SPORTS

English Premier League Enters Round 24 With Clear Leader

Jan 21, 2020, 11:22 AM
Saido Mane of Liverpool in action as the sun sets during the Premier League match between Liverpool...
Saido Mane of Liverpool in action as the sun sets during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United at Anfield on January 19, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A midweek Round 24 (Tuesday through Thursday) quickly approaches as teams gear up for the F.A. Cup fourth round scheduled for the following weekend.

Next week sees West Ham United and Liverpool play their game in hand to get back on even game terms with the rest of the English Premier League. Liverpool were away in Qatar before the holidays for the Club World Cup, which meant postponing the London Stadium match up.

Round 23 verified that this EPL season is a one-horse race. Liverpool overcoming Manchester United 2-0 at Anfield earning them 64 points out of a possible 66. Man City could only manage a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace and Leicester lost away to Burnley. Liverpool now holds a 16-point lead with a game in hand.

All matches will be found on NBCSN and there are some good and intriguing matches to look forward to.

Sheffield United v. Manchester City

The first of two Tuesday matches in Round 24 preview sees Chris Wilder’s men continue to impress in the EPL. A 1-1 result away from home at Arsenal might not mean seem life-changing, but the manner they kept at it when Arsenal improved in the second half is no small feat.

The defensive organization of the Blades is what has given them a platform to perform so far, sitting on 33 points in seventh position. The magical 40-point mark (usually enough to fight off relegation) is in sight. This team is going places. Maybe not European football qualification places but certainly maintaining their EPL status for seasons to come.

I’ve said many times this season, that the Blades’ tried and tested 3-5-2 system that can switch to a 5-3-2 is one of the more intriguing EPL setups. Plenty of teams have adopted the three defenders this season, but only the Blades and Wolves have come close to effectively using it. Wing backs, Stevens and Baldock, will obviously provide the width; but the focus surely has to be on the midfield three for the Blades, John Fleck (scored the equalizer against Arsenal) is their joint-top scorer, Oliver Norwood and John Lundstram provide a working-class engine room.

They will have their work cut out in trying to snuff out the threat of De Bruyne, David Silva and Bernardo Silva – take your pick. The movement of Pep Guardiola’s midfield three is one of the most entertaining aspects of City’s play. Whilst they are seemingly out of the title race (is it too soon to say that?) after the draw at home with Crystal Palace, they’ll be looking to bounce back, especially with Leicester City dropping points again. Sergio Aguero has been on an absolute tear the last two games with the return of five goals. The Argentine will once again be the focal point of the attack as he constantly pops up behind his marker.

City won the reverse encounter 2-0 in late December, and I’d expect City to have plenty of possession again (71 percent last match between the two). In front of their own fans though, I expect United to once again win a lot of the aerial duels and continue to be ferocious in the tackle.

I do think the reigning champions will get over the line in this match, but it will come with some bumps and bruises as we’ve seen Bramall Lane intimidate even the best of teams.

Prediction: 2-1, Manchester City 

Chelsea v. Arsenal

Another recent-reverse fixture from late December, in which Chelsea came back late on to beat the Gunners 2-1 at the Emirates. Now back at Stamford Bridge (also kicking off on Tuesday), both teams are looking for a jolt in the arm results wise.

Chelsea have the advantage of holding the last Champions League slot but have been far from convincing results wise. Thankfully so has everyone else around them. To be fair to the Blues, they have more often than not turned up for the big occasions this season; they have just let themselves down against opposition you would expect them to pick up maximum points against, i.e., this last weekend.

They had plenty of possession but struggled to unlock a deep sitting and resolute Newcastle United.

With Arsenal you’d expect them to give the Blues a little more space. Willian is still the key for me, his speed on the break and vicious shot will have Mikel Arteta worried for his creaking backline. The improvement of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham is for all to see, but they need a little more help. Frank Lampard’s team is missing something. Maybe there needs to be more from Kovacic or Jorgihno. Mason Mount dropped into the midfield three, with Callum Hudson-Odoi coming in on the wing but it was a little static and they didn’t have the patience or vision to unlock the Magpies.

This Chelsea team does have plenty of potential and I expect them to fare better against an Arsenal team that is still finding its feet under their new manager.

Arsenal comes into Stamford Bridge picking up just seven points in their last six games. But it does feel like Arsenal are making a little headway. I have never believed the attack is Arsenal’s issue, but the defense has been an issue, and always seems to let them down. Whilst they look more organized at the back, the rumors of defenders coming in is no surprise. Against Sheffield United at the weekend, young Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli grabbed a goal later in the first half, and you expect the young man to continue his sharp-upward trajectory. With Aubameyang still serving a red card suspension, I’m sure he’ll get another chance to impress.

The gap in class has shrunk over recent weeks between the two, but it’s still Chelsea for me that will come out on top as they once again look to solidify their position in the top four.

Prediction: 2-1, Chelsea

Wolverhampton Wanderers v. Liverpool

The last match up will be Thursday’s encounter at Molineux. Sixth place Wolves are once again one of the more attractive soccer teams in the EPL. Using the three center backs with a wing-back system, they’ll be on a massive high after coming back from 2-0 down against Southampton to run out 3-2 winners. Mexican international Raul Jimenez was at the double and the classy forward took his EPL total to 10 goals this season. He’ll once again be the spearhead to a great counterattacking tactic, throw in Spanish attacker Adama Traore and there is plenty to cause problems for the defense of the runaway leaders, Liverpool.

Speedy wing-backs will once again provide width, and, as usual, join the attack with overlapping runs to pin the oppositions’ full-backs. Wolves manager, Nuno Espirito Santo is a wanted man, and no disrespect to Wolverhampton, there are bigger things on the horizon for the Portuguese manager. He’s been given a platform to develop one of the best brands of soccer in the EPL, he’s been given plenty of funds as well, and he spent it wisely. I think they will be around the Europa League positions again, as they continue to impose their will on the opposition.

Once again, I think they can cause Liverpool problems, especially in front of their own fans. They matched Liverpool at Anfield earlier in the season.

What can be said about the EPL run away leaders? Every result inches them closer to the EPL title and with a 16-point gap over Man City, and a game in hand it’s just a matter of time before they are crowned champions in the EPL era.

Currently they have kept seven clean sheets on the bounce, that’s 630 minutes of football without conceding in the EPL. Of course, the plaudits are shared around this team. Team being the word. What Klopp has done to change the mentality of the club since October 2015 is nothing short of a miracle. Yes, he’s spent money, but to fund those transactions they’ve sold very well to make this team arguably one of the most dominant in their history.

Think back to the Liverpool teams of the 1970s and ’80s and this might be the best ever. They were tested against Man Utd on Sunday, and ultimately, they withstood United’s efforts as they saw the game out.

One of the biggest compliments that can be paid to Jurgen Klopp is Liverpool’s ability to manage the game within the game. Yes, the Reds are all about the high press and relentless attacking, but when it comes to defending, they have the ability to keep their shape and snuff out opposition attacks.

It won’t be easy for the Reds, and they will be given a stern test in this match. I just think they’re on a roll and even Wolves will struggle to keep the Reds out.

Prediction: 2-0, Liverpool

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