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Friday, 9 January 2015

Weekend Football Picks 2015 (January 10-11)

After the hectic festive period and the FA Cup Third Round taking over last weekend, the Premier League is back in action along with a couple of the big European Leagues following on from their 'Winter Break'.

The opening of the January transfer window means teams are looking to do the business that will either put them over the edge when it comes to winning big trophies or avoiding the drop from the Premier League. The money involved in the top flight means most are desperate to prolong their stay and that also resulted in the likes of Neil Warnock and Alan Irvine losing their jobs at Crystal Palace and West Brom respectively.

The appointment of Tony Pulis looks a good one for West Brom to maintain their status as a Premier League club, although he needs to work his magic over the next three weeks to ensure the Baggies have enough quality about them. A goalscorer will be high on the list of targets for Pulis as well as Alan Pardew, the new boss at Selhurst Park, and the likes of Leicester City. The latter have already completed the signing of Andrej Kramaric in a bid to rectify their issues in front of goal, although they have to wait for a work permit before he can make his debut for the Foxes.

Steven Gerrard also announced that he is definitely leaving Liverpool at the end of his contract and that he has signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy (signed as in put pen to paper and not what Frank Lampard hasn't done with the New York City team that he was on 'loan' from at Manchester City).

That means Gerrard, who gave me the highlight of 2014 by slipping up and costing Liverpool the Premier League title, is unlikely to ever win the one trophy he coveted most at Anfield.

However, if I was take off the Manchester United glasses for just a second, I was surprised by some of the comments that people were making about the player I would definitely have partnering Roy Keane if putting together my personal 'best team from the Premier League era'.

There are those that have criticised his inability to defend properly, but Gerrard was someone you wanted thirty yards from the opponent's goal, not thirty yards from his own, and he was not a terrible player that was constantly out of position as some suggested. As good as Paul Scholes, Patrick Vieira and Frank Lampard have been over the last twenty seasons, Gerrard was above them in my opinion and only comes second to Roy Keane in the midfield ranks since the Premier League was formed.

He might not have produced for England, but did produce plenty for Liverpool and was amongst the best midfielders of his generation throughout Europe.

United glasses back on- I'll always be thankful to Gerrard for that memory he gave me back in April 2014!

After the rush of games through December when it seemed like the Premier League was on every other day to the complaints of the players, January is a much quieter month with the League games broken up by the domestic Cup competitions. In two weeks time the FA Cup Fourth Round will be played, although the draw was once again a little bit of anti-climax.

However, that does mean that the Cup is likely to produce some big games as the teams are thinned out which may play into Manchester United's hands once the other clubs are back in European action next month. I've said it before, but I'll say it again- I'd fancy United's chances of beating any team at Old Trafford, even Chelsea and Manchester City if those clubs are concentrating on Champions League football, and the long wait for the FA Cup trophy to return to Old Trafford has every chance of ending this season.

The New Year's Day picks had a pretty horrific time of things but it was just a strange day all around when you consider how the picks I made played out.

Stoke City and Manchester United shared two goals in the first half hour of their game but neither could push on for the winner (Over 2.5 Goals Pick).

Liverpool were 2-0 up, but Leicester City fought back for the draw (Liverpool - 1.5 Asian Handicap Pick).

Queens Park Rangers conceded a last minute equaliser to ten man Swansea (QPR to Win Pick).

Southampton beat Arsenal 2-0, but it could have easily been 3 or 4 on another day while Arsenal also had a few chances their way (Over 2.5 Goals Pick).

West Ham United drew 1-1 with West Brom, but that was probably the fair result (West Ham United to Win Pick).

Tottenham Hotspur crushed Chelsea 5-3 (Over 2.5 Goals Pick).

Hopefully there will be a little more fortune sprinkled on the picks over the next set of fixtures and weeks beyond as that seems to be a key reason for a remarkably poor season after back to back profitable seasons.

Sunderland v Liverpool Pick: The first live game of the Premier League weekend looks certain to be a tight affair when Sunderland host Liverpool, especially after the latter lost the creativity of Adam Lallana and are still awaiting the return of Daniel Sturridge.

In recent weeks, Brendan Rodgers has seemed to have found the right formula for his Liverpool team, especially away from home where they have won 4 of their last 5 games in all competitions and have won 3 in a row. However there remain some real vulnerabilities in the mental outlook of Liverpool and Leicester City became the latest team to take advantage by coming from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw at Anfield on New Year's Day.

It is going to be a tough game for Liverpool at the Stadium of Light where Sunderland have been difficult to beat for the most part. They would have been largely disappointed with the 1-3 loss to Hull City in their most recent home game in the Premier League, but Sunderland are a team that don't concede a lot of goals at the Stadium of Light usually.

Liverpool will find it tough to break down Sunderland as Chelsea found a few weeks ago and there is always a chance the home side can force a mistake from this back three/four that have struggled for clean sheets. That almost has me leaning towards backing Sunderland to earn a surprising three points and move a little clearer of the bottom three, but I am not at all confident that a team with just 1 home League win all season is a big enough price here.

The away team have either won or lost away from home in the Premier League this season, but Sunderland are the draw specialists of the Division and don't have a lot of goals in the side. That could be a problem for them in trying to turn draws into wins unless rectified in the January transfer window and this game could easily see the points shared.

Chelsea v Newcastle United Pick: It was no surprise to see Chelsea respond to their shocking 5-3 loss at Tottenham Hotspur by beating Watford comfortably in the FA Cup Third Round, but I still think Jose Mourinho will have been getting on top of his players over the last ten days. Mourinho looked shell-shocked by what he was seeing at White Hart Lane and I expect he will be demanding another strong performance at Stamford Bridge to put memories of that result in the past.

He might not have asked for a much better opponent than a Newcastle United side that has just lost their manager and whose fans have already begun to turn on temporary replacement John Carver. There are so many injuries and suspensions in the away side's dressing room that they could see heads drop if they fall behind in this one, especially as Newcastle have lost their last 4 away games.

Prior to the loss at Leicester City in the FA Cup Third Round, Newcastle had conceded 11 goals in 3 games at Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United and some of the defending doesn't bode well for their trip to Chelsea. This is a team that has scored at least twice in 11 straight games at home in all competitions and handily dismissed Newcastle United at home last season and it is hard to see any other result in this game.

Most of the top stars for Chelsea got a rest during the win over Watford in the FA Cup which means they should be raring to go on Saturday in this Premier League game. Compared with December, January is a month where games are spread much more thinly so I expect Jose Mourinho to put out a strong side that will want to get the job done against Newcastle United in impressive manner to right the wrongs of the result at Spurs.

Covering 2 goals won't be straight-forward, but this Newcastle United side have conceded plenty of goals away from home recently and Chelsea can match the margins that Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur both achieved. A win by exactly 2 goals returns stakes, but I like Chelsea to go the extra step and cover this with another comfortable day in the office at home.

Swansea v West Ham United Pick: Andy Carroll should return to the West Ham United squad for this game, but there are some decent strikers that won't be in action with Diafra Sakho a doubt and Wilfried Bony at the African Cup of Nations ahead of a potential move to Manchester City.

With Sakho and Bony absent, some may be looking for a game featuring fewer goals than anticipated, but I think both Swansea and West Ham United will continue playing in the same attacking manner which has made the first half of this season so positive for them. Both teams have scored 15 goals in their home/away games respectively and I think both Garry Monk and Sam Allardyce will consider this a winnable game so are unlikely to ask their players to take a step back.

I am anticipating there will be goals shared by these sides with the way that both have played this season, although I can't ignore the fact that Bony and Sakho are missing. There are still goals in both teams though and neither defence can really point to very strong performances to suggest there won't be chances in this game.

Swansea earned a clean sheet against Aston Villa in their last home game, but anyone who saw the chances the away side had in that game would know that West Ham are more than capable of scoring at least once here. On the other hand, West Ham United are yet to earn a clean sheet away from home and Swansea have only failed to score in one home game so the expectation would be that both teams score at least once.

A high-scoring draw is not out of the question, but a 2-1 result either way could be the outcome of this game on Saturday and I will back there being goals at close to odds against.

Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur Pick: Alan Pardew wouldn't have asked for a much better game to open his reign as manager of Crystal Palace than playing a non-League club in the FA Cup Third Round, and the 0-4 at Dover would have been a welcome reprieve from some of the pressures of the Premier League.

The competition level increases ten-fold this weekend for Crystal Palace as they host a Tottenham Hotspur team that beat Chelsea 5-3 in their last League game and who have only seen Manchester City win more away games than them this season.

Without a doubt Tottenham have rode their luck at times on their travels with wins at Aston Villa and Hull City coming in thanks to late goals against teams trying to defend with ten men, while the victory at Swansea was after being outplayed for much of the game before another late winner. However, they have been winning those games and will be confident they can add to the problems that Crystal Palace have been having.

Crystal Palace haven't won a Premier League game since beating Liverpool 3-1 here back in late November, but the confidence of a new manager could certainly change their fortunes. That might give them the boost to beat this Tottenham Hotspur team that have vulnerabilities defensively, although Palace have to be aware of the attacking threat Spurs pose through an in-form Harry Kane.

Christian Eriksen has been scoring away from home with 3 goals in Spurs' last 4 away Premier League games and all of those have been the winning goal.

The one stand out from Tottenham away games is the feature of the 1-2 win and their 9 games on their travels have averaged 3 goals per game. 4 of the last 6 Crystal Palace home games have also featured at least three goals including their 1-3 home defeat to Southampton in their most recent game at Selhurst Park and the one that effectively cost Neil Warnock his job.

There have been more problems for Palace when it comes to goal-scoring, but they have only failed to find the net in 1 of their last 7 home games in the League and Spurs haven't earned an away clean sheet since the opening day of the season in the Premier League. With Tottenham's ability at the other end of the pitch, I am surprised the layers are dangling odds against quotes on there being at least three goals in this game, the second live TV game on Saturday.

Arsenal v Stoke City Pick: As disappointing as the 2-0 loss at Southampton was, Arsenal have actually been playing some decent attacking football in recent weeks and they have definitely felt more comfortable at the Emirates Stadium. That has shown up with 5 straight wins at home in all competitions and Arsenal have scored 11 goals in that run of games, while a fast start has put them on the front foot in each of those games.

Even the loss to Manchester United featured a very good first half hour for Arsenal and they could easily have been leading in that game by that point too with better finishing. The return of Olivier Giroud from suspension gives them a player that is happy leading the line and also means the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott have someone to play off.

The first thirty minutes are going to be vital for both teams in this one you would feel as Arsenal could be hard to peg back if they get their noses in front, while Stoke City are going to be looking to make life very difficult for them.

In recent seasons Stoke have struggled to really impose themselves against Arsenal away from the Brittania Stadium, but Mark Hughes has certainly got his side playing better on their travels than their fans have been accustomed to seeing. That includes wins at Manchester City and Everton this season and close losses at Liverpool and Manchester United so this could be a more difficult game for Arsenal than some may expect.

However, I think the Gunners have found something of a groove at home in the last six weeks and I am expecting another fast start to pay off for them. If they do score in the first thirty minutes, I would expect Arsenal to use their pace on the counter attack to pick off Stoke City who are missing their own key threats in Mame Diouf and Bojan.

Arsenal should then prove to be too strong and come through with the three points thanks to a win by a couple of goals at least.

Manchester United v Southampton Pick: How many people would have predicted Manchester United versus Southampton would be a top four clash at this stage of the season back in August? Both teams were coming into the season off an intriguing summer of transfer activity which had Southampton as a dark horse for relegation, while a poor start for Manchester United had left them off the pace.

With more than half of the season played, both Manchester United and Southampton are a genuine contender to finish in the top four and a Champions League place that brings, although neither will be expected to chase down Chelsea and Manchester City at the top of the table.

That does mean this game has added importance to build some confidence to take into the final five months of the season, while both Dutch managers will believe they can take advantage of a lack of European football compared with the teams around them.

Sunday should be an interesting game between these teams if the game at St Mary's is anything to go by, although it has to be said that Manchester United have saved their best performances for Old Trafford this season. Defensively they still look vulnerable and the likes of Graziano Pelle are still dangerous despite his lack of goals in the last couple of months.

Pelle scored when these teams met at St Mary's and the likes of Dusan Tadic and Shane Long offer Southampton pace which can pose problems for Manchester United.

On the other hand, I expect Manchester United to cause problems for a team that has kept just 1 clean sheet from their last 9 away games in all competitions and the attacking talent at Louis Van Gaal's disposal have proven to be clinical in front of goal. They have also been scoring plenty of goals at home with 11 in their last 4 Premier League games at Old Trafford and I do think Manchester United will have the edge in this game.

However, United also have just 4 clean sheets at home this season and teams are always likely to have chances against them so backing Manchester United to win a game where both teams score looks a big price.

MY PICKS: Sunderland-Liverpool Draw @ 3.60 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Chelsea - 2 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Swansea-West Ham United Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.05 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Crystal Palace-Tottenham Hotspur Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.15 Coral (2 Units)
Arsenal - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.10 Bet365 (2 Units)
Both Teams to Score and Manchester United to Win @ 4.00 Bet Victor (1 Unit)

January Update: 1-5, - 7.10 Units (11 Units Staked, - 64.5% Yield)

December Final25-19-1, + 18.70 Units (81 Units Staked, + 23.09% 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 2014/1570-98-1, - 18.88 Units (289 Units Staked, - 6.53% 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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