Saturday 28th November
15.00 Aston Villa v Watford
The glamour tie of the weekend, it’s hard to believe that none of the big stations seem to be covering it. This is Aston Villa we’re talking about! One of only five English clubs to win European football’s most prestigious trophy, the European Cup (now Champions League), this is a club with a winning pedigree that few other English clubs can beat. Unfortunately for Aston Villa 2015, the successes upon which they built their reputation belong to the dim and receding past and at this moment in time, they are barely keeping their head above water.
They were one of the founders of the Premier League and have been there ever since but unless new manager Remi Garde can affect a sea-change in results, they will succumb to gravity and drop to swim in waters altogether less prestigious.
After 13 games played, Villa have only one win and that was on the opening day of the season. You don’t have to be a scientician to understand that that form over 40 games will not be enough for them to stay in the big boys league. The best result of late came in Garde’s first game in charge of the club when they held Manchester City to a 0-0 draw. In isolation, that was a very creditable outcome but when a single draw is your best result in 9 games, the omens are not good. Those 9 EPL games saw them score 7 and concede 19 so they have adopted a holistic approach to the game insofar as that they have been dreadful up top, down back and everywhere in between
Watford featured in these pages last week and were predicted to hold Manchester United to a draw. Even though they were well outplayed, that result would have held were it not for an injury time own goal which gave Utd a late win. Watford’s form on the road has been impressive, the 8 points they’ve collected on their travels constitute half their total points for the season thus far. Having said that, their loss (at home) to Utd last week means that they are now in 13th, just two points ahead of struggling Swansea and they will be aware that, although matches against Norwich and Sunderland follow this, they must then face Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Southampton respectively. Points on the board now would serve as some nourishment for rockier seas ahead.
One of the variables very much in Watford’s favour is the form of their striker, Odion Ighalo. The Nigerian marksman sits level with the likes of Aguero, Giroud and Mahrez for goals scored and will be confident that he can continue his form against a creaking Villa backline. It’s difficult to see anything other than a Watford win and the odds for that outcome are a very tasty 19/10 from Betvictor.
17.30 Leicester City v Manchester United
Whatever about the previous match being a ‘glamour tie’, this really is a top of the table clash. And Leicester are involved, sitting, as they do, at the very top of the table. Any man that tells you that they ‘had a feeling’ that might be the case come the end of a November is a liar or a politician (of course, one doesn’t preclude the other).
In a league where doubts about the standard of play persist, it is refreshing to see the likes of Leicester make a fearless charge into the power vacuum and claim the throne as their own, even if it is only temporary. Or, to consider it another way, if 40 points is the magical mark which ensures a teams’ EPL survival, they are only 12 points away with well over half the season to play. Those cunning Foxes…
And then there is Utd. This column settled in for a night of European football on Wednesday and, for reasons still unclear, decided to watch Utd welcome PSV Eindhoven to Old Trafford. To give PSV their due, they were by far the more composed team in the second half and were, final passes aside, quite enjoyable to watch. Utd, on the other hand, morphed from boring and aimless to the outright bizarre. Utd fans might argue that this type of behaviour has been the norm, not the exception, this season.
Manager, Van Gaal, brought Ashley Young on for a mis-firing Depay mid-way through the second half and the winger made an immediate impact on the left wing. The thing is, that’s not where Young finished the match playing. No, apparently creating good chances for his teammates to convert wasn’t cutting it with Van Gaal and the erstwhile left winger ended up at right back. Not only that, Fellaini was sent from midfield to stalk the opposition’s penalty area, waiting for balls to drop on his chest from the above. The supplier of those airborne bombs was Wayne Rooney who, by that stage, had dropped so deep he was practically a defender. The less said about Mata’s introduction 6 minutes from the end, the better.
And yet this innately awful approach to football has been effective enough to see them sitting pretty in second place, a point below leader’s Leicester and, in all seriousness, standing a decent shout of wining the league outright. Take from that what you will but this column thinks the implications are clear enough vis-à-vis standards in the EPL. Setting aside the existential musings, is there any chance that a stodgy, lumbering Utd can dent the buccaneering Leicester – can they dull the irrepressible goal-scoring form of Jamie Vardy?
With regard to the latter question, if there is one defence that can, it’s probably Utd’s. For all their boring boobery, they do have the best defence in the league and have conceded just 9 goals with Mike Chris Smalling marshaling an ever-changing backline to great effect. Regarding the former question, it’s hard to imagine any team outside of a Chelsea-from-last-season managing to stifle the energy levels that Ranieri’s boys have displayed this year. This column tends to steer clear of dreamy optimism but seeing as Christmas decorations are being put up here, there and everywhere (must have missed that memo), let’s embrace the season of goodwill and go for a Leicester win with Betfred at 11/5.
Sunday 29th November
12.00 Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea
The form guide over the last 10 matches has Tottenham sitting in first and Chelsea trailing far behind in 14th. Along with Leicester, Spurs have been one of the great successes of this season’s league. One suspects, however, that of the two, it will be Tottenham who are best placed to sustain their challenge. Harry Kane is once more banging them in, Moussa Dembele is once again showing the attacking and defensive talent that many thought would see him land a gig at a ‘bigger’ club, Dele Alli has made the switch from MK Dons to full England international look seamless – we could go on.
Spurs are showing little in the way of weak links in their young and hungry squad and manager, Pochetino, has clearly got a game plan that works and which his players believe in. The concern some would have for them is whether or not their relatively thin squad can cope with the demands of pushing all the way in the league and playing Thursday night football in Europe. One thing is for sure, they have a consistency about them per game and overall that is doing much to revise the opinion of them as traditionally flaky.
If it could, this column would refrain from previewing any match concerning Chelsea this season. They have been awful, ugly and boring to varying extents. The one consistently bright light for them has been Willian, a man with wonderful hair and indomitable spirit who hasn’t let the bile and cannibalism swirling about the club affect his game. He was always a willing runner and carried an attacking threat even if his goal-scoring left much to be desired. This season, though, he has added a huge amount to his game and has become one of the best free-kick takers around with a success rate of better than 50%, scoring 6 from 11 attempts. He only has to miss the next 100 or so to have the same ratio from free-kicks as Cristiano Ronaldo presently has.
But one man rarely carries a team and if he does, it is only because his actions manage to shake the torpor from the rest of his teammates. It is an open question as to whether or not this is possible at Chelsea. Pantomime villain cum erstwhile striker, Diego Costa, has scored just 3 goals. Whereas this time last season, he was marrying both those aforementioned traits to great effect, this season it’s mainly the clown that shows up and even the ringmaster, Jose Mourinho, is getting tired of that act, as evidenced by their spat at halftime in their last Champions League game. Costa is one of the more obvious examples of sub-par Chelsea players but not many of them outside of the Brazilian mentioned above can claim to be worthy of their wages.
Recent results suggest that Chelsea might be steadying the ship but they’ve had couple of false dawns already this season and one would be hesitant to put too much stock in victories over Maccabi Tel Aviv and Norwich. Spurs, on the other hand, seem to have a different mindset now and one which has added a steely determination to their mentality. This is reflected in the market which has them as favourites to win, the first time that’s been the case in many a long year. Let’s side with the bookies on this one – Spurs to take the 3 points with Totesport offering 6/4 on that.