Oh, dear. The midweek internationals brought two unexpected results: England beating Brazil (we would not have predicted that) a couple of hours before the U.S. lost to Honduras (would have missed that one, too). Yet the consequences on both sides of the Atlantic could have been guessed by even the most addled seer. Jack Wilshere is dubbed the 43rd coming as an entire nation starts its "We're back as World Cup contenders" hyperventilation at least one year earlier than normal.
Except for the hardiest members of Sam's Army, nobody will dwell too long on Jurgen Klinnsman’s lineup experiment gone horribly awry as the Road to Brazil has nine games remaining.
And so with phenomenal Champions League matches set to begin midweek, this is a classic trap EPL weekend for both teams and prognosticators alike. Here’s hoping we are up to the task.
Spurs vs. Newcastle United: In a scheduling quirk, Newcastle return to The Lane almost one year to the day of last year’s corresponding fixture. It’s not an anniversary manager Alan Pardew will remember fondly -- Tottenham crushed an in-form Newcastle, 5-0 -- but 363 days later, the Magpies’ boss has little to relish in the present either.
Newcastle is sitting on their worst point total (27) after 25 games of any season spent in the Premier League, hardly a rousing endorsement of Mike Ashley’s decision to effectively give Pardew lifetime employment. Furthermore, the Geordies are wonderful guests in North London, not bothering to even score a goal during their past three visits to White Hart Lane. Pardew will be hoping his new midfielder Moussa Sissoko is so confident after his game-winning brace versus Chelsea that he can break the drought, but it’s highly unlikely the Spurs’ defense will give the rampaging box-to-box Frenchman as much space.
Mind you, it’s not as if Spurs will be any more prolific in the attacking third. Jermain Defoe’s knackered ankle ligaments and Emmanuel Adebayor’s post-African Nations Cup jetlag will force Andre Villas-Boas to tinker.
Don’t be surprised if Villas-Boas deploys Gareth Bale as a lone striker to tie up the entire Newcastle middle. Bale is the most likely candidate to knock one in, but we don’t envision a high-scoring affair.
Spurs 2, Newcastle United 0
Norwich vs. Fulham: 5-0s seem to be the order of the day, as Chris Hughton’s first outing in charge of the Canaries involved a visit to Craven Cottage and a world-class thumping by Martin Jol’s rampaging side. Five months later, Fulham have slowly slid down the table while playing a brand of football that has been curiously inept.
It’s been 11 games since the Cottagers kept a clean sheet, and in 11 of the past 14 Premier League contests, they’ve managed one or zero goals. It hasn’t helped Jol much that his most talented player, Dimitar Berbatov, is on the injured shelf -- crammed alongside Brede Hangelend, Steve Sidwell, Mahamadou Diarra, Kerim Frei and Kieran Richardson -- leaving Damien Duff and the occasionally visible Mladen Petric as the leading scorers with eight goals between them.
While Petric did notch two of the Fulham five in the first go-round, the singular lack of available talent for his side means that a repeat performance is as likely as Chelsea keeping a manager for more than 10 minutes.
Norwich is also on the wrong end of the soccer bipolarity equation. After a midseason run of 10 unbeaten had the East Anglians dreaming of Europa qualification, three points from the past eight contests have seen the Canaries shifting their hopes to simple Prem survival. Their paucity of firepower is exemplified in a myriad of ways -- Robert Snodgrass, Anthony Pilkington and Grant Holt sit on a measly four apiece – and forced Delia Smith to dip into American cooking for a solution. Sporting KC’s Kei Kamara will provide a boost, but not likely the required goal surge.
So what happens when a team that cannot score plays a squad that consistently concedes? In this case, Norwich exacts a measure of revenge with a workaday win against a team filled with names few people recognize.
Norwich 2, Fulham 0
Manchester United vs. Everton: April 22, 2012. Manchester United is frolicking across the Old Trafford clover, leading Everton 4-2 with seven minutes to play in a match that has been far more lopsided than the actual score. By the end, Everton had stormed back to snatch a 4-4 point, an event that ultimately cost Alex Ferguson another league title and launched the finest EPL run of David Moyes’ magnificent managerial career.
The Toffees have played 29 Prem games since that unlikely comeback and have lost only three, meaning that this inexpensively assembled squad is legitimately in the Champions League race, trailing Spurs by three points and Chelsea by only four. We bet you probably didn’t even realize this fixture has England’s two hottest sides going tete-a-tete, as the contestants have lost a combined one match in their past 26 EPL outings.
All in all, this is a huge trap game for the league leaders. A trip to Real Madrid -- and a rendezvous with old flame Cristiano Ronaldo -- beckons on Wednesday with the stakes enormous and the hype immense. Even a man-manager as talented as Ferguson will have trouble keeping his mind and eyes on a league title that is practically secured with only two-thirds of the season gone. Everton, conversely, has everything in the play, is brimming with confidence and playing with a joyful abandon entirely at odds with Moyes’ quintessentially dour demeanor.
Last weekend, Everton fell victim to the trap mentality. With the United visit looming, the Merseysiders were lucky to eke out a 3-3 draw against Aston Villa, the sieve of the top flight. Moyes & Co. will be entirely ready and up for this one and the patina of United’s perennial dominance is diminished with the Red Devils having taken only two of the past six mano-a-mano contests.
To complete a memorable league double (Everton won its season opener 1-0 against United), Victor Anichebe is going to have to continue his streaky goal-scoring ways. Since his post-Christmas return from injury, the Nigerian striker has banged in three but also served as a constant menace in the middle. His efforts have been enough to send last year’s star, Nikica Jelavic, to the bench, a place that befits the former golden child’s three goals in 20 outings. With that kind of talent, Roman Abramovich should immediately pay $20 million for Jelavic.
There’ll be plenty of attacking football in this one, and we see this as the reverse of last year’s match flow. Everton will dominate, but Manchester United will battle back to secure a point in a thriller.
Manchester United 2, Everton 2
Liverpool vs. West Bromwich Albion: The streak ends on Monday. It feels like Liverpool hasn’t beaten a top-10 squad since Jamie Carragher was a regular, but that hoary statistic will be put to bed by full-time. What sweeter serenade for Carragher after announcing his retirement at season’s end?
After the FA Cup debacle against Oldham, the Reds played two strong away matches against Arsenal and Manchester City -- the latter contest was Liverpool’s most complete performance of the season. Steven Gerrard has reemerged, mainly because the addition of Daniel Sturridge up top and an increasingly impressive coterie of midfield colleagues in Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Lucas have combined to give Gerrard the physical anchoring and emotional space to fly wherever he wants.
The big danger for Brendan Rodgers’ charges will be whether they can maintain a disciplined approach against WBA. Albion’s Shane Long and Roman Lukaku present a formidable duo of strength and speed, a complement of talents that will ruin Rodgers’ day if his team gets caught in an up-tempo, high-pressing contest. It was no accident that the Reds’ three biggest Anfield run-outs -- 5-0 vs. Norwich, 4-0 vs. Fulham and 3-0 vs. Sunderland -- were each the result of patient, sensible football.
With the retiring Jamie Lazarus showing that confidence and knowledge matter as much as raw skill and pace, the Liverpool defense looks much more settled, and Luis Suarez is so happy with Sturridge at his side that the Uruguayan is even spending time staying on his feet.
Given that the Baggies are struggling overall and have not kept a clean sheet in their past 29 away games (coincidentally, the last shutout occurred at Anfield in a 1-0 WBA win), an early ‘Pool goal is likely. That will settle the home side, draw out a weaker Albion and lead to space -- and goals -- galore.
Liverpool 4, WBA 0
Paul Kanarek is a freelance soccer writer living in Los Angeles, the only city in America where MLS teams outnumber NFL teams 2-0. James Tyler is an editor for ESPNFC.