Boxing Day (and Day-After-Tube-Strike Day) were both pretty interesting for the neutral observer of the Premier League and the fantasy manager. By "interesting" of course I mean incredibly frustrating. I saw a lot of posts from people who scored their worst fantasy weeks of the season. You can certainly understand why that would be the case. You'd think it was Easter and not the Christmas season the way obscure players were rising from the dead to make a fantasy impact at the expense of the tried and true options we've all come to rely on. Throw in the fact that three supposedly "big" teams playing against marginal opposition managed only punchless draws (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool) and you have the sort of cocktail that yields a lot more hangover than buzz.
The perfect symbol of this was Dimitar Berbatov. I'm pretty sure we've all been reminded about 1000 times since Boxing Day that he was joint top scorer in the Prem last season but has barely sniffed the pitch this season. Well, sniff it he did on Monday to the tune of a hat trick. Even Fernando Torres made himself relevant from a fantasy standpoint. No, he didn't score (don't be silly) but he put in a solid shift, got an assist, a shot on target, and even made 4 tackles leading to an 11 point day for the famously "dead-to-me" Chelsea forward. With Drogs starting to pack his things for the ACN, there might be a glimmer of hope for the Spaniard in 2012 - he certainly can't leave 2011 behind fast enough.
One last thought before I get to the schedule and my player picks (sorry, Nik is out of pocket with travel and family obligations so you'll have to do with mine for this match week). That thought is "what the hell does Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have to do to get on the pitch?" Arshavin has been useless and with Theo Walcott falling ill you thought for sure that he'd get a match over the festive period to give Arsenal's front line some much needed rest as well as an injection of, well, something. That he didn't even merit a substitute appearance when Arsenal clearly needed a jolt against Wolves was just stunning to me. I don't consider him a panacea but I think that anyone who has seen him in Champions League play recognizes that he's at least Arshavin's equal RIGHT NOW and that he has plenty of upside whereas the Russian is nothing but downside at this point. Anyone have any thoughts as to what Wenger is waiting for?
OK, on to The Week Ahead:
The Schedule - Brief notes on the fantasy value of each match
- Liverpool v Newcastle - The Reds lose their best player to suspension while NUFC is regaining their health. This one looks much more competitive that it did a couple of weeks ago. I'm inclined to stay away and there's certainly no huge value here.
- Bolton v Wolves - How do you pick between teams that are struggling this mightily? Wolves picked up a little momentum on Tuesday with their draw but I wouldn't bet heavily on either side right now, even against each other.
- Chelsea v Aston Villa - Villa have been the masters of the draw on the road and Chelsea have been a mixed bag in recent weeks. Call it a mild advantage to the Blues.
- Man Utd v Blackburn - Advantages don't get much bigger than this one on paper. The only question that you have to ask is who United will rotate.
- Norwich v Fulham - Norwich have proven themselves as a mid-table team over half a season while Fulham have proven themselves abject on the road over many seasons. I see a modest advantage for Norwich.
- Swansea v Tottenham - Swansea are at home where they've been exceptional while Spurs have just been exceptional. The numbers say "beware" but my gut tells me that Spurs will find a way. Call it a mild advantage for Spurs even on the road.
- Stoke v Wigan - A month ago this would have looked like a massacre but sweeping aside the loss to United (and reasonably so), Wigan have been solid while Stoke rarely massacre anyone. I like Stoke to win but it won't be as huge a fantasy day as many would hope looking at the match-up on paper.
- Arsenal v QPR - Gervinho vs. Barton, Round 2 - Arsenal won't relish going up against the man who was part of their early season misery while he was still with Newcastle. That said, Arsenal have come a long way since then and I'd expect them to score a bunch. The likely downside is the inevitable goal from Helguson bullying Mertesacker for an equalizer late in the first half.
- Sunderland v Man City - City should recover their form against a fundamentally unsound Sunderland team. I'm convinced that the second half will be better for the Black Cats but a riled up City fresh off a disappointing draw isn't where that improvement is going to start.
- West Brom v Everton - Both teams are riding some momentum at this stage so you'd think "mild advantage to the home team" but West Brom have been better on the road and Everton are about the same regardless of where they play so I'm going to give a slight advantage to the Toffees here but I certainly wouldn't invest heavily in either direction.
- Ba - With all of the rotation possible for "premium" forwards (RvP, Rooney, Aguero, etc.), you have to like both the stability of his place in the line-up and his scoring record. Sure the price is cheap and he's on the road against a tough defense but if you're investing big money you'd rather see your guy in with a chance than resting on the bench.
- Carroll/Bellamy - With Suarez suspended both are likely to get starts and be key cogs in the Liverpool attack.
- Jon Walters - Been a while since he scored and while I did say above that Wigan are better that doesn't mean I'm predicting an away clean sheet for the Latics. You have to like Walters' chances as a value play who is fairly certain to start.
- Steve Morison - The match-up is a solid one and the numbers aren't bad at all. If he were wearing an Everton or Aston Villa shirt we'd be talking about a great fantasy newcomer. Since he's wearing the shirt of a team we all dismissed at the start of the season, we've sort of missed out.
- Javier Hernandez - Chicharito was my pick against Wigan on Boxing Day and remains my pick against Rovers. Who knows whether Berbs will get a second start in a row but with Chicharito coming off an injury relatively recently, I expect he'll get matches against modest opposition to get his fitness back. In general, he seems the best combination of likelihood to start and likelihood to score from among the United forward options.
- Edin Dzeko - I don't see any mention of his injury persisting so you have to think the City big man will get a start. He's disappointed since early in the season but his price has dropped and @SUN seems like a solid place to get back amongst the goals.
- Gervinho - He's a modest worry to be rotated since he's played all of the holiday fixtures up to this point but I'd imagine Wenger will work him until he goes off to the ACN and then let the Ivory Coast worry about having a tired player. RvP is too expensive for my tastes with the possibility that he'll be rotated so Gervinho is the best bet in a good match-up for Arsenal.
- Theo Walcott - Having gotten an illness-induced rest on Tuesday, the Arsenal winger appears ready to return to the line-up. The price is high but I see him making life miserable for former colleague Armand Traore down the left side of Rangers' defense.
- Dirk Kuyt - He's been having a TERRIBLE fantasy season thus far but with Suarez out you have to like his chances of joining Bellamy in support of Carroll (I suspect Maxi, Adam, and Henderson will work in behind those three). That seems like a good situation for the Dutchman to recapture the fantasy effectiveness of seasons past.
- Chris Eagles - I realize I wrote an impassioned piece on the fact that Eagles hasn't been as good as his overall fantasy points/match stat would indicate but this feels like an Eagles sort of match and his price is back down at "worth a risk" levels.
- Adam Johnson - This one is a bit of a gamble but with his skills clearly absent in the draw to West Brom and the need for City to rotate the squad a little bit you like the chances of him getting a start. Don't read that as "Neal guarantees Adam Johnson will start" but more as "Neal thinks there's a solid chance it will happen" - if you're in a position to take a risk on a player who might start on the bench, this seems like the one.
- Nani - I approached the United midfield by process of elimination: Ashley Young - injured; Antonio Valencia - expensive at retail for someone very likely to play in defense; Ryan Giggs - tough to see him start for a third consecutive match over 10 days; Park Ji-Sung/Michael Carrick - don't trust either of them; Nani - just about all that's left despite the high price.
- NOTE: Steven Gerrard - The BBC indicates that he is likely to be on the bench to start the match against Newcastle so don't jump the gun based on his low price and big name.
- Rio Ferdinand - Rumor has it that he's healthy again and will be back to help give some experience to an otherwise fairly green United defensive corps. His price (7.40) and the match-up is what makes this enticing.
- Marc Wilson - If you got Ryan Shotton on the BD then you'd rather have him but at retail Wilson is the better value for the week.
- Oriel Romeu - He hasn't produced to what we'd hope for to this point but Villa on the road offers a solid possibility of a clean sheet to add to whatever he can put together by himself.
- Johan Djourou - He really makes me nervous with the ball at his feet but he offers some potential value if Arsenal can avoid giving up their typical bad goal.
- Ruddy - If you need a cheap option and you're scared of Jussi/Bolton then a keeper facing a roadtripping Fulham team for 5.78 seems like a solid, if not spectacular, option.
- Krul - He's proven himself to be quality and Liverpool have proven themselves to be profligate in recent weeks so you could see a nil-nil draw with lots of SOTs by Liverpool and saves by Krul. Not a guaranteed scenario by any means but a possibility if you're looking to talk yourself into a keeper for 6.05.
- Sorensen - He'll cost you a little more but it isn't a huge stretch to see Stoke getting a win/clean sheet at home to Wigan. As I said above, it isn't the seeming lock that it would have been a month ago but it still isn't a bad bet for under 10.
- Cech - Of the "premium" options, he's the best combination of price, value, and likelihood to start.