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Friday, 31 March 2017

Weekend Football Picks 2017 (April 1-2)

The last international break of the domestic season is in the books and that means the successes and disappointments of the 2016/17 season will be decided over the next two months.

We will immediate open April with three rounds of Premier League and English Football League fixtures over the first ten days of the month before the European Champions League and Europa League Quarter Finals take place around the Easter Weekend.

The FA Cup Semi Finals are also played this month and it is a big one that will prove to be pivotal for many clubs as April has proved to be over the years.

Games will come thick and fast this month and all of them have an added importance with room for errors no longer available for teams. The same can be said for my Picks which had a terrible two months to open 2017, but had a slight recovery in March.

That makes April a big month for me too and I am looking for a strong end to the season to at least make the numbers look a little better after being ruined in December through to the end of February.

There was one aspect of the international break which did interest me which I did want to mention and that was the use of the video referee for the second time this season. The first was at the World Club Championship and last week it was used in the France vs Spain friendly game.

I can understand people want to use the technology to help the referees and improve the game, but the friendly game in France re-opened the same problems I saw in the World Club Championship. That is that from time to time there will be goals scored that are decided by marginal decisions and so the excitement of scoring a goal, especially for the fans in the Stadium, is going to be neutralised.

It happened to Real Madrid when there was some confusion as to whether a Cristiano Ronaldo goal was a legitimate one, while this week we saw the game moved back to the halfway line for a kick off before it was decided that a France goal should NOT stand. Taking away that raw energy is going to be a tough pill to swallow, while the time for decisions to be made will lead to longer games (in terms of actual time to complete games rather than the 90 minutes on the clock).

If anyone thinks the technology will be limited to the areas it will begin with, they are deluding themselves and eventually it will lead to a flowing game becoming one that looks more like the NFL. Watch out for 'commercial time outs' during these moments in the future too and that is why I am not keen on this aspect coming in until it is much faster than it is likely to be at the moment.

Football also simply has some grey areas which take a lot of time to figure out and I am not sure it is fair to the fans in the stadium, nor those watching at home, if what was a fast flowing game is suddenly slowed down considerably.  The NFL is taking steps to try and speed up their games, yet we seem to be going the other way when opening the technology to subjective areas of the game.

I also have written about the Painful April Ahead for Manchester United and you can read that here.

Liverpool v Everton Pick: Anyone who takes a look at the final Premier League games that Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton have yet to play will find it hard to see how the latter three can finish above Jurgen Klopp's team. However football has never been played on paper and it is up to Liverpool to show they are worthy of a top four finish and a chance to play in the lucrative Champions League.

Games at Anfield are going to be important for Liverpool to stay in front of the chasing pack and they can put a severe dent in Everton's faint chances of a top four spot by winning this weekend. The feeling is that Liverpool will be too good for their Merseyside rivals, but Everton have a decent record here over the years in making life difficult for their local rivals even if they have not been able to take the next step and win the game.

Winning this weekend is a big ask for Everton, but they have some attacking players in the squad that are in form and likely to give Liverpool something to think about. Romelu Lukaku has been in very good form of late and Liverpool's defence is not one that you would back to secure too many clean sheets.

On the other hand, Liverpool have a very good team going forward themselves and the return of Jordan Henderson is a big boost, even if the absence of Adam Lallana is a setback. At Anfield Liverpool can be very difficult to contain in the first half when their energy is at the highest level and the key for Everton is to stay in the game at that time.

The performance at Tottenham Hotspur recently won't be good enough though and Everton can't sit as deep as they did that day and allow their hosts to dictate the tempo. Liverpool are too good to not create chances and Everton have to have watched the approach Burnley had in a narrow loss at Anfield last month to see that teams can create chances if they are positive in their play.

My gut feeling is that Liverpool will prove to be a little too good on the day and earn back to back wins over Everton at Anfield for the first time since the 2005 and 2006 season. This will also be the first Premier League double over Everton since the 2011/12 season, but I don't think Liverpool will have things all their own way.

With Lukaku in the goalscoring form he is in, I think Everton can get on the scoreboard in this one too and so I will back the Merseyside derby to produce at least three goals this weekend. 4 of the last 6 at Anfield have seen at least three goals shared out and I will look for this weekend to add to that trend.

Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur Pick: The price leapt off the page as soon as I saw it and I still can't really make much sense of it if I am being honest- Tottenham Hotspur are a short price favourite to win at Turf Moor this weekend and I think Burnley in receipt of a goal head start on the Asian Handicap can't be ignored.

This has been an incredibly tough place for every team to visit in the Premier League this season and the three defeats suffered by Burnley have some excuses to them. The first came in the first home game of the season against Swansea City as nerves perhaps played a part, the second was through a poor decision deep into injury time against Arsenal, and the third was against Manchester City after Burnley had led in that game.

Liverpool and Everton have been beaten here, while Champions elect Chelsea could only manage a draw and Tottenham Hotspur's away record hardly inspires confidence in backing the short price for the win.

Tottenham Hotspur have won 2 of their last 10 away Premier League games and this is the kind of game where Harry Kane's presence will be missed. There are still some match winners in the Tottenham Hotspur squad, notably Dele Alli, but Burnley are so tough to play at home and I really do feel they can get a result in this one.

The away side have as many wins on their travels as the likes of Everton, Southampton, West Ham United and Crystal Palace and I think all of those teams would be odds against if playing at Turf Moor. In fact I think it could be argued that they would be the underdog against a Burnley team who have thrived at home throughout the season.

I might be wrong and Tottenham Hotspur might win here, but I'd be surprised if they did that by more than a single goal margin so this pick will be a push at worst that I can see. However I do think Burnley are good enough to earn a positive result and I will back them on the Asian Handicap knowing even a one goal loss for the home team will prevent a loss.

Chelsea v Crystal Palace Pick: This is going to be anything but an easy game for Chelsea as it looks like Crystal Palace have turned a corner and begun to understand what is expected of them under Sam Allardyce. However, even with that in mind, I would expect this game being at Stamford Bridge is going to be a key for the outcome of the match and I do think Chelsea will be able to win this one by a couple of goals at least.

At home, Chelsea have been very good all season and have won 13 in a row here in all competitions while they have scored at least two goals in 11 of those wins. 10 of the 13 wins have come by at least two goals and I think Chelsea are still producing enough at both ends of the field to come through with an impressive win.

Crystal Palace have won 3 Premier League games in a row, but beating Middlesbrough, West Brom and Watford is not the same as facing the Premier League leaders. There is some talent in the Crystal Palace squad that have been underachieving through the course of the season, and they should cause some problems for the home team, but it will be difficult for them to contain The Blues.

There will be a few difficult moments for Chelsea too as Allardyce looks for his team to exploit any crosses and set pieces they earn, but this is a team that has dealt with most things that have been thrown at them.

Allardyce will look to make his team as hard to beat as possible by setting them up to defend in numbers, but Chelsea have found the answers through the course of the season. I think the home team will eventually wear down Crystal Palace and I will back them to win this one by a couple of goals on the day.

Hull City v West Ham United Pick: With games beginning to run out on the current Premier League season, Hull City would have most definitely circled this game as one they should be targeting for the three points. A win will reignite their bid to avoid the drop over the next two months, but a defeat against West Ham United might just dent the confidence of the players irretrievably.

That should mean there is some tension for the home team to deal with, but Hull City have been playing much better at The KCOM Stadium than they have on their travels. The Tigers have won 5 of their last 6 home games in all competitions and that includes Premier League wins over Liverpool and, more recently, Swansea City.

It is those wins which has put Hull City in a position where they can still avoid the drop as Marco Silva has pulled this team back from the brink. Nothing is secure for Hull City just yet as the teams above them have all been putting up points on the board, but they will feel they have every chance of finishing at least 17th in the League table.

Goals have been a problem for Hull City away from home, but they have scored at least twice in 6 of their last 7 here in all competitions. They've only had a couple of clean sheets in that time though and West Ham United have shown they can score goals in recent games, even if they have struggled defensively.

Both teams have managed to score in the last 6 Premier League games West Ham United have played and I can see a situation where the same occurs here. Hull City might have a little more belief going forward with the fans behind them to go on and win the game, but West Ham United are more than capable of scoring enough goals away from home to win games.

It just feels like this will be a game where at least three goals are shared out as this does look like a fixture that may end up 2-1 either way. Both teams have scored and conceded with some regularity in recent weeks and I will look for at least three goals to be scored in this one.

Leicester City v Stoke City Pick: The wins that Leicester City have had under Craig Shakespeare feels very much like the kind of wins and performances they were producing in their Premier League winning season, especially early in that season. While Leicester City have looked like a side that can score plenty of goals again, they have also showed some defensive vulnerabilities.

The question for Stoke City is whether they can expose those vulnerabilities having not scored in their last 3 away games in the Premier League. However those games have come at West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City and Stoke City are a squad that has quality in the final third which can be under-rated at times.

They will feel they can cause some problems for Leicester City, but the home team are playing with arguably more confidence than they have at any time since winning the Premier League title. This is a big month for The Foxes with a Champions League Quarter Final to come, but Craig Shakespeare will want to get the team into a position of safety before then.

I do think Leicester City might have the edge in the game for the win, but you can get a similar price in backing at least three goals to be shared out in this one. Leicester City have scored at least twice in each of their last 4 games under Shakespeare, but they have also kept just a single clean sheet in that time and that came thanks to a missed penalty by Sevilla in the Champions League Last 16 Second Round.

While Stoke City haven't scored in their last 3 away games, I do think they can threaten Leicester City in this one but I also think the home team will create their chances in this one too. Jamie Vardy has shown some form of late and scored for England last weekend and Leicester City and Stoke City could produce a higher than expected number of goals in this fixture this weekend with another 2-1 scoreline a real possibility.

Manchester United v West Brom Pick: There has been some suggestion that Jose Mourinho may have shifted his focus onto the Europa League at the expense of finishing in the top four of the Premier League, but results in the last weekend of Premier League action may just have changed that a little bit. I do think Manchester United have a better chance of making the Champions League by winning the Europa League, but an opening in the top four may have arrived from results two weeks ago.

The next three League games are key for Manchester United as they host West Brom and Everton before visiting relegation threatened Sunderland next weekend and anything less than three wins would likely end the top four interests. There aren't too many better spots in the remaining fixtures than this early part of April, but injuries are a concern for Jose Mourinho.

Missing Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is another blow, but they are going to be facing a West Brom team whose players might not be 100% focused in their remaining games. The Baggies have overachieved already and look pretty much locked into 8th place in the Premier League and there have been one or two poor performances from them.

The win over Arsenal will be an encouragement, but that was at home where the support can rally the players. West Brom have lost heavily at Tottenham Hotspur and Everton in recent away games in the Premier League but they will be a threat from set pieces as Manchester United are missing some of their taller players for the game.

Manchester United have struggled to turn possession and chances into wins at Old Trafford having drawn 3 of their last 4 League games here, but I think they may overcome some of the issues of missing players this weekend. When Manchester United do win a League game here, they have tended to do it by more than a one goal margin and the two heavy losses at White Hart Lane and Goodison Park have to be factored in for West Brom.

I think the home team will just be a little too good and too motivated for West Brom this weekend and keep up the pressure on the top four by securing the win and doing so while clearing this Asian Handicap.

Southampton v Bournemouth Pick: It looks like both Southampton and Bournemouth are far enough away from the relegation troubles below them to feel confident they will be playing in the Premier League again next season and the only motivation for the clubs the rest of the season is to finish in the top half of the table.

Bragging rights should mean both Southampton and Bournemouth have a bit more motivation for this fixture though and it could be an entertaining game for the neutrals tuning in on Saturday afternoon. The television companies may have picked the game in anticipation of Bournemouth still being in a relegation dogfight, but they have turned the form over the last month which has moved them clear of the bottom three.

So while there won't be a lot on the line in the bigger picture of the Premier League, it should still be a decent fixture as both Southampton and Bournemouth will want to give their fans something to cheer about.

It is helped by the way both Southampton and Bournemouth have been playing prior to the international break and that does offer encouragement we will see a decent game. Southampton and Bournemouth have been scoring and conceding plenty of goals of late and there should be chances at both ends in this one.

The last 7 Southampton games in all competitions have featured at least three goals and the last 3 at St Mary's have done the same. Prior to the 1-1 draw at Manchester United, Bournemouth had conceded 23 goals in 8 away games in which time they had been beaten 7 times and they had conceded at least three times in 6 of those games.

Bournemouth will be able to create chances against a team who have conceded at least twice in 6 of their last 7 games in all competitions and this feels like a game that will produce goals. The game between them at The Vitality Stadium featured four goals, but I am going to back this one to have at least three goals as both Southampton and Bournemouth can play with the freedom they need to express themselves.

Both teams will likely score and there should be enough chances to find a winning goal and I will back at least three goals to be shared out in this one.

Swansea City v Middlesbrough Pick: A real 'relegation six pointer' takes place in front of the television cameras in the first of the two Super Sunday offerings as Swansea City host Middlesbrough in the Premier League. There is a 5 point gap between 17th place Swansea City and 19th placed Middlesbrough and you may even have to suggest that a defeat for the away side might be the end of their Premier League status.

Games are running out and Middlesbrough have been in awful form so falling 6 points behind those teams in the position of safety, at the best, will not look recoverable.

This is a big week for Middlesbrough who face Swansea City and Hull City away from home before hosting Burnley and I would imagine they are targeting at least 5 points to give themselves a chance. However I do think they are facing a Swansea City team who have proved to be improved at The Liberty Stadium where they have won 3 in a row in the Premier League.

The defeats to Hull City and Bournemouth are big blows for Swansea City, but Paul Clement would have been working these players hard for two weeks and home advantage could be important for them. Wins over Southampton, Leicester City and Burnley here show Swansea City are capable and they have been in a more positive frame of mind than Middlesbrough have been showing.

A lack of goals for Middlesbrough has to be a big concern and I don't see a lot of resolution for that. They have begun to concede too many goals too as they struggle with the balance on the field and I think Swansea City will put another nail in the coffin for their opponents' survival hopes.

Swansea City have been scoring goals at home and look to have a little more quality in the final third than Middlesbrough and I will back them to win the game at odds against.

Arsenal v Manchester City Pick: The big game of the weekend comes from The Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon as Manchester City head south to take on Arsenal and with a clear chance to knock off one of their rivals for a top four berth. A win for Manchester City puts them 10 points clear of Arsenal in the Premier League table with the latter only having 9 League games still to play.

That is the kind of result that might see the majority of the Arsenal fans turn on their manager who is already under immense pressure. Arsene Wenger's refusal to say what the future holds for him, despite admitting his decision has been made, has only deepened what has become a civil war at The Emirates Stadium between fans who want him to stay and those who want Wenger to leave.

The negativity can't be helping the players who have lost 6 of their last 9 games in all competitions, while the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have yet to commit their future to the club. It doesn't bode well for Arsenal who are looking more and more likely to miss out on a top four berth in the Premier League for the first time under Wenger.

Even playing at home has proved difficult with the negative vibes coming down from the stands and this Manchester City team have the pace and quality in the final third to really hurt Arsenal. However they remain a work in progress defensively and I do think Arsenal can play their part in this game and there is every chance we could see a very good game of football on Sunday.

It reminds me of how I anticipated the Manchester City-Liverpool game would be played out two weeks ago. That game had everything but the final touch in front of goal as both Manchester City and Liverpool missed gilt edged chances to win the game and it was a fixture that could have featured many more than the two goals it eventually provided.

Both Arsenal and Manchester City are going to go forward and look for goals and I don't think either can really point to a defence that will keep a lot of clean sheets. Manchester City have managed more in recent away games against teams who struggle with the balance in front of their own fans, but Arsenal play a certain way and Wenger won't change that for any team he is facing.

At least one of the two Premier League games Arsenal and Manchester City play against each other has ended with four or more goals in each of the last three seasons. The game at The Etihad Stadium ended with three goals shared out, but there is every chance this one goes a step further as long as the teams are not as profligate in front of goal as Manchester City and Liverpool were two weeks ago.

MY PICKS: Liverpool-Everton Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.75 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Burnley + 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.76 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Chelsea - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.97 Bet365 (2 Units)
Hull City-West Ham United Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.85 Sporting Bet (2 Units)
Leicester City-Stoke City Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Manchester United - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.15 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Southampton-Bournemouth Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.75 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Swansea City @ 2.00 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Arsenal-Manchester City Over 3.5 Goals @ 2.60 Boyle Sports (2 Units)

March Final39-40-3, + 6.64 Units (157 Units Staked, + 4.23% Yield)
February Final31-50, - 29.34 Units (157 Units Staked, - 18.69% Yield)
January Final32-47-1, - 30.88 Units (164 Units Staked, - 18.83% Yield)
December Final38-40, - 7.93 Units (153 Units Staked, - 5.18% Yield)
November Final40-38-3, + 5.76 Units (159 Units Staked, + 3.62% Yield)
October Final29-41-2, - 21.23 Units (139 Units Staked, - 15.27% Yield)
September Final43-28-1, + 35.17 Units (133 Units Staked, + 26.44% Yield)
August Final31-38-2, - 9 Units (124 Units Staked, - 7.26% Yield)
Season 2016/17243-272-9, - 57.45 Units (1029 Units Staked, - 5.58% Yield)

Season 2015/16133-174-2, + 0.89 Units (669 Units Staked, + 0% Yield)
Season 2014/15159-208-5, - 20.22 Units (647 Units Staked, - 3.13% 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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