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Will Manchester United be on the ball?
After Thursday’s Champions League draw, February can’t come fast enough. Good thing we have plenty of Barclays Premier League action to keep us entertained in the meantime. This weekend’s games will be intriguing, to say the least. Can Liverpool bounce back from their embarrassing home loss to Villa? Will Reading put up a fight against City? Put the months-away Champions League on the back burner and get ready for some EPL action!
Swansea vs. Manchester United (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 8:25 a.m. ET)
It’s going to be hard for the Red Devils to focus on the task at hand, so you’ll have to forgive Manchester United if their brains are elsewhere at the moment. There’s one thought dominating their minds right now: Thursday's Champions League draw that matches them up against Spanish giant Real Madrid. You can say what you want about mentally being in the game you’re playing, but there is no way the Red Devils aren’t going to be slightly off kilter this weekend. Don’t forget Swansea's home success last season (wins over Arsenal, Manchester City, and a draw with Chelsea) and their fine form to date this year. All things considered, you’d have to think United would be happy to come away with a point.
Manchester City vs. Reading (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET)
We haven’t even reached 2013 yet and things are already starting to look bleak for Reading. Even one of my best friends, a long-time Reading fan and eternal optimist, is fearful for their relegation. He has good reason. Reading concede far too many goals (a league high 36), give up a ton of shots (a league high 313), and are tied for the most losses in the league with Wigan at 10. If Reading shook a Magic 8-Ball it would say: "Outlook not so good." Did I mention they are playing at the Etihad on Saturday? Expect the Citizens to knock the heads off the Royals and add to their already large goal difference (a whopping +18).
Liverpool vs. Fulham (live,FOX Soccer, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET)
What has happened to these two teams? Liverpool shouldn’t be mid-table and Fulham should be better. Instead, they’re back to back, in 12th and 13th place respectively. They’ve had some odd defeats this year, and both teams have only five league wins apiece.
Their poor form is starting to creep into the numbers. Let’s start with accuracy: Liverpool is the absolute worst, firing on frame only 38% of the time. Granted, their numbers could be so lousy because Luis Suarez is firing at will -- the Uruguayan averages a shot on goal every 20 minutes, yet he has only ten goals. And even with his low batting average, he’s still the best on the team. Fulham's strong start has become subdued. The root of the problem is clearly their lack of form away from home: they have just one win on the road this season. Both sides have a chance this weekend to jump back into a groove.
Chelsea vs. Aston Villa (live FOX Soccer, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET)
In last week’s 3-1 win against Liverpool at Anfield, Aston Villa trotted out a young lineup – they didn’t have a single player over 29! In fact, the average age for Paul Lambert's starting XI was just shy of 24 – the youngest starting lineup used in the EPL during this campaign. It's a direction that Lambert has pointed the Villans in for a few weeks now, and you can expect it to continue. There is suddenly promise for this club, and many feel Villa have the potential to compete again with the 'Big Boys'. They’ll get their chance this weekend as they travel to Stamford Bridge to face Rafa Benitez’s side. Chelsea's FIFA Club World Cup adventure in Japan ended with a loss in the title game, so now their focus shifts back to narrowing the gap on the two Manchester clubs. Can they do it? Good question.
Wigan vs. Arsenal (live, Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET)
I admire the spunk and fight in Arsenal fans. Boy, were they proud of their Monday 5-2 win. Santi Cazorla’s hat-trick helped them rise to fifth in the standings. In the best supportive voice I can pull off: "Good for YOU!" … But a quick reality check here for Arsenal fans: it was Reading. It's been a difficult up-and-down campaign for the Gunners and their faithful – I see and feel their pain. Perhaps a trip into the top three will help ease their tortured souls? Well, they may have it before the Queen speaks on Tuesday.
And while I wasn’t on the subject...
There's been way too much turmoil in our world lately. From Newtown, Connecticut to the manifesto released by FC Zenit fans, to the news that Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova has to begin a second battle with cancer; it’s a lot to handle. Heading into the New Year, please do your part to help turn the tide towards good. And happy holidays.
A 15-year broadcast veteran, Rob Stone is the lead studio host for FOX Soccer Match Day, Goals on Sunday, and UEFA Champions League coverage. Follow him on Twitter @RobStoneONFOX.
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