Wednesday 2nd March
19.45 Arsenal v Swansea
Although there are also five matches on the night previous, we have decided to concentrate on three from Wednesday and the first one up sees Swansea make the long track across Britain to visit the home of the league’s biggest bottlers, Arsenal. If that introduction was slightly convoluted it’s only because so many different thoughts and emotions are battling to explode from brain to typing finger.
This column has long maintained that any thoughts we’ve entertained regarding idealism or hope have long since been crushed beneath the cruel hooves of reality and yet we still, on occasion, would allow a little candle be lit for Arsenal. Well not anymore. Any pretense toward ‘considered objectivity’ will be replaced by a cold-eyed weariness borne of identical results from repeatable experiments. At a time when many fans bemoan that their team aren’t playing in a style that befits their ‘way’, the Gunners result against Utd surely is the very epitome of the Arsenal way.
It’s not an exaggeration to claim that Arsenal’s last pair of matches have been two of the biggest they’ve faced this season and pass with flying colours they did not. Whilst it might have been too much to expect them to prevail against the mighty Barcelona in the CL, old failings naturally contributed to their demise. Against Man Utd on Sunday, those old bugbears of mental and testicular fortitude were to the fore – the Gunners had the chance to maul a big team and bare their teeth at both Leicester and Spurs but instead they deigned it prudent to concede two quick-fire goals to an 18 year old whom few had heard of this time last week. In such moments are eternal truths revealed.
Swansea’s notions are of a far more immediate kind as they are still perched perilously close to the event horizon, beyond which there is no return. In more earthly prosaic terms, they are much better than all the teams below them and should be safe come the season’s end. Their loss away to Spurs at the weekend was unfortunate but realistically not one of the matches where they could reasonably expect a win. The fact that the result was 2-1 can be considered fortunate as Spurs absolutely hammered them, the home side taking 34 sots of which 14 were on target. Ex-Arsenal ‘keeper, Lukasz Fabianski, can take a lot of encouragement from his display in the loss.
Looking at Arsenal’s performances recently, it’s fair to say that their nerve is faltering. This is probably an excellent time to play them and Swansea’s coaching team and players will be well aware of that. Guidolin has been around the game long enough to recognize real opportunities when they present themselves. This column thinks a draw is most likely but the price for a Swansea win at 19/2 from MarathonBet is just too good to turn down.
20.00 Liverpool v Manchester City
An interesting tie insofar as these two teams squared up to each in the League Cup final on Sunday, a match that the Manchester club won on penalties. City manager Pellegrini was roundly pilloried for sending out ‘the kids’ in their FA Cup clash against Chelsea last week (they duly lost 5-1). His defense for doing so was that the two matches to follow were of much greater significance to the club, those being the first leg of the knock-out stage of the CL and the aforementioned final against Liverpool. Whether or not you agree that playing a full squad in the FA Cup would or should have tired out his senior players, the results in the last two matches speak for themselves and the Chilean can feel some degree of vindication.
Liverpool’s season continues along its weird and pot-holed path. Although they lost yesterday’s final to City, there might have been some crumbs of comfort from which to snatch some sustenance. The form of Lucas Leiva in the centre of defense has piqued this column’s interest. Over the years, the Brazilian has matured into an excellent and astute reader of the game from a defensive midfield position and transferred those skills to the centre back position which he has had to fill over the last two games. There’s a lot to be said for players who can drop back to defense without any loss of efficacy, Paul McGrath springs to mind (note: this column is not comparing Lucas to McGrath!).
Now, this is all very much a case of clutching at straws because Liverpool’s problems run wider and deeper than can adequately be addressed between now and the end of the season. Too many of their players entertain notions beyond their skill levels and play with all the intellectual clarity of a randy squirrel. There’s only so much a bespectacled German on the sidelines can do at the moment beyond instill the basic fundamentals of his philosophy which will be ruthlessly implanted come late summer’s pre-season sessions. One suspects those sessions will feature a host of different faces.
City, as noted above, can feel pleased with their recent achievements. They had been having a wobbly old time of things in the league recently but the cup win and excellent away result in the CL will surely imbue them with the confidence to hunt down a faltering Arsenal and what better way to do that than to beat Liverpool for the second time in a matter of days.
This column would like to think that Liverpool have a chance to grab a win with one of those rousing performances that they occasionally delight everyone with but there just doesn’t seem to be the smarts there to do so. The skills, certainly but not the nous. City, even if on an ‘up’, can still be calamitous and overly casual in approach. City should just shade it in terms of winning (you’ll be shocked to hear that the bookies think otherwise) but a draw doesn’t seem like an unreasonable result either. Most bookies, including Bet365, have that result at 12/5.
20.00 Manchester United v Watford
It would seem churlish to overlook Utd’s match this mid-week given their fortunes in the last two games. Firstly, they played the second leg of their Europa League knock-out game against Midtjylland with a 2-1 deficit and stormed out 5-1 winners (6-3 on agg.). Remarkably, two of those goals were scored by 18 year old debutant, Marcus Rashford. The young man was called up as a late starter due to Anthony Martial injuring himself during the warm-up. And possibly, a star was born. Needless hyperbola aside, he then went and scored two of Utd’s three in their weekend win over the Gunners. If he were to retire now, he would do so with the best goals-to-game ratio of all time.
It has been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Utd. Where little over a week ago all the talk was of present and future crisis, now the clouds have parted and all the gods of the sky are smiling down. It’s as if the ‘modern game’ is largely buoyed on shiny things and loud noise but no, that would be too cynical a consideration.
Funnily enough, taking form over the last five league games, Watford are ahead of Utd. They sit tenth in the league, 13 points above the drop zone and 10 points from CL places. It’s unlikely that they’ll reach either of those islands but their main concern would of course have been EPL survival so to be where they are at this point in the season must please all associated with the club. A cherry on that particular cake must be that they have a reasonable chance of going for a Europa League place, too.
If this preview had have been written a week ago, serious head scratching would have occurred in relation to whether Watford could get the win. Although there is some furrowing of the brow this week, certainly this column’s scalp has been spared the ravages of searching nails. Given the big bang of joy that has exploded as a result of performances in their last two wins, it is difficult to see Utd approaching this with anything other than buccaneering arrogance. That is not to say that Ighalo and Deeney aren’t capable of getting some joy from Utd’s slow and make-shift defense. However, in purely simple terms, the force is with Utd. They are heavy favourites with 7/10 from BetVictor the best price available.