Here's a quick run-down of where things stand as we execute a quick turnaround from this week's mid-week matches (and up-to-the-minute transfer news) to this weekend's matches:
Arsenal and Chelsea both stumbled in mid-week while it looks like Manchester City may never stumble again. The Citizens lost their best forward at the end of the first half and they brought in a guy who has barely played all season and managed to put up for goals against a quality opponent in the second half. Yes, Spurs were down to ten men on a penalty call that could have gone either way but City's ability to stamp on the throat of their opponent when they have an advantage (which is most of the time) is something to behold. With Arsenal learning that Aaron Ramsey will be out for a while longer and Jack Wilshere unlikely to be back for the weekend, it looks like they will have to continue counting on the improved quality of their depth to stay in the title chase that City have now edged ahead in. Specifically, they will need Santi Cazorla to continue looking more like last season's model than the one that looked lost for large stretches of this season. For Chelsea and City, we have what may be the match of the second half of the season as far as the title chase goes. For fantasy managers, it will be tough to invest in either side too heavily.
At Old Trafford, we still don't have much in the way of answers about how Manchester United will look with newly acquired Juan Mata in the line-up. Cardiff City aren't exactly the strongest of opponents and while United won comfortably, they did so without using a still-recovering Wayne Rooney (who would almost certainly have played if the opposition had been tougher) or Adnan Januzaj. Not until we see all four of RvP, Rooney, Januzaj, and Mata on the pitch together will we get a feel a) for how good that attack can be and b) how they will line up and who will be the most likely to get fantasy points from among the group. For all the hype of his arrival, Juan Mata only managed 8 fantasy points against weak opposition. I wouldn't read too much into United's clean sheet - Cardiff City just aren't very good going forward. This coming weekend's opponent, Stoke City, aren't any great shakes in front of goal either but on the road against a competent team I still worry that United's defense has holes.
Yikes, Everton were a bit of a mess in the Liverpool Derby, weren't they? The absences of Seamus Coleman, Bryan Oviedo and Sylvain Distin show off a troubling lack of depth at the back. This weekend's opponent, Aston Villa, are coming off of a four goal outburst on Wednesday. We will find out quickly if the eight goals mentioned above (4 against Everton's defense and 4 for Villa's attack) were a result of the opposition (Liverpool's very strong attack and West Brom's poor defense) or the teams that will be facing off against each other. It could be a wild one at Goodison Park.
Finally, the late-breaking transfers:
- NUFC Absences plus de Jong - Newcastle have officially lost Yohan Cabaye and are without Loic Remy this weekend due to a red card picked up against Norwich - look for the Magpies to struggle scoring goals regardless of the different in the standings between they and their opponents Sunderland. All that said, this could be an opportunity for Hatem Ben Arfa to break out or new signing Luuk de Jong to step right in. I'd guess it will be HBA who gets a chance this weekend with LdJ getting a few days to train with the team before getting a start.
- Lewis Holtby to Fulham - This one isn't 100% official yet but Mauricio Pochettino (Fulham's opponent on Saturday) has come out and said that Holtby is a Fulham player making him a very interesting selection this weekend and going forward given his low price (under 5).
- Salah to Chelsea - He sure looked good against Chelsea in the Champions League but Jose Mourinho has already said that he plans to give Salah a lot of time to adjust so hard to see much value here unless there are a couple of injuries in the attacking midfield at Stamford Bridge.
- Tom Ince to Somewhere - Crystal Palace seems to be leading the chase which would be great for the team and fantasy managers as he would likely fit the still-gaping Wilfried Zaha-sized hole from Palace's attack last season. This is more likely something to think about for next week given that there has been no official announcement yet.
So, that's where we stand heading into Week 24 in the Premier League, here are my player picks with my apologies if I'm a little rusty writing the player picks column instead of Late Fitness Check.
- Luis Suarez - This pick (and the captain designation) continues to be a no-brainer so I'll include the following stat to underscore the extent to which he is the best fantasy player in the Prem by far. You would have to add the output of the second best forward (Sergio Aguero: 240) to that of another very good player - Oscar (145) - to get to Suarez's point total for the season. Yikes!
- Daniel Sturridge - His price has soared since his return but if you have him, keep him. Even if you have to pay retail you may want to seriously consider it. You did see how many goals WBA gave up to Villa didn't you?
- Robin van Persie - He's back and the match-up is a good one for United.
- Yoan Gouffran - If he overcomes his late fitness check he is likely to be Newcastle's main man - Papiss Cisse may also figure and his price is right even if his production hasn't been. Fortunately, Newcastle play early on Saturday so we should know the results of the late fitness check before fantasy line-ups go final.
- Sam Gallagher/Rickie Lambert - PhysioRoom.com has Rickie Lambert returning for the Saints against Fulham which looks attractive. What would be even more attractive for fantasy managers looking to invest in expensive midfielders like Adam Lallana, Santi Cazorla and Steven Gerrard would be if Lambert remains sidelined and Sam Gallagher (who played well against Arsenal even if his 3 fantasy points didn't really reflect it) gets the start at a price of 3.14.
- Santi Cazorla - He's been excellent for Arsenal since Walcott and Ramsey have been out and while the opposition - Crystal Palace - has improved significantly since the arrival of Tony Pulis you have to like Arsenal to rebound from their mid-week draw with a home win with Cazorla in the middle of the action.
- Steven Gerrard - He just keeps on putting points up regardless of where he plays on the field - remarkable really. With the opposition really not very good this looks like it will continue to be a solid pick even at a high price.
- Adam Lallana - He slumped somewhat along with his side but the Saints seem to be back and so is Lallana. Oh, and he's playing Fulham.
- Adnan Januzaj - He didn't get the start against Cardiff City but I have a hard time believing that Juan Mata's arrival has relegated him to bench duty.
- Hatem Ben Arfa - He tends to score fantasy points in bursts and he will surely see the departure of Cabaye as an opportunity - as one of two early matches, we'll know if he's going to start before the fantasy transfer deadline.
- Lewis Holtby - Most of the guys above are very expensive. If it turns out that Holtby's move comes through and he is going to feature for Fulham then he's a strong value play to make the rest of your line-up work.
- Christen Eriksen - Yes, Spurs are coming off another demoralizing match against City but Eriksen has been fantastic under Sherwood and Hull City aren't exactly Manchester City, are they?
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- Ryan Bertrand - The new Villa left back was the fantasy equal of Juan Mata in mid-week despite the fact that Villa gave up three goals. Starting defenders priced under 5.00 are rare and with all the spending I'm recommending above, he's a great way to fit in some more expensive players even if @EVE isn't a particularly enticing fixture.
- Jon Flanagan - With Liverpool suffering from significant injuries at the back, Flanagan's return to health is a boon for Brendan Rodgers and fantasy managers since he is priced at 7.88 even after a mid-week clean sheet.
- Luke Shaw - Moving from the bargain rack to the upper reaches of the defending price list, Luke Shaw (and really all of the Southampton defenders) have a favorable match-up against Fulham that is worth paying to be part of.
- Fabio - And back to the bargain rack. With his transfer to Cardiff City completed he has the chance to benefit from City's strong home defense and Norwich City's miserable away attack (only 7 away goals in 11 away matches).
- Kolo Toure - Same logic as Flanagan above.
- Kyle Naughton - Depending on how and when the Danny Rose red card appeal happens and the status of Jan Vertonghen, Naughton might get a run in the side starting this weekend at Hull City. When considering this pick try to remember the Spurs results OTHER than yesterday's against City. They've been playing well under Tim Sherwood and, as we noted next to Christen Eriksen, Hull City are no Manchester City.
- Artur Boruc - I don't love any of the options this weekend but Boruc is under 10 (8.65) and playing at Fulham which isn't nothing.
- Gerhard Tremmel - For those who have him at 1.00, he was great in mid-week and @WHU isn't something that should make you too frightened if you want to keep the good times rolling. For those buying at retail, the risk is slightly higher but if you need the money elsewhere, he's still a strong bargain.
- Hugo Lloris - Under 10 and a solid, if not spectacular, match-up.
- Simon Mignolet/Wojceich Szczesny - Both are very expensive but have match-ups that seem like there's a strong chance of a win/clean sheet. If you have the money this is the safe play.