We’ve made it through another international break, and the biggest news to emerge is Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The US Men’s National Team’s elimination was stunning, but for the 4-time World Cup champion Italians to come up short is apocalyptic. It’s estimated that their elimination will cost the Azzurri 100M euros in potential revenue. Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele de Rossi have announced their retirement from international football, and Giorgio Chiellini is considering it. And Italy’s manager, Gian Piero Ventura—who took over from Antonio Conte — will deservedly lose his job. The man being whispered about as his replacement? None other than Carlo Ancelotti.
But enough about international football and Italy. Our bailiwick is domestic football in England, and the English Premier League (aka the best professional football league in the world) returns to action this weekend. Below are are the fixtures and my player recommendations for your Fantrax fantasy consideration:
- Arsenal v Tottenham
- Bournemouth v Huddersfield
- Burnley v Swansea
- Crystal Palace v Everton
- Leicester v Manchester City
- Liverpool v Southampton
- West Brom v Chelsea
- Manchester United v Newcastle
- Brighton v Stoke
Nick Pope (Burnley, 7.60): This player has been nothing short of a revelation since ascending to Burnley’s S11 in the wake of Tom Heaton’s shoulder injury. In his 8 games since then, he’s conceded more than one goal only once, and that was against the seemingly-unstoppable Citizens. He boasts 4 clean sheets in his last 6, and is #3 for saves in the English Premier League despite having started only 7 games. Since only Crystal Palace have scored fewer goals than Swansea, neither Pope nor his fantasy managers should fear the visit of Paul Clement’s men.
Julian Speroni (Crystal Palace, 1.40): Just hear me out: I don’t believe Palace are as bad a team as their record suggests. But I do believe Everton are. Despite the big names and the big spending, the Toffees have scored only 10 goals all season, and they’ve shipped over twice as many. David Unsworth’s caretaker lineups have shifted wildly, and the club appear to be struggling to find his permanent replacement. Negotiations with top candidates Sam Allardyce and Marco Silva have reportedly fallen through.
All this suggests that Everton may be in the midst of some chaos right now. On the other hand, I think the return of Wilfried Zaha has reinvigorated the Eagles, and their play has steadily solidified even as they continue to search for an elusive second win. This week I think Palace get their result. But even if they don’t, Speroni’s budget-friendly price of 1.40 needs neither a clean sheet nor a win to return value, thus freeing cash for investment in heavy-hitting attackers.
Lee Grant (Stoke, 2.09): Jack Butland’s broken finger means Grant should deputize against Brighton. The Seagulls’ offense is anemic, tallying only 11 goals this season. Grant’s chances for a victory and even a clean sheet are reasonable, and his low price mitigates risk and enables investment elsewhere.
James Tarkowski (Burnley 8.25), Ben Mee (Burnley, 9.71): Both of these guys have average returns that equal their costs, and both are in the league’s top 3 for blocks, clearances, and headed clearances. This week they welcome the impotent Swans to Turf Moor, so they could add a clean sheet to their statistics.
Mamadou Sakho (Crystal Palace, 2.98): The Eagles center back is nailed-on, has an average return that is almost twice his cost, faces weak opposition at home on Saturday, and will set you back less than three bills. What are you waiting for?
Jose Holebas (Watford, 7.22): The EPL’s leading crosser is a secure starter, averages his cost, and faces West Ham at home. The set-piece taker seems like an excellent GW12 fantasy play, but I’ll offer one caveat: Holebas can be a discipline risk.
Lewis Dunk (Brighton, 7.79): Dunk is another defender who averages his cost. He tends to do best on the road, where he racks up defensive returns by repelling the initiative of the home side. He is tied with Tarkowski for the most blocked shots in the EPL. Although this week Brighton play host, Stoke do not sport a prolific offense, so Dunk may have a chance to pick up clean sheet points.
Ryan Shawcross (Stoke, 7.03): Stoke’s captain 8 years running, Shawcross is assured of starts when healthy. Brighton are a difficult side to break down, but they also struggle to find the net, so a clean sheet could be in the cards for Stoke this weekend.
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 9.89): Zaha has returned double digits in every home game he’s played this season, and this week Palace host Everton’s woeful defense, who ship an average of two goals per game. The speedy Ivorian has been linked to Arsenal as a replacement for Alexis Sanchez in the January window. But get him in your squad now, because after Everton he has still has 7 straight favorable fixtures before he faces the Gunners on December 28 (I actually like him in that home match too, btw). Teammate Yohan Cabaye (8.88) is returning to form and is also worth consideration this week.
David Silva (Manchester City, 12.15): While Leroy Sane probably has a higher fantasy ceiling than David Silva, the German’s track record away from The Etihad is actually pretty weak. Silva, on the other hand, is Steady Eddie, putting up solid numbers home or away. Having started every league match this season, Silva’s starts are probably more secure than Sane’s too, and he costs almost 8 units less than alternative Kevin de Bruyne. For this week’s trip to Leicester then, my Sky Blues midfielder of choice is the Spaniard. Although he scored twice and assisted once against Costa Rica last weekend, he subsequently missed training with Spain due to neck spasms. He then came on as a sub in the 3-3 draw with Russia last night, so he should be fine for the weekend then.
Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool, 12.93): The Brazilian has declared himself “100% fit,” and played 68 minutes against England last night. With Mane once again struggling with hamstring issues, Coutinho is the obvious fantasy choice among Liverpool’s midfielders. The home fixture against Southampton should be open, and I expect the Brazilian to shine.
Eden Hazard (Chelsea, 11.13): Although Hazard got off to a slow start this season, he’s returned double digits in each of his last two games. West Brom are a well-organized unit, but Chelsea will have enough to breach them, and I expect Hazard to be involved. Be sure to confirm his fitness prior to the deadline though, as he was rested last night after picking up a knock against Mexico.
Matt Ritchie (Newcastle, 7.35): Having lost Paul Pogba to injury, the buccaneering Red Devils who awed us at the beginning of the season now seem a mere shell of their former selves. Rafa Benitez will fancy his chances at Old Trafford then, and I expect him to try to get something from this fixture. For that he will call upon Matt Ritchie, and I think the Scot will find some joy.
Pascal Groß (Brighton, 9.46): Brighton don’t score often, but when they do, Groß is usually involved: the German has scored or assisted 7 of Brighton’s 11 goals this season. Chris Hughton will be pushing for a result from this home tie, and Groß, who is joint-third in the EPL for assists, will be the main architect of his team’s attack.
Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke, 11.37): Stoke’s most dangerous man, Shaqiri notched a goal and an assist in GW 11. He’s up and down, but I’m willing to roll the dice on the set-piece taker for the trip to Brighton.
Harry Kane (Tottenham, 18.90): Rested over the international break so he could recover from a blow to the knee suffered in the Crystal Palace game, Harry Kane has been passed fit by Mauricio Pochettino and will be fresh for the London derby with rivals Arsenal. That news will be unwelcome at the Emirates: Kane has 6 goals in his 5 meetings with the Gunners, and he has been lethal on the road this season.
Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City, 15.82): Sergio Agüero was hospitalized last night after feeling faint at halftime during Argentina’s loss to Nigeria. He then had a long flight back to England from Russia. Furthermore, he has only started one league match away from home this season, and he has a Champions League fixture looming on Tuesday. This confluence of circumstances, combined with the fact that Gabriel Jesus has started every away league match this year, leads me to conclude that the Brazilian is the fantasy option of choice among the City forwards. Having notched against Arsenal prior to the break, Jesus will be looking to add another goal to his account, and his craft and guile will give Leicester’s defenders fits. Disclaimer: as always, take anyone’s predictions about Pep Guardiola’s starting lineup with a grain of salt.
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, 17.35): With three goals and an assist in his last three games, Salah is one of the hottest players in the EPL right now. Southampton’s defense is well-organized, but the Egyptian was rested from international duty, so he will be brimming with energy. This will be a fun game to watch, and I think Salah will be a handful for Soton’s back line.
Alvaro Morata (Chelsea, 15.65): Morata performs well away from Old Trafford, but his fantasy production does seem to be dependent upon goal-scoring. He netted for Spain against Costa Rica on Saturday but played only 45 minutes, and he was an unused sub for last night’s game. Therefore he is well rested and ready for the trip to West Brom, so I’m backing him to reward fantasy mangers who play him.
Glenn Murray (Brighton, 6.32): With four goals in his last 3 games, Murray is another EPL forward who is white-hot right now. Brighton will press for a result in this match, and despite his blistering scoring streak, Murray’s price is still right. If you need a viable third forward but can’t afford the marquee names, Glenn Murray is your guy.
Think I’ve made some crazy calls? Maybe I’ve overlooked someone you think is a no-brainer or optional enabler? Ask me about it in the comments below, or just share the working draft of your squad and get feedback from the hive. Come on in and join the conversation!