As anticipated, Manchester City experienced stiff competition to maintain their grasp on first place in Week 24 of the Premiership. In fact, the Citizens lost to Chelsea at home, their first defeat in the Etihad Stadium this season. Conversely, Arsenal put away an underwhelming Crystal Palace outfit, allowing the Gunners to reclaim the league lead and enabling numerous Best XI players from the North London side to boast clean sheets.
One of those players was goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who needed to make just two saves against Palace to preserve his 11th clean sheet of this season.
Defensively, Kyle Walker's Tottenham side allowed one goal at Hull City. However, despite Per Mertesacker picking up a yellow card, his seven effective clearances led Arsenal's clean sheet performance. Rounding out the group, Patrice Evra and Manchester United's nightmare season continued, as they fell at Stoke City.
In the midfield, the trio of Mesut Ozil, Adam Lallana, and Adam Johnson all kept clean sheets, with both Adams also each scoring a goal along the way. The odd man out proved to be Hatem Ben Arfa, whose Newcastle side suffered a 3-0 onslaught at the hands of rivals Sunderland at home.
Last week's strike force performed wonderfully, as Robin van Persie scored for the second consecutive game, Christian Benteke assisted Aston Villa's lone goal versus Everton, and Daniel Sturridge justified his captain selection by finding the net once again for Liverpool.
Tallying the results, Week 24's Best XI produced five clean sheets, four goals, and one assist.
Looking forward to this weekend's action, all 20 squads are scheduled to play, with Saturday's early game of Arsenal at Liverpool holding the most title implications.
That tie pits first versus fourth, but unlike the top-heavy defensive tussle of Man City-Chelsea that was avoided from a fantasy perspective last week, there may be some offensive fireworks at Anfield. Liverpool have scored at least two goals in each of their last nine home league matches, while Arsenal are averaging over two goals per game on the road this season.
In other top-ten matchups, after playing to a scoreless draw earlier this season, fifth-place Everton travels to sixth-place Tottenham, while eighth-place Newcastle attempts to do the double at third-place Chelsea.
Elsewhere, both Crystal Palace-West Brom and Sunderland-Hull City feature opposing teams currently tied on points.
Then, both Manchester clubs face favorable matchups, but City against Norwich is probably a more reliable result than United versus Fulham, although both teams will be eager to bounce back from losses last week.
Finishing off the most noteworthy fixtures is the Welsh Derby of Swansea City against Cardiff City. Both sides have already sacked their managers this season, with the Swans showing former boss Michael Laudrup the door just this week.
With the stage set, let's unveil this week's Best XI.
Artur Boruc (Southampton) - Despite a broken hand costing him seven starts over the holiday period, Boruc has still managed eight clean sheets in 17 games this season, including last Saturday at Fulham. In fact, Southampton's defense has conceded just as many goals as Manchester City this season. Playing at home against a Stoke City side that has been held scoreless in five of its last six away matches in the league, Boruc could very well string together consecutive clean sheets this weekend.
Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City) - While Manchester City's away defense ranks 11th at the moment, the Citizens face the league's second-lowest scoring team in Norwich City on Saturday. A matchup like that bodes well for Zabaleta's clean sheet prospects. Also, the Argentine is presently tied with teammate Aleksandar Kolarov for the league lead among defenders with five assists, so against the Canaries' shaky defensive unit, Zabaleta could contribute offensively to boot.
Marcos Alonso (Sunderland) – Since arriving on loan from Italian side Fiorentina, the 23-year-old Spaniard has been a revelation at Sunderland. He has posted clean sheets in back-to-back games and across his four games for the Black Cats has averaged one shot attempt, 3.5 tackles, three interceptions, and 1.5 crosses per game. He’ll face a Hull City side this weekend that sports the league’s worst road record and has failed to score in its last three games away from the KC Stadium.
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea) – Chelsea have kept a clean sheet in six of their last eight Premier League games, including against Manchester City’s high-powered attack last Monday, a game in which Ivanovic’s first half goal proved to be the match-winner. The Serbian should find the sledding a bit easier this time around, since Chelsea host a Newcastle team that was blanked at home last weekend and has not scored in five of their last six showings.
Yaya Toure (Manchester City) - With 12 scores already, the accomplished Toure has achieved a career-high in goals through 23 appearances this season. This weekend, he faces a Norwich City team that Manchester City has scored four or more goals against in four of their last five contests. To their credit, the Canaries' defense fares much better at home, but given City's stable of attackers and their league-best away goal total, Toure could contribute toward another lopsided score line.
Santi Cazorla (Arsenal) – In three games for Arsenal against Liverpool, Cazorla has registered two goals and an assist, which includes the Gunners’ opening goal in their 2-0 win earlier this season. Arsenal has scored at least two goals in its past four matches versus the Reds in all competitions and Cazorla boasts three goals and an assist over his last three league outings. Moreover, a makeshift Liverpool defense boosts the Spaniard’s chances.
Eden Hazard (Chelsea) – Following a man of the match performance at Manchester City on Monday, Hazard will look to keep it rolling at home versus Newcastle this weekend. The Magpies are reeling from conceding three goals at home to arch rivals Sunderland and face uncertainty after selling Yohan Cabaye, their former team leader, to Paris Saint-Germain. Chelsea’s leading scorer, Hazard will aim for his first goal in nearly a month this Saturday and his odds look manageable.
Juan Mata (Manchester United) – Since making the move to Old Trafford, Mata has picked up an assist in both of his two appearances for the Red Devils. Come Sunday, he’ll face a Fulham defense that has shipped 12 goals more than any other side this season, presenting the perfect opportunity for Mata to open his United scoring account.
Robin van Perise (C) (Manchester United) – Along with Mata, van Persie will be salivating at the chance to play Fulham’s league-worst defense this weekend. The Dutchman enters the match with goals in consecutive games and coming off a goal and an assist against the Cottagers previously this season. Further, he has scored in seven of 14 career ties versus Fulham. With those considerations and the need to overcome last weekend’s loss at Stoke City, United’s joint top-scorer earns this week’s captain’s armband.
Edin Dzeko (Manchester City) - As previously noted, Manchester City has proven in the past to be plenty capable of walloping Norwich City. With Sergio Aguero (hamstring) out lately and Alvaro Negredo (shoulder) still recovering, Dzeko has been City's most in-form striker, evidenced by seven goals in his past seven games across all competitions. The Bosnian scored versus Norwich in a 7-0 hiding earlier this season, and should have ample opportunities to do so again this weekend.
Jay Rodriguez (Southampton) - A standout player this season, Rodriguez's goal last weekend made him one of just seven players to reach the double-digit goal plateau thus far. Along with that, the 24-year-old has attempted five or more shots in four of his last six competitive outings. This weekend, he faces a Stoke City defense that has allowed the third most goals both overall (38) and on the road (25) this season.
Zabaleta – Alonso – Ivanovic
Toure – Hazard – Cazorla – Mata
van Persie (C) – Dzeko - Rodriguez