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Friday, 23 January 2015

Weekend Football Picks 2015 (January 23-26)

The FA Cup takes centre stage this weekend and I have to say it was another uninspiring draw in the Fourth Round of the competition. The majority of the favourites should progress fairly comfortably and even the potential 'upsets' look like they could be 'trendy' picks from the ties to be played over the course of four days.

It does mean that we could see some epic Cup action going forward as long as the majority of big teams remain in the competition with the draw for the Fifth Round to be made on Monday prior to Stoke City's visit to Rochdale.

I wrote a short piece about Louis Van Gaal and the reasons I found the comparison to David Moyes way off the mark prior to the game against Queens Park Rangers which can be read here.

This round of games can be a little difficult to predict with managers deciding to rest players and the ambition of certain clubs perhaps a question mark. I'd keep a keen eye on team news where possible even though most teams have had seven days to prepare for the game and are not back in action until the following weekend.

Cambridge United v Manchester United Pick: Manchester United have regularly been given tough draws in the FA Cup, but none of the fans or the management can really complain with Yeovil Town and then Cambridge United in the Third and Fourth Round respectively. However, Manchester United did make heavy weather of Yeovil Town in the last Round and Cambridge are likely in a better place from a confidence level which makes this a tougher test than most would like to admit.

Louis Van Gaal isn't concerned with the egos in his squad so it can't be seen as a surprise that the Dutchman has warned this is far from a cakewalk for the Premier League side. It is a competition that most of the fans are very keen to see Manchester United do well after some under-performing seasons and failure to pick up this piece of silverware since 2004.

United have reached two Finals since then, although the last of those was eight years ago, and the fact that there is nothing but Premier League games scheduled for the rest of this season means there is an expectation that Manchester United challenge in this competition.

They will have to play better than they did at Huish Park in the last Round when it took something special from Ander Herrera for the deadlock to be broken, but Manchester United have been struggling to dictate games in their current 3-5-2 formation. Van Gaal is unlikely to change that system just because the fans are demanding for a return to the 4-4-2 set up that helped break the deadlock at Loftus Road, but it does mean there will be a lot of possession for United without necessarily causing Cambridge a whole host of problems as the gap between League Two and the Premier League would suggest.

Cambridge have scored plenty of League goals at home and would have been buoyed by watching the tape of the Yeovil game against Manchester United when the home side got into a couple of decent positions. Yeovil have been struggling to score all season anyway, but that isn't an issue for Cambridge who will test this Manchester United back line with a lot of direct football and crosses into the box.

I know Manchester United have 3 clean sheets from their last 4 away games in all competitions, but that has been partly through sheer luck and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Cambridge score in this one. You'd have to think the added Manchester United quality sees the away side also score and potentially grab the winner late in the day, but the price on both teams scoring looks the more appealing route in this Fourth Round tie.

Blackburn Rovers v Swansea Pick: In recent weeks, Swansea have taken a couple of really heavy defeats and there are some question marks as to where this side are going now that Wilfried Bony has been sold on to Manchester City. They would have been without their striker for this game anyway, but Swansea need to bounce back from their embarrassing 0-5 home loss against Chelsea last weekend at the Liberty Stadium.

A live Cup tie at a side that has been performing pretty well in the Championship through the course of the season looks ripe for an upset for Swansea, but Blackburn Rovers are dealing with teams chasing their own top strikers. While Jordan Rhodes looks unlikely to move in this transfer window, Rudy Gestede has admitted he is 'not in the right frame of mind' to play for Blackburn with rumours suggesting he is in for an imminent move to Crystal Palace.

That may mean Gary Bowyer doesn't start Gestede in this one and Blackburn have already failed to score in their last 2 home games, while they have lost 2 of their last 4 at Ewood Park. Swansea have the pace in the wide areas to really cause the home team some problems in this one and I think they can bounce back from last weekend with a place earned in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup and one step closer to returning to Wembley Stadium for the first time since winning the League Cup in 2013.

Manchester City v Middlesbrough Pick: After losing to Arsenal last weekend, Manchester City are going to want to get back some confidence ahead of a vital game against Chelsea next weekend by winning this Cup tie. Manuel Pellegrini has been consistent in picking his best sides for the Cup competitions in this time as Manchester City manager and I believe he will use the likes of Sergio Aguero and David Silva to ensure they are not upset by an in-form Middlesbrough team.

There should be plenty of confidence in the Middlesbrough dressing room after a decent run of form has propelled them to second in the Championship, but this is still a big step up in class. The side have proved they can handle that by pushing Liverpool all the way to penalties in the League Cup earlier this season, but they are now facing a Manchester City side that will be itching to put the loss to Arsenal behind them.

The defensive performances for City have been pretty poor of late and I can imagine that will have been a focus for Manuel Pellegrini over the past week, but the return of Sergio Aguero and another week of fitness behind him can help the side overcome this challenge.

Sheffield Wednesday almost upset Manchester City here in the last Round, but I think this will be a little more routine for the home win and allow Middlesbrough to concentrate on making trips like this a more regular occurrence in the new season.

Liverpool v Bolton Wanderers Pick: The performance against Chelsea in the League Cup Semi Final will have given the Liverpool fans at Anfield the positive feelings that saw them get very close to winning the Premier League title last season. Brendan Rodgers has been saying for a few weeks that his Liverpool team had turned a corner and were getting their confidence back, but he might be a little concerned with the number of draws Liverpool have been having at home.

The 3-4-3 system seems to be getting the best out of the players at his disposal and while there will be some changes in preparation for the game against Chelsea during the week, Liverpool will be looking to book their place in the Fifth Round without the need for a replay.

Liverpool have looked much more menacing going forward over the last six weeks than they have for much of the season and Bolton Wanderers will have a tough time trying to contain them. Neil Lennon has done a very good job in his short time at Bolton, but this is a big step up from the usual level of competition they have been facing and he is likely to set his side up to be hard to beat.

However, falling behind could see a couple of heads drop and the class difference really begin to be highlighted in this contest. If Liverpool show a little more composure in the final third, they should be too strong for Bolton and go into the League Cup Semi Final against Chelsea in good heart.

Bristol City v West Ham United Pick: This is going to be a tough Fourth Round tie for West Ham United to win at the first instance and I think they are a little short to do that against Bristol City who are playing with plenty of confidence. They won't be intimidated in getting at West Ham in front of their own fans and Bristol City have played well enough at Ashton Gate to think this is anything but an easy draw for West Ham.

However, Sam Allardyce has clearly placed some importance on the FA Cup this season and I think he will pick a strong side that will try and match the physicality of a team from the lower Leagues. They have been playing so well in the Premier League that I can understand why the layers have kept West Ham as a short favourite here, but I do think they have just struggled to get over the line in recent games.

There have been plenty of draws in West Ham games of late and Bristol City's strong record at Ashton Gate may give them enough confidence to at least get a chance to take this back to Upton Park.

The television cameras have picked this game in the hope they will see an upset on Sunday, but I think it might end up being a tie that needs a replay to decide which side moves through to the Fifth Round.

Aston Villa v Bournemouth Pick: One of the teams that I said may not be interested in how they get on in the FA Cup are Aston Villa, although Paul Lambert is certain to be telling his team that they can build momentum from a Cup run. Unfortunately for Aston Villa, they have been given a stern examination in the Fourth Round against high-flying Bournemouth from the Championship and even home advantage may not be good enough for the Premier League club.

Aston Villa just haven't been scoring goals this season and their 7 home goals won't be an intimidation for Bournemouth who have found hitting the back of the net less of a chore than their hosts. Bournemouth are coming in off a disappointing 1-0 loss at Leeds United during the week, but the had scored at least twice in 5 straight away games before that and even one goal may be enough for them to secure an upset.

The home side did beat Blackpool in the Third Round thanks to a late Christian Benteke goal, but that is the only goal Aston Villa have scored in their last 4 games at Villa Park and Bournemouth are a much better team than the Seasiders. Bournemouth have already knocked out West Brom in the League Cup this season, albeit at home, while they gave Liverpool a scare in the Quarter Final of that competition.

If Bournemouth can show some composure in front of goal that they lacked against Liverpool, they can win this one and move into the Fifth Round of the FA Cup.

Brighton v Arsenal Pick: Both Brighton and Arsenal have shown some good form of late, but you can't ignore the talent difference between the two squads that will take to the field on Sunday and I do think Arsene Wenger will want to maintain the momentum earned from the win at Manchester City last weekend.

Brighton have really picked up form since Chris Hughton came in to replace Sami Hyppia as manager, but the majority of their best results have come away from the Amex Stadium. That might be because Hughton can make them tougher to beat in Stadiums where the onus is on their opponent to attack so this game with Arsenal may suit the game plan.

However, it is going to be tough to hold back an Arsenal team that has scored at least twice in 5 of their last 6 away games in all competitions and who will be looking to back up that win from last weekend. I would be surprised if Wenger makes a host of changes to his side with seven days before they need to play again and the Frenchman won't want to see his side have an additional replay to deal with.

A better defensive shape was also in operation last weekend and Arsenal can use that foundation to a successful away win in the FA Cup. With goals being scored by the side, Arsenal should be too strong for Brighton and I will back them to win by a couple of goals or more.

Rochdale v Stoke City Pick: There are a few Premier League teams that can give the FA Cup a really good go this season with their League form under control and Stoke City are one of those teams. Recent form has seen them move away from the relegation zone and Mark Hughes knows the feeling of winning this famous old trophy and understands the benefits for himself if he can add silverware to his managerial CV.

Stoke City have played well in the Cup in recent seasons and it has taken the best teams to knock them out of the competition- Manchester City beat them in the Final in 2011 and the next three seasons have seen Liverpool, Manchester City (again) and Chelsea as the teams to have knocked Stoke out.

Suffice to say that Rochdale are not of the level of those teams, but Keith Hill is doing a magnificent job getting this team into a position where they can perhaps challenge for a Play Off spot in League One. Confidence won't be in short supply, but Stoke City are capable of mixing it with this side from a physical standpoint and that may see them hold the edge in the contest.

Rochdale have won their last couple of home games and upset Nottingham Forest, but Stoke City are in better form than Forest were going into that game. If Stoke can continue producing tough defensive performances as they have in a couple of recent away games, the Potters should prove too strong in this one and book a place in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup for the third time in five seasons.

MY PICKS: Cambridge United-Manchester United Both Teams to Score @ 2.63 Coral (1 Unit)
Swansea to Win @ 2.45 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Manchester City - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.83 Bet365 (2 Units)
Liverpool - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.95 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Bristol City-West Ham United Draw @ 3.60 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Bournemouth to Win @ 3.10 Sky Bet (1 Unit)
Arsenal - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.84 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Stoke City to Win @ 1.73 Coral (2 Units)

January Update5-12-2, - 9.34 Units (33 Units Staked, - 28.30% 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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