Chelsea to extend advantage
Our tipsters preview Saturday's eight Premier League games.
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Newcastle, Sunderland and Everton are backed for home victories, while lowly West Brom can claim a much-needed win at a decent price.
Chelsea are backed to march on with a win to nil in the Saturday Night Football clash at Aston Villa.
Here are the match-by-match verdicts which come courtesy of Ben Coley, Chris Hammer and Andy Schooler.
Only very bold punters would have backed Wigan shocking Manchester City in the FA Cup last weekend but there'll probably be more than a handful queuing up to oppose Manuel Pellegrini's side ahead of their trip to Hull. Since their 1-0 home league defeat to Chelsea at the beginning of February, City have looked a very poor imitation to the side which had won 18 and drawn two of their previous 20 games in all competitions, scoring 69 goals along the way. They appeared to be steamrolling their way to the title as well as countless other trophies but Jose Mourinho's tactical masterclass at the Etihad Stadium has proved to be a bigger body blow than it seemed at the time. Sure, they collected the Capital One Cup as expected but that's 'all' they may end up with following their Champions League and FA Cup exits, while they now find themselves nine points behind Chelsea in the title race - albeit with three games in hand. Recent performances won't fill City fans with too much confidence that they'll quickly get back up to speed but now all the other cup distractions are out of the way, are we to expect a more focused and hungry outfit? On the other hand, considering City struggled to cope with the mental and physical demands of being involved in four competitions, who's to say the fatigue factor won't still take its toll for their next fixture which comes hot on the heels of their Champions League defeat at Barcelona. With all this in mind, in addition to Hull being buoyed by their FA Cup progression not to mention the return of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic to their side, I feel another slip-up could be on the cards.
Verdict: Hull 1 Manchester City 1 (CH)
Hull have won just one of their last seven Barclays Premier League home matches (W1 D2 L4), while City are unbeaten in their last seven (W5 D2).
Manchester City haven't won away at Hull City in the league since their first ever meeting in October 1909. Since then, Hull have won four and drawn three of the seven home meetings.
Nikica Jelavic has three goals in his last four Premier League appearances but is yet to score a home goal for the Tigers.
Cardiff gave their survival hopes a shot in the arm with a much-needed victory last weekend, ending a run of five games without a win. However, before people start thinking they're a tasty price at 10/1 here, it should be pointed out last week's game could well have been cherry-picked - they were at home to the worst team in the league, Fulham. Everton won't prove such a soft touch - they've suffered just two league defeats at Goodison Park in two years now - and Cardiff face a huge task if they are to break another barren run (they've lost seven league games on the spin away from home, scoring just twice in the process). Everton aren't in the best of form and a tough run of away fixtures have all been lost, the latest in the FA Cup at Arsenal, a sequence which has have threatened to end their season prematurely. However, they are nothing if not resilient. November is the last time they went consecutive games without a win, while it's more than a year since they suffered back-to-back league defeats. I'd expect them to win this one. Backing them to win to nil at 11/10 will be the way some people will go when they see Cardiff's lack of goals on their travels but with Phil Jagielka still likely to be missing, I'm going down another route at a considerably bigger price. Everton's scratchy form means they have been grinding out wins of late rather than bossing games as they did before Christmas and with that in mind taking them to win by a single goal at 3/1 looks a decent play. That's been the result in three of their last four home games and with Cardiff scrapping for their lives the game seems likely to be tight.
Verdict: Everton 2 Cardiff 1 (AS)
Cardiff have won none of the last 11 Barclays Premier League away games (D2 L9) and lost the last seven in a row.
Everton have won 16 and lost just one of their last 22 home league games.
The Welsh side have failed to score in eight of their last 10 Premier League away trips.
Cardiff have conceded more headed goals (10) than any other side in the Premier League this season.
It's taken me a while to give up on Fulham, but I don't think we'll be writing about them in next season's Premier League previews. I must admit I've struggled to shake the idea that on any given day they could come good at home but I've at last come to the conclusion that this is a team stuck in a rut which is destined to end in relegation. I don't see a way out for them, and I don't see them getting anything from Newcastle who look cracking value at just under 6/4. Of course, much of the pre-game analysis will focus on Alan Pardew's absence from the stadium but I'm sceptical as to whether it will detract from Newcastle's performance and if I'm right, 6/4 is plainly too big. The layers haven't exactly missed Newcastle's win at Hull but I certainly don't think the Toon have received anything like the credit deserved given what happened off the pitch that day. A 4-1 win against a side who've beaten Liverpool at home and had previously conceded just 10 times is really strong form and it's no fluke, as Newcastle had already won at Villa, Cardiff, Manchester United, Tottenham and West Ham to reach 22 points - almost double last season's away tally and not far off the 27 which helped them finish fifth the year before. You could argue that they've nothing to play for but equally they look to have locked-up a top-10 finish, so if I were in charge I'd be urging them to throw caution to the wind week-in, week-out, in the hope of finishing up alongside or even above the likes of United and Everton which is no forlorn hope. Ultimately, we've an in-form side taking on the worst team in the league on all 2014 form and confidence is enhanced by the fact that Fulham have an abysmal record against top-10 opposition. It's easy to argue Newcastle should be evens and not impossible to argue their prospects of winning are even greater than 50-50.
Verdict: Fulham 1 Newcastle 3 (BC)
Fulham have won their last four Premier League home games against Newcastle.
Hatem Ben Arfa has scored in each of his three league appearances against Fulham.
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Fulham have lost 14 of their last 18 Premier League home matches (W3 D1 L14).
Fulham have scored nine goals from corners this season, more than any other side.
The Norwich formula is a pretty straightforward one and how you view their prospects here largely depends on how much you trust it, and how much you think their need to win versus Southampton's apparent lack of urgency will impact this game. Simply put, Chris Hughton's side are good at home, notwithstanding the odd Luis Suarez-inspired thumping. They are not so good away, where they've picked up just eight of their 29 points so far this season and are winless since early December. All this points to a straightforward Southampton win, except for the fact that their home record isn't perhaps all it's cracked up to be. Indeed, Norwich have gained more points at home than Southampton have so it's possible that Mauro Pochettino's side will do the bookies a favour and fail to oblige at 8/13. Certainly, I can see Norwich making life more difficult for the hosts than the odds imply, especially having won the reverse fixture 1-0, but I just can't see them winning. As such, the value in the match prices could well be the draw, one which Hughton would probably take and a result his side have had to settle for in seven of their last 16 games in all competitions. My concern is that, much like Newcastle, Southampton can play with the handbrake off and with their attacking options that makes for a potentially volatile game. That dynamic does lead me to a bet though - over 2.5 goals at evens. To my eye, this price doesn't reflect the current situation, more trends established from a different point of the season, and Norwich have shown of late that they do offer an attacking threat. Seven of Southampton's last nine home games - and, more relevantly, each of their last three - have seen three or more goals scored and their early-season defensive reliability seems to have waned quite significantly. As touched upon, they can do little bar put on a show for their season ticket holders and we could see this game defy the stats.
Verdict: Southampton 2 Norwich 2 (BC)
Southampton have won just one of their last eight Premier League home matches (W1 D3 L4).
Norwich City have lost eight of their last 11 away league games (W1 D2 L8) including the last four in a row.
Five of the last seven meetings in all competitions between Southampton and Norwich have ended as a draw (one win each).
Southampton and Norwich are the two sides to have let the most points slip from winning positions this season (15 each).
It looks like West Ham made the right decision to stick with Sam Allardyce earlier in the season when it would been too easy to swing the axe and now they sit top of the Premier League's distant 'second division'. Eleven points behind ninth-placed Southampton, the Hammers aren't quite as home and hosed as a mid-table side should be at this time of the season given the compacted nature of the bottom half, but their odds of 20/1 for relegation highlights the strong position they hold in the fight for survival. Since heavy cup defeats to Nottingham Forest and Manchester City - as well as a 3-1 home league reverse to Newcastle - piled the pressure on Big Sam, West Ham conceded just one goal in an unbeaten run of five games including four successive wins prior to last weekend's 1-0 loss at high-flying Everton so they'll be confident of keeping it tight once more against a Stoke side who tend to struggle up front. The last four games involving the Potters have yielded just six goals while striker Jonathan Walters, who has netted two in two, is banned following his failed appeal so fans attending the Britannia Stadium this weekend shouldn't anticipate a thriller. Under 1.5 goals can be backed at 9/5 while those prepared to be more daring can get 7/1 about there being no goalscorer.
Verdict: Stoke 0 West Ham 0 (CH)
The Hammers have conceded just one goal in their last four Barclays Premier League away outings.
Mark Hughes' side have lost just one of their last 11 Premier League games at the Britannia Stadium (W5 D5 L1).
West Ham have only lost one of their four Premier League trips to the Britannia Stadium (W2 D1 L1).
Tony Pulis has worked wonders at Crystal Palace since taking charge at a time when relegation seemed a question of when rather than if, and a victory over struggling Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Saturday will see them take a giant step to safety. I was almost guilty of counting my profits when the Eagles, who were my outright pre-season tip to finish bottom, had mustered just four points from 11 games prior to the former Stoke manager's appointment at Selhurst Park but seven league wins and two draws under his stewardship means they now sit two points and two places above the drop zone. On the other hand, second-bottom Sunderland know victory will drag the Eagles right back into the thick of it as well as potentially lifting themselves above the parapet so we can expect Gus Poyet's men to come out all guns blazing on home soil. The Black Cats have lost their last three games in all competitions but considering one of those was the League Cup final defeat to Manchester City and the most recent was an FA Cup exit at the hands of Hull, they'll now have their heads screwed back on and focused for the survival fight. While Sunderland can be backed at a best of 23/20 for all three points, it might be worth taking the 23/10 about a victory to nil. Palace have only netted six goals away from home in the Premier League this season and even under the Pulis revival, they struggle to create chances on the road.
Verdict: Sunderland 1 Crystal Palace 0 (CH)
Sunderland have won just one of their last seven Premier League home games (W1 D2 L4).
Palace have scored just six goals in 13 Premier League away games this season, fewer than any other team.
None of the last 10 league meetings (inc. playoffs) between Sunderland and Palace has ended as an away win (eight home wins and two draws).
West Brom are still searching for their first victory under Pepe Mel but I feel they might just be worth a small punt at 7/2 to end that wait against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. Seven matches have passed since the Spaniard took control but rather than inspiring an upturn in fortunes, the Baggies now sit just one place above third-bottom Cardiff on goal difference and unless matters improve quickly then the prospect of relegation will continue to grow. Doubts persist about whether the Albion hierarchy have faith in Mel, who is 1/2 favourite to be the next manager to leave his post, but there has been a few encouraging signs thanks to draws with Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea. Their opponents on Saturday still have work to do in order to secure their top-flight status and a winless run of six games in all competitions must also be a drain on their confidence, even though two of those were against Napoli in the Europa League. Overall I feel it's a much closer battle than the odds suggest and that's why I think there's a shred of value in backing the Baggies.
Verdict: Swansea 0 West Brom 1 (CH)
Swansea have won just four of their last 19 Barclays Premier League home matches (W4 D7 L8) but West Brom have won none of their last 10 away games.
If Swansea score in this game it will be the first time they've scored in five successive Premier League matches since October 2011 (six games).
11 of Victor Anichebe's 20 Premier League goals have come as a substitute.
Chelsea are winning games fairly comfortably at present without attracting the levels of attention that Manchester City did when blasting past opponents either side of Christmas. Chelsea's has been a steady progress yet look at the Premier League betting and they are now clear favourites for the title. Their fairly unspectacular rise has been based on keeping teams out and the obvious market to turn to is the 'win to nil' one in which Chelsea are offered at 6/4. Villa, whose awful home record has long been highlighted on these pages, have already lost home games without scoring to West Ham, Crystal Palace, Manchester United, Everton, Spurs and Liverpool. It seems a fair enough price but what puts me off is the fact that Villa have actually shown signs of picking up on home soil of late - they've banged in four goals in two of their last three here. For those looking for a Villa angle, Christian Benteke is returning to form and now has four goals in his last seven games. He's also troubled the Blues before, scoring in two of this three appearances against them, including in this season's reverse fixture. 11/4 anytime may look big to some but remember Chelsea have conceded just three times in their last 10 league matches.
Verdict: Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2 (AS)
Aston Villa have not won back-to-back Barclays Premier League home matches since August 2011.
Chelsea are unbeaten in their last six Barclays Premier League away games, keeping four clean sheets and conceding just two goals (W4 D2).
Frank Lampard has scored more goals versus Aston Villa than against any other opponent in Premier League history (13).
Christian Benteke has scored in two of his three Premier League appearances against Chelsea, while Branislav Ivanovic has scored four goals in seven against Villa.
Chelsea have come from behind to win 14 points this season, more than any other Premier League team. Villa (13) are second in this category.