Saturday 23rd January
15.00 Watford v Newcastle Utd
Regular readers of this column and listeners of the Season Ticket podcast will be well aware that your intrepid previewer has had next to no luck so far this calendar year with only one correct prediction from nine. There have, of course, been cruel misfortunes along the way (last week’s Chelsea v Everton match springs to mind) but sport has no memory or regard for anything outside of the result. That being the case, we’d be well advised to stick to the bankers but this column is steadfast in its refusal to bow to the obvious.
With that in mind, let’s back Newcastle! But why?!?! The shout rings loud from the gutters… Let’s first attempt to analyze Watford’s recent form. In short, it hasn’t been good. In fact, it’s been awful. Their last five matches have seen four losses and a win, ironically against Newcastle in the F.A. Cup. A 1-0 victory, it’s probably best not to look too deeply into that as Newcastle are notoriously of late in knock-out competition.
Prior to their recent run of misery, Watford had managed to work their way into the top ten by virtue of four wins on the bounce and a lethal finisher in the shape of Odion Ighalo (Troy Deeney is no slouch either) – only Lukaku and Vardy have been more prolific this season. Unfortunately for them, the goals have dried up just as the defense has started become more porous. Whether or not this necessitates a change in their 442 formation remains to be seen but when the front two aren’t scoring and the defense is creaking, bulking up the midfield at the expense of the forward line might be a reasonable ship steadier.
Newcastle are presently engaged in their own particular madness but, in their two previous games at least, have found a way of harnessing it for their own benefit. A helter skelter 3-3 draw with Man Utd last week kicked off this mini revival which grew with an impressive victory over a serious West Ham outfit. New signing, Jonjo Shelvey, started from the off and displayed the range of incisive passing from midfield which, if he keeps it up consistently, will make the £12 million invested in him seem like a shrewd bit of business.
Newcastle’s form away from home hasn’t been great but their last three losses have been by a single goal and with Watford struggling to score, a slightly resurgent defense led by Collocini should hold their own. Newcastle might also outnumber Watford in midfield and with Shelvey’s vast array of passes onboard, they have the tools to unpick Watford’s defensive lock. The bookies have the home side as favourites but to hell with them, Newcastle to win. BetVictor have that for 29/10.
13.30 Everton v Swansea
A tale of two cities where the home side are ostensibly bigger and better, waiting to engulf the smaller side on their arrival to town. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the bookies make Everton strong favourites here but let’s see if that’s founded on reputation or coal-face reality.
As has been noted here before, Everton currently have their best team in a long number of years. Lukaku is leading the scoring charts with Vardy, Stones and Barkeley are considered by many in the English press to be at the vanguard of a new, golden generation (the poor sods) and Martinez is considered to be positive, progressive coach, one who can develop and nurture young talents.
But for all this, they are still closer to the bottom three than they are to the top four in terms of points and in a league where the likes of Leicester, Spurs, West Ham, Stoke and Palace are all in the top ten, the manager does not have a limitless well of patience to draw from. In fact, if results don’t start to pick (they have lost points from winning positions than any other team), things could become heated for the manager long before the season ends.
Swansea picked up a valuable three points against Watford on Monday night, the game being won in front of their new coach, Francesco Guidolin. The Italian’s greatest managerial moment came when he guided Udinese to a 3rd place finish in Serie A and the Swans will be hoping that his experience and nous might be what is required to get them back on track. Curiously, he will be co-managing with interim boss, Alan Curtis. These situations don’t always work out (too many cocks in the hen house) but Curtis is likely there to act as a conduit with the players and a sounding board for the new boss.
Of course, a new manager does not always guarantee an immediate upswing in fortunes and there are problems in this Swansea team that will not be resolved overnight but they might avail of that famed new manager bounce. Certainly, the players will be doing their utmost to impress the new gaffer. Performances on the pitch will be especially important as it’s very possible that the new man doesn’t speak English to a competent degree so it’s all about walking the walk for the Swansea players.
Having watched Swansea recently, this column isn’t overly confident that they can score many goals but against a team as feckless as Everton, the likes of Ayew might shine. Whilst his positioning isn’t always what you’d like, his finishing, movement and mind might be enough to grab or set up a goal or two. Everton are generally a lock when it comes to scoring and you wouldn’t expect things to be any different on Sunday. This column is going to plump for a draw. A good point for Swansea but not so much for an Everton struggling to convince fans they’re more than just a fur coat with no knickers. MarathonBet have that result at 31/10.
16.00 Arsenal v Chelsea
Regardless of how well Arsenal were motoring in any given season, there was always a sense of trepidation when Chelsea rolled up to their door. It used to be that Mourinho had a hex over Wenger. Aside from victory in the Charity Shield last year, Wenger had never beaten a Mourinho team and, even when the Portugese boss had left Chelsea to spread his good vibes elsewhere, Arsenal still couldn’t buy a win against their London rivals. In fact, the last time the Gunners have beaten Chelsea in a competitive match was back in October 2011.
Are things different this time? The obvious answer is ‘yes’. Shorn of his malignant foe, Wenger can breathe freely and might even engage in some pre- and/or post-match pleasantries with new Chelsea manager, Gus Hiddink. Privately, though, given their respective journeys this season, the Frenchman might wish that his old adversary was still in situ so that he could stew in anger and bile as the Gunners soar and Chelsea still wallow, Still, should Arsenal win the league, Wenger might see fit to send Mourinho a postcard whilst on holidays, just to see how he’s getting on.
Chelsea confounded this critic with a 98th minute equalizing goal from an offside position against Everton last weekend. It’s taken a few days but the anger has passed. If they are to win this match, will it be through skill or fluke? Perhaps that’s being slightly unkind to them. Sure, the goal last week shouldn’t have stood but that they were fighting up until the very last moment, displaying a gritty resolve that was largely absent from their performances under Mourinho earlier this season.
They’ll need that fighting character if they are to move up the table. As it stands, they are a mere four points from the drop zone and for all that it looked as if they were beginning to slowly kick into gear, they still have just one win and four draws from their last five matches. This is not a good match for them in that regard. Win and they’ll be rightly pleased but Arsenal will be licking their lips to in anticipation of a boot-on-the-neck win and are correctly considered favourites. A lot of their players have suffered at the hands of Chelsea in the past and they just might reach the much ballyhooed 110% in their desire to put the Blues to the sword. The depth of animosity should be enough to stop them from ‘doing an Arsenal’. Most bookies (Bwin, for example) have the Gunners to win at 21/10.