First things first, we have a couple exciting announcements. The first is that Kellz has accepted a contract job on a ship in Alaska for the next couple months, which should be a fantastic experience. Obviously, we'll miss him around here while he's on the job, but that leads me to the next announcement: While Kellz is out, we'll have a familiar name filling in for him as Stall Express will be joining the editorial team beginning this week. I hope you'll all help congratulate him and welcome him to the team here, and I'm sure he'll do a great job providing his insights.
Now, onto the weekend's fixtures:
Sunderland v. Southampton
Gus Poyet is finally starting to see some progress with his Sunderland side, who will be brimming with confidence after their thumping of Fulham in Week 21. Conversely, Mauricio Pochettino and the Saints have been on a bit of a backslide recently, and their woes will be compounded by the resignation of their chairman right in the middle of the transfer window. This could be the perfect opportunity for the Black Cats to take advantage of the disarray in Southampton.
Verdict: I'm backing Sunderland for a high-scoring victory here. Look to attackers from both sides, but with a slight advantage to the Black Cats.
Arsenal v. Fulham
Even with the injuries in their squad, Arsenal still look like a top side capable of taking down any team. Fulham have a history of making London derbies difficult for their opponents, however, so I'm a bit wary of the Arsenal clean sheet, even taking into consideration Fulham's dreadful away form.
Verdict: Invest in Arsenal attackers, but be wary of defenders as Fulham can make things difficult in their hometown.
Crystal Palace v. Stoke City
Tony Pulis has the opportunity to welcome back his old club, and will be anxious to get some points on the board after slipping to the bottom of the table on goal differential in Week 21. Mark Hughes has shown on multiple occasions this season that he's been able to put his stamp on hist Stoke team since taking over. Scoring three goals against Liverpool last week highlights the team's new-found ability to get on the score sheet.
Verdict: Invest in Stoke defenders. Be wary of investing too heavily in the Palace defense as Stoke are a much more attacking team in recent weeks.
Manchester City v. Cardiff City
It took Sergio Aguero just 49 seconds to score on his return to the City side in the FA Cup demolition of Blackburn. Granted, the opponents weren't up to snuff, but it's very exciting to have him available. City have been dominant at home all season, and the visit of a Cardiff side who lost at home against West Ham last weekend doesn't look like posing too much of a threat.
Verdict: Invest in City attackers and defenders/keeper. Stephen Caulker could be an under-the-radar pick.
Norwich City v. Hull City
This match doesn't look too promising on paper, but we're getting to the point in the season that matches like these become much more important to both sides participating. Desperation to take points from a team in a similar place in the table could lead to a high-energy, high-scoring affair. Chris Hughton will be under pressure after falling out of the FA Cup at the hands of Fulham midweek, and will need to get a result here, though Steve Bruce and Hull will make it difficult.
Verdict: Invest in attacking players from both sides, but lean towards Hull. If you want to be crazy, take a flier on Jelavic.
West Ham v. Newcastle
Sam Allardyce was able to save his job for the time being with the win over Cardiff last weekend, and looks to have the services of record-signing Andy Carroll available to him this week. However, Newcastle represent a much sterner test, and will still be fuming from their referee-aided loss to Man City in Week 21.
Verdict: Invest in Newcastle attackers. Consider investment in Krul and/or cheap defensive options.
Liverpool v. Aston Villa
The league's best strike partnership is back in action and looking like picking up right where they left off. As I mentioned in my Liverpool-based January Shopping article, the Reds can count themselves lucky to have the goals flowing from Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge as the defense leaves a lot to be desired. Christian Benteke finally got back on the scoresheet against Arsenal in Week 21, and should be confident of getting back to his best form on the counterattack at Anfield.
Verdict: Invest in attackers from both sides. A front line of Suarez, Benteke and Sturridge isn't unreasonable.
Swansea City v. Tottenham Hotspur
After performing so admirably last season, it's a bit of a surprise to look at the table and see Michael Laudrup's Swansea squad sat just three points outside the relegation zone. With the table as tight as it is, they look a bit safer than they perhaps are with their current league position of 13th place, but they'll need to start putting together a run of positive results if they want to avoid a relegation battle. Spurs continue to impress under Tim Sherwood, so Swansea should have their hands full yet again.
Verdict: Keep your discounted players, but other matches offer better opportunities for investment.
Chelsea v. Manchester United
The biggest showdown of the weekend pits Jose Mourinho's incredible home record against a much-improved United side. Chelsea are still relying heavily on goals from their midfield, but Fernando Torres loves taking on Nemanja Vidic, so could there be a revival on the cards? I expect the Blues to be their usual stingy selves in front of their home fans, but the form of Danny Welbeck could come into play in favor of the Red Devils.
Verdict: Very tough to call what will happen here, but I expect Chelsea to keep their undefeated record intact. Play your hunches here if you must. I'll be avoiding this one.
West Bromwich Albion v. Everton
New West Brom boss Pepe Mel takes over for his first official match in charge on Monday night against Roberto Martinez's high-flying Everton side. Historically, the first match for a new manager sees each of his players fighting that little bit harder to impress the new boss and to be included in his thoughts for the remainder of the season. Everton have been among the best defensive squads in the league this season, but I expect them to find it difficult against what should be a reinvigorated Albion side.
Verdict: Avoid players from this one unless you have discounts or hunches, especially as this match falls on a Monday night (My new unofficial rule for fantasy).
I must say it's been great to see a lot more diversity in the teams being sent out by fantasy managers recently, and I hope it will continue despite the return of early season mainstays like Aguero, Sturridge, Aaron Ramsey, et al. Of course, you couldn't be faulted for returning to your old favorites, so there are decisions to be made. Will you be calling on the big shots from the first half of the season, building your team around newly budding stars, or a combination of the two? Finally, with the return of these heavy-hitters, there's a legitimate case to be made for considering a new contender for the armband. I'll leave you with this poll to see where your thoughts lie. Whatever decision you make, I hope it's a good one!