2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 — Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)

For a man who has two of the biggest league victories of the season over Big Six sides, Leicester City manager Claude Puel appears to be treading on thin ice.

The embattled Foxes boss looks to keep the Midlands side atop the pack for seventh on Saturday when they host Puel’s former club Southampton at King Power Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Leicester City (9-4-8) are currently “the best of the rest” in the Premier League on 31 points, seven behind resurgent Manchester United. Seventh place carries the potential of a Europa League qualifying berth based on Carabao Cup and FA Cup results, but supporters were hoping for a deep run in the FA Cup after a respectable quarterfinal exit on penalties in the Carabao Cup versus current holders Manchester City.

Those hopes, however, were dashed with a shocking 2-1 loss at League Two side Newport County on Sunday, a side 74 places below the Foxes in the English football pyramid. Marc Albrighton handled a cross on 85 minutes that allowed Newport’s Under-16 coach, Padraig Amond, to slot home the winning penalty.

“A lot of disappointment and frustration,” Puel told The Times after making seven changes to the first XI that powered a 1-0 win over Everton to ring in 2019. “But it’s a cup game and we didn’t find the solution to score more goals. We have had a good team with eight who had played winning the title with Leicester. I don’t want to look for excuses.”

Puel’s man management has left him open to criticism that has canceled out the goodwill that should have been fostered with wins over Manchester City and Chelsea on top of the way he kept the side together following the tragic death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in October.

Puel and top striker Jamie Vardy – who did not even make the trip to Wales – have not seen eye to eye on multiple occasions this term, and leaving midfielder James Maddison on the bench until after intermission was another talking point in the Midlands.

“The good thing about football is that you get the chance to put it right as quickly as possible,” Albrighton told Leicester City’s official website. “We’ll aim to do that. We’re at home, so it makes it even better for us, we’ve got the crowd behind us and we’ll look to start well in the game and put last week to bed.

“We’ve had two close games against Southampton (this season). I know they’re probably a different task now with a new manager. They play differently and they seem to be playing with a lot more confidence.”

Southampton (3-7-11) are now three managers removed from Puel, who guided them to an eighth-place finish and a League Cup final in his lone season in charge in 2016-17. Mark Hughes was barely successful in keeping the Saints above the drop last term after replacing Mauricio Pellegrino, and now Ralph Hasenhuttl is trying to do the same after a miserable start this season led to Hughes’ sacking.

Southampton have improved since the German took over, but they did themselves no favours in the FA Cup on Saturday, having been held to a 2-2 draw at Derby County that will result in a third-round replay at St Mary’s. Nathan Redmond continued his purple patch of scoring with a brace on either side of halftime, but Tom Lawrence set up a goal and scored a second for Frank Lampard’s side in a three-minute span of the second half.

The match did allow Hasenhuttl a chance to observe more of Southampton’s younger players, with midfielder Callum Slattery making his senior team debut.

“I think he won a lot of balls from this position and also has the technique to look in front and give the last pass. I was happy with his performance and he showed he is always an alternative for me,” Hasenhuttl noted to the club’s official website about the 19-year-old.

Keeper Angus Gunn could be in line for a third consecutive start in all competitions after turning in a clean sheet in his first league start – a 0-0 draw versus Chelsea in which the 22-year-old made a pair of quality saves to deny Eden Hazard.

Up front, Hasenhuttl will be without top-choice striker Danny Ings through injury and Charlie Austin through suspension, with the forward being given a two-match ban by the FA for making an insulting gesture in Southampton’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City on Dec. 30. Midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will serve the last of his three-match ban for a straight red card given late in that contest.

Austin will miss this match and the replay against Derby County next Wednesday. The absence of Ings and Austin puts more pressure on Redmond to continue producing. He has four goals and two assists in his last six matches across all competitions.

Leicester City ran out 2-1 winners in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s in August, with Harry Maguire’s strike in stoppage time cruelly denying 10-man Southampton a point. Demarai Gray and Ryan Bertrand traded goals four minutes apart early in the second half, and the Saints played a man down after 77 minutes after Hojbjerg received a second booking for diving.

The teams also played to a scoreless draw in the round of 16 in the Carabao Cup before Leicester advanced on penalties after an 85th-minute goal by Southampton’s Steven Davis was overturned by VAR for a handball on Redmond in the buildup.

The Foxes have not done the double over Southampton in the Premier League since 1999-2000.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Leicester City are 19/20 favourites to bounce back from their embarrassing FA Cup exit and claim all three points, while Southampton are 10/3 underdogs to claim a road win and heap further pressure on Puel. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2.

Oddsmakers are predicting a low-scoring contest, with 8/11 odds offered for under the 2.5-goal threshold compared to 11/10 over it. It’s a toss-up as to whether both teams will score or a shutout will be recorded in either direction with 10/11 odds for both.

In a bit of a surprise, the Foxes striker leading the list for first goal-scorers is Kelechi Iheanacho at 15/4, nudging out Vardy (4/1). A trio of Leicester players — Maddison, Demarai Gray, and Shinjo Okazaki are all 13/2. Long was originally among that group, but with his suspension, the top Saints to make it 0-1 are Shane Long (9/1) and Redmond (10/1).

Iheanacho is a 6/5 pick to score during the course of the match, with Vardy in close pursuit at 13/10. The aforementioned Foxes threesome are each 11/5 picks to score a goal while Long is a 10/3 pick. Redmond and Stuart Armstrong both check in at 7/2.

PREDICTION

This space finds nothing wrong with the Leicester supporters being aggrieved about a potential FA Cup run scuppered with poor man management by Puel in terms of the in-match moves. It’s questionable to not bring Vardy, sure, but Puel has been consistent in that regards with the striker — even at considerable angst to gaffer, player and fan base.

A must-win sounds harsh, but a not-lose sounds more accurate. The good news is there appears to be such a margin of error regarding this chase for seventh with a rotating cast of characters among Leicester, Wolves, Everton, and West Ham United that one loss — even to a relegation-threatened side in Southampton — does not sound a death knell for those hopes. But a loss definitely adds to the irritability of those in the Midlands.

With Hasenhuttl not naming a starter between the sticks at his Friday news conference, the hedge is Gunn is going to be the one on the top of the team sheet when it is handed over. He looked calm and composed against Chelsea, and while it was smart to give him his Premier League debut at home, at some point, Gunn has to start on the road.

Why not here against an opponent playing in front of edgy home supporters? Why not now, because Southampton have played better as Hasenhuttl has blooded the kiddie corps. The Saints’ lack of offence up front and from anyone other than Redmond will probably be their undoing in this match, and not having Maya Yoshida (Asian Cup) in the back is going to be a problem against the irrepressible and tireless Vardy.

This is a game where his graft plus Maddison’s creativity separate the sides, who have already played two very close matches this season.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 1, Southampton 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 Preview — Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)

2019 has gotten off to a rotten start for Liverpool.

Denied in a bid to run away with the Premier League race and sent tumbling out of the FA Cup, Jurgen Klopp’s side look to stop the rot Saturday with a tricky tie at the AMEX against a Brighton and Hove Albion side playing some of their best football of the season.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Liverpool (17-3-1) were thwarted in their chance to open a 10-point chasm on the reigning titleholders as they fell 2-1 at Manchester City on Jan. 3. The Reds were unfortunate not to go up a man just after the half-hour when Vincent Kompany was only booked for a harsh challenge on Mohamed Salah, but they were also chasing the match for most of the 90 minutes.

Roberto Firmino gave Liverpool hope for a point with an equaliser on 64 minutes to cancel out Sergio Aguero’s first-half goal, but Leroy Sane scored eight minutes later for the hosts, who clawed within four points of the top spot and overtook Tottenham Hotspur – another two points further adrift – for third.

The intensity of that clash led Klopp to overturning all but two of his starting XI for Monday’s third-round FA Cup tie at Wolverhampton. An omen of things to come came in the sixth minute when centre back Dejan Lovren – a position Liverpool are already thin at – was forced off with a hamstring injury on six minutes.

The teams traded goals around halftime, but Ruben Neves’ long-range strike on 55 minutes proved decisive in a 2-1 defeat to the promoted side, leaving Liverpool with “just” the Premier League and Champions League trophies to play for between now and June.

“We have to make sure we bounce back and look at where we can get better,” midfielder James Milner told the club’s official website. “You’re never going to go a full season without having blips. I think at the start of this season we weren’t playing our best but we were getting results. (It’s) back-to-back defeats now, which really isn’t good enough for us, but you have blips in a season. It’s about how you respond.

“I think you’ve seen the character in the squad in the last few years, and the players we have, to know we will bounce back. We have to show that, though. It’s easy saying it in an interview, we have to do it on the pitch at the weekend.”

How Klopp fills Lovren’s absence at centre back will be something to watch. The Croatia international was behind Joe Gomez on the pecking order of centre back partners with Virgil Van Dijk, who himself is questionable for this match due to an illness.

Gomez is out injured, and while the FA Cup was an opportune moment to blood 16-year-old Ki-Jana Hoever as an understudy there, the teen is not expected to be on a league team sheet any time soon. The most likely option for Klopp is to drop defensive midfielder Fabinho into a pairing with Van Dijk should he be available.

Whether this is indeed a “blip” as Milner says or something larger could rest on Liverpool’s attacking trio of Firmino, Salah and Sadio Mane. Firmino finally found his form with his hat trick versus Arsenal and followed that up with a well-done finish versus City.

Salah and Mane both scored against the Gunners, so they are not slumping, but whether the trio can re-ignite at last term’s pace to take the pressure off Van Dijk and the back line remains to be seen.

Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) have quietly put themselves in solid mid-table footing and are 13th on 26 points, 10 clear of the drop. The Seagulls are 2-2-0 in their last four matches in all competitions and avenged their most recent defeat Saturday with a 3-1 win at Bournemouth in a third-round FA Cup tie.

Anthony Knockaert’s first goal in 12 matches swung that match in Brighton’s favour minutes after Bournemouth should have taken the lead through Lys Mousset. Yves Bissouma added his first goal of the term three minutes after Knockaert struck, and Florian Andone completed Brighton’s first three-goal effort since early December with a header on a corner just after the hour.

“I’d certainly rather be going into the game in good form than in bad form,” manager Chris Hughton told the club’s official website. “At the moment, playing at home to Man City or Liverpool are the toughest games you can play. They will be big favourites, as everybody would imagine, and it will be us doing as well as we can on the day.

“In this game, people won’t expect us to get anything and anything we do get will be a bonus.”

Hughton was not exempt from injury woes for this match as left back Bernardo has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Winger Jose Izquerido is also sidelined with a knee injury while attacking winger Ali Jahanbakhsh and first-choice keeper Mat Ryan are  representing Iran and Australia, respectively, at the Asian Cup.

The Seagulls showed plenty of fight in the reverse fixture, falling 1-0 at Anfield where Salah slotted home on 23 minutes. Brighton nearly nicked a point late, but Pascal Gross’ 88th-minute header was stopped by Alisson.

Liverpool have won all three top-flight matches since Brighton won promotion last season and rolled to a 5-1 victory at the Amex in 2017-18 behind a brace from Firmino.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are solid 3/10 favourites to get back on track in league play and pick up a victory. There are 5/1 odds on a draw, and Brighton are 10/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline with a second-choice keeper and extend Liverpool’s recent misery.

There are 8/11 odds on the teams combining for more than 2.5 goals while there are 11/10 odds on the teams being under that threshold for the second time this season. Oddsmakers are also expecting another clean sheet in Liverpool’s favour, with 8/13 odds on one team being held off the scoreboard compared to 6/5 odds both teams will get a goal.

Salah leads the line for first-goal scorers at 11/4, heading a list of nine Liverpool players before finding the first Brighton option in Glenn Murray at 10/1. Firmino and Mane are both 9/2 picks to make a 0-1 scoreline, trailing Reds reserve strikers Daniel Sturridge (3/1) and Divock Origi (4/1). Shaqiri lurks as an 11/2 option to open the scoring.

For 90-minute goal-scorers, Salah (8/11) and Sturridge (5/6) are both better than even money to bag a goal, with Firmino offering 13/10 odds along with Mane. Shaqiri is a 13/8 pick, and even Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana at 3/1 rates above Murray (10/3) in terms of scoring during the match.

PREDICTION

This match would have been far more intriguing had first-choice Brighton keeper Mat Ryan not left for the Asian Cup to represent the Socceroos. The Seagulls have proven a tough out at home against the Big Six, knocking off Manchester United and drawing Arsenal. They also have a victory over Everton at home and will certainly be no pushovers as they sit back, try to absorb pressure, and hit on the counter.

But this match is about Liverpool. They have answered a challenge before in needing a result to advance in the Champions League, but they also had the luxury of playing that crunch match at home. This is a third consecutive match on the road for the Reds, essentially trying out a defensive midfielder in the centre back position in Fabinho, and Van Dijk may not be 100 percent due to illness.

The good news for Liverpool is Firmino is in form, and Salah has been in form for an extended period of time. This is one of those matches where a moment of magic on set-ball pieces from Shaqiri is what Klopp’s side need to make a difference in this contest. Brighton rarely beat themselves, though Trent Alexander-Arnold could alsomake a huge impact on the right as he takes on Bernardo’s expected replacement Gaetan Bong.

This one may not be settled till the final half-hour, but this is where the championship mettle of Liverpool delivers a needed result.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Brighton and Hove Albion 0, Liverpool 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

 

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 Preview — West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)

West Ham United already knew they had a fight on their hands in a bid for a top-half finish while potentially contending for a spot in European play next term.

Now they have another one to keep their top striker in place ahead of Saturday’s derby at home against London rival Arsenal.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Irons (8-4-9) are currently in 10th place but only three points out of seventh, a spot that could result in a Europa League qualifying round berth depending on the Carabao Cup and FA Cup results. But an unnamed Chinese Super League club – rumoured to be Shanghai SIPG – has thrown a spanner into the works with a £35 million bid for striker Marko Arnautovic.

Arnautovic’s brother Danijel, who also represents him, went public with the Austria international’s desire for the London club to accept the offer, telling TalkSport, “He wants to go to a new market and challenge for titles. This is what he wants. It is his great desire West Ham accept the offer from China.”

West Ham, who bought Arnautovic from Stoke City for £20 million in July 2017, issued a terse statement that read: “Marko has a contract and we fully expect him to honour it. He is not for sale.”

Arnautovic is the joint-leader in goals for West Ham with eight after scoring the opener in their 2-0 FA Cup win over Birmingham City on Saturday. He nearly got into a row with Manuel Pellegrini upon his precautionary removal after 20 minutes due to a twinge in his back, but the Chilean manager would not back down from his decision given the Irons have 17 league matches remaining.

“It is not very important,” Pellegrini said post-match according to the Guardian. “It was better to change him because he is just coming back from an injury. He could continue but it was better to protect him. He was angry for one minute.”

West Ham do not have many true centre-forwards beyond Arnautovic, with Andy Carroll also rumoured to be on the move in the January window. The oft-injured Carroll scored in second-half stoppage time to seal the victory with his first goal since April.

The win also marked the debut of midfielder Samir Nasri, who arrived on West Ham on a free transfer and was eligible after serving an 18-month ban for doping. The one-time Arsenal midfielder played 58 minutes before being subbed out for Robert Snodgrass, and the expectation is the former France international will at worst be among the 18 for this contest.

Arsenal (12-5-4), who are three points behind Chelsea for fourth and three ahead of hard-charging Manchester United, also emerged unscathed in the third round of the FA Cup as they won 3-0 at Blackpool on Saturday. Joe Willock had a first-half brace as Unai Emery overturned seven of his starting XI that won 4-1 over Fulham to ring in the new year.

While West Ham are being dragged into the January transfer window, it appears the Gunners do not have much interest in it. Emery raised a few eyebrows at his Thursday news conference when he announced the club would only add players via loan in this window, which adds to the intrigue of whether midfielder Aaron Ramsey would leave this month.

Ramsey started in the win over Blackpool and has been linked with a move to Juventus, but he and Emery appear to be on the same wavelength regarding professionalism. To Emery, that makes Ramsey available for selection.

“It’s an individual situation rather than the team,” he said about Ramsey. “My idea and focus, I say to him every day, is that we need his performance for us. In the last match I was very happy with him. I asked in the last match at Blackpool if he is OK to help us play and he said, ‘Yeah, coach, I want to play’ and he played with a very big behaviour and commitment to us.

“Every day he’s here with us, he’s working very well. I want his behaviour and his focus to be on West Ham on Saturday.”

The break for the FA Cup allowed Arsenal to start working back to full health as Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Dinos Mavropanos, Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal and Mesut Ozil all resumed training with the first team this week. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Rob Holding and Danny Welbeck all remain long-term injury absentees, with Mkhitaryan expected to resume practicing next month.

The teams have kicked on to differing levels since Emery recorded his first league win at Arsenal in the reverse fixture in late August. The Gunners ran out 3-1 winners in that match, with West Ham defender Issa Diop’s own goal on 70 minutes snapping a 1-1 deadlock. Arnautovic and Monreal traded goals five minutes apart in the first half, and Welbeck scored in stoppage time to seal the win.

Arsenal have won three on the bounce in all competitions in this derby and are unbeaten in the last seven (5-2-0) overall. The Gunners are also unbeaten in their last 11 trips (8-3-0) to east London since a 1-0 loss at Upton Park in 2006 and 18-4-1 in the last 23 overall meetings.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Arsenal are 21/20 favourites to win this London derby, with West Ham 5/2 underdogs to claim all three points amid the distractions of the Arnautovic saga. There are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

Oddsmakers are overwhelmingly expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 going under that total. It’s also expected both teams will score, with 1/2 odds of no clean sheets compared to 6/4 with at least one.

Arsenal’s strikers Aubameyang and Lacazette lead the line for first goal-scorers at 3/1 and 4/1, respectively. The man of the moment — Arnautovic — is an 11/2 selection and top option among the Irons. Arsenal reserve Eddie Nketiah checks in at 6/1, just ahead of Carroll at 13/2, while his Hammers teammates Chicharito (13/2) and Lucas Perez (7/1) follow.

Aubameyang is a 4/6 pick to score during the match, and Lacazette is even money to do so. Arnautovic is tabbed as a 7/5 option, while Nketiah again pips Carroll and Chicharito, this time at 8/5 compared to the Irons duo at 7/4. Ozil lurks as a 2/1 anytime option and 15/2 pick to make it 0-1.

PREDICTION

Well this is less than ideal for West Ham, isn’t it? After the Chinese Super League had cooled off in recent windows regarding exorbitant offers of Premier League players, here come Shanghai to drop a haymaker of an offer for Arnautovic. The grandstanding between his agent brother and the club (though, to be fair, the club’s terse statement after his Danijels statement almost caused whiplash it came so fast) will be something to watch in the coming days or perhaps weeks.

It is unfortunate because at the very least, West Ham had the appearance of a team that looked like they had a proper 18 for league play and definitely did not lack for options in attack. One almost wonders whether they secretly wished it was Carroll and not Arnautovic being the apple of Shanghai’s eye to finally be rid of the oft-injured forward.

It almos gives the feel that Arnautovic’s anger about being lifted was premeditated, that he and his brother knew this offer was coming down the pike. That’s a conspiracy theory for another day, but something to chew on.

For Arsenal, they are near or at the point where they have their entire first-choice back four for Emery to begin seeing just how good this team can really be. And Emery deserves credit for plugging players in uncomfortable spots and pragmatically flexing between different formations to not only mask deficiencies but keep Arsenal in the hunt for a top-four spot. There is still a gulf in class to the top three, but fourth is most certainly attainable.

It would not be surprising to see Ramsey start over Ozil, but there has to be a stick-or-twist moment with the former Germany international decides he is on board or starts plotting his next move. It’s laudable to hold everyone accountable, but Emery cannot keep citing “matchups” as a reason to keep his most creative playmaker off the 18-man roster at times.

This is the first time West Ham have had to deal with an external distraction, but to Pellegrini’s credit, he did well to right the ship after a self-created one with his side’s four-loss start in league play that included the defeat at the Emirates.

Arsenal, though, look primed to take advantage of the circus around Arnautovic and should power through for three points here.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham 0, Arsenal 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2019 Carabao Cup 1st Leg Semifinal Preview — Manchester City vs. Burton Albion

With a Clough, there’s a chance. Or so Burton Albion believe.

The fairy-tale saga of the League One side continues Wednesday in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City at the Etihad.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

 

The Brewers are 52 spots below City in the English football pyramid, but that has not stopped Staffordshire supporters from dreaming a little dream. After all, Nigel Clough’s side have won five matches — punching above their weight class at times — to get this far. And perhaps the third League Cup semifinal is the charm for the younger Clough after making the final four with both Derby and Sheffield United.

“We’re looking forward to enjoying the experience [at Manchester City],” Clough told the BBC as media descended upon Pirelli Stadium during the week to pick up the narrative of Burton Albion. “No-one gives us a chance but there are supporters who have been following us for 50-60 years who would never have dreamed we’d be in a League Cup semi-final.

“Let’s hope everybody goes along to enjoy it. Every game you have a chance, it’s what degree that is. Ours is extremely slim.”

Clough is no stranger to the League Cup, having won it as a player at Nottingham Forest when his father Brian managed the club in both 1989 and 1990. The elder Clough won it two other times for Forest during their glory days of the late 1970s when they also won the European Cup twice.

His current side have overturned deficits twice en route to the Final Four, including a 2-1 victory over Premier League side Burnley in the third round. In the last two victories, Southampton loanee Jake Hesketh has bagged the winner, seeing Burton through to this round after his goal separated the Brewers from Championship side Middlesbrough at Riverside.

“I think he’d have been proud of our clean sheet and the away performance that we put in,” Clough said after the win at the Riverside. “I think he would have been proud of the way we went about it.”

Manchester City appear to have caught a second wind with three wins on the bounce following back-to-back losses to Crystal Palace and Leicester City. The Citizens made sure there would be a title race for the short-term future last Thursday, defeating current table-toppers Liverpool 2-1 to deal the Reds their first league loss.

Pep Guardiola’s side showed no signs of a letdown in their FA Cup introduction, slicing through Rotherham United 7-0 at home Sunday. The Spaniard overturned nine players from the XI against Liverpool — still sporting a staggering amount of talent — and they were properly ruthless.

Ilkay Gundogan racked up four assists, and Kevin De Bruyne took a major step forwards to being 100 percent healthy after two stints on the shelf with knee injuries, tallying an assist in his 67 minutes of action. Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane all found the back of the net as the only one of City’s five primary attackers — Sergio Aguero — is expected to get his chance to hunt goals in this contest.

With Liverpool out of this cup and also out of the FA Cup after a shock third-round exit to Wolverhampton, attention was turned to City’s title chase and their chances to make up a four-point deficit in the final 17 matches as they also pursue four trophies.

“If everyone is fit we can cope with it,” Guardiola told The Times on Tuesday. “I like to be in four competitions as far as possible. I take the cups seriously. With the quality and amount of players we have you can do it because the team is always stable.”

For all the attacking firepower assembled, there is still a touch of irony that defensive midfielder Fernandinho may be the glue that holds all of City’s hopes together. The veteran watched the win over Rotherham from the bench and should be available for this contest.

Also available is left back Fabian Delph, who completed his three-match ban for a direct red card given late in City’s Boxing Day loss to Leicester City. The Citizens are still without their first choice at that position — injured Benjamin Mendy — and Delph’s absence caused a massive shuffle in the back four that saw Guardiola use Aymeric Laporte at left back and Danilo on the right as the pair rated higher than Kyle Walker.

HOW MANCHESTER CITY GOT HERE:

Sept. 25 — W at Oxford United 0-3 in third round
(Jesus 36′, Mahrez 78′, Foden 90+2′)
Nov. 1 — W vs. Fulham 2-0 in round of 16
(Diaz 18′, 65′)
Dec. 18 — D at Leicester City 1-1 in quarterfinals, advanced 3-1 on PKs
(De Bruyne 14′, Albrighton 73′)

HOW BURTON ALBION GOT HERE:

Aug. 14 — W 1-2 at Shrewsbury Town in first round
(Whalley 27′, Templeton 45′, Akins 64′ (PK))
Aug. 28 — W 1-0 vs. Aston Villa in second round
(Boyce 52′)
Sept. 25 — W 2-1 vs. Burnley in third round
(Long 40′, Boyce 62′, Allen 83′)
Oct. 30 — W 3-2 vs. Nottingham Forest in round of 16
(Janko (OG) 52′, Fraser 64′, Grabban 70′, Hesketh 82′, Appiah 90+2′)
Dec. 18 — W 0-1 at Middlesbrough in quarterfinals
(Hesketh 48′)

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Burton Albion are 50/1 longshots to pull off a shock scoreline and return to Burton upon Trent with a lead after the first leg. The reigning Premier League champions are 1/25 favourites to move 90 minutes closer to the final with a lead, and there are 20/1 odds of the match at the Etihad finishing level.

Oddsmakers are not expecting the League One side to offer much resistance, with 2/9 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 16/5 odds below that threshold. They are also expecting City to post a clean sheet, with 1/3 odds on there being at least one “0” on the scoreboard compared to 9/4 odds for both teams scoring.

Aguero leads the line for first goal-scoring options at 2/1, followed by a parade of City players that reads: Jesus (13/5), Sterling (15/4), Mahrez (9/2), Sane (5/1), David Silva (7/1), De Bruyne (7/1), Felix Nmecha (7/1), Bernardo Silva (8/1), Gundogan (9/1), and Phil Foden (9/1) rounding out the options better than 10/1. Boyce is the top option for Burton at 28/1, with Lucas Akins 33/1.

There are five City players better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes — Aguero (2/7), Jesus (2/5), Sterling (4/6), Mahrez (4/5), and Sane (20/1). Boyce offers a 7/1 return for an any-time goal while Akins is a 17/2 option.

PREDICTION

On the bright side for Burton Albion, they come into this match on the heels of their biggest victory, a 4-0 hiding of Rochdale on the road and are 2-2-0 in their last four matches overall. Marcus Harness had a hat trick Saturday and set up Boyce’s goal. The Brewers are also riding back-to-back clean sheets for just the second time all term, having gotten a point at Bristol Rovers with a scoreless draw.

And now, we present this reality check. Everyone loves the underdog, no one roots for Goliath and so on and so forth. But after watching City go through their gears and leave the smoking shell of Rotherham in their wake, is there any reason to believe something similar will not happen here?

There are always keys of course. Can Burton survive the first quarter-hour unscathed? They have gotten through their last 17 matches without giving up a goal in the first 15 minutes dating back to a 3-2 win at Plymouth Argyle in October.

The Brewers also have been given just two red cards this season, with the most recent one coming in late August. There are certain things underdogs must do to have any chance in this match, including not give up a goal in the five minutes on either side of halftime and in stoppage time. It would be nice not to concede a penalty, but that may be too big an ask given City’s firepower coupled with Burton shipping 43 goals in 35 matches.

But the real problem for Burton Albion is City will be taking this match seriously. The switch finally flicked “on” for Guardiola’s side with that pulsating win over Liverpool, and there is still a current of electricity running through them. De Bruyne is getting closer and closer to 100 percent, Vincent Kompany is quietly giving them solid outings every time he’s called upon, and after Sunday, everyone is scoring goals.

As Gary Oldham famously screamed in The Professional, “EVERYONE!”

It will be Aguero’s turn Wednesday. It may be just one, it could very well be two, but the hope is Burton play for themselves and punch above their weight one more time.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 4, Burton Albion 0.

OTHER CARABAO CUP FIRST LEG SEMIFINAL:

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

Last season’s Manchester City side are considered one of the best all-time in English football history. Yet if the defending champions cannot at least draw current table-toppers Liverpool at the Etihad on Thursday, there is the very real chance they could be second to the Reds in history’s annals come May.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The first 100-point side in Premier League history, Manchester City (15-2-3) set a host of league records as they won the title by 19 points over eternal rivals Manchester United. Liverpool were a respectable fourth but gained plaudits by eliminating City over two legs in the Champions League quarterfinals en route to a runners-up finish to Real Madrid.

Liverpool (17-3-0) addressed their shortcomings in the offseason, most notably between the sticks with the acquisition of AS Roma keeper Alisson, and also added bargain-signing Xherdan Shaqiri as a change-of-pace offensive option. Midfield newcomers Fabinho and Naby Keita have teamed with towering centre back Virgil Van Dijk to transform Liverpool from a team who needed to outscore opponents to one who can suffocate them if needed.

“City is a game that we want to win,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website. “It will be very hard, very tough, but for them as well. It’s going be a good match, but it is not a decisive game or something like that. We are not going to treat it different to any other.

“We will be prepared for a very tough game. Confidence is definitely here, but it can change over a couple of games. We won’t get carried away. We need to keep doing what we have been doing.”

Jurgen Klopp’s front-running side have conceded a league-low eight goals – eight fewer than joint-second City and Chelsea. They have recorded 12 clean sheets – already more than the 10 registered in their last serious title challenge under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14.

Though people are quick to point out Liverpool are the only team leading at Christmas not to win the Premier League title the past nine seasons (2013-14 and 2008-09), Klopp insists his side are only focused on the singular task of winning this contest and not the reward of a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap a victory would provide.

“We don’t think about the gap, not for a second. What we think about is 54 points – unbelievable, to be honest. That’s really strange and feels strange,” Klopp said, well aware his side are on pace to top 100 points like City did last term. “All we can do is keep going; recover first of all, that’s very important, and then prepare the next game.

“We all know, wow, Man City are a fantastic football team and an away game at City – who can go there and think ‘Probably we will win’? No team in the world, not even us. So we have to go there and try everything to get a result. That’s what we will try.”

Liverpool gained a measure of revenge against one of the three teams to hold them to a draw in the first go-round, swatting Arsenal aside 5-1 at Anfield on Saturday. After falling behind at home for the first time in league play – Liverpool have trailed at Anfield for all of seven minutes in all competitions – Roberto Firmino ended a goal drought that dated back to Dec. 5 with two goals three minutes apart. The second goal by the Brasil international was a slalom through a sea of weak Arsenal challenges before beating Bernd Leno.

Mohamed Salah set up a goal for Sadio Mane before converting a penalty in first-half stoppage time. The Egypt international then made a classy gesture early in the second half, stepping aside for another penalty attempt to let Firmino complete his hat trick. Having Firmino in form is an ominous sign for City considering the trio scored seven of Liverpool’s nine goals in the four matches between the teams last season.

Klopp will once again have to decide between using a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Fabinho and Keita have a good partnership as defensive midfielders, but the manager does not lack for options as he can also turn to James Milner and Giorginio Wijnaldum in a mix of potential midfield combinations.

Manchester City gained a semblance of their swagger back last time out with a 3-1 victory at Southampton on Sunday. The match swung late in the first half when an own goal by Saints’ James Ward-Prowse off a shot by Rahem Sterling snapped a tie late in the first half, and Sergio Aguero added a tally right before the halftime whistle in stoppage time.

But what gave City confidence for this match was the return of central midfielder Fernandinho, who was sorely missed in their losses to Leicester City and Crystal Palace. The Brasil international served as a disruptive force in repelling Southampton’s attacks, which in turn allowed City’s attack to pour forward with their usual menace as David Silva scored his first goal since returning from injury and his ninth in all competitions.

Aguero has been a pest to Liverpool, especially at the Etihad – the Argentina international has scored in all six home games versus the Reds for City. One goal shy of 250 for his career, Aguero is willing to give Liverpool their due but also wants his side to be true to themselves in this crunch clash.

“Liverpool’s growth as a team can be tracked from a few years back,” the striker noted to City’s official website. “Their showing in the Champions League was a testament of that, and they are performing very well this Premier League season.

“But our focus should be on our own game. We are confident in our playing style and we believe it’s the most effective to lead us to victory. There’s no denying it is a huge game for both clubs. Direct clashes between leading teams have a major impact towards the end of the season.”

City manager Pep Guardiola has some injury concerns, most notably with attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he was held out of Sunday’s match as a precaution with a knock. Tactically, Guardiola must figure out who he wants at left back with Fabian Delph serving the second of his three-match ban for a red card on Boxing Day.

Oleksandr Zinchenko looked out of his depth there versus Southampton, getting dispossessed on the play that led directly to Southampton’s goal. Guardiola could move Danilo from right back to left while restoring Kyle Walker to his usual spot at right back.

If De Bruyne cannot play, Bernardo Silva would likely be on the right of Fernandinho in City’s 4-3-3 set-up.

The teams played to a cagey scoreless draw at Anfield, though City let Liverpool off the hook on 86 minutes when Riyad Mahrez blasted his penalty into the crowd on the Anfield End. For all the offensive fireworks these clubs provide, both teams rarely pushed their wide backs forward as a means of neutralizing the pace of the other.

In addition to the Champions League quarterfinal sweep, Liverpool have been a bogey team for City and are 7-3-1 in the last 11 overall meetings between the clubs. The Citizens’ lone win was a 5-0 thrashing of 10-man Liverpool at home last term, with Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane bagging braces after Mane was given a straight red card on 37 minutes for a reckless challenge on City keeper Ederson.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester City are even-money favourites to deal Liverpool their first loss, while the Reds are 12/5 underdogs to claim all three points and create a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap between the sides. There are 11/4 odds on the teams splitting the points to maintain the status quo.

The scoreless draw in the reverse fixture has put no fear in oddsmakers expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds for another such result under the threshold. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score in this contest compared to 6/4 odds on one of them being held off the scoreboard for the second time this season.

Aguero leads the line for first goal-scorer options at 10/3, trailed by Jesus (9/2). Salah rounds out the top three at 5/1, with understudy Daniel Sturridge 11/2 and City attacking winger Sterling at 6/1. Mahrez and Divock Origi are both 7/1 options, with Liverpool attacking players Firmino and Mane are both at 15/2. City winger Sane is 8/1, and Shaqiri is a step back at 9/1.

Despite the top-draw defences of both sides, Aguero does rate better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes with 4/5 odds, while Jesus is an 11/10 pick and Salah checks in at 5/4. Sturridge (7/5) and Sterling (8/5) round out the top five, while Origi and Mahrez are paired together at 15/8. Mane and Firmino also rate as equals at 2/1, with Sane (11/5) and Shaqiri (5/2) a step back. David Silva and De Bruyne are both 11/4 picks to bag a goal.

PREDICTION

Here is the £64,000 question: Is the scoreless draw in October between the two sides the anomaly of their last five matches or the expected outcome?

The 5-0 City rout in last season’s corresponding fixture has to be taken with an asterisk since Liverpool played nearly two-thirds of the match with 10 men and the score was only 1-0 when Mane was sent off. The reverse fixture at Anfield in 2017-18 was marked by a nine-minute thunderclap of three Liverpool goals in the second half before City frantically scrambled to get two back and nearly steal a point.

What seems abundantly clear, however, is Klopp is in the head of the usually unflappable Guardiola. There is still the lament for Guardiola not staying true to his ethos in last season’s first-leg Champions League tie at Anfield in choosing Ilkay Gundogan over Sterling and paying the heaviest of prices with a goal deficit too large to overcome at the Etihad.

In October, Guardiola was content to defuse Liverpool. The result was a dour match in which there were 13 shots combined. To put that number in perspective, consider Klopp’s team alone have attempted 13 or more shots in 14 of their 20 league contests while City have unloaded 13 or more in all but three league contests.

This time, City cannot afford to sit back. Must it be an all-out attack from kickoff? No. But there is most certainly going to be an urgency to finding a goal first. To fall behind 0-1 in this contest early could very well be game over, title race over because Liverpool can carve open any team on the counter regardless of quality of opponent.

While the above projects Liverpool to the 4-2-3-1 set-up Klopp has veered to of late in league play, it would not be all that surprising to see him revert to the 4-3-3 for two reasons. One is another midfielder — most likely James Milner if 100 percent — to help check on David Silva and/or De Bruyne should the latter be available for selection or even a start.

The second, though, is that formation lets Salah be the person who tries to run City’s left back — most likely Danilo — into the ground as opposed to having the Egypt international lead the line with Shaqiri on the wing. It also lets Klopp keep some of his powder dry with Shaqiri being the first option off the bench in the event he has find an equaliser in the final 15-20 minutes.

Also in the spotlight to a degree for Liverpool will be right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who watched the reverse fixture from the bench as Joe Gomez got the start. The 20-year-old has quietly evolved into a solid two-way player — though it also helps Liverpool often have overwhelming amounts of possession — after picking up three yellow cards in his first three matches.

This has the feel of a match where graft may be a higher premium than skill. While every player will display it in spades in this contest, it may also be one where Aguero finds yet another way to score against Liverpool — perhaps one that restores a proper Premier League title chase.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Liverpool 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

The sudden juggernaut who are Manchester United attempt to make it four wins in four under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday when they face Newcastle United at St James’ Park.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Solskjaer, best remembered as the striker who capped United’s historic treble with his dramatic stoppage-time winner versus Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, has breathed new life into what was a moribund United (10-5-5) since his arrival on loan from Norwegian side Molde.

The Red Devils have totaled 12 goals in his three matches in charge, with an emphasis on going forward with Paul Pogba in a more advanced role in midfield. The France international and World Cup winner has factored in seven of the goals scoring four and assisting on three after recording his second consecutive brace in Sunday’s 4-1 romp past Bournemouth.

One of the more notable differences under Solskjaer is Pogba finding his way into the penalty area, a sign of trust from the new manager and also a sign the defence in midfield is in capable hands with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.

Marcus Rashford contributed a goal and an assist, and in his first appearance for United under Solskjaer after returning from compassion leave, Romelu Lukaku capped the scoring on 72 minutes almost straightaway after his introduction for Rashford.

United are almost at full strength in attack, with Alexis Sanchez expected to be included for the first time since a reserve appearance against Crystal Palace on Nov. 24. The Chile international, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury in addition to reportedly falling out of favour with since-sacked Jose Mourinho, has just three goals in 22 league matches since joining United from Arsenal last January.

“Alexis has had some great training sessions over the last few days and wanted to be here (against Bournemouth) as well but we’ve had to manage him,” explained Solskjaer to the club’s official website. “He’s been out for a month. He will be involved (at Newcastle), yes. He wants to play all the time, he’s one of those characters. He made himself available but I think it was a few days too early for him. He’s not had enough fitness work but he is champing at the bit.

“I think Alexis is a player that would benefit from the interchanging, rotation and movements and, of course, more chances. If we create more chances and get the ball in the final third, he will be an asset for us.”

Solksjaer will be forced into one change from Sunday’s XI as Eric Bailly will begin serving his three-match ban for a reckless challenge on Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser. Phil Jones is expected to pair with Victor Lindelof in central defence, with Matteo Darmian on standby since Chris Smalling and Marcus Rojo are sidelined through injury.

There has only been light speculation over United’s doings in the upcoming transfer window, though the club has been linked to 19-year-old Ajax centre back Matthis de Ligt. Prior to his dismissal, Mourinho had been adamant about acquiring another central defender, but club chairman Ed Woodward rebuffed Mourinho’s want of Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld.

As Manchester United appear to have found themselves, Newcastle United (4-6-10) continue to scrap for any and all points in a bid to avoid the drop. The Magpies dropped two crucial points Saturday at Watford when they were pegged back for a 1-1 draw courtesy a late Hornets goal by Abdoulaye Doucoure eight minutes from time.

Salomon Rondon, who was rested Boxing Day when the Magpies took a 4-0 hiding from Arsenal, staked Newcastle to the lead just before the half-hour with his third goal in the last five matches he has played. The Venezuela international has scored or assisted on Newcastle’s last four goals spanning the club’s last seven matches and has accounted for five of their 15 goals in league play.

The impending transfer window will likely provide more friction between Benitez and embattled owner Mike Ashley, who is again reportedly close to selling the club. The Spaniard has spent nearly every window publicly beseeching Ashley to open the purse strings in post-match press conferences, only to have the amount fall short of what he desires or not seen at all.

With a contract that expires in May and no new offer to extend Benitez’s deal – much to the chagrin of club supporters who are firmly in the Spaniard’s camp – the gaffer gave the sound of a man whose loyalty is being tested despite sticking with them to win the Championship and earn promotion back to the Premier League in 2017.

“I think our fans are quite clever,” he told the Chronicle Live. “I decided to stay when I came here, and I thought we could save the team, but we couldn’t. I then decided to stay in the Championship, so they know about my past, about my history.

“They appreciate that, and then we won, which is football. Even if you have a good CV, you still have to win.”

Winning at home is something Newcastle have not done much of this term. The Magpies are just 2-1-7 at St James’ Park, totaling only seven goals while shipping 15. They also have six losses in as many matches to Big Six foes, with all but the defeat at Arsenal coming by one goal.

The loss to United at Old Trafford may have been the most painful one of the six as Newcastle roared to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes through Yoshinori Muto and Joselu, only to see Manchester United fight back in the final 20 minutes to win 3-2. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial scored in the 70th and 76th minutes, respectively, before Sanchez headed in his only goal of the season at the death.

Newcastle won last term’s corresponding fixture 1-0 courtesy of Matt Ritchie’s goal on 65 minutes but have won just six of 47 Premier League matches (6-14-27) between the sides.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United’s renaissance has caught the attention of oddsmakers as they are 4/7 favourites to win their fourth match on the bounce. Newcastle United are 9/2 underdogs to deal Solskjaer his first loss since taking over, and there are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

Even with Newcastle’s expected defensive set-up for this encounter, the odds of there being more than 2.5 goals are 4/6 compared to 6/5 odds on a total under that mark. With United still shaky at times in the back coupled with Newcastle having scored twice in the reverse fixture, there are 7/10 odds on both teams getting at least one goal compared to 21/20 odds on a clean sheet in either direction.

After scoring on his return from compassion leave, Lukaku is a 4/1 pick to score the first goal of this match, followed by Anthony Martial (9/2). Pogba, Rashford and Alexis Sanchez are all 5/1 picks to create a 0-1 scoreline, with Jesse Lingard is a 15/2 pick. Unsurprisingly, Rondon leads the line for the Magpies at 17/2, with Joselu (9/1) and Perez (10/1) rounding out the top three for the hosts.

No one on United is better than even money to score, though Lukaku (11/10) and Martial (6/5) are fairly close. The trio of Pogba, Rashford and Sanchez are all 11/8 options, with Lingard tabbed at 11/5. For Newcastle, Rondon is a 5/2 pick, followed by Joselu (11/4) and Perez (3/1).

PREDICTIONS

Benitez has some interesting personnel and tactical decisions to make considering how Manchester United are nothing like the side Newcastle faced in October. For starters, will he go with a five-man back for the third straight match? Despite the heavy 4-0 scoreline at Anfield, the Magpies did not play all that badly and were eight minutes from a crucial three-point pickup at Watford last weekend.

Rondon missed the first match through injury, and his form makes him a virtual must-start given Newcastle’s lack of scoring options beyond him. The loss at Old Trafford was one of just three matches all season Benitez’s team has scored more than one goal, and they have yet to register three in any contest. If Rondon operates by his lonesome, how do Liverpool supply him? Will it be through the flanks with Kenedy and Perez, or will it be over the top, with Shelvey appearing to be finally over his thigh injury.

Newcastle tried — with much success — pumping balls up to keep the Red Devils’ back four pinned just above the box in the first encounter, and Manchester United contributed to Newcastle’s success with some abject defending. Bailly, who lasted just 19 minutes before being fish-hooked out by Mourinho, will not be at the centre of any controversy this time around as a spectator.

This will be the first real test of United’s offence given the lack of quality of both Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, and the lack of anything resembling a top-tier defence from injury-ravaged Bournemouth last time out. Though the expectation is for Martial to start, seeing Sanchez from the opening kickoff would not be a surprise. Both have the capacity to give Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin a miserable time on the left.

For all their new-found prowess in attack, United are still a work in progress on defence. The expectation is Newcastle will be content to try and hit on the counter — thus the less possession the Magpies have, the better off United’s back four are. If Diogo Dalot does get the rotational start over Ashley Young at right back, how he deals with both Kenedy and Ritchie — who is more of a wing player than a fullback — will be something to watch.

As all this goes on, the subplot of Benitez versus Ashley in the transfer window will heat up quickly if things go sideways in this contest. It borders on unseemly that the perception is Benitez seemingly begging for table scraps in terms of what Ashley is willing to spend, which of course is no guarantee that any funds are forthcoming.

Much of the core of this side is the one who won the Championship in 2016-17. Benitez completely overachieved with this squad into a top-half finish last term, something that said as much about the “Other 14” in the Premier League in terms of overall quality. That holds true again to a degree, though there is a more defined stratification that makes the bottom half of the table more compressed after the Big Six and the next four among Wolves, Watford, Leicester City and perhaps Everton when they’re in the mood.

Newcastle are walking a fine line right now, and while a one-goal loss would be both unsurprising and frustratingly acceptable to this suddenly rejuvenated Manchester United side in the grand scheme of Premier League survival, a defeat like the one at Anfield could potentially make January a miserable month for the Magpies.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Manchester United 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)

It’s a rare thing to say about a promoted side at the turn of the calendar year, but barring an unforeseen and complete collapse, Wolverhampton are most certainly staying up come May.

Whether the Wolves harbour European aspirations will begin to unfold over their last 19 matches, starting with Wednesday’s tilt versus Crystal Palace at Molineux.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have been a thorn in the side of the Big Six clubs this term, taking nine points (2-3-2) from seven matches played. None, though, may prove to be bigger than the three they took off Tottenham Hotspur in Saturday’s 3-1 stunner at Wembley. Wolves scored three times in the final 18 minutes as Nuno’s nous and Wolves’ depth proved decisive.

Joao Moutinho, who came off the bench on 68 minutes, set up Willy Boly’s header for the equaliser four minutes later and then originated the play that led to Raul Jimenez’s go-ahead finish on 83 minutes. Another sub, Helder Costa, added a third with a shot that took a deflection off a Spurs defender that slipped between Hugo Lloris and the left post with five minutes left.

The result was Wolves’ fourth win in their last six matches (4-1-1) and a lofty status of seventh in the table on 29 points. Given how the Big Six sides also usually monopolize the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, Wolverhampton (8-5-7) could find themselves in Europa League qualifying if results break out accordingly, but that is still a long ways away.

“The key is all the group, all the players who were playing today and those who didn’t play, the sacrifice – we do it all the week, all these months – we work a lot and that’s the result of our training, our sessions,” the gaffer told Wolves’ official website.

“But that’s it. That’s our football. We can play it against big teams and small teams, we need to do the same and have the same spirit, and against Tottenham, our spirit came out and we won.”

It also helps to have an in-form striker in Jimenez, as the Mexico international scored his third goal in that six-game surge. Right back Matt Doherty is also proving to be a menace with a goal and two assists in that run after setting up Costa’s marker.

Moutinho likely will be restored to the first XI after Nuno gave Leander Dendoncker his first league start. It would also not be surprising to see teenage starlet Morgan Gibbs-White back in the pivot in a slight tactical tweak from a 3-4-3 to a 3-4-1-2 set-up that has Jimenez and either Ivan Cavaleiro or Adama Traore up front. Traore has blistering pace but a lack of finishing has prevented him from locking down a spot in the starting XI.

Crystal Palace (5-4-11) are trying to separate themselves from the relegation scrap and enter this match 14th on 19 points. The problem is the Eagles are one of the bottom seven sides separated by nine points, and that number is further compressed to five from 14th to 19th.

Palace were unable to nick a point off Chelsea at home, falling 1-0 on Sunday. For the most part, Roy Hodgson’s team did well to shut down superstar Eden Hazard, but a lapse early in the second half proved costly as N’Golo Kante was able to time his run to get behind the back four to control David Luiz’s lofted pass and beat Vicente Guaita on 51 minutes.

The Eagles tried to mix things up in the final 20-plus minutes by pumping balls into the box for Connor Wickham, but the forward spurned his best chance in the closing minutes by going over the bar after controlling a cross on a free kick.

“You win a couple and then you go and draw or lose a few so it’s about that consistency, I think a few more points on the board is what we need,” defender James Tomkins told Palace’s official website. “Let’s not shy away from it, we’re down there and it’s going to be a fight.

“I think it’s massively important if you’re going to survive in this league, we don’t concede many goals or lose by many goals but we need to find that balance and consistency of doing that and then scoring at the other end. We need to start against Wolves and hopefully we’ll get a good performance there.”

Palace failed to register a shot on frame versus Chelsea and have gone 235 minutes without a goal in the run of play since Andros Townsend’s wonder strike in their upset win at reigning champions Manchester City. The good news is that Palace are on the road, where they have netted 12 of their 17 league goals and 10 of their 19 points (3-1-6).

Doherty’s first top-flight goal on 56 minutes separated the sides in the reverse fixture at Selhurst Park on Oct. 6. This will be Palace’s first top-flight match at Molineux since a 2-0 loss in the First Division in 1980. Wolverhampton’s last double over Palace came in the Championship in 2008-09.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Wolves’ win over Tottenham Hotspur most certainly resonated with oddsmakers, who have made the hosts even money to pick up a second straight win. Crystal Palace are 11/4 underdogs to take all three points while a draw has 12/5 odds.

There is also expectations of a low-scoring match at Molineux, with 4/6 odds on a game with less than 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds to clear that threshold. There are also 3/4 odds on one team getting blanked compared to even money for both teams scoring.

Jimenez leads a list of five Wolverhampton players to potentially score the first goal of the match at 9/2, followed by Leo Bonatini (5/1). Cavaleiro and Helder Costa are joint-third options at 7/1, while Traore and Palace striker Zaha round out the top five at 15/2.

Jimenez is also an 8/5 selection to score for the fourth time in seven matches for Wolves, with Bonatini a 7/4 selection. Cavaleiro and Costa are 13/5 options, followed again by Traore and Zaha at 11/4.

PREDICTION

It sounds counterintuitive on the back of their biggest win of the season, but Wolverhampton need to at least not lose this game. Nuno’s side are unquestionably one of the bright stories of the Premier League, and when Wolves are on their game, they are a top-half and potentially even a top-eight side.

Following up big wins with another victory are part and parcel of a side’s evolution, and Wolves have already shown themselves capable of such results — they followed up a victory over Chelsea by winning at Newcastle United to trigger this six-game surge.

While there is a possibility Nuno could rest Ruben Neves again for Roman Saiss like he did previously in the Fulham match, the belief is Neves gets the call and then Nuno plots his FA Cup course. The expectation is Gibbs-White returns to the first XI, and Costa gets the call for Traore, who is nursing a knock and could be better utilised as a pacy option in the final 20-30 minutes against an obstinate Palace back four.

Tomkins comments about the relegation scrap were telling, that Palace are under no illusions a hard grind is ahead for the next five months. Roy Hodgson’s appears to have just enough talent to tread water, but they also need something exceptional to have breakthrough moments. They have been too infrequent in terms of production from Wilfried Zaha, but he also has lacked a consistent partner whether it be Townsend, Jordan Ayew, the injured Christian Benteke or now potentially Wickham.

Palace, though, have had some of their best offensive performances on the road this term, scoring 12 of their 17 league goals outside Selhurst Park. Wolves have recorded just one clean sheet in their last 12 league matches since blanking Palace at Selhurst Park in October, so there is definitely an opportunity for the Eagles, but the hosts appear to be in too good a run right now to be stopped.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 2, Crystal Palace 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)