Saturday 24th September
12.30 Manchester United v Leicester
This is a quite a match to begin the weekend’s programme. The much ballyhooed union of Utd and Jose Mourinho set to welcome the reigning champions, Leicester City, to Old Trafford.
For those of you who live in a cave with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, depending on your point of view, Utd are either suffering a early season slump or are in a terminal spiral downwards. The former statement is at least factually accurate but there is also something to the latter contention, hyperbolic though it is.
The last days of Rome?
Last week, this column plumped for a Utd loss to Watford. In addition to Watford’s form coming into the match, this punt was largely based upon the signs. The signs? What the hell does that mean?! Simply put, this column is of the opinion that Jose Mourinho is not the manager that he once was. In years gone by, his low-rent, classless attitude maverick mind-games were closely allied with excellent coaching and man-management.
Whilst he’s still capable of sound bites and flashes of bruised ego, the signs of a world-class coach are largely absent. It’s too early to say that he can’t right himself but judging by his demeanor over the last year or so, Utd fans shouldn’t be holding their breath.
Foxes on the prowl
Leicester, by contrast, seem to be in a more content place. Granted, they lost in a midweek League Cup tie to Chelsea 2-4 (Chelsea’s wining goals coming in extra-time when the Foxes were down to ten men) but they had solid win against Burnley last weekend, a result which followed on from an impressive away win in the CL. In the interests of transparency, this column had backed them to lose that match against Burnley but the post-CL dip in form that we expected never transpired. New signings have been given a run out and the team appears to be gelling well.
As the home side, the onus will be on Utd to press and attack. If we learned nothing else from last season, it’s that this is exactly what a buoyant Leicester will want. Mourinho is likely to persevere with Fellaini in the defensive midfield position, even though he has at least two players who are better in that position. If he continues his quest to imbalance the team through poor selections and tactics, Leicester will take advantage.
The market has Utd as odds on favourites, which seems a tad strange given their form but in fairness, they’re generally not wrong. However, on this occasion, this column reckons it’s a nonsense and will back Leicester to win. The best price around at the moment for the away win is 19/4 from BetVictor. Give it some consideration.
15.00 Sunderland v Crystal Palace
It’s so early in the season that we feel quite stupid saying this but, as things stand, this could be the season that sees Sunderland finally lose their dance with the drop. Results and performances have been dire for Moyes’ men and it is very hard to see any area of the team which will improve sufficiently enough to keep them afloat come the end of the season.
Doom and gloom
David Moyes doesn’t seem to be the sort of manager that engenders positivity in the fans. His post-Everton reputation has suffered significantly as a result of his time at post-Ferguson Man Utd.
The praise he got for plying his trade abroad in Spain wasn’t enough for him to make a success of things there, either. A largely unsuccessful transfer window saw Moyes gloomily predict that this season would be a struggle. In fairness, results so far have proven him correct.
And on to Crystal Palace. After opening their season in much the same way as they had ended the last (which is to say losing), they have steadied themselves and are now on the back of two impressive league wins.
Their 4-1 win against Stoke last weekend saw them attacking with all the glee of a pile of wasps around a spilt bottle of coke. They buzzed around and irritated the defense of Stoke all match long and seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. Such confidence will hardly desert them on their trip up north.
Much maligned and oft ridiculed, Alan Pardew is nothing else if not a streaky manager. The second half of last season saw Palace go on a woeful run of form which would have seen them relegated were it not for an excellent first half to the season. Fans of his previous clubs will say the same things about him – he goes from the glorious to the god awful on a fairly regular basis. However, with two good wins under the belt, the good times look like they’re back.
Given the state of Sunderland’s defense and the deficiencies throughout the team, it is difficult to imagine them dealing with the threats posed by Townsend, Zaha, Benteke et al whilst simultaneously offering a threat of their own up front. By way of example, Sunderland’s defeat to Spurs last weekend saw their lone front man, Jermaine Defoe, touch the ball just four times in the Spurs’s half in the second half of the match. We just can’t see anything other than another Sunderland loss. Palace to win, so. Best price there is 8/5 from BetFred.
17.30 Arsenal v Chelsea
A big London derby for you all to sink your teeth into. This particular tie may lack the animus of previous fixtures between the two due to the absence of one Jose Mourinho. In his stead at Chelsea is Antonio Conte, an Italian strategist and tactician that, thus far, has kept clear of controversy. Unless, of course, one counts their loss last weekend at home to Liverpool.
By some accounts, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich wasn’t best pleased with that result but talk of uncertainty regarding the Italian’s role is surely just that – talk, and tabloid talk at that. Their midweek week League Cup win over Leicester should calm any nerves.
After their obligatory poor start to the season and less than inspiring transfer dealings, Arsenal find themselves level with Chelsea on 10 points in 4th place. They are five points behind leaders, Man City, but it is not a bad start, all things considered. They had a good midweek win in the League Cup with Granit Xhaka once again scoring a thunderbolt from outside the box with his left boot-cum-cannon. Confidence, so often ephemeral and fleeting, is presently high with the Gunners.
Chelsea, with or without Mourinho, have something of a hex over Arsenal. It is now five years since the Gunners managed a league win over the visitors. Are things radically different this time? Managerial changes aside, it is clear that there are differences, specifically in how the team is set up.
Without going into too much detail, Conte is a very different animal to Mourinho and his players are reacting favourably to the changes he has wrought. However much change is afoot, Conte will look to maintain Chelsea’s traditionally positive results against their London rivals.
Out of all the previews, this is the most difficult to call. Although this column rates Conte more highly as a manager than it does Mourinho, whatever the Portuguese did against Arsenal and Wenger, it generally seemed to work. Without his malodorous presence on the sideline, might Arsene and Arsenal feel free to weave their pleasing patterns in much the same way that Liverpool did last week? Or will Conte just figure out a new way to visit the same old pain?
This column is inclined to think Chelsea might, just might, edge it but previous results in this fixture might well be colouring that notion. As luck would have it, the longest price available is for the draw and that is not an unreasonable result to expect. So for all you fence sitters, 888Sport amongst others are offering 5/2 for honours even.