Saturday 9th April
15.00 Watford v Everton
This is probably not the most glamorous of ties with which to begin our weekend preview but the pig isn’t exactly a pretty looking animal and yet bacon is widely eaten. Indeed… Neither of these teams are likely to bother anyone at the top or bottom of the table but realistically only Watford should be happy with that situation. They are ten points clear of the drop zone and, even though their form since the turn of the year has been largely awful, their position in the EPL has surely been secured for another season. Everton, just one point ahead of Watford, are a different kettle of fish entirely.
During the week, veteran Everton full back, Leighton Baines, voiced his thoughts in a manner which would keep PR plods awake and sweating at night by announcing that the chemistry between the players wasn’t what it should be, that something was missing. Anyone who watched Everton last weekend would surely have to doff their cap to such an honest assessment on the part of the player. This is arguably the best crop of players that Everton have had in many a year and it is not stretching things to say that it looks like they’ve pissed their potential away. Come the end of the season, there won’t even be the comforting cat lick of the Europa League to dangle as a damaged treat in front of disaffected players and fans. There may, however, be a big envelope with ‘Marching Orders’ written on it sitting atop the manager’s desk.
Watford must be thanking their lucky stars that they had such an impressive first half of the season. Without it, they would be in serious trouble as their form of late has been relentlessly shit; to put it another way, said form over the last five games has been second to one – Villa. The factor most in their favour is the ten point safety cushion noted above. It’s conceivable they could continue on their poor run and still avoid relegation worries given the dearth of hope and talent in many of the teams below them. One man’s life ring is another man’s life.
If this column were to put itself in the mind-shoes of an Everton fan and explore the colours this fan associates with the range of emotions experienced during the course of the season, we venture to assume that there’s a large amount of raging red tinged with the faint but constant background of heartbreak blue. It’s been a long time since the blue half of Liverpool have had such an array of talent. Coupled with the fact that new owners might be able to inject a whole heap more cash, it is arguable that these should be heady times for the club. And yet, they are not. What they are is 21 points above last place and 31 points below first – further from heaven than hell.
Baines’ somber midweek appraisal didn’t come across as a pointed rallying cry for the troops, more a despondent concession to inarguable reality. The question is, can Everton muster a performance that is commensurate with the talents at their disposal? If so, it would be three points in the bag but that has not been the story of their season. Given the prices available, this column suggests you consider any outcome excluding an Everton win. Most bookies are giving Watford the best part of 3/1 for a home win but we’re leaning more toward the draw with StanJames one of many offering 12/5 on that outcome.
17.30 Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion
Believe it or not, even taking into account their 4-0 whacking of Bournemouth last weekend, City’s form over the last five games sees them a point worse off than their visitors this weekend, West Brom. During their midweek CL game away to PSG, City somehow managed to extract a 2-2 draw after a largely poor performance which also featured some slapdash defending of the highest order on their part. And yet they sit in 4th place in the league, slight favourites to take the last CL qualifying place for next season. As much as Leicester’s run speaks of the fantastical, City’s position reflects the uncomfortable truth regarding the overall quality of the league.
City should feel buoyed by the earlier than expected return of Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian playmaker knits their attack together in a manner that Raheem Sterling has yet to do. In tandem with Aguero and Silva, de Bruyne is a force to be reckoned with and City benefit to a huge degree when he is on the pitch. All things being equal, that trio is arguably the best in the league and City should find themselves atop the table by virtue of their combined talents but this is obviously not the case. So what, then, is the problem?
The lazy charge is that this is a team of mercenaries and whilst there are elements of truth in that claim, it is redundant if we are looking to build a fuller picture. There are, of course, many facets to their current travails but it is hard to overlook the effect that Guardiola’s announcement regarding his impending arrival there has had. Many players (Yaya Toure being the most obvious example given his history with the Spanish manager) will be acutely aware that their place of employment next season will not be where they are currently ensconced.
If you have a few minutes to spare, take a look at the City squad with a cold, critical eye and ask yourself how many of those players will be there in a years time, how many players will Guardiola want to keep. This column is not often given to optimism so you’ll have to take that into account when assessing our take on the situation but it’s our contention that outside of Aguero, Silva, Sterling, de Bruyne, Iheanacho, Kompany and maybe Joe Hart, not many of the current City players should feel too secure in their tenure there.
These issues might be termed as ‘first world problems’ when compared to West Brom and their fortunes. The Baggies boss, Tony Pulis, has done exactly as his paymasters had expected and has secured EPL survival for another season. His cobbled together team of functionaries and journey men along with his penchant for playing four centre backs across the back line has ensured that few West Brom fans will regale their grandchildren with tales of this season. The fact that only one team (Villa) has scored fewer goals this season tells you everything you need know in that regard.
So, even taking into account the comedians currently plying their trade as defenders for City, West Brom are unlikely to offer much of a goal-scoring threat going forward, should they ever do so. Pulis would be delighted to come away from Manchester with a hard-earned draw but even allowing for relatively poor form, midweek CL football and some of the quasi-existential issues surrounding some of their players, City should win this match. The bookies think so too and have priced that result accordingly with BetFred offering 4/11 on that outcome.
Sunday 10th April
16.00 Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United
What a time for Spurs to have a marked dip in form. The London club has been only slightly less remarkable than Leicester this season. Second in the league with most goals scored and least goals conceded, a host of young and exciting players coming through, regardless of what happens between now and its conclusion, this had been an outstanding season for Spurs. And yet, there is still some rom for regret as, over the course of the last five games, Spurs have dropped seven points. Leicester have dropped just two over the same period. Game, set and match?
United, on the other hand, have seemingly had an unmitigated disaster of a season and yet they have dropped only three points in their last five games and are just a single point behind Man City in the race for the last CL place. It’s plain weird but it is what is. Van Gaal’s trust in youth/a slew of injuries to players have seen youth given its head and the attacking trio of Martial, Rashford and Lingaard have impressed of late. So too has Daley Blind in the centre of defense. But aren’t we continuously being told that Utd under van Gaal’s direction have become a basket case, a team with no ideas or hopes for the future? Don’t get us wrong, some of Utd’s football has been utterly turgid this season but we’d warrant that every club beneath them would love to swap positions with this ‘crisis-ridden’ team.
A few weeks ago, this column would have thought about the result of this match for no longer than five seconds before confidently pronouncing that Spurs would win but we’re not sure today. Sure, Spurs are favourites and are the better team from back to front but their form suggests that fatigue has entered the legs and heads. Maybe deep down they feel that the seven point gap between them and Leicester in first place is insurmountable. Whatever it is, Spurs at the present time are not the club they were just a few short weeks ago whereas Utd are playing with a lot more confidence. This confidence is probably not enough to see them win here but a draw seems likely enough. The best price for this is 51/19 and can be found at MarathonBet.