We're about a third of the way through the season, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that the vast majority of the intrigue will once again be coming from a very tight middle through bottom of the table. That would be less of an issue the middle through the bottom of the table had a single genuinely likable team. Please, for the love of all that is good and decent in the world, someone at the top of the table have an hilarious collapse. Now that the whole "Arsenal club in crisis!" thing seems to be over there's just absolutely nothing. Chelsea, time to step up and take one for the team.
Saturday November 26th
12:45 GMT (7:45 AM ET); Britannia Stadium
Britannia Stadium has a capacity of 27,598. Potters fans are a loyal bunch and the stadium is generally full or very close to it on match day, so a crowd of 25,000 for this game seems on the very low end of what should be expected. As this is the early game, it's going to be on national television in the U.K. In the US it's going to be broadcast on ESPN Deportes. Given the Premier League's global popularity, this game will be seen by hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of people world wide. Neutral fans in the Pacific time zone will wake up at 4:30 in the morning to watch this game. This is all so depressing that I am going to go eat the three-quarters of a pumpkin pie in my refrigerator in the hope that when it's over I can't feel feelings any more.
Pick: Stoke, 2-1
15:00 GMT (10:00 AM ET); Reebok Stadium
Every fan, neutral or otherwise, has their list of three teams they'd like to see relegated at the end of the season. It seems fair to think that Bolton isn't on very many of these lists. They might have been a few years back, but the Wanderers are pretty fun to watch at times, Owen Coyle seems a decent fellow (in spite of the shorts) and they've got a lot of quality and endearing young players. They're also incredibly weird; they've yet to play to a draw this season. They've lost nine and won just three but in those three games they were fantastic, winning 4-0 over QPR, 3-1 over Wigan and 5-0 over Stoke. Point being, they can play well and when they do they tend to play really, really well. But the rest of the time they're almost quite bad, and it's getting increasingly difficult to understand. It's early enough and the table tight enough that there's barely even a hole from which they need to dig out, but they've got to find something approaching consistency for that to happen. Until it does, it's harder and harder to see it happening.
Pick: Everton, 3-1
Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
15:00 GMT (10:00 AM ET); Stamford Bridge
The Premier League's two most handsome managers face off under varying degrees of pressure, Mick McCarthy to keep Wolves in the Premier League and Villas-Boas to be exactly like Jose Mourinho in every way RIGHT THIS MINUTE YOUNG MAN. The "Club On The Cusp Of Crisis" Blues will be thrilled to see Wolves come to town, as they could really use a game to build off of. Of course, should Wolves manage to take a point or three out of London that's going to be twice as bad as if a really good team did the same.
(They won't though.)
Pick: Chelsea, 4-1
Manchester United vs. Newcastle United
15:00 GMT (10:00 AM ET); Old Trafford
One of the "burning questions" (in quotes because no one aside from people looking for angles was actually asking it) before last weekend was whether or not Newcastle was "for real" (in quotes because of course they're for real, I can see them right there!) ahead of their visit to the Etihad. They lost, predictably, but they certainly weren't terrible and the result was just about everything people who've been paying attention would have expected; Newcastle has a very good defense and enough of an attack to cause problems for most teams in the league, but against a side like City with the ability to throw weapon after weapon at your back line they're going to have trouble holding out. They are, in other words, a big club that faced what could un-ironically be called disaster just a few years ago but they've done a tremendous job of recovering and are to the point that only the Premier League's best sides will be favorites. United will probably win because they're a much better team, but at least pundits will talk about Newcastle's "losing run" and start asking how they were able to fake everyone out for two and a half months early in the year.
Pick: United, 3-1
15:00 GMT (10:00 AM ET); Carrow Road
In this week's "Might be the best game of the weekend but no one will watch" special, two newly promoted sides try to get back on the right foot after a stretch of poor results. A win for either side would bring a bit of temporary breathing room, though by the looks of things we're in for another all-encompassing "relegation fight" that's going to come down to the wire, making points from games such as these all the more vital. Two contrasting (but equally entertaining) styles playing a game that has easily conceivable implications on the state of the table six months out? Why would anyone want to be bothered with that?
Pick: Norwich City, 2-1
15:00 GMT (10:00 AM ET); Stadium of Light
Oh Roberto Martinez. You did a very admirable thing rejecting the advances of Aston Villa. Martinez is, of course, an ambitious fellow; you don't get into management at the Premier League level without that being the case. But he made the judgment that the step up from Wigan to Villa wasn't worth abandoning what he saw as an ongoing project at Wigan or betraying the loyalty of Dave Whelan. And then he lost his most dynamic player in Charles N'Zogbia, a lot of other clubs of similar standing to Wigan got a little better, the Latics largely stood still and now this. Wigan sit bottom of the table, seemingly unable to buy a break and rumors are swirling that Martinez's time with the club is short. But there's still a positive from all of this; at least he doesn't have to look at Stephen Ireland.
Pick: Sunderland, 2-1
15:00 GMT (10:00 AM ET); The Hawthorns
So, funny thing; turns out Spurs are kind of good. Really, really good actually. Well above average in every phase. Thrilling to watch. Capable of dominating the majority of teams in the league. There's still A Lot Of Season Left To Play™ and some very good teams behind them, but Spurs look every bit like a team that's capable of qualifying for the Champions League and quite possibly finishing ahead of a team or two no one would have thought realistic back in August. That's all well and good in its own right, interesting story, underdogs, etc. But for me, the one thing I want to see if anyone would notice if Harry Redknapp and Roy Hodgson switched dugouts for the day.
Pick: Spurs, 3-1
Arsenal vs. Fulham
17:30 GMT (12:30 AM ET); Emirates Stadium
I don't have any allegiance to Arsenal, but does anyone else find the Robin van Persie "one man team" thing to be condescending beyond belief? "Well, there's no way that out-of-touch old French snob is responsible, we know for a fact the defense didn't improve because we laughed at Per Mertesacker, Song's hair is too annoying for him to get any credit, so what could it be? Ah. van Persie. Brilliant player. Great form. One man team!" I mean for heaven's sake they had three bad games before October and they've been quite good since then. They just embarrassed the Bundesliga winners in the Champions League and are the only English club that's qualified for the knockout stage. RVP is amazing but get over yourselves.
Pick: Arsenal, 3-1
Sunday November 27th
Swansea City vs. Aston Villa
13:30 GMT (8:30 AM ET); Liberty Stadium
Last Monday night, Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish started Carlos Cuellar at right back for his side's match at White Hart Lane. Not news in and of itself; Cuellar is a Villa fan favorite and spent a good deal of time at the position when Martin O'Neill was at the helm. What was "interesting" about the decision was the fact that as part of the same tactical move, McLeish started Alan Hutton at right midfield, reportedly to counter the threat of Gareth Bale. Predictably, it didn't work; Bale set up both Spurs goals and generally had the run of the left flank while Spurs were completely dominant in every phase of the game and somehow managed to score just two goals. Turns out dramatically altering your tactical approach to deal with one player is a really terrible idea when your opponent has a lot of good players. Who knew? (Also a terrible idea? Starting Emile Heskey on the left wing? Terrible idea #3? Blaming defeat in part on your attacking players for missing their chances when you start Emile Heskey and Alan Hutton on the wings. But I digress.)
When McLeish was questioned about the decision, he somewhat agitatedly responded that "I’ve been playing four forwards the whole season and I took one out." Now, for a moment let's ignore everything wrong with that statement and give Big Eck the benefit of the doubt. We've got proof of concept; McLeish will do radical things in order to counteract the opponent's strengths. One of Swansea's greatest strengths? Keeper Michel "Super" Vorm. Does anyone want to take bets that McLeish is going to take off a defender to play an extra forward?
Pick: Draw, 1-1
16:00 GMT (11:00 AM ET); Anfield
Biggest game of the weekend and all that. Dignified and resurgent traditional power, cocky young upstart, clash of generations, blah blah blah. Will Liverpool be the team to end City's unbeaten run? Well maybe, sure, but probably not because though Liverpool is good they're not as good as lots of people would like you to believe (because clubs like Liverpool are never as good or, in different circumstances, bad as lots of people would like you to believe) and City is probably one of the three best teams in the world. There's not really any way this game won't be anti-climactic which is irritating because it probably will be quite good. Oh well.
Pick: City, 3-2