Football News: Weekend Match Previews

 

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Saturday 25th February

Chelsea v Swansea City Premier League 3pm

Courtois (doubt)

With a commanding lead in the Prem, there have been a few signs recently of Chelsea taking their foot off the pedal, a little. However, Chelsea still have an eight point gap over second-placed Man City, which sees them almost certain to lift the title. Their main issue now is complacency allowing the rest to close up enough to put pressure on them. Which is why a game like this, against a team in the midst of a relegation scrap, is so important. This is what is commonly known as a 'banana skin'.
Most important player: Diego Costa. Even if they are struggling, the big Spanish Brazilian has the ability to pop up and nick a goal from nowhere. His fitness and good form has been crucial to their lead in the title race.

Dyer (out)
Britton (doubt)
Sung-Yeung (doubt)
Montero (out)
Barrow (doubt)

New man at the helm Paul Clement has already resurrected the Swans, with his return to good passing football, after the dire long ball era of Bob Bradley ended. Having dragged them up from the bottom of the table to sit fifteenth with a four point cushion over the relegation places, the South Wales outfit are far from safe just yet. With four wins in their last six matches, after three wins in the whole season prior to that, they will be confident of clawing their way up the table to safety, sooner rather than later.
Most important player: Tom Carroll. The January signing from Spurs has slotted right into the centre of Swansea's midfield and become the focal point of everything they do. The 24 year old has grown as a player since being given responsibility to run the game. Suddenly he looks like the player Spurs' academy staff hoped he would be and that the North London side made a mistake selling him.

Defining Battle: clearly it will be the midfield. Swansea are at their best when they get possession and are able to play the ball around in midfield but Chelsea have the incredible N'Golo Kante destroying opposing midfields. Can the Swans get enough of the ball to hurt Chelsea, even with Kante there to break up play?

Editors' predictions:
Ed002 - 3-1 (touch of offside about the Swansea goal)
Ed003 - 4-0
Ed007 - 4-0

Crystal Palace v Middlesbrough Premier League 3pm

Flamini (doubt)
Remy (doubt)
Dann (fitness test)
Sako (fitness test)
Wickham (out)
Mandanda (doubt)
J Benteke (doubt)
Souare (out)

Despite the arrival of Sam Allardyce, with his proud (and often boasted about by him) record of never being relegated, Palace are still in danger of sinking without trace. Since October began, they have won just twice and avoided a defeat twice more. Just one win in the last ten games, one of the defeats being an especially galling 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Allardyce's former club Sunderland, tells its own tale. This is a team in free fall, with the only hope being that there are three sides worse than them.
Most important player: Mamadhou Sakho. With Scott Dann likely to be missing through injury, it will be important for Palace to get the big French defender settled quickly to try and improve their dreadful defensive record.

Chambers (fitness test)
Barragan (doubt)
Friend (fitness test)
Husband (doubt)

Following a bright start, this season has become a real struggle for Aitor Karanka's men. It has been eight games since they last picked up three points and their position is looking even more precarious with Hull beginning to put results together. With both Leicester and Palace being easily capable of stringing together a good run, Boro desperately need to notch up a win or two to give themselves some breathing room. This match up with Palace is the perfect opportunity to give themselves a bit of space. First they need to start scoring goals, to give themselves hope of winning games, as the defence has been solid all season, conceding just 27 goals in the 25 matches so far, but only scoring 19.
Most important player: Gaston Ramirez. With goals at a premium, Boro need their most creative player to step up and provide the ammunition for their forwards. With Karanka's style of play being all about stifling the opposition first, it needs a piece of magic to bring a goal.

Defining Battle: this is one of those games that has a number of potential defining battles. I feel the main battle will be between the Palace centre halves and Boro forward line. Palace have been extremely open all season but the Teeside team's attack have struggled to notch goals. A slip at the back could be extremely costly for the Eagles in this game.

Editors' predictions:
Ed002 - 1-1
Ed003 - 1-1
Ed007 - 2-1

Everton v Sunderland Premier League 3pm

Lennon (doubt)
McCarthy (doubt)
Lukaku (doubt)
Mirallas (doubt)
Calvert-Lewin (doubt)
Bolasie (out)
Besic (doubt)

Everton have pretty much cemented themselves in seventh place this season, seven points behind sixth placed Man Utd seeming an insurmountable gap with the Red Devils in such a rich vein of form of late. It is dropping lower that is most likely to be their concern over the rest of the season, with West Brom just four points behind the Toffees. With that in mind, they will be ill-disposed to go easy on former manager David Moyes, as he returns again to Goodison Park as an opponent. Sunderland are scrapping for their lives at the bottom of the league, Ronald Koeman will be hell-bent on ensuring his charges are up for this game. Their eight game unbeaten run suggests Koeman will not have to worry about complacency setting in.
Most important player: Joel Robles. The Spanish keeper has made a few ricks in his time at Everton, but lately he has been in good form, since replacing Maarten Stekelenburg as first choice. It is important he continues to play to his best, to give the defence confidence to push on against a fragile Sunderland side.

Pienaar (doubt)
Rodwell (doubt)
Anichebe (out)
Pickford (doubt)
Kirchhoff (doubt)
Watmore (out)
McNair (out)
Cattermole (out)
Djilobodji (suspended)

Nothing seems to work out as planned this season for the Mackems, with long term injury after long term injury disrupting the team. Despite this, it is difficult to have sympathy for the bottom feeders, as they would probably be struggling down there anyway and they only have themselves to blame. This mess has been brought on by years of poor management and poor decisions. While David Moyes is not to blame for the mistakes of previous regimes, his decisions this season have compounded the issues, with his insistence on signing over the hill players he had previously worked with. It is little wonder they have been rooted to the foot of the table for most of the season. They did manage one excellent performance, as they thrashed fellow strugglers Palace 4-0, but that stands out as a blip in an otherwise lacklustre, at best, season. That win was their only win in the last eight matches and it skews the goalscoring figures as they have scored just 20 goals in their other 24 matches. With the ill feeling currently around the club, following the redundancy of a large number of low paid staff, just after the players had come back from a 5 star, all expense paid jaunt to New York, where they got taken to a NBA basketball game and Red Hot Chilli Peppers concert, there is likely to be little sympathy if they are relegated.
Most important player: Adnan Januzaj. The on-loan Man Utd winger has been almost unremittingly dreadful all season, but he did show he had talent when still a teenager, under Moyes at United. The Mackems desperately need to see him showcase his ability, rather than his poor attitude.

Defining Battle: the main battle will be down the Sunderland left, where the January signing from Everton, Bryan Oviedo, will look to force his former team mate Seamus Coleman back. If he can stifle Coleman's attacking threat, that is a large part of Everton's play that will be nullified.

Editors' predictions:
Ed002 - 1-0
Ed003 - 2-0
Ed007 - 3-1

Hull City v Burnley Premier League 3pm

Goebel (doubt)
Dawson (out)
Hernandez (doubt)
Davies (out)
Mason (doubt)
Henriksen (out)
Keane (out)
Odubajo (out)
Luer (out)
Lenihan (doubt)
Mbokani (doubt)
Clucas (suspended)

Marco Silva has lifted the Hull team from rock bottom and breathed life into them. Now just one point from survival, the Tigers will need to continue to raise their game if they are to achieve their aim. Hull's lengthy injury list will be a big obstacle to their hopes. They will certainly be glad to be at home, where they are much stronger and they know Burnley struggle away from home.
Most important player: Oumar Niasse. The Senegalese striker, on loan from Everton, is raw and does not possess the best first touch you will ever see, but he is a goalscorer and Hull desperately need goals.

Gudmundsson (doubt)
Defour (doubt)
Marney (out)
Long (doubt)
Hendrick (suspended)

The Jekyll and Hyde Burnley team have still yet to pick up a win on their travels in the Premier League this season. They will hope to change that against struggling Hull or this four game road trip that they are embarking on could be a very long one. With his team sitting safely midtable, manager Sean Dyche can afford to let the shackles off from now until the season finishes, if he wants to. After the embarrassment of losing at home to non-league Lincoln City in the FA Cup last weekend, Dyche will certainly be looking for better things from his team this week.
Most important player: Joey Barton. He may be a vile little scumbag who spends his off field time trying to justify his cheating off the pitch, but he is also a very important figure in Burnley's midfield. However, everyone knows that he is also a childish little moron who can easily be wound up to react to provocation. The Clarets will be hoping he can keep his cool and concentrate on his game against Hull.

Defining Battle: the central midfield will decide this game. Hull will surely know that Barton has a short fuse and will want to ensure they get at him in order to put him off his game. As Matt Rhead showed for Lincoln last weekend, he struggles to handle a physical opponent that he is unable to bully. If Hull can unsettle him, then they can get at Burnley and take control of the match. With Burnley's terrible away form, they are likely to lose confidence if Hull dominate the game.

Editors's Predictions:
Ed002 - 3-2
Ed003 - 1-1
Ed007 - 1-1

West Bromwich Albion v Bournemouth Premier League 3pm

No injuries or suspensions

With just one defeat in their last seven Premier League matches, West Brom have been gradually inching away from the teams below them. They have managed to create a five point cushion over the teams below them, though they have also dropped four points behind Everton above them. Their ability to keep players fit has made a huge difference to their consistency of selection and performance. Their fitness coaches deserve a lot of credit for that, as they play a game that is physically demanding, yet have shown no signs of tiredness.
Most important player: Darren Fletcher. Their captain and an extremely important player. It is incredible that he is even playing at all and that shows everytime he plays, as he plays like it is all or nothing and he may never play again. The Scot leaves everything on the pitch each week. He has become their driving force in midfield.

Simon Francis (doubt)
Wilson (out)
Federici (out)
Wilshere (doubt)

The Cherries are in freefall right now, three defeats in a row, six games since they won and six defeats in the last nine matches, all tells the story of a team that is sliding down the table. Fast. Except that they were lucky enough to have a buffer over the drop zone and so, despite the three defeats in a row, they have held on to 14th place. However, the gap down to the Swans in fifteenth is now just two points, so they need to turn around their form quickly, as there is very little between the bottom six teams. This is the biggest test of Eddie Howe's career at Bournemouth, who was being touted as a future England or Arsenal manager just a couple of months ago.
Most important player: Jack Wilshere. The loanee from Arsenal has spent far too much time being a passenger in the midfield for the South Coast outfit. The team's success was built on hard work, as well as good passing. Hard work is something Wilshere seems unable to perform, which leaves the team struggling defensively. He really needs to raise his game or Howe will have to look to someone else to provide creativity in midfield.

Defining Battle: the battle between Rondon and the Bournemouth centre halves will decide this game. With the Cherries struggling defensively, the last thing they needed was to lose their captain and defensive lynchpin, but that is what has happened, with Simon Francis looking extremely doubtful. Rondon has the chance to bully the central defenders into submission.

Editors' Predictions:
Ed002 - 0-0
Ed003 - 1-0
Ed007 - 2-0

Watford v West Ham United Premier League 5:30pm

Prodl (doubt)
Behrami (fitness test)
Cathcart (fitness test)
Kabasele (doubt)
Pantilimon (out)
Amrabat (out)
Pereyra (out)
Kenedy (out)

Watford are in extremely mixed form, losing half of their last ten games and only winning two of them, yet their last five matches has seen them lose just one. They are within easy reach of the top ten, despite the poor run, so the carrot is there for the players to reach for. For manager Walter Mazzarri, the carrot is keeping his job in the summer, which seems unlikely if they do not achieve a top half finish. If he can not get the team to show some consistency, it seems unlikely he will see a second season as Hornets' manager. Which leaves you to wonder how much longer Watford can continue to sustain their success despite the constant managerial changes?
Most important player: Tom Cleverley. The former Man Utd midfielder has arrived on loan from Everton with a lot to prove. His performances in recent years have turned him into somewhat of a laughing stock, following a time when he was seen as an international player. This is a chance for him to show he is not as bad as social media would have you believe.

Cresswell (doubt)
Carroll (doubt)
Ogbonna (out)
Sakho (doubt)
Masuaku (doubt)
Tore (out)
Arbeloa (doubt)
Henry (out)

Following their bumpy start, the Hammers seem to have climbed themselves into safety now, as they sit in a comfortable tenth position. In their last ten games, West Ham have managed to win six of them, after only picking up three wins in their first fifteen Prem matches. With Slaven Bilic having been able to offload the main troublemaker in the squad, Dmitri Payet, in the January window, the atmosphere around the club seems a lot more harmonious going into the final stretch. Now they just need to keep their form going.
Most important player: Jose Fonte. The winter signing from Southampton has been out of form so far this season, which is something the Hammers will need him to turn around quickly. At 33 years old he needs to make an instant impact or risk being written off as past it.

Defining Battle: with the Hammers missing Angelo Ogbonna and having to settle new man Jose Fonte in, the key battle is likely to be between their centre back pairing and the Watford front men. If the West Ham defenders do not get their partnership working quickly they will be in real trouble against a powerful Watford attack.

Editors' Predictions:
Ed002 - 1-1
Ed003 - 1-2
Ed007 - 0-2

Sunday 26th February

Tottenham Hotspur v Stoke City Premier League 1:30pm

Rose (doubt)
Lamela (out)

Despite their dumping out of the Europa League at the hands of the eighth best team in Belgium, KAA Gent, midweek, and their loss to Liverpool last time out in the league, Spurs are in good form. Their last ten league games have resulted in seven wins and just that one defeat to Liverpool. Despite that good form, that one defeat was enough to see them slip down from second to third in the table, as things are so tight amongst the chasing pack. Spurs need to fight back against Stoke, following the Europa League defeat, in the way they did against Fulham in the FA Cup following the Liverpool defeat. There they looked untroubled as they cruised into the FA Cup 6th Round with a 3-0 win. A similar performance is needed today.
Most important player: Jan Vertonghen. All of a sudden, since Vertonghen suffered an injury, the Spurs defence has looked a lot less solid. His return has seen no change in fortune as his partnership with Toby Alderweireld has looked lacking in understanding. The pair need to rediscover their partnership fast, before Spurs' season unravels like usual.

Bardsley (doubt)
Shaqiri (doubt)
Walters (doubt)
Cameron (doubt)
Butland (out)
Ireland (doubt)

Stoke's form has been mixed since they got over their terrible start, the last ten games have seen 3 losses and 3 wins, which has been enough to keep the Potters in the top half, just, but seen them drop behind West Brom above them. With the team so inconsistent, the last thing Mark Hughes's men needed was to have to visit a title challenger. It does give them a chance to avenge the devastating 4-0 defeat they suffered at the hands of Spurs early on in the season. The Stoke forwards need to do more, if they are to have any chance of victory, as they have not added the goals needed so far this season.
Most important player: Joe Allen. The Potters have been struggling so badly for goalscorers that diminutive Welsh midfielder Allen has become their top scorer. They need him to continue to get into the box and getting on the end of chances, as there is little sign of anyone else in the team scoring regularly.

Defining Battle: the battle down Spurs left, Stoke's right, will be key in this game. Davies has shown himself to be a weak link, Vertonghen is struggling to cover for him and that has left a major chink in the normally reliable Spurs' defensive line. Stoke are likely to target that hole and attack it at every opportunity.

Editors' Predictions:
Ed002 - 3-0
Ed003 - 1-1
Ed007 - 1-1

Manchester United v Southampton EFL Cup Final 4:30pm

Mkhitaryan (doubt)
Carrick (doubt)
Rooney (doubt)
Jones (fitness test)
Wilson (out)
Williams (doubt)
Pereira (out)

Man Utd are in excellent form at the moment, chasing a top two place in the Prem, through to the 6th round of the FA Cup, into the last 16 in the Europa League and already holders of this season's Community Shield. Now they bid to add a second piece of silverware for the the season in this final. Having already beaten Saints this season, at home in the league, the Red Devils will be entering this match high on confidence, despite a few recent injury problems to key players.
Most important player: Paul Pogba. This is a chance for the world's most expensive player to begin repaying some of that huge transfer fee. Cup finals are when you need your best players to step up and take a game by the scruff of the neck, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan likely to be missing, there will be more pressure on Pogba than ever to deliver.

Boufal (fitness test)
van Dijk (doubt)
Austin (out)
McCarthy (doubt)
Targett (out)
Pied (out)

This has been a difficult season for Southampton, with their club captain forcing his way out of the club and struggles to adjust to the new manager's style of play. Despite this, the Saints are sat in a safe midtable position in the league and have managed to qualify for the EFL Cup final to face Man Utd at Wembley. With six defeats in their last eight league games, they will be hoping to get a boost by achieving a cup victory on Sunday. The main worry for manager Claude Puel is ensuring the youngsters in the team are not overawed by the occasion.
Most important player: Oriel Romeu. The Spanish defensive midfielder has been in good form this season, providing a defensive shield in front of the back four. The Saints will need him to be at his best if they are to have any hope of lifting the cup.

Defining Battle: how well the Saints backline handles Zlatan Ibrahimovic is almost certain to decide this match. The loss of Fonte has hit Saints hard and an injury to Virgil van Dijk has compounded problems. With van Dijk unlikely to be fit to return, new signing Martin Caceres unlikely to be ready after not having played for a long time prior to his release from Juventus, the centre back pairing is likely to be young Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida once more. They will need to play well to give Saints any genuine hope.

Editors' Predictions:
Ed002 - 2-0
Ed003 - 1-1, 2-2 AET, 6-4 pens (and it rains)
Ed007 - 3-1

Monday 27th February

Leicester City v Liverpool Premier League 8pm

Wague (doubt)
Slimani (fitness test)
Ulloa (fitness test)

Last season's champions have collapsed spectacularly in the Premier League, despite still being in the Champions League. A run of five defeats in a row in the league, added to crashing out of the FA Cup to League One Millwall and a first leg 2-1 defeat in the Champions League to Sevilla has led to coach of the year Claudio Ranieri's sacking. With him has gone a large portion of the goodwill their incredible run to the title last season built up. Following Ranieri's removal, will the now 'too-big-for-their-boots' players collect up their toys and put them back in the pram and actually put in 100% effort for the rest of the season? The Foxes' board will be desperately hoping so, as the team are perched precariously on the edge of the drop zone, just one place and one point from occupying a relegation place.
Most important player: Jamie Vardy. Vardy needs to show something this season. It is clear that all the attention and movie talk has gone to Vardy's head. Added to the bumper new contract he was given in the summer to stop him leaving for Arsenal and it seems he is no longer playing like a man with something to prove. However, with him being one of the main movers behind the sacking of Ranieri, he now needs to step up and show something.

Wijnaldum (doubt)
Sturridge (doubt)
Leiva (doubt)
Lovren (doubt)
Ejaria (doubt)
Grujic (doubt)
Ings (out)
Brannagan (doubt)

The question is which Liverpool will turn up? When they play the bigger sides they are imperious and exciting. Against the smaller clubs, they stutter and struggle through games. So will they see last season's champs as a big scalp or a little team? The team have had two weeks to rest and recover, so a major problem could be ring rust, as they may be a little out of touch. There will certainly be no excuse for tiredness, which has been the excuse most often used with regard to Liverpool, with the media trying to put the blame for the bad form against the weaker teams down to exhaustion, rather than complacency.
Most important player: Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian forward sets the tone for Liverpool's performances with his pressing from the front. If he could add more goals to his game, then he would be the complete forward.

Defining Battle: this could well be decided in the stands, as the atmosphere could lift the Leicester players or be completely toxic to them. Ranieri was beloved by the fans, will they turn on the players who let him down?

Editors' Predictions:
Ed002 - 2-2
Ed003 - 1-3
Ed007 - 0-2

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