Premier League week 19 preview: Can Christmas come early for Reds or will the Gunners be grinches?

Premier League Preview Liverpool

Liverpool have every reason to be brimming with confidence as they head to the Emirates Stadium on Friday night. They have won their last four away games in the Premier League by an aggregate score of 16-2, an average of four goals a match, the total they managed when they took Arsenal apart at Anfield in August. Also, the Reds are going for a fourth consecutive victory over the men from North London, having done the double on them last season. However, the Gunners have been largely excellent on home turf in 2017/18, their only setback the defeat to Manchester United earlier this month. Also, they have the firepower to hurt Liverpool’s defence, even though the Reds have improved substantially in that part of the field since the hammering by Tottenham two months ago. Victory for either side will see them occupy a top four spot at Christmas, while a draw almost certainly keeps Liverpool in a Champions League position at the season’s midway point. Interestingly, should he feature on Friday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will have the rare feat of playing for the away team in both instalments of a Premier League head-to-head in the same season, having lined out for Arsenal when they lost 4-0 at Anfield four months ago.

How will Manchester United respond to their Carabao Cup humiliation by Bristol City in midweek? The derby defeat a fortnight ago seems to have taken the stuffing out of them, despite winning both of their Premier League matches since then. They were unconvincing against Bournemouth and West Brom, though, and a similarly tepid level of performance could see them punished by an energetic Leicester side who have been one of the league’s form teams of late. However, the Foxes’ disastrous home defeat by Crystal Palace last week leaves them with a point to prove in English football’s final pre-Christmas fixture. There have been some memorable games at the King Power Stadium when United came to visit and we could be in for another lively instalment on Saturday night.

Manchester City’s record-breaking 16 league wins in a row began in less than stellar fashion when they required a contentious 97th-minute winner from Raheem Sterling to beat Bournemouth 2-1, having fallen behind at the Vitality Stadium before recovering to take the first step towards history. Since that lucky break, City have not looked back, setting an unrelenting pace to create a seemingly insurmountable lead before the midway point of the season. While City have been imperious since that August afternoon, the Cherries have been preoccupied with trying to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the relegation zone. They are only a point clear of that dreaded territory as they travel to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday and, on the evidence of last week’s thrashing by Liverpool, could be in for a harrowing afternoon in Manchester.

Arsenal v Liverpool is not the only battle of Champions League chasers this weekend. A similar narrative surrounds the meeting of Burnley and Tottenham ahead of their clash at Turf Moor on Saturday evening. If the home side can claim victory, they could potentially be outside the top four on goal difference only at Christmas, a scenario that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic Clarets supporter when these teams last met in August. On that day, Chris Wood’s stoppage time equaliser left Spurs frustrated, an experience that Mauricio Pochettino’s side have had a few times this season. Were they to drop points against Burnley again, they could find themselves playing serious catch-up in the hunt for the top four. Then again, they ought to be grateful to have Harry Kane and Dele Alli to call upon for this game – both should have been sent off for vicious fouls in the defeat to Manchester City last week.

Saturday’s action begins with the clash of a resurgent Everton against a Chelsea side who have blown hot and cold this season. The Toffees made it four wins out of five on Monday night when they came from behind to beat Swansea, moving up to ninth in the process. In less than a month, Sam Allardyce has transformed this expensively-assembled side into a cohesive and confident unit, having taken over a malfunctioning rabble. Chelsea have had their troubles at Goodison Park in recent times and could not have been landed with a worse time to take on Everton. The champions have recent experience of facing resurgent opposition and it wasn’t a pleasant one, having lost to a steadily improving West Ham outfit two weeks ago. It could be a tricky afternoon for Antonio Conte’s men.

Since that win over Chelsea, David Moyes has instigated a notable revival at West Ham, taking them out of the drop zone in style with a 3-0 hammering of Stoke a week ago. Indeed, since Adrian took over the goalkeeping duties from Joe Hart, the Hammers have conceded just twice in four games, both of those against Manchester City. Just as they took full advantage of a Stoke side in decline, they will hope to do likewise against relegation-threatened Newcastle at the London Stadium on Saturday. The Geordies make their first visit to this ground on the back of a wretched run that has seen them plummet into the drop zone and while performances haven’t been necessarily awful, they badly lack killer instinct in the final third. Their best hope is that a West Ham side with increased expectations will fold in front of their home fans, an experience that is all too familiar to Newcastle.

Stoke and West Brom have generally led a steady mid-table existence in recent years, but their meeting at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday is the archetypal relegation six-pointer. Having already seen five Premier League managers lose their jobs this season, Potters boss Mark Hughes can positively feel the tip of the axe blade on the hairs of his neck, not least after last week’s capitulation at home to West Ham. There was a mutinous atmosphere in the ground during that game and unless Stoke make a fast start this time, the sulphur could become even more pungent. However, West Brom do not seem like the type of opposition who will prey on the Potters’ complete loss of confidence. The Baggies are one of just three teams beneath Stoke in the table and it was the 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in August which began a 16-game winless run for West Brom, a sequence that Alan Pardew hasn’t looked like halting since taking charge almost a month ago.

Two other sides desperate to end a worrying run of form are Brighton and Watford, who face off at the Amex Stadium on Saturday. The Seagulls got a decent point against Burnley last week but missed a penalty in that game and have not won in seven, a sequence which leaves them just three points above the relegation places. Watford, meanwhile, have hit the wall after starting the season so well and were torn to shreds at home to Huddersfield a week ago. Marco Silva has had the added headache of seeing his team reduced to 10 men in each of their last three games and the Hornets will be without Troy Deeney for the entire festive programme after his suspension was increased to four matches following an unsuccessful appeal. Another defeat on the south coast could see Watford peering a little nervously at what lies beneath them.

All Paul Clement got for Christmas was his P45. Almost a year after Bob Bradley received a similar unwanted present, his successor at Swansea paid the price for the team’s struggles this season and they are rock bottom of the Premier League ahead of Saturday’s home game against Crystal Palace, who are among just three teams to have lost to the Swans this term. The Eagles have already been through the managerial wringer since the teams last met, with Frank de Boer making way for Roy Hodgson. The ex-England manager has restored his reputation since taking charge at Selhurst Park, lifting them from a distant 20th to the relative heights of 14th. Having thumped Leicester 3-0 on their travels last week, they could well fancy their chances of another away win in Wales.

Southampton and Huddersfield both occupy mid-table positions ahead of their meeting at St Mary’s on Saturday and while that is a poor reflection of Saints’ season so far, it’s a tremendous feat for the Terriers in their inaugural Premier League campaign. Southampton have been frustrating to watch under Mauricio Pellegrino, often playing fine football but requiring far more effort to score goals than opponents need to score against them. Huddersfield hadn’t scored an away goal in four months until making up for lost time at Watford last week, hammering the Hornets 4-1. This could be a tight contest and one which either team could realistically expect to win. The need for victory is considerably greater for the Saints.

A rare Friday night fixture for Liverpool gives them the opportunity to cement a top four position ahead of their competitors’ weekend assignments. Will Christmas come early for Jurgen Klopp and the Reds? Not if Arsenal get their way and exact revenge for their mutilation at Anfield earlier in the season. Festive niceties will be very much put to one side at the Emirates Stadium when these two giants of English football face off.

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