Friday 19th August
20.00 Manchester United v Southampton
Welcome to Friday Night Football. This is the latest addition to the greatest league in the world, run by a governing body that has so much time for the fans that form the bedrock of the whole enterprise that they’ve decided to expand their weekend fare to include occasional Fridays in addition to occasional Mondays and sacrosanct Saturdays and Sundays. Take into account Champions League on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well as the Europa League on Thursdays and we have our football cards marked each day of the week. Oh, happy day.
Or is it? This initial foray into our brave new world sees some logistical issues come to the fore, specifically for the travelling fans. The Saints’ away supporters face a 224 mile trip which will gobble up about four hours by car or by train just to get their in time for kick off. Those who make the trip home after the game will consider themselves lucky to see their bed before 03.00. The next Friday night tie will see Liverpool fans make roughly the same journey to support their team at Chelsea. Still, at least away fans can take solace from the fact that their efforts and attempts to bring some noise to otherwise quiet stadiums around the country are appreciated by those on high.
But enough about the dear leaders, there’s probably a thing or two to say about the football. Utd won well in their opening game against an obliging Bournemouth in game that saw Zlatan, Mata and Rooney all register goals. In addition, Luke Shaw resumed his residency at left back after the best part of a year out with injury. After a number of high-profile, high-quality additions to the squad and the chance of others, it’s been a good start to the season for them.
Things aren’t quite as steady at Southampton. As is traditional for them of late, they have seen a number of their established players head for pastures new during the summer transfer window. More worryingly given that said window has yet to shut, admiring glances and increased financial inducements are being thrown toward their captain, defensive lynchpin and Euro 2016 winning Jose Fonte. His maiden season in English football, new Saints manager Claude Puel already faces an uphill task and it’s only game week 2.
Even though they have seen a regular enough turnaround of managers in recent times, Southampton have managed to maintain and even improve upon their quality in successive campaigns. It remains to be seen whether the Frenchman can continue that tradition but even if he should, this match has probably come too early for him. Utd probably won’t be great but they should have enough to grab all three points. StanJames have that outcome priced at 1/2.
Saturday 20th August
12.30 Stoke v Manchester City
Stoke got off to a reasonable start in their campaign with a 1-1 draw away to newly promoted Middlesbrough. Their goal came courtesy of a beautiful free kick from the wonderfully mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri. No taller than your average 12 year old boy, he has the legs of a bucking bronco and if he can maintain a consistency of performance over the course of the season, Stoke will be massive beneficiaries.
City can consider themselves relatively fortunate to have come away with three points from their opening encounter with Sunderland as it required a late and unfortunate own goal courtesy of Paddy McNair to seal the tie in their favour. Since that match, they faced Steau Bucharest in a Champions League qualifying game and won away 5-0 with Sergio Aguero not only netting a hat trick but also missing two penalties. Two wins from two is a good start in any language.
Stoke manager, Mark Hughes, has joined the ranks of the facially hirsute and grown himself a beard. It’s a shame as it detracts from his simmering menace, leaving him look like a friendly Welsh wizard rather than a bellowing man of valley and mine. Still, given his history with Manchester City, this game holds a special zest for him, beard or not. He’s got a cast of some serious talent and will be looking to make a game of things.
Some of the BPL-focused press in England have been busy falling over themselves with excitement having glimpsed some of Pep Guardiola’s tactical innovations for the first time. Not that it was the first time for Pep as his tendency to push his full backs into centre midfield when in possession has been evident for a couple of years but if it hasn’t happened in England, sure it doesn’t count.
Although said tactical shifts are nothing new to Pep, they are to his players and neither Bacary Sagna nor Gael Clichy have had much experience of running play from central positions. Good players though they are, it will take some time to adjust to these radically different roles and Stoke will look to capitalize on their inexperience. Stoke are well capable of causing an upset at this point in the season and we’re sorely tempted to go for the home win but feel blinded by the bright City lights. To hell with it, we’ll go for a draw. BetVictor are offering 3/1 for that result.
17.30 Leicester v Arsenal
Last season’s top two take on each other in a titanic bout or at least that’s how they’ll probably sell it. Truth be told, the chances of Leicester repeating their heroics of last year are Planck slim but there’s every chance that they’ll give a good account of themselves. They looked ropey in their opening day loss to Hull, James Vardy in particular had a couple of terrible efforts that he would have finished without a seconds thought last year, but they have enough talent and belief to steady themselves.
The same cannot be said of Arsenal. Yes, they will at some stage go on a run of wins and all will look rosy in the garden. Arsene Wenger will be lauded for standing by his ideals and then the wheels will come off the good-time wagon in jig time and all will be anguish and gnashing of teeth. Arsenal have lost their opening game in four of the last six seasons and look to be locked into their hamster wheel of misery yet again. Same old failings, same old story, they look woefully off the pace already, even allowing for their shellacking at the hands of Liverpool last weekend.
This column has been on the go for three seasons now and can say without fear of contradiction that Arsenal and Arsene are as constant as the northern star. Feel free, intrepid reader, to trawl through previous posts and find a preview which relates to Arsenal and there is an excellent chance that it is just as applicable now as it was then. Imagine being an Arsenal fan and knowing that, regardless of weaknesses identified in the squad and the fact that rivals are strengthening, their manager and board are likely to do very little in the transfer market and thus leave themselves short in key position to the detriment of any realistic ambitions they have for the season. Outside of finishing in the top four, that is.
The Gunners are favourite to win this tie but not by much. Most of the problems that were evident in their loss to Liverpool remain unaddressed and, given Aaron Ramsey’s injury in that game, are now considerably worse. Strange to say but Leicester probably needed that unexpected loss to Hull. If require a good kick up the arse, better you get it at the start of the game. Look to Leicester to worsen Arsene’s woe’s with a home win. BetFred are offering 13/5 on that outcome.