Friday, January 30, 2015

Arsenal v Aston Villa Preview

With their place in the fifth round of the FA Cup secured it's back to Premier League action on Sunday for Arsenal when Aston Villa come calling. The team are starting to put a good run together and have won their last four games in all competitions. Over the next few weeks they have plenty of chances to extend that run in games they should be winning.

The team has been helped by the return of so many injured players in recent weeks and it got a further boost with the signing of Gabriel Paulista this week. Arsenal have needed at least one more centre back in the squad for far too long and he looks like he fits the bill perfectly. He's available immediately but I imagine he will more than likely make his full debut in the next round of the cup at home to Middlesbrough unless an injury to another player moves him up the pecking order.

It's not easy to bring in good players in the January transfer window, but the club have managed to do so and we didn't have to wait until deadline day either. As part of the deal Joel Campbell will go to Villarreal on loan for the rest of the season. Campbell's chances at Arsenal have been very limited this season and he hasn't really taken the chances which did come his way. Hopefully he will continue to improve his game in Spain and come back a better player who can contribute to the team or at least command a hefty transfer fee.

In team news it appears Alexis Sanchez is a doubt with a slight injury and a decision on his availability won't be made until Sunday. With the business end of the season coming up hard and fast in a few weeks I can't see Arsene Wenger risking his most prized asset if there is any doubt at all. Alexis wants to play every minute of every game, but he will be needed for the last 16 of the Champions League as well as some very tough league games. Arsenal travel to Spurs next week and they will want their best player in the team against their local rivals.

Otherwise the same players who were available last week will be available again and Arsene Wenger has some tough choices to make. Santi Cazorla has been in great form in the last few months, but Mesut Ozil is back and he's one of the best players in the world in the position Cazorla has filled so well in his absence. The boss has a tough call to make and I think he will look for a way to accommodate both of them which will probably see one of them pushed wide.

I expect the strongest defence possible to play which should see the return of Per Mertesacker in central defence and probably Nacho Monreal switching back to the left. That would leave Kieran Gibbs on the bench which is probably a little harsh on him, but Monreal has been impressive and Arsenal have won the last nine games he has started. On the right it's a close call between Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin and I suspect Chambers will get the nod although Bellerin might be the better choice at the moment.

I would be very surprised if Francis Coquelin didn't come back into the defensive role in midfield and I expect Aaron Ramsey to play alongside him. With either Cazorla or Ozil in front of those two it's a strong midfield and they should get plenty of the ball. 

Olivier Giroud should lead the line as the only fit actual central striker available, but Danny Welbeck should be back to face Spurs next week. On either side of Giroud I would expect to see Theo Walcott and again either Cazorla or Ozil. It's not an ideal position for either of them, but with Alexis probably missing and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out too somebody has to play there. When those two players are both available too it's going to give the boss a real headache, but Arsenal will have a very strong bench and some real competition for places too. That team would be a little tough on Rosicky, but he will be there to do his part if he's called on. 

Arsenal have won their last four home league games and are scoring on a more consistent basis than they were earlier in the season. They seem to be finding their mojo again and the win away to City will have given them a huge boost to their confidence. They're playing at home to a team who are having real problems at the moment and Arsenal need to impose their game on Villa.

Villa haven't scored in their last five games and they went through a run of five league games in a row without a goal earlier in the season too. They're the lowest scorers in the league with only 11 goals in their 22 games while Alexis has scored 12 goals all by himself so far in the league. In fact Villa have only managed four goals away from home, but they haven't lost any of the away games they have scored in. They have done very well to win three away games with their lack of goals.

I have no doubt Villa will defend in depth and look to hit Arsenal on the break and that tactic worked perfectly for them in this fixture last season. They have some quick players and Christian Benteke is a real goal threat even if he's nowhere near as prolific as he was last season. I think the presence of Coquelin in the Arsenal team will help Arsenal to stop Villa picking them off on the break as he isn't afraid to keep put and remember how important his defensive duties are.

I think Arsenal will get the win they need and win by a couple of goals at least, but it may take a little while to get there. Villa have only scored two second half goals in the league this season while Arsenal are renowned for their ability to score late on. The three points are very important to keep pace with the other teams chasing fourth place with all of them except Southampton playing the day before Arsenal. 

I think third place is up for grabs for sure and a win for Chelsea against City could see Arsenal move within five points of second place. I'm certainly not saying I want Chelsea to win, but City aren't looking too good at the moment and another defeat for them could be to Arsenal's benefit. I never like to see Chelsea win and I certainly won't be cheering for them, but then again I won't be cheering for City either. In games like that I never really know who I want to win until I see my own reaction to the first goal in the game.

Anyway I've drifted away from the important subject matter of Arsenal and the three points they will hopefully get on Sunday. It would be great to go into the second North London derby of the season on the back of five wins in a row. They owe Spurs a beating after somehow managing to only draw the first game at the Emirates despite being by far the better team on the day.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Predictions For Premier League Gameweek 23

It's that time of the week again when I attempt to predict the outcomes of the upcoming Premier League games. I didn't fare too well last week with no perfect outcomes, five correct outcomes and five incorrect. It means I keep my place at the top of my predictions league, but there are plenty of people closing in behind me as you can see from the table below.

NC 1 (1)Michael Sheehy1095+200
NC 2 (2)goonerdhanesh1055+100
NC 3 (3)sodobo990+405
NC 4 (4)Wayne Hubbard985+1105
NC 5 (5)Rutland Gooner980+1705

Saturday Janurary 31

Hull City v Newcastle United

12.45pm GMT, KC Stadium, Hull

Hull are still in the relegation zone and their biggest problem is their lack of goals. They won their last home game against Everton, but that was their first win in six home games and they failed to score in four of those games. No other team has taken less points at home than Hull and only Villa have scored less goals at home.

I can't see any Hull players to interest fantasy managers at the moment.

Newcastle have appointed John Carver as caretaker manager until the end of the season and look like they won't trouble the events at either end of the table. They have lost five of their last seven games though and have lost their last three away from home. They have only won two of their 11 away games with only QPR and Burnley conceding more goals on the road.

Papiss Cisse had looked good for Newcastle before going to the ACN and he could be a good choice for fantasy managers once he's up to playing.

This game isn't easy to predict, but I have a feeling a draw is the most likely outcome.

Prediction: 1-1

Crystal Palace v Everton

3pm GMT, Selhurst Park, London 

Palace have looked like a different team since Alan Pardew took the reins and have quickly moved four points clear of the relegation zone. They are unbeaten in four league games and have won their last two as well as progressing to the fifth round of the FA Cup. They have only won three of their 11 home games, but that statistic could change quickly under Pardew if the early signs are anything to go by.

I think Jason Puncheon has looked very good so far under Pardew and might not be a bad fantasy choice.

Everton are still far too close to the relegation zone for their own good and are only ahead of Palace on goal difference. They have only won twice in their 11 away games and only three other teams have conceded more goals away from home. They have only won once in their last 10 league games and have failed to score in five of them. 

As long as Everton continue to struggle it's hard for fantasy managers to pick their players, but surely Leighton Baines and Romelu Lukaku will come good soon.

I think this will be another very close encounter and might just end with the spoils shared too.

Prediction: 2-2

Liverpool v West Ham United

3pm GMT, Anfield, Liverpool

Liverpool went out of the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night after the game went to extra time. They played well though and have looked a lot better in recent weeks and are unbeaten in their last six league games. Despite only winning four of their 11 home games they're only five points off the top four and still have Champions League ambitions.

Raheem Sterling is the player most likely to perform for fantasy managers in the Liverpool team, but that could change with Daniel Sturridge due back from injury.

West Ham are still just behind the top four and they don't look like they're going away. They have only won three of their 10 away games, but only three teams have scored more away goals than West Ham. They have some tough games coming up and their chances of a Europa League spot will be a lot clearer after their next four games.

Stewart Diwning continues to impress for West Ham while Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho are good fantasy choices too.

A resurgent Liverpool will have their work cut out against a good West Ham team with fatigue a possible factor for them, but I think they will just win.

Prediction: 2-1

Manchester United v Leicester City

3pm GMT, Old Trafford, Manchester 

United won their last league game away to QPR and it was their first win in four league games. They have won eight of their 11 home games and only Chelsea have won more at home. They're still in the top four, but only just with quite a few teams breathing down their necks.

It's not easy to predict which United players will do well from week to week, but surely one of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria is worth a shot for fantasy managers.

Leicester have improved a lot in recent weeks, but they're still rooted to the foot of the table. They lost their last game at home to Stoke after taking seven points from their previous three games and they have some very hard fixtures in their next six games. They have only won two of their 11 away games and have lost eight and they will do very well to get anything out of this game.

Despite their recent improvement it's still not was to pick Leicester players for fantasy managers.

I think Leicester will make a game of this, but United's attacking proess should be too much for them.

Prediction: 3-1

Stoke City v Queens Park Rangers

3pm GMT, Britannia Stadium, Stoke

Stoke are just about in the top half of the table and they will be looking to improve on that before the season ends. They have taken 10 points from their last five games, but their home form is still nowhere near what it has been in recent seasons. Over the next few weeks they have some very winnable fixtures and the chance to make the progress they desire.

Despite their recent good form there are no Stoke players performing well enough to recommend to fantasy managers.

QPR have slipped back into the relegation zone and they could find it hard to get out of it again. They have lost every single one of their 10 away games and have the worst defensive record away from home. They haven't won in their last five league games and only Villa have scored less goals than QPR away from home.

Charlie Austin has been QPR's best fantasy option by far this season but the goals have dried up in recent weeks and Leroy Fer hasn't looked too bad either.

It's hard to see anything other than a home win and more woe for QPR in this game.

Prediction: 2-1

Sunderland v Burnley

3pm GMT, Stadium of Light. Sunderland

Sunderland are the draw specialists of the league and they will continue to flirt with the relegation zone as long as they remain so. They have lost four of their last five games though and are only a point above the bottom three now. They have won less home games than any other team and only Villa have scored less goals at home.

It's still difficult to see any Sunderland players making a real impression for fantasy managers although Costel Pantillimon continues to do well in goal.

Burnley are level on points with Sunderland and only one goal behind them on goal difference. They have only won once in their 10 away games and only QPR have conceded more goals away from home. Burnley have being finding the net a lot more in recent games with nine goals in their last four games.

Danny Ings is the Burnley player most likely to do well for fantasy managers.

This is a game neither club will want to lose which makes me think it will end in a draw.

Prediction: 1-1

West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur 

3pm GMT, The Hawthorns, Birmingham 

West Brom have improved since Tony Pulis took charge and look a lot more likely to stay up now. They have taken five points in their last three games and have only conceded one goal in those games. They have only won three of their 11 home games though and no other team have conceded more goals at home.

Since Pulis took over both Saido Berahino and Victor Anichibe have looked better and could be worth considering for fantasy managers while West Brom's defenders should be monitored too.

Spurs just about scraped through to the Capital One Cup final on Wednesday night and have a Wenbley final to look forward to in four weeks. They have taken 16 points from their last seven games and have won half of their away games. They have become the masters of the 2-1 victory with seven of their last 13 games finishing that way in their favour.

Harry Kane, Christisn Eriksen and Nacer Chadli have all impressed for fantasy managers with Eriksen looking the best of the bunch at the moment.

This will be far from an easy task for Spurs and I think Albion will take at least a point off them.

Prediction: 2-2

Chelsea v Manchester City

5.30pm GMT, Stamford Bridge, London 

Chelsea had to go to extra time before seeing off Liverpool and reaching the Caoital One Cup final on Tuesday night. They have a perfect record at home in the league with 10 wins out of 10 games and they're the joint top scorers at home too. They could be without both Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas for this game and they will be sorely missed if that is the case.

With Costa more than likely suspended for the next three games and Fabregas injured the best fantasy options in the Chelsea team would seem to be Eden Hazard, Oscar and their defenders.

City were beaten at home by Middlesbrough in the cup last week and by Arsenal in the league the previous week. They are now five points behind Chelsea again after playing so well previously to close the gap. They have taken more points away from home than any other team and only Chelsea have scored more goals away from home.

If City are going to keep pace with Chelsea they need Sergio Aguero and David Silva at their best and they haven't been in recent weeks, but they still have to be considered very good fantasy choices.

I think this will be a very close game with the first goal crucial and it might just end in a draw.

Prediction: 1-1

Sunday February 1

Arsenal v Aston Villa

1.30pm GMT, Emirates Stadium, London

Arsenal had a great win away to City in their last league game and they now have the chance to build on that over the next few weeks. They have won four of their last five league games and their last four in a row at home. They're only a point outside the top four and will be pushing the team's above them with some very good players just back from injury.

Alexis Sanchez is still the go to player for fantasy managers in the Arsenal team while Santi Cazorla has been very good in recent weeks.

Villa are still just about staying clear of the relegation battle, but their lack of goals has to be a real worry. They have only taken two points in their last five games and have failed to score in all of those games. They have done very well to get 11 points from their 11 away games considering they have only scored four goals in those games.

I can't see any Villa players to recommend to fantasy managers right now.

This is a game Arsenal have to win and I think they will do just that.

Prediction: 2-0

Southampton v Swansea City

4pm GMT, St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton  

Southampton are still third in the table, but they look like their injuries are starting to affect their game. No other team has scored more goals at home and only Chelsea have a better defensive record on their own ground. They have taken 16 points from their last six games and beaten both Arsenal and United in those six games.

Most of Southampton's defenders are pretty good fantasy choices along with Graziano Pelle and maybe Eljero Elia too.

Swansea were put out of the cup by Blackburn last week and thumped by Chelsea in the league the previous week. They have only taken two points from their last four games and conceded 11 goals in those games, but they're still safely in mid table. They have only won two of their 10 away games and have conceded more goals away from home than any other team in the top half of the table.

With Gylfi Sigurdsson suspended for three games and Wilfried Bony sold to City I can't see any Swansea players to write home about.

Despite their injury problems I think Southampton will be good enough at home to win this game.

Prediction: 2-0

That's it for this week.

See you next week.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Arsenal See Off Brighton And Face Middlesbrough Next

Arsenal's defence of the FA Cup has got off to a good start with wins over Hull and Brighton so far and they're through to the last 16. The draw has been pretty kind to them up to now with Hull at home and a trip to a team from the Championship followed by tonight's fifth round draw at home to Middlesbrough. Their passage to the last eight is clear and their hopes of retaining the cup are quite high.

After all the shock results on Saturday Arsenal went to Brighton and put in a relatively good performance to beat Brighton 3-2. There were plenty of positives from the game with both Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil getting good game time and getting their names on the scoresheet too. Tomas Rosicky again got to show exactly how good he is and what he has to offer the team when he gets his chance.

Arsenal scored three very good goals and managed to hold on without too much trouble towards the end when Brighton tried to get back into the game. The two goals Arsenal conceded may not have covered the defence in glory, but winning away to Brighton is infinitely superior to what happened both Chelsea and City. Their defeats showed the beauty of the FA Cup but it also served as a warning to Arsenal and Arsenal managed to heed that warning against Brighton.

Arsenal play six times next month and four of those six games are at home while they don't have to leave London for the other two. Those six games are across three competitions and they are all games which they are more than capable of winning. If they're going to do something this season they're going to have to win all or at least almost all of those games.

After playing Villa next Sunday it's the second North London derby of the season away to Spurs and then a home game against bottom club Leicester. On paper the FA Cup game at home to Middlesbrough is one Arsenal should have little to fear in, but Middlesbrough showed they are a team to be reckoned with when they won away to City on Saturday. They're pushing for promotion to the Premier League and have a very good work ethic and a strong defence too. 

After playing 'Boro and a trip to Crystal Palace it's back to Champions League action to finish the month off when Monaco come calling. They might not set the world alight with thrilling football, but they have an incredible defensive record at the moment and will prove to be a huge test. I think Arsenal can will all six of those games in February and set themselves up for a great end to the season. 

Of course the team have let us down so often in recent seasons just as it looked like they were finally getting somewhere. It's the life of a football fan to expect the best from their team and end up getting disappointed time after time, but this Arsenal team have got the talent to win another trophy this season. The win over City has hopefully given them the belief which they need and it might just have given us fans some of that belief too.

Finally for today it looks like Arsenal are just about to tie up the signing of Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal and add to their rather small collection of central defenders. He looks like he could be a very valuable addition to the squad and he's already good enough to fit right into the team. Both Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker will have to be at their best to keep their places and hopefully Nacho Monreal will not have to be called upon to play centrally again. Speaking of Monreal he started against Brighton and that makes it nine games in a row Arsenal have won when he has started.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Arsenal's FA Cup Trip To Brighton Previewed

After a relatively comfortable passage through the third round Arsenal defend their trophy away to Brighton in the fourth round on Sunday afternoon. With 11 FA Cup wins under their belt Arsenal have won the trophy more often than any other club with the exception of United who have won it 11 times also. With the league a virtual impossibility this season it looks like the cup is the team's best chance of a trophy yet again.

Arsene Wenger has led the team to five of those cup victories and another one would see him make it six and reach half of Arsenal's total victories in the competition too. It's never easy in the FA Cup as Chelsea, City and Spurs can testify after Saturday's results, but their exits make Arsenal's overall task that bit easier. Before we can think of that there's Brighton to overcome first and yesterday's results show the game cannot be taken lightly.

Brighton have had a poor season so far by their recent standards and find themselves battling at the wrong end of the table for a change. Their midweek win over one of the pace setters (Ipswich) has given them a six point cushion from the relegation zone and they will hope to climb the table from here in. Since Chris Hughton took the reins a few weeks ago they have won their of their four games and look particularly potent in attack.

Hughton will set his team up to try to get a result on the day and he has managed to do just that in the past against Arsenal. As an ex Spurs player I'm sure he would like nothing more than to best Arsenal, but he will also know his team will have to be at their very best to have any chance. They have only managed three wins in their 14 home league games this season and Arsenal have to fancy their chances with Brighton not faring so well at home.

As for Arsenal they had a fantastic win away to the Premier League champions last week and should be going into the game on a real high. Despite a season where the squad has again been ravaged by injuries they have a strong squad available and I expect to see quite a few changes for this game. The boss can easily bring in up to seven or eight players and still put out a team more than capable of winning through to the next round.

With David Ospina claiming the goalkeeper's shirt as his own in recent weeks I expect to see Wojciech Szczesny named as the FA Cup goalkeeper. I felt a little sorry for Szczesny last season when Lukasz Fabianski kept his cup role for the final and became a cup winner even though he was exiting the club at the end of the season. Szczesny will have a chance to show he has put his recent troubles behind him and that he is eager to get back into the team if Ospina struggles at all. If Szczesny doesn't play it will only fuel the rumours of a rift, but I would be very surprised if he isn't in the team.

In defence I would be very surprised if Laurent Koscielny plays as he could do with a rest considering the injury problems he has had this season. He is the team's best defender and has suffered from being overplayed earlier in the season and it cannot be allowed to happen again. Hopefully a new central defender will be signed very shortly (and the signs are promising) to rotate the ones we have and who knows Per Mertesscker might even get a chance for a rest at some stage.

Kieran Gibbs didn't play last week as Nacho Monreal kept his place at left back, but I would expect Gibbs to be in from the start. Calum Chambers should make a comeback in central defence alongside Mertesacker while I think Hector Bellerin will continue his impressive form at right back once he's passed fit to play. It's not Arsenal's strongest defence, but it's one which I think makes sense and which should be good enough to do the job.

In midfield Francis Coquelin has been so impressive since his recall from his loan spell at Charlton that I expect him to sit this one out and give the returning Mathieu Flamini a chance to play. I think Tomas Rosicky could be the player to play alongside Flamini and the real big one for me will be who plays in front of them.

Both Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil have only had a few minutes each since returning from their respective injuries and I think this game gives them an ideal chance to play from the start. I hope Ozil is chosen in his favoured position somewhere between the striker and the midfield and given a chance to show exactly how good he is. His season has been affected by his injury, but he was struggling before that after returning from the World Cup and missing out on a proper pre season.

I would be very surprised if Walcott doesn't play, but I think it will be in a wide right role rather than as the central striker. On the other side I think Joel Campbell might jus get the nod again after impressing in all but one part of his game in the third round victory over Hull. Unfortunately for him that missing element from his game was his scoring touch as he could easily have scored twice, but otherwise I thought he did well enough to play against Brighton. 

If Walcott isn't played as the central striker I think the role should go to Olivier Giroud despite being the only fit out and out first team striker available. He can't be suffering from fatigue after missing most oft the festive programme through suspension after his stupid red card in the victory over QPR. There is always a chance Chuba Akpom will be chosen, but I very much doubt if he will get the nod from the start.

For me the most interesting thing will be how Ozil and Walcott perform as they could have very important roles to play for the rest of the season. Walcott has looked sharp in his movement since his comeback, but he has looked very rusty in front of goal which is not surprising for a player who has missed a whole year through injury. If he can get on the end of a few Ozil passes he might just get his first goal since his comeback and that would be very welcome.

If things aren't going to plan there should still be Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench and those three players can turn any game. I would hope they won't be needed and the team can do what is required without having to call on them. Alexis looks like he could play every minute of every game, but surely even he would be happy to get a chance to take it easy for once.

The team I've named should be more than good enough to win away to a team in the lower reaches of the Championship, but they surely won't be complacent after seeing the results so far in this round. The FA Cup always throws up surprises and there have been so many already, but Arsenal cannot allow themselves to go the same way. They need to play their own game and control it from start to finish so they can minimise the threat of Brighton.

Whatever threat Brighton may offer an Arsenal team with the right attitude and commitment will offer a much sterner test for them. I expect them to go out there and do just that and go through to the fifth round and a step closer to another trip to Wembley. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.