After the frenetic festive schedule, the Premier League takes a break this weekend to make way for the FA Cup. Chris Bland gives his verdict on three of the matches in the £800,000 Pick 15 pool. He reckon Wolves are set for another big scalp when they host Manchester United.
Wolves vs. Manchester United
Wolves host Manchester United on Saturday evening as the FA Cup takes centre stage this weekend. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer will be looking for a response from his side after a poor performance in London on New Years Day. However, both he and Nuno Espirito Santo will be balancing their sides, especially after such a hectic Christmas period in recent weeks.
Wolves come into the game after back-to-back defeats and, whilst the result against Watford was a cause for concern, they impressed in defeat at Liverpool and were arguably unfortunate to come away empty-handed under controversial circumstances.
Manchester United have a midweek Carabao Cup game to contend with for Solksjaer’s side and this will surely play on his mind when making his team selection, although rotation hasn’t always been on the Norwegian manager’s agenda. However, the pressure will be on for a result in midweek and many United fans would rather their side prioritise a Semi-Final against cross-city rivals, especially in the midst of a midfield injury crises.
Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba will miss out, and as a result creativity will be hard to come by for United, and they will look to sit deep and utilise the counter. However, Wolves are well suited with their back three to cope with the threat the Red Devils possess on the counter, whilst Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata have struggled in the attacking midfield role in breaking teams down. Jesse Lingard also struggled against Arsenal, and this lack of creativity could come back to bite United once again on Saturday.
Wolves themselves are well equipped to break down United with their 3-4-3, and they will look to target the wide areas of United’s defence, where the defensive work of the wingers can often be called into question. Adama Traore was able to give Luke Shaw a torrid time in the league fixture back in August as Rashford left his defender exposed to the 2 vs 1’s, and up against Brandon Williams, the Spanish International will be relishing the prospect.
In form Diogo Jota is expected to return on the opposite flank, and he will also be confident of getting the better of Ashley Young at full back, whilst Raul Jimenez could be pitted against a make-shift central defensive line, with Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire potentially being rested.
As a result, it becomes hard to see a positive result for United’s side, particularly against such a strong defensive unit. Benefiting from individual errors against Burnley and Newcastle helped them to victory, and they were out-performed on the xG by Arsenal comprehensively last time out. The Wolves attack is well suited to take the game to United, and I’ll be happy to take Wolves on this one.
Fulham v Aston Villa
Championship side Fulham host Aston Villa as Scott Parker’s side eye a Premier League scalp at Craven Cottage on Saturday. The injuries are mounting up for Aston Villa, with key men Wesley and John McGinn among an ever-lengthening injury list, and with a Carabao Cup Semi Final awaiting in midweek for Dean Smith’s side, it could represent an opportunity for fringe players to impress.
A New Years Day victory over Burnley will have given Villa a boost after a disappointing defeat to Watford in the previous game, and two wins in three for the Clarets has seen them move out the drop zone by a point, as the race for Premier League survival begins to gain pace. With both midweek and the Premier League taking greater importance for Villa, and on the back of a hectic Christmas schedule, rotation should play a huge part in this game, and Fulham will sense an opportunity, especially if the highly influential Jack Grealish is rested as expected.
Fulham currently lie fifth in the Championship, and Parker has tried to instil a highly possession-based game to varying results this season, and he will be key to show off their capabilities on the ball once again on Saturday. Midfielders Tom Cairney and Harry Arter look to drop deeper and link play with the centre backs, inviting on the opposition press and playing out from the back, but with Cairney expected to miss out through injury as well, just how big a miss this will be cannot be underestimated.
It throws up an interesting tactical point, as Villa will have to decide whether to take on the press, and potentially be left exposed in behind to movement and pace of the likes of Ivan Cavaleiro, Bobby Reid or Anthony Knockaert, or whether to stand off of and try and force Fulham to push higher, thus leaving space for their own counter attack against a central defensive line that can be targeted on the break.
Scott Parker has highlighted the injury worries his side are undergoing, but the should be confident of breaking down a potentially rusty and highly rotated side, with Serbian striker Alaksandar Mitrovic leading the line and able to cause plenty of problems. Top scorer with 18 goals, Fulham have been heavily reliant on the striker, so if he was to be rested, this could have a huge bearing on the game, but if he does start, he should have enough to break down a defence which has let up a Premier League high xGa of 42.56.
A tough call, but with Villa prioritising other competitions, Fulham should sense the opportunity, and make them the promising option.
Preston v Norwich
Premier League strugglers travel to the North-West as Norwich take on Preston in another clash where the Championship side will be sensing an opportunity to defeat Premier League opposition.
Two draws in their last two games represented an improvement for Daniel Farke’s Norwich side, but it has still left them cut adrift at the bottom of the Premier League, and he is expected to rest a number of key players, much like he did in the Carabao Cup earlier this season in defeat to Crawley Town.
Teemu Pukki is rated a doubt after picking up a hamstring injury on New Years Day, and if the Finnish striker is to miss out, it will be a big dent to Norwich’s hopes, particularly in a side that has been guilty of missing chances in their games over Christmas which has proved costly in tight games. They topped the xG in games over Crystal Palace and Aston Villa yet only had a point to show for the efforts, and this inability to take chances could become even more of a problem, especially if Pukki is to miss out.
Preston currently sit just outside the playoffs in a very tight Championship table, but come into the game on the back of two disappointing home defeats to Reading and Middlesbrough, and without a win in four. The goals haven’t racked up for Alex Neil’s side this season, with just 29 scored, but their impressive defensive form can’t be overlooked, and they will be well equipped to keep a Norwich attack quiet which could be stretched and without their key outlet Pukki, who’s movement in behind would have otherwise cause Ben Davies and Patrick Bauer plenty of problems.
They are performing in line with their xG this season, and an xG of 1.4 for per game and 1.2 xGa does highlight both their capabilities at the back, but also their struggles going forward, but they could have plenty of joy creating up against a rotated Norwich backline. Preston do look to dominate possession, averaging 51.6% possession, but they are also not afraid to move the ball quickly from back to front with direct play, and whilst Christoph Zimmermann and Grant Hanley, Norwich’s currently centre backs of choice, are well equipped to deal with this threat, whether they are risked for the game awaits to be seen, particularly with Timm Klose and Ben Godfrey already out injured.
With a number of young players returning from loans, Norwich are expected to rotate and as a result, Preston do take appeal in similar circumstances to Fulham ahead of any team news we are given.