EPL PREVIEW: Hectic festive schedule to separate contenders from pretenders

Chia Han Keong
·5-min read
Manchester United's Anthony Martial (right) is brought down by a challenge by Leicester City's Jonny Evans (left) and Wes Morgan.
Manchester United's Anthony Martial (right) is brought down by a challenge by Leicester City's Jonny Evans (left) and Wes Morgan. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Carl Recine)

SINGAPORE — What are the key matches and storylines to look out for in the next round of English Premier League (EPL) action? Yahoo News Singapore lists the top three:

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Leicester City vs Manchester United (Saturday 8.30pm, Singapore time)

This year’s festive stretch of the EPL contains three gruelling rounds of matches stretching from Boxing Day past New Year’s Day. Traditionally, this is the period when top teams tend to pull away from the chasing pack, while the weaker teams will sink to the bottom and into relegation trouble.

The blur of matches begin at King Power Stadium, where second-placed Leicester City host third-placed Manchester United in a clash between a surprise title challenger and a revived powerhouse.

The Foxes have developed into a cohesive unit under manager Brendan Rodgers, signing lesser-known players who have thrived under the Northern Irishman’s tutelage – players like Youri Tielemans, James Justin and especially Wesley Fofana.

Together with established stalwarts Jamie Vardy and James Maddison, Leicester are proving to be an effective, tough-to-beat team able to contend for European qualification. Certainly, they have shown that they have not faded into irrelevance after their fairytale 2016 EPL triumph.

Meanwhile, Man United are enjoying a fine run of form of late, as a 6-2 rout of Leeds propelled them up the league table following an indifferent start to the season.

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s roller-coaster two-year tenure has been marked by superb winning streaks as well as worrying losing slumps, and it is hard to predict what and when the next run will be. Nonetheless, with a game in hand over most rivals, the Red Devils are primed to be among those qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

Squad-wise, Man United still seemed to have players who are perennially underachieving (see Paul Pogba), but as proof of their spending power, they still have enough talents – the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay – to pull out victories even when they seemed to be struggling.

Against Leicester, however, they will have to be at their best in order to get any positive result and keep their momentum going. In a sense, this will be a stern test as to whether they can mount any kind of credible title push against their dominant arch-rivals Liverpool.

SCORE PREDICTION: Leicester 1 Man United 1.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta looks dejected after their 1-2 EPL loss against Everton.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta looks dejected after their 1-2 EPL loss against Everton. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Peter Powell)

Arsenal vs Chelsea (Sunday 1.30am)

The ongoing saga of Arsenal’s mighty struggles at the lower half of the EPL table could reach a tipping point in their tough home match against Chelsea.

News of French giants Paris Saint Germain sacking their manager Thomas Tuchel on Christmas Eve have already send pundits boldly predicting that the German is set to replace beleaguered Mikel Arteta at Emirates Stadium.

The prediction does hold some water, given that Arteta seems increasingly out of his depth in his rookie appointment, despite a superb start to his tenure last December that peaked with an FA Cup triumph earlier this year.

Fast forward to now, and the Spaniard seems as if he is unable to tweak his tactics to stop the Gunners’ free-fall into a previously-unthinkable relegation dogfight. He has tried cajoling his players, even berating them, to play with more heart and intensity; it has not worked as Arsenal’s winless run is reaching a staggering two months in the league.

Given the wretched form and confidence amid the dysfunctional Gunners, it is difficult to see how they can even eke a win against a Chelsea side who had emphatically stopped a two-game losing run with a 3-0 thumping of West Ham.

In contrast to Arteta, Blues manager Frank Lampard – who is only in his second managerial job – has proven far more flexible in accommodating the numerous talents in his squad, and keeping them happy and motivated. The result is that Chelsea are building up a credible team that could challenge for honours in years to come.

They could very inflict more pain on Arsenal on Boxing Day, and if Arteta is unable to lift his squad to an improbable win, Tuchel might be waiting on the wings to replace him.

SCORE PREDICTION: Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2.

Newcastle United's Nabil Bentaleb (right) in action with Liverpool's Takumi Minamino.
Newcastle United's Nabil Bentaleb (right) in action with Liverpool's Takumi Minamino. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Laurence Griffiths)

Newcastle United vs Liverpool (Thursday, 4am)

Rounding up two hectic rounds of EPL matches, table-toppers Liverpool will visit Newcastle hoping to consolidate their lead atop the league.

Just like last season when the Reds clinched their first EPL title, they have made their move to climb to the top of the table just before the festive period.

Last season, they tore through the hectic schedule, beating Leicester (4-0), Wolves (1-0) and Sheffield United (2-0) to open up a big lead as other contenders faltered.

Will it happen again this season? The list of opponents for Liverpool looks comfortable enough – West Bromwich Albion (in 19th place), Newcastle (12th) and Southampton (seventh) – although they are working through a lengthy list of injury doubts.

Yet, last weekend’s 7-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace showed how far the Reds are ahead of the chasing pack. They seem to have that extra gear to blow teams away, or pull out a win even in games which they are not playing well.

Few other sides in the league have this trait at the moment, and it is testament to Jurgen Klopp and his backroom staff in patiently building a cohesive, mentally-strong squad of players since he took over in 2015.

Newcastle are no pushovers at home, yet it seems as if it is almost a given that Liverpool are favoured to win. Even at this juncture of the season, the title is firmly within their hands.

SCORE PREDICTION: Newcastle 0 Liverpool 2.