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Friday, 4 August 2017

Weekend Football Picks 2017 (August 4-6)

The football season is finally back with a bang this weekend with the lower Leagues in England beginning their fixtures and meaning we are just a week away from the opening weekend of the Premier League season.

I will have a fuller post for the Weekend Football Picks next week, but this week I am going to begin with the first football picks of the new season. Time has been an issue for this thread, but hopefully it will be a good start to the season after a pretty poor showing in 2016/17.

Nottingham Forest v Millwall Pick: The Championship season gets underway this weekend and the long, arduous road to the Premier League begins in what is notoriously a difficult League to contend in.

At this stage positive vibes should exist in most football clubs as they put together some heady ambitions for the coming season. Nottingham Forest are definitely feeling more excited than they have in recent years with a new owner at the helm and Mark Warburton in as manager who has had success with Brentford at this level previously.

Losing Britt Assombalonga is a blow, but Nottingham Forest look a much more well rounded squad and the ambitions are to stop the decline in League finishes which have been occurring in recent years. Moving into a position to contend for a place in the Premier League is the ambition of Evangelos Marinakis, but this might be a season too early to think about that.

Any promotion push has to be fuelled by the form at the City Ground where Nottingham Forest were strong last season having secured 12 wins from 23 League games. 7 of those 12 wins came against teams who finished in the bottom half and Nottingham Forest will be looking to get the new era off to a positive start with a win over Millwall on Friday.

Finishing in the bottom half, but outside the bottom three, is likely to be the limit of the ambitions for Millwall this season having come through the League One Play Offs three months ago. Neil Harris has been successful as manager here, but this is a new challenge for him at the higher level and it could be a tough season for Millwall, especially on their travels considering their difficulties at the League One level away from home.

Millwall did win their last 3 League games at the City Ground, but I think the excitement around Nottingham Forest can be transferred to the players in this opening game. Keep stakes to a minimum with the opening weekend always a difficult one to figure out, but I will be backing Nottingham Forest to open this 2017/18 season under new ownership and management with a win.

Sunderland v Derby County Pick: Simon Grayson has helped Preston North End surpass expectations in the Championship and he may be the right person to guide Sunderland and turn around what has been declining performances from the club in recent season. However, like Aston Villa, it feels like Sunderland are going to need time to consolidate in the Championship before they can make a real assault at getting back into the top flight.

Some big names have left the club already and others are set to follow before the close of the transfer deadline. However it can't come quick enough for some players with a video showing Darron Gibson criticising other members of the squad came out in the evening after a 5-0 defeat to Celtic in a preseason friendly last week.

It does feel like Grayson is going to need time to turn things around at Sunderland by changing the culture of the club. A losing habit is hard to shift (again ask Aston Villa) and Sunderland have gotten used to losing plenty of games.

Things definitely feel more positive for Derby County who have a manager in Gary Rowett who was overachieving with Birmingham City before harshly being sacked. The football may not always be pleasing on the eye, but Derby County are sure to be tough to beat and have signed some quality players even though losing Will Hughes and Tom Ince is tough.

It hasn't been a perfect preseason for Derby County and they did struggle away from home at the back end of last season. However I think the organisation may be better than Sunderland and the players may all be pulling in the same direction more than the home team.

The fans might not be right behind the Sunderland players either and they look a vulnerable favourite. The price on the home win has been on the drift so Derby County are not as attractive a back as they were even two weeks ago, but I do like the chances of The Rams avoiding defeat and potentially even winning here.

I would advise keeping stakes to a minimum because teams who look in disarray can surprise on the opening weekend (think back to Hull City beating Leicester City with a skeleton squad last season), but I will look for Derby County on what is the essentially 'Draw No Bet' market.

Fulham v Norwich City Pick: After a season in which they overachieved from the goals set out, Fulham will go into the 2017/18 season with a lot more expectation on their shoulders. It will be interesting to see how they deal with that, but you can't be surprised that so many are tipping Fulham up for promotion when you think they had the second best record in the Championship over the second half of the season.

Falling short in the Play Offs is a negative and Chris Martin has returned to Derby County, but Fulham are still expected to be there or thereabouts at the end of this season. That is certainly more than most will be expecting of Norwich City who have a new manager and will be employing a new style.

Some key players have left Norwich City this summer as Jacob Murphy and Jonny Howson have moved on, while a new manager can mean a new learning curve. Daniel Farke will be looking to replicate what David Wagner did in English Football after learning his trade at Borussia Dortmund, although it does have to be said that Wagner's methods took half a season to take hold.

Goals weren't a problem for Norwich City last season, but defensively they struggled. The side conceded at least twice in all 7 away games at the teams that finished above them in the table last season and this opening day fixture has the chance of being a high-scoring one too.

Fulham home games and Norwich City away games featured plenty of goals last season and I will be looking for at least three goals to be shared out between them here. Opening day games do mean teams are perhaps not as sharp as they would want to be, but these two should be amongst the most attacking teams in the Championship and can provide plenty of entertainment for the fans at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

Aston Villa v Hull City Pick: Both Aston Villa and Hull City will be feeling that they should still be playing Premier League Football, but there is a tough path to tread to get back into the top flight.

The signing of John Terry has clearly invigorated the Aston Villa support and has to be a reason they are considered the joint favourites to win the Championship this season. I am not sure I am convinced about that until Steve Bruce can get some consistency from his team, but they have definitely been better at home under his guidance.

Being at home on the opening day is important for Aston Villa to try and put some momentum behind them and they look to be facing Hull City at the right time. I thought the same when Leicester City took on Hull City twelve months ago in the Premier League, but on that day Hull City ignored the disarray off the field to secure a win.

They will need to do the same to get the Leonid Slutsky era off to a positive start, but it does feel Hull City are missing numbers and need to do more in the transfer market. They certainly look short of a promotion bid this time around and former manager Steve Bruce can help Aston Villa earn the three points in this one.

Opening day fixtures can be a little haphazard to judge, but I will have an interest in Aston Villa getting the better of Hull City for an eighth time in a row at Villa Park. Aston Villa look more settled than Hull City and I will back them at odds against.

Arsenal v Chelsea Pick: The traditional curtain raiser in England is the Community Shield which is played this Sunday between Arsenal and Chelsea, the two teams who signed off on the 2016/17 season with their match in the FA Cup Final in May. Arsenal were a big underdog that day but managed to earn the 2-1 victory, and they will look for a third consecutive win over Chelsea at Wembley Stadium since August 2015.

The Arsenal fans are still not fully behind Arsene Wenger and the Frenchman cannot afford a slow start in a season where the club will not be playing in the Champions League. Issues in the squad continue to be a problem for Wenger who is adamant that the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez will not be allowed to leave in this transfer window, although the latter continues to be the subject of heavy interest from clubs both at home and abroad.

It is unlikely that Sanchez will be asked to start in this one having recently returned to the club from his Confederations Cup absence and with a Premier League fixture to come next Friday. A lack of investment in the squad won't have impressed the fans and Arsenal will be looking for a morale boosting start to the season like they have achieved in Community Shield wins in 2014 and 2015.

The FA Cup Winners have actually won the last 3 Community Shields.

However Chelsea will feel they can snap that run despite the injuries in the squad and not yet completing their transfer business. They beat Arsenal in a preseason game with relative comfort and the foundations remain strong with the injuries mainly in the forward areas.

They will still likely be able to put a four of Cesc Fabregas, Alvaro Morata, Willian and Michy Batshuayi out on the field and those players are capable of producing the magic Antonio Conte's side may need. An Arsenal team likely to be without Alexis Sanchez don't look as dangerous despite the money they have spent on Alexandre Lacazette and I think Chelsea can take advantage.

This is essentially a glorified friendly so I wouldn't have anything other than a minimum stake on the game. With that in mind, I will look for Chelsea to get the better of Arsenal despite how much the latter have enjoyed playing at Wembley Stadium as I look for The Blues to show a little more defensive strength than the FA Cup Winners.

Celtic v Hearts PickAt this stage of the season you have to think Brendan Rodgers is only focusing on the Champions League Play Off Round and the upcoming tie against Astana. While he won't want to see his unbeaten record with Celtic in Scotland come to an end, Rodgers is unlikely to risk players who may need a little more time to make sure they are ready for Astana.

They may be playing the right opponent in that respect with Hearts arriving under a cloud having finally decided to get rid of Ian Cathro as manager. The form under Cathro's guidance has been tremendously poor and Hearts really struggled away from home which does not bode well for a trip to Celtic Park.

Even though there are injuries in the Celtic squad, the competitive games played at the level they have been should mean the players in this one are sharper than Hearts. They also dominated Hearts in their 4 meetings in the 2016/17 season and I think the defending Champions can get off to a very positive start.

The layers are expecting a heavy win for Celtic and they did begin last season with plenty of goals being scored. I did consider Celtic winning with a clean sheet, but the defensive injuries put me off, and I do think the home team can produce a solid win on the day.

Covering this Asian Handicap won't be easy, but Celtic have the capability to do that especially at home. Missing Moussa Dembele is a blow, but Hearts come in short of confidence and I will look for Celtic to take advantage of that.

MY PICKS: Nottingham Forest @ 2.05 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
Derby County + 0 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Fulham-Norwich City Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.80 Sporting Bet (1 Unit)
Aston Villa @ 2.05 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Chelsea @ 2.25 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Celtic - 2 Asian Handicap @ 2.10 Paddy Power (1 Unit)

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