Saturday 26th December
12.45 Stoke v Manchester United
In your mind’s eye, fast forward to next summer’s European Championship. England, although they blitzed through their qualifying campaign, are struggling against teams that they really should be beating. Some of the players are looking a little leaden footed and on the whole, they just don’t look up to speed with the teams around them. The mob will demand answers and what they’ll probably hear is that the players are burnt out, run into the ground. The other top teams have all had a winter break but not poor old England, you’ll hear cried.
One mans fish is another mans poison and the fish that we football lovers get to share is the hectic Christmas schedule. Fans of the English national team will have to gnaw on a familiar poison come June but for the moment, we can all bask in the cheer of this seasonal gift.
So hold on tight to that crumb of joy, you may need it in order to endure the first match on the roster, Stoke v Utd. Where to start… Aside from their electrifying win against Manchester City some weeks back, Stoke have largely been competing with Utd in a footballing equivalent of the slow bike race. The Potters have managed to score just 14 goals all season, a ‘record’ that only Villa can compete with. In another attempt to damn them with faint praise, they’re averaging one win a month.
But it really shouldn’t be like this! The style of their win against City opened a Pandora’s box of expectations for fans and neutrals alike but they followed up that result with a lacklustre nil all draw with West Ham and an arguably unlucky loss to Palace. Should we learn to dream a little smaller or, given the battered beast they’re about to face, back Hughes and his men to replicate that searing form and give Utd a sound thrashing?
And make no mistake, this Utd team are wobbling. Last week, this column thought, as poor as they’ve been, Utd should have been able to manage a draw but no, Norwich went and beat them for the first time in a long, long time. That would be newly promoted Norwich, currently sitting in 16th, two points above the relegation zone and one point behind Chelsea (that’s still funny).
It’s now over a month and six full matches since they’ve won a game. A previously Scrooge-like defence has been breached seven times in their last three outings. Worryingly for Van Gaal, the last plank of his defence (that would be his defence!) seems to be gone and the Old Trafford crowd were in mutinous form last weekend. The situation is such that Van Gaal, of all people, wondered out loud whether or not he was still a good manager.
Unhappily for him and Manchester Utd generally, a certain recently sacked malcontent seems to be waiting in the wings with some relish. Happily for everyone else, the sight of Mourinho managing Utd (should they dispense with the Dutch man) would be car-crash hilarious. Quite why anyone would want to employ a manager that has presided over one of the worst title defences ever seen is another article entirely.
This column has a hunch that we might see another great Stoke performance on Saturday. Teams don’t fear Utd anymore but such is their nascent cache, everyone wants to beat them and Stoke know that in this regard, they’ve got the skills to pay the bills. Boylesports have an excellent price of 12/5 for the Stoke win.
15.00 Chelsea v Watford
At last, it’s safe to write about Chelsea again. Whilst the excruciating nature of the journey to Sacked City captured the attention of much of the football media for many a month, this column has been bored senseless of Mourinho and his, ahem, brilliant mind-games since his first spell in charge of Chelsea. Never has a three trick pony been given so much wide-eyed adulation and awe but at last, it seems, some of the Teflon appears to have rusted off. Mind you, that’s always likely when a manager publicly accuses his players of betraying him (it’s not like he was trying to get the sack in order to get millions of pounds in a pay-off, no sir…) but what do we know?
So now, for the second time, we are in the post-Mourinho era and also for the second time, we are in the Gus Hiddink steadying-hand-until-the-proper-manager-is-employed era. Fans might fondly remember his first spell there, bringing as it did some silverware but poor old Gus hasn’t had a good time of it since then; an awful run of employment which culminated in him steering a Dutch team into the wall as they unsuccessfully fought to qualify for the European Championships next summer.
In his last stint there, he took over from the unpopular Phil Scolari and was clever enough to realise that in Cech, Terry, Lampard, Drogba et al he had a solid core of experienced winners who knew the strengths of the team and could nearly do it all themselves, and so he chose not to impose himself too much. Fortune will not be a kind to him this time. Terry isn’t the player he was, the spine of that previous team is gone and so, it might be argued, is the spirit.
Which is not something that can be said of Watford at this point in time. Quite incredibly, they have taken maximum points from their last four games and are now sitting pretty in seventh. Playing in a largely derided and old-fashioned 442, recent results have been breath-taking and the front two of Ighalo and Deeney have plundered 17 goals between them with Ighalo in particular shining with no player in England’s top four leagues having scored more than him this calendar year.
Last week out, they put Liverpool to the sword and this is a Liverpool side that, for all their ills at home, have built a formidable reputation under Klopp as a team that thrives on the counter when given the opportunity away from home. A 3-0 win against anyone is always a good result but for a newly-promoted team to do it against one of the bigger teams speaks to the level of their performances and the quality of their players and manager.
So how will this play out against a post-Mourinho Chelsea? It’ll be tight. Watford will be confident but also, one suspects, a little wary. Last week, there was no Mourinho and all of a sudden the likes of Oscar was beginning to look like the player of yester-year. The Brazilian was joined by Pedro and Ivanovic on the scoresheet, three players who haven’t scored in a long time. That might be reading a bit into it but now that they’ve rid themselves of the festering negativity from the sidelines, there’s every chance that this Chelsea team might play with the unbridled joy of a horse let loose on pastures after the winter.
Their problems are far too deep to be solved by simply moving Mourinho on but these are not bad players and one suspects they might hit a bounce, if only for a short while. But will this bounce be high enough to beat Watford? If you think so, grab Chelsea to win at 1/2 from StanJames. This column is slightly leaning toward that outcome but we would be utterly remiss is we didn’t point out that the price for a Watford win is a whopping 7/1 from Bet365. That is a damn good price. Do what you have to do.
15.00 Liverpool v Leicester
With apologies for yet again focusing on one of the big teams, given the run they’re on it is next to impossible to avoid talking about Leicester at the moment. Apparently, during the week, someone on some site somewhere put up a photo of their betting slip which displayed a shrewd and somewhat Nostradamus-like bit of business on their part – Leicester to be top of the league come Christmas at 1000-1. Ho-ho-ho.
No longer is the talk about when their run ends and they begin the drop to mid-table. No, now there’s growing agreement that they’re looking good for a top four finish and even others are wondering out loud whether or not they are genuine title contenders. What a weird world and league we live in. But the strangeness makes for a beauty that has been denied for far too long. The listless ennui of bloated entitlement that’s been our lot has, for the time being at least, suffered a grievous blow and Leicester are leading that gallant charge.
It’s a mantle that Liverpool fans thought was their own during their failed attempt to win the league in the Suarez years but that would be a perversion of the truth. Yes, Liverpool have the whiff of the romantic underdog about them but when you compare the respective financial clout of both clubs, you’ll see that there really is no comparison. It’s true that Leicester (like Liverpool) have wealthy, foreign owners but that sense of entitlement, of swimming in the big pond, isn’t there. For example, it’s hard to imagine Liverpool sending scouts to Ligue 2 in France and being on the look out for anyone other than the most promising 17 or 18 year old players. Leicester on the other picked up a 22 year old Riyad Mahrez two years ago for just £350,000 and the more excitable tabloids out there might say that he’s worth 100 times that now.
The point is that Leicester isn’t a den of massively competing ‘winners’, big names who come with a reputation (honourable exceptions for Inler and Cambiasso) and large price tag. They’re workers, they’re grafters and they give a damn. They have no time for negativity and just want to win. Much the same can be said of Liverpool manager, Klopp but the pall of inherent misery that has hung over that club for a couple of decades now cannot be shifted quickly by just one man. His players are willing but are they able?
Certainly defensive lynchpin Martin Skrtel ain’t able as he’s injured and is due to miss a whole rake of games. That, in essence, leaves Liverpool with only two centre backs, an ageing Toure and a Sakho shorn of match fitness. Ho-hum… After a promising start under Klopp, it’s safe to say that the honeymoon period has come to a shuddering halt. Liverpool haven’t won in their last four matches (in all competitions) and have scored just two goals in that time, both in the same game. No goals up top + more wobbly than normal at the back = shit Christmas.
In and of itself, it’s strange that this doesn’t feel strange but Leicester for the win. What can Liverpool put up against them that will knock them down? Far better teams than them have tried and failed. Given their troubles up front, it’s hard to see them scoring, a problem which Leicester don’t suffer from. And really, there shouldn’t be too much debate about the outcome of a game between high-flying first 1st and nothing special 9th. Leicester the winners, BetVictor the bookies and 3/1 the price.