Saturday 13th February
17.30 Chelsea v Newcastle
Gus Hiddink is currently doing a fairly reasonable job in the Rafa Role that Chelsea have afforded him. He has steadied the ship and plugged a few holes. The problem is that although they’re heading for shore, it is at a rate of knots that most self-regarding fish would sniff at. Yet to lose under his reign, Chelsea have managed six draws to go with their five wins in all competitions since his arrival and are reasonably well removed from the bottom end of the table. Having said that, they’ve picked up just seven points from the last fifteen on offer so wild dreams about making the Champions League places should be put on ice for this season.
Another problem facing the champions is the loss through savage injury of defender, Kurt Zuoma. The young Frenchman’s performances have been such that Gary Cahill has been relegated to the bench for much of the season. His speed has been a wonderful foil to Terry’s lack thereof and for all Cahill’s experience and years playing beside his captain, the defense will suffer through a lack of mobility – a point Newcastle fans should hope hasn’t escaped their manager.
First thing’s first, Newcastle have an awful away record this season. Out of the thirteen games in which they have been removed from the loving embrace of their home support, the Magpies have managed just two wins and a single draw. Come Saturday, it will be two months since they’ve done anything than lose away in the league. In their favour, it has been said of them on more than one occasion this season that they respond well to televised matches and theirs is one of three to be shown to the great armchaired this Saturday.
All reasonable assessments of their relative merits should indicate that the home side will take the three points with something resembling ease but Newcastle often seem to operate on an enhanced quantum mechanical level insofar as the probability of any team pulling off an unlikely result relative to the form they’re in seems to be greater for them than it does for others. As such, the price being offered for a win seems quite generous. Now, this column is fully aware that they are priced as such for a reason and is in no way suggesting that you, dear reader, should part with your hard-earned money on such a whimsy but damn it, the price of 71/10 from MarathonBet for the away win is too shiny to keep from attracting this stupid moth.
Sunday 14th February
12.00 Arsenal v Leicester
The Big Daddy of the weekend, table-topping Leicester welcome an Arsenal team that sits five points beneath them to their home at the King Power stadium. A favourable outcome for the home side here might see their dreams begin to take mortal shape, they will reach a point of no return and transition from the team that surely couldn’t to the one that surely will. No pressure, then…
In fairness, Leicester are one of a handful of teams this season to play as if there is not a worry n the world (Spurs and West Ham also spring to mind). They go about their business, of course, in a serious and professional manner but the joie de vivre which is witnessed in their rapier like attacks and the consistency with which they have overcome nearly all odds speaks of a fleetness of spirit which is not encumbered by doubt or fear.
In some ways, Arsenal are often times the flip-side of that particular coin. Expectation wraps around them like a dank winter smog and, most seasons, they suffocate as a result. This season it was supposed to be different. But, as was mentioned last week, the more things change, the more things stay the same. With the exception of a spluttering Man City, their traditional rivals aren’t posing much of a threat and yet Arsenal cannot make hay in the glorious sunshine. Their hosts are flying high and with a confidence that would make Arsenal lethal on a continental scale if only they could tap it.
The Gunners have suffered from injuries to key players (file under: shock/horror) and should be positively salivating at the prospect of Coquelin’s return to the base of midfield. Mathieu Flamini is many things but an effective defensive midfielder he is not, certainly not the type that a successful title challenge can be built on. Arsenal’s hope must be that, with just two goals scored in their last four league matches (and both those in their last game), the re-introduction of Coquelin in midfield will help to bolster the base from which they construct their attacks.
Leicester have now gone so far down the rabbit hole and remained on top of the league that disbelief about their ability to win the league outright is close to being abandoned. Beat Arsenal and it will be one weird ride to the end of the season. Can the Gunners be the team to put the dream to sleep? Granted, should they win they will still be two points behind the Foxes but it will blow hope afresh in their sails. Gun to head, we’ll go with the heart and say Leicester will win, even though a tinkling in our toes says that a draw could well be the outcome. The price for the away win is a barely creditable 19/5 from BetFred amongst others.
16.15 Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur
Another intriguing top four clash to whet your appetite of a Sunday. City saw their title chances take a grievous blow in their loss to Leicester last week and, in truth, are suffering something of a wobble. It seems that the official confirmation relating to Pep Guardiola’s appointment might have had an adverse effect on the teams morale.
It would be naïve to think that the players weren’t aware of the impending managerial change but with all doubt now removed, a number of them must be thinking that their playing days there are numbered – in effect, not only do City have a lame-duck manager but also a number of lame-duck players. Put it like this, if Yaya Toure could be accused of lackadaisical performances over the course of this season, news of Pep’s arrival is hardly going to encourage him to up his game, considering their relationship at Barcelona. Yaya knows well which door has his name on it.
Spurs are suffering no such crisis. In Pochettino, they have one of the most impressive managers around and unless the likes Man Utd’s ringmaster, Edward Woodward, manages to hypnotise him with loads and loads of cash in the summer, they should benefit from his considered leadership for some time to come. He, too, benefits from having a squad of excellent players who are more than willing to execute his commands to a tee.
Largely dismissed by many before the season started, it was assumed that their thin squad would be found wanting once injuries and suspensions kicked in. Hindsight is a know-it-all pain in the you-know-where but man, those predictions could hardly have been more wrong. Leicester are understandably taking most of the neutrals’ plaudits and have to an extent overshadowed the achievements of the best Spurs side in years. Make no mistake, though, Spurs are stalking and if either Leicester or Arsenal falter, they will pounce.
Like Leicester, they have confidence and youth on their side and they also play with the same determination and lack of fear. Unlike Leicester, they have a number of cup competitions to contend with and these extra games might end up damaging them in the long run through injuries and fatigue. But those are issues for the weeks ahead – come Sunday, they are City’s problem.
It will not have escaped the Spurs brain-trust that City’s defense has taken a bold decision to re-invent football by introducing a Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee aspect to their central defensive pairing. Whilst this column is always wont to tip its hat toward innovation and such, it would respectfully suggest that such changes should be given a proper run out in the pre-season – no point building a boat mid-stream.
All joking aside, if a now Silva-less City (in addition to de Bruyne) turn in the same performance against Spurs that they did against Leicester last week, it’s hard to see them get anything but a beating. A lethargic performance on their part should see Spurs cut through them, if not at will then certainly often enough to claim all three points. Bet365 and many others have Spurs to win at a very tasty 13/5.