LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 31: Robin van Persie of Arsenal celebrates scoring his 35th Premier League goal of the year during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers at the Emirates Stadium on December 31, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
In the absence of our usual prognosticators, it's fallen on me to write up the game week ahead. I'm sure I don't have Neal's eloquence (or verbosity), nor does my writing have Nik's "mate at the pub" familiarity. However, here's some mix of this week's upcoming fixtures and which players are interesting me.
First off, I can't believe the way this week is structured. I know why - the FA Cup final - but after a double gameweek with five consecutive days of matches... I would rather have the bulk of the matches this week on Saturday and be done with it! But no, there's only one Premier League match that day, and it's Arsenal hosting Norwich.
Arsenal have been a bit sluggish since their amazing 1-0 victory against Manchester City and the subsequent 3-0 thrashing of Wolves when the match was all but over within ten minutes. They've lost to Wigan, and drawn against Chelsea and Stoke. They still have the upper hand over Spurs for third place, but they still need to win their remaining matches to be sure of qualification for the Champions League.
Over the same three weeks, however, Norwich have really put up their heels. They shipped six to Manchester City, two to Blackburn Rovers, and three to Luis Suarez - only scoring a consolation against the league leaders. Their defence has been ravaged by injury, and there is the sense that they are just playing out the season.
(Don't worry, these will likely get shorter as we go along.)
Against that backdrop is one of the week's big decisions.
Do you pay the money for Robin van Persie? There are definitely defensible strategies for picking cheaper players to afford the Dutchman. We'll cover some of those options below. I can see both sides of the argument. Personally, I'm not going to do it. I like too many other players this weekend and am too worried about the downside of gutting too many spots. If van Persie knocks in two or three and assist on another goal, so be it. I'll feel like an idiot, but...
Oy! I'm making myself nervous again.
Other Arsenal players worth considering (and who are much better value for money) include Wojciech Szczesny, the rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky, Kieran Gibbs, and if you feel like taking a flyer on a cheap option, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
(Maybe I am as verbose as Neal!)
Sunday sees the bulk of the week's matches.
Aston Villa v Tottenham should prove profitable for Spurs. It might not be as easy as Rovers or Bolton, but I wouldn't hesitate to hold my Spurs players (just Gallas, in my case) over from the double week. K2, VDV, and Bale are the obvious names, but "Broadway" Danny Rose is still a decent enabler.
Everton will look to continue their run of form against the relegated Wolves. Again, this is where you can rest easy keeping your players from last week. I'm sticking with Jelly Pie (Nicika Jelavic and Steven Pienaar), and was on Howard until today. Leon Osman is probably the only other Toffee I would recommend, unless you want to splurge on the defence.
For Wolves, Sebastian Bassong may be back from injury. He's still relatively cheap and he's returned points in most matches (obviously not against Arsenal) even against the League's better clubs. If you don't want to enable with Kyrgiakos or Flanagan, SeaBass is your man.
QPR must win against Stoke. They were terrible against Chelsea, and play at Manchester City, who will need a victory next week. If QPR are to have ANY hope of survival, they need to beat Stoke. Over the last nine matches, they've have won every home match and lost away each time so the signs are good. Adel Taarabt returns from suspension and though he's a bit pricey, I'm bringing him into my fantasy team. Djibril Cisse is another option. You can pretty much guarantee that he'll either score of be sent off. And while the pendulum is swinging back towards red after his goal at Chelsea, you can certainly see him scoring again.
Stoke will likely rest Asmir Begovic and give Tomas Sorensen the final two League matches to get fit for Euro2012 - and likely to put him in the shop-window for a summer move elsewhere. He's attractively priced, and if I were desperate to afford van Persie (see... just typing this, I'm thinking about it again) Sorensen would be the way to go at keeper. At the least, he could make a lot of saves as QPR desperately try to score (see Vorm, Michel as well under that theory). Paddy Kenny is slightly more expensive but gets the benefit of the home cooking, as talked about above.
The title race gets really interesting on Sunday as well. Man Utd host Swansea and the neutral's favorite, Newcastle United host Manchester City. The popular theory is that Manchester United will have to go all-out for goals as they will either need to overtake City's points total or erase an eight goal goal-difference. I don't know that ManU will be kamikaze attacking Vorm's goal early, but if Newcastle can't test City then the Red Devils will get increasing desperate to score and score again. Wayne Rooney is a good pick, as is Javier Hernandez. The wide players are less interesting as you're still picking two from three but I wouldn't argue with Nani, Valencia or Young (in that order).
I'm going to stick with Gylfi Sigurdsson. Not only do I not know where I could get similar value for his long-ago-barn-door price, but if Manchester United to commit to all-out attack, there may be chance for Swansea to counter and for Siggy to score points
[The following paragraph was left out of the original post. Sorry.]
I have no idea what is going to happen with Newcastle and Manchester City. I would really like to watch the match, but I don't know that I'd want to bet it. Or pick it for fantasy returns. Both clubs are playing well and both clubs need a win. I think City will have too much talent and too much momentum for the Magpies. I've sold Cisse, Cabaye, and Santon after profiting from them in the double week. I would hold Cisse if you have him at a discount. At retail, there are better options. For City, I'm keeping Tevez at 4.78. I'm not going to get bent out of shape after his not returning any points against Manchester United, and like Sigurdsson, where's comparable value for that price?
Finally we get to Monday, and back to the relegation battle. Blackburn, who look dead and buried, host Wigan who are flying at the moment. My worry is that like Newcastle against... well, Wigan is that the week of hype will get to their heads and that they'll let their foot off the gas against Rovers. But putting those fears aside, I'm picking up Emerson Boyce, Shaun Maloney, and Victor Moses. Franco di Santo is attractive as well.
Yes, that's a lot of Wigan players. But they've been doing the business for a month now. And Rovers just look horrid. And... yes, there's more! Wigan host Wolves next week. If Wigan do win this weekend then that match is meaningless for both teams. If not that's a second great chance for returns. With the Wigan players at their barn door prices, either way I win.
What to say about our last match, Liverpool and Chelsea? Nothing. I'm not going to bother trying to predict who is going to play in which match or in what shape either club will be in come Tuesday. For me it's a stay away. You're mileage may vary.
So that's that. Thanks for staying with me to the end. Hopefully we'll get one of Nik or Neal online tomorrow to sort out their picks, or at least to run through the weekend's team news.