Saturday, December 13, 2014

Arsenal v Newcastle United Preview

Arsenal's roller coaster season continues today when they play at home to Newcastle in the Premier League. The low of last Saturday's defeat to Stoke and the abysmal first half performance was countered with the 4-1 win away to Galatasaray on Tuesday night. The three points dropped to Stoke were a lot more important though as the result in Turkey had no effect on Arsenal's final position in their Champions League group. 

They ended up second behind Borussia Dortmund on goal difference with the damage being done when they drew 3-3 at home to Anderlecht after leading 3-0 with 30 minutes left. That game has come to signify Arsenal's season so far as it highlighted their awful defending at times and the inability to change things when they are going wrong. They did manage to make those changes against Stoke at half time, but could only pull back two of the three goal deficit.

Arsenal are still only four points outside the top four with the season nearly halfway completed and a top four finish is still well within their reach. There's nothing in particular to fear from any of the teams from third place down and most of the teams they thought would be challenging for a top four place are behind them. Liverpool, Everton and Spurs have had even worse starts to their season than Arsenal, but that in no way excuses the mistakes Arsenal have made on the pitch or in the transfer market for that matter.

When Thomas Vermaelen was sold the squad was short of two centre backs and Arsene Wenger said he would address the issue before the window closed. He failed to do so and the team has seen a succession of players forced to fill in as a central defender and most of them have not been up to the task. With Arsenal's injury record it was madness to gamble on having no central defensive injuries or suspensions from August to January and some would say it was negligence on the manager's part.

His inability to properly strengthen the defensive part of the squad is the biggest factor in the teams current league position and their failure to win their Champions League group. Arsenal need to sign a quality central defender on the first day that the window reopens, but the chances are they will be scraping for a bargain in the final minutes before the window closes. It's not too late to undo some of the bad work that last summer's inactivity cost, but there are a lot of games to be won and lost in January.

It's a shame that a team with Alexis, Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey should have their sights set as low as vying for fourth place, but it's a fact of life with Arsenal. The signing of Alexis made it look like the club were going to finally have a strong enough team to challenge for the whole season, but all of the other transfers were only replacements for departures with Vermaelen not even replaced. Those poor decisions in the summer could be highlighted yet again today when Arsenal play Newcastle.

It looks like both Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal will be absent and that leaves the manager with a real headache. Thankfully Mathieu Debuchey made his comeback from injury against Galatasaray and it has to be hoped he's up to playing another game so quickly and probably as a central defender too. The only real options at the back would seem to be playing Debuchey beside Per Mertesacker with Hector Bellerin at right back and Kieran Gibbs at left back as Calum Chambers is suspended after his red card last Saturday. To say it's a makeshift defence is an understatement but I doubt very much if any other players can even be considered for the defence.

The big question could be who plays in goal as Emiliano Martinez did so well when Wojciech Szczesny was out injured and does not deserve to be dropped in my opinion. Szczesny came back on Tuesday night, but Martinez would have played that game if Szczesny hadn't missed the previous three games through injury. I think the role should stick with a keeper who has done well when he has got his chance.

Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey should continue in midfield as long as Ramsey is suffering no effects from Tuesday night and the chances are Santi Cazorla will play in front of them. With the news of Francis Coquelin returning from his loan at Charlton it's quite possible Ramsey will miss out or Coquelin could even play in defence as he has done before. I thought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did very well in that role on Tuesday and offered something different to Arsenal's usual approach. Galatasaray made it easy for Arsenal by playing a high line and I can't see Newcastle or many other teams playing that way against Arsenal.

They will defend in depth and numbers and hope to hit Arsenal on the break and it's a tactic which works against Arsenal all too often and far too easily at times. How many times do Arsenal do all the pressing and then concede with their opponents first attempt on target. Maybe it's just a perception on my part, but it certainly seems that way far too often.

The Arsenal attacking trio will include Alexis and Arsenal always have a chance when he is in the side no matter how they are playing. It's probably a straight choice between Oliver Giroud and Danny Welbeck for the central role with Chamberlain most likely in the right. It is possible both Giroud and Welbeck will play as Chamberlain is quite often the player who misses out although I think he should start a lot more often. 

Newcastle have injury issues of their own and hopefully Arsenal can take advantage of any weaknesses they have as a result. They had a very bad start to their season, but turned things around very quickly and have made themselves a hard team to beat. They did Arsenal a huge favour last week by putting an end to Chelsea's aspirations of matching the Invincibles of 2004, but Arsenal can have no sympathy for them today.

Even with all of their injuries there's still enough quality in the Arsenal team to win this game and go to Liverpool next week on the start of a good run which is needed to kick start the rest of the season. I think Arsenal will win and Alexis will make the difference after his week off. There have been some high scoring games between these two teams in the recent past but I expect a close and cagey game with Arsenal hopefully edging it. Fingers crossed that it's the start of a good festive programme for the team, but you just never know with Arsenal at the moment.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Predictions For Premier League Gameweek 16

It's that time of the week again when I attempt to predict the outcomes of the upcoming Premier League games. I had possibly my worst week ever last week with no correct scorelines, two correct outcomes and eight incorrect. My lead at the top of my predictions league has been cut, but I'm still top of the table as you can see below.

PositionPlayer NamePTSTWBB
NC 1 (1)Michael Sheehy790-400
NC 2 (2)goonerdhanesh730-150
NC 3 (3)Wayne Hubbard720+900
NC 4 (4)sodobo570-100
NC 5 (5)Rutland Gooner540+200

Saturday December 13

Burnley v Southampton 

3pm GMT, Turf Moor, Burnley

Burnley's recent good run came to an end at QPR last week and the defeat dropped them back into the bottom three as a result. They have only won once in their eight home games and no other team has scored less goals at home. They're in a much better situation than they were a few weeks ago, but it will be a long hard struggle if they are to have any chance of staying up.

Danny Ings has done well in recent weeks and is worth considering as a cheap alternative for fantasy managers.

Southampton have taken only one point from their last four games and lost the last three. Those defeats were all against some of the leagues best sides and they will be relieved to have come through those games. They have done well to take 10 points from their seven away games and have the best defensive record away from home.

Graziano Pelle could be a good fantasy option now that he has broken his bad run and the Southampton defenders could be worth considering again too.

Despite their recent improvement I think Burnley will struggle in this game and Southampton will win by a couple of goals.

Prediction: 0-2

Chelsea v Hull City

3pm GMT, Stamford Bridge, London

Chelsea lost away to Newcastle last week to end the premature "invincible" talk. They have won all seven of their home games though and have the best defensive record at home as well as being the joint top scorers at home. They're still the favourites to win the league and will be looking to bounce back against one of the bottom three.

Eden Hazard looks like the best fantasy bet in the Chelsea team right now while Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and all of their defenders are very good options too although Fabregas is suspended this week.

Hull have only taken four points in their last eight games and haven't won any of them. That run has seen them drop into the relegation zone and a trip to the league leaders is a daunting task for them. They have only won once in their eight away games, but they have at least managed to draw four of those games.

I can't see any Hull players who might interest fantasy managers right now.

I think this should be a fairly comfortable home win for Chelsea.

Prediction: 3-0

Crystal Palace v Stoke City

3pm GMT, Selhurst Park, London

Palace have only won once in their last nine games and have failed to score in four of them. They have only won two of their eight home games and only three other teams have scored less goals at home. They're only one point above the relegation zone and need to start winning games very soon.

Mile Jedinak has been the best fantasy performer in the Palace team so far and is certainly worth consideration for fantasy managers. 

Stoke had a very good win at home to Arsenal last week to end a run of three defeats in a row. Stoke have only won two of their eight away games and have only managed to score eight goals in those games. The confidence from the victory over Arsenal might be just what they need to move up the table.

Bojan Krkic has been in good form recently and might not be a bad choice for fantasy managers.

I think this will be a close game and a draw is probably the most likely outcome.

Prediction: 1-1

Leicester City v Manchester City

3pm GMT, King Power Stadium, Leicester

Leicester were beaten yet again last week and are firmly rooted to the foot of the table. They still haven't won a game since putting five past United 10 games ago. They have only taken two points in those 10 games and have only won once in their seven home games.

Despite a recent upturn in his form it would still be a brave choice to pick Leonardo Ulloa.

City are on a very good run at the moment and have closed Chelsea's lead at the top of the table to only three points. They will be without Sergio Aguero for the next month though and he has been far and away their most important player this season. City have won their last four league games and have taken more points and scored more goals away from home than any other team.

If David Silva is fully fit he's always a good fantasy option while Yaya Toure seems to be finally finding his shooting boots.

Despite Aguero's absence I can't see anything other than a City victory in this game.

Prediction: 0-2

Sunderland v West Ham United

3pm GMT, Stadium of Light, Sunderland 

Sunderland haven't won in their last five games and they have failed to score in three of them. They have drawn five of their eight home games with only City and Arsenal winning away to them so far. They're only two points above the relegation zone and need to turn some of those home draws into victories.

Costel Pantilimon has done well since getting his chance in goal for Sunderland and is a good choice for fantasy managers at a good price.

West Ham are up to fourth in the table after coming from behind to beat Swansea last week. They have only lost two of their seven away games and only the top two have scored more goals away from home. They have won their last three league games and are making themselves a very hard team to beat at the moment.

Stewart Downing has been the most consistent fantasy performer in the West Ham team so far, but both Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho are pretty good choices too.

This game could go either way, but I think a draw is probably the most likely outcome.

Prediction: 1-1

West Bromwich Albion v Aston Villa

3pm GMT, The Hawthorns, Birmingham 

West Brom got a point away to Hull last week and it was their first point in five games. They have failed to score in four of those games and are only one point above the bottom three. They have only won once in their eight home games and no other team have conceded more goals at home.

There are no West Brom players worth considering for fantasy managers at the moment.

Villa came from behind to beat Leicester last week and continue their climb up the table. They have taken 11 points from their eight away games despite only scoring four goals in those games. Villa are unbeaten in their last five games and have put their run of six defeats prior to that firmly behind them.

Brad Guzan has probably been the Villa player most likely to deliver for fantasy managers.

Local derbies are usually very close and this will be no different, but I think Villa might just sneak it.

Prediction: 1-2

Arsenal v Newcastle United 

5.30pm GMT, Emirates Stadium, London

Arsenal were awful in the first half at Stoke last week and undid so much of their recent good work. They have lost three of their last five league games, but they are still only four points outside the top four. They have only lost once in their last 25 home league games, but they won't find it easy against this Newcastle side.

Alexis Sanchez is the Arsenal player to have for fantasy managers while Aaron Ramsey looks like he might have found some form at last.

Newcastle did the whole league a favour last week by beating Chelsea and look like a very good side. They are strong defensively and have plenty of pace and power on the break which are a very good combination. They have only lost once in their last nine games and have kept clean sheets in four of those games. 

Papiss Cisse has done well for Newcastle in recent weeks and some of their defenders are worth considering at a very good price too.

This game looks like it could go either way, but my loyalties always make me opt for Arsenal. 

Prediction: 2-1

Sunday December 14

Manchester United v Liverpool

1.30pm GMT, Old Trafford, Manchester

United are up to third after winning their last five games in a row, but they have rarely impressed in those victories. Only Chelsea have taken more points and scored more goals at home than United. This is a huge game for them and they have to be favourites with the form of both clubs currently so different.

Robin van Persie is in a rich vein of form at the moment while both Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata are pretty good fantasy choices too.

Liverpool are out of the Champions League and have the knockout stages of the Europa League to look forward to. Only QPR and Leicester have lost more away games than Liverpool and only those two clubs have conceded more away goals too. They have been unable to replace the goals of the departed Luis Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge and are struggling as a result.

Maybe Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard might be worth a shot for fantasy managers, but they're a risk with the way Liverpool are playing.

I think this will be a close game, but United's superior goal power will make the difference.

Prediction: 2-1

Swansea City v Tottenham Hotspur

4pm GMT, Liberty Stadium, Swansea

Swansea are unbeaten in their last five home games, but have made a habit of losing after taking the lead away from home. They have won five of their eight home games and only Chelsea have conceded less goals at home. They're only a point ahead of Spurs and have to avoid defeat to stay ahead of them. 

Wilfred Bony has become the Swansea player to have for fantasy managers while Gylfi Siggurdsen is still a pretty good option too.

Spurs have taken more points away from home than at home despite having played more home games. They will be glad to be finished with the Europa League for a few months to give themselves a chance to build some momentum in the league. They have had problems scoring goals and need to improve on the 18 they have in 15 league games.

Spurs players are hardly excelling for fantasy managers, but Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Harry Kane are still worth considering.

This could be a very tight game and I have a feeling it will end in a draw.

Prediction: 1-1

Monday December 15

Everton v Queens Park Rangers

8pm GMT, Goodison Park, Liverpool

Everton are struggling to keep pace with the top four and need to put a few wins together to get their season going again. They have only won once in their last six games and have only won two of their seven home games. They have the worst defensive record at home too and need to improve their home form if they are to move up the table.

Leighton Baines is still the Everton player most likely to succeed for fantasy managers with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas impressing recently too.

QPR are out of the bottom three thanks to their home form, but they have lost all of their away games. They have only scored two goals away from home and conceded 17 which are highs and lows respectively for any team so far. They won't stay up solely on their home form and must start taking points away from home at some stage.

With Charlie Austin suspended I can't see any QPR players to recommend to fantasy managers. 

I think Everton should be good enough at home to take all three points.

Prediction: 3-1

That's it for this week.

See you next week.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Arsenal Champions League And FA Cup Latest

After a weekend to forget there isn't much breathing space for Arsenal as they travel to Galatasaray in their final Champions League group game. With a place in the last 16 already guaranteed there isn't too much to play for and the Arsenal team will show a lot of changes as a result. They have an outside chance of winning their group if Dortmund slip up at home to Anderlecht and Arsenal win, but it's a pretty unlikely scenario. 

Arsene Wenger took the unusual step of naming his team the day before the game and he has given a chance to some of his fringe players. With so many changes in the team it won't be easy for Arsenal to get a result, but at least some of the more important players will get a rest before the upcoming busy schedule. Arsenal haven't done too well in the past when they have fielded a weakened team in Champions League games and Galatasaray will see this as a chance to claim a big scalp. 

Both Mathieu Debuchey and Wojciech Szczesny make their returns from injury and the rest of the defence will be made up of Per Mertesacker, Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin. The combination of Mertesacker and Chambers in central defence was very poor against Stoke on Saturday, but needs must and there's nobody else to play there. Yet again the folly of not addressing the defensive shortages in the summer is proving costly for the team and there can't be a single fan who thought it wouldn't. 

Both Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini will continue in midfield with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in front of them. After doing such a good job to protect the back four in recent games Flamini and Ramsey were found badly wanting in their defensive duties against Stoke. The whole team seemed to forget to do everything they had done right in the previous three games from the kick off on Saturday and questions have to be asked about their motivation and preparation for the game. They may have tried to turn things around in the second half, but that first half performance was one of the worst I have ever seen from Arsenal.

The attacking trio is the most interesting of all with forgotten man Joel Campbell playing with the injury prone Yaya Sanogo and the mistrusted by the manager Lukas Podolski. All three will hopefully be anxious to make an impression on a rare occasion they get to play and they're all well capable of it too. Sanogo scored when he started at home to Dortmund in the last group game, but Campbell and Podolski have had even less opportunities to show what they can do.

While I think the team might have a fair deal in attack the defence looks very ropey at best and I am worried about how they will hold up. The game might not be of much significance but the team cannot afford another defeat on the back of Saturday's loss. It seems each time the team appears to be turning the corner they come up with another horror show to go right back to square one.

On the bright side at least Alexis Sanchez will get a break from almost single handedly carrying the team. It's impossible to overestimate how important his contribution has been this season and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for him at times to see the lack of contribution of others. He has been so much better than everyone else so far that I worry he will want to move on this summer to a team where his efforts might lead to more success.

In other news the draw for the FA Cup third round was made yesterday and Arsenal got a home game against Hull. The cup seems to pull out these strange coincidences so often and the game in early January will be a repeat of last May's final. Of course Arsenal won that game after going 2-0 down early on and will want to do all they can to defend the only trophy they have won in the last nine seasons.

Realistically the FA Cup is Arsenal's only hope of silverware this season and a home draw in the third round is a good start. They won the cup without ever leaving London last season and will start their defence in the city again. No other team have won the FA Cup more times than Arsenal and one more victory would see them out on their own on 12 victories.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Arsenal's Premier League Trip To Stoke Previewed

Arsenal just can't stop winning and keeping clean sheets at the moment and they're a very good combination for any team. While they still might not be at their sparkling best they are definitely playing with more effort and confidence than they were only a few weeks ago. Winning breeds confidence for any team and so does defensive solidity and that's what we're seeing right now.

Southampton did what most teams do when they come to the Emirates on Wednesday night and set themselves up to defend and try to get something on the break or from a set piece. It didn't look like Arsenal would get the win but that man Alexis Sanchez was in the right place at the right time to put away Aaron Ramsey's cutback. It was still far from vintage Arsenal, but it was a far better performance than the one which saw them win 1-0 away to West Brom last Saturday. 

They face a trip to Stoke today and it's a ground where Arsenal have struggled in the past. Under Tony Pulis Stoke set themselves up to defend in depth and hit teams from long balls, set pieces and long throw ins. They also liked to get in their faces and prevent them from playing football and no team more so than Arsenal.

It worked for them quite often and they didn't particularly care how they stopped their opponents playing as Aaron Ramsey will testify to. The leg break he suffered up there in 2010 was horrifying and it's a mark of the class of Stoke that so many of their fans boo him to this day every time Arsenal play them. Their reasoning appears to be his unwillingness to accept an apology from the culprit, Ryan Shawcross, who cut through his leg like a knife through butter that day.

Shawcross may claim he didn't mean it and there's nothing to suggest he intentionally set out to cause such a severe injury, but the injury was a direct cause of an overly agressive and very badly timed challenge. I have no doubt Shawcross was determined to stop Ramsey getting past him by whatever means it took and the injury was a result of his recklessness. There's always the train of thought that the Arsenal players are so quick and nippy that they're asking for it really, but that defence has no basis in fact and reminds me too much of the defence the lowest forms of life use. 

Ramsey was lucky to come back and ever play again and he finally became the player all of his potential promised last season. This season hasn't been so easy for him as he has struggled for form in an Arsenal team who have been far from impressive all too often. I have no doubt the Stoke fans will have a go at him again and I would like nothing more than to see Ramsey score the winning goal late on to put them in their place (the pits of Mordor seems to be a popular opinion as to where they belong).

Stoke have changed their style quite a bit since the departure of Pulis, but Mark Hughes will have no problem sending his team out to put the boot in whenever they think they can get away with it. He has some willing participants in his team such as Shawcross and Charlie Adam and Arsenal will need a strong referee to cut it out early on. I won't be holding my breath on that count, but I still think Arsenal can play their way through and around Stoke and continue their winning ways.

In the last week Stoke have been unlucky to lose 2-1 away to both Liverpool and United and have saved their best performances for games against the league's better sides. Their ground was seen as a fortress in previous seasons, but this season they have done better away from home so far. They have only won two of their six home games and have only scored six goals in those games.

I expect Arsenal to be the ones doing all the attacking despite being the away team and for Stoke to look to hit them on the break or from set pieces. They have some good players who can cause Arsenal some real problems, but Arsenal have better players who can give Stoke a torrid afternoon. I'm hoping the momentum they're currently gathering will continue and the performances will continue to improve with it.

At least Arsenal don't have to worry about going to Galatasaray in midweek looking for a result as they have already sewn up their qualification for the last 16 in the Champions League. There's still an outside chance for Arsenal to win the group, but I fully expect to see quite a few changes to the side which will play against Stoke. There's isn't a phenomenal amount of change to the Arsenal team at the moment with injuries being the main reason for any change and I expect the same tomorrow.

There might be more rotation when the whole squad is available, but it would take the most optimistic of people to think Arsenal will put all of their continuing injury problems behind them and have a full squad to choose from. As it is Nacho Monreal won't be available today and Kieran Gibbs will come in at left back once he's OK to play. 

There will be a late decision made on Laurent Koscielny as he looks to play his third game in eight days after returning from injury. It's a far from ideal scenario with Koscielny as he got injured from being over played in the first place and it has to be hoped we aren't tempting fate with him. He's a very important player in the Arsenal team and they defend a lot better when he plays. If he's not up to the task it will mean Hector Bellerin will have to come in at right back with Calum Chambers switching to the centre of the defence, but hopefully that scenario won't play out.

Olivier Giroud didn't start against Southampton and there's a good chance he will play after he made such a good impression when he came off the bench. Who he will come in for is another matter, but I suspect it will be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as he's usually the first player to miss out when changes are made. Arsene Wenger has been able to reintroduce Giroud into the team bit by bit as he has Danny Welbeck too and it should be to Giroud's advantage unlike the situation facing Koscielny.

I can't say I'm overly confident of Arsenal winning but I think they will do if they can put enough pressure on the Stoke defence. Stoke might not be doing too well at home so far, but they have only conceded seven goals in their six home games and it won't be easy to break them down. Time and again this season Alexis has been the man to make the difference for Arsenal and there's no reason to believe he won't win it for them again.

I have no doubt Stoke will have his card well and truly marked and will set out to stop him from the first minute to the last. I wouldn't be surprised to see them taking turns to foul him, but he's good enough to take what they hand out and pay them back in the best way possible. 

With the three teams directly above Arsenal not playing until Sunday and Monday there's a real chance for Arsenal to make progress up the table. A win would see them level on points with third placed Southampton although they are currently seven goals behind them on goal difference. If Arsenal can do their bit it might just makes things a little tougher for the teams ahead of them when they play. Ideally Arsenal will do just that with some style and Ramsey putting in a man of the match performance to put Stoke to the sword. I'll be happy once they win though and will gladly take a lucky late win as long as they can keep the momentum going.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.