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Saturday, 27 December 2014

Weekend Football Picks 2014 (December 28-29)

This is the final round of games from the English Leagues in the 2014 calendar year as the Championship spreads out a few games until Tuesday 30th December and the final Premier League game is played on Monday 29th December.

In the last twelve months, so much in football changes so dramatically and that can be seen with the optimism that Manchester United fans go into 2015 after a less than stellar beginning to the year under David Moyes.

On the other hand, Liverpool were just about beginning a long run of winning games that was seemingly going to take them to their first top flight title since 1990, but slipped in the final furlong and allowed Manchester City to steal the title from under their noses. Since that fateful day in April, Liverpool have been on a downward spiral that sees them going into 2015 with plenty of questions about Brendan Rodgers and whether this team can somehow fight their way back into Champions League contention via their League position.

Most fans wouldn't have predicted that Liverpool would be out of that competition before the turn of the year after waiting so long to get back to the top table of European football and all the negatives that Manchester United fans had twelve months have shifted down the M62.

It's not just in the top half of the table- Crystal Palace fans are looking for the second coming of the Messiah to lead them out of the mess that Neil Warnock has left them in. Twelve months ago they appointed Tony Pulis at around this time which sparked a huge upturn in fortunes and, short of going back to Pulis who fell out with upper management about season targets in August, there doesn't seem to be the same inspirational management appointment out this time around following Warnock's unsurprising sacking.

Everton fans must be wondering if they weren't too quick to write off what David Moyes achieved for them as Roberto Martinez struggles in his second season in charge at Goodison Park, while the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have not changed their goals despite new signings and management changes in the summer.

The January transfer window will open in a few days time and that is going to be a vital period for clubs, mainly at the bottom of the Premier League, as they look to make the signings to keep them in the top flight. The top teams generally don't do big business at this time as transfer targets are not really released at this point, but there could be a couple of very big name players moving into the Premier League, especially if Louis Van Gaal gets his wish with Kevin Strootman and Wesley Sneijder heavily linked with Manchester United.

These are just a few predictions of what we are going to see in 2015 to conclude this season, although things can change quickly in football as the plight of Liverpool and the surge of Manchester United have proven. It's just for fun and based on what we have seen so far this season.

Champions: Manchester City- I still think they win the title if they can get Sergio Aguero fit and potentially being knocked out of the Champions League at least one and possibly two Rounds before Chelsea.

Champions League Places: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal

Europa League Places: Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur

Relegation: Leicester City, Burnley, West Brom

Championship Promotion: Derby County, Norwich City, Bournemouth

League Cup: Chelsea

FA Cup: Manchester United

Player of the Year: Sergio Aguero

Champions League: Bayern Munich

Europa League: Villarreal

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United Pick: Manchester United have begun to play much better at Old Trafford in recent weeks with more confidence going forward and dictating play, but they have yet to really do that on their travels and this trip to White Hart Lane is potentially a very difficult one.

However, Tottenham Hotspur have not been as effective at home as they would have liked and I think that will give Manchester United a chance to win their third away game from their last four on their travels.

There is no doubt in my mind that Manchester United have a forward line that doesn't need a host of chances to score goals and the likes of Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Wayne Rooney provide a real goal threat for them. Juan Mata is another from midfield that is always good for a goal and the fact of the matter is that Tottenham Hotspur have kept just 2 clean sheets from their last 8 home games in the Premier League.

The Spurs defence is not the best and I do think United have their chances when they go forward, but by the same token, I expect Spurs to have their chances when they attack. Harry Kane has been in fine goal-scoring form, while the likes of Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli have been providing ammunition for the English striker.

Manchester United have yet to really convince they are in complete control because of the chances the defence have given up, especially away from home, and they have still only managed the one clean sheet on their travels in all competitions.

When Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United play one another, you know both teams will look to attack and score goals and both can pass the ball effectively. 5 of the last 6 games between the teams have produced at least three goals and 3 of the last 5 at White Hart Lane have also seen that number met.

10 of the last 11 Tottenham Hotspur games in the Premier League have seen at least three goals shared this season and 6 of the last 7 Manchester United games have done the same. The layers might not be taking any chances, but I still think there is something in taking this game to have at least three goals shared and it won't be a big surprise if this game ends 2-1 either way.

Southampton v Chelsea Pick: With just one day of rest between the Boxing Day games and this round of Premier League fixtures, both Southampton and Chelsea will have been pleased with their comfortable wins on Friday. That should mean players are rested enough for another game in a short period of time and this live game figures to be one of the more interesting ones of the round of games.

Six weeks ago, Southampton knew they had a lot to prove despite flying high in the Premier League table, but defeats to the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal have perhaps given them a more realistic expectation. Ronald Koeman, however, felt his side were only really outplayed by Manchester City in those three games, even though they were all losses, and I think the concern has to be that Chelsea are closer to that team rather than Arsenal or Manchester United.

The two wins over Everton and Crystal Palace would have restored some confidence for Southampton, but Chelsea are playing with a different sort of freedom. Eden Hazard continues to improve day after day and is a real threat every time he decides to pick the ball up and run at defenders, while Diego Costa is back amongst the goals.

Defensively, Chelsea have played very well all season and they have only conceded 4 goals in their last 10 games in all competitions. As well as Southampton have done for most of the season from a defensive standpoint, they didn't look that great in the big games they have played in recent weeks and I think Chelsea take advantage of that.

Chelsea have a strong recent record when visiting Southampton and they won here comfortably last season. While I expect this to be a tighter game, I think the away side have a little more quality that can make the difference and perhaps a moment of magic from someone like Hazard, or a defence-splitting pass from Cesc Fabregas separates the teams and leads to a Chelsea win.

Manchester City v Burnley Pick: It does feel like most people are expecting Manchester City to run rampant over Burnley in this game at the Etihad Stadium and it is understandable for people to believe that. Manchester City didn't have to put down too much energy to dismiss West Brom on Boxing Day and have scored 6 goals in their last two games despite playing with a false nine figure.

On the other hand, Burnley really took the game to Liverpool at Turf Moor a couple of days ago but couldn't come up with the quality required to breach a vulnerable defence and eventually fell away in the 0-1 loss. That much energy being placed into a game, and coming up short at the end of it, can make it tough with just one day to recover, especially as Burnley have a small squad that is unlikely to have too much rotation in it.

The layers are asking Manchester City to cover two goals on the Asian Handicap but the odds are unappealing and I think I will instead have a small interest in Yaya Toure continuing his fine recent form and opening the scoring.

With Burnley defending deep and doing their best to try and keep Manchester City from creating chances, there will be the chance for fouls to be committed in and around the area and Toure will be amongst the leading contenders to take direct free-kicks. He is also the designated penalty taker in Sergio Aguero's absence and Toure can easily extend his run of scoring in 5 of the last 7 Premier League games Manchester City have played.

Toure has only opened the scoring in two of those games, but he seems to be operating much higher up the pitch and is likely to have chances in this one and has to be worth a small interest. I have been impressed with the determination that Burnley have played with in recent games, but Manchester City are playing with too much confidence and should win this game fairly comfortably too.

Queens Park Rangers v Crystal Palace Pick: It can be difficult to know how the players are going to respond when a manager is sacked, but you can't imagine too many Crystal Palace fans are unhappy that Neil Warnock has been fired. I have never been a fan of Warnock and always found him miserable and quick to point the finger of blame at everyone else rather than see his own failings and definitely believe the Premier League is not for a manager that is completely out of his depth at that level.

The loss of Tony Pulis just before the season began looks to be an even worse move by Crystal Palace and you do have to wonder if they are going to go back to their former manager and see if they can iron out their differences. Under Warnock, Palace have lost what helped them avoid the drop last season and the board clearly could see that this team were not going to have much success under that manager.

The timing isn't the best as the Premier League have scheduled matches just two days after Boxing Day and I think Queens Park Rangers can take advantage of some of the uncertainty in the away dressing room.

Loftus Road has proved to be something of a fortress for Queens Park Rangers for much of the season and they have been performing admirably in front of their own fans. Harry Redknapp's men seem more comfortable in their familiar surroundings and 3 wins in a row and 4 wins from their last 5 games should give them the confidence to win this game.

Charlie Austin is in very good form for the home team and the difference between these teams could be the fact that QPR have Austin's goals and Crystal Palace have struggled to get the ball in the net.

While I do believe Queens Park Rangers win the game, I am still not convinced about their defence and that worry leads me to go back to a familiar pick in recent weeks. QPR continue to score freely at home and have extended their run to 7 straight home games where they have scored at least twice and backing them to do so remains a big price.

I feel more comfortable with that pick rather than picking Queens Park Rangers to win because they have conceded twice in 3 of their last 4 home games. While Crystal Palace don't have a lot of goals in the side, they have conceded at least twice in 6 of their 9 away games in the Premier League this season and this pick at least avoids being concerned about another poor start by the home team as they had against West Brom last week.

Stoke City v West Brom Pick: It has been a strange few seasons that have seen Stoke City winning games regularly at the Hawthornes but struggle to beat West Brom at the Brittania Stadium, although they might not have had a better opportunity than they will have on Sunday.

Stoke City have not been getting too many wins at home in recent games, but they should really have beaten West Ham United to improve that record and the loss to Burnley is probably the most disappointing result. This is a team that has found goals at the Brittania Stadium and they had scored at least twice in 4 of 5 games here before the 0-2 defeat by Chelsea, although Stoke had their chances in that game.

They are also facing a West Brom team that has some uncertainty surrounding their manager and I do think the Baggies are one of the poorer teams in the Premier League. West Brom did score twice at Queens Park Rangers last week, but they have struggled for goals away from the Hawthornes all season in the Premier League and that will be a problem for them in this game.

Of course, the last two games between these teams at the Brittania Stadium have finished goalless and that might be the best way West Brom can get something from this game. However, I do think Stoke City will create chances and their 0-1 win at Everton on Boxing Day should give Mark Hughes' side a shot in the arm and a bit of momentum to carry into this game.

With Alan Irvine under immense pressure as manager of the club, another loss might mean he is no longer under that burden going into the New Year and I do think Stoke City prove too strong at a little under odds against.

West Ham United v Arsenal Pick: Arsene Wenger looked disgusted with Olivier Giroud after the sending off on Boxing Day, especially as it meant his Arsenal side were very nervous as they hung on to a 2-1 win over Queens Park Rangers. To make matters worse, Arsenal would have expended a lot more energy than the manager would have wanted from a squad that has been stretched by injuries and it is going to be interesting to see what kind of toll that takes in this game.

They are also facing a West Ham United team that have had a few hours more to recover from the Boxing Day game they played and a team that has been flying at Upton Park with 6 wins from their last 7 games here. With wins over Liverpool and Manchester City at home, Sam Allardyce will believe his team can bounce back from their loss at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea by really giving Arsenal a lot of problems and I do think this can be an entertaining game.

There is pace and power in the West Ham team and they have played very good football for much of the season. It is very likely that the Hammers will look to get on the front foot and that may also open up spaces for the likes of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez on the break considering the pace that both of those players have to carry a counter-attacking threat.

Defensively, Arsenal look a team that is still vulnerable and the three first half goals conceded at Stoke City was not that long ago. Add their terrible performance in the first half against Liverpool and something similar will certainly lead to goals in this one.

However, I also believe Arsenal are capable of giving West Ham something to think about with Welbeck and Sanchez leading the way and both teams have produced high-scoring games this season.

When West Ham United and Arsenal have met one another, goals haven't usually been a problem as both teams look to attack and it could be more of the same on Sunday. The last 5 games overall have seen at least three goals shared by the teams, while the last 5 at Upton Park have done the same.

Arsenal have dominated this fixture in recent seasons, but their energy expended on Boxing Day makes them look a little short to me in the market and I do like the chances of a 2-1 scoreline or a high-scoring draw to come out of this one.

Liverpool v Swansea Pick: The final Monday Night Football game of the 2014 year comes from Anfield as Liverpool look to build on a fortunate win at Burnley and try and turn around what has been a terrible season to this point.

Exiting the Champions League is a disappointment, but the bigger concern will be the 7 point gap between themselves and the top four in the Premier League, a gap that could have widened by the time this game kicks off.

Raheem Sterling up front has proved to be a decent move from Brendan Rodgers, but this is a team that is desperate for Daniel Sturridge to return having missed the majority of the season, while the January transfer window could be very important to the side. Rodgers has spoken about the feeling that Liverpool have finally got some positive momentum behind them, but a visit from his former club is anything but an easy game at the moment.

Swansea have a lot of pace up front and have won back to back games in the Premier League which means they are three points better off than Liverpool. They also showed their capabilities in a League Cup loss here at Anfield, a game they were leading until the final five minutes, and Swansea have already scored goals at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium this season.

Coming to Anfield won't hold any fears for Garry Monk's side and they will know they can create chances but, unlike Burnley, they are less likely to be wasteful in front of goal with the likes of Wilfried Bony leading the line. I also think Liverpool have been more creative going forward and it hard to see them not creating some chances of their own in this one with players like Philipp Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Steven Gerrard behind Sterling.

Both teams to score in this one looks a big price and last season the game ended 4-3 to Liverpool here, while both hit the net in the League Cup game at Anfield a couple of months ago. I think this final Premier League game of 2014 will see both teams net in what could be an entertaining game as both teams push for the three points.

MY PICKS: Tottenham Hotspur-Manchester United Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.70 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Chelsea to Win @ 1.90 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Yaya Toure First Goalscorer @ 6.00 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Queens Park Rangers Over 1.5 Team Goals @ 2.50 Coral (2 Units)
Stoke City to Win @ 1.93 Bet Victor (2 Units)
West Ham United-Arsenal Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.73 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Liverpool-Swansea Both Teams to Score @ 1.87 Boyle Sports (2 Units)

December Update22-16-1, + 19.64 Units (69 Units Staked, + 28.46% 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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