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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Weekend Football Picks 2015 (January 17-19)

I have written a short piece about the questioning of Louis Van Gaal and the negative comparison that was made of his reign at Manchester United with David Moyes' time at the club last season which can be read here.

Last weekend saw Southampton stun Manchester United at Old Trafford which sparked a number of the analysts to continue reference the Saints as having such a turnaround from the pre-season relegation tags they had been given.

But who had given Southampton that tag? Before I go a little further, I will admit that Ronald Koeman is doing a fine job as manager at St Mary's and getting into the Champions League or the Europa League will be a really big achievement considering the players that were sold in the summer after the side finished 8th last season.

However, I do have a complaint about the suggestions that Southampton were favourites for relegation and that this is such a huge surprise that no one could have seen it coming. The team of people that will know about the prospects of a side more than the ex-professionals that will the TV screens every weekend are the team that is creating a price to hold an edge over the public, that is namely the oddsmakers.

In the North American sports, it is a wildly held view that those in Vegas have to be respected when they put out their lines on games or when it comes to their odds on which teams are going to win the various Championships. That can't be said of England when the odds are generally ignored when it comes to the 'expert analysis' that is offered on a teams chances but yet it is accepted that the 'bookies rarely get it wrong'.

During the summer, Southampton were actually the ninth favourite to win the Premier League title and that also meant there were 11 teams that were favoured for relegation ahead of Southampton. So hearing Ed Chamberlain declare after the win at Old Trafford that 'they were favourites for relegation' is just a myth that makes the victory look that much more impressive.

Southampton are overachieving like I said, and they are 12 points clear of 10th placed Newcastle United so the layers have every chance of being correct in their assertions that this is a side that is should finish in the top half of the table. Finishing in the European places would have to be applauded but this isn't the same level of surprise as it would have been if Aston Villa, Sunderland or West Brom were flying this high in the table.

Just to clarify how rarely these long-term prices are wrong, the three promoted teams, Crystal Palace, West Brom and Hull City were the leading contenders for relegation and I would be surprised if the bottom three didn't come out of that set of teams when the season is completed.

Stephanie Roche scored a fantastic goal that saw her pick up a professional contract in France and also become an internet sensation to the point of being one of the three nominees for the finest goal in the 2014 calendar year.

A lot of people thought she deserved to win that award but I was not one of them.

Before I continue I don't want to take anything away from Roche's goal which was a fantastic piece of skill and a great strike to boot.

HOWEVER, I have a very strict guideline when it comes to being the greatest or best 'goal', 'catch', 'game', etc... Simply put, the context of the event has to be taken into consideration and for that reason alone I couldn't pick Roche's goal ahead of either Robin Van Persie's or James Rodriguez'.

I said the same about Odell Beckham's catch in the New York Giants game against the Dallas Cowboys when so many on Twitter wanted to describe it as the 'greatest catch in history' that it is all about context- that catch coming in the Play Offs would have meant so much more for the winning team than it did in a regular season came for the Giants, who had a losing record and eventually lost that game.

In terms of the goals the public had to vote upon, the two World Cup goals, supposedly the highest level of football, had to go above Roche's which was played in an amateur League in front of 95 people.

If it had come in the Women's World Cup, at least that would have been against the best players in the sport and given the goal more importance- while Manuel Neuer would not have got near Roche's strike, defenders at the top level might have made it more difficult and so, in context, it was a special strike and great technique but not the best goal of the year.

When ex-professionals speak about their 'best' goals, how many qualify it with the 'importance' of the goal? Even a simple tap in that wins a World Cup knock out game is in their 'best of' pile of goals than a cracker in a League game played in October.

I credit Roche, but Rodriguez' strike against Uruguay was the right winner in my book and I would have had Van Persie's goal second in that list with both taking place at the highest level possible.

The neutrals watching the Premier League over the next four and a half months are in for some very exciting football if the table remains as competitive as it is at the moment.

Chelsea and Manchester City look set to fight out the Premier League title between themselves, but there are only 7 points separating Southampton in 3rd and Liverpool in 8th.

It is no different at the bottom of the table where 5 points separate Everton in 12th from Leicester City in 20th and it is just increasing the importance of this January transfer window as teams scramble to shape their squads in a manner that will help them achieve their goals over the next few months.

Aston Villa v Liverpool Pick: There has to be a real concern amongst Aston Villa fans as to the direction their club is seemingly going with a lack of goals being the most obvious problem for the team. The teams below them in the Premier League table have all begun to put together some solid performances and that has seen the gap between the bottom three to the likes of Aston Villa shrinking on a weekly basis.

You are not going to win games if you simply can't score and that means there has to be a concern that Aston Villa are going to be dragged back into the relegation fight and the pressure is on Paul Lambert to find a solution this month.

It won't be easy for them in this match against an improved Liverpool team that could also be given a boost by the returning Daniel Sturridge who is approaching fitness after missing the majority of this season. Liverpool have been in a decent run of form and are once again a challenger for a top four berth which looked to have been beyond them just six weeks ago following the 3-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.

They have won 3 of their last 4 away games in the Premier League and have kept clean sheets in wins at Burnley and Sunderland, while Liverpool have only failed to score in 1 of their last 8 away games in all competitions. Even in that game at Manchester United, Liverpool had enough chances to score and I would expect them to create opportunities in this one too with the 3-4-3 formation paying off for Brendan Rodgers in recent games.

Liverpool have a strong record at Villa Park and I think they will prove too strong for goal-shy Aston Villa in this one and I will back them to take home the three points.

Queens Park Rangers v Manchester United Pick: Both Harry Redknapp and Louis Van Gaal will be looking for a response after disappointing Premier League losses last weekend and this could be a fascinating game on Saturday. Redknapp could potentially lose his job as manager of Queens Park Rangers with another defeat on Saturday, while Van Gaal will be hoping a little dip in form for Manchester United can end sooner rather than later by winning this game.

One factor that Redknapp will be counting on is the fact that his QPR team has played a lot better at Loftus Road than they have on their travels and he will feel his team can expose some of the defensive vulnerabilities that Manchester United continue to display. They have scored plenty of goals at home through the course of the season and the Queens Park Rangers players will look to get into United faces and make life very awkward for them.

On the other hand, Manchester United will know the pressure that is on the home team to continue picking up points at Loftus Road and there is enough attacking talent to expose some of the Queens Park Rangers weaknesses at the back too. Angel Di Maria should be better with more minutes underneath his belt, while Radamel Falcao has been sharp and can be expected to be restored to the side.

I have to admit to my surprise in seeing Manchester United as short as they are to win this game considering how well Queens Park Rangers have played at home coupled with United's recent form. Some may be tempted in backing the home side, perhaps on the handicaps, but I look at this game and I see chances at both ends which should result in goals for both teams.

Neither manager is likely to be that happy about a draw so I can imagine the teams pushing forward to take the three points and neither defence can really be trusted to not make a fatal mistake. With that in mind, goals does seem to be the order of the day at a ground where there have been plenty during the course of the season and I will back there being at least three shared by the sides on Saturday.

Swansea v Chelsea Pick: Chelsea moved back into the sole lead of the Premier League last weekend, but the tough games keep coming with a trip to the Liberty Stadium this weekend followed by the League Cup Semi Final at Liverpool next week.

This would have been a much tougher test a month ago, but Swansea have lost Wilfried Bony and Jonjo Shelvey is suspended while Swansea have just lost their way a little in the Premier League as they have failed to win any of their last 3 League games. Swansea were perhaps a little fortunate to get something from their home game with West Ham United last week and a similar level of performance will give Chelsea the opportunity to snap their own poor run of away results.

Well it is a poor run relative to the way the season has gone and the performances and results Chelsea have earned at Stamford Bridge. Some have already given Chelsea the Premier League title, but this is a team that has won just 1 of their last 5 away games in the League and were beaten 5-3 at Tottenham Hotspur and 2-1 at Newcastle United in that run.

A draw at Sunderland is also a disappointing result and Chelsea haven't been able to impose themselves on their travels in the same manner as they have at home. However, Swansea are missing a couple of important players and I am struggling to see how they will replace the goals that Bony has provided without going into the transfer market before the close of the January window.

Chelsea haven't had much success at the Liberty Stadium, but they did win for the first time in 4 attempts last season with a 0-1 win. Much of that was down to Swansea being reduced to ten men inside the first 20 minutes, but I do think Chelsea are the more likely winners of this game although likely have to settle for a victory by the minimum margin this weekend.

Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland Pick: Jermain Defoe could be in line to face one of his former clubs on Saturday if his transfer to Sunderland, which is expected to be completed this week, hands in all the necessary paperwork. Defoe is being signed to provide the goals to keep Sunderland in the Premier League this season after a run where they have failed to score in 3 of their last 5 away League games.

However, Sunderland have been a tough team to break down and this is a test for Tottenham Hotspur who were beaten at Crystal Palace last weekend. Spurs were also 0-2 down at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup Third Round Replay on Wednesday, but they came through to win that game 4-2 and confidence has to be high in a team that has scored 15 goals in their last 5 home games in all competition.

Unsurprisingly with that number of goals behind them, Spurs have won 4 of their last 5 games at White Hart Lane including a 5-3 win over Chelsea in their last League game here and they will have an in-form striker in Harry Kane returning to the starting line up.

Kane has been scoring plenty of goals this season and also scored in the 5-1 win over Sunderland last season at this ground and I do think Tottenham have enough goals in the squad to win this game. They have had a couple of goalless draws at home in recent weeks, which is an issue as Sunderland are likely to sit deep and make themselves hard to break down, but Kane has found goals out of nothing and I expect the young striker to inspire Tottenham to a win.

If Spurs can get their noses in front, Sunderland may struggle to get themselves back in the game and I think Tottenham Hotspur can win this game while covering the one goal Asian Handicap.

West Ham United v Hull City Pick: A long FA Cup tie that needed an additional thirty minutes and penalties is going to have an effect on the West Ham United player's fitness, but fortunately Sam Allardyce has a few days off before this League game. The game has been moved for television so there is even an extra day to recover and I think the West Ham United team are going to prove too tough for a Hull City squad that is dealing with a long list of injuries.

West Ham United have been one of the surprise packages of this season with most people expecting them to be a side in the bottom half of the table, but they could potentially challenge for a European place. They have been particularly good at Upton Park, but the Hammers also need to snap a recent poor run of form which has seen them draw 4 games in a row in all competitions during the regular 90 minutes playing time.

However, the fans have to feel confident about their chances in this game because there are goals in the West Ham team and they can cause problems for a Hull City team that is suffering injuries through the squad.

The likes of Andrew Robertson and Mohamad Diame are strong players for Hull, but the biggest concern has to be up front where they are suffering four key injuries. Gaston Ramirez, Sone Aluko, Nikica Jelavic and Abel Hernandez all being absent in this game makes it difficult to see where the Hull City goals will come from and Steve Bruce will be hoping to rectify that situation in the two weeks he will have between this game and the home game against Newcastle United.

Without these players, Hull City will find it difficult to cause West Ham United problems and I think there are too many goals in the home squad to be contained in this one. Hull have lost 4 of their last 6 away games in the Premier League and this looks the perfect chance for West Ham to end their search for three points and I will back them to do so.

Manchester City v Arsenal Pick: This is the game of the weekend in the Premier League as 2nd placed Manchester City take on 5th placed Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium in the second of the two live games on Sunday. Manchester City might be missing two players that could potentially be very key to them in the remainder of the season, but the return of Sergio Aguero has to be a huge boost for Manuel Pellegrini as he looks to help the side bounce back from their 1-1 draw at Everton.

Arsenal have something to prove about their chances of finishing in the Champions League positions again as they continue to be a side that is disregarded when it comes to facing the best teams. Alexis Sanchez has been in fine form, but his detractors are hoping to see him stamp his authority on a game of this magnitude.

Both teams should want to get on the front foot in this game and dictate proceedings, but the edge has to be given to Manchester City especially with the return of Aguero. He only had a few minutes last week, but seems to have come through that game at Everton and is expected to lead the Manchester City line in this one against an Arsenal back line that has been disappointing to say the least.

Mathieu Debuchy's injury means there are more changes that will be made to the Arsenal defence and the likes of David Silva, Samir Nasri and Aguero can pose plenty of questions for them. Arsenal have also offered far too much for their opponents in recent away games as they were outplayed by Liverpool and Stoke City for the first half and then for the majority of the game at Southampton and a similar level of performance will only end with defeat in this game too.

However, there will be chances for Arsenal against a Manchester City defence that has also been struggling and who have kept 2 clean sheets in their last 8 home games in all competitions. That hasn't stopped Manchester City winning games in front of their own fans, but the likes of Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck could have chances to find the net too.

Burnley and Sunderland have both scored twice in the last 2 games at the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League and even Sheffield Wednesday scored here in the FA Cup. I think Arsenal can do the same, but am still expecting Manchester City to pick up a vital three points as they continue to keep the pressure up on Chelsea ahead of the big January 31st date between those two clubs in the Premier League.

Everton v West Brom Pick: There are definitely some signs that Everton are getting close to recording another win and Roberto Martinez has to be pleased to see some of the long injury list clearing up. The performance at West Ham United with ten men showed that Everton are not that far away from the form that took them to 5th place last season, while the draw with Manchester City at home last weekend would also have built their belief that the tide is turning.

A game like this is vitally important for Everton to ensure they are not going to be dragged back into the relegation scrap and I think the players will be pleased to have had a couple of extra days to recover from the FA Cup Third Round replay defeat at Upton Park which needed a penalty shoot-out to separate teams. They have shown more belief in their attacking intent and Romelu Lukaku is back amongst the goals which is going to be key for Everton to move up the Premier League table.

A couple of weeks ago this would also have been a game where Everton would have been big favourites to win, but West Brom have been revitalised under Tony Pulis and have a couple of decent Premier League results under their belt. However, there is still something of a lack of cutting edge in the forward positions and that will be a concern for Pulis and something to resolve in this transfer window.

They will come to Goodison Park with some confidence from the results they have earned, but Everton have looked more of a threat going forward and that could be a key in this game. The lack of goals that have been a feature of West Brom games this season is a concern and I do think Everton can score twice which should be enough to earn the three points from the game.

MY PICKS: Liverpool to Win @ 1.90 Stan James (2 Units)
Queens Park Rangers-Manchester United Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.83 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Chelsea to Win by One Goal @ 3.70 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Tottenham Hotspur - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.11 Bet Victor (2 Units)
West Ham United to Win @ 1.73 William Hill (2 Units)
Both Teams to Score and Manchester City to Win @ 3.20 Coral (1 Unit)
Everton to Win @ 1.87 Boyle Sports (2 Units)

January Update3-8-1, - 6.60 Units (21 Units Staked, - 31.43% 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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