Saturday 16th April
12.45 Norwich v Sunderland
This weekend sees the beginning of a very busy week with most teams having to play twice and a good deal others thrice in just eight short days. This chaotic attempt at scheduling will doubtless throw up a slew of the unexpected and the unwanted as teams give it one last push. Well, maybe not Aston Villa.
Whilst far from the most glamorous of ties, it’s not an exaggeration to say that no other match has as much riding on it for the teams concerned as this one. Norwich are dangling a leg perilously close to the edge of the abyss, their toes only just out of reach of Sunderland who sit in 18th, four points behind their hosts for the weekend. Should the Canaries win, that gap will open to seven points and they will be well on their way to BPL survival. Sunderland, on the other hand, will probably have no prayers left,
Considering their respective positions, it would seem a redundant task to bother reviewing their form but a cursory inspection would indicate that neither has been awful over the last five games. Granted, Sunderland aren’t far from awful but what saves them are the four teams who’ve been worse over that period of time. Norwich, at least, have taken seven points from the last 15 available although last week they somehow managed to lose to a Crystal Palace side who hadn’t won in the league since mid-December. Probably not a good time for Norwich to go all philanthropic.
After a very poor start to their season, Sunderland and then manager, Dick Advocaat, parted ways and master of the grim, Sam Allardyce, came onboard. Big Sam, as we’re contractually obliged to call him, has a reputation for, well, long ball football that’s not overly easy on the eye but he’s also a seasoned campaigner who has a record in keeping unfashionable teams in the BPL. At the time his signing seemed like a guarantee of Premiership survival, regardless of how beautiful or otherwise his game would be. As it stands, Sunderland are only one place better off since his arrival and ‘better’ is a fairly friendly assessment of the progress that has been made.
It’s true that Allardyce has made Sunderland hard to beat but he hasn’t exactly taught them how to win, either. One victory in their last ten games and six draws in that time is testament to their stubborn and limited resolve. Sadly for them, they can’t draw their way to safety and must pick up some wins. If they can’t take all three points from this tie, their straits will be most dire.
It’s more than four years since Sunderland last beat Norwich and in the corresponding fixture earlier this season, the Canaries romped home 3-1 winners. This game may well be as ugly as putrefied road-kill but it should be one hell of a tense encounter, too. The need for both teams is great but a point for Norwich would be worth far more to them than it would be to Sunderland. With that in mind, it’s easy enough to imagine a scenario whereby if scores were level after the 65 minute mark, Norwich might fall back and defend the point and with neither side exactly awash with goal scorers, a draw might be how it plays out. ToteSport have the best price there at 12/5.
15.00 Everton v Southampton
Regular readers will well understand the annoyance this Everton team and their manager have caused this column over the course of the season. They have been nearly Arsenal-esque in their collective desire to squander all the talent at their disposal and as a result of this determined march backwards, they now find themselves sitting in 12th with the same amount of points as fellow luminaries Swansea and West Bromwich Albion.
It must be painful for supporters to reconcile so many aspects of their performance this season. For example, Lukaku is joint 3rd in the goal scorers chart and no team outside of the top four has scored more goals than they. Much like Stoke, they have had a handful of scintillating performances where the talent in the team was obvious to see but they never managed to find any consistency in that regard. They have, however, found consistency when it comes to drawing matches – no team has drawn more.
Everton manager, Roberto Martinez, has been a popular figure down through the years, often times with the teams he has managed but, curiously, more often with neutrals. People seem to react well to his generally positive demeanor and his ability to talk up the beautiful game. Unfortunately, it looks as if this ideological consistency has been the root of Everton’s travails. This is willful blindness with a smile as he refuses to countenance any change in philosophy, a ‘philosophy’ which is responsible for seeing Everton throw away the best chance they’ve had in years of challenging for a CL place.
Southampton are not without their scars from this season. They endured an awful run where, from late November to early January, they lost eight in all competitions with only a solitary (and hilarious) win, a 4-0 clobbering of Arsenal. They’ve pulled their socks up since then and 4th in form for the last 15 games played. For the first time since his arrival in England, questions were beginning to be asked of his management but he’s since steered this team in some style.
It’s over five weeks since Everton managed a league win but sadly for them, rules dictate it was the last time they could play Aston Villa. In the five games since, it’s been three losses and two draws. Martinez can talk it up all he wants but this team look largely shot for the season. Southampton, in stark contrast, look hungry for the fight. This column will go for a Southampton win and the price is damn nice, too – 5/2 from BetFred is very tempting.
Sunday 17th April
16.00 Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Four points in the last two games may have been just enough for a previously free-falling Crystal Palace to stave off what would have been considered an unlikely relegation battle earlier this season but, since the Christmas period, they have been vying with Villa in terms of wretched awfulness. Alan Pardew has displayed, once again, his managerial knack of presiding over extended periods of misery (ask Newcastle fans) for whatever team he happens to be in charge of.
And for all that, a quick look at the respective form of both teams over the last five games (in all competitions) shows that Palace have had the better of events. If that is to damn Palace with faint praise, lord knows what it says about Arsenal. The kindest thing that can be said is that they’ve likely managed another top 4 finish. This is good because it means that once again they will struggle to qualify from the group stages of next years CL only to get promptly knocked out in the next round and it seems that in Arsene Wenger’s mind, that’s as big as you should dream.
Much like Chelsea earlier on this season, this column gets a pain in the you-know-where going on about Arsenal because it’s the same thing year in year out. New faces come (sometimes) and old faces go but their ability to collectively bottle it at merest mention of ‘success’ is to be applauded. As it stands, they are 13 points off the top with a handful of games (well, six actually) left to play. Thirteen points worse off than a team that has spent nothing like the erstwhile parsimonious Arsenal, the ‘big club’ most appalled by the financial doping in football. As Americans are fond of saying, go figure.
We’ve already had a pop at Palace so let’s just evaluate things as follows – in all likelihood, four points from the last two games should be enough to keep them above the relegation fray for the remainder of the season and Arsenal are unlikely to better their current position of third so what next for these London boys? Arsenal would surely like a finish strong enough to keep them ahead of City in the race for automatic CL qualification but beyond that, they hardly even have pride to play for. A couple of draws and maybe even a win will secure Palace’s berth onboard the good ship PL for another season. Much like their hosts, one gets the impression they’d be happy to leave things as they are now so they can shuffle off to the exit door with head held down, catching the eye of no-one.
In terms of a winner, it’s hard to believe that Arsenal won’t win. Even allowing for another season of disappointment, they should be able to put a poor Palace to the sword. If they don’t, the wailing and gnashing of teeth from an ever more frustrated fan base will be loud and sustained. As you would expect, the price for an Arsenal win is fairly short and the best on offer is 4/11 and comes courtesy of BetFred amongst others.