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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Weekend Football Picks 2014 (December 20-22)

This is the start of a run of four games in less than two weeks for the teams in the English top flight, while the rest of Europe is getting ready to enjoy a 'Winter break'. I know some managers in England have spoken of syncing up with the rest of Europe, but I love this time of year where teams can build a lot of momentum.

When the fixture list is released in June, my first instinct is check the opening six and final six games of the season before finding out when Manchester United are playing Liverpool. The Christmas run of games is the next point of call and I love this time of the season.

Six straight wins would have given most fans more confidence that Manchester United can really kick on going into the 2015 calendar year, but Louis Van Gaal is spot on in suggesting that the performances have to improve markedly. Games against Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City are not as straight-forward as people could perhaps think, although I would expect Manchester United to earn at least 8 points from that run of games.

Anything more would be a very strong achievement and definitely put Manchester United into the 'title challengers' box going into the New Year, while anything less would mean a top four berth would be the maximum of what they can put together.

I have to say one more thing about Louis Van Gaal- I love the way he is seemingly getting shorter and shorter with the media and some of the ridiculously poor questions that are being sent his way. The Dutchman has always had the reputation of being someone who doesn't tolerate fools gladly and it is becoming more and more clear from his press conferences that he has little to no time for those that insist on creating stories for the media.

The latest issue was surrounding the signing of Victor Valdes, but much like Sir Alex Ferguson, a lot of transfer talk gets given short shrift, while Van Gaal's insistence that Manchester United still have plenty of room for improvement sits very well with me.

I don't think there have been many times that United have been dominant in games, especially not away from home, and that search for 'perfection' certainly appeals to me.

Manchester City v Crystal Palace Pick: Losing Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero means half of the Manchester City spine is going to be missing in this game, although Manuel Pellegrini has found the right answers to help the side to 7 straight wins.

I think most people will expect that to be extended to 8 straight wins on Saturday afternoon and I have little doubt that to be the case. However, I think Manchester City have to be aware of the pace that Crystal Palace have in the forward positions and will need to play better than they did in the 0-1 win at Leicester City.

That performance could have been down to the tiredness from their Champions League win in Rome and I think the week preparation works in their favour for this game. Manchester City haven't dominated opponents at home in recent games and I think this is a chance for them to do that against a Crystal Palace team that will likely sit deep and invite City onto them.

Players like Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and Frank Lampard are improving their form which makes Manchester City a more dangerous team, while David Silva's return means they have the creativity to unlock teams defending deep.

Manchester City have certainly looked a little vulnerable at the back during the course of the season, but they do have clean sheets in 4 of their last 5 games in all competitions including in their last 3. I do think the home team will wear down Crystal Palace and eventually produce a win in this one by a couple of goals.

Aston Villa v Manchester United Pick: Louis Van Gaal is still not totally satisfied with the performances being produced by Manchester United, but he has to be very happy that the side keep picking up wins even if they don't perhaps deserve to do that.

David De Gea made some big saves against Liverpool when the game was still very much in the balance last weekend and those preserved the three points, while both Arsenal and Southampton will feel very disappointed in losing home games against Manchester United.

The defence still doesn't look completely comfortable and even a team like Aston Villa with the lowest scoring home attack in the Premier League will definitely feel they can create some chances against Manchester United. There is pace in the forward positions that can exploit some of the problems United have been having at the back and I do think Aston Villa will have their opportunities to score goals in this one as long as they show more composure than Arsenal and Southampton did when they got into those positions.

Even though Aston Villa have scored just 6 goals in the Premier League at Villa Park, 5 of those have come in their last three games and Manchester United have only kept 1 clean sheet away from home in the League.

On the other hand, Manchester United have definitely been clinical with the chances that have come their way and managed to score goals despite not having a host of shots on target. With the likes of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Robin Van Persie and a returning Radamel Falcao available to Louis Van Gaal, Manchester United will be able to create chances against an Aston Villa team that has kept no clean sheets in their last 7 at Villa Park in all competitions.

Manchester United do look short in the market considering their unconvincing performances in recent weeks, but Aston Villa have found the best teams a step too far which is shown by their home losses to Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Instead, I think the total goal market has more potential at the prices.

7 of the last 8 games between Aston Villa and Manchester United have seen at least three goals shared by the teams, including 3 of the last 4 at Villa Park. With both defences looking vulnerable through their performances and injuries, I think this game has every chance of continuing that trend at odds against.

Queens Park Rangers v West Brom Pick: With the continuing struggles to get results away from home, Queens Park Rangers will have circled games like this as being critical in their bid to avoid relegation back to the Championship and all the financial problems that will bring this club.

So far, they have performed well enough at Loftus Road to make sure they haven't lost touch with the teams looking to avoid relegation this season and that form at home could lead them to another important three points in this game.

For all of Alan Irvine's naysayers, West Brom have actually been a tough proposition for teams to play when they have come to visit and they defend well enough to pose problems. West Brom have the joint best away defensive record in the Premier League, but they have to be a little more positive in this trip and that may be a problem for them.

West Brom have kept a clean sheet in 4 of their 8 away games played in all competitions this season, but it also has to be noted that they have conceded at least twice in the other half of those games. I have to respect the fact they have won at Leicester City and avoided defeat at Hull City, teams more comparable to what they will face at Queens Park Rangers, but I do also have to respect how comfortable Rangers have been in front of their own fans.

They have now scored at least twice in their last 6 home games which includes visits from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City and Charlie Austin's return gives QPR their star striker again. Queens Park Rangers are in good form at home and seem to bounce back from their poor away performances and I think I am going to stick with a market that has been productive in recent weeks.

Backing Queens Park Rangers to score at least twice is the same price as backing them to win and I do think they need to score two goals to have a shot at the three points. However, Stoke City, Liverpool, Manchester City and almost Leicester City have allowed QPR to hit that target and still escape with a result and West Brom have played well enough away from home to think they can do that.

Tottenham Hotspur v Burnley Pick: Wednesday night saw Tottenham Hotspur put together an impressive performance to beat Newcastle United, but the away team did have some chances to make it a much more competitive game.

Tottenham have found it more difficult to impose themselves on games at White Hart Lane as they have struggled to break down teams who may be willing to sit much further back. Only West Brom and Crystal Palace have lost the same amount of home games as Spurs so far this season in the Premier League, but there has been signs that they have turned things around recently with 3 wins from their last 4 home games, albeit half of those taking place in the Cup competitions.

Much respect has to be given to Sean Dyche in the way he has got his Burnley team to be competitive in recent weeks and 3 wins from 6 League games is an impressive run of form. However, they have still not found the consistency away from home and that has led to some comfortable losses at West Brom, Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers.

The margin of defeat has come down in each of those games, but they might find it tough to contain Tottenham Hotspur if the home team brings in the confidence that the last week should have given them. Harry Kane is providing a spark up front with some decent performances and I am not convinced Burnley have the personnel to trouble this vulnerable Spurs back four.

Danny Ings has played well, but Burnley have struggled for goals and they have failed to find the net in 5 of their 7 away games in the League. Spurs should be too strong and I think they can cover the Asian Handicap by winning this game by a couple of goals at least.

Newcastle United v Sunderland Pick: The Tyne-Wear Derby comes at a time when both Newcastle United and Sunderland have been having a tough set of results, although the home team are off the back of two heavy defeats and Sunderland haven't won a game since early November.

However, Sunderland have been increasingly difficult to beat this season thanks to a solid enough defensive shape, the 8-0 at Southampton a clear exception, and a lack of goals also means they are settling for a share of the spoils.

The Black Cats have 10 draws from their first 16 Premier League games, including 4 of their 7 away games in the League. Sunderland might not have won since early November, but they have only lost 1 of their last 7 games even if 5 of their last 6 have ended in draws.

It has to be respected that Newcastle United have won 4 straight games at St James' Park in the Premier League, but they have lost the last 2 times they have hosted Sunderland by the same 0-3 scoreline. It is hard to expect Sunderland to do the same again, but a Newcastle United team that have conceded 8 goals in their 2 games played over the last eight days has to be a little short of confidence.

This is going to be a game full of passion and hard work, but these sides may end up cancelling one another out and I think a small interest on the points being shared, a common feature of Sunderland games, could be the right call.

Liverpool v Arsenal Pick: There were definitely some signs that Liverpool were turning a corner in their loss at Manchester United last weekend and they showed better composure in front of goal against Bournemouth during the week. It has been a really tough season for Brendan Rodgers, but beating Arsenal on Sunday will mean Liverpool are very much back in the hunt for the top four places in the Premier League.

However, the other side of the coin suggests a loss would already mean Liverpool have a huge mountain to overcome to get back into the Champions League, through the Premier League at least, and so this is a huge game for them at Anfield.

Raheem Sterling scored twice at Bournemouth in the League Cup, but I don't think he is completely comfortable leading the line and has to show more composure in this big game if Liverpool are to win. Sterling was guilty of missing two gilt-edged chances against Manchester United last week and I do think he will get chances in this game as Arsenal continue to fight through their defensive problems.

And Liverpool will need to take their chances because Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud pose an attacking threat against a defence that has panicked when put under pressure all season. Dejan Lovren might have to sit out with a knock suffered at Bournemouth and Arsenal will definitely feel they can challenge Brad Jones in goal who doesn't look an effective replacement for Simon Mignolet.

Both teams are likely to be more comfortable with the ball in possession and moving forward as neither defence has looked capable of securing too many clean sheets. Liverpool have conceded just one goal in their last 3 at Anfield, but Stoke City, Sunderland and Basel don't have the same attacking threat as Arsenal.

On the other hand, Arsenal have kept just 2 clean sheets in their last 7 away games in all competitions and will be missing Laurent Koscielny in this one. It would be a surprise if both Liverpool and Arsenal don't score in this one and the chances that likely will be created at both ends should lead to at least three goals scored in this one.

MY PICKS: Manchester City - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.95 Bet365 (2 Units)
Aston Villa- Manchester United Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.98 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Queens Park Rangers Over 1.5 Team Goals @ 2.50 Coral (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.14 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Newcastle United-Sunderland Draw @ 3.50 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Liverpool-Arsenal Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.78 Bet Victor (2 Units)

December Update15-11-1, + 12.28 Units (47 Units Staked, + 26.13% Yield)
November Final17-21, - 0.59 Units (69 Units Staked, - 1% Yield)
October Final8-18, - 14.79 Units (47 Units Staked, - 31.47% Yield)
September Final12-18, - 2.28 Units (41 Units Staked, - 5.56% Yield)
August Final8-22, - 19.92 Units (51 Units Staked, - 39.06% Yield)

Season 2014/1545-79, - 37.58 Units (208 Units Staked, - 18.07% Yield)
Season 2013/14164-185-3, + 15.84 Units (577 Units Staked, + 2.75% Yield)
Season 2012/13+ 4.42 Units (415 Units Staked, + 1.07% Yield)

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