Monday 28th December
17.30 Arsenal v Bournemouth
It probably doesn’t need pointing out but confidence in this Arsenal team should always be accompanied by a health warning. With their match against Southampton on Saturday being late in the day, they would have been well aware that Leicester had been beaten by Liverpool thereby leaving the route open for them to snatch first place from the Foxes but alas, they did an ‘Arsenal’ and got walloped 4-0 by the Saints.
Southampton had been on a dreadful run, amounting to five losses and a draw from their last six matches and came into this fixture as wobbly as Christmas trifle. Few gave them much of a chance but they came bearing gifts and dispatched a hapless and well-shackled Arsenal. The lunacy of this league continues to amaze.
Can Bournemouth hope to do something to similar tomorrow? The obvious answer would be no, probably not. Eddie Howe has his side set up to be positive and adventurous when in possession and he will back his player’s abilities in that regard. That’s not too say they’ll play like headless chickens and give Arsenal the chance to play the game on their terms. Out of possession, they will harry intelligently and seek to unsettle playmaker extraordinaire, Ozil, whenever he picks the ball up in forward positions, hoping to push him back down the pitch where his threat will be less pronounced.
The question that constantly accompanies such Arsenal set backs is whether or not they have the mettle to respond in a manner befitting of their ‘big club’ status and, specific to this case, their title ambitions. There is some reason to think that this Arsenal team might be different to previous incarnations in that regard.
They played the final game in their Champions League qualifying group in November, a game they had to win by a least two goals in order to qualify in second place. Their preceding league game was three days earlier and they were beaten, in a very ‘Arsenal’ manner. Many worried that they’d be mentally weak going into their tie with Dinamo Zagreb but they put in a remarkable assured performance and won 3-0.
That being said, they are still having to deal with the effect of injuries to a slew of senior players and with five games played already this month, some of those on the pitch might be nearing the red zone.
If nothing else, this match should be entertaining as both teams are committed to playing football in the proper way, whatever that means. It’s seven games since Bournemouth have been beaten but this might just be a step too far away from home. Arsenal are obviously favourites but the best price for a Gunners win is 7/15 from BetBright but that seems a bit stingey. The adventurous among you might prefer a Bournemouth win from William Hill at 15/2.
17.30 Manchester United v Chelsea
Ladies and gentlemen, we got ourselves one hell of a fight. The two loudest car crashes of the season face off in this battle of big money gone wrong. We’ll start with Utd as they are currently the funnier of the two. Their defeat on Saturday to Stoke came on the back of a defeat to Norwich which came on the back of a defeat to Bournemouth which… Van Gaal is reported to have said, when asked whether or not he thought he faced the sack, that he could quit all by himself. Defiant? Yes. Indicative of a happy club? No.
As has been noted on these pages recently, Utd’s defence is now more closely mirroring the play of the rest of the team, which is to say they’ve been pretty bloody awful. They’ve conceded nine goals in their last four games, the same amount they conceded in the sixteen games leading up to this current losing run. Systems are breaking down all over the pitch which is terrible news for the manager as he is nothing if not a systems man.
Chelsea, by contrast, are looking peachy given that they haven’t lost for two games and have recently rid themselves their main problem, ex-manger Jose Mourinho. They’ve also scored five goals in their last two games which is notable considering how miserly they’ve been on that front this season. A new manager is at the helm, albeit in a Rafa-role/interim basis and, as is wont to happen when an oppressive regime has been cleared, the team plays as though a great weight has been lifted.
Chelsea will be licking their lips coming into this game and one would suspect that Utd might still be licking their wounds. Of the two, it’s hardest to imagine Utd raising their game to the level necessary to win. Chelsea, for all their new broom bounce, are still in the realm of the shambolic and would be relatively easy picking for the better teams but luckily for them, they get to face a Utd team in existential decline. Chelsea have what it takes to win here, if not by much. Bet365 have that outcome at 21/10.
Tuesday 29th December
19.45 Leicester v Manchester City
Where did that come from, a Leicester loss?! Weird as it seems to those so used to seeing them win, on Saturday they were beaten by a plucky Liverpool team. However, it being the season for goodwill, the Foxes got a surprise gift from a very generous Arsenal, who declined to usurp them at the top of the table so top they remain. Huzzah!
The worrying part of the performance against Liverpool was how generally tired some of their key players seemed. Ranieri mentioned afterwards that both Mahrez and Vardy were short of match fitness coming into this game and it showed. Given the congested nature of the fixture list at this time of year, one suspects that two days might not be enough time for his main men to reach peak level yet.
City have had a very inconsistent season thus far, neatly encapsulated by the fact that they’ve lost more games than 10th placed West Ham but, in their favour, no team has fewer draws and only the top two have as many wins as them. On Saturday, they blitzed Sunderland in the first half and ran out 4-1 winners. However, given the respective talents of both teams, that’s the least you should expect.
Arsenal comprehensively outplayed them last week by ceding possession and using devastating counterattacks when in possession. This is a style which Leicester are well-accustomed to. The Foxes have some of the lowest possession and pass completed statistics in the league but judging on their success this season, possession might not be all it’s cracked out to be.
It’s unlikely that City, even as visiting team, will look to sit deep and so Leicester can look forward to taking on a team that often looks calamitous when they lose possession high up against a team that’s deadly on the break: in other words, just what the doctor ordered.
Two weeks ago, this tie would be perfect for the home team and this column would be confident enough to give them the win. The twist, though, is the form and/or fitness of Vardy and Mahrez. If those two can play as they have been playing, it should be a Leicester win. If, however, they play as they played yesterday, one would suspect that it’s City’s to lose. For all their brilliance, Leicester are probably due a relatively heavy loss and City are one of the few teams who dispense that, if on form. The price of better than 3/1 for a Leicester win is excellent but City might just have this. City to win from BetFred at 10/11.