It’s a set of fixtures that is headlined in Manchester. The red side of Manchester will be desperate to right the wrongs of just a few days ago.
Game of the week
Manchester United vs Manchester City: Saturday 17.30, Old Trafford (Sky Sports)
It’s difficult to fathom how Manchester United came away with a 3-1 victory in their match against West Ham United. The Red Devils should have been two or three goals down at half-time, looking well off the pace. However, three superb finishes from Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford completely turned the game on its head.
Critics are still vocal about United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer because of the unconvincing nature of performances. The win against West Ham was symptomatic of their season. A bit flat, a bit uninspiring but, out of nothing, the players on the field quickly remind you of their quality. How many people saw the brilliant Champions League performances against Paris Saint Germain and RB Leipzig coming? Not many.
But then those matches counted for little in the end after United’s embarrassing collapse in their second match against Leipzig, on Tuesday night, denying them a place in the Champions League knockout stages.
Manchester City haven’t had an easy ride this season. In only their second Premier League match of the season, they were annihilated 5-2 by Leicester City at the Etihad. Players were struggling with the adjustment to the new campaign after a shortened pre-season following their exertions in Europe. Some would argue that Pep Guardiola’s men have yet to break into their stride but recent performances have illustrated that their former greatness is only around the corner.
The signing of Ruben Dias has made a tremendous impact on their defence. Dias is very comfortable on the ball but he is also an excellent defender. He might not possess the leadership qualities of former captain Vincent Kompany but he certainly makes up for his absence in a technical and defensive sense.
United should welcome Fred back to a midfield that seriously lacked legs against Leipzig. Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay are practically doppelgangers and their lack of mobility was a joy for their opponents in the middle of the park. Solskjaer will also be inclined to ditch the back-three after its horror show in Germany; the Red Devils performed better in a four with an extra man in midfield.
One valid criticism of Man City has been a lack of cutting edge. Raheem Sterling is the top goalscorer with six goals but only three of those were in the Premier League. They have missed the ruthlessness of Sergio Aguero. But, as they steadily improve their level of performance, it’s tough to see them slipping up against this topsy turvy United team.
Leeds United vs West Ham United: Elland Road, 20.00 (Sky Sports)
Leeds United are a wonderfully entertaining team. They play high-risk football for high-reward. Last week, their defeat against Chelsea was the first time that they have been defeated after taking the lead under Marcelo Bielsa. That fact illustrates a strong game management from a team that simply loves to attack.
West Ham will wonder how they didn’t continue their three-match winning run against Man United. They were dominant in the opening 45 minutes. The outcome might have been different if Michail Antonio had been leading the line instead of the disappointing Sebastian Haller. Haller was brilliant in a 4-4-2 for Eintracht Frankfurt but he now looks low on confidence.
David Moyes’ men had been punching above their weight a little bit. They were in and around the Champions League positions! Last week’s defeat was a bit of a reality check and they could be set for another one in Yorkshire. Leeds are a tough customer and Patrick Bamford is in the form of his life.
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Aston Villa: Molineux, 12.30 (BT Sport)
It was slightly surprising to witness the humbling of Wolverhampton Wanderers at Anfield. Injury-hit Liverpool took them to the cleaners. Nuno Espirito Santo has shifted from their traditional back-three into a back-four and, while the change has allowed them to be more flexible going forward, it left them looking horribly disjointed at the back on Sunday.
Aston Villa were the subject of a coronavirus inspired fixture cancellation, last Friday. While the players would no doubt welcome that extended rest, it will be interesting to see where the Premier League decide to put the rescheduled fixture.
The loss of Raul Jimenez is huge. He scored the majority of Wolves’ goals and he acted as a focal point for the team. Fabio Silva is a like-for-like replacement but the youngster is still adapting to life in England. As a result, Nuno may go without a recognised centre forward again. It will be tough for Wanderers without their marvellous Mexican.
Newcastle United vs West Bromwich Albion: St James’ Park, 15.00 (Sky Sports)
Newcastle United look set to return to action after their postponed match against Aston Villa. Newcastle’s training ground had become a Covid-19 hotspot and the squad had been unable to use their facilities as a result. In such a crammed together season, Steve Bruce and his players might actually benefit in the short-term from having a little rest.
West Bromwich Albion fell from the heavens with a serious bang. After winning their first match of the season against Sheffield United, the Baggies were hammered 5-1 at home by fellow strugglers Crystal Palace. Palace hadn’t found the net in three of their last four matches. You get the sense that West Brom put in a lot of work and effort for Slaven Bilic but every game is a serious challenge for them. The team simply collapsed after the dismissal of Matheus Pereira.
Albion are particularly good at being resilient when they tackle the bigger teams. They were unfortunate not to come away with a point against Tottenham Hotspur or Man United. But they are in a quandary when they have to beat the teams around them. The only reason they were able to beat Sheffield United was because the finishing of their opponents was abject.
Newcastle, under Bruce, are not particularly pretty and fan frustration is understandable. They have played poorly on many occasions and have somehow been finding draws and victories from these games. However, the style does work if you simply want to fend off the threat of relegation. This match is one match in which they will expect to grind out a victory.
Everton vs Chelsea: Goodison Park, 20.00 (BT Sport)
Everton were mounting an early claim for a Champions League spot. Unfortunately for them, injuries to key players are derailing their aspirations. They were unfortunate not to claim all three points at Burnley, last weekend, but it was still a performance that was lacking in conviction.
Chelsea are in dreamland. They took Leeds apart at Stamford Bridge and, given his techy relationship with Bielsa, Frank Lampard will have enjoyed that. The Blues are finding momentum at a good time because the fixtures come thick and fast around the Christmas period. On Tuesday, he was also able to rest the majority of his key men in the 1-1 draw against Krasnodar.
The goals are starting to flow from Chelsea and it’s tough to see Everton halting their momentum. Of course, the Toffees have goals in their team as well but, without Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne, their attacking play is much less dangerous.
Southampton vs Sheffield United, St Mary’s, 12.00 (Sky Sports)
Southampton are a great team. Their response to losing against Man United was first-class, coming from behind to overturn their big rivals, Brighton & Hove Albion. They have trundled along nicely in the absence of their star-man, Danny Ings, and now the former Liverpool forward is fit once again. Opponents beware!
Sheffield United are on course to mimic that infamous Derby County team of the 2007-08 season, who were relegated after amassing just 11 points all season. Quite simply, United are no longer a formidable defensive unit and goals are proving hard to come by. The reluctance to give a run of starts to £25-million man Rhian Brewster is somewhat perplexing; the man brought in to score the goals is having to make do with appearances off the bench.
Since the international break, the Blades have had three good opportunities to add to their points tally and they have bottled each one. Home matches against West Ham and Leicester are never easy but you cannot lose both of them. The match at West Brom, sandwiched between the two home games, is another that you really should not be losing. Southampton will be the toughest opponent that they have faced since the international break and it’s tough to see Chris Wilder finding any solace at St Mary’s.
Crystal Palace vs Tottenham Hotspur: Selhurst Park, 14.15 (Sky Sports)
Crystal Palace scored five times away from home for the first time in their Premier League history. The return of Wilfried Zaha helped that cause. Christian Benteke will also take a lot of confidence from his brace against West Brom. The Belgian has struggled since his big money move from Liverpool, particularly in recent years, but Roy Hodgson will be hoping that the forward can rediscover his brilliant
Tottenham are unbeaten in their last three in matches against big-six opposition. Two wins. One draw. Zero goals conceded. Jose Mourinho is well and truly back! They have also illustrated a lot of grit and determination to break down the strong resolve of teams like Burnley and West Brom, who looked to sit deep themselves.
Palace benefits from the fact that they were playing against ten men for the majority of the match against West Brom. They also benefited from the fact that West Brom are probably the worst team in the division. Such grace won’t arrive with Spurs.
Fulham vs Liverpool: Craven Cottage, 16.30 (Sky Sports)
Fulham only had one shot on target against Man City, and that was a routine save for Ederson. But Scott Parker’s team only conceded twice to a team that had just smashed five goals past fellow strugglers Burnley. After a shaky start, Fulham started to grow in confidence and their defending became more convincing. Had City taken their chances, they could have had three or four before the interval but credit to Fulham for not rolling over in the second-half.
Liverpool are reacting wonderfully to their adversity. A resounding 4-0 win over a good Wolves team was indicative of Liverpool’s strong sense of mentality. They simply don’t give up.
Leaving Aleksandr Mitrovic on the bench helps Fulham to play the way that they want to. They look like a more cohesive unit. But leaving out last season’s top goalscorer is a risky ploy that could leave them in a position where they are not scoring enough goals. Nonetheless, this is an improved group and they will hope to compete with Liverpool.
Arsenal vs Burnley: Emirates Stadium, 19.45 (Sky Sports)
Mikel Arteta has gone from hero to zero in the space of a few months. How quickly opinions change! The Spaniard lifted the FA Cup and the Community Shield after less than a year in charge of the Londoners. Optimism was high. Since then, Arsenal’s form has plummeted and morale is at its lowest point since Arteta took charge of the club. There are striking parallels with Unai Emery’s struggles towards the end of his time at the Emirates.
Burnley will be disappointed but accepting of their point against Everton. After taking a lead, the Clarets have become notorious for their ability to snuff out an opponent. However, Everton fought back well in the match and were unfortunate not to take all three points. In the end, Sean Dyche will have been satisfied with a share of the spoils and will see it as one point closer to surviving in the top flight.
This game will not be a classic. Arsenal struggle against teams that sit deep and Burnley will do exactly that. One thing to note, though, is that Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang has an excellent goal-scoring record against Burnley. The Gabonese star has been struggling for form since signing his bumper new deal but he will hope to put an end to that against a team he usually scores against.
Leicester City vs Brighton & Hove Albion: King Power Stadium, 19.15 (Amazon Prime Video)
Jamie Vardy was back to his goal-scoring best against Sheffield United, storming past the opposition’s defence before rifling home a last-minute winner. It was harsh on the home team but Leicester were improved after a dismal home defeat to Fulham. They worked a number of openings.
Brighton lost the South Coast derby to Southampton but they have four points out of their last nine. Big improvements. Graham Potter’s men have shown a bit more resilience and maturity in recent weeks; they were unfortunate to narrowly lose in last week’s game.
Leicester don’t do well against deep-blocks and Brighton are very capable of sitting deep and being difficult to beat. However, the Seagulls always want to play out from the back and are very capable of overturning their opponents.