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)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)

Chelsea’s needs to find a centre-forward during the January transfer window have intensified as they must make do without Olivier Giroud for the immediate future, starting with Wednesday’s match against Southampton at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues (13-4-3), who are provisionally two points clear of Arsenal for the fourth and final Champions League spot, have had only two true centre-forwards on their roster this season – Giroud and Alvaro Morata. While neither has filled up the back of the net – they have combined for six league goals and 11 in all competitions – coach Maurizio Sarri has been able to get by at the position by usually playing the more in-form of the two or by using Eden Hazard as a false No. 9 in his 4-3-3 set-up.

One of those options, however, has been removed in the short-term after Giroud limped off in the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace with an ankle injury after having a goal chalked off for offsides, and his timetable for a return is unknown. The World Cup-winning France international may not have the goal haul desired of a centre-forward, but his nous and industry in the box – often knocking down long balls for Hazard and the other Chelsea wingers to run onto – is keenly valued by Sarri.

“In the last two days we were a bit unlucky. Yesterday in 10 minutes we had three injuries: (Cesc) Fabregas, (Ruben) Loftus-Cheek and (Danny) Drinkwater,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “Now today Giroud, and we were already without Pedro and (Callum) Hudson-Odoi, so now we are in trouble because in January we have to play every three days.”

That puts the onus on the 26-year-old Morata, who has not scored since Nov. 4 in any competition, to take some of the scoring burden off Hazard, who has a team-best 12 goals overall. The Belgium international had factored in all of Chelsea’s previous five goals in the prior four matches before N’Golo Kante took a weighted pass from David Luiz and scored the match-winner on 51 minutes Sunday.

Chelsea have been linked to AC Milan forward Gonzalo Higuain and Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson as possible moves in the impending transfer window, but there is also the possibility the Blues could recall Michy Batshuayi from Spanish side Valencia or Tammy Abraham from Championship club Aston Villa from their respective loans.

Southampton (3-6-11) continue to scrap in the relegation mix and are 2-0-3 since Ralph Hasenhuttl took over following the sacking of Mark Hughes. The Saints were outclassed 3-1 at home by reigning champions Manchester City on Sunday, though there continue to be glimmers of promise that could help them avoid the drop.

One such moment came in the 37th minute when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, playing the high press Hasenhuttl wants to use after he can get more practice time in with the club, was able to dispossess a City player and beat Ederson for a short-lived equaliser. Hojbjerg, though, was not around at the end of the match, getting a straight red on 86 minutes for scything Fernandinho with a two-footed challenge and will miss the next three contests.

Hasenhuttl has not been afraid to give everyone a chance to earn minutes as 18-year-old Kayne Ramsay was the latest to make his first-team debut at right back. Hughes had only turned to fellow youngsters Yan Valery and Michael Obafemil shortly before being shown the door, but both – along with Ramsay – are being given every opportunity to win minutes as Southampton need all hands on deck to avoid the drop.

“It was one goal to have a view on all the guys who have practiced under my management and for the young players to have a good experience against a fantastic team,” Hasenhuttl explained to the club’s official website. “That’s what we tried to do and we are always demanding to give these players a chance. I think it was a very important game for Kayne and I think he did a good job.

“It’s our future and we have to work on that. For me, it was an interesting pressure because now the transfer period comes and I have to know which players I can count on.”

Hojbjerg’s absence means Mario Lemina will again be drafted into the midfield. After going to a four-man back against City and giving defenders Maya Yoshida and Jannik Vestegaard off Sunday, Hasenhuttl could opt for the three-man defence he has primarily used since his arrival at St Mary’s.

Chelsea have won seven on the bounce in all competitions between the clubs after a 3-0 victory in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s on Oct. 7. It was Ross Barkley’s coming out party for the Blues as he set up Hazard’s goal on the half-hour before scoring one on 57 minutes. Morata added gloss to the scoreline with a tally that finished a 31-pass movement.

Southampton are 3-5-11 at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League era, with the most recent win coming in 2015. Last season’s 1-0 Chelsea victory was the first time in the last seven matches in London there was a clean sheet.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are overwhelming 1/4 favourites to pick up another three points, while Southampton are 9/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/1.

Given Southampton’s frailities at the back against better squads, there are 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals scored in this match compared to 6/4 odds on them finishing under that threshold. The odds of Chelsea posting a clean sheet make the “No” option on both teams scoring a slight favourite at 3/4 compared to even money for “Yes.”

With Giroud expected to be unavailable, Hazard is a strong choice for first-goal scoring honours at 11/4, followed by Alvaro Morata (4/1) and the suddenly in-demand Hudson-Odoi at 9/2. Willian is a 5/1 pick to score first, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another step back at 6/1. Ings is Southampton’s top option at 10/1 while Austin is a 14/1 pick to mak it 0-1.

Hazard’s overall form makes him a 4/6 selection to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Morata even money to put one past McCarthy. Chelsea’s wingers — Hudson-Odoi, Willian and Loftus-Cheek — are all better than 2/1 odds, ranging from Hudson-Odoi at 6/5 to Loftus-Cheek at 8/5 with Willian in between (13/10). Ings is an 11/4 pick to score for the Saints, with both Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini both 4/1 options.

PREDICTION

If ever a match called for graft and grind for Chelsea, this is the one as they limp into the end of the holiday fixture list. The Blues have a chance to emerge with three wins on the bounce before likely overturning most of this starting XI for their FA Cup match versus Nottingham Forest.

At the moment, though, means another leaning on a moment of magic from Hazard to secure three points. The Belgium international has seemingly been a part of every key goal — save Sunday — and with the walking wounded seemingly growing with each passing day, Hazard might be the only in-form goal-scorer Sarri has at the moment.

Which, of course, brings us to Morata. The lack of available bodies has forced Sarri’s hand to the point he must start the Spaniard up front. With only 14 minutes under his belt after a four-game absence due to injury, Morata might only be effective for an hour in this match, but he may need to play all 90 minutes out of necessity. There are limitations throughout Chelsea’s roster due to injury — it does not seem out of the question Ross Barkley could wind up in an advanced wing role or that Victor Moses gets a rare start, transfer rumours not withstanding for the one-time Nigeria international.

For Southampton, this is a chance to be obstinate, play behind the ball and try to hit Chelsea on the counter in the bid to take at least one point from this match. The high-pressing style Hasenhuttl wants to use could be in play here since Jorginho is not the swiftest, and playing a triangle attacking style with the playmaker in the hole under the two forwards has proven effective at times versus the Pensioners.

The issue for Southampton is how much of the ball will they see in the attacking third. If the Saints sit back, the answer will be not much since it would turn into the kind of match where Jorginho will be spraying passes and Hazard will look to dart into pockets of space against the Saints’ back three. If Southampton are adventurous and press, it is possible Hazard pick them apart as well, but if they can dispossess Chelsea’s midfielders, there could be goal-scoring opportunities as well.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Southampton 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)

Coming off a chastening defeat in which all of their shortcomings were laid bare, Arsenal look to regroup and start the new year on a positive note Tuesday when they host relegation-threatened Fulham at the Emirates in a London derby.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The goodwill of all the positives the Gunners (11-5-4) accumulated under first-year manager Unai Emery – the 22-match unbeaten streak, the gaffer’s demands of accountability extending throughout the roster, the easy passage through to the Europa League knockout round en route to a top-five status with designs on a Champions League berth through a top-four finish – has been squandered with three losses in the last five matches in all competitions.

Each defeat has shown the gulf in class Arsenal must traverse to reclaim their status as Premier League title contenders, but Saturday’s 5-1 hiding at Anfield by Liverpool revealed all the flaws Emery must fix. Ainsley Maitland-Niles staked the Gunners to a 1-0 lead on 11 minutes when he knocked home a cross by Alex Iwobi, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter.

Arsenal’s threadbare defence was shredded by Roberto Firmino, who leveled the match in the 14th minute and put Liverpool ahead two minutes later as he slalomed through a pair of weak challenges. Then it was Stephan Lichtsteiner keeping Mohamed Salah onsides as he set up Sadio Mane for a third on 32 minutes. Penalties by Salah and Firmino on either side of halftime capped the bruising evening for the Gunners, one Emery did not hide from post-match.

“I think we started well, but after our goal, they pushed, and when they push here, they play with great determination and with players who can make difference all over the pitch,” Emery said. “They scored three quick goals and it was a difficult moment for us. We spoke in the dressing room – it’s another experience for us. A bad experience but an experience to learn from. In the second half we needed to stand up, to keep our position individually and collectively on the game.”

Mesut Ozil did not accompany the team to Anfield due to a knee injury, starting a fresh round of speculation whether there is any room for him on the squad, let alone the starting XI, going forward. Equally curious was Emery’s decision not to play top two scorers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette together, with Aubameyang completely starved of service up front – the Gabon international totaled just six touches and completed four passes, three of them coming on restarts after Liverpool goals.

“We have to work. We’ve been doing well until now,” Lichtsteiner told Arsenal’s official website. “We just need to keep working, looking forward at every game and try not to have more injuries, because it’s been a bad moment for us with injuries. It’s a challenge and one we need to accept.”

Laurent Koscielny will likely be restored into the starting XI to partner with Sokratis in central defence after Shkodran Mustafi had a torrid time and was subbed off at halftime. Arsenal are still dealing with a spate of injuries on the back line that have sidelined Nacho Monnreal and wide back Hector Bellerin, leaving open the possibility of Emery switching to a three-man back for this contest.

Fulham’s issues defensively come more from a lack of quality than injury issues, but the Cottagers (3-5-12) have begun to find their footing in that area with their first two clean sheets of the season in the last three matches.

Unlike their scoreless draw at Newcastle United on Dec. 22, Fulham made the most of their stingy defense and left it late to top Huddersfield Town 1-0 in a six-point relegation belter. Aleksandar Mitrovic slotted home a pass from Ryan Sessegnon in second-half stoppage time, saving the blushes of teammate Aboubakar Kamara, who vociferously demanded to Mitrovic he take the penalty awarded for a handball in the 82nd minute only to be stoned by Jonas Lossl.

Manager Claudio Ranieri was livid with Kamara post-match, telling Sky Sports, “”The man who should shoot the penalty is Mitrovic, and Kamara did not respect me, the club, the team-mates, the crowd, anybody.

“He take the ball and want to shoot the ball, it is unbelievable. I want to kill him.”

It was Mitrovic’s team-high eighth goal as he ended a six-match goalless drought. What Ranieri will do with Kamara is anyone’s guess, though Andre Schurrle could move ahead of him on the pecking order with the quick turnaround after the winger was a spectator from the bench for Saturday’s win.

Ranieri will also have to make at least two changes to his starting XI. Central midfielder and Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers cannot face his parent club, which makes Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa the most likely candidate to fill that spot. Anguissa has not played since being sent off for two yellow cards in Fulham’s 4-1 loss to Manchester United on Dec. 8.

The second change is more concerning since it involves injured centre back Alfie Mawson and comes at a delicate point for Fulham, who appeared to have made the necessary adjustments to a three-man back in which Mawson was flanked by Tim Ream and Dennis Odoi. Maxime Le Marchand replaced Mawson for the second half against Huddersfield and appears the best option to continue deputising in that role.

Arsenal played arguably their best league match of the season in the reverse fixture, storming to a 5-1 victory at Craven Cottage on Oct. 7. Lacazette snapped a 1-1 tie four minutes after the restart and completed his brace. Aubameyang set up Aaron Ramsey on 67 minutes and then added a brace of his own in the final quarter-hour.

The Gunners have won four on the trot over Fulham and are 9-4-0 against them at home in the Premier League era. The Cottagers have never left Arsenal grounds victorious in 26 all-time trips to north London (0-5-21) spanning 104 years since the first match Sept. 12, 1914.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Arsenal are solid 1/3 favourites to get off the schneid and get back to their winning ways, with Fulham established as 13/2 underdogs to get back-to-back league victories for the first time this term. The odds of a draw, also helpful to the Cottagers, are 9/2.

Despite Fulham’s improved defence of late, oddsmakers are not taking too much stock in another such performance as they are offering 4/9 odds on the sides clearing 2.5 goals compared to 7/4 for under that threshold. There are also 7/10 odds on both teams scoring one goal compared to 21/20 odds on at least one clean sheet being posted.

There is plenty of confidence by oddsmakers in Aubameyang regaining his scoring stride, with 11/5 odds on him scoring the first goal of the match. Lacazette (10/3) and Arsenal reserve forward Eddie Nketiah (9/2) round out the top three, with Aaron Ramsey and Bukayo Saka another step back at 7/1. Iwobi is a 17/2 option before Mitrovic unsurprisingly heads the choices for the Cottagers at 9/1. Kamara is one of three Fulham options at 14/1 with Schurrle and Luciano Vietto.

Aubameyang is a staggering 4/9 pick to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Lacazette is also a better than even money offering at 8/11. Nketiah is just off that standard at 21/20, while Ramsey and Saka are both 7/4 options. Mitrovic is a 12/5 pick to pace Fulham, while Iwobi is an 11/5 pick and Maitland-Niles offers a 15/4 return for confidence in scoring in a second straight contest.

PREDICTION

To sum up Arsenal’s performance in a word: Woof.

Simply put, there was nothing Emery could take from that performance save the nice finish from Maitland-Niles that gave the Gunners their short-lived lead. The ease in which Liverpool tore through Arsenal’s midfield — something that one always had a sense could happen if Torreira was off his game given the inconsistent nature of his holding partner Granit Xhaka — has to be a concern for Emery as much as the constant shuffling at the back that also appears to have finally caught up to him.

That is partially enforced because of all the injuries and figuring out how to replace Bellerin and Monreal — only Sead Kolasinac has proven to be a reliable option at left back among the understudies at the moment. Once this holiday fixture list ends and once the FA Cup is done next weekend, Emery has to begin finding the back three or four to go forward with as Arsenal vie for a top-four finish while running a parallel course to get into Champions League via the Europa League.

The fragility of the improvements Fulham have made defensively will be sorely stress-tested in this match without Mawson, whose absence could loom large in their bid to escape the drop. Le Marchand’s 45 minutes Saturday was his first match action since Dec. 5, and the summer signing will be thrown right into the fire against Aubameyang, Iwobi and Lacazette.

Ranieri’s other enforced change in central midfield with Chambers ineligible to play his parent club will also cause problems. How Fulham are going to break up plays in the middle with Jean Michael Seri and Anguissa will be pivotal in any bid Fulham make to nick a point from this contest.

Ranieri claimed he found something with Tom Cairney playing in the hole underneath Mitrovic and Luciano Vietto, but the bigger issue is whether “The Tinkerman” has the bottle to put young Sessegnon in a more forward role in one of those two spots or whether he keeps him wide on the flank in the midfield four. Sessegnon can play either position, and he was in the former position on the play that led to Mitrovic’s dramatic late winner.

Some of this match may be limiting the damage for Fulham as the bottom of the table has tightened considerably with clubs starting to separate themselves from last-place Huddersfield Town — 14th through 19th are separated by five points, and Fulham are four points clear of the Terriers.

But this is also a match where Arsenal must provide a response to their hammering by Liverpool, and though it may be a scruffy one as they regain their footing, they should be able to provide one.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 3, Fulham 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

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 (9-5-5+Sun)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)