Saturday 21st November
12.45 Watford v Manchester United
Watford manager, Quique Flores, has some enviable relatives (of sorts). Ever fancied having a genuine footballing legend as a godfather?
This column couldn’t possibly know whether or not Flores ever did but he certainly got one in the guise of Alfredo Di Stefano. As a player, he had a couple of seasons playing for Real Madrid, amongst others and, as a manager, his Atletico Madrid team beat Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in the Europa League final back in 2010, albeit on the back of a fairly middling season. He’s got the footballing pedigree and he’s done well so far in acquiring a managerial pedigree, too.
It’s probably a bit early to make the call on whether or not the powers-that-be at Watford have pulled off something of a coup but the early signs are promising. Out of the three newly-promoted teams, Watford are doing the best and are sitting in a comfortable mid-table position, 10 points off the top and 11 points from the bottom. They could do with scoring more goals but they have the joint fourth best defence in the league and that is arguably more important for teams that jump up a division; the Blackpool side of a few seasons back offered a salutary tale for those new boys whose buccaneering spirit would have them fly too close to the sun.
Although they lost their last game to the feral Foxes of Leicester, the tie before witnessed them be the first team to beat West Ham in the league since September so to employ some horribly hackneyed jargon, they’ve got a bit about them.
It’s very difficult to know whether the same can be said of Utd. It’s hard to shake the feeling that just about nobody knows except for Louis van Gaal whom, even if he were wrong, would most certainly think that his assessment was right. He’s suffering the slings and arrows of former Old Trafford heroes, notably Paul Scholes, yet a quick glance at the table would remind him that Utd are only 2 points off the top.
In moments like these, he might meditate on his lonely existence, situated as he is high on an elevated plateau of knowledge where only eagles dare, far above the noisy and chaotic masses, and wonder, what more can I do for these people, these children? Luckily for the whippersnapper mortals, Van Gaal will drag them kicking and screaming into the beautiful light. But they would want to keep the faith because many more months of their current style and likely it will be a job to drag them kicking and screaming into the stadium.
It’s unfair to suggest that they mightn’t have ‘a bit about them’ because they clearly do, it’s just that when they threatened to break out into the team that most suspect they could be after their impressive victory over Everton, they’ve largely fallen back to recent type, which is to say ponderous, over-possessive and imbalanced up top. It’s been reported that against France, Wayne Rooney came close to replicating the form that’s been missing for so long and if he can use that performance as stepping stone toward effective and productive play, he’ll already be twice the player he’s been so far this season.
One imagines that Flores has had the better of the opportunities afforded during the international break with regard to player availability as his side hasn’t been depleted to the extent that Van Gaal’s has and so, with two weeks worth of preparation, Watford will be well primed for the job. The usual proviso applies with regard to Utd insofar as that they are the better side so on the whole, a draw seems like a reasonable outcome here. Check out Totesport who have 5/2 on that.
15.00 Swansea v Bournemouth
Excuse the language but the arse has fallen out of Swansea’s season. In fact the rot has being going on so long, that you might suggest that guts have fallen out, too. The first match of the season saw them claim an impressive 2-2 away to Chelsea and they rounded off the month with a win against Manchester Utd. Many punters, this column included, were duly impressed, predicting big things for this team and their young manager in the new season. Sadly for the Swans, that would be their last win in any competition until they registered a mandatory win against Villa nearly a month ago.
One is loathe to ascribe too much merit to noise from the gossip columns but there has been a consistent drone of late regarding the position of Garry Monk. Rumours suggest that there’s been pressure from above for him to accept some managerial assistance from a more experienced hand, in much the same way that Liverpool hoisted Gerard Houllier as co-manager on Roy Evans. A move such as that is hardly a vote of confidence and no manager worth his salt would be welcoming of such a move.
There’s also talk that some of his more important are speaking up against him. Of course, none of the above has been officially concerned but what we do know is that Shelvey has decided to disappoint as once again it looks like he was flattering to deceive with his early form, that a lack of consistency may dog him throughout his career. The less said about Gomis up top, the better. Unfortunately for fans, not many of the team are playing anywhere close to the levels they’ve be accustomed to.
For Bournemouth, it isn’t getting any better. They haven’t won in the league for a touch over two months and yet remarkably, they haven’t let their spirit drop and continue to dominate teams for large parts of games even if they can’t score to save their lives. Which is an awful shame because if they had a player or two who could regularly put the finishing touches to their attacking moves, it’s unlikely that they’d be in quite the bother they are now.
The law of averages would suggest that inevitably, eventually, things are going to come right, to fall into a place which will see the Cherries get what they deserve (in the positive sense). Regardless of what might or might not be going on behind the scenes, there’s no denying the paucity of performances on the part of the hosts and Eddie Howe’s boys really must head there with nothing other than 3 points in their minds. They’re not likely to face a team as wobbly as Swansea for some time. Bournemouth to win. Betfred will give you that for 7/2.
17.30 Manchester City v Liverpool
The money shot of the weekend. Fans of outrage from the upper echelon of moneyed English clubs will get the chance to voice their displeasure at moneyed club players from the opposing team but, one suspects, ire of the most focused kind will be centred on one Raheem Sterling by way of the fevered vocal glands from the visiting Liverpool fans. The Sterling transfer saga was one of the more painful episodes of the summer market and even non-football fans were glad to see the back of it.
Countless one-time footballers, now-time talking heads, made sure that all & sundry knew that “the boy” was getting ahead of himself, he was a big time Charlie who epitomised all that was wrong in the ‘modern game’. Such a novel argument… So it’s fair to say that one Raheem Sterling might have had this particular match circled in his calendar going back a while at this stage.
Which should be a worry for Liverpool. Unfortunately for them, Sakho will be out through injury and that means that Dejan Lovren will likely take his place. The centre back has done little to suggest that he was worth the £20+ million that Liverpool paid for him but the hope around Liverpool is that Klopp can improve him. The problem is that he’s not quite as disciplined as Sakho and will frequently charge out of position, space that you-know-who will be delighted to float in to.
A constant theme of Klopp’s managerial career has been his ability to account for teams with much greater resources and talent at their disposal than he’s had. One of the traits shared by all good managers is their desire to take on the best teams and beat them, by virtue of their talent and guile they can strike down a Goliath – a weak metaphor, granted, in the pig-trough of the EPL. In other words, this is the sort of game that a manager like Klopp measures himself against and the result will probably determine whether or not he’ll sleep the following week.
The (relative) romantic would like to think that this brave new world at Liverpool would triumph over the slave blood lawfully earned money of City but that, of course, is a nonsense. They all have a piece of the same pie, it’s just some have effective ways of getting bigger slices than others. Klopp might be the bright new thing but Pellegrini is no managerial slouch and with superior resources on his side, a City win looks the likeliest outcome. Betvictor at 13/20 have it about right.