Soccer: Premier League Best Bets
It's at this point in the season when gaps start to feel like they're a little more than gaps.
Three points with 15 games to go? Seems like that's nothing to make up. But after this weekend, when the "games remaining" column in the Premier League ticks into single figures, those deficits feel a lot wider.
Chelsea goes to Manchester City this weekend with a gap to make up to secure a top-four spot, and it could be a big one come kickoff Sunday at Etihad Stadium. For those sides at the bottom, keeping this scramble to stay alive in the top flight as large as possible is vital, too.
It's a weekend, set to play out in bitter conditions, with the potential to shape the season for a lot of sides. Here's a look at what to expect.
Southampton vs. Stoke City
"Southampton vs. Stoke one of the best games of the weekend?" I hear you cry. "Not a chance."
Granted, it's unlikely to be an environment for aesthetic football on the south coast Saturday, due to both the inclement weather and the lack of quality in both sides. But bloody hell, this one feels so important for both teams.
Southampton stuck their head above the surface and gasped for air last weekend, as a last-minute equalizer at Burnley moved them up into 16th position. Stoke, meanwhile, somehow clung to a point at Leicester City despite a late siege from the Foxes.
They will both be feeling in decent spirits and will view this as an opportunity to secure a priceless positive result. You sense it's so important for morale, too; for the losers, a chance to win at the expense of a rival will have slipped by. There won't be many more chances like this between now and the end of the season.
Southampton will be expected to take the game to their opponents. After getting his first goal since October at Turf Moor, manager Mauricio Pellegrino will hope Manolo Gabbiadini can relocate his golden touch.
Stoke has the worst away record in the division, and while they've been a lot more determined under Paul Lambert, their identity remains muddled and their game plan is centred on giving the ball to Xherdan Shaqiri.
Prediction: Saints should be too strong and will win 1-0 (7.00 William Hill; green-listed bookmaker)
Brighton vs. Arsenal
Before penning this preview, the line here was going to revolve around whether Brighton has it in them to spring a shock. But recent history suggests the Seagulls have a more-than-strong chance of victory.
Granted, this piece was filed ahead of Thursday's Arsenal-Manchester City showdown. Regardless, Arsenal have been little short of horrendous away from Emirates Stadium.
Their last three away games in the top flight have yielded three losses, while all season they've mustered only three wins from 14 road games. As such, it's tough to describe them as favorites for this one, despite the chasm in quality in certain areas of the two teams.
Brighton will fancy this. At Amex Stadium they've been strong, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool the only teams to get the better of them on home soil. They earned a big win last weekend, too, bringing a red-hot Swansea City team back to earth with a 4-1 mauling.
Brighton is up into 12th now and with so many teams between them and the drop zone, they'll be feeling positive about their survival chances. In Jose Izquierdo, Anthony Knockaert, Pascal Gross and Solly March, they have flair players in their ranks capable of changing any game.
They also have Glenn Murray, who is tailor-made to bully the Arsenal defense on Sunday. It's easy to see the Gunners struggling here after back-to-back games with City.
Prediction: Brighton adds to Arsenal's miserable away record, 2-1 (13.00 Ladbrokes; green-listed bookmaker)
Manchester City vs. Chelsea
You'd fancy Liverpool to beat Newcastle at home on Saturday night, wouldn't you? And Tottenham to see off Huddersfield at Wembley earlier in the day? It'd be a huge shock if either of those games went the other way.
Should they go as anticipated, Chelsea will have work to do. Not only will they be seven points behind Liverpool and five behind Tottenham, they'll be trying to claw some of that deficit back at the home of the champions elect.
Everton remains the only side in the Premier League to have taken anything from Etihad Stadium this season, back in Week 2. And while City does have the second leg of a UEFA Champions League clash with Basel to negotiate in midweek, with a 4-0 lead secured they can go full throttle at Chelsea.
Which, of course, is bad news for the Blues. Antonio Conte's side is in a curious run of form, as they performed well in spells against United and Barcelona without winning either. Sloppy errors crept into their play, ones that were scarcely seen in Chelsea's run to the title last season.
If they are going to earn anything at Etihad not only will Chelsea have to play well, they will have to showcase togetherness, aggression and cohesion. That edge no longer appears to be present among this group of players, though, whereas City appears to be hitting their straps again for the run-in.
Prediction: Chelsea's top four prospects are set to be a whole lot slimmer come Sunday evening, 2-1 (8.00 Skybet)
Burnley vs. Everton
Burnley is now 11 games without a win, while Everton continues to be joyless on the road under Sam Allardyce. It's tough to see too many chances being conjured in this one, but Burnley will show more ruthlessness in the big moments. Prediction: 1-0 (7.00 William Hill; green-listed bookmaker)
Leicester City vs. Bournemouth
Bournemouth earned a huge point against Newcastle, recovering from two goals down to ensure they weren't dragged back into a relegation mire. They'll be hoping to continue making strides in the right direction against Leicester, which has picked up only one win in their last six. Prediction: 1-1 (7.50 Betfair; green-listed bookmaker)
Swansea City vs. West Ham United
Swansea's Premier League resurgence hit the buffers at Brighton last weekend as they slumped to a 4-1 loss, but a return to Liberty Stadium should inject some confidence back into the players. West Ham was pulled apart by Liverpool a week ago and is still looking nervously over their shoulder; Swansea will add to their anxiety. Prediction: 2-1 (10.00 William Hill; green-listed bookmaker)
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Huddersfield Town
Given Tottenham has a Champions League showdown with Juventus next week, complacency may be their enemy here against Huddersfield, which has turned a corner with two wins in succession. Even so, Spurs' squad is performing well and the XI Mauricio Pochettino selects will be good enough to get the job done. Prediction: 2-0 (6.00 Paddy Power; green-listed bookmaker)
Watford vs. West Bromwich Albion
Huddersfield surely put an end to any slender hopes West Brom had of remaining in the Premier League beyond this season with a win at Hawthorns last week. They are now seven points from safety, devoid of confidence and seemingly resigned to their fate. Watford will have enough to roll them over. Prediction: 2-0 (10.00 Betfair; green-listed bookmaker)
Liverpool vs. Newcastle United
The Jurgen Klopp machine has cranked into top gear on Merseyside, with Liverpool seemingly poised for a strong finish to the campaign. Former manager Rafael Benitez will receive a warm reception at Anfield on Saturday, although it's tough to see his side doing anything to combat Liverpool's irresistible attacking play. Prediction: 3-0 (8.00 Paddy Power; green-listed bookmaker)
Crystal Palace vs. Manchester United
Things just don't seem to be falling for Palace at the moment, as they were cruelly denied a point against Tottenham last weekend after defending superbly for the majority of 90 minutes. The atmosphere should be white-hot under the lights for the visit of United, who should have enough to take the sting out of the game and grab a big away win. Prediction: 0-1 (6.50 Betfair; green-listed bookmaker)