Saturday 3rd October
17.30 Chelsea v Southampton
Fourteenth in the league, Chelsea welcome tenth-placed Southampton to Stamford Bridge in what should be an interesting affair, to say the least. Chelsea recently embarked on a three game winning streak, a fortnight which held some promise given their disastrous start to the league.
The problem was that two of those teams were Maccabi Tel Aviv and Walsall and the other one was Arsenal, a perennial whipping boy for Mourinho. Normal service quickly resumed against Newcastle of all clubs, Chelsea coming from two goals behind to salvage a draw courtesy of strikes from the usually goal-shy duo of Willian and Ramires. Substitutes they were, inspired they were not. Mourinho was so incensed with the display that he gave his team a rating of minus 1 out of 10. Ouch.
And because Mourinho is a big man, he chose their midweek Champion’s League clash against Porto to display his ruthlessness and dedication to the cause by dropping his captain, his main man in midfield and last year’s player of the season as well as leaving one-time Brazilian wunderkind Oscar at home and taking a younger, less wunderkinder Brazilian along in the shape of Kenedy. Not only did Chelsea lose but they were largely awful as evidenced by the fact that their keeper was probably their best player on the night.
So, what now for the self-anointed ‘Special One’ – recall the players whom he had dropped for supposedly sub-par performances last week or stick with the rag-tag team who looked so disjointed midweek? At the centre of all of this nonsense is one constant – Mourinho himself. As noted in this parish before the season had begun, he was off to an early start with regard to his playground bully tactics and that inauspicious start to proceedings hasn’t let up or even come close to settling down with some media sources claiming that the some Chelsea players are unhappy with the treatment of their captain, John Terry. That could be utter scutter, of course, but it doesn’t take much manipulation of the facts to come up with that angle. Suffice it to say, Chelsea and Arsenal (more on that unhappy lot later) are providing much of the mirth so far this season.
Christ, nearly forgot that there was supposed to be another team involved in this preview. Southampton. Who doesn’t like Southampton (apart from Portsmouth)? It’s taken a little while for the Saints to adjust to the new season after their familiar summer tale of player’s in and out but in Ronald Koeman, they have one of the calmest manager’s around and he won’t have been unduly worried with their early season wobbles. Last weekend, they hosted Swansea, the other team to be found in the best-of-the-rest folder. Swansea hadn’t been on a great run but most people were expecting an evenly matched affair. Southampton, though, had other ideas and ran out comfortable winners with a 3-1 scoreline.
Although the goals were shared out between Mane, Tadic and van Dijk, their principal front man Pelle had an outstanding game knitting play together and will pose a real threat to the Chelsea rearguard. One wonders whether Falcao or Remy will cause the same problems for Southampton’s backline. Ordinarily, Chelsea would always be favourites in this match-up but these are hardly ordinary times in the life of Chelsea FC. Looking at the evidence, a Chelsea win looks the least likely of the three results available (not that the bookies agree with that notion) so with that in mind, a draw might be worth a punt. Ask Sportingbet nicely and they’ll offer you 14/5 for that.
Sunday 4th October
13.30 Everton v Liverpool
This is the first Merseyside derby since the Industrial Revolution not to feature Steven Gerarrd on the pitch or at least on the roster. It’s a pity as the usually anodyne scouser used to do a mean proto-Diego Costa in these derbies and of the eight red cards he acquired for both Liverpool and England, two of them were against Everton. To whom has he passed the torch? Sktrel and Can must be favourites to savage the shins and/or ankles of some poor Evertonian and so will keep alive the proud tradition of thuggery usually found in this tie.
Since their loss to Manchester City in September, Everton have won four and drawn two of their last six matches, quite a sweet run in anyone’s book. It’s easy to forget that it was only three short weeks ago that Everton spanked Chelsea 3-1 courtesy of a hat-trick from Naismith, a constantly underrated player. It was a good thing for the Toffees that the Scotsman stepped up as young Lukaku was going through a dry spell. That, however, was remedied last weekend when they won away at West Brom with the big Belgian netting two and turning provider for the other.
Presently, Liverpool are only slightly less funny than the comedy London tag-team that is Chelsnal or Arse-sea, depending on your patience with laboured attempts at comedic wordplay. High Priest of Liverpool Football Coven, Brendan Rodgers, has been whispering of conspiracy, a shady cabal (on a global scale?) that seeks to remove him from power, by means foul or fouler (not that one). Most people have no great urge to see others lose their jobs but Rodgers must be hanging perilously close to the edge and it doesn’t take a tinfoil hat wearing merchant to think that. He has been afforded two of the rarest commodities in the ‘modern’ game; vast amounts of money each year and time to spend more money when the previous splurge didn’t work. Unless, as the Beastie Boys mentioned, you’re using “time and money for girls covered in honey”, it isn’t a strategy that’s likely to enhance his long term job prospects at the club.
Having scored eight goals in their last four matches (one of those was a nil all draw), Everton will certainly trouble an eternally troubled Liverpool defence. They are high on fore presently and will be relishing the chance to turn Liverpool over. It’s worth pointing out that Everton haven’t managed to beat Liverpool since October 2010 but there is cause to think that they might get it right this time given the respective form of both teams. If you fancy a slice of the blue cake, Paddypower have Everton to win at 17/10.
16.00 Arsenal v Manchester United
Let’s start with the visitors first – that would be the league-topping Manchester United. King of the hill, A no. 1, top of the heap and all that. Is it a case of the league just being weird or is it further confirmation for those who decry the slipping standards of the EPL? Really, there are good arguments for both sides but the plain fact of the matter is that United and Van Gaal must be doing something right. Lord knows they’ve been awful to watch at times this season, truly abject and seemingly clueless but sometimes, when a team is full of brilliant players, good results manage to sneak out. The crafty bastards…
Since their loss to PSV Eindhoven in the opening round of the Champion’s League, they have won four from four and are motoring nicely. Martial, seemingly unfazed by his massive transfer fee, has taken to proceedings like a man at a trout farm, nonchalantly helping himself to whatever he fancies whenever he fancies it. Juan Mata continues his rich vein of form with eight goals and six assists in his last 21 games. Chris Smalling’s progression continues apace and looks to be a rock in a still slightly uncertain defensive configuration. Say what you like about Daley Blind at centre back but Valencia still being shoe-horned in as a right back?
Van Gaal’s methods are either taking hold with his players and they are delivering accordingly or bunch of really good players are beginning to play well together. The two aren’t exclusive, of course but it’s hard to square the soul-crushingly blunt play, back and forward across midfield, which Van Gaal, in opposition to everyone else, has claimed as his team’s best moments with some of the football which occasionally breaks out like a flower in a desert. Whatever is happening, it seems to be working.
This column is rapidly running out things to say about Arsenal that are in any way original. That could be down to a dearth of critical talent on the part of this column or it could be as a result of Arsenal doing the same thing over and over again. Or, most likely, a combination of both. Although there’s little that can be done about the first part at this stage, there should be plenty that can be done to resolve the problems Arsenal have been having for years but for reasons known only to himself, Arsene Wenger has chosen to buck convention and settle for a lifetime pass on the merry-go-round.
It was mentioned last week but you could go to any article written about Arsenal on these pages from the last two seasons and, even allowing for the differing context, the content would remain the same. Will Arsenal be in the running to win the EPL? Most likely not. Will they finish in the top four and so qualify for the Champion’s League next season. Likely they will. Will they still set up to play the same way regardless of the team and formation they face? Of course. Will Wenger ever learn from his mistakes? Of course not.
Chances are this will be an uninspiring game caught in the crossfire between a mentally weak Arsenal and a pedestrian Utd. The best prices for an Arsenal win are slightly better than evens whereas you can get the best part of 3/1 for a Utd win. With that in mind, back the away team. Betvictor are offering 14/5 for that result.