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Saturday, 14 February 2015

Weekend Football Picks 2015 (February 14-16)

Yeah I know- none of you lot are going to be watching any of the football on Saturday because of Valentine's Day right?

To be fair, there isn't really the most exciting slate of games on offer for viewers because of the FA Cup Fifth Round taking centre stage, even if both live games should be decent enough on Saturday. The big names will all be expected to move through to the Sixth Round, although perhaps not at the first time of asking.

This midweek saw a full Premier League schedule taking place and a late Chelsea winner means they are still very much in pole position when it comes to sorting out the destination of the title this season. Manchester City did secure a vital win at Stoke City and have both Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony returning from the African Cup of Nations before they take the field again, but 7 points is going to be tough to make up now the games are beginning to run down.

I think Manchester City are still capable of winning the title, but they have the harder set of fixtures and would likely need Chelsea to have a deep run in the Champions League and themselves to perhaps not. According to their fan base, the Champions League isn't a big concern and not ahead of the Premier League in a list of priorities, but I have a feeling the owners won't be thinking like that and Manuel Pellegrini needs to find a way to beat Barcelona in the Second Round of the Champions League later this month.

The relegation battle also took another big twist after Queens Park Rangers finally managed to win a game away from home at Sunderland, a result that saw Chris Ramsey being given the managerial reins until the end of the season. That win actually pushed QPR out of the bottom three and sent Aston Villa into those positions, a situation that resulted in Paul Lambert being fired and Tim Sherwood the favourite to take over at about the tenth club this season.

It was no surprise that Aston Villa pulled the trigger on Lambert's sacking because they have been on a downward spiral for some time- I have said before that the mental pressure of actually being in the bottom three at this stage of the season is very tough to overcome, especially when you haven't been in that spot all season, and it has panicked the owner Randy Lerner. I'd say rightly so again because I don't think Lambert was getting any response from his Aston Villa players and the next decision is going to be a huge one to prevent Villa falling into the Championship.

The bottom of the table is very tight is you discount Leicester City for now, whose own managerial situation is bordering on the comedic line. Nigel Pearson was supposedly sacked last weekend, but reinstated by another member of the board and Leicester look like they are going to be relegated as they are now 5 points from safety.

However, there are only 6 points separating Everton in 12th and Burnley in 19th, although Burnley have a horrendous fixture list upcoming, and this looks like a battle that has plenty of life left in it.

The bottom of the table is tight, but the race for the Champions League places figures to be just as much of a battle with the results over the last eight days. Liverpool are back in contention thanks to a late Mario Balotelli winner against Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Tuesday night, while neither Manchester United or Southampton look secure in 3rd and 4th place after earning 4 points from a possible 6 over the last week.

It is the performances that might be more of a worry as Manchester United continue to struggle to impose themselves in games and Southampton are finding it tough to win home games. With Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Liverpool right behind, 5 points separate these five teams and it figures to be another fight that likely won't be settled until the final month of the season.

West Brom v West Ham United Pick: The Fifth Round of the FA Cup means teams are only two games away from playing at Wembley Stadium thanks to the continued insistence of the FA that the Semi Finals are to be played in the national stadium. That means the likes of West Brom and West Ham United have to feel they have a great chance of doing that, especially with the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea out of the competition and I think both Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce will know the importance of this game.

Tony Pulis actually took Stoke City to the Final in 2011, but his priority since coming in as the new manager at The Hawthornes is to make sure that West Brom remain a Premier League side. A 2-0 win over Swansea during the week has boosted their survival hopes, but Queens Park Rangers and Hull City both won so West Brom won't want a replay in this competition, while Pulis may opt to make changes.

On the other hand, Allardyce has made it clear that he wants a strong FA Cup run and will likely name a very strong line up, although West Ham United miss Andy Carroll for the rest of the season. They still have enough attacking talent to maintain the form that has seen them up in 8th place in the Premier League and they can concentrate fully on this game.

West Ham did have to play with ten men for a long time in the goalless draw at Southampton during the week and that might have put a few tired legs amongst the squad, especially with an early Saturday morning kick off to contend with. Whether that makes a difference will be told on the pitch, but I do think West Ham can win for the second time here this season, especially as they are a side that does usually create chances no matter where they play this campaign.

I do have to say that Pulis has made West Brom a tougher team to play against, but he might think about making a few too many changes that gives West Ham the edge in this tie and they have to be worth a small interest to win.

Blackburn Rovers v Stoke City Pick: Mark Hughes had plenty of success as a player in the FA Cup with Manchester United and Chelsea and he won't be taking this competition lightly as manager of Stoke City as he looks to emulate what Tony Pulis did in 2011.

That season saw Stoke City reach the Final of the FA Cup before finding Yaya Toure and Manchester City a little too good and it has taken the best teams in England to knock them out of the FA Cup in recent seasons. Hughes admitted that his Stoke team's best chances of winning silverware comes in the two domestic Cup competitions and that they can't overlook that, especially with a strong enough record in the Premier League to think they will avoid the drop to the Championship.

Stoke are an established Premier League team so they should think about winning silverware, but it won't be easy at Ewood Park where Blackburn Rovers have scored plenty of goals and dismissed Swansea in the Fourth Round. However, they were aided by a 7th minute sending off of Kyle Bartley and you have to believe that Stoke City won't be in such a disadvantageous position.

There is no doubt that the likes of Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede provide a real threat for Blackburn, and in previous years I would certainly look at a game like this and wonder about the chances of an upset. However, Stoke have actually improved away from the Brittania Stadium markedly this season and will have the pace in the forward positions to give Blackburn plenty to think about if they push too far forward and I think I will have a small interest in Stoke getting this done at the first time of asking.

Derby County v Reading Pick: Steve McClaren might not see the FA Cup as the number one priority for Derby County this season, but being two games away from Wembley and having a home draw at this stage of the competition is tough to ignore. He has made changes to his team in the last couple of Rounds, but you have to feel that McClaren picks as strong a team as possible to make sure Derby County move into the Sixth Round without needing a replay.

A home draw is all Derby could have hoped for at this stage, especially as they have been given a draw against one of the sides below them in the League pyramid. However, Reading have been an improving side under Steve Clarke and really have nothing but the FA Cup to play for the rest of the way.

They have already won at Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City in the Cup this season, but neither of those sides are of the level of Derby County and this is going to be a tough game for Reading. Even getting the game back to the Majedski Stadium would have to be seen as an achievement for Reading, but that might also be beyond them considering how well Derby have played at the iPro Stadium.

Derby have already beaten Reading here in the other Cup competition this season and also crushed them away from home in the League, both times without conceding a goal. I expect they will take this game seriously enough to move through to the last eight and provide another boost in confidence to take into their next League games.

Crystal Palace v Liverpool Pick: This looks a fascinating Fifth Round tie and is the tie of the Round in the FA Cup this weekend as Crystal Palace host Liverpool. The winner of the tie will certainly feel they have every chance of going all the way in the competition and I expect both Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers to put a lot of effort into helping their sides win this at the first time of asking.

Of the two managers, Pardew has to feel his Crystal Palace team will have their best opportunity to beat Liverpool at home, while Rodgers won't want to add to an already congested fixture list for Liverpool by having to play a replay at Anfield in two weeks time.

Pardew will look to offer his own experiences to the Crystal Palace players having been taken into the fans' hearts with the extra time winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup Semi Final in 1990. That has never been forgotten by the fans in the classic 4-3 win for Crystal Palace, although it will be a big task for his team to match that feat. As well as Crystal Palace have played since Pardew came in, they are facing an in-form Liverpool side and matching the win from earlier this season won't come easy.

I do like the pace that Palace have in the forward positions and they do create chances at home, but defensively there are still some issues for the home team that the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho will look to exploit.

Goals have not been much of a problem for Liverpool of late with the amount of chances they create, but they do look a short price considering they have failed to win any of their last 6 visits to Selhurst Park. The fact is that Crystal Palace have won 4 of those 6 games, including earlier this season, so the short prices on Liverpool don't look attractive enough.

Both teams should create their chances and I think both teams can score- I don't expect either manager to take a backward step in this game as they look to move into the Sixth Round at the first time of asking and so backing at least three goals from this game looks the call. The last 3 games between Crystal Palace and Liverpool at Selhurst Park have produced a combined 12 goals and I think the price is good enough.

Bradford City v Sunderland Pick: The way that Bradford City stormed back to beat Chelsea has to raise the questions as to what they are doing outside of the top six in League One and that might come down to their 6 home losses from 15 League games played at Valley Parade this season. That would be a concern for them in trying to back up the win over Chelsea by beating another Premier League side, although they won't have a better chance against a Sunderland team that is going to be shell-shocked by their home loss against Queens Park Rangers.

I expect Gus Poyet will still play a strong team in this one despite his side being dragged back down to the relegation dogfight in the Premier League following that loss, and that quality should give them the edge in the match. However, I think Sunderland are going to be under a lot of pressure in this one and the expectation of winning might play into their minds too.

Bradford City are a lively outsider in this one and they will certainly believe they have the beating of Sunderland despite being a lot lower than them in the League pyramid. Over the last couple of years, Phil Parkinson has found the right formula to take down Premier League teams in Cup competitions, although it is going to be tough for them against a usually solid Sunderland team.

The odds against quotes on Sunderland winning this game does look like it could be a big price in hindsight, but I think this is going to be a very difficult tie for them. It may just need Sunderland to take this back to the Stadium of Light to get the job done and I think the draw is worth a small interest.

Arsenal v Middlesbrough Pick: Aitor Karanka was a strange appointment by Middlesbrough last season, but the former Real Madrid defender and Assistant Manager is exceeding expectations in his first full year at the helm at the Riverside Stadium. There is plenty of football still to be played, but Middlesbrough lead the Championship and have already come away from Manchester City with a 0-2 FA Cup win.

That should be enough to focus Arsenal on the task at hand in this Fifth Round tie despite being the favourites to win the FA Cup for the second successive season after the exits of Manchester City and Chelsea. A home draw seems to have come at the right moment of the season with plenty of days between games and so Arsene Wenger can play as strong a team as he likes.

It should be the key for Arsenal to progress at the first time of asking and I do think their pace is going to be an issue for Middlesbrough to deal with. As well as they did in beating Manchester City, it took an inspired performance from Tomas Mejias, the second choice goalkeeper, to keep Middlesbrough from being a couple of goals down by half time in that game.

If Arsenal are a little more clinical than Manchester City were that day last month, I would expect the Gunners to have too much firepower for the Championship leaders. Going ahead will only open the door for the speedy counter-attacks that makes Arsenal so dangerous, although the concern would be if they play as poorly defensively as they did against Leicester City.

However, Aitor Karanka has used his full squad in the FA Cup this season, even in the game at the Etihad Stadium, and I would be surprised if Middlesbrough can ride their luck for a second consecutive Round. Confidence is high which can help teams make their own luck, but Arsenal should be too strong and I like them to come through with a couple of goals separating the sides at least.

Preston North End v Manchester United Pick: This looks like an FA Cup tie that is going to be far from easy for Manchester United if you consider the way they had to huff and puff in their away games at Yeovil Town and Cambridge United in the last two Rounds of the competition. Both of those games saw Manchester United have to ride out a storm before coming through and I expect Preston North End to make things very awkward for Louis Van Gaal's men on Monday evening.

The likes of Kevin Davies will thrive on long balls that will look to unsettle the Manchester United back line, while Joe Garner has been a consistent threat at the lower level and will want to prove what he is capable of against Premier League opposition.

Both will pose their problems, but Manchester United should at least feel a little easier at Deepdale than they did at Huish Park and the Abbey Stadium because the facilities are better here. The pitch isn't as constricted as it was at Yeovil Town and Cambridge United and that should at least allow the quality players to show what they can do.

The problem has been that those 'quality' players have been struggling for Manchester United in recent weeks to really impose themselves and I expect that might be the case on Monday too. It might take them a little while to get to grips with what Preston North End are producing and the difference in quality may not show up until the second half.

That has happened in both previous FA Cup ties for Manchester United with the second half away performances being better than the first half as their host have tired. Against Yeovil Town it proved to be the difference maker in a 0-2 win, but Cambridge United managed to hold out and force the replay.

Preston are better than both of those teams, so I would expect they are going to perhaps last a little longer than those teams too. However, I do think the Manchester United quality can come through without needing to take this game back to Old Trafford and I think backing this game to be a draw at half time before Manchester United win could pay dividends.

MY PICKS: West Ham United @ 3.10 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Stoke City @ 2.50 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
Derby County @ 1.83 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Crystal Palace-Liverpool Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)
Bradford City-Sunderland Draw @ 3.50 Sky Bet (1 Unit)
Arsenal - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.38 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Draw HT-Manchester United FT @ 4.75 Bet Victor (1 Unit)

February Update4-9, - 10.24 Units (25 Units Staked, - 40.96% Yield)

January Final10-22-1, - 10.54 Units (57 Units Staked, - 18.49% 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 2014/1580-120-2, - 29.42 Units (346 Units Staked, - 8.50% 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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