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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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.

What’s Wrong With England?

It Is the English Way

The last few weeks have not been particularly kind to England; left the European Union by majority vote, got knocked out of the European Championship in soccer and their manager resigned. Disarray, shambles, and a hot mess would be a few ways to describe the country’s futbol federation. Roy Hodgson, who had begun managing the team in 2012, resigned mere moments after the team’s historic and humiliating loss to Iceland, a country not known for its soccer prowess (to put it nicely), in the round of 16. The English countrymen blew up the radio airwaves clamoring and demanding for an immediate and positive change in direction from the English FA (the group in charge of the English national team). Listening to the radio, the callers laid out the requirements of what type of manager they wanted to lead their country back to glory. Many adjectives were given, but the most common words I heard were words like “engaging” or “passionate” and “English”. I can see where they would want a coach that isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve and hope his team does the same considering how the team played against Iceland; unmotivated, disinterested, and a clear lack of leadership. However, the necessity for the next manager to be English is what I believe is the biggest problem with the English national team and is its fans. Let us turn a couple of pages or so into a history book and maybe others will see why I have a problem with the more outspoken fans of England.

England’s Brief History

England invented the game of soccer, or as they call it, football, back in the mid-to-late 1800s and the national team has won only one World Cup and never won a European championship in the team’s history. In their last World Cup appearance at Brazil in 2014, the team was unable to make it out of the group stage and failed to win a single game against Uruguay, Italy, or Costa Rica and, as a team, only scored 2 goals in the tournament. After that tourney performance, I believe Hodgson should have been fired; the players played like they knew they weren’t going to get out of the group after the first game and they barely drew with Costa Rica, who had already won the group by match day 3 of the group, so Costa Rica wasn’t exactly interested in that game. Keep in mind, the World Cup began in 1930 and has been held every 4 years since then and the creators of the game have only won one while the nation with the most World Cup championships, Brazil, has five. By that number, England ought to know that they are not the best at the game they created, right? Well, maybe not.

England’s Pride in its League

With the most football leagues in any part of the world, five professional divisions, the nation is clearly proud of the fact they invented the world game. The Barclay’s Premier League, the nation’s top league, has boasted the world’s “best” teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. The top league in all of Europe, the Champions League, gathers all of the prior season’s best teams for a tournament to award the winner the title of “Best Team in Europe”. Since the league began in 1956, the teams that claim the most Champions League titles are Real Madrid with 11 and AC Milan with seven. The next three teams after that all have five: Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Barcelona. The BPL can, therefore, technically claim they produce at least one of Europe’s top club teams, but not the world’s. The English Premier League (synonym for the BPL) often claims that their league has the most competitive and best soccer teams and that every player wants to play in their league as opposed to La Liga (Spain), Ligue 1 (France), Bundesliga (Germany),  Serie A (Italy) and the other domestic leagues in the world. As a matter of fact, the entirety of the English national team is made up of players from the EPL. To use the most recent example, Euro 2016, take a look at rosters of the two finalists, France and Portugal; you will find at least three different leagues that the national teams pull their players from. I am by no means claiming that the EPL or any of the other leagues are better than the other. What I am pointing out is that the other players play in other leagues and pick up other styles, tactics and other smaller tips from the coaches and players. This can help national teams in scouting, development and in-game adjustments. I’m not declaring this as the sole reason for England’s woes, just that it could be something to look at.

What England’s Problem Is

The main reason I believe England’s national team woes could be derived from the attitude that England are the creators of the game and therefore every other team is beneath them. The feeling of self-entitlement could not be more evident in the words of the fans and even the players of the national team. Captain Wayne Rooney, who is also captain for Manchester United, said that it would be “better if the next manager was English” (ESPN reports). Firstly, I think Wayne Rooney performed terribly as captain of the team, so maybe a new captain is on the list of things to change from the new manager. Secondly, it is that exact narrow mindedness that has England in the mess that they’re in; why should their next manager be English?

The players, fans and FA want a coach that is English, and if not English, someone that has experience with the BPL. Again, firstly, the idea that England’s players can play the style that is played in the BPL looks like a fantasy since the best players in the league are usually non-English. And again, secondly, this brings me back to the claim that English fans stake that the EPL is best league in the world; if its style and play is the greatest in the world, how come it doesn’t work at the international level? The EPL went through a long drought without a Champions League winner until recently with Chelsea winning it in 2012, Manchester United in 2008 and Liverpool in 2005. Finalists of the Champions League in recent memory have often been from La Liga (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid). Again, that is not to say that that style of play is better than another. The point is that each team, no matter the make-up, has to play with something to prove and England have much to prove as a team. They need a coach, no matter the nationality or background, that is going to instill a fire in the players’ spirits and motivate them to play to the best of their ability. This coach needs to assign the captain’s armband to the player that best exemplifies what the coach is looking for. Sorry, but I’m not sorry to Wayne Rooney fans. Maybe England will perform better at the next World Cup in Russia, but they have a lot of changes to make, and being proud and stubborn shouldn’t be their mindset heading into qualifying. The English have nothing to be proud of.