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Weekend Football Picks and Fantasy Football 2020 (February 8-17)

The English Winter Break is in play for the first time this season and I think it has not gone as well as the Premier League and the top clu...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Weekend Football Picks 2018 (February 16-19)

The Premier League takes another short break this weekend as the FA Cup Fifth Round games have been scheduled for four days from Friday through to Monday.

One of the weirder aspects of the Cup this weekend is the draw is taking place on Saturday evening at around 8pm- that is almost an hour after the last FA Cup tie of the day is played and before two other Fifth Round ties are to kick off.

And yet the fans moan that clubs don't take the FA Cup as seriously as they would like(!)

At least the majority of the top Premier League clubs are still involved going into this Fifth Round, although Manchester United have the toughest of the ties with a trip to Huddersfield Town. I would expect Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City to make up three of the final eight teams in the FA Cup this season and the competition looks like it could produce some big ties in the last couple of months of the season.

I said during the week that I would have a short piece about Manchester United and the problems in getting the best out of our top players at Old Trafford. I posted that on Thursday and you can read it here.

Now onto the FA Cup Fifth Round Picks, even if this competition has kicked my behind so far this season.

Leicester City v Sheffield United Pick: There will be a few teams who have been humbled by Manchester City this season so I am not expecting a long malaise from Leicester City as they look to progress to the FA Cup Quarter Final on Friday.

Claude Puel knows the importance of a deep Cup run having taken Southampton to the League Cup Final last season, and I expect him to pick a stronger team than he has in the last couple of Rounds.

Firstly that is down to the quality of Sheffield United who are in a decent position in the Championship compared with the League One opposition Leicester City have faced so far. Secondly this fixture comes at a good time in the calendar with Leicester City's key players well rested and it would be a surprise if the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy are not called upon in forward areas.

The FA Cup is very important for a Leicester City team who are in no danger of being relegated and I expect Puel's team to underline that point with no game set for seven days after this one.

Sheffield United have to be respected as a team who will work hard and try to remain organised defensively to try and frustrate the Leicester City players. However they have already been beaten 1-4 by Leicester City at home in the League Cup and the Championship is a bigger priority for The Blades who are fighting to get back into the top six.

I would still expect Chris Wilder to pick a strong team for this Fifth Round tie, but Leicester City should have a little too much for them. The Foxes have been scoring plenty of goals at the King Power Stadium recently, while the return of Mahrez can only be a boost to the team who want to add silverware to sit alongside the Premier League trophy they won two years ago.

I think Leicester City will prove a little too good and can score a killer goal when Sheffield United begin to chase a way back into this one. I will back the home side to win and cover the Asian Handicap on their way through to the Quarter Final.

Chelsea v Hull City Pick: The first live game from the FA Cup Fifth Round this weekend is played on Friday night at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea host Hull City.

Unsurprisingly Chelsea are considerable favourites to win this tie and Antonio Conte has to be hoping the 3-0 win over West Brom on Monday night will have given his players a boost in confidence. The scoreline was flattering for Chelsea and they will have to better in the days ahead with some big games to come, but that win over West Brom has to at least give Chelsea the confidence to win this kind of fixture.

As well as Hull City have played in the last couple of weeks, they are a team who have struggled on their travels for the last eighteen months. Prior to the win at Nottingham Forest, Hull City had lost 5 straight away Championship games and only scored a single goal in that run.

Chelsea have found a way to earn clean sheets at home and that could be the foundation to their success in this Fifth Round tie. Trying to guess the Antonio Conte team is more difficult with the Barcelona Champions League tie on deck, but I think momentum is important and having this game on a Friday helps the Italian pick a strong team.

I would anticipate Eden Hazard being given a start and he has been a big part of Chelsea's play in recent weeks having another starring outing on Monday. Conte will want his team to get into a position where he can begin to rest the likes of Hazard for the Barcelona game and I think Chelsea will be able to be too good for Hull City in this Fifth Round tie.

I will look for Chelsea to also improve their run of 6 clean sheets in their last 8 games at Stamford Bridge in all competitions. Backing the home team to win to nil is the call from this tie as Chelsea reach yet another FA Cup Quarter Final in recent years.

Sheffield Wednesday v Swansea City Pick: Much of the intrigue around this fixture is surrounding the return of Carlos Carvalhal to Hillsborough having been sacked as manager of Sheffield Wednesday and days later taking over at Swansea City.

While Carvalhal's time at Sheffield Wednesday came to an end because of an underachieving season, he has surpassed all expectations with Swansea City by giving them a real chance of avoiding the drop in the Premier League.

The players at the Liberty Stadium look much happier under the Spaniard's guidance and Swansea City have become tough to beat as they have played well over the last few weeks. Strong teams have been picked to help Swansea City make it through to the FA Cup Fifth Round too and I would be surprised if Carvalhal suddenly decides to make wholesale changes to his starting eleven for this one.

Momentum can be so important for teams at this time of the season and Swansea City have plenty of that behind them. However they have not played as well away from home as at the Liberty Stadium and Swansea City have drawn 4 consecutive away games including in both initial ties in the FA Cup at Wolves and Notts County.

Sheffield Wednesday may be turning a corner themselves and you have to think the fans are itching for this game to kick off. They can give the home players a real boost and I think Sheffield Wednesday can cause problems for this Swansea City team who have not had many clean sheets away from home.

The Owls have won both home games in the FA Cup this season and I think this is going to be a tight game where both teams have their opportunities to win it. I think the 1-1 is also a real player and backing both teams to score at close to odds against is the likely outcome of this one.

Both teams have scored in 4 of the 5 away games Swansea City have played under Carvalhal, and Sheffield Wednesday had seen both teams score in consecutive games at Hillsborough before the 2-0 win over Derby County this past week.

Brighton v Coventry City Pick: The lowest club left in the FA Cup this season are Coventry City and they have been rewarded with an away tie at a Premier League opponent in the FA Cup Fifth Round.

No doubt the fans and players would have hoped for a 'bigger' name in the Fifth Round, but Coventry City will still look to head to Brighton and earn another upset having already beaten Stoke City in the FA Cup this season.

Chris Hughton will also recognise the opportunity in front of Brighton although he is still likely to make changes to keep his top players fresh for the key Premier League challenges ahead. That shouldn't affect Brighton's performance too much and they have begun to score goals regularly at the Amex Stadium which should be enough to see off an opponent who are playing significantly lower down the League standings.

While Brighton have shown improvement at home, Coventry City have struggled on their travels in League Two. They have lost their last 3 away games in the League and Coventry City will have to be careful with fitness issues against the Premier League trained Brighton who also have the fans firmly behind them.

Ultimately I do think being at home will be enough for Brighton to win this tie and win it by a couple of goals on the day. Even with the expected changes, Brighton have a squad that are used to playing at a higher level than these Coventry City players and the chance to reach the FA Cup Quarter Final should be a big motivating factor for the home players.

Coventry City have to be respected for beating Premier League Stoke City, but that came at home and was a game that could have gone very differently if The Potters had taken their chances. With Brighton scoring at least twice in 3 of their last 4 games at the Amex Stadium, I don't think they will be as poor in front of goal as Stoke City were in the FA Cup Third Round and I will back Brighton to win and cover the Asian Handicap.

West Brom v Southampton Pick: Both West Brom and Southampton would take a deal where they are out of the FA Cup and guaranteed a place in the Premier League next season, but for one weekend the players can release themselves from the tension of trying to earn big League points.

The two teams come into the FA Cup Fifth Round inside the bottom three of the Premier League and it is West Brom who look in a much bigger hole. They are now 7 points from safety compared with Southampton who are just a point behind 17th placed Huddersfield Town.

Both Alan Pardew and Mauricio Pellegrino have decided to play strong teams in the FA Cup in a bid to improve the confidence of the players and that makes this a potentially big game for both West Brom and Southampton. The winner could earn some momentum to take into big League games, while the losing team may just start to get that sinking feeling.

However neither team is going to want to accept a draw in this fixture and add another game to their schedule at the end of the month. That should see both West Brom and Southampton look to produce some attacking football and follow a similar path to the 2-3 win Southampton recorded at the start of the month.

West Brom have struggled in front of goal all season which perhaps is a concern, but they have created chances under Alan Pardew. Losing Daniel Sturridge is a blow, but West Brom should be able to create opportunities in front of goal against a Southampton team who have conceded 4 goals in their last 2 away games.

On the other side, Southampton have scored 5 goals in those same couple of away games and I can see these two teams producing at least three goals for the second time inside two weeks. The layers don't tend to agree, but I think both Southampton and West Brom are likely to play with attacking intent to try and win this tie at the first time of asking and that could lead to a more open game than most anticipate.

Recent performances of both teams suggest they can get on the front foot in this one and I will back at least three goals to be shared out.

Huddersfield Town v Manchester United Pick: There was little doubt this fixture was going to be picked for television coverage and Jose Mourinho has to at least be satisfied that Manchester United can play on Saturday evening.

It is the start of a big weekend for Manchester United who play the First Leg of their Champions League Second Round tie at Sevilla on Wednesday before hosting Chelsea in a huge Premier League game next Sunday. The FA Cup is also important to the manager and the players and this game represents a chance to make up for a particular low point of the season.

Back in October Manchester United were beaten 2-1 at Huddersfield Town in the Premier League which was a big upset. A similar result would be an upset, but perhaps not as unexpected considering the back to back away losses Manchester United have suffered coming into this one.

Huddersfield Town had a confidence boosting 4-1 win over Bournemouth last weekend and scored 4, albeit after extra time, in their win at Birmingham City in the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay too. David Wagner is hoping his team can build on the performance from last weekend against Bournemouth, but that came at a time when The Terriers had been struggling in the Premier League.

In recent weeks the likes of West Ham United and Liverpool have won comfortably at the John Smith's Stadium and both teams managed to score at least three times in those wins. With the changes that Huddersfield Town are expected to make, Manchester United should be able to create their opportunities in this one and I do expect a strong away team to begin this one.

The deeper Manchester United squad should mean any changes should not really be a problem for Jose Mourinho's men. I don't think those changes will be made in attacking areas so Manchester United should remain dangerous, while the likes of Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw are able players to come into defensive areas.

I expect a reaction from Manchester United after the result at St James' Park last weekend and I do think they can get the better of Huddersfield Town on Saturday. Manchester United remain one of the better away teams in the Premier League despite the recent setbacks and I will back them to become the latest team to leave Huddersfield Town with a comfortable win recorded.

Rochdale v Tottenham Hotspur Pick: The Spotland surface looked to be in terrible shape when Rochdale beat Millwall in the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay and it took a lot of criticism from outsiders including Mauricio Pochettino who is bringing his Tottenham Hotspur side to town.

The pitch has been relaid since that match, but it has also meant Rochdale home games have been forced to be postponed. Some have even suggested the surface could be dangerous for players, although Keith Hill rounded on Pochettino for making those suggestions in a press conference a few days ago.

It certainly feels like the pitch will be something of a leveller and Rochdale would have seen the way Tottenham Hotspur struggled at Rodney Parade in the Fourth Round when needing a late goal to secure a 1-1 draw at Newport County. The home team will try and make this Tottenham Hotspur team uncomfortable and it will be a challenge for the Premier League club who will make some rotations to their starting eleven.

Ultimately the team should still be good enough to beat the team at the foot of League One and it will be about getting used to some of the bounces and bobbles on the surface. If Tottenham Hotspur can just work their way into this fixture, I would expect they can show their class at some point and win this tie without the need to add a Replay to their busy schedule.

Games at Spotland have not featured a lot of goals in recent weeks as the playing surface has made it difficult. That could be the case again on Sunday even though a Premier League team is the visitor this time, and I am looking for a professional job from Tottenham Hotspur.

Rochdale can make life difficult with more familiarity with the conditions on their home surface, but I think Tottenham Hotspur will find a couple of goals to win this one and I will back them to win a lower scoring game than expected.

Wigan Athletic v Manchester City Pick: I will expect this live televised FA Cup Fifth Round to be preceded by lots of video of Wigan Athletic upsetting Manchester City in this competition in both 2013 and 2014.

This would be an even bigger upset than those two occasions if The Latics can take a third consecutive Premier League scalp in the FA Cup. After beating both Bournemouth and West Ham United at home, Wigan Athletic shouldn't be overawed by the occasion, but it is a totally different test taking on clubs who will make changes compared to a Manchester City team looking to win every competition they have entered.

With six days between their last game and a further six before Manchester City are playing again, Pep Guardiola will likely pick a strong team. I would expect some changes to keep things fresh, but the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero should also be supported by Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva which will give Manchester City a huge threat going forward.

Wigan Athletic will give this a go and they have scored 5 home goals against the Premier League clubs they have faced in the FA Cup this season. However, Wigan Athletic have also failed to score in 4 of their last 5 home League One games and I think they will have difficulties in trying to breach a Manchester City team who dominate the ball as much as they do.

On the other side it has proven to be a really difficult task to contain this Manchester City attack and I don't think Wigan Athletic will have a lot of joy doing that despite being a solid defensive outfit in League One. Manchester City have scored at least twice in the last month at Cardiff City and Bristol City who are playing at the top of the Championship and I think they are going to be good for at least a couple of strikes here.

I imagine there will be some sticky moments at the back for Manchester City with the way Wigan Athletic will approach things, but I think they can ride those out and then dominate much of the play as they have in many games this season. The lack of goals Wigan Athletic have produced in League One games recently has to be a concern for them and I will back Manchester City to win with a clean sheet here.

MY PICKS: Leicester City - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.07 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Chelsea Win to Nil @ 1.83 Sky Bet (2 Units)
Sheffield Wednesday-Swansea City Both Teams to Score @ 1.95 Bet365 (2 Units)
Brighton - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.05 Bet Victor (2 Units)
West Brom-Southampton Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.20 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Manchester United - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.11 Bet365 (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur & Under 3.5 Goals @ 2.05 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Manchester City Win to Nil @ 1.86 Bet Victor (2 Units)

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