Andy Schooler and Chris Hammer preview Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League.
It may only be December, but this is a big game in the title race, make no mistake. If current leaders Arsenal win, then surely even their biggest critics must come round and believe they are in with a serious chance of winning the championship. Lose it and City will be breathing down the necks, while the Gunners will be facing a mental test of their resolve, particularly with Chelsea awaiting at the Emirates next week. Many will feel City can't afford to lose - defeat would leave them nine points behind - but whatever pressure that may bring they will be glad this game is on home soil for if any ground deserves a 'fortress' moniker these days, it is the Etihad. City's last 55 home league games have brought 49 wins, four draws and two defeats. When you see them on offer at 5/6 to win a home game, you have to be interested and I am. However, it's not just City's home record tempting me in. The run-in to the game has also favoured the hosts considerably. They played on Tuesday - and gained a memorable win from 2-0 down at European champions Bayern Munich. The success was also achieved with a virtual reserve side, meaning the first XI will be well rested for this one. Arsenal, who played their midweek game 24 hours later, will also make changes to the side which lost 2-0 away to Napoli, a result which has dented their Champions League chances with a tough draw now awaiting. However, there won't be that many and it was slightly worrying to hear Arsene Wenger admitting on Wednesday that "our legs went a bit" in the second half of that match. Arsenal disappointed in Naples and Olivier Giroud's dip in scoring form hasn't helped them in recent weeks. In contrast, Sergio Aguero can't stop scoring and he has 14 in his last 12 games. He and Alvaro Negredo will give the Gunners' improved defence their toughest test of the season, the pair having helped City score 29 goals in their seven home matches so far. I'm not sure you'll get 5/6 about a City home win again this season so take it while you can.
Verdict: Manchester City 2 Arsenal 0 (AS)
This match pits the two most clinical teams in the Barclays Premier League with City scoring with 20.6% of their shots and Arsenal 18.9%.
Arsenal have scored more goals than any other team away at Manchester City in the Premier League era (28).
City have the best home attack (29 goals) and the best home defence (2 conceded), while Arsenal have the joint-best away attack (14 scored) and the best away defence (5 shipped).
This is a tough one to call. Both these sides have enjoyed a handful of eye-catching results and produced some decent performances along the way but neither has won since the start of November and they subsequently find themselves hovering just above the drop zone. Cardiff can, of course, boast a home victory over Manchester City and a thrilling draw with Manchester United among their most best moments so far while West Brom managed to beat the latter at Old Trafford as well as pick up highly-creditable points in games against Arsenal and Chelsea. But these results could ultimately count for nothing if they continue to drop points against the sides around them. Therefore Malky Mackay and opposite number Steve Clarke will be targeting this clash as one to win as they seek to move away from danger but on current form, it's not easy to come down on one side over the other. Therefore, rather than focus too much on the result market, I'm instead going to advise a punt on there being over 2.5 goals, which is available at 11/10 with Paddy Power and BetVictor. Five of the last seven games involving the Baggies have seen three or more goals scored although it's significant to mention that two of those featured four and another two witnessed five. Cardiff's games aren't quite so prolific with only two in the same date range featuring three or more but as I expect both sides to show a real hunger for victory, there should be enough chances created to help win this bet.
Verdict: Cardiff 2 West Brom 1 (CH)
David Marshall has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the top flight this season (61).
Cardiff defender Steven Caulker (26) has blocked more shots than any other player in the Premier League this season.
West Brom have won just one of their last nine Premier League games (W1 D4 L4) and lost their last three in a row.
I'm starting to wonder if Crystal Palace have pinned my ante-post relegation preview to their dressing room wall as a source of motivation considering their recent revival but, realistically, I'm pretty sure that's more to do with the arrival of new boss Tony Pulis, who has already seen his side win two of this first three games in charge. The former Stoke manager was also watching from the stands at the KC Stadium when the Eagles beat Hull on the day of his appointment while the goalless draw at home to high-flying Everton a week before means they've only lost one of their last five games. The only goal they've conceded in that run came in the 1-0 defeat at Norwich so they're certainly not the pushovers we all assumed they would be after losing nine of their opening 10 league games. That said, a 2-0 victory over Cardiff last time out isn't enough to convince me they've suddenly become a potent attacking force and I don't believe they'll even find the net once this weekend despite Chelsea's recent defensive shambles. Jose Mourinho's men conceded after 13 seconds in the win over Southampton in their most recent home match, before letting in six goals during the two Premier League matches since that victory. They got out of jail with a 4-3 triumph at Sunderland but were made to pay at Stoke as they suffered a shock 3-2 defeat which saw them fall five points behind Arsenal. There's no doubt that much of the focus at their training ground will be to sort out their problems at the back and Mourinho will surely have learnt not to take his lowly opponents lightly this time around. Besides, if they dominate possession as much as their quality attacking players should do, then Palace will probably struggle to even venture far outside their own half - let alone create many chances. Chelsea are as big as 5/6 to beat Palace without conceding and that's a price well worth wading into.
Verdict: Chelsea 2 Crystal Palace 0 (CH)
Chelsea have won seven and lost none of their last 11 league meetings with Crystal Palace (D4).
The Eagles have scored just six goals in their last 12 Premier League games.
Chelsea inflicted Tony Pulis' heaviest ever defeat as a Premier League coach - 7-0 v Stoke in April 2010 at Stamford Bridge.Everton v Fulham (1500)
Everton are playing their best football for years right now and if they maintain their form for this game, it's hard to see Fulham keeping up with them. Much was made of the Londoners fielding the oldest team of the season last weekend but as Sylvain Distin shows for Everton, it is not always age that does for you. He has the pace to cope; many of Fulham's players don't and I feel this is where they will be hurt by an Everton team capable of moving the ball from back to front quickly with their marauding full-backs and Ross Barkley's surging in midfield. They will be missing James McCarthy but England international Leon Osman is an adequate replacement. Admittedly the visitors did cope well with a pacy Villa side last weekend when they gained a much-needed win, but this is a much tougher test and it should be remembered that the Cottagers were a tad fortunate with the decisions in that game. To add to their problems, Fulham will arrive with the fact that they have never won a league game at Goodison Park ringing in their ears; they have been trying since 1949. Everton are just 2/5 to win the game. Add them to your acca if that's your bag but my suggestion would be to back them to win to nil at 13/10. Four of their seven wins this term have come this way, while they've keep a clean sheet more often than not (eight times in 15 games).
Verdict: Everton 2 Fulham 0 (AS)
Everton have won more home games against Fulham (12) than versus any other Premier League opponent.
Fulham have lost five of their last six Premier League away games and have failed to score in all those defeats.
Fulham have never won away against Everton in the league (L21 D4). They drew four of their first five visits to Goodison Park but have lost the last 20 in a row.
After four games without a win I was hoping Southampton would be more like 3/1 than the 11/5 they actually are for this one. However, they did show good signs when holding Manchester City to a 1-1 draw last weekend so I can see why the bookies have priced up the way they have. It could mean the hosts are a spot of value at 7/5. After all they've only lost once at home so far this season with Chelsea among those to leave St James' Park with their tails between their legs. However, the Magpies aren't the most reliable side - as I found out to my cost at Swansea the other week - and losing Yohan Cabaye to suspension has to be considered a blow so I'm happy to leave the outright market alone. In the goal markets, Jay Rodriguez could be worthy of consideration at 14/5 to net at any time. He's scored in five of his last nine league games and, perhaps buoyed by his England call-up, looks full of confidence right now. What puts me off is that Southampton simply haven't been very expansive on their travels; they've netted just five times away from St Mary's. With a strong defence, it's hard to argue with Mauricio Pochettino's tactics and somewhat easier to argue against the case for Rodriguez finding the target.
Verdict: Newcastle 1 Southampton 1 (AS)
Newcastle have won nine and lost none of their last 10 home matches in all competitions against Southampton.
The Saints have conceded more goals (9) in their last four Premier League games than they shipped in the previous 14 (8).
Alan Pardew's side haven't scored more than two goals in a Premier League game since February - in a 4-2 win against Southampton. They have netted 27 in their last 26 PL games.
I'm not convinced there's as much between the sides as the prices suggest - West Ham are no bigger than evens; Sunderland can be backed at 16/5. Sunderland certainly seem to have picked up a little since Gus Poyet arrived but their big problem has been an inability to pick up results on the road. They've won just two points away so far with their last away goal coming back on August 31. It's no secret that West Ham also have serious goalscoring problems and the absence of Kevin Nolan due to suspension is hardly going to help on that front. Since their spectacular 3-0 win at Spurs, the Hammers have won once (against a woeful Fulham side) in eight games, losing to Crystal Palace and Norwich during that run and being shut out four times. A lack of confidence and goalscorers all points to a low-scoring game and I'll happily back the 5/2 that says there will be fewer than 1.5 goals in the contest. The 10/1 offered about there being no goalscorer is also tempting and worthy of consideration.
Verdict: West Ham 0 Sunderland 0 (AS)
West Ham have won six of their last eight Premier League home games against Sunderland.
Sunderland have won three and lost none of their last four Premier League games against West Ham.
Sunderland have dropped the most points from winning positions in the Premier League this season (11).
There can't be many Premier League games when no goal is the favourite in the first scorer market but that's the case, certainly with some firms, ahead of this weekend's Saturday Night Football. Season-ticket holders at the KC Stadium have seen a total of 10 league goals this season, which helps explain the bookies' quotes, while perennial strugglers on the road, Stoke, have managed to score just seven in seven away games thus far. Jonathan Walters' suspension is another blow to their chances of improving that statistic. The layers are well aware of the potential for a lack of goals though and those markets looked to be scarce on value. Instead, if you are looking to spice up your early evening in front of the box, it may be wise to keep things simple. Hull have proved a tough side to beat on home soil. Few would have imagined that this far into the campaign, the Tigers would have taken 14 points from a possible 21 at the KC. That's the same record as Newcastle's mentioned above. Bizarrely the only side to have won here is Crystal Palace - something which will give Stoke hope. Liverpool were beaten here last time out with an impressive display and while Stoke did beat Chelsea last weekend, I can't get away from their away form which has been a problem ever since their promotion to the top flight. The Potters were hammered at Everton last time out - the result was 4-0 but it could easily have been more - and while Hull don't offer the same threat, they don't look a bad price here at 13/10.
Verdict: Hull 1 Stoke 0 (AS)
Hull have lost just one of their last eight Premier League home games (W4 D3 L1)
Stoke have lost just one of their last six league matches (W2 D3 L1).
Only Manchester City (2) have conceded fewer goals in home games than Hull have this season (3), but only Aston Villa (6) have scored fewer on home soil than the Tigers (7).