Saturday 6th December
15.00 Liverpool v Sunderland
This will be a good match to test Liverpool’s nerve. Their shambolic start to the EPL has been well documented with misfit striker Mario Balotelli, presenting himself as the most obvious of scapegoats, hogging most of the headlines. The Italian hasn’t featured in the last couple of matches due to a knock picked up whilst on international duty but one suspects that this development hasn’t unduly worried manager Brendan Rogers, the man surely tiring of constantly defending the ineffective forward.
In Balotelli’s absence, Liverpool have won their last two matches, picking up consecutive victories for the first time since October. A trip to Sunderland may be just what the doctor ordered.
Sunderland, on the other hand, can only wish for that level of consistency having won just two of their last nine. They received high praise for their effective game against Chelsea at the weekend, the 0-0 result seeing them bag a deserved point. However, they were quickly laid low by a resurgent Man City in mid-week, 1-4 being the result in this home defeat. It hasn’t been easy to back Liverpool with any confidence this season but it being that charitable time of the year, why not start now? Bwin are offering 8/15 for the home win.
15.00 Stoke v Arsenal
The recent history between these two clubs is fraught with tension and mutual dis-like. Arsene Wenger has never been hidden his antipathy towards Stoke and what he considers to be their agricultural tactics with regard to how they approach the game. In February 2010, the Britannia Stadium was the scene of the infamous tackle from Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross on Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey; a double break of the leg, the severity of which kept Ramsey out of the game for an extended period, arguably curtailing his impact on the Arsenal team until the beginning of last season.
Stoke, for their part, have made efforts to move away from their “rugby tactics” (as defined by Wenger) of old and implement a more fluid and technical style of play best epitomized by the likes of Steven N’Zonzi and ex-Barcelona star, Bojan Krcic. Mind you, Stoke boss Mark Hughes is no shrinking violet and will surely instruct his players to make life uneasy for Wenger’s gnome-like technicians; this is, after all, the battle between the EPL’s tallest and shortest sides.
Arsenal have managed to win their last three on the bounce whereas Stoke have lost theirs so it’s clear which side have the momentum. However, Wenger has only managed a single win away at Stoke in the last seven attempts (coincidentally in the very match which crocked Ramsey for so long) so the Britannia is not exactly a happy hunting ground for the Gunners. Weighing all available evidence, this column thinks a draw is just slightly more likely than an Arsenal win and Boylesports is offering 13/5 on that outcome. Those of you who believe that stadiums hold determinative powers might like the price of 16/5 from Betvictor for the Stoke win.
Monday 8th December
Southampton v Manchester United
What a difference a few games make. It seems that Utd and Louis van Gaal are beginning to motor with four consecutive wins under their belts. Granted, three of those wins were against bottom-half opposition and would traditionally be filed under ‘assumed win’ for Utd but this season hasn’t been a straightforward one so they can look with some pride on their recent achievements.
As can Southampton, this time last week still riding high in 2nd place. The intervening days, however, have seen them lose to both Arsenal and Manchester City.
There was no shame in their performances and they can consider themselves unlucky to have suffered so many injuries to players in key positions, especially against Arsenal where the result was still 0-0 when, having used all their substitutes, Toby Alderweireld was stretchered off leaving them with just 10 outfield players, whose game but ultimately futile efforts saw them concede a goal at the last.
Given the injuries to the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork and Dusan Tadic, Southampton will find it difficult to quell a buccaneering Utd in midfield and so, even with form so far this season taken into account, should be considered the underdogs here. Unfortunately, injuries will now begin to take their toll, especially against the bigger teams. There only seems to be one likely result here and that is the Utd win. Thankfully the bookies are full of the festive spirit and that result can be found at a generous price of 17/10 from Betvictor.