That’s the festive period of football filed away for another year. Now we can settle back down into the bread-and-butter Premier League schedule.
It’s a vital spell of the season, too, as teams dust themselves down after the flurry of games and seek to position themselves for a strong end to the campaign. Or in the case of Manchester City, who visit Liverpool with a 15-point lead at the summit in place, to coast to the title.
That showdown is the most striking of Week 23, although it’s arguably more important for the Reds than the leaders. Nevertheless, it should be a thrilling feast of attacking football. Naturally, the contest is one of the three feature games for this preview. Bet on each match at BMR’s green-listed bookmakers.
Chelsea vs. Leicester City
There’ll be disappointment at Stamford Bridge that the team’s hopes of defending their Premier League title have been dashed already. But there’ll be a determination among the Blues to show they’re the biggest threat to City moving forward.
Antonio Conte’s team are currently nestled in third behind Manchester United, and while they’ve not excelled to the same extent as last season overall, they’re performing well.
Up top the team is having a few issues, though, with two blanks drawn in their last two cup games. While Eden Hazard continues to dazzle, Alvaro Morata is evidently lacking in confidence at the moment. To adhere to that timeless cliché, the Spaniard needs one to ricochet in off his backside.
After a small lull over Christmas, Leicester started 2018 with an emphatic 3-0 win over Huddersfield Town. Crucially for the Foxes, Riyad Mahrez remains at the club despite incessant speculation about an exit. They’ll be hopeful of having Jamie Vardy back for this one, too; the striker has a reputation for performing in these big games.
Claude Puel will surely follow the blueprint put down by Norwich City and Arsenal against Chelsea —flood midfield, spring from deep and try to exploit the three-man defence in wide areas. It’s a blueprint Vardy and Mahrez are tailor made for.
Even so, Chelsea are adept at stemming counter-attacks and keeping sides penned in. They haven’t found a way through in their last two fixtures, but they will here. 2-1 (10.00 SkyBet)
Bournemouth vs. Arsenal
Whenever Bournemouth have forged themselves a foothold in the Premier League this season, they’ve been unable to make it count. They've got another one.
A win over Everton has been sandwiched by draws with West Ham United and Brighton, meaning Eddie Howe has at least seen his side clamber back out of the relegation zone. Now it’s important the Cherries make use of this upturn and ensure looks back over their shoulder are limited.
It’s tough to say whether Arsenal are an ideal opponent with that in mind. On the one hand, the Gunners were awful in their FA Cup loss to Nottingham Forest, when a second-string side turned in a complacent and confused display at the City Ground. In midweek against Chelsea, when the focus was primarily on defending, they were much improved.
On the flipside, Arsenal will view Bournemouth as an ideal opponent. The Gunners have struggled against teams willing to defend deep, play direct and impose themselves physically; Bournemouth don’t base their game around any of those tropes.
Howe has an unshakeable belief in his players and his principles. That conviction has led to some mixed results, with the impressive display against Everton being offset earlier in the month by the 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Liverpool.
Arsenal are closer in class to Liverpool and have players like Mesut Ozil, who can manage a match impudently when he’s offered space to revel in. It’ll be an entertaining outing, but the Gunners will leave Bournemouth with another foothold to build. 1-3 (13.00 Betfred)
Manchester City vs. Liverpool
If anyone is going to beat Manchester City in the Premier League this season, an in-form Liverpool at Anfield may be the best hope the division has.
Despite City’s excellence throughout 2017-18, there’ll be some trepidation as they gear up for their trip to Merseyside. Anfield has scared this side and these supporters in the past, with no victory registered at the venue in their last 15 visits.
That’s a statistic that won’t have escaped Liverpool and in recent years the stylistic blueprint of Jurgen Klopp has meshed well against City. The aggression, energy and intelligence with which the Reds operate has often knocked the metronomic sky-blue juggernaut out of sync. Given they’ve showcased those traits in abundance recently, they’ll be confident of doing so again.
Even when City beat Liverpool 5-0 earlier in the season, prior to Sadio Mane’s red card the clash was an even affair. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola’s side capitalised and haven’t really looked back since.
Indeed, to have won 20 and drawn two of their 22 Premier League games is a stunning return at this point. City have shown it all, as you’d expect. They’ve pulled opponents apart with possession, excelled on the counter-attack and gone into the trenches when necessary. It wouldn’t be over-the-top to say they’re the complete package at this point.
City won’t have taken a stronger XI to Anfield than this in the club’s history and there’s every reason for them to be confident heading down the M62 to Merseyside. But this canny Liverpool outfit will do enough for a point. 2-2 (12.00 William Hill)
Crystal Palace vs. Burnley
The Christmas period hit Burnley hard, as a small squad and difficult fixtures saw them lose touch with the top six. Sean Dyche will be keen to see his side consolidate seventh place now, and against an improving Crystal Palace you sense a point would satisfy him. The Eagles are improving, though, and will edge a tight contest. 2-1 (10.00 SkyBet)
Huddersfield Town vs. West Ham United
This term Huddersfield have always pulled out a result when they appear close to being dragged into a relegation scrap. Despite sitting in 11th — four points clear of the drop zone — they’ll be taking nervous glances backwards, as will the Hammers, who are in 15th. Both sides would be content with a point and you sense that’s what we’ll get. 1-1 (6.50 William Hill)
Newcastle United vs. Swansea City
A couple of wins over Christmas have eased the relegation fears of Newcastle supporters and they’ll view this visit of Swansea as an ideal opportunity to put more distance between themselves and the bottom three. The Welsh side have improved since the arrival of Carlos Carvalhal and will dig in for a draw at St. James’ Park. 1-1 (7.00 William Hill)
Watford vs. Southampton
Watford are 19th in the Premier League form table at the moment, although encouragingly for manager Marco Silva in Southampton they are playing the only side below them in the standings. The Saints’ situation appears increasingly critical, as only goal difference keeps them out of the bottom three; Watford, as poorly as they’ve been playing, will add to their misery. 3-1 (19.00 SkyBet)
West Bromwich Albion vs. Brighton & Hove Albion
West Brom supporters heading to the Hawthorns will be devoid of any confidence in their side, as they’ve gone 20 top-flight games without a win. Typically, you’d back them to overcome Brighton on home soil, although the lack of confidence, edginess in the stands and cohesion of the visitors will leave the Baggies supporters frustrated once again. 1-1 (6.50 William Hill)
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Everton
The bright start Everton enjoyed under Sam Allardyce feels a long time ago now, as they’re without a win in any of their last five games. Spurs, by contrast, appear to be cranking things up ahead of the run-in, with Harry Kane in remarkable form once again. Mauricio Pochettino’s side will be too good for the Toffees. 2-0 (6.00 Betfair)
Manchester United vs. Stoke City
Stoke could’ve had an easier start to life post-Mark Hughes than a trip to Old Trafford. The Potters have plunged into relegation zone and are in desperate need of a victory to recharge their season. While United haven’t been anywhere near their best of late, it’s unlikely to come here. 3-0 (7.50 Ladbrokes)