BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
As we head into round two of the Barclays Premier League, I preview and predict the weekend’s matches.
Arsenal vs. Fulham
The alarm bells were ringing after Arsenal’s 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. Arsene Wenger is under intense scrutiny, especially in regards to the club’s transfer policy. Clearly more depth and quality is needed, and after sealing their place in the Champions League group stages with a dominant away win at Fenerbahce, fans will hope that for once, Wenger will back his words with actions.
The good news for the Gunners is that other than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s horrible injury, all the other players who had ailments have recovered and are ready to go on Saturday morning. Laurent Koscielny is suspended, probably resulting in Bacary Sagna pairing Per Mertesacker in the centre of defence, with Carl Jenkinson starting as right back.
Martin Jol will certainly hope that Dimitar Berbatov can expose Sagna’s weakness in the air. Darrent Bent will likely also be given his first start for the Cottagers, and Jol will probably also give Scott Parker a debut, as the English midfielder’s physicality will come in handy to combat Arsenal’s ball playing midfielders.
Prediction: Fulham started the season with a rare win away to Sunderland, scoring from their only shot on goal. Berbatov and Bent will be called on to show the same efficiency against an Arsenal side that will certainly dominate possession, and should have enough to beat Fulham barring any fatigue issues from their long trip back from Turkey on Thursday.
Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion
Roberto Martinez immediately won over the Everton faithful, with an opening display characterized by fluent passing and possession away to Norwich. Nonetheless, Martinez knows that at Goodison Park the only currency that matters is wins. Sylvain Distin is an injury doubt, so Jonny Heitinga could slot in next to Phil Jagielka or Martinez might give us the first glimpse of his tactical flexibility by playing three at the back. Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman were the Toffee’s stars on the opening day, and they will be expected to shine in front of a passionate home crowd.
West Brom on the other hand put in a really timid display at home, and at this nascent stage it already seems like ending 13th or 14th would be respectable for Steve Clarke’s side this campaign, let alone their eight place finish last season. Romelu Lukaku’s goals were always going to be missed, but the compassionate leave and possible retirement of Nicolas Anelka just one game into the season is a hammer blow for the Baggies. Scott Sinclair’s arrival on loan will appease the fans slightly, but shouldn’t be enough to trouble Everton.
Prediction: Everton have an excellent record against West Brom at home, furthermore the Baggies were a rare team that Martinez always got the better of as manager of Wigan. There is nothing to suggest both trends won’t continue on Saturday.
Hull vs. Norwich
The rebranded Hull City Tigers put on a lambs display at Stamford Bridge to begin their campaign after promotion to the Premier League. There are clearly issues up front, but at least Tom Huddleston and Jake Livermore provide solidity and some possession in midfield, but most crucially a good screen in front of the defence.
While it’s already evident that Steve Bruce’s survival policy is going to be based on keeping the ‘goals against’ column down to a minimum, Norwich are focused on boosting the ‘goals for’ tally. Ricky van Wolfswinkel scored with his only chance on debut, and Johan Elmander was signed on Thursday to further boost the attack. Nathan Redmond excited the Canaries fans with his display of pace and trickery against Everton, ensuring Norwich head into the weekend with confidence.
Prediction: The first home game for a newly promoted team usually guarantees a display of passion and fervour, but once it settles down Norwich have the defensive nous and added firepower to leave the KC stadium with a smash and grab win.
Newcastle vs. West Ham
Newcastle’s season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start than the 4-0 hammering received by them at the Etihad courtesy of Manchester City. To compound woes from a horrible summer off the field, Yohan Cabaye’s head has been turned by Arsenal’s offer for the Frenchman, while Jonas Gutierrez and Steven Taylor are out due to injury and suspension respectively.
West Ham started the season with an extremely comfortable victory over Cardiff, and the team could be further boosted by new signings Stewart Downing and Razvan Rat expected to be in the line-up. Kevin Nolan returns to St. James Park still adored by many of the faithful, but it is Mohammed Diame, Joe Cole and Mark Noble who will provide the Hammers with control against the home midfield shorn of Cabaye and Tiote.
Prediction: It’s going to be interesting to see how the Geordie faithful receive the Magpies for the home opener, with so much negativity permeating around Newcastle. Sam Allardyce always comes to St. James Park with a point to prove after his unfair sacking, and West Ham might just make their boss a happy camper with a close win.
Southampton vs. Sunderland
Southampton got their season to a great start with an away win at the Hawthorns. The most encouraging aspect of the match for Saints fans was the fact that the best performers on the day – Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse are all still teenagers. Add in to the mix, the remarkable signing of Italian international Dani Osvaldo, and the Saints are clearly on an upward curve.
Paolo Di Canio was a little unfortunate that Sunderland came away with nothing after dominating Fulham on the opening day at the Stadium of Light. New signing Cabral ran the show from midfield, yet they failed to really challenge the goalkeeper. Di Canio will hope Jozy Altidore opens his goal tally sooner rather than later, and will also Emanuele Giaccherini to settle quickly after arriving with much hype.
Prediction: It’s a tough game to call, as both managers are good at motivating their players. The midfield battle will be key, and I give the Saints a slight edge as Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing philosophy should prevail against the Black Cats more direct approach.
Stoke vs. Crystal Palace
This won’t be the best game to watch for neutrals. Both teams struggled creatively in their opening fixtures, and unless some additions are made to their squads, the odds are pretty good on Stoke and Crystal Palace being amongst the lower scorers in the league.
Palace in particular have no attacking threat of repute, unless Ian Holloway hedges all his bets on an out of form Marouane Chamakh and an almost 40-year-old Kevin Phillips. Crystal Palace would be better served going for the jugular from midfield, by playing Jose Campana and Jonny Williams ahead of the impressive defensive midfield duo of Miles Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi.
Stoke aren’t going to change their style overnight under Mark Hughes, and until some new signings arrive the manager would be better off utilizing the inbuilt threat of the attackers in the team. Even teams with finesse like Liverpool and Tottenham took advantage of lumping it to Peter Crouch, and the former English international remains the Potters best bet for goals in the current squad.
Prediction: Crystal Palace just don’t seem to be a side that are going to get much success away from home, while the faithful at the Britannia will give Mark Hughes their backing at least in the early part of the season. Stoke to start their home campaign with a win.
Aston Villa vs. Liverpool
Fans of the Villains can be extremely proud of their team, after two fantastic displays away to London’s finest. The opening day victory against Arsenal was followed up by an excellent display at Stamford Bridge, where they probably would have ended up getting at least a point were it not for the referee making some shocking decisions in favour of Chelsea.
Villa’s front three of Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor are going to make life miserable for many defences in the league with their combination of pace, physicality, intelligence of movement and lethal finishing. Paul Lambert will also have noticed Simon Mignolet’s shaky display when coming for crosses, and for a team built on using the wings on the counter; it is a weakness they will be looking to exploit.
Liverpool started their season with a win against Stoke that should have been made more comfortable but for their woeful finishing. Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas interchanged beautifully, and Brendan Rodgers will look to the trio to cause Villa’s defence problems, especially the vulnerable left patrolled by Ciaran Clark and Antonio Luna.
Prediction: I am going for a draw over here, as Liverpool are unlikely to be as dominant at Villa Park as they were at Anfield, while Villa’s youngsters will find it hard to sustain their energy for their third difficult game in the space of a week.
Cardiff vs. Manchester City
Despite winning the Championship last season, Cardiff clearly looked the worst of the three promoted teams on the opening weekend. They looked completely devoid of ideas in attack, and the most worrying aspect for the Bluebirds was that players such as Craig Bellamy and Peter Whittingham froze despite having Premier League experience. Malky Mackay will hope his team put in a better display in front of a passionate home crowd, as the capital of Wales welcomes Premier League football.
Mauricio Pellegrini had a dream start to his managerial career in England, as Manchester City simply blew away Newcastle at the Etihad. Fernandinho and Yaya Toure struck up an immediate understanding, while David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero constructed some beautiful moves in the attacking third. Vincent Kompany’s injury was a major blow however, and though some reports say Matija Nastasic is ready to make a return, Pellegrini might be better off playing three at the back in a match where City are likely to dominate possession.
Prediction: The chasm in quality between the two squads is huge, and it won’t be bridged on a momentous day for fans in Cardiff. City to win, but I am still expecting Cardiff to provide a stiff test in front of their fans, and possibly even nick a goal.
Tottenham vs. Swansea
Spurs have single-handedly been selling the tabloids over the last three days, as Gareth Bale’s sale to Real Madrid has been reignited, in addition to a raft of players being linked with moves to White Hart Lane. Nonetheless, on the field Spurs have a good week starting with a crucial away victory at Selhurst Park and following up with a ruthless demolition to seal their place in the Europa League group stages.
Tottenham were a bit guilty of being over-reliant on the wings, and Andre Villas-Boas will hope for a little more penetration from his central trio of Mousa Dembele, Paulinho and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Aaron Lennon is an injury doubt, but the motivated Andros Townsend, who put in a superb penetrative display against Dinamo Tbilisi, could conceivably better serve Spurs.
Like their opponents, Swansea also scored five goals in Europe, and the Welsh side will look to improve on their opening day defeat to Manchester United, a 4-1 score rather harsh on Michael Laudrup’s men. Swansea’s attacking play seems to be clicking into gear, and the Swans will also be more penetrative with Pablo Hernandez in the side – the Spaniard’s intelligent runs and slide rule passes creating better chances for Michu and Wilfried Bony.
Prediction: There usually is a surprise result every weekend in the Premier League, and while the opening day result might suggest a comfortable Spurs victory, I believe the two midfields will cancel each other out in a stalemate.