Saturday 30th April
15.00 Stoke City v Sunderland
Should regular watchers of the BPL be asked to compile a ‘top ten’ in terms of quality matches this season, it’s arguable that Stoke would be added to that list as their match against Manchester City way back in early December (which they won 2-0) was a proper humdinger. Their attacking triumvirate of Bojan, Arnautovic and Shaqiri ran City ragged and it looks as if Stoke had announced themselves to the league as a team that could trouble anyone.
Fast forward to the end of April and Stoke, safely ensconced in the top ten (well, 10th), have manifestly revealed a truer gauge of their current incarnation by virtue of losing their last three matches on the bounce to an aggregate score line of 12 – 1. Ouch, kiss it where it hurts. If they want to be taken as seriously as they should be, relative to the quality of players on their roster, this kind of dismal run cannot be repeated next season.
Sunderland, with their near traditional late surge for survival, would give their right arm to be able to play as abysmally as Stoke have been once they were assured that could do so in the premier league. And they’ve made the best possible fist of things lately. They now sit level on points with 18th placed Norwich (crucially, with superior goal difference) and are point ahead of old rivals, Newcastle, who have played a game more. Their destiny or doom is in their own hands.
In contrast to Stoke, Sunderland are in full fight mode. They took a point from their encounter with Arsenal last week and couldn’t have been adjudged flukey if they’d managed to take all three. Stoke, to use the tired and oft-repeated analogy that’s bandies about at this time of year, are in holiday mode. With nothing to play for in the league, some will be fretting over fitness with the Euros around the corner whilst others want to enjoy their Dubai holiday (why always there?!) without the use of crutches.
This is one of those ties where you might make a bit of decent money. Stoke are dire at the moment and have barely got the will to live whereas Sunderland will be fighting with all the strength of a drowning man. The bookies have Stoke as slight favourites but the 19/1o from WilliamHill for a Sunderland win is well worth the look.
Sunday 1st May
13.30 Manchester United v Leicester City
There’s been an awful lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about the future of Louis Van Gaal as manager of Manchester United. The Dutch man’s ego must be pleased at the amount of confusion and head scratching going on amongst fans and pundits with regard to how they should appraise his season – has it been a success or has it been a failure? Both the prosecution and the defense can make a compelling case in their favour but the fact remain that, should Utd win the FA Cup next month and manage to sneak a top four finish, no-one will be able to tell Van Gaal that his time there hasn’t been a triumph.
With all that said, it must be disconcerting for the many entitled Utd fans around the world to be hosting lowly Leicester as they seek to claim their maiden premier league title this Saturday afternoon in Old Trafford. Spurs’ shock draw to West Brom on Monday night means that the Foxes need only win this game to hailed as champions for 2015/2016.
Uts, as we’ve seen all season, love to dominate position. On the flip side, Leicester eschew it. In other words, whether they want to or not, Utd are likely to play right into Leicester’s hands. The Foxes may be without the totemic Jamie Vardy but the manner in which they destroyed Swansea suggests that there might be plenty of goals elsewhere in this team.
With only two losses in their last ten games across all competitions, Utd are surely performing with some degree of efficiency if not pleasing style and, if there is any of the famed Ferguson DNA left in the psyche of this team, then this a match they should relish. To be the footnote to Leicester’s most famous victory would be an awful blow to their ‘prestige’. It might surprise you to learn that Utd are relatively heavy favourites here with most bookies offering 11/10 for a home win but if you think the romance of Leicester might trump reason, hit up BetFred for a Foxes win 5/2.
16.00 Southampton v Manchester City
One of the more interesting matches this weekend, the Saints host a City team that’s very much betwixt and between. They drew the first leg of their CL semi-final with Real Madrid 0 – 0 and are an away goal or two from the CL final. With that in mind and CL qualification for next season likely ensured at this point, is it worth their while risking injury to key players such as Aguero or de Bruyne this weekend?
This column would suggest not. Manuel Pellegrini has only a handful of possible matches left in charge of this City team and you would imagine that he would prefer to see that his legacy hinges on a successful CL than a fairly anonymous top four finish. It’s not a stretch to think that many of his players feel the same. Sure, CL for next season is a positive but it’s also the least that should be expected of such an expensively assembled squad. Their glory, both collective and personal, is now intrinsically wrapped up in the outcome of next week’s second leg and surely that is where most of their concentration will be focused.
Enter Southampton. At worst, the Saints have secured an 8th placed finish but a good run coupled with some poor results for the teams above them might still see them grab a place in next seasons UEFA League. Whether they want a season of Thursday night matches is a question this column can’t answer but regardless of what happens, this has been another successful season for them. They are on a good run of form and will confident that their opponents might be caught cold.
The Saints can hurt teams from a variety of positions and they are not overly reliant on just one player for their goals. Ronald Koeman has them playing with purpose and confidence and they are generally one of the better teams to watch in the league. They are tactically astute and rarely are outplayed or made fools of, if a formation isn’t working then they can quickly shift without a discernible loss of positional understanding and such flexibility is highly advantageous. If they can hold on to their better players this summer (something they haven’t managed in recent years) and get in or two more quality additions, they will finish higher again next season.
On the whole, this column doesn’t see City winning this match which, in our estimation, indicates a draw or home win. We’ve very fond of draws around this area but we’ll go and plump for a Southampton win, mainly for the reasons outlined above. City are only slight favourites to get the win here but Bet365 are offering a tempting 5/2 for a Saints win. It could be worth your while.