Written by Rhys Paul
Nine weeks into the 2016/17 Premier League season and the table is beginning to take shape. There is still a long way to go, but things are already falling into place for some teams. For others, the picture is looking increasingly bleak. West Ham’s victory over Crystal Palace last Saturday was proof that three points at this stage of the season can still go a long way, but the fact they remain only one point off the drop zone highlights the fact that we are no longer in the ‘honeymoon’ period of the new season. Desperation has already kicked in for some sides, yet some have finally settled into a rhythm – or at least appear to have done. With that in mind, this week’s set of fixtures is arguably the most predictable yet. Obviously, the beauty of the sport is that things are never quite as straight forward as that.
Bournemouth and Tottenham kick-off this week’s action. Mauricio Pochettino’s men will be looking to secure the three points after being overtaken by North London rivals, Arsenal following last week’s 1-1 draw with West Brom. Bournemouth will be full of confidence and the home crowd will still be buoyed by the 6-1 demolition of Hull last time out. It should be an intriguing clash, but with Bournemouth doing more than enough to keep their heads above water and Tottenham hoping to challenge for the title, it is the away side who need the points more. Second-placed Arsenal host Middlesbrough in a game that could have ramifications at both ends of the table. Manchester City will hope to end a winless run of four straight games at home to Southampton on Sunday, especially with an in-form Arsenal breathing down their neck.
Liverpool host West Brom in Saturday’s 5.30 pm kick-off. Both teams enter the game on the back of two very differing draws. Chelsea and Manchester United will hope to rekindle some of their former glory as they headline Super Sunday. Everton will be hoping their Liverpudlian neighbours and Antonio Conte’s men drop points, but they will need to take full advantage with a win at Turf Moor. Wrong decisions have cost Burnley, but that does not disguise the fact that they are slipping down the table, so any points will be welcomed. Crystal Palace travel to Leicester with both teams hoping to bounce back from defeats last weekend.
At the other end of the table, West Ham and Stoke will be looking to push on after registering morale-boosting victories last weekend. Their respective opponents, Sunderland and Hull are in a precarious position. The former remain winless in the league, whilst the latter need to respond to their 6-1 drubbing at Bournemouth to prevent a bright start to season going to waste. Swansea find themselves second-from-bottom, winless in seven and having to adjust to life under Bob Bradley. Arsenal might have been a tough initiation for the American, but Watford will certainly be no pushovers and the Hornets will be expected to punish a team in transition.
Of those games, these are the three you should keep a particular eye on:
credit Kieran Clarke
Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough (Saturday, 3pm)
As noted before, there are some fixtures where the result just seems predictable. Therefore, Arsenal (who have won seven on the spin) taking on Middlesbrough (who haven’t won since the second week of the season) has all the hallmarks of an Arsenal victory.
Fresh off a 6-0 demolition of Bulgarian Champions, Ludogorets, there is no reason why Arsene Wenger’s men cannot take full advantage and register a big win at home to Boro. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are world class players who are currently in top form. That is a very dangerous combination to possess and when you factor in an in-form Theo Walcott into that equation, I am sure most defences in the league would pass up the opportunity to try and hold them to a clean sheet this weekend. They are currently only second on goal difference, so this should be viewed as a chance to better the goal difference of an out-of-sorts Man City. I am not entirely convinced by their defence, but their attacking prowess – especially one in this form – is capable of out-scoring the majority of teams in the division.
George Friend recently said that is was the thought of trips to stadiums like the Emirates that inspired Boro’s promotion last season. There is no denying that teams find an extra gear when competing against the ‘big’ teams and Boro will make life as difficult as they can for the Gunners. They seemed to make a good start to the season, but in hindsight they have picked up results against struggling teams and came away with nothing from the other games. Worryingly they seem unable to score more than one goal per game (they have only scored more against Sunderland – coincidentally the only game they’ve won) and that does not bode well for them against Arsenal.
Predictions: Arsenal win (3-1)
Hull City vs. Stoke City (Saturday, 3pm)
Hull’s start to the season was one that few, even the most optimistic of Hull supporters, expected. Unfortunately, it appears to be shaping up to be the season-long relegation battle that many – including myself – forecast. Four consecutive defeats isn’t good for any club and it is made even worse by the fact they have shipped 17 goals in the process. Confidence will have hit a new low following last week’s nightmare performance against a Bournemouth side they really should be taking points from if they want to survive comfortably. They have the worst defensive record in the league and goals aren’t exactly a luxury at the moment, either. However, they could use last week’s result in a similar way to Stoke’s defeat to Palace meaning that they will be looking to steady the ship this weekend and things can’t exactly get much worse.
In contrast, Stoke have spent the majority of their season so far in the relegation zone, something that I have been particularly disappointed with as I believe they are capable of challenging for Europe. The 4-1 defeat to Crystal Palace seemed to be the turning point with Mark Hughes’ men reassessing and subsequently embarking on an three-game undefeated run. Sunderland were the ideal opponents for them to register their first win and so it proved. There is no reason why Stoke shouldn’t approach the game against Hull in the same manner. Another three points would take them above their opponents and it might finally help the side achieve some consistency to their game.
Joe Allen has been playing out of his skin since his move from Anfield, but can he do the unthinkable and score for the fourth consecutive time? Both sides have defensive concerns and, given their respective goal differences, that suggests goals – something I believe plays into Stoke’s favour more than Hull’s. It’s not all bad for Hull, however, as captain Michael Dawson is expected to return from injury.
It really is a game between two sides whose fortunes appear to be crossing and the result could continue Stoke’s upward trajectory whilst accelerating Hull’s downward spiral.
Prediction: Stoke win (2-0)
credit Jason Bagley
Chelsea vs. Manchester United (Sunday, 4pm – Sky Sports 1)
It wasn’t long ago when a Super Sunday headlined by Chelsea and Man United excited neutrals like myself. These days, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t quite generate the same level of excitement that it once did. Nevertheless, the latest chapter has several underlying sub-plots that have the potential to make the contest particularly intriguing.
The biggest is arguably Jose Mourinho’s first return to Stamford Bridge since his unceremonious and calamitous departure. Mourinho is not the only one lining up against a familiar face as Paul Pogba lines up against his former Juventus manager, Antonio Conte. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s indifferent form has coincided with United’s ongoing slump and their record against Chelsea hardly inspires confidence of that changing anytime soon. They managed to shut-out Liverpool in one of the most tedious games I have seen contested between the two rivals, so here is hoping we don’t see a repeat against Chelsea.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s potential return might help United find another attacking element to their play, but it is still hard to look past Eden Hazard and Diego Costa given the current form of the two sides. At the moment, neither look capable of mounting a sustained push on the title and the top four looks a more realistic prospect. United need to start winning again soon, especially as the teams above all have winnable games this weekend. I was surprised how negative they were against Liverpool given the history between the two sides, but the incentive to win this game is probably greater at a personal level for Mourinho.
Prediction: United win (1-2)
Is there a game that should have been selected? What are your predictions for these games? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by Kieran Clarke