Tuesday, March 26, 2013

England are still incapable of controlling matches against inferior opponents. Why?

England again proved their inability to control an International match during a 1-1 World Cup qualification draw against Montenegro. England have also failed to beat Poland, Sweden and Ukraine in their recent run of fixtures and have often been dominated rather than dominating. Why do England struggle so much to control these games against supposedly inferior opponents?

England couldn't contain Montenegro, a country with a population one tenth
the viewing audience of Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway

1. Lack of Frank Lampard

Frank Lampard has only started one of the aforementioned games England have failed to win. He scored an 87th minute penalty to save England from a disastrous home defeat to Ukraine and won the Man of the Match award. He has also scored the winning goals in recent friendlies against Spain and Brazil and was influential during the victory over Italy at Wembley. He is the form midfielder in the Premier League and has 12 league goals to his name. That's two more league goals than the preferred England midfield trio of Gerrard, Carrick and Cleverley combined. Chelsea managers have lost their jobs in the past as a result of undervaluing Frank Lampard, and the boardroom decision not to offer him a contract extension still confuses the vast majority of football supporters. His experience in important and difficult matches, including European Cup finals would surely help England take control of these games that they are expected to win.

2. Fear

Fear has had an impact on every England team since quarter-final elimination at Euro 2004. Fabio Capello cited it as the reason his team failed to perform on so many occasions when playing home fixtures at Wembley. It is a combination of fear of getting lambasted in the national press and a fear of public backlash from fans who pay so much money on tickets and travel to support their country. They are also under heavy pressure to perform at the same level they do for their domestic clubs, which has continued to baffle International managers for over a decade. This expectation is heightened when England play what are regarded as lesser opposition, and the players appear unable to cope with the increased pressure.

3. Central Defensive Partnership

All great sides capable of dominating matches have had strong and settled partnerships at the centre of defence. The Arsenal side of the 90's had Adams and Bould, Mourninho's Chelsea had Terry and Carvahlo and European and World Cup winners Spain had Puyol and Pique, who have an understanding formed over many years at Barcelona. Terry and Ferdinand were England's last settled centre-half pairing, and that fell apart in the most spectacular and controversial of fashions. It is difficult to believe Roy Hodgson even knows who his best two defenders are after constant injury problems, let alone his most effective partnership. Lescott and Smalling performed well in the air against Montenegro, but struggled with distribution and lack the necessary composure to keep possession for any team hoping to stamp their authority on an International match.

4. Michael Carrick is scared

Michael Carrick has the unfortunate tendency to go missing in an England shirt. When playing for Manchester United, Carrick protects the back four and retains possession of the ball in equal measure, allowing his attacking team-mates to express themselves as he takes responsibility of many league games. Carrick has been found wanting in the past against International players of the highest calibre, as displayed in the 2009 Champions League final when he anchored a United midfield that was embarrassingly outclassed by Xavi and Iniesta. Carrick believed that he was worthy of a first team place for England, and continued to get overlooked by Fabio Capello which led to him withdrawing from International selection. It seems as though Michael Carrick is too concerned with not making a mistake to have any real impact for England, and his place as a passenger would surely be better filled by the consistent Frank Lampard or a fully fit Scott Parker.

5. Hodgson slow to react

Roy Hodgson has united the England camp and reinstalled a sense of national pride in the players. However, during the draw against Montenegro, he had the opportunity to make substitutions that would have eased the pressure on England and given them a better chance of extending their lead. After striker Dejan Damjanovic had been introduced by the home nation, Montenegro had a sustained period of pressure as the quality of Jovetic and Vucinic began to stretch the England defence. There was a looming sense that England were going to concede that everybody was aware of, except it would seem, Roy Hodgson. Leighton Baines could have been introduced on the left side of midfield, to inject some energy into a lethargic England side, whilst still providing protection for Ashley Cole should he wish to bomb forward. Teams are judged on their results, and victories come as a result of scoring goals. Danny Welbeck put in a great defensive performance, but as a goal for Montenegro looked increasingly inevitable, perhaps attack would have been the best form of defence. Jermain Defoe guarantees you a goal at any level, and should consider himself unfortunate not to have featured at all after his brace against San Marino on Friday. Ashley Young was introduced by the former West Bromwich Albion manager, but too late, and only as a retaliation to the equaliser Hodgson should have foreseen.

6. Are they really inferior opponents?

The final question; Are these teams really inferior to England? Despite being ranked 4th in the FIFA rankings, England haven't won a major trophy since 1966. They have been eliminated from recent tournaments by the likes of Brazil, Portugal, Croatia and Italy, and never seem capable of surpassing the quarter finals. Countries like Poland, Ukraine and Sweden all have squads littered with talented players, some with far greater technique and ability than several England regulars. Maybe a draw is a good result at hostile away venues such as Stadion Pod Goricom in Podgorica, Montenegro. All week, England fans have been told that defeat would be catastrophic. Defeat was narrowly avoided, so perhaps a point is all we should expect from England sides of the future. Maybe we have found our level.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Michael Owen Announces Retirement

Owen had frightening pace throughout his youth and burst onto
the scene with a spectacular solo goal against Argentina in 1998

Stoke City striker Michael Owen has announced that he is set to retire from football at the end of this season.

The former England International had an illustrious career spanning seventeen years at a series of glamorous clubs including Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United. More recent Premier League adventures have included Newcastle and currently Stoke City, who are destined to be his final club.

Owen will sadly be remembered for a career plagued by a series of injuries that never allowed him to fulfil his undoubted potential. He was touted by many as the most exciting England debutant ever and there is no doubt that he was the greatest English striker for several years. Ever since exploding onto the International scene with an infamous solo dribble and top corner finish against rivals Argentina in 1998, he was a permanent fixture up front for the Three Lions, earning 89 caps and scoring 40 goals, including a hat-trick against Germany in Munich.

Owen's fondest club memories will come from the eight year spell he spent at Liverpool. His record was exceptional, scoring 118 goals in just over 200 appearances after he had formed a successful forward partnership with Emile Heskey. Two of those goals were scored at the Millennium Stadium as his late brace earned Liverpool the 2001 FA Cup, the same year they won a treble including the League Cup and the Uefa Trophy.

Despite his history at Liverpool, Owen was talented enough to gain the support of Manchester United fans thanks to his first goal for the club, an injury time winner against bitter rivals Manchester City to secure a famous 4-3 away victory.

Few Englishmen have captured the hearts of the public in the same way as Michael Owen, so it is no surprise that today's news has been met with sadness by many. Tributes have flooded in on Twitter and from journalists across several national newspapers as they reminisce about watching Owen in action at his peak.

A statement confirming his retirement was released on his personal blog earlier this morning, which you can read here: http://www.michaelowen.com/

Expect more posts on Owen's official website later on this week, announcing his future ambitions. Many would love to see Michael Owen become a media pundit, but he is already a shrewd property developer and an expert on horse racing, so will have plenty of options as far as future career opportunities are concerned.

The very best of luck to him. Thanks for the memories.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Finally a goal for Nikica Jelavic as he bids to turn around wasted season

Jelavic has been dropped to the bench in recent weeks
due to poor form and a lack of goals.

Nikica Jelavic was the quickest player to reach 10 goals for Everton for a century. He scored vital goals against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United and became the first Croatian ever to win the Premier League Player of the Month award. He joined the Toffees in January for a relative bargain at £5m, and went on to become the club's top-goalscorer that same season, despite only featuring for half a campaign. It looked as though Moyes had finally found the final piece of his decade long jigsaw, in the shape of a striker that would score the 20+ goals needed for Everton to reach the next level.

However, under the weight of expectation, Jelavic has struggled hugely this season. Everton began well with some impressive attacking displays and goals were easy to come by as the Croatian netted 4 goals in the first six fixtures, including a brace on the opening day against Southampton. It looked as though Everton and Jelavic were all set to pick up from where they left off last season, but the striker's form rapidly declined. The goals dried up and his most baron spell in front of goal on Merseyside lasted for twelve league games and almost four months until he came on as a substitute to seal a 2-0 victory against Manchester City with a deflected finish in injury time.

The 836 minutes prior to that moment without a goal had a major effect on Jelavic's ability to lead the line for Everton as the drought began to affect his overall performance. David Moyes was left frustrated as his central striker was often put through on goal, only to produce a loose first touch or scuffed shot capable of making Fernando Torres look confident. Moyes was patient with Jelavic and clearly desperate for him to rediscover last season's prolific form, as it took seven games for the Scot to remove the forward from his starting line up. In recent weeks, Moyes has opted for Nigerian powerhouse Victor Anichebe to assume the role just in front of Marouane Fellaini. Anichebe is a target man whose game relies on hold-up play and ball retention, so his performances are rarely influenced by his ability to score goals.

It was Anichebe who made way for Jelavic against Manchester City as the Croatian raced clear in the 93rd minute to fire a shot past Joe Hart with the help of a deflection from Gael Clichy. Jelavic ripped his shirt off and ran to celebrate amongst the fans in the corner of Goodison Park. The ensuing yellow card won't have pleased his manager, but it was hard to begrudge the striker a passionate celebration after such a weight had been lifted. David Moyes will be hoping this is the goal needed to trigger several more as Everton begin their important run-in. Champions League football is still a serious possibility as they lie 4 points behind Chelsea in fourth place, and Jelavic will be influential if Everton are to have a successful end to their season.

Jelavic still needs two league goals to match last season's total. If he doesn't achieve a higher goals total during his first full season in England, it will have been a wasted season for the former Rangers star, showing his manager a distinct lack of progression. He is still Everton's major striking threat, and needs to start performing at a level that will take some of the goal scoring burden from team-mate Marouane Fellaini, who leads the statistics chart this season with 11. If Jelavic, Fellaini and Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas all remain at Goodison over the summer and stay fit throughout next season, Everton fans should have a great deal to look forward to providing David Moyes signs a new contract.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Barcelona should keep hold of David Villa

Barca celebrate their third goal;
Relief for Barcelona and David Villa.

Barcelona were 2-0 up against Milan, the scores were tied on aggregate and the next goal of a tricky Champions League encounter was surely going to decide which team progressed to the quarter finals. The ball fell to Xavi and his peripheral vision allowed him to slide a pass first time towards David Villa. The through ball committed Milan full-back Kevin Constant, and Villa's first touch swept the ball beyond the onrushing defender, leaving him in a heap on the ground before curling a deadly shot past Christian Abbiati and in to the far corner. Barca had breathing space, and it was thanks to Villa's prolific finishing ability.

The goal sparked mighty relief for David Villa, that much was clear from his celebration. It was the goal that re-announced the striker's return to form on the world stage after a devastating leg break that had kept him out of action for eight months. A snap to his tibia during a Club World Cup match in Yokohama meant he missed the entire 2011/12 season with Barcelona, and also Euro 2012, as the Spanish team continued their International dominance. After three consecutive La Liga titles with Villa fit and ever present, Barca surrendered top spot to Real Madrid during his injury plagued season, which looks to be far more than a coincidence. The striker, despite scoring against Real Sociedad on his return to competitive action, took some time to rediscover the form he was showing before that fateful injury, and there were even rumours that he might be sold in January to the likes of Arsenal or Manchester City.

The goal scoring exploits of Lionel Messi have rescued Barcelona in the absence of David Villa as the side continue to alternate their three forward players. Alexis Sanchez was signed from Udinese to try and ease the blow dealt by Villa's leg break, but the Chilean's first La Liga campaign was also mired with short-term injuries. His approach was seen as a little direct and it took some time before he was able to adapt to the pass and move philosophy of Barca, as Guardiola often used him as a central striker. However, the intelligence of Cesc Fabregas was sometimes preferred in a false number 9 role. Pedro has become an accomplished winger come striker and can operate on either wing for the Catalan side, but his goal threat and ratio are nowhere near the levels of his compatriot Villa.

Villa's left foot finish last night displayed that he has certainly not lost the killer ability to score goals. It is hard to stand out in a team that includes the record-breaking Lionel Messi, but this is a player who has won the European Championship Golden Boot, the World Cup and is Spain's all time top goalscorer. He has scored 53 goals in 86 appearances for his country, a ratio matched only by Alfredo Di Stefano. He was named the Spanish player of the year in 05/06 whilst playing for Valencia who finished third as he contributed 25 league goals.

Barcelona are on course to win the league title as they sit thirteen points ahead of Real Madrid and they are the strongest team left in the Uefa Champions League. If they are to claim a double, keeping David Villa fit is imperative. He showed his value to the team against Milan and his passion and work rate are hard to match. He has the ability to score important goals in important matches, which is exactly what Barca need during their challenging run in. To let him go would be a huge mistake. I bet they're glad they didn't in January.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Five Talking Points from Manchester United vs Chelsea

Eden Hazard celebrates his exquisite curler
with team-mate David Luiz

1. It has been a poor week for Manchester United.

Manchester United looked vengeful as Wayne Rooney's free-kick crept in to make it 2-0 inside the opening quarter of an hour. Sir Alex Ferguson had clearly told his team to go out and give a performance that would diminish the painful memories of defeat and Nani's red card on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, in an uncharacteristic second half display full of loose passing and a lack of urgency, Chelsea took advantage and scored twice to level the full-time result. United's inability to secure victory will have only provided more disappointment during a week their fans will want to forget.  

2. Mata, Oscar and Hazard should make up Chelsea's attacking midfield trio. 

Eden Hazard came off the bench to score a beautiful curling shot that kick started Chelsea's come back. After his introduction as a substitute, he showed better poise, balance and ball retention than Victor Moses had done throughout the entire first half. Juan Mata turned in another Man of the Match performance and is always guaranteed a starting spot, whilst Brazilian youngster Oscar has the ability to produce something unexpected that could win any match for his side. Victor Moses is still learning, and would be better utilised by Rafa Benitez as a late substitute, using his pace and direct running against defenders as they begin to tire. 

3. There is still doubt over Wayne Rooney's future at Old Trafford. 

Wayne Rooney was included in the starting line up to face Chelsea which would have gone some way towards easing his frustration at being left out of the Manchester United side that lost to Real Madrid. Ferguson picked the 11 players he thought were most capable of winning that tie, and they didn't include the English centre forward. His free kick found the far corner to double United's lead as things began to improve for the striker. However, as Chelsea's influence on the game grew, Van Persie was introduced and Rooney found himself moved to the left hand side of midfield. Sir Alex deployed Shinji Kagawa in the role behind Van Persie as he searched for the winner. There is still confusion surrounding the striker's importance to the club, as well as the relationship he has with his manager. 

4. Chelsea look like conceding in the absence of John Terry. 

Rafael Benitez is famous for his rotation policy, and John Terry was again left out of the Spaniard's first eleven. He opted for a partnership of David Luiz and Gary Cahill, with the former England captain having to settle for a place amongst the substitutes alongside Branislav Ivanovic. The absence of the club captain quickly had an influence on proceedings at Old Trafford as Michael Carrick's lofted through ball sailed over the head of Cahill and was headed in brilliantly by Javier Hernandez. Wayne Rooney curled in a free kick shortly afterwards that evaded the whole Chelsea back four and found its way into the back of the net. David Luiz missed a header in the scramble whilst under pressure from Jonny Evans, the type of header John Terry has dealt with in the past on numerous occasions. Chelsea have always relied heavily on leadership and since Didier Drogba has left and Frank Lampard is unlikely to be offered a contract extension, it is important that Terry plays in order to communicate and organise.

5. It was a refreshing Semi Final cup draw. 

Manchester City defeated Barnsley largely thanks to a Carlos Tevez hat-trick, but Roberto Mancini won't be pleased with his team's semi final draw. They will face the winner of the United Chelsea replay in a tie that promises to eliminate one of the strongest sides in the country, and could produce a Manchester derby semi final at Wembley, just as occurred in 2011. Wigan have been rewarded for their exceptional performance at Everton with an away fixture at lower league opposition, albeit in the tricky form of Blackburn or Millwall. Neutrals will be looking forward to a cup final that isn't contested by two of the top six teams in the Premier League. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ashley Williams to Arsenal as Wenger Loses Faith in Defence?

Could Swansea centre-half Ashley Williams
be about to join Theo Walcott at The Emirates?

Arsenal find themselves out of every domestic cup competition, languishing behind bitter rivals Tottenham in the Premier League and unlikely to progress in Europe. This tournament capitulation is an all too familiar sight for fans of the Gunners as they look set to record their seventh year without a trophy. The team have performed well up front all season, as the attacking trio of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and the vastly improved Theo Walcott have contributed 45 goals between them.

The problem for Arsenal lies in defence. This was evidently clear during the most recent North London derby as a pacey Tottenham team took advantage of an unnecessarily high defensive line to record a 2-1 victory. Steve Bould has been drafted in as Arsene Wenger's number 2 but his influence is far from evident as the team continue to concede preventable goals in important fixtures. The departure of Alex Song to Barcelona has had a clear effect on the back four as they lack protection from a midfield littered with playmakers. Mikel Arteta plays a deeper role due to his age and experience, but he lacks the aggression and tackling ability of a natural midfield enforcer.

The lack of protection from midfield does not disguise the fact Arsene Wenger has struggled in the transfer market when it comes to defensive signings.

Per Mertesacker: £8m from Werder Bremen.

The Frenchman went against his stance on low transfer fees to secure the arrival of German International Per Mertesacker for a fee believed to be in the region of £8million. The defender is yet to display the ability that has earned him 86 caps for his country and often appears out of his depth against quick and agile opponents, such as Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale, as demonstrated last Sunday. At 6 foot 6 inches, he is of similar height to Christopher Samba, who many consider a faster defender of more muscular build, with previous experience of the Premier League. The decision to ignore the Congolese defender's availability in January is one that has puzzled fans, journalists and  ex-players as he was widely recommended as the perfect remedy to Arsenal's defensive headache.

Thomas Vermaelen: £11m from Ajax.

Vermaelen was the first of Wenger's latest defensive editions. Arsenal looked to rebuild after losing Kolo Toure and William Gallas and the Belgiun was purchased after some time on the Premier League radar. He had shown huge potential at Ajax as an exciting young player who could play in the centre or at full back, often operating on left for Belgium alongside Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany. Vermaelen caught they eye during his first season in England, but it was often for his goal scoring exploits or eagerness to join in and attack. The jury are still out on his defensive abilities and there is a worry at Arsenal that Wenger's decision to hand him the captaincy has made him undroppable. The arrival of compatriot Jan Vertonghen at neighbours Tottenham has done little to help the defender's cause, as Andre Villas-Boas appears to have made one of the signings of the season. 

Laurent Koscielny: £10m from Lorient.

Laurent Koscielny was bought by Wenger to add height to his squad and increase defensive options during the same transfer window Phillipe Senderos left for Fulham and Sol Campbell retired. Wenger returned to the French transfer market he studies so extensively to complete this deal, but several eyebrows were raised after Koscielny was sent off on his competitive debut for the club against Liverpool. However, a string of impressive Champions League performances endeared him to the Emirates crowd, especially against Barcelona where he was in inspired form and helped his team to an unlikely 2-1 first leg win. He has struggled to get a regular starting spot in the Arsenal back four this season which comes as a surprise considering he signed a new 5-year-contract at the beginning of the year. Arsenal look a much stronger side when he plays. 

Koscielny starting regularly would improve
the understanding of Arsenal's back four.

Andre Santos: £5.9m from Fenerbache.

The signing of Brazilian left back Andre Santos is one Arsene Wenger will want to forget. The 29-year-old moved to London in 2011 and was supposed to add depth to the squad due to his versatility and ability to play on the left hand side of midfield. Having originally deputised well for the injured Kieran Gibbs, he sustained a 3 month injury that prompted a huge dip in form that concluded with a dire first half performance against Manchester United. Santos was substituted at half time for playing so poorly, and also offered to swap shirts with United striker Robin Van Persie who had recently left Arsenal on bad terms, after his decision to reject a new contract and join the Red Devils. This angered Arsenal fans to such a degree that his future at the club was called into question, and a subsequent loan move to his home town team Gremio materialised. Arsenal still pay his wages, and he is yet to make an appearance for the Porto Alegre club. The only thing he is likely to be remembered for is a speeding ticket for travelling at 127mph in his Maserati through the streets of London. 

Nacho Monreal: £8.3m from Malaga. 

Spanish International Nacho Monreal was signed as a replacement for Andre Santos. With Kieran Gibbs still out injured, Monreal is expected to cement his position as first choice left back. At 27, he is far from one for the future and Arsene Wenger will be hoping he can get to grips with English football as soon as possible. His positional play looked suspect during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Spurs and he will be hoping to perform better in upcoming fixtures. Arsenal's success depends hugely on deciding a settled back four, giving them time to gel and develop an understanding. You cannot underestimate consistency, and Arsene Wenger needs to put faith in four players rather than his entire squad, or his side will continue to frustrate and disappoint. 

Arsenal are desperate for a leader and
Williams is the captain of his country.

Today's transfer rumours say that the latest candidate to sure up Arsenal's defence is Swansea captain Ashley Williams. It would be a different approach in transfer policy for the Gunners as Williams has only ever played for Hednesford, Stockport and Swansea. He is strong in the tackle, quick across the ground and is confident when starting moves from the back, a trait vital to the success of Swansea's eye-catching and superb league campaign. Williams is also captain of Wales and could be the leader Arsenal have desperately lacked for several seasons. There is no doubt he should fetch a more modest price than some of the aforementioned signings and would fit seamlessly alongisde Laurent Koscielny or Thomas Vermaelen. He would surely improve Arsenal's defence, it just depends on whether Wenger is prepared to gamble on a signing that could be considered unfashionable. 

£43.2m has been spent on the aforementioned defenders. Arsenal are a club that like to pride themselves on good business strategy, but spending such an excessive amount on five players with no sign of a title-challenging back four is a poor return for Arsene Wenger's investments. Gone are the days when he was able to attract quality players such as Lauren, Sylvinho and Gael Clichy for minuscule transfer sums and utilise them to the best of their abilities. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Premier League Preview

After this weekend's Premier League fixtures have run their course, there will be 10 games left of the current season. Manchester United hold a 12 point lead at the top of the division and look increasingly likely to secure their 13th Premier League title since its creation in 1993. If they do see out the rest of this season with the level of ruthlessness and professionalism we have come to expect from Sir Alex Ferguson's team, it will also be the 13th domestic league trophy of Ryan Giggs's evergreen career, after the Welshman signed a new contract to play beyond his 40th birthday.

Sir Alex Ferguson has offered Ryan Giggs a further contract extension.
Why won't Chelsea do the same with Frank Lampard?

Chelsea vs. West Brom

Rafa Benitez will be eager to record a positive result this weekend after his well documented outburst on Wednesday night. The previous two Chelsea managers have been sacked after matches against WBA, Benitez will be hoping he doesn't continue the trend. Steve Clarke, manager of West Brom is fondly remembered at Stamford Bridge for his time there as Jose Mourninho's number two, and is likely to receive the better reception of the two managers. West Brom are a difficult side to beat, but with their main goal threat Romelu Lukaku unable to play against his parent club Chelsea, the Blues should earn a narrow victory, especially if Demba Ba is preferred to Fernando Torres up front.

Everton vs. Reading

These are two teams with a lot to play for. Everton are pushing for European football as they are currently the 'best of the rest' in sixth place, five points behind Arsenal. Reading are second from bottom, 1 point adrift and will consider any points at Goodison Park a great result. Everton would usually be too strong for the Royals, but have already been in action this week after a cup replay against Oldham. Tiredness will play a part, especially when combined with Reading's desperation to survive. A score draw is the most likely outcome.

Manchester United vs. Norwich

With title rivals Manchester City not in action until Monday night, United will be hoping to put even more daylight between the two sides with a home tie against Norwich on Saturday afternoon. Ferguson is likely to have one eye on his team's second leg Champions League tie against Real Madrid so several first team players will be rested. Norwich are coming into the fixture after a dramatic 2-1 victory against Everton and have been lifted by the arrival of Kansas City striker Kei Kamara. This won't bother United, and a comfortable home victory is the only foreseeable result.

Southampton vs. QPR

Southampton continue to look impressive under new manager Mauricio Pochettino with their high intensity style of football, based entirely on pressing the opposition. Queens Park Rangers are a team with players such as Adel Taarabt and Esteban Granero who like to have time and space on the ball, which they won't be afforded against this rejuvenated Saints side. Bobby Zamora is injured for the away team, so Harry Redknapp, on his unwelcome return to St Mary's is likely to select Loic Remy from the start. There will be an intimidating atmosphere on the South Coast that will inspire Southampton to a comfortable home win.

Stoke vs West Ham

Stoke have been inconsistent this season but sit several places above the Hammers in the Premier League table. Both sides have enough quality to beat the drop, especially if Sam Allardyce continues to get the best out of January acquisitions Andy Carroll and Joe Cole. A gritty draw can be expected, as has been the case all too often at the Britannia Stadium this year.

Sunderland vs. Fulham

Sunderland have been hugely disappointing this year and Martin O'Neill will be worried that his side are not yet clear of relegation. A win against Fulham today however will see them move level on points with Martin Jol's team. Fulham have struggled away from home, ever since they gained promotion to the Premier League, but striker Dimitar Berbatov showed the kind of quality last week that could separate the two sides at The Stadium of Light. Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher are due to start up front together for the Black Cats, and one of them is likely to score the winning goal to grant Sunderland a hard earned 3 points.

Swansea vs. Newcastle

The most attractive fixture of this weekend's Premier League is also the most difficult to predict. Swansea are fresh from the first major trophy win in their history and Newcastle's string of French signings have been performing exceptionally well. Swansea play patient, possession based football, whilst Newcastle's tactics rely on pace and power on the counter-attack. It promises to be an exciting encounter, and one which relies heavily on the performance of two strikers, Swansea's Michu and Papiss Cisse of Newcastle United. Both could score in a probable high-scoring draw.

Wigan vs. Liverpool

Wigan Athletic love this time of season. They often struggle through the opening two thirds of a campaign, before hitting title-winning form around this point each year. It has become something of a habit for Roberto Martinez's side, and with striker Arouna Kone in prolific form, any result is possible against Liverpool at the DW Stadium. Liverpool's Luis Suarez is one of the favourites to receive the player of the season award and is likely to have a heavy influence on the result of this game. A flattering away win for the Reds is predicted, after a tightly contested fixture against the Latics.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal

Football fans will be relishing this tie, as the North London derby is often controversial and nearly always a great spectacle. Long gone are the days when the Gunners would regularly cast Spurs aside with the electrifying performances of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Tottenham are now the stronger of the two teams and find themselves in third place, thanks largely to the form of Gareth Bale, who continues to draw comparisons with some of the world's best players. This fixture is never straight forward, but Tottenham will be confident and I expect them to record a professional victory as Andre Villas-Boas continues his impressive spell in charge out of the spotlight.

Aston Villa vs. Manchester City

Aston Villa sit third from bottom of the Premier League table and have been relegation favourites all season. Paul Lambert has failed to perform in the same way that persuaded Villa owner Randy Lerner to offer him the job in the first place. The Midlands club are relying heavily on the goals of Belgium striker Christian Benteke during their bid for survival, but Manchester City are bound to be far too strong with both Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez in goalscoring form and captain Vincent Kompany likely to return from injury.