SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – In round 22 we saw Watford move out of the relegation zone for the first time this season. They had to work for this change; it took making it five EPL games unbeaten and taking 13 points out of a possible 15.
New man at the helm, Nigel Pearson has done a phenomenal job. Immediately changing the atmosphere and belief around Vicarage Road. A resounding 3-0 against fellow relegation battlers, Bournemouth, showed the gap in momentum between the two. Bournemouth just picking up four points since early November.
Southampton got revenge with a 2-1 victory against Leicester after that 9-0 pounding back in October. Man City took full advantage of the Foxes slip, to thump Villa 6-1, and leapfrogged into second position.
Liverpool continued their charge towards a 19th title (the first in the EPL era) with a 1-0 win over Spurs. The Reds, with that win, broke the record of total points amassed through the first 21 league games in Europe’s top five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).
Transfer rumors are in overdrive as we head towards halfway through the window, although it has been remarkably quiet so far, just a few moves.
Round 23 heats up again with a battle between old foes, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Watford v. Tottenham Hotspur
First up is the 5:30 a.m. MST kick off on Saturday morning. The Hornets against Spurs is incredibly intriguing. Watford have been rooted toward the bottom for the entire season but as noted above, last weekend they finally lifted themselves out of the bottom three relegation positions.
Whilst the soccer hasn’t been overly attractive, it has been effective. Their grit and desire have been there for all to see, and their defensive organization has been really good and given them a platform to push themselves away from the danger zone. There is plenty of soccer to be played still, and they are still miles away from safety, but they are, out of the bottom eight teams, the club in form.
Nigel Pearson has been blessed with the return of captain Troy Deeney with his four goals this season all coming from this five-game unbeaten streak. He’s not really what you would call a consistent goal scorer, with his best return of 13 goals in a premier league season (including penalties) but his influence is enormous and leading the line to open up space for others is vital, the biggest benefactors of his return are wide forwards, Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr, they provide width and pace.
Watford have also been backed up with a slight position change of midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure. The Frenchman has always had an eye for goal, and the platform of Chalobah and Capoue provide him the means to join the attack more often.
Spurs come into Vicarage Road on the back of a defeat, but they were good in the second half of the 1-0 loss to Liverpool. Seemingly struggling to adapt to the long-term absence of captain and top scorer, Harry Kane. They finally found their groove and looked more than impressive.
Spurs are a work in progress, and I would suspect there will be changes to playing personnel come summertime. There is enough talent at Mourinho’s disposal to be higher than eighth where they currently sit.
The main issue is the game plan. Whilst it’s great when a team can shift formations, it’s the multiple tinkering, or getting it wrong from the start that is hampering Tottenham. Jose needs to make a decision and stick with it, I’m not sure if this is the Portuguese master second-guessing himself, or if he’s still undecided which players he entirely trusts. Whatever happens to Spurs, they’ll need to get Son and Moura involved.
There is plenty good about Spurs’ attack, and they will be in the heart of everything, whether that’s goals or opening space for midfield runners. With Kane out and Eriksen seemingly on his way out of the club, it does leave Spurs with a lack of real options. Troy Parrott is a young obvious talent, but the young Irishman hasn’t reached his 18th birthday yet and will need to be nurtured as there is risk of setting him back which could be detrimental to his long-term development. There is also Argentine Erik Lamela that has tons of ability, just hugely inconsistent.
I think we’re in for a cracking early Saturday morning. A team at home fighting for every point and a team coming in looking to jump start their inconsistent season.
Prediction: 2-1, Spurs
Newcastle United v. Chelsea
The KSL 5 premiere match comes from the home of the furthest northern team in the EPL – Newcastle’s, St James’ Park. One of the best atmospheres you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing at a soccer match.
What Steve Bruce has done so far after taking over from former manager, Rafa Benitez, has been impressive. Not a lot of noise has come out from the North East by Bruce, as he’s quietly gone about his business to try and improve his home-town club. There was a genuine concern when Benitez refused to sign an extension at the Magpies and left for China last summer. Losing their main goal scorers in the process with Salomon Rondon joining Benitez in China and Ayoze Perez going to Leicester but the big Geordie has signed some solid players and has Newcastle building a steady season.
Sitting in 13th place on 26 points, they did have a rough festive period results-wise but ground out a draw at the weekend against Wolves. Paraguayan international Miguel Almiron is finally finding his goal-scoring touch in English football, his hard grafting and energy has always been on display, just the end result hasn’t been there until recently. He popped up with another vital goal and is becoming the focal point of the Magpies’ attack.
Major League Soccer fans will take great pleasure in watching a player coming over from the States finally finding his feet. You can see he is adored by the St James’ faithful as well.
Chelsea sits fourth and have steadied the ship a little after their inconsistent form throughout the season. Unbeaten in the last three matches, they’ll look to take the initiative of locking in that top fourth place. The Blues strolled to a 3-0 victory over Burnley last weekend and showed that on their day they are powerful. They opened the Clarets at will and top scorer for the Blues, Tammy Abraham, was on the score sheet after a mini drought in front of goal.
The youngsters have impressed this season, but in recent weeks it’s been Brazilian veteran Willian that is taking the deserved plaudits. His speed and directness have helped Chelsea fulfill some of their potential. He’s also fun to watch and the main man in the team right now, chipping in with four goals and four assists. Whilst his speed is awesome, his delivery is probably more impressive, and with the Magpies set to sit back and try to absorb pressure from Chelsea there won’t be as much space behind their backline. Willian’s vision and guile will be much needed if the Blue’s, as expected, are to pick up all three points.
Prediction: 2-1, Chelsea
Liverpool v. Manchester United
Last up is Sunday’s huge match against the two most successful clubs in English soccer. Playing out a rather drab 1-1 draw earlier in the season, Liverpool will look to strengthen their position in the league and turn the pressure up on the Red Devils, as they struggle to find consistency.
Last weekend it must be said that United were great value for their 4-0 victory over relegation-threatened Norwich. Marcus Rashford made his 200th United appearance and celebrated with a brace to take his total to 14 goals for the season and tied second in the race for the Golden Boot. Rashford also has four assists to his name and if Harry Kane fails to recover from his hamstring injury, Rashford is going to be even more important to England for the European Championships.
Of course, United aren’t a one-man team, the attack is clicking with Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood also chipping in with goals. The backline and goalkeeper still struggle at times, but rarely have they let them down when playing against the teams above them.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been impressive in that aspect of his coaching. Is he the right man long term? I’ve said this time and again that I don’t think he is, but he is not the only issue at Old Trafford, either they make drastic changes upstairs, or they’ll continue to be on the outside looking in, despite being one of, if not the largest global brand.
Liverpool struggled in the second half against Spurs last weekend. Truth be told, the match should’ve been over and done within the first half. Maybe this is Liverpool showing signs of fatigue in what has been a relentless season. Sitting aloft the table with a 14-point cushion and a game in hand, they come into this North West match up in a position that has been rare over the years.
Coming up against bitter rivals, but not title rivals. For many years the shoe was on the other foot and United will come in to Anfield to try and spoil the party and give themselves some bragging rights. Truth is though, Liverpool have had a week to recover, Anfield is as noisy as I’ve ever heard it in recent years, and there is a return to full fitness of Fabinho and Joel Matip. This is Liverpool’s to lose, their mentality is far superior.
United come in with less pressure and an opportunity to close the gap on Chelsea. The Reds find themselves in a dangerous position and they’ll treat Man Utd with a lack of respect at their peril. Often in these matches, the flow, skill and technique will go out of the window. It will be decided on heart and grit. Liverpool have just shown more than anyone else this EPL season.
Prediction: 3-1, Liverpool