Saturday December 12th
17.30 Bournemouth v Manchester United
Manchester United fans have of late taken to shouting “attack, attack!” whilst watching their team jealously guard possession in a manner a fiscal crab would very much approve of but it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for them in that regard. Although they are undeniably dull at the moment, the myth-making around the team is such that supporters seem to think that the football they played under Ferguson was never anything other than a cavalier non-stop barrage of devil-may-care attacking variety. Those who remember the latter years of Ferguson’s reign with any amount of clarity would happily correct them on that count.
The success of their defence has been their strongest defence, so to speak, against charges of ennui. But although they have been imperious at the back in the league, they shipped three in their Champions League defeat to Wolfsburg on Tuesday (a result that saw them drop to the Europa League) and lost Darmian and, more worryingly, Smalling to injury during the match. Without the latter manning the backline, one would worry for their defensive resolve but also for the manager.
Thus far, Van Gaal has been able to express a haughty exasperation with regard to the fans’ complaints about their pedestrian style of play; a cursory glance at their league standing allied with their defensive record has been enough evidence to show that the plan is working. However, if that previously airtight backline begins to become porous as a result of those injuries and they continue their frugal approach upfront, then Van Gaal might be headed for choppier waters as ‘modern’ supporters of giant football clubs aren’t renowned for their patience and prefer their football to mirror the computer games they play.
On Saturday, they travel away to a Bournemouth side that have managed to keep the faith, i.e. in the face of key injuries and some terrible luck, they have stayed true to the style which saw them top the Championship so handsomely last season. It’s a refreshing approach that was rewarded last weekend when they beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week, a result which leaves them just two points behind the reigning champions near the midway point of December. Unfortunately for them, with the season Chelsea are having, that stat isn’t quite as impressive as would be most seasons.
Their match-winner from last week is one Glenn Murray. He is very much in the mold of a poacher from yesteryear, not much to look at and doesn’t contribute a huge amount to the creative side of play but if you want someone to finish off half-chances and generally be a pain in the arse for opposing defenders, then Murray is yr man. Given that it seems unlikely that Smalling will start this game, Murray could have a grand old time for himself, assuming he plays.
Bournemouth are on a high, Utd not so much. With the usual proviso that the better team (that being Utd) generally come out on top in these encounters, it’s hard not to feel a sense of enthusiasm regarding a home win for the Cherries. A price of 13/5 from Totesport may make it worth your while.
15.00 West Ham v Stoke
After a bombastic start to the season, it’s all gone a little limp since November for West Ham. They are without a win since they put Chelsea to the sword in October. Granted, that’s not an exclusive club this season but let’s not forget that up until that point, they had also accounted for Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal, all away from home. Injuries to key players, notably to Payet, have certainly hindered their successful attacking play and they are without a win in their last five games.
They must now rearrange their style to cope with these losses. If this fixture had have been a couple of weeks, manager Bilic might not have been unduly worried as Stoke, although playing well, hadn’t been at all prolific in front of goal. Worryingly for him, though, a different kind of Stoke might be emerging from their shell. Last week’s demolition of Manchester City might not have been well reflected in the final score but they absolutely destroyed City in a style that, believe it or not, brought to mind the attacking play of Barcelona’s famed front three.
If that sounds like utter scutter to you, this column would respectively suggest you take a look back at the match or at least the highlights. Mark Hughes, against one of the top teams in the league, decided to unleash the beasts and a front three of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri did the most passable impression of Messi, Neymar and Suarez that the EPL has ever seen. It was Stoke alright but not as we know it. Stalwarts from Pulis’s reign were still there, marshaling the midfield and defence but the boys up front? Some seriously sexy play.
Now, of course, the big question is whether or not they can pick up where they left off last weekend. One gets the feeling that Hughes, now one of the longest serving managers in the league, has been working toward this point whereby his charges can mix silk and steel. The trick is to maintain those levels on a consistent basis. It goes without saying that managing to so is far from simple but the boost in confidence that the players must have felt after last week’s win would have been massive and they will go into this game knowing that they can win again. If you feel the same way, then Betfred is your man with a price of 12/5.
Sunday December 13th
16.00 Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion
This column, forgetting to remember, confidently predicted that Liverpool would triumph over Newcastle last week. At the time, it made absolute sense given the respective forms of both teams. How could Newcastle, an absolute clusterfuck of a team, stand any chance against a rampant Liverpool? A proviso was inserted to the effect that Liverpool, although the visiting team, would likely have to play like a home team as Newcastle were unlikely to too bold in their approach. That much was true but onr still thought that Liverpool would have enough about them to account for the Magpies.
But, and this is where this column forgot to remember, history shows us that few teams are as generous to struggling teams as Liverpool. Managers come and go but Liverpool’s bountiful munificence is an inherent part of their soul so last week’s outcome makes more sense by way of historical assessment than week-old hindsight. In effect, there was a touch of negligence on the part of this column and the bookies – mea culpa (can’t say the same for the bookies).
Will they be as considerate toward West Brom? Jurgen Klopp will certainly hope not but Tony Pulis will have his own ideas. His side managed to arrest a slide of two losses on the bounce by beating Arsenal (two shots, two goals – nice) and then securing two creditable draws against West Ham and Spurs. And for all the positive talk about Liverpool since Klopp took over, the Baggies have been quietly going about their business and sit just four points behind their hosts.
It’s a difficult game to assess because Liverpool haven’t been brilliant at home and looked rather leggy last week. With West Brom, we generally have an idea what we’re going to get – defensively solid throughout the team, a clear understanding of what is required of them and the ability to make the most of their chances. They’re more than happy to let the other team dominate possession which will pass the buck to Liverpool and it will be interesting to see if Klopp’s men can use the ball effectively over the 90 minutes against a deep-lying team.
West Brom’s defence hasn’t been hermetically-sealed of late, not having kept a clean sheet since October but having said that, they haven’t conceded more than one in a match in over a month. So it’s likely that Liverpool will score but with Martin Skrtel in defence, there’s also a decent chance that Liverpool might help them out courtesy of an own-goal. Liverpool are strong favourites here and most of the smart money should go on them winning but the price of 19/5 from Betvictor for a draw just about represents better value than the market for the win.