Saturday 24th October
15.00 West Ham v Chelsea
Two London tribes go to war as 4th place West Ham play host to 12th place Chelsea. One wonders for how long the distance between the teams remains as pronounced. As the table notes, West Ham have had an excellent start to the season. Since winning an average of four away games each season under the guidance of former manager Sam Allardyce, the first ten games of Slavin Bilic’s reign have already matched that amount with barely credible away wins at Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Crystal Palace, respectively.
Their home form, however, hasn’t kept pace with one win, one draw and two losses letting them down somewhat. Having said that, they are only two points off Arsenal and Man Utd, both tied for second place. If they can replicate their away form at home, it’s not outlandish to expect them to remain in the upper echelons for some time yet. The trouble, it seems, is that this team is especially good at soaking pressure and hitting hard on the break; that is, textbook away side performances and it is not always possible to do the same at home as the visiting side will generally be the more passive one. If Bilic can educate his players to sit on and control their home games for ninety minutes and marry that with their spectacularly effective away form, they could well be challenging for some European places come the end of the season.
On the other hand, Chelsea have really struggled for any kind of consistency, home and away. Although recent signs of stability can be argued for (very tentatively, it must be said), it is now Week 10 and they have a goal difference of -3 and have more losses than wins. Mourinho’s whinges and conspiratorial flights of fancy have been widely reported largely because the man has a lot of trouble keeping his thoughts to himself. His efforts would be best served in trying to remedy his teams performances instead bemoaning every perceived slight.
A glance at Mourinho’s managerial record will quickly show that the man is a serial winner, with major trophies secured at every one of his clubs since his time at Porto but by his own admission, this season has been the toughest of his career. To be honest, the main stumbling block presently seems to be the man himself and his need to attack all perceived enemies and slights. If he can get past the silly little games in his head, there’s little doubt that he has the ability to steer his team of excellent players to a top four finish. But they’ve got to get it together soon.
Is this West Ham team likely to be the good Samaritan, the footstool which Chelsea need to begin their ascent? Unlikely. The Hammer’s are full of confidence at the moment and will relish the thought of beating another top team. Chelsea should have enough wit about them, however, to avoid defeat. The price for a draw looks tempting enough in this light and Betfred are offering 14/5 for that result.
17.30 Arsenal v Everton
This column spends enough time bemoaning the infinity loop of Arsene Wenger’s stubbornness with regard to nearly every aspect of Arsenal FC, be it the transfer market, the blind loyalty to sub-par players, the tendency to approach every differing puzzle with the same approach even when the approach is clearly not working, the bunch of clowns masquerading as his medical team etc so it is only fair to acknowledge when he and his team get it wonderfully right.
Arsenal, on their day, are a match for any team in Europe as has been evidenced in recent matches. Week 8 of the season saw them eviscerate Manchester Utd with some astonishing football which Utd were powerless to stem. The week after saw them win 0-3 at Watford but this was merely a prelude to their crowning glory, a 2-0 win against Bayern Munich which not only served to keep their Champions League hopes alive but also showed that Arsene can be flexible in how he sets his team up. Everyone and their dog knows that a Guardiola team are going to own possession for most of the match and that a gung-ho approach to counter this is not going cut the mustard. But one could not assume that Wenger would see things the same way. Mid-week, he set his team up control the space around the penalty area/parked the bus and availed of the speed and vision of Walcott, Sanchez and Ozil to harry the German club on the break. It was wonderfully effective and they were well worth their win.
Into this cauldron of fiery form land Everton, straight off the back of a 0-3 home loss to Utd. In mitigation, it should be pointed out that Van Gaal somehow managed to pick just about his best team and they played accordingly but the Toffee’s aren’t exactly tearing it up at home. In their favour, they’ve yet to lose an away match this season and this points to a defensive resolve that was all too lacking last year. It is not an area of the game that many consider to be one of Martinez’s strengths but it looks like he has directed a lot of energy into addressing this problem.
Ironically, Everton are likely to be the team that sits back and looks to hit on the break whereas Arsenal need to change their mid-week mindset and seek to dominate, much like Bayern Munich did to them. They’ll be hoping that Everton ‘keeper, Tim Howard, wasn’t taking notes from Petr Cech’s performance. This could well be a closely run thing so take a look at the draw but surely Arsenal have the confidence and skill required to take all three points, even if there will be some tired heads and legs from their mid-week excursions. Betvictor has the Arsenal win at 4/9.
Sunday 25th October
14.00 Manchester Utd v Manchester City
The biggest derby of the weekend is also the top of the table clash, it is a Sky Sports/BT (whichever one has the rights) wet dream of volcanic proportions. Think of all the montages that can be put together of Wayne Rooney wheeling away from the goal pointing at the sky, of Kevin de Bruyne wheeling away from the goal pointing at the sky etc etc. Yes, I’m sure it will be the height of creativity.
Many people (this column included) are somewhat confused as to how Utd are in joint second, just two points off the top spot, given the oft-times lackluster displays and sometimes fortunate results. The slightly jaded reading of it seems to point to a league which is not of an exceptionally high standard. But it’s still early in the season, I hear you say. It can always pick up. True but let’s not forget that last season was hardly bursting thru’ the seams with quality either. Couple that idea with the overall performances of English teams in Europe over the last few years (performances that might lead to EPL losing one Champions League qualification spot) and it seems that the game, if not in decline, is certainly treading water. A spluttering yet second-placed Utd might be proof of this.
To be fair, they were largely excellent against Everton with the criminally under-used Ander Herrera putting in the type of performance as a 10 that must have Utd fans pulling their hair out in exasperation as to why he doesn’t start every week and why he will most likely be benched the following game. He’s a wonderful little player, capable of influencing the game effectively from a number of different positions and most team would be delighted to have him in their ranks. Van Gaal, though, often has other ideas and although it’s easy as an armchair critic to moan and rag about a manager, he seems to go out of his way to be as obtuse as possible just to prove that he knows more about the game than anyone else. And maybe he does but although Utd fans will be delighted with their league position, one gets the impression that they are still not altogether convinced by the Dutch man.
City were another one of the English teams that can point to a good night’s work during their mid-week clash against Sevilla in the Champions League. It may have taken an own goal and an injury time strike from Kevin de Bruyne to beat a very impressive Sevilla side but win they did and the late nature of the winning goal speaks of a fight that has too often been lacking in the team when the chips are down. Since their soul-crushing loss to Spurs nearly a month ago, they have recorded four wins on the bounce, scoring fifteen and conceding four (a goal in each match).
That is to say, their defence is slightly leaky and Kompany may still not be fit enough to start. Any defence would have trouble with Martial, Mata and (should he start) Herrera and they will be looking to their defensive midfielders for protection. They’ll get some off Fernandinho but from Yaya Toure?! The flip side of that, of course, is that if Yaya is on the mood for it, he will steam roll nearly anyone Van Gaal cares to stick in midfield. So, Utd will probably score but what about City?
As pointed out above, they’ve been scoring a lot of goals recently but once again they will have to do without the injured Aguero. In their favour, it looks like Raheem Sterling might have finally learned how to finish his chances and de Bruyne is capable of scoring in every game he plays. And in Bony they have a mountain of a man who will ably upset Utd’s defence and possibly even score himself.
This column is inclined to think that Utd will put on a good show at home which should lead to a reasonably evenly-matched affair but that City are just that much better than them at the moment. The bookies have Utd as slight favourites so the price for a City win is tasty enough at 15/8 from Betfred.