpoint. Young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi is Costa’s backup. Conte could play Eden Hazard as a False 9 and Willian and Pedro as wingers. Chelsea are still favorites, but it will be interesting to see how this in addition to coming off a 2-0 defeat to Spurs affects them.

Leicester will also be missing a key piece in Riyad Mahrez. The Foxes’ most creative player is representing Algeria at the Africa Cup of Nations along with striker Islam Slimani. They do have the benefit of playing at the King Power, which they play significantly better at. Leicester could potentially cause Chelsea problems with their lightning quick counter attacks finished by Jamie Vardy. This match also marks the return of N’Golo Kante to the King Power, where he won the title last season with Leicester.

Leicester City 1 Chelsea 1

 

Everton vs Manchester City

Kevin De Bruyne will look to exploit an undermanned Everton midfield.

As we approach this critical stretch of the season, very few have as much on the line as Pep Guardiola. Guardiola’s debut season in Manchester has had its bumps. City are only seven points back and games like this can be crucial. Everton aren’t quite top tier quality, but they can certainly surprise at Goodison Park.

Expect league leaders in possession, Man City to do exactly that. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne should run free as Everton will miss Idrissa Gueye. Gueye, the leader in tackles this season, is also playing in Africa. Sergio Aguero’s prospects look good for a goal this weekend. If City control the pace and limit counter attacks, they should cruise by the Toffees.

For Ronald Koeman’s men, they must make the most of every opportunity. When you play against a team that likes to control the game, your chances are going to be limited. Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley will need to be in top form if Everton are to keep up with the visitors.

Everton 1 Manchester City 3

 

Other Matches:

Swansea 0 Arsenal 1: I sense a late winner from Olivier Giroud saving the day for the Gunners.

Spurs 2 West Brom 0: Dele Alli’s form as of late has been stunning and playing at home will be too much for West Brom.

Burnley 0 Southampton 1: Burnley’s Tom Heaton is a quality goalkeeper. But I think one slips through for the Saints.

Hull 0 Bournemouth 3: Eddie Howe is one of the world’s best young managers. Bournemouth power by weak Hull.

Sunderland 0 Stoke 2: Sunderland are not focused with all these transfer rumors surrounding them.

Watford 1 M’Borough 0: Watford continue successful season, Deeney and Co. break through vs stingy Borough defense.

West Ham 1 Palace 3: The Payet rumors cannot be good for morale. Zaha and Puncheon always make Palace dynamic.

 

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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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What The Crystal Palace Friendly Means For FC Cincinnati’s Future

FC Cincinnati hosted Crystal Palace in an international friendly in front of an extremely loud, sold out, Nippert Stadium crowd of 35,061. Even though Palace walked away with a 0-2 victory there were many positive signs and good plays from Cincinnati.

The most important thing is the off the field impact for FC Cincinnati to bring in a team that played in the FA Cup final only three months ago. This is on top of the fact they are averaging 15,665 fans for each of their 10 previous home games. Incredible crowd support from the fans in attendance made this match an experience for the home players and the closet thing to a Premier League match for the guests. Palace coach Alan Pardew commented on the atmosphere saying, “It’s not often you get an atmosphere like that in the preseason, not actually in a league game.”

Fans in "The Bailey" over an hour before kickoff.

Fans in “The Bailey” over an hour before kickoff.

The gates opened 90 minutes before kickoff opposed to the normal 60. A large portion of the crowd showed up before the gates would normally open and the supporters section known as “The Bailey” was full an hour before kickoff.

The two merchandise tents had lines of about 200 people deep shortly after gates opened and there were long lines until the match started. Concession lines were packed as well with the main stands and beer stands being deep as well.

IMG_0828

One of the merchandise stands over an hour before kickoff.

For the present, this game showed that there was a quality team in Cincinnati that is able to create chances against an opponent, even though they were unable to score. A few times the build up play was fantastic, but the final pass or touch was missing to put the ball in the back of the net.

It also proved that FC Cincinnati has a great soccer fan base and should continue to pack the stadium for the rest of the season. If the team continues to play well, there could even be a home playoff game if they stay in the top four in their conference.

For the future, this could be a huge stepping-stone on the push to move up to the MLS. The ability to bring a club in from the Barclay’s Premier League and impress with the way the club is run is absolutely incredible. Pardew said, “Personally I really hope we can come back here, if not next year soon I want to experience it again.” The fact that a respected English manager wants to come back is a great stepping stone for FC Cincinnati. With the coverage that this club has been getting overseas from The Guardian, there is a real possibility of getting another big club to come here and play. The Philadelphia Union hosted Palace and they were only able to draw 12,881, almost a third of what Cincinnati brought in, meaning other clubs may want come see what this club from Cincinnati is all about.

FC Cincinnati vs. Crystal Palace Recap

FC Cincinnati hosted English club Crystal Palace their first international friendly at Nippert Stadium losing 0-2. Despite the score line Cincinnati represented themselves well not only on the pitch but also in the stands with their first ever sell out of 35,061. This is also the largest attendance for a soccer game in Ohio.

After the match both managers gave the crowd a lot of credit with Palace manager Alan Pardew saying, “The atmosphere is phenomenal, it’s not often you get an atmosphere like that in preseason…the enthusiasm for this club is phenomenal.”

Cincinnati goalkeepers played well even though they gave up two goals. Starting keeper Mitch Hildebrandt had a lot of work to do including making one save. But, the standout keeper was Dan Williams, who made his debut, making a save off a tough shot from Andros Townsend within 30 seconds of coming into the game. After the game he stated on his debut against a Premier League team and in front of a sold out crowd, “It’s a dream come true.”

Palace scored early in the 8’ minute off a shot from outside the box from Jordan Mutch and doubled their lead in the second half off a good shot by Wilfred Zaha in the 63’ that just snuck inside the post. In a concerning moment for Palace fans Zaha was injured on a challenge, from Cincinnati’s Jamie Dell. Gingerly walking off he left the stadium on crutches and in a walking boot. Pardew commented after the match saying, “Hoping he’s okay, he should be okay we don’t think it’s a problem.”

In the first half Palace was able to hold the ball for long stretches and creating the majority of the chances. Cincinnati dropped deep and defended attempting to frustrate the attack and created a handful of counter attacks that led to shots. Most of Cincinnati’s shots were off target only forcing Palace keeper Alex McCarthy to make a two saves.

Cincinnati keeper Mitch Hildebrandt had a pretty good half, having to make one save and giving up a goal on a great shot from outside the box. He had a very active half in terms of passing due to the Palace forwards pressing and cutting out passes into the middle third.

Cincinnati came out attacking right away in the second half off a long pass down the left of the pitch led to a shot from Jimmy McLaughlin. This set off the best offensive stretch for Cincinnati of the evening leading to a few quality chances. Coach John Harkes stated, “I thought the boys responded really well, and created chances [all game].”

Omar Cummings and Omar Mohamed were both able to get into great positions and put shots on target forcing tough saves from McCarthy. The rest of the half was more even with both teams creating chances with Palace able to double their lead.

The push in the last few minutes of the match from Cincinnati was unable to provide a goal despite a pair of corners.

FC Cincinnati has their next game against Eastern Conference leader New York Reds Bulls II on Wednesday July 20 at 7:00 in Nippert Stadium.

FC Cincinnati vs. Crystal Palace: Why it is Bigger Than You Thought

FC Cincinnati and Crystal Palace are playing a friendly match on July 16, 2016 at Nippert Stadium. Yes, you read that right: the first year,third tier, American team FC Cincinnati is playing F.A. Cup finalists and European side Crystal Palace. This gives Crystal Palace three games in North America, along with MLS clubs Philadelphia Union on July 13 and the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 19.

Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew dancing at the F.A. Cup Final. From nayachohan.com

For FC Cincinnati, this is a huge coup beacuase it is their first season, and they set the league attendance record in their second home game and broke it again in their fourth home game. FC Cincinnati is exceeding expectations in every category from attendance, to on the field play, where they are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference.  Their first goal was even on ESPN Sportscenter’s Top 10. They have also gotten international attention from the Guardian.com.

The MLS has to be taking notice of FC Cincinnati’s success and this is where getting Crystal Palace is even more important. FC Cincinnati is the only USL club to host a Premier League team and one of two teams outside the MLS (the second tier NASL Carolina Railhawks are hosting West Ham United.) Their home game attendance average is 17,462 over their first four home games and they have 20% of the total USL attendance. They are also averaging more fans than six MLS teams.

FC Cincinnati striker Sean Okoli scoring the first home goal in club history. From Cincinnati.com

While getting into the MLS is still a long shot, it is better than when I last discussed it here. The MLS is expanding from their current 20 teams to 23 by 2018 with teams in Atlanta, Minnesota, and Los Angeles, with a team pending a stadium deal in Miami to take them to 24.

 

Some of the same problems persis: they don’t have their own stadium, they play on artificial turf and there are a lot of cities that are vying for the next round of expansion. One big plus on the stadium front is that FC Cincinnati is paying for renovations being made to the first few rows in the horseshoe to make for a longer playing surface.

 

While many fans are getting excited for the Crystal Palace to come play in Cincinnati, it could just be a step in getting the MLS in Cincinnati. With the MLS expanding to 28 teams in the future, by 2022 or 2024, this could be the stepping-stone needed.