The big story in the buildup to this weekend’s Premier League fixtures has been that the title race is back on, what with Liverpool and Chelsea in good form and Manchester United playing poorly in their recent games.
Although Arsenal have put to bed the notion that the Big Four could be separated this season, the joy at Manchester United’s (temporary) setback in retaining their league is clear as daylight.
But the second story is potentially more damaging to English football than Manchester United’s dominance (or Alex Ferguson’s list of crimes against the game – depends on how big a Rafa fan you are).
The settlement between Sheffield United and West Ham – to the tune of 10-20m pounds – has sparked concerns that West Ham would now be the target of more lawsuits brought by former manager, Sheffield United players and even other clubs like Leeds, who would have received bonus payments for players sold to Sheffield United if the Blades had stayed up that year.
And with Fulham (according to the Independent) filing a claim for 700k pounds against West Ham – the money they claim they lost because West Ham finished ahead of them in the league due to Tevez – the farce is well and truly on. At this rate, they might as well have every team who has lost to West Ham in the last two seasons to file a claim for ‘lost earnings’ and try to have those defeats turned into victories.
Blackburn Rovers v West Ham United
Blackburn go into this game off a 4-0 hiding received at the Emirates and with a chance to resume their climb away from the relegation zone. Sam Allardyce’s team were outclassed against Arsenal but with a manager experienced in getting his team to overperform, he should be able to motivate Blackburn to play far better.
On the other hand, West Ham’s injuries meant they couldn’t even beat West Brom at home, and unless there’s an outstanding improvement they’ll find it tough to score against the Rovers.
Prediction: Blackburn beat West Ham
A chance for Fulham to avenge their FA Cup defeat and to build on their 3-1 win away to Bolton last time out. They will have the self-belief and determination to take the game to Manchester United and they’ll be hoping to put away their chances and put the champions under pressure and force more mistakes.
Manchester United have played poorly in the last two games, winning against Inter who couldn’t put away their chances and losing to Liverpool who were clinical in front of goal. They need to step it up several notches and get back to winning ways. A week’s worth of rest will have helped, but at the end of the day the front 6 need to start playing to their potential and take the pressure off the back five.
Prediction: Manchester United to beat Fulham
Also See: Fulham v Manchester United – 21 March 09 – Preview
A month ago this was billed as the ‘match of the weekend’, but Aston Villa’s poor form in recent weeks and their record of not winning in March since 2006, coupled with Liverpool’s blistering recent form, means that there can only be one winner at Anfield.
Having said that, Liverpool will have to play a different game than the one they played against Real Madrid and Manchester United – here the roles will be reversed with Liverpool pushing forward to score and Aston Villa content to sit back and hit on fast counter attacks. That gives Villa a slight chance at getting something out of this game if they can stay tactically solid and finish off whatever chances they create.
Prediction: Liverpool to beat Aston Villa
Also See: Liverpool v Villa – 22 March 09 – Preview
Manchester City v Sunderland
Both teams have a sizeable injury list and are separated by just 3 points in the league. However, for Sunderland this will be a counter-attacking, damage-limitation exercise as they try to nick a point away from home. Manchester City on the other hand have the goods to deliver a masterclass performance at home, and at home Hughes should be able to coax out a win from his team.
Sunderland aren’t completely out of it – City’s European exertions will have taken a toll, and if Sunderland can keep it tight they could get a point or more out of the game.
Prediction: Manchester to beat Sunderland.
Leaving aside injuries (a regular feature of recent Newcastle sides), Newcastle face an uphill battle in this game. Yes, they tend to raise their game whenever they play a top four team but Arsenal are a different proposition to Chelsea and Manchester United and Newcastle’s up-and-at-em battling approach can be easily exploited by the fast, precise attacking flair of Arsenal’s forwards.
Newcastle may nick a goal but overall Arsenal should come away with 3 points and coupled with the Liverpool-Villa game, in pole position for 4th place.
Prediction: Arsenal to beat Newcastle
Also See: Newcastle v Arsenal – 21 March 09 – Preview
Stoke City v Middlesbrough
Tough game to call even though Middlesbrough should have the advantage going in this game with the better players and more experience of playing in the Premier League. Last games for both teams were shambolic – Boro getting a point at home where they should have lost and Stoke losing 3-1 away to Everton, and there’s little chance of this turning into a one-way runout win.
In recent years Tottenham have always raised their game by a few notches when they play a top four side, and their recent record against Chelsea is proof of that. This time should be no different with both teams going into the tie in good form and ability to score goals.
Chelsea need to win this to keep pressure on Manchester United, but against Spurs they might have to settle for a point.
Also See: Tottenham v Chelsea – 21 March 09 – Preview
West Brom v Bolton Wanderers
I know I’ve said that West Brom are as good as relegated, but this is again a game they have a chance of winning and given Bolton’s recent form, they should stand as slight favourites to record a home win.
Prediction: West Brom.
Wigan Athletic v Hull City
Hull go into this game on the back of a game they will feel aggrieved to have lost to a disputed goal, but no where near the sort of form they had early in the season. On the other hand, Wigan are strong at home and while this might not be a 4-0 or 5-0 rout, this should be a comfortable victory for Steve Bruce’s side.
Prediction: Wigan to beat Hull.
Portsmouth v Everton
Everton have steadily improved throughout the season after an indifferent start and this is the type of game they need to win if they want to keep pushing for 4th / 5th in the league. The absence of Yakubu and Arteta has been managed expertly by Moyes, but perhaps beating a desperate relegation-scrapping team at Fratton Park where space will be tight and Everton would need more skill than speed is a step too far for Everton?
The only thing working ‘for’ Portsmouth this season is that the teams around them are playing just as bad, if not worse. Middlesbrough are abject (and should have lost last week, that too at home to Portsmouth), Stoke are in free-fall, West Brom are as good as relegated and despite the ‘fight’ shown by Blackburn, Newcastle and Sunderland, they’re failing to win games as well. Even Hull and Bolton, just 4 points ahead of Portsmouth, are in catching range what with their poor performances.