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Friday, 25 August 2017

Weekend Football Picks 2017 (August 26-27)

This is the final round of domestic League games before the first international break of the 2017/18 season with the World Cup Qualifiers scheduled to be played from Thursday next week until the following Tuesday.

August can be a busy start to the new European season, but September is when things really start heating up with two rounds of Champions League/Europa League games as well as the Third Round of the League Cup and plenty of League football to be played too.

On Thursday the Champions League draw was made and there were six British clubs who were keenly awaiting news about who they will have to compete with over the next three months.

As a Manchester United fan I could not have been happier with Group A even if I have already made the point that both Benfica and Basel helped knock Manchester United out of the Group Stage in the 2011/12 season. However this Manchester United team have the European experience of winning the Europa League and they are playing with plenty of confidence and I would be stunned if there was a repeat.

In fact I really think Manchester United have to be thinking about winning the Group and earning a Seed for the Last 16 draw.

Chelsea were one of the top Seeds in the draw having won the Premier League title, but they would have hoped for better than having to deal with Atletico Madrid and Roma in the Group. As long as Antonio Conte can settle his differences with the power brokers at Stamford Bridge, you have to think Chelsea will have enough to move through to the Last 16 alongside Roma.

There were two English clubs in Pot 3 of the draw and there were mixed fortunes for Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur with the former entering what looks a winnable Group and the latter hoping to sneak through to the Last 16.

Liverpool should be too good for a Sevilla team who have lost some of their edge since the end of last season, Spartak Moscow and Maribor. They avoided the fate of Tottenham Hotspur who face both Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Group, although I do think Spurs may be able to surprise Dortmund and finish above them in a tight section.

The final team from England in the draw was Manchester City who enjoyed a draw that looks as good as the one rivals Manchester United earned. Napoli could cause problems, but Manchester City will be expected to beat them to top of the Group with Shakhtar Donetsk one of the weaker Pot 1 clubs they could have faced.

Brendan Rodgers looks to have a difficult task in achieving the goal he has set for Celtic when he mentioned he wanted European Football after Christmas. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain should dominate the Group and it will come down to whether Celtic can beat out Anderlecht for the Europa League spot that will be on offer.

Those matches in the Champions League are set to begin in the next two and a half weeks and I am looking forward to hearing the famous anthem at Old Trafford again. The Europa League draw will be made on Friday but I have this post ready to go before Arsenal and Everton find out their fate for the coming months ahead.

Both Arsenal and Everton should receive favourable draws to at least reach the Last 32, although Arsene Wenger has been less positive about the tournament than Ronald Koeman. That may change if Arsenal struggle domestically, but I wouldn't be surprised if much changed teams take to the field for the Europa League games to keep the starters ready for the Premier League.

The football picks from this weekend are coming from the Premier League fixtures with a single pick also from the Spanish top flight. Last weekend was a very difficult one, but hopefully I can end August with a flourish after a mixed start.

Bournemouth v Manchester City Pick: There was some decent football being played by Manchester City on Monday night, but I am not convinced the 3-5-2 system being favoured by Pep Guardiola is going to get the best out of the players he has. Leroy Sane being employed as a left wing back was a mistake which cost Manchester City as it was his error that set Everton off for their goal on Monday evening.

With Kyle Walker suspended, Manchester City may decide to play a back four on Saturday as they look to bounce back to winning ways ahead of the international break. I said on the opening weekend that playing away from home may favour Manchester City more with the extra space they tend to be afforded and that is certainly the case when they come up against Bournemouth.

Eddie Howe has to be credited for sticking to his principles, but Bournemouth can be a side that the top teams find ‘easy’ to play against. I don’t think it is a big surprise they lost to half of the teams that finished above them at the Vitality Stadium and in another game Bournemouth trailed Liverpool 1-3 before fighting back for a 4-3 win.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United all scored at least three times here in League games last season and both Manchester clubs as well as Chelsea won by a couple of goals.

The poor start made by Bournemouth will have shaken some of the confidence and I do think Manchester City are good enough to take advantage. They will have the majority of the play and I anticipate Manchester City will create enough chances in the final third to ultimately win this one fairly comfortably to open the Premier League weekend.

Under Guardiola Manchester City have played 20 away Premier League games and won half of those by at least a two goal margin. I expect Bournemouth will cause some problems, but the space they will likely afford Manchester City can see the latter win here for the third season in a row and by at least a two goal margin for the third year in a row.

Huddersfield Town v Southampton Pick: Things could not have gone better for David Wagner and his newly promoted Huddersfield Town side in the opening month of the new season. Putting another win on the board on Saturday would mean Huddersfield Town are almost a quarter of the way to the 40 point mark which has to be the aim for the club in their bid to avoid relegation.

Being able to get three wins on the board in the opening month of the season would be huge for Huddersfield Town to build confidence. We have seen how important it is to put the points in the bank as early as possible and Huddersfield Town look settled.

It should be said that they are going to face more challenging opponents than the likes of Crystal Palace and Newcastle United the rest of the way. Even though Southampton are learning new methods of Mauricio Pellegrino, this is an established Premier League side who will be looking for a top half finish.

With that in mind, this is the biggest test so far for Huddersfield Town and it will be interesting to see how they do going forward. The Saints have a decent defence, even if they haven’t shown that this past week, but goals continue to be a problem for them.

Now they have to unlock a hard working Huddersfield Town team who will press from the front and then tighten the space at the back to make life as difficult as possible for their opponents. The pressure at the front is designed to create mistakes, but Southampton are an experienced team and I think this is going to be a tight match.

Southampton away games tended to feature plenty of goals last season, but generally this is a team that will try and make themselves difficult to beat. The lack of goals to open the season has to be a concern and Huddersfield Town won’t make things easy for their visitors.

On the other hand I do think Huddersfield Town still need to improve in the final third to build on their opening two League wins and this is one of the tougher defences in the League. Putting those factors together I think there may not be a lot of goals shared out on Saturday and I will back fewer than three goals to be produced from this fixture.

Newcastle United v West Ham United Pick: Two managers who are under pressure and two teams who are searching for their first Premier League points of the 2017/18 season will meet on Saturday in a big game at St James’ Park. It is perhaps ironic that Rafael Benitez, the current Newcastle United manager, is also the favourite to take over at West Ham United if they dispense with Slaven Bilic.

That means a win for Newcastle United could mean they lose their manager to West Ham United who would perhaps decide to move on from Bilic. On the other hand a win for The Hammers might see Benitez walk away from a job where he clearly feels the current squad is not good enough to avoid the drop back into the Championship.

It is going to be a tough environment to play in on Saturday after Newcastle United were beaten by Nottingham Forest in the League Cup. The fans have big demands for their club and while they have not turned on the manager, Benitez has to be questioned for giving the current squad so little confidence.

There is only so many times players can be told they are not good enough for this level before they either down tools or struggle to cope mentally knowing a mistake will be highlighted.

That lack of confidence makes Newcastle United a dangerous favourite in this fixture and the West Ham United win over Cheltenham Town will help ease some pressure on Slaven Bilic. The loss at Southampton last weekend came after West Ham United showed plenty of character with ten men and the returns of Manuel Lanzini and Andy Carroll would provide a huge boost.

Despite losing their opening 2 away games in the Premier League, West Ham United have proved to be one of the better away teams in this Division over the last couple of years. They have been very good when playing those teams in the bottom half and West Ham United showed enough last week to think they can get something here.

Newcastle United have won their last 2 home games against West Ham United, but this is a squad that looks short of quality. They will pose problems for a defence that has conceded 7 goals in 2 away League games, but West Ham United have shown they have goals in the side and the boost of having Lanzini and Carroll could see them upset Newcastle United.

I will take the start on the Asian Handicap with the East London club on Saturday.

Watford v Brighton Pick: The international break is coming up after this round of games in the Premier League and it is an important one for all those teams searching for their first points of the season. Brighton are one of those teams and a newly promoted side could lose some heart the longer they have to wait to get off the mark in the top flight.

Chris Hughton has experience managing at this level and Brighton are surely going to give the manager time to get things right. The fixtures at the start of the season could have been kinder for Brighton, but they have to show more intent in the final third.

They are facing a Watford team who have defensive injuries and suspensions to deal with this weekend. That may give Brighton a chance to earn a surprising win here although Marco Silva has shown he can get the best out limited squads in his time with Hull City.

Silva helped them become a very strong home team and I think he will make Watford a very difficult place to come and play. Liverpool found that out on the opening day and there is enough quality in the final third to paper over the defensive problems in this game.

Watford may have been beaten by Bristol City here in the League Cup, but they were very impressive last week in a win over Bournemouth. The defeat in the League Cup came with a much changed starting eleven and won’t overly concern Silva, and a similar level of performance to last weekend should put Watford in a strong position to win this match.

There does seem to be a more attacking threat in the Watford ranks at the moment and I expect that to help The Hornets earn another three points in a strong start to their Premier League season.

Brighton will work hard and try and make life difficult for the home team, but I do think Watford may have a little too much for them. A lack of bite in the final third has to be rectified going forward, but we may not see that happen until after the international break and I will back Watford to win their first home game of the season.

Manchester United v Leicester City Pick: One of the most positive early season performances from Manchester United last season was the 4-1 hammering of Leicester City at Old Trafford. In fact that may have been one of the best performances at Old Trafford throughout the campaign and fans may be expectant on Saturday to at least match the number of goals scored having seen Manchester United score four in each of their first couple of Premier League games.

Add in the fact that Leicester City conceded four times in a 4-3 loss at Arsenal and goals look to be on the cards.

However it may not all be one way traffic with Leicester City continuing to play at a decent level under Craig Shakespeare. They have gone back to the direct style that took them to the Premier League title two years ago and the players look much happier than they were six months ago.

Goals haven’t been a problem for Leicester City this season with at least two produced in every game they have played. This is a different test considering how Manchester United have defended so far, but I think it could be the most difficult game Manchester United have played so far.

With the pace of Jamie Vardy up front, Leicester City will hope to turn Manchester United around on the counter, but containing them will be a tough task all the same. Manchester United have played with a confidence that wasn’t always evident last season and I do feel like the team as a whole is in a much better place than even at the end of last season when they won the Europa League.

I would expect Leicester City to pose a lot more questions than either West Ham United or Swansea City managed in Manchester United’s first two games. They may even score, but Leicester City have still got a few questions to answer defensively with key players perhaps not at full health.

Manchester United in the mood they have been in should be able to take advantage as Arsenal did and Old Trafford could see another ‘comfortable’ win as I look for Manchester United to cover the Asian Handicap here.

Chelsea v Everton Pick: This has the feeling of being another Premier League game where both sides will have their opportunities to earn the vital three points. While Chelsea will be feeling a lot better after winning at Wembley Stadium against Tottenham Hotspur, Everton have drawn back to back away games 1-1 this week and shown they can be defensively organised against opponents.

They have still to prove they can handle the better teams consistently after earning a 1-1 draw at Manchester City on Monday night. A third away game in a short space of time is difficult though and it will be interesting to see how the players respond.

Everton didn't play well against Chelsea last season with heavy defeats suffered both home and away. They are facing a team that are without Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, but Cesc Fabregas is back from suspension and The Blues looked very comfortable last weekend despite the injuries.

Chelsea will be a threat going forward, but I still think they are a little short defensively with the injuries and lack of depth an issue. There is the chance Everton can earn something on the counter attack, but they may need to ride their luck like they did at the Etihad Stadium on Monday night.

Ronald Koeman's men showed they can be effective on the counter, but Chelsea should create some chances of their own. Everton games have not featured a lot of goals in the 2017/18 season but the last two games between these teams at Stamford Bridge have featured at least three goals shared out.

The new signings made by Everton gives them a better squad depth and they will be tough to beat over the course of the season. However this match is coming at a time of the season where Everton have had three tough away games in the space of seven days and I think that may contribute to a Chelsea win.

Chelsea have won 5 of their last 6 home games against Everton and could take advantage of any early season fatigue that could have built up over the last seven days. I will back Chelsea on the Asian Handicap in this one.

West Brom v Stoke City Pick: Both West Brom and Stoke City have surprised early in the new Premier League season and both will head into the opening live game of Sunday with some confidence and momentum. While The Baggies have won 3 in a row, Stoke City have bounced back from an opening weekend defeat to beat Arsenal and Rochdale at the Bet365 Stadium.

Playing away from home is a different test for Stoke City though and they have lost 4 of their last 6 away Premier League games going back to last season. They are also facing a West Brom team who played very well at The Hawthorns last season up until they were past the 40 point mark in the League.

While that did mean a disappointing end to the season, the players have shown they can pick themselves up and go again with the performances early in this season.

Defensively they look sounder than Stoke City have and West Brom do have the quality from set pieces to cause problems for their visitors.

This is unlikely to be the prettiest of games, but Tony Pulis has found a way to get past his former club since moving on to Crystal Palace and West Brom. The Baggies have won 4 of 5 games against Stoke City since Pulis took over as manager and that includes 3 wins in a row at home.

Pulis also guided Crystal Palace to a home win over Stoke City in his short time with The Eagles and I think West Brom are playing well enough to keep the trend going. Stoke City had to ride their luck at times against Arsenal before securing the win and they will likely need to do the same here.

I can’t imagine this being the most entertaining game, but it should be a fascinating tactical battle. Tony Pulis has shown he can win those against his former club and I will back West Brom to make it four wins from four in August as they go into the international break with real confidence.

Liverpool v Arsenal Pick: The first game on Sunday may not be the most appealing for the neutrals, but the last live Premier League game before the international break should be a cracker.

Both Liverpool and Arsenal may be in the news because of two players who want to leave each club respectively, but the managers are trying to focus on what is happening on the field.

To that end Liverpool have been more successful with 3 wins from 4 games in August and remaining unbeaten. On the other hand, Arsenal are coming in following a loss at Stoke City and the reminder they are not playing in the Champions League with the Group Stage draw being made on Thursday.

There is enough attacking talent in the Arsenal squad to feel they can give Liverpool some trouble when they do have the ball, and the return of Laurent Koscielny will bolster Arsenal’s defences. However they will have to be a lot better than they have been in the opening two weeks of the season against a Liverpool team who can be rampant at Anfield and who have played well against the top Premier League clubs over the last twelve months.

Liverpool did win 7 of their 12 League games against the top seven last season and they were unbeaten in all of those. They won 4 of 6 at Anfield and did the League double over an Arsenal side who lost 5 of 6 at the top seven last season.

Even without Philippe Coutinho and with Alexis Sanchez potentially returning for Arsenal, I still lean towards Liverpool to use their August momentum for the victory. Goals also shouldn’t be in short supply with both teams looking much better going forward than they have looked defensively and even the returning Koscielny may not be enough for The Gunners to show vast improvement.

The last 4 at Anfield between these clubs have seen Liverpool unbeaten with at least three goals shared out each time. While I do think Liverpool win this game, and they are a decent price to do that, goals are likely to arrive in the fixture too.

The layers aren’t giving away anything when it comes to at least three goals shared out. But I do think backing Liverpool to win a high-scoring game at an attractive price is more tempting than simply backing Liverpool to win the game.

The bigger price is appealing as I simply don’t imagine this game finishing without at least three goals and that is the way I will go this weekend.

Tottenham Hotspur v Burnley Pick: This feels like a really big game for Tottenham Hotspur as they look to prove that the move to Wembley Stadium for one season is not going to be one that affects their League performances. While there will be a factor of not playing at White Hart Lane, no one in the Tottenham Hotspur dressing room will be thinking about a ‘Wembley Curse’.

Tottenham Hotspur have lost 4 of 6 games at the National Stadium in the last twelve months, but those losses have come against Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea twice. Better finishing last week and Tottenham Hotspur may have earned a result against Chelsea, but that list of losses also shows Tottenham Hotspur will face ‘easier’ tests than the ones they have failed to overcome.

They did beat CSKA Moscow 3-1 here in the Champions League before a 2-2 draw with Gent, but factors have been in play in the games Tottenham Hotspur have lost. They were better than Leverkusen and against Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi Final, while Tottenham Hotspur were down to ten men against Gent.

These are factors that should eventually turn in their favour and I think Tottenham Hotspur will begin that this weekend. The space at Wembley Stadium may make it difficult for Burnley to defend in the numbers they would like to in these games and this is a team that struggled when facing the best teams on their travels last season.

Burnley’s win at Chelsea came down to the home team losing a couple of players and some stunning finishes. This is not something Burnley can rely on in every away game they play and I think Tottenham Hotspur get the better of them.

Sean Dyche’s team work hard and they are rarely beaten comfortably. Only 6 of their 14 away losses last season came by more than a single goal margin, but I think Tottenham Hotspur may be due a really big performance at Wembley to put talk of a ‘curse’ to rest.

More than half of Tottenham Hotspur’s home wins in the League came by more than a single goal margin and I think they will be too strong on Sunday. With the talent in the final third, Tottenham Hotspur can wear down Burnley with the additional space in this Stadium and I will look for Spurs to cover the Asian Handicap.

Alaves v Barcelona Pick: There seems like there is plenty of upheaval at Barcelona at the moment and it feels the players are not as happy as they once were at the club. Neymar's departure has highlighted that and the players look to be backing their former teammate when it comes to the legal situation developing after Barcelona moved to sue the Brazilian for breaching his contract.

This does not make for good reading going into the new season and Barcelona's failure to prise Philippe Coutinho away from Liverpool won't have helped so far. The club just doesn't feel as strong as they did twelve months ago and Barcelona look to have fallen behind Real Madrid both at home and in Europe.

While that is the case, Barcelona still look the second best club in Spain and they still have Lionel Messi which makes them a dangerous opponent on their day. They are facing an Alaves team this weekend who have lost a successful manager this summer and who have been seeing a lot of players both come and go from the club.

That may mean it will take time for Alaves to gel together after overachieving in the 2016/17 season and they were beaten comfortably by Barcelona in their last couple of games last season. Barcelona might be missing key players in Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez, but there is enough talent here to get the job done and I do think Barcelona win here.

They have managed that 3 times in a row at Alaves and last season Barcelona were 0-6 winners here. I would be stunned if they win by that many again, but I do think they can cover the Asian Handicap in a victory here and I am going to back the Catalan giants to do that.

MY PICKS: Manchester City - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.94 Bet365 (2 Units)
Huddersfield Town-Southampton Under 2.5 Goals @ 1.75 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
West Ham United + 0.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.96 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Watford @ 2.00 Bet Victor (2 Units)

Manchester United - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.02 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Chelsea - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.11 Bet Victor (2 Units)
West Brom @ 2.45 William Hill (2 Units)
Liverpool to Win & Over 2.5 Total Goals @ 2.90 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.80 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Barcelona - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.89 Bet365 (2 Units)

August Update: 25-29, - 6.97 Units (88 Units Staked, - 7.92% Yield)

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