Saturday 5th March
12.45 Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal
The big north London derby is quite a bit different this season as opposed to most in living memory insofar as Spurs are ahead of Arsenal in the league at the business end of the season. Three points separate the two to the advantage of Spurs and a win for the home side in this fixture would open what one would assume to be an unassailable gap between them.
Somewhat surprisingly, Spurs lost their mid-week game against fellow Londoners, West Ham. Somewhat predictably, Arsenal lost theirs to a struggling Swansea side but we’ll focus on the hosts first. Spurs came from behind to beat Swansea last weekend and peppered them with 34 shots throughout the course of the game. In their midweek loss, they seemed to have lost some of their zip with just two of their nine shots on target, albeit with the proviso that they had 65% of possession.
It has been noted in these pages and many others that the greatest threat this Spurs team faces is fatigue. Their manager has them as fit or fitter than any other EPL squad but the sheer volume of games they have played (and have yet to play) must have some effect, even with clever rotation of the squad. When tiredness seeps in, mistakes are made.
Is there anything else that needs to be said about Arsenal? Really, again?! It’s the same thing, year in and year out. Same old failings be they injuries, parsimonious approach to bolstering deficiencies in the squad, mental strength as brittle as old bones etc etc etc. Nothing is ever learned, everything is repeated. Much like most of the criticism this column aims at the team.
So let’s take a look at some cold, hard facts – their record for the last ten games reads: W3 D3 L4. Three of those losses have been their last three games and they are without a win in over a month. This is not the form of championship contenders but it is the lingua franca of Arsenal Football Club. The question now is whether or not they can circle the wagons and resist a hungry Spurs team.
On the whole, this column thinks not. Probably the best Arsenal can hope for here is a creditable draw. They have a porous defense and with Petr Cech being injured, a good-but-not-great Ospina takes his place between the sticks. The mentality shown by Spurs this season, even allowing for their midweek loss, is so much greater than anything shown by Arsenal and for that reason, the home side should prevail with a win. BetFred and others have a price of 7/5 for that outcome.
15.00 Everton v West Ham
Great news during the week for Everton when word came out that a wealthy business type of Iranian/British extraction is in the process of buying a 49.9% controlling share of the football club. At last, Everton fans might shout, money enough to allow play with the big boys. That would be overlooking the fact that they arguably have good enough players to do so at the moment but never let the truth get in the way of a good, or new, story.
What is true is that Everton have a poor home record this season having taken just 16 points from 14 games played. Only two teams have garnered less points at home this season and one of those is Aston Villa. There is a marked difference between their home and away form. Is it that the space that is more readily afforded them when on their travels is theirs to give at home and they can’t reconcile the two? If that sentence made a lick of sense then the answer must be yes.
West Ham have recently done what few other teams have managed to do so far this season and beat Tottenham Hotspur. Along with Spurs and Leicester, the Hammers have been arguably one of the most impressive teams in the league this season. They have beaten a host of the ‘top’ teams and are just a single point away from the CL places. This is their final season at Upton Park before they move to a brand spanking new stadium (built for the Olympics with tax-payers money) and they are doing their best to give the old girl a fitting send off.
In Dmitri Payet, West Ham have one of the league’s outstanding performers this season. His signing by new manager, Slavin Bilic, represented a new direction in how West Ham wanted to play the game, something closer to the much ballyhoo-d ‘West Ham way’. Now, whilst it’s largely futile to figure out what that magical template was from this remove, the Hammers have been a very impressive outfit this season, both in attack and defense.
Much of their blistering early season pace was based on their devastating away form and coming fresh from a win over a title contending Spurs, their sails will be filled with determination to expose an oft-times flaky Everton defense. Everton may well feel buoyed by talk of new money and look to impose themselves with a big home-side swagger. This column reckons that West Ham will take advantage of any hubris and grab the three points. BetVictor have a very generous 21/5 for that result.
Sunday 6th March
16.00 West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United
Here’s one for you – West Brom have scored five goals in their last two games. Five goals! That’s better than one sixth their league total to date and two of them were in their draw against league leaders Leicester in the midweek match. What is going on down West Brom way.
It might have something to do with the fact that relationships have been mended to a practical degree between the boss, Tony Pulis and his aging enfant terrible, Saido Berahino. The striker is one of the better young talents in the league and, as a result of some protracted transfer nonsense over the summer, neither parties seemed to be fond of the other. But, eventually, needs must and the manager has thrown him into the mix for the last two games with the striker grabbing what transpired to be the winner against Crystal Palace last weekend. His introduction has also sparked a more adventurous approach to play from the usually conservative approach adopted by Pulis teams.
Talking about conservative approaches, Utd’s recent form has certainly shaken that particular tag by virtue of their four wins on the trot, a sequence of victories that somewhat unbelievably sees them level on points with their city rivals, albeit with one game more played. A massive balloon of joy has been inflated with the goodwill and hope of the beleaguered supporters who can hardly believe their eyes at the wild swing in fortunes and attitudes on the pitch.
As far as lead ups to lazy analogies go, this one must be up there with the worst of them but Tony Pulis and his new-look side might be just the dart to burst that particular balloon. Utd’s season has been predicated on a snakes and ladders approach and that game is never more dangerous than when one is running blind with joy. Pulis and his side delight in their occasional role as Great Leveller and with a young, callow side and slow defense to contend with, West Brom might be licking their lips.
Given their recent results and the attendant performances on the pitch, it would seem daft to bet against Utd but then we must bear in mind the minimal impact that ration and reason have had on this season. This column will throw itself at the feet of whimsy and the pulse of the season by going all out for a West Brom win. Luckily, this nonsensical notion comes with a comfy price of 17/5 from BetVictor.