Tuesday 2nd February
19.45 Arsenal v Southampton
They did it to us again. They made us believe that might actually have turned that long, decade-old corner and emerged as genuine contenders for the title in a year when many of their usual rivals can’t seem to be bothered. But Arsenal are always Arsenal; in the words of Julius Ceasar, they are as constant as the northern star.
Whereas the legendary Roman ruler was speaking in rather humbly bombastic terms about himself, when directed toward Arsene and his men, it is less glowing endorsement and more a weary, knowing shake of the head.
The Gunners sit joint second, three points behind current leaders Leicester. They are still very much in the mix. It has been pointed out, however, that Arsenal are currently performing at their usual level which is to say that the only thing that’s really special about them this year is that their title rivals are performing below par. True, they’ve had some good wins against said teams (not Chelsea, mind) but their great triumph this season is that they haven’t dropped in performance levels so when we celebrate them, we’re really tipping our hats to their consistency as opposed to a jump in their performance levels.
Southampton have been walking around with smiles on their faces recently. After a truly terrible run from November to early January (a run of W1 D1 L8), they have come out the other side and have enjoyed three wins on the bounce, scoring six and conceding none. And about time, too, as they were beginning to sink like a stone. Interestingly, their one win during that awful run was a 4-0 against Arsenal so they certainly won’t be unduly concerned to be meeting them again.
There is still a day left of the winter transfer window so it remains to be seen whether or not the likes of Shane Long or Saido Mane will move but one must suspect that they’ll be staying put. If that’s the case, the Saints should be able to build on their recent form and begin to stretch their legs toward a top seven finish.
Arsenal are now without a win in the league for just about a month and will be desperate to arrest their current slide, such as it is (two pints from their last three games). Southampton will be looking forward to applying a good deal of pressure to a team that still displays worrying signs of anxiety. It’s a bit of a coin toss but this column has a fancy for Southampton. It’s no surprise that Arsenal are just under evens for the win but if you fancy the visitors, check out MarathonBet for a rpice of 21/5.
19.45 Leicester V Liverpool
We’ve mentioned the story about the fella who, at the beginning of the season, got a price of a 1000/1 for Leicester to be table-toppers come Christmas. This column imagines that if one were to call a double of Leicester being on top in February and also thirteen points clear of a Liverpool side sitting in seventh, you could nearly name your price. But there it is, them’s the facts on the ground. Leicester are top and sitting pretty.
The Foxes have lost just twice this year and one of those losses came against tomorrow’s visitors, Liverpool, over Christmas. Two losses after 23 games is not to be sniffed at. Still, it might give a curiously aimless Liverpool side something to believe in. Liverpool are turning into a team that seem to be a magnet for dour draws, their 3-3 against Arsenal notwithstanding. It’s as if the players just aren’t very good.
Which is, of course, a ridiculously simplistic way of looking at things as they have some very fine players mixed with some solidly decent and a couple of car crashes for good measure. Which is to say, probably not too far above the mean quality for the league. What they do have in their favour is a world class manager in Jurgen Klopp.
The German knew full well that he wouldn’t be walking into a Disney scenario where his mere presence would elevate the players from plodding dwarves to kings of the swingers but he must feel some disappointment when looks at how much some of his underperforming players cost relative to what he spent on superior specimens in Germany. He also seems to be put out by the sheer volume of games that need to be played. Coming from the Bundesliga where they enjoy a 6 week winter break, he finds himself having to play 9 times in 29 days which allows little time for work on the training ground. As things stand, he can’t do much beyond patching them up and sending them out again.
Ranieri appears to be having a much better time of things. He has been in position since the start of the league and, contrary to what many suspected, has not tinkered with his team to any great degree. The most notable area in which he has, however, has been with the defense. Leicester experienced a ‘wobble’ from late December to early January where their record stood as W1 D3 L1 (one loss out of five is the type of wobble that most teams would be happy with) but during this period their defense tightened up remarkably especially when one considers their buccaneering approach prior to that (we’ll score more than you…). It’s arguable that this resolve could be, if not the making of them, then certainly the steeling of them as they continue along the path of the improbable dream.
Recent form certainly favours the league leaders here. Form regarding Liverpool shows that, over the last five games, they have a goal difference of minus 1 which, when taking into account their madcap 5-4 win over Norwich, suggests that the old defensive bugbear is still in effect. It’s difficult to imagine that the home side won’t score goals here and unfortunately for Liverpool, it’s easy to imagine them conceding through hapless defending, goalkeeping or likely both. Best price for a Leicester win is 17/10 from BetVictor.
19.45 Watford v Chelsea
News of John Terry leaving Chelsea this summer fills the papers this morning. This column must admit to being slightly confused by the apparent proceedings. Terry’s not the player he was but he’s far from being washed out. Its hard to imagine, for example, Terry suffering the precipitous loss of form that afflicted Rio Ferdinand when he left Man Utd for QPR. And furthermore, the Chelsea captain brings far more to the team than just defensive nous and experience. Like him or loathe him, he has a huge influence on the team and the players in terms of leadership, bravery and loyalty to the cause. You can spend big money on players but you can’t buy that bloody-minded devotion.
Chelsea, believe it or not, are doing quite well since the wicked witch of the west was crushed by a wooden house or something similar. Players are expressing themselves positively on the pitch, they look up for the fight and basically, they’re beginning to look like a team of good players, which they are. The famous form table has them sitting fourth over the last five games and it’s ten matches since they’ve suffered defeat in any competition. Things are looking up.
In their 5-1 thrashing of MK Dons in the FA Cup over the weekend, one little moment stood out. Apart from the Oscar hat-trick?, I hear you say. Whilst it’s true that the baby-faced Brazilian got to take the match ball home and there was also a goal for young Bertrand Traore from Burkina Faso (an unlikely occurrence if Mourinho still held the leash), it was the sight of the Costa and other Chelsea players insisting that Hazard should take the penalty which they were awarded.
Dead-eyed last season, the Belgian had missed a few this season and had been relieved of duties. Still without a goal in this campaign having scored nineteen in the previous one, his team mates realized the importance of the moment and the slightly sheepish Hazard dispatched it with his traditional nonchalance, eyes on the ‘keeper the whole time. If the floodgates crash open from here on in, this is the moment to point to.
In a move that makes this column well up with immense pride, the Watford brain trust clearly read this sites preview of their match against Everton from a couple of weeks back because, for the first time in a long time, they dispensed with the 442 which was beginning to creak and decided to add a little oomph to midfield by adopting a formation closer to 4312, just like we’d suggested. Now we’d prefer payment by way of notes but if they insist on a cheque, so be it. The flip side of that particular coin is that they went and made shit of our prediction by winning the game but we don’t hold any grudges here.
The Hornets sit in tenth, four points above Chelsea and eight points away from the notional safety line of forty points. One would suggest that 10 – 12 more points would secure their safety in the top division. Considering that they have just been promoted, brought in a huge amount of new, foreign players over the summer as well as a new manager, that would be an excellent return on investment. They don’t have an airtight defense ‘though they rarely get walloped when beaten but they do have a strike-force that is the envy of most. Score more than they concede and they’re laughing.
Will they be laughing come the end of this encounter? It’s hard to call but one suspects that they might, at least, be smiling. Interestingly, they haven’t drawn a match at home since September, since then it’s been six wins and five losses. However, this column won’t be surprised if this turns out to be a score draw. Yes, Chelsea are on the up and are beginning to once again feel comfortable in their skin but no defense out there is going to enjoy an afternoon of Ighalo and Deeney running down their throats. The best price for a draw comes from MarathonBet (again) who are offering 28/11 for that outcome.