Simon Bird's Premier League previews and predictions (Week 26)

Andre Villas Boas is going to need all the contortionist skills he demonstrates in his touch line squatting and wriggling to get out of his current strife.

The dire situation is enough to make a manager want to throw his tactical plans in a bin and start again...

Oh, he already did that before the Napoli game.

He was given the Chelsea job with the remit of taking on the player cliques, the powerful old guard, and freshening up an ageing squad.

The problem now is that he has picked a fight with the big guns of his squad, at a time when it is becoming abundantly clear the replacements meant to ease the elderly stars out of the way are not good enough.

The Villas Boas story is one of the most fascinating of the season. Intrigue, dissent, back stabbing, leaking, and insults surrounding a 34 year old grappling with man management difficulties and club politics that are the trickiest in the land.

If his remit was to reshape Chelsea into a younger unit ready to face the next 5 years to together then sympathy to him as he takes on the vested interests and attempts at the same time to keep results ticking over.

But when you consider that process started when Carlo Ancelotti won the double in 2010, and that since then Chelsea have spent £174 million on 12 new players, and with only Juan Mata looking the part, it seems the rejuvenation is already a failed process.

When the great defensive saviour is supposed to be Gary Cahill, whose form at Bolton was questionable at best before the transfer, you have to point the finger at who is doing the buying. As ever at Chelsea, it almost certainly won't be the manager.

Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole may only have a couple more years at the very top, but they didn't deserve the humiliation of a Champions' League axing.

Or maybe there are levels of dissent behind the scenes that we do not fully understand, meaning there are players the manager can trust, and those he can't, quite apart from their footballing abilities.

Having gathered just two wins in 10 league games, Villas Boas can afford nothing less than three points against Bolton this weekend.

Can a team riven with factions and discontent, and with players looking to blame everyone but themselves, and especially their manager, overcome Bolton?

If they do it will be papering over the cracks.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-1 Bolton

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Even a Northern lad like myself loves to see the passion and desperation involved in a fierce North London derby. It is up there with the best.

This weekend's is a fascinating one. I hate writing anything negative about Arsene Wenger, but the direction Arsenal have been travelling in recently is downwards and the manager's crown is beginning to slip. They were outfought at Sunderland last week, and I fear unless they find some spirit from somewhere, Spurs could do the same at the Emirates with their pace and fury.

More likely is that Arsenal can't be as bad as they were at the Stadium of Light last week, and Spurs not as good as their 5-0 whacking of Newcastle suggests.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-2 Spurs

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So Manchester City's pursuit of the title goes on with Carlos Tevez back in the fold. Why does that make me feel queasy? I hope that Roberto Mancini can avoid playing Tevez at all this season. The sight of the weasel parading around with a medal in May would be uncomfortable.

For all the public statements of apologies being accepted, surely Mancini will only use Tevez in a dire emergency if all his strikers get injured. After all, this stand-off has surely only been sorted out to avoid legal action and lawyers getting Tevez away on a free transfer.

Blackburn will have to look elsewhere for their survival points but all is not lost.
Prediction: Manchester City 2-0 Blackburn

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The managerial saga at Wolves has not looked good. Steve Bruce, Alan Curbishley ruled in and out and back in before now when it sees that veteran Walter Smith could step in to be the short term saviour.

Terry Connor has now been given the reins and he faces a tough baptism at St James' Park. The Geordies have their A team back, including Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye which will give them steel and fluidity.
Prediction: Newcastle 2-0 Wolves

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Norwich a one of the teams of the season. They had a good crack at United in the away game earlier in the season and fans can expect another against the odds onslaught again.

If the Carrow Road crowd are noisy and Paul Lambert's tactics are adventurous, this could be a thriller. United will score of course - most teams do against Norwich - but could be a nervy one.
Prediction: Norwich 2-3 Manchester United

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What was Tony Pulis thinking of by leaving nine first team players at home for the clash in Valencia? What an insult to the 3,500 fans who paid to travel to Spain. Decisions like that kill the dreams of supporters and take all the fantasy out of the game.

Stoke City in Valencia - who'd have thought it? - and then the manager goes all pragmatic and saves his best players for a home game vs Swansea. Ridiculous. Makes you wonder why clubs bother trying to qualify for the Europa League if this is how they treat their big moment.

Would serve Pulis right if his side lost their fifth in a row.
Prediction: Stoke 1-2 Swansea

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The weekend fixtures mean it could be a good weekend for QPR to do themselves a big favour and pull clear (ish_ of the bottom three.

This is the sort of game that will define their season" a local derby, that looks up glamorous but is a must win.
Prediction: QPR 2-1 Fulham

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Wigan are an unpredictable side, but this is crunch time: A home game plus struggling opponents equals must win. I still feel they are slipping out of the top flight, but they play football in the right way and Roberto Martinez's perma-smile lifts the spirits.
Prediction: Wigan 2-2 Aston Villa

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Martin O'Neill has extracted such fine, determined and well organised performances from Sunderland so far that you just wonder when the dip will come. They can't keep winning can they?
Prediction: West Brom 1-1 Sunderland

Premier League team news round-up  

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BONUS! The Carling Cup final
Can Cardiff take inspiration from Birmingham' shock win last season against Arsenal and upset the Scousers?

I just hope they give Liverpool a good game, score a couple, and make a big stand for lower league clubs and all those outside the big five.

Only the cups offer fans fantasy these days. The league is becoming so predictable that is is a delightful distraction when someone like Cardiff scrap their way to a glorious Wembley appearance.

The Caring Cup has been sniffed at by many a club for too long. Just ask Liverpool what it will mean to get backs to trophy winning ways.

That said, I can't see them slipping up. The pace of Craig Bellamy on the wide open stretches of Wembley will prove decisive against the club he played for last season.
Prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Cardiff

The Best XI League Cup finals... ever!

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