15.00 Sunderland v Aston Villa
Regular readers will know that this column is not exactly a fan of new Villa boss Tim Sherwood but it can’t be denied that, for the first time since the very start of this season, Villa have managed to win two games on the trot and for this some credit must go to the manager.
The likes of tactics and cunning game plans are seemingly eschewed in favour of blood & thunder and an encouraging arm around the shoulder by the boss but, to paraphrase John Lennon, whatever gets you through the fight, it’s alright. And so the Villans take a trip up north to the home of one of the worst teams in the league, Sunderland.
The Black Cats have managed a measly two home wins in the league all season and manager Gus Poyet, with his unfortunate penchant for face-saving blame-shifting, is fast losing support among the fans and, one would suspect, the management and players. They sit one point ahead of Villa in 16th but have secured just one league win since December. Their form is truly dire and unless they can pull a rabbit out of a thimble, they will struggle to stay up this season.
Villa, on the other hand, should be safe as they reap the benefits of the new-manager-bounce but also because they are better than the teams below them and possibly one or two of those above them. Betvictor is offering very generous odds of 5/2 for the Villa win.
Sunday 15th March
13.30 Chelsea v Southampton
Coming fresh off the back of a home defeat and Champions League exit at the hands of 10 man PSG, what state will the Chelsea players be in this weekend? All they have left to play for now is the league, which in truth they really should have wrapped up. Five points ahead of a stuttering Manchester City with a game in hand, it is nearly inconceivable that Mourinho and his charges will let this one slip. Inconceivable but not impossible, however. The defeat to PSG will surely have hit them like a body blow from an enraged Kangaroo.
With everything set up as Mourinho likes it (an away goal going into the second leg with home advantage, massive pressure on the referee pre-game, willing acolytes of low-rent behaviour on the pitch, playing against 10 men for the majority of the match), it was shocking to see them take the lead late in the game and still lose the tie through some uncharacteristic defensive errors, although such mistakes allowed neutrals and PSG fans alike revel in two outstanding headed goals from the Parisians.
Under Mourinho, Chelsea’s home record from the beginning of the season was nearly immaculate (W14 D1). However, since the home defeat to Bradford in the third week of January (FA Cup), their Stamford Bridge form has noticeably dipped (W3 D4 L2). In addition (or perhaps as a result of), the contribution of both Costa and Fabregas in terms of goals and assists respectively has dried up markedly and so too have the team performances.
This is not the well-oiled killing machine that earlier stalked the league. Fortunately for them, they probably did enough in the first half of the season to secure the league this year. On Sunday they face a Southampton team who have also fallen off the pace in recent times, albeit they did win their last league game by putting a high-flying Palace to the sword. In Southampton’s favour, they have an excellent away record in recent games (W5 L1 in all competitions) and also possess the meanest defence in the league this year (having conceded two less than Chelsea) but they are having problems when it comes to scoring goals, an important feature in football as it happens. The price of 4/7 being widely touted for a Chelsea win seems a bit short when far better value can be had by sniffing around the draw which is being offered at 10/3 by Betfred.
16.00 Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur
As Roots Manuva once sagely observed at the beginning of Witness the Fitness – Well, Well, Well. Whilst indisputable facts show Utd sitting 4th in the league, observers with operable eyes see something very different. They see a team that is struggling to function to any coherent degree, relying on ‘keeper David de Gea and striker (not midfielder) Wayne Rooney to keep their chestnuts out of the fire on a fairly regular basis. In fact, such has been his form over the past two, troubled seasons, that most reasonable Utd fans would probably happily marry their daughter off to de Gea due to his reliability and unflappable nature (being incredibly wealthy and being able to provide tickets on a regular basis would probably also help in that decision). If one were to swap de Gea for, say, Liverpool’s Mignolet, there can be little doubt that Utd would not be in the top 4.
However, a Utd player he is but so are many others who would ordinarily fit into the bracket of ‘world class’ and yet are playing abysmally for the team. It is not unusual for players to suffer a dip in form or for some to take a while to adjust to a new league but neither of these reasons seem to fully explain the miserable performances of Di Maria or Falcao (when he gets a game) recently. Spending a huge wedge of cash on players doesn’t always guarantee success, of course, but it is not unreasonable to expect better from both. So what is it that seems to be affecting them (and others) so adversely?
The finger of blame from fans and foes alike seems to be pointing at manager Louis Van Gaal and his ‘philosophy’. This philosophy doesn’t seem to be at all cogent, swinging as it does between markedly different formations with little in the respective play to tie the differences together. Apart from a strict adherence to seemingly aimless passing back and forth across the park, that is. And if that is the philosophy, then a) surely such slow build-up play would suit their most creative, forward player, Juan Mata, but he is busy having his bum warmed by the plush substitute seats on a very regular basis and b) this surely doesn’t play to the strengths of explosive players like Di Maria. Well, well, well… Whatever the truth, someone is doing something wrong somewhere.
Having picked themselves up off the floor after their home defeat to Arsenal on Monday, Utd now have to stand up to the speed and energy of a Spurs team who visit Old trafford on the back of two wins. Their manager has now doubt impressed upon them the need to be patient when Utd have the ball but to be aware of the chances that the Utd defence will undoubtedly toss their way like a child with bread at a duck pond and to tear at them with pace and purpose.
If there’s one thing Utd still possess to some degree it’s their nauseating luck, as evidenced by their 89th minute winner against Newcastle in their last league outing; the much derided Ashley Young scored that, his first in well over a year. This time, however, their luck may not hold out as Spurs are the acknowledged masters of the late, winning goal this season and this column sees no real fear in popping a couple of quid on them winning this one. Boylesports are one of handful offering 10/3 for a Spurs win.