Saturday 5th December
15.00 Arsenal v Sunderland
Here’s an interesting statistic for you – taking into account the last five league games, 17th placed Sunderland are ahead of 4th place Arsenal in the form table having secured 9 points in that period, as opposed to Arsenal’s 8. But weren’t Sunderland early favourites for the drop and surely there was much talk of Arsenal standing a very creditable chance of winning the league this season?
It is true that the Black Cats looked like a lost cause. Indeed, after their opening nine league games, they still hadn’t managed to beg, borrow or steal a single lousy win. It was a run bad enough to see Dick Advocaat physically transform before our very eyes; from the avuncular warmth and pride he displayed after guiding Sunderland to EPL safety at the end of last season to the battered old man with an increasingly haunted look in eyes, it was a degeneration that very much mirrored the teams’ efforts on the pitch.
For the sake of his health, most were happy to see the Dutchman resign his position just eight games in.
Into the vacuum stepped a man who many find hard to warm to yet more still consider to be the right type of manager for the job. Big Sam Allardyce, as he will be constantly referred to, occupies an area of talent above Tony Pulis and below present day Alan Pardew, which, if nothing else, should be good enough to keep Sunderland from the drop. Not that Allardyce would agree with that assessment. His self-regard is such that he believes himself to be one of the best managers around and the only reason that he doesn’t have the name of a really big European club on his c.v. is because he suffers the notable handicap of being English.
Presumably, many English managers might disagree with this assessment (one hears tales of a certain Bobby Robson and Barcelona) but, laughable or laudable, his bullish confidence is precisely what this Sunderland team need if they are to prosper.
Speaking of bullish managers, Arsene Wenger has done it again. Or rather, he hasn’t. Intelligence levels amongst football fans vary widely but even the thickest of planks could have told you that releasing more than a dozen players over the summer and not bringing in a single outfield player could be considered a reckless act, especially when the team in question is Arsenal. Under Wenger’s reign, the Gunners have become synonymous with injuries and players who are made of glass.
As a result of running his threadbare forwards into the ground, Wenger will now be without the services of one Alexis Sanchez for a ‘few’ weeks which, in Wengerian language, could mean anything up to four months. The Chilean joins a list of senior outfield players which includes: Cazorla, Koscielny, Walcott, Coquelin, Wilshere, Wellbeck, Arteta, Gibbs and Rosicky. Given the propensity toward injury in the team and even though it’s entirely in keeping with how Wenger operates, it still boggles the mind to think that the manager could somehow disregard the evidence of years and choose not to purchase any outfield players to cover these very eventualities. His stubbornness forces him to largely field the same players on a weekly basis as he doesn’t have a squad sufficient in quality or quantity to allow for rotation, an avoidable situation which surely contributes to the wear and tear regularly suffered by his players.
Given the amount of injuries Arsenal have in key areas and the tangible whiff of fatigue from the players during the course of November, Sunderland stand a real chance of claiming a positive result here. There’s something about Wenger’s scholarly demeanour which has always wound Allardyce up and he will make sure that his charges get stuck into a faltering Arsenal team, hoping to unnerve them and not let them rest easy on the ball. It’s nearly four years since Sunderland have beaten Arsenal in any competition but the ingredients are there for them to at least come away with a draw. Betvictor are offering 21/4 for that outcome.
17.30 Chelsea v Bournemouth
Move on, nothing to see here. No really, nothing. As spoken about before, this column has a pain in its you-know-where writing about Chelsea this season but did feel the need to point out that Bournemouth are 8/1 to win this courtesy of Totesport, amongst others. For frivolous betting this weekend, it’s the best price in town.
Sunday 6th December
16.00 Newcastle v Liverpool
It seems likely that somewhere in the land of movies, there exists a horror/zombie film whose plot revolves around the sufferings and angst of a large family as they see a revered loved one being butchered and then re-animated, only to be butchered and re-animated once again, on and on until there is not a bone left to crush or a heart left to break in what once was a splendid corporeal existence. Being a Newcastle fan can’t be too dissimilar.
Living Newcastle legend and current pundit, Alan Shearer, noted during the week that Newcastle are full of what he termed Monday-to-Friday players. That is, they have all the skill in the world when training but not enough of the stomach required for a fight come match day. Too few of the players, on current assessment, possess the necessary will to do the dirty work and fight in the trenches and make no mistake, they are in the shit now.
One can (rightly) point a finger at the players, the recruitment staff and the manager but all are just symptoms of the deeper malaise which is the club owner, Mike Ashley. Years of mismanagement and considered antipathy toward the Newcastle ‘family’ have left the Toon Army demoralised and crestfallen. Home gates are now regularly 4 – 5,000 under capacity as fans stay away in protest or because they have just lost all hope. Many consider the nuclear option to be their best hope; that is that the club suffers relegation and the resulting loss in profits will eventually force the owner to sell. You know times are tough when the light at the end of the tunnel is really a candle at the bottom of a well.
It’s safe to say that Liverpool have taken up residence on the flip-side of that particular coin. Jurgen Klopp’s arrival has seen a marked upturn in the club’s fortunes and there now exists an air of optimism where once dwelt stagnation and ennui. In their last seven games, Liverpool are W6 L1, a statistic which compares quite favourably with Newcastle’s W2 L4 D1. And, in Liverpool’s favour, two of those wins have come away from home against Chelsea and Manchester City, a feat which former manager, Brendan Rodgers famously found difficult to achieve.
Klopp: Can’t forget the bad times
Although Liverpool won their last two games (both at home), neither performance was overly convincing and the suspicion remains that, for the time being at least, they are very much a team that excels when away from home as their high pressing game and incisive runners effectively works the space often afforded them by a home team looking to attack. After the thrashing they got last week, Newcastle are unlikely to be too adventurous and Liverpool will probably be obliged to play as the de-facto home team. That onus is unlikely to be too onerous and Liverpool should take all three points here. Betfred have a price of 7/10 for that outcome.
Monday 7th December
20:00 Everton v Crystal Palace
The best match of the weekend may well be this Monday night encounter between a free-scoring Everton and an erratic but hugely engaging Crystal Palace. Everton are beginning to resemble the swashbuckling outfit of two seasons ago and in Lukaku, Deulofeu and Barkley, they have three of best young forwards around this season. Palace’s forwards, too, have pace and attacking threat and in Bolasie they have a player who, when on form, is nearly impossible to contain. Just one point separates the teams and they are both in shouting distance of the Champions League places.
Everton haven’t tasted defeat in any competition since their visit to a pre-slump Arsenal some seven matches ago. Since then they have been making hay in the winter sun scoring 17 goals and conceding just 7, with 3 of those in just one match, a bizarre draw against Bournemouth which saw them first lose their two goal lead as the Cherries pulled level, then somehow contriving to concede a third in 98th minute after they had scored what surely must have felt like the winner in the 95th minute. Had they seen out that match as they should have they would be sitting in 6th place alongside Liverpool.
Even allowing for the naivety involved in throwing away a two goal lead, Roberto Martines’ men are well worth their current position. As are Crystal Palace. They suffered a dip in form in October when they registered three losses on the bounce but they have rallied since then, beginning with a draw against Manchester United and culminating in a 5 – 1 rogering of Newcastle last weekend. Much like the little girl who had a little curl, when they are good, they are very, very good. Which, thankfully for them, isn’t to say that when they are bad, they are awful.
Similarly to West Ham, they have been very effective on their travels (both teams have registered four away wins) and marginally less so at home so they will back themselves to travel to Goodison Park and be in with a shout of taking all three points. An Achilles heel of theirs seems to be the defensive end of the game. While Damian Delaney and, to a lesser extent, Scot Dann are effective defenders, there has been a change of guard in front of them. Whereas last season they had Jedinak patrolling the area in front of them, the acquisition during the summer of the more offensively-minded Cabaye has seen the Australian drop to the bench and their defensive solidity has suffered as result.
In other words, and to paraphrase Daniel Day-Lewis, there will be goals. Use your internet skills to locate the goals scored by both Deulofeu and Lukaku last night. Both were absolute peaches. If they can perform to a similar level (and their recent form argues that they should), their greater defensive solidity should see them come away with the win here. The best price for an Everton win can be found from Coral who are offering 11/10. Whatever the outcome, this should be a match worth watching.