Friday, October 3, 2008

EPL 2008/09 Week 7: A Definitive Guide to the Weekends Fixtures

The new season might only be seven weeks old but the fixture list is as intriguing as ever. Here is a definitive preview guide to the key games this weekend...

Sunderland v. Arsenal

After last week's humiliating home defeat to Hull, Arsenal will be looking to bounce back against the ever-improving Black Cats. This year has seen Keane assemble a squad that should comfertably finish mid-table, and Arsenal will have their work cut out if they want all three points.

Wenger was "physically sick" after last weeks display against Hull but will be buoyed by Porto being dismantled mid-week in the Champions League. Early as it sounds but last week's defeat has put a huge dent in Arsenal's slim title hopes.

Arsenal welcomed back the influential Samir Nasri during the week and Alexandre Song could make a return to the bench if he passes a late fitness test. Important players Eduardo and Rosicky remain out for the forseeable future, with Arsenal refusing to confirm or deny mid-week reports that Rosicky could be out for the season.

Sunderland take on Arsenal without new signing Teemu Tainio, Phil Bardsley, and Grant Leadbitter, and pressure for points in front of their home crowd is starting to rise.

Both of these sides have been inconsistent so far this season but Arsenal's attacking options make them firm favorites. Expect Sunderland to get plenty of balls into the box and to try to expose Arsenal's high ball weaknesses, but without the physical presence of Kenwyne Jones Sunderland may be short up front against a good defence.

Odds: Sunderland 5/1 Draw 12/5 Arsenal 8/13

West Brom v. Fulham

Fulham go into this match without a point from their last three games but will be optimistic of coming away from the Hawthorns with something. Attacking options are limited this week as Andrew Johnson is suspended after receiving red last week, while Roy Hodgson is hopeful that Bobby Zamora will shake off a knock.

Zamora has been on form since his summer move from West Ham and will be eager to prove he is worth his place at the Premiership table after being sold by Spurs and West Ham consecutively. On loan Julian Gray has been added to the squad to bulk out Fulham's attack.

West Brom received a timely surprise when Filipe Teixeira returned to training after being out injured for the last six months with knee ligament damage, but Tony Mowbray is not expected to risk him this week.

The Baggies are unbeaten away from home this season and will be looking to put points on the board at home and will go into this match as marginal favorites. They will fancy their chances against a Fulham side without a full strike force.

Odds: West Brom 11/8 Draw 9/4 Fulham 2/1

Wigan v. Middlesbrough

Wigan take on Middlesbrough with an almost fully fit squad. Only new signing Lee Cattermole is expected to be unfit to take on his old club after he picked up a hamstring injury last week in training.

Wigan also boast the Premier League's inform striker in the form of loan signing Amir Zaki. The Zamalek player has been a revelation so far, netting five times in six matches and Steve Bruce could have a fight on his hands if he tries to sign Zaki permanently in the summer.

Wigan will be chasing back to back victories at the JJB for the first time in 13 months and see this encounter against Middlesbrough as an ideal match before the international break. They go into this match unbeaten in their last four league matches.

Middlesbrough could be without the injury prone Robert Huth with an ankle injury so they have recalled Jonathan Grounds from Norwich as cover. Ex-Arsenal player Justin Hoyte is expected to fill in a right back with David Wheater moving to centre half.

Andrew Taylor and Gary O'Neil are both out and Gareth Southgate will have to re-jig his midfield to find a replacement for O'Neil. Up front Middlesbrough have struggled this term as Mido, Alves, and Sanli Tuncay haven't gelled. 'Boro fans will be hoping they do soon. Middlesbrough are notoriously bad travellers and have only picked up a single point from eight visits to the North East.

Odds: Wigan 11/10 Draw 23/10 Middlesbrough 5/2

Blacburn v. Manchester United

This is one of the stand out fixtures of the weekend. Not because it's expected to be a classic but because it sees the ex-United captain Paul Ince lead out Blackburn against his former boss. Ince has gone on record saying "I will never forgive Ferguson for selling me to Inter" but he has admitted the experience in Italy inspired him to become a manager.

Ince has also spoken of his desire to manage in Serie A one day. This admission instantly singles out Ince as an English based manager who is unafraid to move from the comfort zone of managing in England. But back to the match...

Paul Robinson is doubtful for his first "big" match as a Blackburn player. The recent signing from Tottenham is struggling to shake off a calf injury. Grella is definitely out while Benni McCarthy is also a doubt.

In midfield Steven Reid has been a revelation for club and country and since Ince took over he has become a fixture at central midfield. Roque Santa Cruz endured a nightmare against Arsenal missing four gilt-edged chances before Arsenal took control and he will be aware of missing.

United also have a mini injury crisis going into this match and are missing Hargreaves and Carrick from central midfield. Their case for the title won't be helped by the news that veteran Paul Scholes will be out for up to 10 weeks. Ferguson has moved quickly to allay Scholes' fears that this season could be his last at Old Trafford by giving him a new one year deal.

Wayne Rooney also picked up a knock in Denmark midweek and is not expected to feature this weekend, but should return to training by Tuesday.

Blackburn have conceded 12 goals so far this season to United's three, but find themselves above United in the table. They will undoubtedly find themselves under pressure for most of the match. United are expected to start with Tevez, Berbatov, and Ronaldo in the attack while Fletcher is expected to deputise for Scholes.

Ince is very eager going into his first test against Fergie, and he joins an elite band of ex-Fergie/United players in the Premier League. "This is the exciting thing about coming to the Premier League. It's a chance to pit yourself against Sir Alex Ferguson. The best manager of all time as far as I'm concerned."

Blackburn has always been a difficult place for United to go to. Indeed United have only won there once since 1999. And with Blackburn enjoying their best start to a Premier League season in 11 years that record may continue. United have more match winners in their team than any other and this could be a tough game even though they are red hot favourites.

Odds: Blackburn 5/1 Draw 13/5 Man United 8/13

Sunday's Fixtures

West Ham v Bolton

West Ham have undergone a mini revival in the short time Gianfranco Zola has been in charge. The pressure the players found themselves under during Curbishley's reign is gone and the team seem to be enjoying their new found freedom.

Bolton have found themselves on the wrong side of two match-defining decisions against Man United (penalty) and Arsenal (offside) and pressure will be on the officials today in this match more than any other this weekend.

Both squads find themselves virtually injury free. James Collins and James Tompkins have both returned to training this week but Zola is expected to leave both out as they are well short of match practice.

West Ham will be eager to maintain Zola's 100% and in doing so record their first three-in-a-row since 2006 (44 games ago). If the Hammers do win it will be their best ever start to a Premiership campaign. West Ham have the strongest home record in the Premier League this season.

While Bolton have the worst away record this season. When analysing Bolton's trips to London they have only won one game from 18 visits to the capital.

Team-wise Gary Megson has a fully fit squad to choose from for the first time this season. Left sided midfielder Matt Taylor has returned to action and is expected to start on the left. Elmander has taken his time to settle at the Reebok since his big money move in the summer and Megson needs him and the workaholic Kevin Davies to forge a partnership soon.

Heading into the match Bolton haven't won in six games and between poor performances and referees punishing them when they are playing well the side seems bereft of confidence. They have been to London twice this season, losing both games to Fulham and Arsenal. They look up against it today.

On the plus side they are only one goal shy of their 400th in the Premier League, but chances of increasing that against the Hammers look slim as Kevin Davies is their solitary goal scorer this season.

Odds: West Ham 4/5 Draw 12/5 Bolton 15/4

Chelsea v. Aston Villa

This is the biggest fixture of the weekend. The current leaders face their toughest oppenents to date in the form of Martin O'Neill's hard-working Villa side. The Chelsea squad is being pushed at the moment with injuries to key personel and it hardly seems to make a difference. A midweek 0-0 draw away to Cluj in Romania may seem a shock result on paper but Chelsea controlled much of the match without really creating much.

Squad wise Chelsea have injuries to Deco, Carvalho, and Drogba who are all definitely out. Drogba may be able to return in a month's time while Deco and Carvalho are expected to return to light training next week. Joe Cole, Alex and John Terry could all make a return to the team after passing fitness tests this week.

Terry has been struggling with a back injury this term and he underlined his willingness to play through the pain barrier to Scolari this week, "He said he will train and play, maybe with only one leg but he will play. He is our captain and he wants to show this to his players."

"Chelsea's home record is phenomenal", O'Neill stated recently and Chelsea will go into this game against Villa defending an unbeaten home run of 85 matches. They are also 27 games unbeaten in the Premier League, but the last side to beat them were Villa 2-0.

Villa head into the lion's den unbeaten in four and will be boosted by the news that John Carew, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and Ashley Young have all passed fitness tests after it looked likely all three would be missing for this crucial encounter. Martin Laursen, Curtis Davies, Gareth Barry, and Nigel Reo-Coker are all expected to be in the team after they were rested mid week in the UEFA Cup.

Villa will fancy their chances of taking a point against a weakened Chelsea team but everyone at Villa know they will have to pull out all the stops to even come away from Stamford Bridge with a point.

Stillian Petrov commented, "You can say 'it's the best time to play Chelsea' but that motivates them even more. They have so many good players to come in and do a job as good as the ones who are injured. It doesn't really matter who plays, they are all world class. But we need to worry about our team, not them."

Odds: Chelsea 8/15 Draw 11/4 Aston Villa 6/1

Everton v Newcastle

Interim Newcastle boss Joe Kinnear begins his £50,000 a week job this weekend. He will be boosted by Danny Guthrie's return to action from suspension and by Jose Enrique and Habib Beye returning to match fitness. Guiterez should return to action for next weekend but Mark Viduka and Alan Smith are expected to be out until November at least.

Joe Kinnear begins his reign as the 13th Newcastle manager (unlucky for some) and will have to watch the match from the stands as he sits out a suspension he picked up while managing Notts Forest four years ago. His last Premiership experience was in 1999 when he managed Wimbledon. Kinnear won Manager of the Year twice while managing the Dons, but the game has changed vastly in the last 10 years.

Newcastle are in danger of losing five-in-a-row for the first time in the Premier League and the way they have capitulated recently will be of most concern to Kinnear and Hughton.

Up front Newcastle are struggling to score, and have not scored more than once in nine matches. And they have conceded 12 goals in their last four matches. They do boast one of the best keepers in the league but this only serves to point out how bad the defence is. And Newcastle fans have started to vent their frustration with Coloccini who "hasn't tried a leg this season."

Everton will be without Tim Cahill after he failed in his appeal to have the red card he picked up against Liverpool recinded, and the Toffee's will have to do without him for the next three matches. Phil Neville and Louis Saha are expected to feature after picking up injuries in the UEFA Cup defeat to Standard Liege, while ex-Standard player Fellaini is not expected to play.

Everton are also in the middle of a poor run and could also fall to a record fourth successive defeat in the Premier League, however they are unbeaten in six matches against Newcastle and will look forward to this match as the ideal match to get their season back on track.

Newcastle have not won in Goodison since 2001 so the omens say it could be a difficult game for the Magpies.

Both sides are playing poorly this season with off-field antics being blamed at Newcastle. There are no such excuses for Everton and they way they were dismissed by Liverpool last weekend will have given David Moyes sleepless nights.

Odds: Everton 5/6 Draw 13/5 Newcastle 7/2

Man City v Liverpool

Man City are monitoring Richard Dunnes fitness closely, the influential skipper picked up an injury in the UEFA Cup midweek and is vital for City to have any chance of overcoming the Premier Leagues form side.

Petrov is back fully fit and is expected to start on the left of what could be a very attack minded City side. Wright-Phillips should start on the right with Elano in the middle so Mark Hughes biggest decision should be who will partner the Brazilian in midfield.

City play very well at home but travel badly and their sizable Brazilian contingent have settled very quickly at the Eastlands if not away from home. And Hughes will be very optimistic of taking all three points against Liverpool.

Liverpool had a convincing win against a poor PSV side midweek that produced a couple of milestones for the club. Robbie Keane matched his ex-partner at Spurs by notching up his first goal for his new club, while Steven Gerrard scored his 100th for the Reds.

Liverpool struggled at the start of the season and even though they were winning they flattered to impress. But Keane's form in his last four matches has been most impressive and it has coincided with Liverpool's most impressive performances to date.

The victory against United was marred by a bad day at the office against Stoke but they bounced back with an excellent performance when they dismissed Everton in the Merseyside derby. They head into what could be a tricky encounter with City full of confidence.

This game features the league's best attack (City—16 goals) against the leagues meanest defence (Liverpool—two goals). Bearing in mind City have failed to score against Liverpool in almost nine hrs of football, Kiki Musampa was the last City player to score against Liverpool—in 2005. And City's last home win against Liverpool was in 1995.

City have been the most inconsistant side in the league this year while Liverpool are perhaps the most consistant and the match should be an enthralling encounter.

Odds: Man City 11/5 Draw 11/5 Liverpool 13/10

Tottenham v Hull

After only taking 2pts from six games Juande Ramos side will need to start picking up points quickly if they don't want to be involved in the relegation dogfight come Christmas. Spurs have three winnable games up next and Ramos will need his team to pick up at least seven points. After Hull, Stoke and Bolton Tottenham face Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City so a good haul from the next three games is essential.

Having qualified for the next round of the UEFA Cup one pressure has been removed only to be replaced by the urgent need for league points. Pavulychenko is expected to start up front after missing out on the win against Wisla Krakow with Darren Bent expected to find himself on the bench. Poyet's admission that the two strikers "were too similar to play together" means that Spurs will be playing with a lone striker until January at least.

Vedran Corluka is back in the side at right full as Alan Hutton is still well short of match fitness and with King seemingly unable to play more than one match a week Michael Dawson, after his impressive mid week cameo is expected to partner Johnathan Woodgate. King had undergone knee surgery in the summer and is still well short of fitness and Ramos is picking him for certain matches, this disjointed approach has ment the Spurs defence have not had a chance to become a single unit, and the rate they ship goals this would seem the case.

Hull are "on top of the world" after beating Arsenal in the Emirates and will travel to their North London Neighbours without any fears. Hull find themselves riding high in the league and the relegation candidates look anything but at this stage.

They go into the match against Spurs with injury worries over the two ex-Spurs players. Nick Barmby has only played a bit part so far this season but his experience will be essential after Christmas if Hull are to stay in the league. Centre half Anthony Gardner is also a doubt for the Spurs clash and Marlon King will undergo a fitness test before the match to see if he can participate.

Going into the match Spurs are the only league side without a win this season while Hull are still unbeaten on the road. Spurs have made their worst start to a league campaign in 53 years and that record could stretch to 96 years if they fail to pick up full points.

Goals are a worry for Spurs at the moment and they are now on a run of 13 games where they haven't scored more than once. They have only won 10 of Juande Ramos' 33 games in charge and the Spaniard needs to pick up points quickly for him to survive at Spurs. When he first took over at Sevilla he only picked up one point from his first 27 points so Spurs fans may have to show a little patience for a manager who has proved he is capable at the highest level.

Odds- Spurs 4/6 Draw 13/5 Hull 9/2