Liverpool’s German manager Jurgen Klopp / AFP PHOTO / Lindsey PARNABY /
After a two-week hiatus, the EPL returns today with game-week twenty-one which will serve us two Northwest derbies, although in the eyes of the football world, there is only ONE Northwest derby in England and that will be the main attraction this weekend in the league. During the break the FA Cup was played and only nine of the twenty EPL teams in the league were able to win their games at the first time of asking to advance to the next round, while five will be involved in replays and six were dumped out of the competition. The first legs of the EFL Cup semi-finals were also played during the break and the teams that will be involved in this weekend’s marquee match up had contrasting fortunes in that tournament.
Away from the cup competitions and back to the league, eight matches will be played today, with the aforementioned derbies taking place tomorrow. The first game of this match-week will take place at the capital when in-form Tottenham host West Brom at White Hart Lane by 1:30pm Nigerian time. The Lilywhites easily dispatched Aston Villa 2-0 in the FA Cup on Sunday to extend their winning streak in all competitions to six. Their five straight league wins have propelled them to third on the table and with the opportunity of climbing into second place albeit temporarily with a win over the Baggies today, the Spurs will be up for this one today. Meanwhile, West Brom’s struggles continued last week as they were upset 1-2 home in the FA Cup by Championship side Derby County. They haven’t been on a good run recently, but are still in the top half of the table on eighth position with twenty-nine points from the twenty games they’ve played this season.
They are on a two-game winning streak in the league and will be confident going into this tie as the last three meetings between these teams have all ended in 1-1 draws. In fact, Spurs have failed to win any of their last four matches against the Baggies at White Hart Lane (drawing three and losing one). This game should serve as a proper appetizer for the matches that will follow this weekend.
Six games will kick off at 4pm Nigerian time today and I will be previewing the ones involving Nigerians starting with the Watford-Middlesbrough game. Odon Ighalo’s Watford have been very poor since December with four defeats and a draw. They have managed only 2 Premier League wins since November having drawn once and lost 7. Ighalo has found goals hard to come by in his sophomore season in the league which has seen him sometimes lose his place in the team and rumours of a move to China have become louder in recent times. This fixture will give him a great opportunity to get back among the goals in order to cement his place in the team or increase his transfer value if he’s going to leave the Hornets. Middlesbrough have started 2017 on a promising note, going undefeated in their two games so far with a win and a draw and not conceding any goal yet.
However, they are still close to the drop zone, in sixteenth position with nineteen points, four above eighteenth placed Sunderland. They seriously need a win in this game to ensure their safety in the coming weeks.
Sunderland will host Stoke City at the Stadium of Light and will be hoping for a win to continue their fight against relegation. Victor Anichebe is a doubt for this one, but the big Nigerian will definitely be emotionally invested in this game today if he doesn’t get to partake. The Black Cats haven’t been able to leave the relegation zone since the beginning of the season. However they are hopeful of doing that this weekend with a win as they are just a point behind Crystal Palace outside the zone. Meanwhile, Stoke City’s poor League form was halted with a 2-0 win against Watford in their last Premier League outing. Both teams have lost three players each to the AFCON and will have to look from within to replace their losses. Jonathan Walters is a doubt for Stoke and Peter Crouch may be required to lead the line today. This game is really in the balance but Stoke should have enough to come away with at least a point against a depleted Sunderland side.
Alex Iwobi and his Arsenal team mates will attempt to get their title challenge back on track when they travel to struggling Swansea City today. The gunners currently sit in fifth place on the table, no thanks to a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth in their last league game, but they should be confident of taking all three points on offer against the Swans in Wales today.
The Gunners are only one point off fourth-placed Man City and just three points behind second-placed Liverpool in what is a very packed top six. They haven’t been able to keep a clean sheet in their last six away games in the league, their longest run without a clean sheet since May 2011. Swansea will go into this game with their third manager of the season, having sacked two already in trying to find the formula that will keep them in the league. They got a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in their last league match which new manager Paul Clement watched from the stands. That win ended a run of four straight defeats, but they were knocked out of the FA Cup at the weekend by Hull City. The Welsh side have lost three of their last four home matches against the Gunners in the Premier League and will want to get something positive from this game.
In the remaining 4pm fixtures, Southampton will be guests of Burnley at Turf Moor, Hull will host Bournemouth at the KCOM Stadium and there will be a London derby when West Ham host Crystal Palace at the London Stadium.
Today’s final game should feature three Nigerians, when champions Leicester welcome league leaders Chelsea at the King Power Stadium. Ahmed Musa grabbed a brace against Everton for Leicester in the FA Cup, while Wilfred Ndidi was impressive on his debut in that game for the league Champions and both players will be key again for the Foxes as they will be looking to make it consecutive defeats for Chelsea at 6pm Nigerian time. At this point last season, there were twelve places and seventeen points separating these sides on the table, with Leicester in second place and Chelsea way down in fourteenth place. This season, the roles have been reversed with Leicester sitting in 15th position, fourteen places and twenty eight points below leaders Chelsea, a forty-five point swing between the clubs. Things have improved recently for the Foxes, though, with just one defeat in their last five matches in all competitions and back-to-back Premier League clean sheets for the first time since April. They have also beaten a title hopeful recently courtesy of their 4-2 triumph over Manchester City last month and they will want a repeat performance against the Blues.
Leicester have been very decent at home, picking up eighteen of their twenty one points in front of their own fans, including all five of their victories and only two defeats. The Foxes have only lost two of their last twenty-five Premier League games at home, although both of those defeats have come in their five most recent outings. Jamie Vardy, who is available again after serving his three-match ban, and Andy King are slight doubts after missing their weekend win over Everton in the FA Cup through illness, while the Foxes will be without the trio of Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey all of whom are away on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations. Wilfred Ndidi should make his Premier League debut against his predecessor, N’Golo Kante and show the Leicester faithful why they should forget about the Frenchman. Chelsea were beaten by Spurs in their last league match to stop their winning run at thirteen games and the blues will want to quickly get back to winning ways as they know that any further slip up will bring the chasing pack closer in this very competitive league. Chelsea have already beaten the Foxes at the King Power stadium this season in the EFL Cup and will want a repeat performance today, but they will also remember that in this fixture last season, they were beaten 1-0 by Leicester City. Victor Moses should be in the starting line-up in this fixture to continue his fine run in the side.
Everton will host Manchester City at Goodison Park in tomorrow’s first game with the aim of continuing their unbeaten run. The Toffees are currently on a three-game unbeaten run and are undefeated in four of their last five games. They are currently in the seventh position on the table and enjoyed a 3-0 win over Southampton in their last league game. Idriss Gueye has joined up with the Senegal squad for the Africa Cup of Nations and will be a huge loss for the Toffees over the course of the next month. They have also completed the signing of Morgan Schneiderlin, which should help cushion the effects of Gueye’s absence. Manchester City successfully bounced back from their loss to Liverpool in the previous round by edging newly-promoted side Burnley, 2-1, at the Etihad and followed it up with a 5-0 thrashing of West Ham at the London Stadium in the FA Cup. They currently occupy the final champions league position and cannot afford to drop points as the top six is very congested and any slip up might see them drop down the table.
Fernandinho will serve the second of a four-game ban and will not be available, while Leroy Sane remains a doubt with a knock and the Club are reportedly trying to get new signing Gabriel Jesus cleared in time to make his debut this weekend.
Manchester United host Liverpool at Old Trafford in this weekend’s marquee fixture and that match will take place at 5pm Nigerian time tomorrow. Any game between these two sides is always something to get excited about and this one isn’t any different. Manchester United seem to be the team with all the momentum heading into this fixture, while Liverpool seem to have lost theirs. The Red Devils will enter this fixture on the back of nine consecutive wins in all competition and will be looking to make it a perfect ten by defeating their most hated rivals at the Theatre of dreams. Jose Mourinho has an almost complete squad to choose from as only Eric Bailly, who is in Gabon with his National team for the AFCON, is the confirmed unavailable player.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has missed the club’s last two games with ‘illness’ but do not be surprised to see him back in the team tomorrow, while Marcos Rojo will face a late fitness test after picking up a minor muscle injury in the third round of the FA Cup last weekend. Wayne Rooney is one goal shy of becoming the club’s all time greatest goalscorer and what better platform to achieve that feat than against the club’s arch-rivals and a team he grew up loathing being an Everton lad.
Liverpool will go into this game winless in their last three matches in all competitions, drawing with Sunderland and Plymouth in the league and FA Cup respectively and losing to Southampton in the EFL Cup semi final first leg on Wednesday. Sadio Mane is away on international duty with Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations, while Joel Matip and Jordan Henderson are doubts for this one. Philippe Coutinho returned to action in midweek after two months out injured and will be expected to start tomorrow after getting about half an hour of game time against Southampton.
Manchester United have won six of their last seven league matches against Liverpool at Old Trafford and with the current form of both teams it will be hard to rule out another win for the Red Devils. Liverpool are the top scorers in the league this season, but were unable to get a goal when they hosted Manchester United at home this season. United know that a win here will cut the gap between them and Liverpool to two points and put them back into the title race and that is what they will be looking for. One thing that will make Liverpool fans hopeful in this fixture will be the fact that Jurgen Klopp has the best record of any top coach against Jose Mourinho. The Liverpool boss has won three of his six matches against Mourinho’s teams, losing only once. This should be a very exciting encounter and a good advertisement for the English Premier League.
Match-week twenty-one is looking very exciting already and it seems it will make up for the two weeks we just experienced without the EPL. Since Nigeria will not be participating in the African Cup of Nations that also kicks off this weekend, we will hope to see our players in the EPL get a lot of playing time and remind the continent what it will be missing with the absence of the Super Eagles at the AFCON.