Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Arsenal Get Their Mojo Back

Arsenal played Hull on Sunday afternoon in a dress rehearsal  for their FA Cup final meeting on May 17th and ended up winnining comfortably. Hull had a very good home record in the league but the return to the Arsenal team of both Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil was too much for them to handle. Ramsey hadn't started a league game since getting injured in late December and Ozil was playing for the first time in six weeks.

During the absence of Ransey the team continued winning in January but without the attacking flair and convincing performances of earlier in the season. If there was any doubt about his importance to the team it was put to bed with the attacking display he put in against Hull and when he came on towards the end of last Tuesday night's win over West Ham. In less than two hours of league football since his return he has scored one goal and made there more.

He has the ability to break into the opposing penalty area at just the tight time and score goals or set them up for others. He does what is required of him defensively too and there are few players who work harder than him in all of the Premier League. It's that ability to get from the centre of midfield into the opposing area which sets him aside from most other players though and it was what Arsenal mised so badly during his absence. 

Ozil's performance may not have been up to the standard of Ramsey's but he put in a very good display for his first game back after injury. He had a big hand in the first goal and was clearly taken down for a penalty which wasn't awarded when there was no score on the board. He's a world class player who will be a huge asset for years to come as long as he has other players who can perform at his level to play with.

Lukas Podolski was the main man on the scoresheet yet again with his second league brace in a row. He is the best finisher in the Arsenal squad and again showed what he can do once Arsenal can get the ball to his left foot in the opposing penalty area. Those four goals have helped to bring six very important points just at the time the team needed them to maintain their advantage in the race for fourth place.

The overall performance from the team was to be admired as they dug in at the back under a lot of pressure from Hull and played good football in the opposing half. Wojciech Szczesny was commanding in goal and kept everything Hull could throw at him at bay while Mikel Arteta gave his front tooth to the cause in midfield. The contribution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he came on was excellent too and he should have been awarded a penalty late on.

With the FA Cup final coming up next month Hull set out to close Arsenal down and rough them up when they could. I have no doubt it was a practice run for the tactics they intend to display in the cup final, but Arsenal countered those tactics perfectly. If Hull try to play the same way in the cup final they will hopefully find themselves on the end of another beating. It's very hard to put in that much work in the wide open spaces of the Wembley pitch and that space should suit Arsenal with players like Ramsey, Ozil and Chamberlain back in the team.

There are three league games left and they are all winnable for an Arsenal team who have found their form just in time to save their season. They lead the race for fourth place with home games against Newcastle and West Brom coming up and go into the FA Cup final strong favourites to take their first trophy in nine years. It may not be ideal but it's infinitely better than playing in next season's Europa League and letting the trophy drought reach 10 years. Of course it's still possible for both of those alternatives to occur, but the chances are they won't.

It's impossible to know if the team would have continued their title challenge if both Ramsey and Ozil had stayed fit along with Theo Walcott. All of their inclusions in the team probably would have prevented the points dropped at Southampton and Stoke and at home to Swansea too, but their possible influence on the "accidents" against Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton is impossible to gauge. I'd like to think the team would not have capitulated in those games with their best players in the team, but that's a question which cannot be answered.

At the start of the season I would have been very happy to have seen the team finish on an average of two points or more per game and to win the FA Cup too. They're still on course to do just that and their fate on both counts is in their own hands with four games left to play. The manner of how they finished up fighting up for fourth place is what grates and those awful performances in big league games away from home are so hard to take too. 

I would also have been very happy at the start of the season to see Arsenal with an unassailable lead over United while United still have four games left to play. The demise of United has made Arsenal's chances of finishing in the top four so much easier and they look like seeing the job through. If they win their last three league games they will finish on 79 points and that's more points than the team have managed since the 2004/05 season. It will be odd that they only finish fourth on 79 points, but I can't see them finishing any higher.

There are always regrets at the end of any season and I think my biggest one will be for the season that might have been. The league title was a very real possibility until it all went horribly wrong for a variety of reasons which can be discussed in full when the season is over. Hopefully it will end with fourth place and a trophy though and both of those goals look a lot more likely at the moment.

That's it for the moment.

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Arsenal's Trip To Hull City Previewed

Fortune took a turn in Arsenal's favour on Wednesday night when Everton lost at home to Crystal Palace. That result meant Arsenal stayed in fourth place with a one point advantage over Everton and four league games left to play for both clubs. It's a far cry from the lofty heights of only a couple of months ago, but it's vital for Arsenal to maintain that advantage until the season ends.

On the face of it Arsenal have the easier run in of the two clubs and they play before Everton on Sunday. To put as much pressure as possible on Everton who play against United it's very important for Arsenal to beat Hull. United have the best away record in the league despite being back in seventh place and they need results in their last five games to try to make the Europa League places.

That shock defeat to Palace will have been a real blow to an Everton team who had won their previous seven league games and an Arsenal win before they play could put another dent in their confidence. Arsenal have a real chance of a trophy with the FA Cup final against Hull in four weeks, but an FA Cup victory would feel more than a little hollow if they missed out on next season's Champions League. It would be a fantastic day for them if they can beat Hull in the Lesgue and lay down a marker for the cup final too. 

In team news Mathieu Flamini returns from suspension, Nacho Monreal might have recovered to take his place at left back and it looks like Mesut Ozil will make the trip too. There's also Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who didn't start in Tuesday night's victory over West Ham, but should both be refreshed enough to take their places in the team. I doubt if Ozil will start but it will be great to see him back in the squad and probably getting 20 minutes at the end of the game. Arsene Wenger hasn't had too many options with his team selection recently, but he will certainly have a headache deciding who should play and who should be on the bench. 

I think both Ramsey and Chamberlain have to come back into the team as they offer the drive and pace this side needs. I'm not too bothered whether Mikel Arteta or Flamini starts in the holding role, but I think Arteta is probably due a rest. It will be impossible to leave Lukas Podolski out of the team after he scored twice on Tuesday night and his inclusion will go a long way to deciding the rest of the team. The other two places should go to Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud who both did well in that win over West Ham.

With that team there is a chance the boss will change the formation to 4-4-2 with Podolski playing alongside Giroud rather than wide on the left. Podolski's two goals on Tuesday came from a very similar position just to the left of the goal and inside the box. He is by far the best finisher in the Arsenal team and is more than capable of getting the goals they need if they can get the ball to his left foot in the Hull penalty area. Arsenal have struggled in front of goal quite a lot in the last few months and having two strikers from the start might just make the difference for them. 

I thought Cazorla was back to his best against West Ham and showed the form which made him so good for much of last season. He pulled the strings in midfield and caused problems for West Ham time and again. He could be the man to pick the passes for the runs of the attacking players in the absence of Ozil.

Hull will have both Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic in attack, but neither of those players will be available to play in the FA Cup final. They were both signed in January and had already played in the competition this season for their previous clubs. It won't be too easy to get an idea of how Hull will play in that final with two different strikers in the league game. 

With four games to go it's still possible for Arsenal to finish the season on 79 points and that would be their highest points tally since 2005. Despite the slip ups by both City and Chelsea in the last week it still looks like 79 points will only be good enough for fourth place. Those games cannot be taken for granted though with Sunderland showing in their last two games just how dangerous teams struggling at the wrong end of the table can be. In their last four games Arsenal have to play three teams who still need points to ensure their Premier League survival and any lapses in concentration in those games could be costly.

The players cannot let their minds drift to the cup final and they have to go to Wembley having booked their place in next season's Champions League yet again. The ideal scenario will be for Arsenal to do what is needed of them to get the three points and then sit back and see how Everton get on against United. It has the potential to be a very good day for Arsenal once they give their all to their game.

Hull are a tough team to beat at home, but Arsenal's away record has been very good against the teams in the lower reaches of the league this season. Hull probably need three more points to make sure they stay in the Premier League and they would love to get those points as soon as possible. The longer they go without ensuring their safety the more nervous they will become as the teams below them pick up points. 

I have no doubt Arsenal are good enough to take the three points and lay down a marker for the FA Cup final as well as putting it up to Everton. Hopefully they can do just that and finish the season strongly enough to dispell the disappointments of the last couple of months.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Predictions For Premier League Gameweek 35

It's that time of the week again when I attempt to predict the outcomes of the upcoming Premier League games. I did fairly well last week with one perfect scoreline, six correct outcomes and four incorrect outcomes to remain in seventh place in my predictions league. Here's a look at how the top 10 in my predictions league stands.

PositionPlayer NamePTSTWBB
NC 1 (1)  Karl-Yngve Lund2220+250
NC 2 (2)  Wayne Hubbard2095+50
Up 3 (4)  Abu K2060+7520
Down 4 (3)  MickTheGooner2025+100
Up 5 (6)  Paul Kingston1950+12020
Down 6 (5)  KildareGunner1945+700
NC 7 (7)  Michael Sheehy1725+450
NC 8 (8)  goonerdhanesh1540+300
NC 9 (9)  Sulabh1190-200
NC 10 (10)  Gaurav Ahuja88500Saturday April 19

Saturday April 19

Tottenham Hotspur v Fulham 

12.45pm BST, White Hart Lane, London

Spurs have only taken seven points from their last six games and it now looks like sixth place is the best they can do. They have only won nine of their 17 home games and have taken as many points away as they have at home. They have four winnable games to finish the season and will finish on 72 points if they win all four which is a very good haul.

Christian Eriksen is in very good form for fantasy managers at the moment with four goals and three assists in his last four games.

Fulham have won their last two games in a row to move to within two points of safety. They have a relatively easier run in compared to Norwich and they might just need one win in their last four games to save themselves. They have lost 11 of their 17 away games though and no other team has conceded more goals away from home.

Steve Sidwell has been the most consistent performer for Fulham this season and Hugo Rodallega has done well in recent weeks.

I think Spurs should be too good for Fulham and win by a couple of goals.

Prediction: 3-1

Aston Villa v Southampton 

3pm BST, Villa Park, Birmingham 

Villa have lost their last four games in a row and could find themselves in a tight spot if they don't get a positive result very soon. They have lost 10 of their 17 home games and goals are hard to come by with Christian Benteke out injured. They have some tough fixtures in their remaining five games and a win in this game would give them some breathing space.

I can't see any Villa players to recommend to fantasy managers for the rest of the season despite Villa having a game in hand.

Southampton have lost their last two games and if they're not careful Stoke could pip them for eighth place. They have only won six of their 17 away games, but they're not an easy team to beat at home or away. 

With Jay Rodriguez out it looks like Southampton's attacking options could be limited but surely Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert are still good fantasy choices.

Villa need at least a point from this game but I think Southampton will take all three. 

Prediction: 1-2

Cardiff City v Stoke City

3pm BST, Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff

Cardiff got a very good win away to Southampton last week to breathe new life into their bid to avoid relegation. They're still three points from safety though with only four games left and they need something from this game to keep their hopes alive. They have only won five of their 17 home games and only Fulham have conceded more goals at home.

Jordan Mutch and Steven Caulker have been the Cardiff players most likely to succeed for fantasy managers with Andy Marshall performing well too.

Stoke have been on a very good run recently and they're closing in on Newcastle in ninth place. They have won five of their last seven games and kept clean sheets in three of them. They have only won two of their 17 away games though and only Fulham and Norwich have conceded more goals away from home.

Despite their recent good run it's still not easy to see any Stoke players worth betting on for the last few weeks for fantasy managers.

I think this will be a very close game and could just end in a draw.

Prediction: 1-1

Newcastle United v Swansea City

3pm BST, St. James' Park, Newcastle 

Newcastle can't get to the end of the season quickly enough and they're lucky the first half of the season went so well for them. They have lost their last four games without scoring and have actually failed to score in 12 of their last 16 games. They have only won seven of their 17 home games and only three teams have conceded more goals at home.

I can't see any Newcastle players to recommend to fantasy managers.

Swansea have had a poor season by their standards and they have almost been sucked back into a relegation battle. They have only taken six points in their last nine games, but they have got relatively easier games left than some of the other struggling teams. They have only won three of their 17 away games and haven't won away since beating Fulham in November.

Wilfried Bony has been the best of the Swansea players for fantasy managers this season.

This isn't an easy one to predict but I think Swansea might just sneak a victory.

Prediction: 1-2

West Ham United v Crystal Palace

3pm BST, Upton Park, London

West Ham have lost five of their last seven games, but they won the other two to keep them seven points clear of the relegation zone. They have struggled with injuries all season long and have only won six of their 17 home games. They're probably safe from relegation, but one more win would get them to the magical 40 point mark.

I can't really see any West Ham players vital for fantasy managers to have at the moment.

Palace have won their last four games in a row to ensure their Premier League survival. They have lost 11 of their 17 away games, but they have won the last two and scored six goals in those games. They looked dead and buried when Tony Pulis took the job and he has done a very good job keeping them up.

Jason Puncheon has been in fine form recently for Palace and is a good addition to any fantasy team along with any of their defenders when they are at home in particular.

I think this will be another very close game and it might just end in a draw.

Prediction: 1-1

Chelsea v Sunderland 

5.30pm BST, Stamford Bridge, London

Chelsea are the only unbeaten team at home in the league and they have the best defensive record at home too. They have four games left in the league and will be champions if they win them all, but one of those games is away to Liverpool. They also have the two legs of their Champions League semi final either side of that trip to Liverpool in what will be a huge week for them.

With Eden Hazard possibly out injured Mohamed Salah could be the Chelsea player to have along with any of their defenders.

Sunderland got a very good point away to City on Wednesday night, but it was only their second point in nine games. They're six points away from safety with five games left and their chances of avoiding the drop are minimal at best. They have only won three of their 17 away games, but they have taken more points away from home than at home.

Adam Johnson still looks like he will be the player to do well for fantasy managers if Sunderland can put a few good performances together.

I can't see anything other than a Chelsea win in this game.

Prediction: 2-0

Sunday April 20

Norwich City v Liverpool

12pm BST, Carrow Road, Norwich

Norwich have lost four of their last five games and failed to score in their last three. They have only lost five of their 17 home games though with only Chelsea, City and Arsenal conceding less goals at home. Their problems have come at the other end where they're the lowest scorers in the league and only Sunderland have scored less goals at home. 

I can't see any Norwich players to recommend to fantasy managers.

Liverpool have won their last 10 league games in a row and scored 35 goals in the process. They have won nine of their 17 away games and they're the highest scorers away from home too. If they win their last four games they will be champions, but it could all come down to their game with Chelsea next week.

Luis Suarez is an absolute must have as fantasy captain this week and Steven Gerrard is in great form too.

I can't see anything other than a Liverpool victory in this game.

Prediction: 1-3

Hull City v Arsenal

2.05pm BST, KC Stadium, Hull

Hull have won their last two home games and kept clean sheets in both of them. They're six points above the relegation zone with five games to play and probably need one more win to confirm their Premier League place for next season. They have only lost six of their 17 home games and have a pretty good defensive record at home too.

I don't see too many Hull players setting the world alight for fantasy managers for the rest of the season.

Arsenal won their first league game in five against West Ham on Tuesday night and it moved them back into the top four ahead of Everton. They have won nine of their 17 away games, but they have only won once in their last six on the road. Their top four fate is back in their own hands and a win in this game would be a huge boost to those chances.

With cup final places to play for I think Lukas Posolski and Aaron Ramsey could be the Arsenal players to have for fantasy managers.

This is a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup final and I think Arsenal will win it by the odd goal.

Prediction: 1-2

Everton v Manchester United 

4.10pm BST, Goodison Park, Liverpool

Everton lost at home to Palace on Wednesday night to end a run of seven wins in a row. Their top four fate is no longer in their own hands as a result and they have some tough games coming up too. They have only lost two of their 17 home games, but will have to get results at home to both Manchester clubs if they are to have any chance of a top four finish.

Seamus Coleman has been the most consistent fantasy performer in the Everton team, but Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas, Ross Barkley, Steven Naismith, Leighton Baines and Tim Howard should all be considered too for fantasy managers.

United have the best away record in the Premier League win 10 wins in their 17 games and only Liverpool have scored more away from home. They have won their last four away games and scored 11 goals in those games without conceding any. They have a very slight chance of finishing fifth, but they will have to win this game to keep that chance alive.

Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney could be the United players to have for their last five games.

I think this game could go either way, but it will probably end with the spoils shared.

Prediction: 2-2

Monday April 21

Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion

8pm BST, Etihad Stadium, Manchester 

City gave had a really bad week with a defeat at Liverpool and a draw at home to the bottom club in the league. They have to win their last five games to have any chance of winning the league and hope for some help from other teams. They have won 15 of their 17 home games though and no other team has scored more goals at home.

With Yaya Toure injured David Silva is the City player to have, but he's possibly injured too. If Sergio Aguero is fit he could be the player to have along with Samir Nasri.

Albion have taken five points in their last three games, but they're still only three points above the drop zone. Three of their lat five games are at home and they will hope to take enough points in those games to secure their safety for another season. They have only won three of their 16 away games, but two of those wins have come in their last three away games.

Morgan Amalfitano has done well in recent weeks and could be a good choice for fantasy managers for the rest of the season.

I think City will bounce back and win this game by a couple of goals.

Prediction: 3-1

That's it for this week.

See you next week.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Arsenal Beat West Ham To Regain Fourth Place

After qualifying for the FA Cup with a win over Wigan on penalties at the weekend Arsenal got back to Premier League action at home to West Ham last night. With Everton two points ahead of them in fourth place and only five games to go it was a must win game for Arsenal. They hadn't won in their last four league games though and if they were going to finish in the top four they had to start winning again. With an FA Cup final to come in mid May Arsenal's remaining six games were being described by some as six cup finals. 

The extra time and penalties at the weekend took their toll on the Arsenal players and Arsene Wenger decided not to risk either Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the start. They're two players who could really have made a difference, but risking them after Sunday could have seriously hampered the team's chances for the remaining games. There will be no more midweek games from here on in and players will get a break of a week between each game.

There were five changes from the team which came through on Saturday with Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky, Kim Kallstrom and Olivier Giroud all coming into the team. The players to miss out were the injured Nacho Monreal, Ramsey, Chamberlain, Lukasz Fabianski and Yaya Sanogo. It meant there was very little pace in the team and I was worried that lack of pace would make it too easy for West Ham to defend.

The game didn't start too brightly for Arsenal as fatigue looked to be playing a part in a lethargic opening. The first couple of chances they got came to Giroud, but he failed to get on the end of a Lukas Podolski ball across the six yard line and then fluffed his lines badly when Santi Cazorla played him in with only the keeper to beat. That miss from Giroud seemed to lift the team though and they eventually found some fluency to put West Ham under pressure.

The pressure didn't pay off though and the moment I dreaded came just five minutes before the break when West Ham scored. Antonio Nocerino broke from midfield and got past Kallstrom but Szczesny managed to save twice from him before the ball popped up for Matt Jarvis to head into an empty net. Koscielny tried to get a foot to the ball as Jarvis headed it, but it was just as well he didn't because he probably would have got a red card and given West Ham a penalty too.

It didn't look good for Arsenal with half time approaching and it was vital for them to get back into the game before the break. Thankfully Stewart Downing fluffed a clearance with a minute to go to the break and Cazorla seized on the chance. He played a beautifully disguised ball to Podolski in the box and he turned and shot across the keeper into the far corner. It was just what Arsenal needed and it got the crowd right behind them just before the break. If they had gone in one behind the reaction from some of the crowd might have been very different.

There wasn't an awful lot of energy to Arsenal's start to the second half but they eventually started to pick the pace up gradually. West Ham's two wide players had looked good in the first half, but they gradually played more and more directly towards the head of Andy Carroll at any and every opportunity. He was pretty well marshalled by Per Mertesacker and Koscielny and their long ball tactics rarely threatened.

Only 10 minutes into the second half Arsenal took the lead when Thomas Vermaelen played a long ball back into the West Ham box after a corner had been cleared. Giroud brought the ball down beautifully on his left foot under pressure from two defenders and crashed it home between the keeper's legs with his weaker right foot. It was his 20th goal of the season in all competitions and it couldn't have come at a better time for Arsenal.

With just less than 20 minutes to go Ramsey came on for Rosicky and he had a big part in the third Arsenal goal six minutes later. He cushioned a header down to Podolski in the box and Podolski turned and crashed the ball past the keeper to extend Arsenal's lead. With 12 minutes left the game looked done and dusted and Arsenal managed to see it out without much incident. 

The three points moved them above Everton by one point with Everton playing at home to Palace tonight. Palace have proved very difficult to beat since Tony Pulis took the reins, but they are far better at home than away. I don't hold out much hope of Palace taking anything from Everton, but their next three games after Palace will be far from easy for them. At least Arsenal have put themselves in a position to take advantage of any slips by Everton in their last five games.

I thought Cazorla was Arsenal's best player last night and he showed glimpses of the form which impressed us all so much last season. He was ably assisted by Podolski with his two expertly taken goals and he showed exactly what he has to bring to the team when he gets a chance. I thought Vermaelen had a good game too after bring moved from the centre of defence to fill in at left back.

West Ham may not have had too much to play for but that didn't stop them taking a point at Chelsea a few weeks ago. They can be a tough team to beat and had a good defensive record away from home, but Arsenal managed to find enough to put a potentially tricky game behind them. If they're going to finish fourth they are going to have to show a lot more of that resilience in their remaining games.

Like a lot of others I have being giving Giroud a hard time recently as I just don't think he's good enough to be the first choice striker at the level Arsenal play. I was far from surprised when he made a complete mess of his great chance in the first half, but he took his goal really well. Hopefully that goal will give him the confidence to go on add a few more before the season ends.

It was good to end a run of four league games without a win and to come from behind to do it too. There are plenty of players to come back into the team in the coming weeks and hopefully all of that competition will be to the team's advantage. I would be very surprised if Everton didn't drop at least four points in their remaining five games and Arsenal have set themselves up to take advantage of any slips.

The win also put Arsenal seven points ahead of Spurs with four games to go and St. Totteringham's Day is suddenly drawing an awful lot closer. Arsenal will finish ahead of Spurs if they win two of their last four games and there's even a possibility of it happening this weekend if Spurs lose at home to Fulham and Arsenal win away to Hull. 

The chances of Spurs losing are slim, but Arsenal know they have to win the dress rehearsal for the cup final. Hull won't be easy to beat and will want to show Arsenal the cup final will be no pushover either. The big games just keep coming thick and fast and it's the best way to have it at this stage of the season.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.