The business end of the 2021-22 European football season is well and truly underway, with games set to come thick and fast between now and the end of the season. However, the year's first international break is set to pause club football for the time being, as players look to link up with their national teams to prepare for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
FA Cup football also returns this weekend and features a handful of usual suspects in the quarterfinals, with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City the top Premier League sides still left in the competition.
The Premier League is also tantalizingly poised at the moment, with Liverpool's statement victory against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium reducing the gap at the top of the table to just one point. The battle for relegation and European qualification is also heating up and the league table is slowly beginning to take shape.
As another interesting weekend of football beckons, here are my predictions for all the Premier League and FA Cup games to be played ahead of the international break.
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Leeds United
Woah, what a game! Wolves got a good result against Everton last time out, but Leeds' dramatic last-minute winner against Norwich City was quite the story as well! I think they'll really fancy themselves after what turned out to be a much-needed win and build on it with three points at the Molineux.
It's a massive pitch and Leeds have a lot of pace in their squad - that's something that could hurt Wolves. They are a good football-playing side, but the likes of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves aren't the quickest players around, so they could really be hurt by Leeds.
Jesse Marsch has overseen two losses and a win since taking charge, so the jury is still out on whether it was the right decision to sack Marcelo Bielsa. That said, if Leeds can get a result here, it would be unbelievable.
Prediction: Wolves 1-2 Leeds United
Aston Villa vs Arsenal
Arsenal played very well in the first half against Liverpool and could've probably won the game if Martin Odegaard had managed to score past Alisson Becker. That said, this is a tough game for Arsenal, as Aston Villa are also in good form heading into the game.
If you had looked at this game two weeks ago, it would've been easy to predict an Arsenal win. However, a lot has happened in the past two weeks, so this game might not prove to be as straightforward for Mikel Arteta and co. I think there will be a lot of goals in this and if Arsenal manage to not get beat, it will still be a good result for them in terms of their top-four hopes.
A draw wouldn't be the worst result in the world, so I think these two sides will cancel each other out in an entertaining game.
Prediction: Aston Villa 2-2 Arsenal
Leicester City vs Brentford
Brentford can just go out and play this game with a lot of freedom as they got three massive points against Burnley last week. I think the Bees are safe, so the shackles are off a little bit. Leicester City play tonight in the UEFA Conference League, so they could be a bit tired heading into the game.
That said, I still fancy the Foxes to get all three points. Looking at the two squads, I'm of the belief that Leicester will just have a bit too much for Brentford, but that's not to say the away side doesn't have a chance! This will be an interesting game, no doubt about it.
Prediction: Leicester City 2-1 Brentford
Tottenham Hotspur vs West Ham United
Much like Leicester City, West Ham have European commitments to cater to as they prepare to face UEFA Europa League favorites Sevilla. Whatever happens in the tie, the Hammers will be drained heading into the game and that could play into Tottenham's hands.
This is a massive London derby and could have a few goals in it. Spurs, in my opinion, were the better team against Manchester United despite losing, so I fancy them to win this one. Harry Kane is back in red-hot form and has really stepped up and delivered under Antonio Conte, but was there ever any doubt about the Englishman's ability?
When Conte came in, a lot of people referred to him as a defensive coach with a rather negative brand of football. However, what's important is that Conte's center forwards always score goals. Be it Diego Costa at Chelsea or Romelu Lukaku at Inter Milan, that has always been the case and it has seemingly continued at Tottenham with Kane.
The cream always rises to the top, so I don't find it surprising that Kane's found his shooting boots at the business end of the season. He's a top player and is flourishing under a fantastic coach.
Prediction: Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 West Ham United
Middlesbrough vs Chelsea
I'd be shocked if Chelsea don't win this. Boro will make it hard for them like they did against Tottenham, but the Blues are spoilt for choice as their squad is so, so big. I told everybody about Kai Havertz earlier this season - what a player he's turning out to be!
It took him a bit of time as he struggled with COVID-19 at the start, but now we're beginning to see the player who absolutely ripped it up in Germany. The goal he scored against Newcastle United, in my opinion, is undoubtedly one of the goals of the 2021-22 Premier League season so far.
Chelsea have quality players littered throughout the squad, which is why I don't see anything other than an away win here. Look at Liverpool, for example. At this point in time, you could name their preferred starting XI, but that's not the case with Chelsea.
Edouard Mendy always plays in goal along with Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger in front of him, but the third center-back spot is between Trevor Chalobah and Andreas Christensen. Similarly at right wing-back, you don't really know if it's going to be Cesar Azpilicueta or Reece James, while they have the likes of Mateo Kovacic, N'Golo Kante and Jorginho in midfield, among others.
In terms of their options upfront, we're just playing bingo at the moment! They've got Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku - it gets changed every week! Thomas Tuchel is a top-class manager blessed with a strong squad, but sometimes I get the feeling that he's not sure what his best XI is.
Chelsea are out of the Premier League title race and are well set to finish third in the league, so they could be a dangerous proposition in the UEFA Champions League. They can afford to prioritize defending their European crown, so keep an eye out for them.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 1-3 Chelsea
Crystal Palace vs Everton
Everton just don't need this game if I'm being honest. Every year I look at them and be like they need a good cup run, but the first time it happens, they are in major trouble in the Premier League.
That's a shame, because it's taken them a long time to get to this position. Frank Lampard and co have much bigger problems right now, so I don't give them a chance at all against an exciting Crystal Palace side under Patrick Vieira.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 2-0 Everton
Southampton vs Manchester City
Southampton have a fantastic record against Manchester City and have caused them a handful of problems over the years. To add to that, City will be a bit rattled, as they dropped points against Crystal Palace and Liverpool reduced the gap at the top to a solitary point with a statement victory against Arsenal.
This is an interesting game, but when it comes to predictions, I can never go against Manchester City. They'll probably have 75% of the ball, but can they score enough goals? Southampton's league form has dipped a bit, so they will look to express themselves and make an impact against a side they've done well against over the years.
Prediction: Southampton 0-3 Manchester City
Nottingham Forest vs Liverpool
Forest are doing really well at the moment, but Liverpool will have miles too much for them. If there aren't any upsets, the FA Cup semifinals could feature Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool - how mindblowing is that?
Arsenal couldn't have played much better against Liverpool in the first half, but they never looked like scoring except for that Odegaard chance that came from a Thiago Alcantara backpass. Liverpool, on the other hand, were nowhere close to their best but turned it on in the second half and won 2-0 - that just goes to show what a good team they are. It'll be a great atmosphere at Forest, but I think Liverpool will win this one comfortably.
Roberto Firmino scored an important goal against Arsenal and there's been a lot of talk about his position in the Liverpool team in recent weeks, but I think he's a top-class player. He's an important part of the team and links everything together, so I don't see Liverpool letting him go.
In my opinion, he was the main cog in the front three with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, but he never got the credit he deserved. I don't think the likes of Diogo Jota or Luis Diaz can do what he does for the team, because they are different players.
Individually, Jota will score more goals than Firmino, but in terms of the front three, the other two players will score a lot more when they play alongside the Brazilian. That's the way I see it - he's such an intelligent footballer.
Prediction: Nottingham Forest 1-3 Liverpool
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