Roma v Juventus: Can the pretenders stop the Ju-Ju train?

Since September 11th 2011 Juventus have lost only eight league games and taken exclusive residence atop Serie A. Five of those defeats came in the 2012/13 campaign where they would occasionally succumb to ennui at their whole shtick of going in front, controlling the game, seeing it out, then shaking hands and wishing their vanquished all the best. You know, that predictable old winning thing.

The previous season – when monopoly was still a fresh, intriguing proposition – they were invincible.

Roma v Juventus Betting Odds:

Roma win 2/1

Juventus win 13/10

Draw 11/5

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

Since September 11th 2011 – that’s 138 games in case you were wondering – the Old Lady has crushed its nearest and dearest with iron-fisted dominance. And now, after extending their already-healthy lead over second placed Roma last weekend, the ruthless Bianconeri scent a fourth consecutive title.

They have done this before: Given their rivals a glimmer of hope, showed a bit of ankle, then raced away with half a season to spare. Now, with a nine point lead looking unassailable following Totti and co’s draw in Verona surely it’s all now a formality?
Surely we are all better off concentrating our attentions on a terrific scrap for European qualification or a bitter relegation dogfight involving Verona, Cagliari, Chievo, and Atalanta? The tussle for the top is over. The champions-elect may as well be crowned before March blossoms its blooms.

Unless…

Unless there is one particular fixture scheduled for this one particular time and rather wonderfully there is.
Juve – Tevez, Pogba and all – head to the Stadio Olimpico this Monday evening knowing the avoidance of defeat will put them out of sight. A stalemate will more than suffice but while Bonucci and Chiellini will typically be in lockdown mode, don’t expect classic catenaccio. For one thing it is impossible to curtail the scurrying adventure of Tevez while Pirlo’s pearler last week demonstrated once again that any set-pieces attained within his scud missile range are potentially priceless. Moreso the knowledge that Roma will have to unleash hell lends the perfect opportunity to be brave, allow the magnificent Pogba the freedom of the park, and hurt the home side when stretched.

And Roma WILL have to unleash hell; an opening up of their usual cat-and-mouse caginess that has seen them draw eight from their previous eleven games, only scoring more than once on a couple of those occasions.
Coach Rudi Garcia must dispense with conservatism and entrust the cute creativity of Ljajic to pick the Juventus padlock and perhaps add to his eight league goals this term. Pjanic’s pinpoint probing meanwhile must take priority over work-rate.
So much of Roma’s success this season has been built on solid foundations. The experienced De Sanctis has been in the form of his long career with Astori ahead of him a calm colossus. Now though we get to see what i giallorossi have to offer when all guns blazing. They will certainly be battle-hardened after coming through a highly charged trip to Feyenoord on Thursday evening, a Europa League clash that was suspended for ten minutes after objects were thrown onto the pitch including, depressingly, an inflatable banana.

The wounded whippet Iturbe will be a big loss as too, possibly, Maicon who is a doubt. But personnel plays secondary importance for such a clash. It is mentality – or more pertinently a change of mentality – that matters here.
For the neutral a repeat scoreline – either way – from the corresponding fixture in Turin last October will be welcomed. That barmy evening saw five goals, two reds, and three penalties.

Whether it’s a tight affair though or an incident-packed thriller one thing is for certain – if it goes Juve’s way the old lady will put on weight and start to sing.

Betting Instinct tip – with Juve content to keep things tight early on, we could well see the game being level at half-time. You can back this at 21/20 with Intertops.eu

Ste avatar STEPHEN TUDOR is editor of the Daisy Cutter, the football newspaper that only sometimes lies. He also writes  for  Sabotage Times, When Saturday Comes, Late Tackle and others. Follow him on Twitter.

Liverpool signings‏: A second look

New signings are exciting, aren’t they? Very few things divide opinion and generate discussion quite like the world of transfers. Signings are one of the most scrutinised aspects of a manager’s achievements in the Premier League and often hold a strong position in deciding popularity.

 

Liverpool v Manchester City Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 9/5

Manchester City win 27/20

Draw 12/5

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Brendan Rodgers is one such manager. Following Liverpool’s exasperatingly poor start to the season, many were suggesting the new recruits weren’t quite worth the sterling spent on them. Since their turn of form, that opinion has changed somewhat. Since Fernando Torres joined and begun his Liverpool career with what was frankly a phenomenal season, players at Liverpool haven’t been given a fair amount of time to settle in and adjust. Luis Suarez looked merely decent when first signed and then went on to fully illuminate as one of the top players in the world let alone the Premier League. The Premier League is very much unique in its style and culturally the UK is also vastly different to the rest of the world. It’s easy to forget that it can take a painfully long time to adapt to even the most subtle changes. With that in mind, let’s have a brief look into the summer signings brought in by Liverpool and try to fairly assess their performances thus far.

Rickie Lambert
As a Liverpool fan, I was actually quite happy with the signing of Lambert for what was a relatively small fee at £4million. The consensus seemed to be that he was signed as a backup option and not expected to be stealing headlines. That is the role he’s played, but at no point has he looked like a player who should be playing up-top for a team challenging for a Champions League place. He’s chimed in with a couple of league goals in 18 appearances in what has been an uneventful season for the boyhood Liverpool supporter. Given his performances for Southampton last year I think most will agree they’d hoped for a bit more from Lambert.


Adam Lallana
Lallana was the second player poached from the hands of Southampton. His season started late owing to injury, and he initially looked quite mediocre as he got used to the way Rodgers wanted him to play. Since then, Lallana has started to recapture the form that saw Liverpool part with 25 Million for the 26 year old attacking midfielder. He has been a little inconsistent at times, but his intelligent passing and sharp turning have helped restore the missing potency to Liverpool’s attack. If he can get through the rest of the season without injury and with a bit more game time, I’m confident he’ll develop into an important player for Liverpool.


Emre Can
Can’s signing raised a few eyebrows when a few ‘experts’ of the Bundesliga suggested he didn’t have the technical ability to carve a career in the Premier League. Over the course of the season – and indeed the course of Rodgers’ tactical changes – Can has played in midfield and more defensive positions. He’s shown plenty of quality and plays as if he is years beyond the 21 he actually is. His powerful runs from deep have helped create a lot of counter attacks and his physical strength has helped him in massively improve Liverpool’s defence. Whilst the German is prone to the odd mistake, his range of passing and calmness have also been very impressive. Can has the blueprint to become an excellent player and will no doubt be a key figure for his country in the future.


Lazar Markovic
Markovic has been a bit of a strange one. He’s rarely had a constant impression during games but shows glimpses of exceptional talent at points; reminiscent of another former Liverpool cult hero, Luis Garcia, in that sense. He was one of the first to get a lot of criticism from fans despite being just 20 years old and adapting to a new country. Furthermore, Liverpool play a very different brand of football to Benfica. His first few outings were quiet at best, but you could see the things he was trying to do were clever. His control has been quite wonderful at times, and as the season has moved on we have started to see his running with the ball and technique impress also. He glides with the ball in a similar fashion to Messi (please note I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that he is even moderately close to Messi in terms of ability. I just mean in the actual way he moves at speed with the ball at his feet with no flamboyant step-overs at any given opportunity) and has a genuine bit of class about him. The strike against Sunderland that hit the bar springs to mind. If he is to become a top player at this level though, he needs to improve his consistency and influence games more than he currently does. This will of course come with experience and familiarity with the Premier League.


Dejan Lovren
Lovren has been poor, very poor. Many – myself included – thought he was a sapient addition to the defense, which was something very much required. His distribution hasn’t been good, his decision making questionable at best and he doesn’t seem to instill any confidence in the fans as a consequence of that. He had a good year for Southampton last year. He was composed and brought an element of calmness to the pitch. During his time with Liverpool he’s looked constantly panicked. He needs to replicate his last season in order to have a place in the Liverpool squad over the coming years and cut out the mistakes. I’d expect Rodgers to try and improve the Croatian’s defensive positioning over the remainder of the season as that seems to have contributed to many of his errors.


Alberto Moreno
Moreno caught the eye early in his Premier League career with a spectacular goal against Tottenham. His lightning pace has been vital to Rodgers’ introduction of the wingback role to the formation, while Moreno’s ability to get forward has played a key part in Liverpool’s resurgence this season. Down the other end of the pitch, Moreno has shown to be a very competent defender in 1-on-1 situations also. It’s unfortunate for him that Jordi Alba is his main competition in the Spanish squad as the 22-year-old is proving to be able to play at the highest level.


Javi Manquillo
I’m not going to patronise you and pretend I really knew who Manquillo was prior to his 2 year loan deal. Signed from Atletico Madrid, the young full-back has been a pleasant surprise to most fans. He’s had a few very good moments but nothing spectacular in terms of performances. That being said, he also does very little wrong. He is very mobile, a capable crosser and defensively very sound as well. I’m not sure if this counts as a compliment anymore but he’s shown what a liability Glen Johnson actually is. If Manquillo was British I think he’d have attracted a lot more attention in the press than his performances currently have.


Mario Balotelli
Few players divide opinion quite like Balotelli does. Most seem quite disappointed that he didn’t celebrate his signing with some sort of bunga bunga party. I think the press give him a particularly harsh time and generally seek to make prejudicial comments about the Italian. We know he isn’t someone who plays the game simply and we know he isn’t someone who flamboyantly displays his stable of emotions. That’s who he is. I genuinely heard a commentator suggesting that he should be dropped for not thanking a teammate after a pass, it was shocking. He hasn’t scored anywhere near the amount of goals that was expected and his decision making can very often be frustrating, but we knew what we was getting with Mario. He actually does work quite hard on the pitch despite what some commentators suggest. He hasn’t benefited from being alone up-front and will hopefully start scoring – or at least supplying – more goals now Sturridge is back from injury. It’s been said a plethora of times already but Balotelli does have an abundance of talent; he is someone who is still maturing as both a person and footballer. He hasn’t played as well as his reputation suggested he should but it hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as a lot of people seem to be making out. I think he has a future at Liverpool still and hope he is given further chance to prove me right


 JAKE COLLINS  is passionate about literature, music and sports. He currently works in  London and lives in Essex. Read more of his work in Jake’s blog, or follow Jake on Twitter and Google+.

Things we’ll learn in football this month – March

Nothing much usually happens in March, it’s the most unremarkable of months. This March however might just be different, this could be the month where the race for the top four finally starts to take shape. The importance placed on finishing in the top 20% of the league is often used as a stick with which to beat the league (and Arsenal) but for all it’s modern football awfulness it does at least provide an element of genuine interest and drama that would otherwise be missing. If we’re lucky a bit of that drama will explode into our lives during the month of March.

 

On the very first day (pinch punch and all that) we have Liverpool vs Man City and Arsenal vs Everton. We also have the League Cup final but I’ve got a theme going this month and I’m sticking to it. Liverpool’s heroic but unsuccessful tint at the title is long forgotten but with Sturridge back and a tactical switch bringing about an element of defensive stability they might just force a route back into the Champions League, where they’ll presumably look to do slightly less badly than they did this year. Their recent good form means they’ll fancy their chances against a Man City side who every now and again look like they really can’t be bothered. City of course are almost assured their place in the top four, unless there’s a spontaneous African Cup of Nations and they have to do without Yaya again. It’s a game that has the potential to be an absolute peach and for all CIty’s occasional malaise they are still the best team in the country on their day so it should be a good test of those Scouse Champions League aspirations. It’ll probably be a draw, a score one.

Betting Instinct tip Back the score draw at 5.44 with Intertops.eu

 

On the very same day it’s Arsenal (1/2 with AllYouBet.ag) vs Everton (5/1) which would have been a game significant to the theme of this column last season but Everton are rubbish now. Still though, they’re not as rubbish as their league position would suggest so Arsenal will need to be at their best if they’re to keep their top 4 bid on track.

 

There is a full mid-week card in the first week of the month and the most intriguing of the fixtures it throws up is Manchester United’s trip to play Newcastle. There’s a school of thought (well I tweeted it once) that once you factor in the cost of removing Moyes, hiring Van Gaal and the fees and wages that have been lavished at the Dutchman’s behest that never in the course of human history has so much money been spent to achieve so little. Now I am prone to hyperbole but the fact remains that at best United have been underwhelming, so far Van Gaal has had an easy ride with the assumption that he’ll secure Champions League football protecting him from any real scrutiny. If that Champions League place starts to look doubtful then that will swiftly change. Dropping points to a team managed by John Carver would not go down well, not well at all. Now of course Van Gaal has pedigree so deserves time to get things right but he also has an unsettling haircut so maybe he’s had enough time and needs to be moved on.

 

As we reach the middle of the month it’s time for Tottenham to have their say as they visit Old Trafford. Spurs have an excellent first XI where everybody is super fit and knows their role, if they leave Manchester with all three points it’ll be one of those shocks that isn’t really a shock but is still a bit shocking. Both teams have brilliant goalkeepers, which is nice.

Earlier that day it’s Chelsea who will win the league vs Southampton who will not finish in the top four but might come quite close. Like all Southampton’s games against the leagues biggest and best it should be an intriguing if ultimately pointless clash.

 

March ends with some of that international nonsense we all hate so the final Premier League games take place over the weekend of the 21st/22nd. Once again we have a game that will have a massive say on who gets to take on the European elite next season and once again it involves Manchester United and their unsettlingly coiffured manager. This time it’s a trip to face their old enemies Liverpool and their unsettlingly unsettling manager (I’m not sure what I mean by that). There will always be something special about this fixture and for all these two clubs would prefer to be battling each other for top spot their respective and relative mediocrity won’t dim the ferocity of this one. History teaches us that Arsenal always finish in the top 4 and logic tells us that Chelsea and City will this season, so it might just be between these two old foes and their clash at the end of March could very well prove pivotal.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Get on Chelsea to win the Premier League while you still can. They’re currently 1/4 with Intertops.eu

 

You should follow me on twitter where I’m occasionally funny https://twitter.com/AllorNothingMag

 

Ally avatarALLY MONCRIEFF is a freelance football writer and editor of All or Nothing magazine. Sometimes even he can’t tell if he’s being serious or not. Follow Ally on Twitter and maybe he’ll be your friend.

Barcelona and Atléti hope to continue Spanish dominance of Champions League

 

Ahead of the weekend, Barcelona had won eleven consecutive games in all competitions, and Luis Enrique was on the verge of breaking Pep Guardiola’s best winning streak in his time at the club. Meanwhile, Premier League champions Manchester City had won just once in their last six games, including two comprehensive losses on the way.

However by the time weekend was over, the landscape for their Champions League meeting had taken a rather surprising turn. The Catalans were beaten 1-0 at home by Málaga on Saturday, in what was one of the Blaugrana’s worst performances of the season. Over in Manchester just an hour or so later, Manuel Pellegrini’s team obliterated Newcastle United by five goals, while it could easily have been more.

 

Manchester City v Barcelona Betting Odds:

Manchester City win 9/4

Barcelona win 11/10

Draw 9/5

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

These two teams faced each other in the same round last year, meaning their impending reunion has been met with considerably less enthusiasm than last time. Barcelona won 4-1 on aggregate on that occasion, which came as a surprise to few. And considering the form of both sides coming into the weekend, a similar outcome wouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone.

Luis Enrique’s time in the Barça dugout has been interesting to say the least so far. At times, the magnitude of the job has looked daunting for him. On occasions, almost as if the role was feeling like a chore. But from faltering against the likes of Getafe and Real Sociedad over the turn of the year, Barça had begun to carve the figure of a team capable of winning honours through January and February. The Camp Nou had even begun to sing Luis Enrique’s name on match days – an often-clear sign that things are certainly going well.

The Málaga defeat has drawn flashbacks to a duller time in his tenure, however – a time when the machine was not working as it should. Knowing the furor that can quickly envelope a team with such a spotlight, one loss can rapidly turn into much more. “The losses hurt and it takes effort to get over them. We have a spectacular challenge ahead of us in three days,” said Enrique on Saturday evening.

A flicker of doubt has begun to ember again, and it’s Barça’s job to ensure it doesn’t become a fire. They have more than enough to do so. Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez may very well be the best front three in world football, and not just on paper.

But for Manchester City, it’s their job to add fuel to that Barça ember tomorrow night. If the Catalans’ reaction is half-hearted, Manuel Pellegrini’s side may have enough to ignite it on home soil.

_______

2010 was the last time, and only time, Atlético Madrid (3/2 to win the first leg with AllYouBet.ag) and Bayer Leverkusen (37/20) have met in their history. They faced each other twice in the Europa League group stages that year, playing out 1-1 draws on both occasions. The Germans topped Group B in the competition, while the team from the Spanish capital missed out on qualification behind Greek side Aris Saloniki. Atlético compounded a Europa League exit with a 7th place league finish in the 2010/11 campaign. Over in the Bundesliga, Leverkusen finished 2nd above Bayern Munich.

Cut to present day and the Diego Simeone-led Atlético are a different beast entirely. Only Real Madrid could halt them in Europe last season, and even then, they were less than a minute away from Champions League glory. At this stage last year, they swept past AC Milan by five goals to one on their route to the quarter-final. Leverkusen were hammered 6-1 by Paris St-Germain.

The Germans have quite arguably been handed the most daunting draw of all. Not the most dangerous, but quite certainly the toughest. Getting a result at the BayArena is near imperative for Leverkusen, considering Atlético haven’t lost a Champions League game at home since Simeone arrived. And unfortunately for Schmidt’s side, November was the last time they won at home in any competition.

Many had seen the losses of Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luis and Diego Costa as the beginning of Atlético’s downfall: the end of their flutter at the helm of European football. But Diego Simeone and co have kept the show rolling at the Calderón, with new stars being impressively embedded. The strike duo of Mario Mandžukić and Antoine Griezmann has been a resounding success so far – with the latter bringing immeasurable ability to the capital, as well as a new-found hunger and work rate. 14 goals in his last 14 games means the diminutive Frenchman is indeed the man to watch in this tie.

“The Champions League is always special. Now we begin the challenging part – it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a game we’ve been waiting for for weeks,” said Atlético goalkeeper Miguel Ángel Moyá over the weekend. Last year’s finalists are back to accomplish what they couldn’t last year, and Leverkusen are in their way.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Atlético Madrid to take a 1-0 lead back to the Spanish capital is 6/1 with Intertops.eu

jamie k avatar JAMIE KEMP is a Freelance Football Writer and the Senior Editor at Inside La Liga. Follow Jamie on Twitter.

Kane and Eriksen can give Spurs a first-leg advantage against Fiorentina

 

Impressive as Tottenham were against Arsenal two weeks ago, the post-match analysis of a “North London power shift” once again looks premature. Three days later and a 3-2 defeat to Liverpool – coupled with an Arsenal victory against Leicester – saw the Gunners overtake their rivals again in the table. The continuing form of Harry Kane and the establishment of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason in midfield are both important factors in Spurs’ recent form but as the table proves, they are up against some decent sides with a track record of finishing in the top four.

With this is mind, it is imperative that they maintain their Europa League run as this year’s winner will receive a place next season’s Champions League. Bar Liverpool, they are perhaps the best side still in the competition and their tie against Fiorentina presents a viable opportunity of reaching the last 16.

 

Tottenham Hotspur v Fiorentina Betting Odds:

Tottenham win 11/10

Fiorentina win 47/20

Draw 9/4

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Indeed, the Europa League has already proved to be a blessing in disguise for Spurs. Leaving to one side the FA Cup exit to Leicester, the large number of fixtures this season has allowed Mauricio Pochettino to experiment with line-ups and eventually find a strong system. European football has also allowed Kane to cut his teeth, giving him the playing time he needed to find his feet as a first team player at Tottenham. 7 of his first 10 goals this season came in the Europa League, the sort of form he has translated to the Premier League in emphatic fashion.

The most interesting question concerning Kane now is no longer whether he is good enough, but what will happen once the goals inevitably dry up. So much of being a top class striker goes on in the head and he can’t keep running on adrenaline forever. There is a real talent there, as shown by the variety of goals he has scored this season. However, a large part of what makes Kane so effective is his work rate and enthusiasm. He’s never had to deal with a goal drought before and when it comes, that will be Kane’s real mental test. In this instance, the other strikers at the club may not serve as the best mentors. Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor have just six goals between them this season.

 

As such, Spurs’ other star performer has come from midfield – Christian Eriksen. His transfer fee of 12 million euros looks by far and away the best use of the Gareth Bale money, his appetite for a late goal proving key in his side’s success so far. He continues to be a threat from freekicks from the most unlikely of angles and after Kane is the club’s second top goalscorer this season with 11 goals, although he is yet to score in the Europa League.

Kane and Eriksen can now launch their attacks from a more solid foundation, with Bentaleb and Mason helping to shore up the midfield. While the pair were a little off the pace against Liverpool, no doubt overexerted after their Derby Day performances, they will have over a week’s preparation for the Fiorentina game. With all four of these players in their early twenties, it’s important for Pochettino to manage their youthful effervescence as he did so effectively with his young charges at Southampton.

 

Thursday night’s Italian opponents Fiorentina are currently 4th in Serie A and earlier this month claimed a 2-0 win at Roma in the Coppa Italia. Their manager Vincenzo Montella had a brief foray into English football when he joined Fulham on loan in 2007; incidentally, his first goal was a penalty against Spurs. Having lost Juan Cuadrado to Chelsea in January, Montella will be looking to strikers Mario Gomez and Khouma Babacar to replicate his feat.

With the opening leg taking place at White Hart Lane, it is vital for Spurs to establish a grip on the tie. Tottenham don’t travel particularly well in Europe – they haven’t won a knockout game away since February 2011, when Peter Crouch’s goal earned a 1-0 win against Milan at the San Siro. Four years on and it appears the pressure falls on another Englishman, Harry Kane, to deliver the goods for Spurs.

 

Betting Instinct tip Spurs to qualify over the two legs is 3/4 with Intertops.eu

Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Rumbles of Thunder in the West as OKC have the Playoffs in their sights

waiters

NBA All Star Weekend has just appeared in the rearview mirror as we enter the part of the season when teams begin to get realistic about expectations.  Forget what is mathematically possible, we already know which cellar dwellers are thinking about the lottery.  We also know which teams are trying to creep into the playoff race, those that have their sights set on a title, and the one team in between: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

 

Reigning MVP Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture in mid-October and, as a result, has played just 26 games so far this season.  Add to that the 14 games missed by star point guard Russell Westbrook, and you have the reason why the Thunder have already lost more games than they did all of last year.  Now OKC are aiming to become the first Western Conference team since the Phoenix Suns in 1997 to make the playoffs after starting 3-12.  What makes this team intriguing though, is that should they make the playoffs, they would enter April with a much different mindset to the average 7th or 8th seed.

The Thunder parted for the All Star break on a three-game winning streak, and crucially within half a game of the 8th playoff spot in the West.  Both Durant and Westbrook made headlines in New York for different reasons, but coach Scott Brooks and OKC will be encouraged nonetheless.  In response to questions critical of Brooks, Durant launched a scathing tirade against the media in defence of his coach, who will hope that KD can take advantage of this chip on his shoulder.  After all, he’s a bad motha*****r when he wants to be.  On Sunday night, Westbrook stole the show with his performance on the court.  He set a new record for points in a half and finished with 41 en route to being crowned All Star Game MVP.  Both players will need to hit the ground running again, beginning on Thursday night with the visit of the Dallas Mavericks (36-19).

 

Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder Betting Odds:

Mavericks win +180

Thunder win -220

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change).

 

Though Westbrook and Durant are top-10 players in the league, other players in the Thunder rotation will have to step up and provide them with the necessary support to make this run.  Chief among these is defensive ace Serge Ibaka, though he would be better served blocking shots and sticking to midrange jumpers instead of chucking up the maddening amount of 3pt attempts witnessed in recent months.   Another player who is no stranger to maddening is the recently acquired Dion Waiters.  Waiters has been unsurprisingly inconsistent since arriving from Cleveland as apparent insurance in case existing sparkplug Reggie Jackson bolts in free agency.  Nevertheless, Waiters or Jackson could yet prove pivotal in swinging a game or two down the stretch if either can get a hot hand.  The youth and energy of young bigs Steven Adams and rookie Mitch McGary have proven to be welcome alternatives to trotting out the corpse of Kendrick Perkins.  McGary in particular was impressive in a pair of games before the break, and such play will again be needed as Adams faces a three-week layoff.

One other thing the Thunder have in their favour is their fixture list.  According to Elias Sports Bureau, the final third of OKC’s season compares favourably to those of the Phoenix Suns (currently occupying 8th) and the New Orleans Pelicans (1 1/2 games back at the time of writing).  It has been noted in more than one place that the West’s most impressive team thus far, the Golden State Warriors, will be watching the bottom seeds with bated breath.  The prospect of working so hard and playing consistently well all year, only to be rewarded with a first round series against OKC would be gut-wrenching.  Seldom does a potential 8th seed instill so much trepidation in the teams above it, so now might be the time to put some money on the Thunder.  Come playoff time, all bets are off.

Betting Instinct tip – Now could be the time to back the Thunder to win the NBA Championship at +1200 with Intertops.eu

 

Cathal avatar CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in Paris.  He  writes about  college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct. Follow him on Twitter.

Champions League Last 16: David Luiz and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar putting former clubs to the test

It’s back. The greatest competition in club football returns to brighten up this dark, dank, freezing February, and how we have missed that euphoric anthem blaring into our living rooms.

As has now become tradition, the Champions League first knock-out round is stretched out over a month with the eight first-leg fixtures spread over the next two weeks. This week sees a razzmatazz of European heavyweights and also-rans battling it out: a re-run of a quarter-final from last season, East versus West, a Battle of the FCs and the Raul derby.

Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea Betting Odds:

PSG win 33/20

Chelsea win 33/20

Draw 9/4

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

This tie brought one of Jose Mourinho’s finest moments in his first season back at Stamford Bridge, and the European heavyweights have been drawn together once again – this time at the first knockout stage. Not so much a battle of heavyweights as a battle of political capital between two of the richest clubs in world football. Egos are set to dominate in this first-leg clash at the Parc des Princes; Zlatan Ibrahimovic v Diego Costa anyone?

David Luiz faces his old club, for whose fans he still remains a popular figure, yet he will be up against a side much more ruthless and threatening than the one he departed in the summer. A late Javier Pastore goal gave the hosts a 3-1 advantage that they then squandered in the second leg; Demba Ba the unlikely hero in the rematch at the Bridge. Laurent Blanc’s men would do well to recreate that first-leg scoreline – Chelsea may have improved since, they started without a striker in that game – but the Parisians have regressed, and though their domestic form has picked up in recent weeks they remain unconvincing and Blanc’s position at the club uncertain. Expect an easier ride for Chelsea this year.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Bayern Munich

Shakhtar Donetsk (15/2 with AllYouBet.ag) have been perennial dark horses in the Champions League for years now – not so much a well-kept secret anymore, but their ability to regenerate their squad from the transfer upheaval of recent years has meant they retain that unknown factor in this competition. While Willian, Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have departed westwards, Luiz Adriano has remained, and grown ever more important to the Ukrainian side if his nine goals in the group stage are any indicator. The Ukrainian champions’ imperious home record in this competition will be integral to their chances of upsetting the odds against one of the tournament favourites.

While other sides in the competition may be running on fumes as we enter the final few months of the campaign, Shakhtar and Bayern Munich (9/25) will be refreshed and focused as a result of their respective breaks. While the home side have not played a competitive game since December, the 2013 champions have look underwhelming since their season re-started barely a fortnight ago. Pep Guardiola will be concerned at how the lack of competition in the Bundesliga derailed their Champions League campaign last season with the gap at the top standing at eight points at present. Such concerns may surface later in the competition, but for now the German champions possess enough in terms of squad depth, energy and purpose to see past Shakhtar over two legs.

FC Basel v FC Porto

How many times does a club have to upset the odds before their success becomes an expectancy and no longer a surprise? The forever unfancied FC Basel (43/20 with Intertops.eu) held on to a deserved draw at Anfield in their final Group D game to claim passage into the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since 2011-12. The Swiss champions’ reward is a fairly favourable draw against knock-out round veterans and their manager’s countrymen FC Porto (13/10). The Portuguese club qualified with ease from Group H, and in the duo of the rejuvenated Ricardo Quaresma and the lethal Jackson Martinez they have the firepower to be too much for Basel over two legs.

Paolo Sousa is a novice at this level, taking the round about route of the lower English leagues with Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester before traversing the Hungarian and Israeli leagues to reach the Last 16 of the Champions League. But the Portuguese has inherited a skillful, intelligent and under-appreciated side, who will always back themselves. And they have the 36 year-old Walter Samuel.

Schalke v Real Madrid

The Raul Derby, as this contest will probably never be known in years to come, is the fourth and final fixture of this Champions League week. Though the Spaniard may have long since departed Germany, you can always count on Klaas Jan-Huntelaar to provide the ex-club narrative. The Dutch striker spent one season with the current European champions, 2008-9, and despite his prolific five-year spell in the Bundesliga he continues to be written off on the basis of his nightmare at Madrid and then AC Milan. The Dutch international, 31 years-old, is the old head up front, supported by the prodigious talents of Max Meyer and Arsenal’s Julian Draxler, who are ready to announce themselves to a wider audience.

The meeting pits two Italian Champions League winners against each other, though Carlo Ancelotti can probably stake more of a claim for the influence he’s had on his three triumphs than Roberto Di Matteo can for Chelsea’s in 2012. Real Madrid’s astonishing early-season form brought 22 consecutive wins, two shy of the world record, and they have remained free-scoring if a little inconsistent since the winter break. No side has ever successfully defended the Champions League trophy, but Real should not be overly troubled here; they have too much firepower and tactical nous to be overturned by an inconsistent Schalke side.

Betting Instinct tip – Real Madrid to be winning at half-time and full-time is 11/10 with AllYouBet.ag

 

JamesDutton JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to  run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football. Follow him on Twitter.

West Ham want to win the FA Cup; does anyone else?

The fifth round of the FA Cup is just about the time of the competition when neutrals begin to hope that the plucky underdogs are all sent packing. With the semi-finals and final a mere 180 minutes away for some teams, the prospect of a third tier side rolling into Wembley with the intent of killing a game so they can snatch a 1-0 win leaves few salivating at the prospect. Instead the desire is for teams that genuinely want to win a trophy finding a way into the hat for the last eight of the world’s oldest cup competition.

 

FA Cup Outright Betting Odds:

Arsenal 5/2

Manchester United 13/5

Liverpool 19/4

West Ham United 10/1

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Hull and Wigan have shown in recent seasons that second-string teams can make it all the way to Wembley, even when their managers show absolutely no desire to mastermind a cup run. And it’s for that very reason that West Ham United have to beat West Bromwich Albion in Saturday’s early kick-off.

Sam Allardyce’s side were in fourth position in the Barclays Premier League on Christmas Day and some fans were allowing themselves to think of the Champions League as an actual possibility. Seven points from eight league games since December 25th have killed those hopes dead; but replaced them with dreams of a trip all the way to Wembley.

 

The Hammers have got 38 points to their name. They aren’t going down. And though Allardyce isn’t going to let his side slack off – Big Sam is well aware of the difference in prize money (both actual tournament winnings and television revenue) that comes from finishing just one place higher – he has made it clear that he fancies a go at winning some silverware; especially without the baggage of having Andy Carroll in his side.

Allardyce can instead focus his side on playing the vibrant, attacking brand of football that delighted so many of us in the opening weeks of the season; rather than relying on finding the target man with long balls. Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia have been two excellent signings and without Carroll inclusion forcing them to play wider than they would like, both should be able to take on the mantle as West Ham’s main attacking options for the rest of the season.

In their way stand a West Brom side just four points clear of safety. Regardless of how switched on they will pretend to be when Tony Pulis sends them onto the pitch, the whole group have their minds on the trip to fellow strugglers Sunderland in the Premier League next week.

 

Sadly, there isn’t such a simple case to be made in the instance of Arsenal taking on Middlesbrough on Sunday. Neither side would have too many complaints if they ended up going out of the competition this weekend.

With the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League against Monaco looming and Southampton refusing to budge from the top four of the Premier League, Arsenal really don’t need a cup run. Arsene Wenger won a trophy last season so he’s got another five or six years before he really has to win another and his focus will wander elsewhere. He’ll still be able to pick a strong squad but don’t expect to see Ozil, Cazorla and Sanchez all starting together.

The Frenchman will, one would expect, prioritise European qualification for next season and the chance of European glory over the FA Cup. Unfortunately the competition will also fall down the pecking order for the visitors.

 

Middlesbrough are top of the Football League Championship. That’s normally enough to suggest a side as capable of taking a Premier League scalp in the fifth round. However Boro are set to play three league matches in the 10 days after Sunday’s match and with the promised land of the Premier League moving onto the horizon, Aitor Karanka may want to re-evaluate his hopes for the season.

Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Blackpool did see the Spaniard shuffle his pack a little and give a few of his important players a rest, so he may be planning to have a go at Arsenal. But if his side find themselves 1-2 behind with six minutes to go; a late goal to take things back to the Riverside Stadium for a replay won’t be chased as passionately as it could be.

It won’t finish in a draw; that’s the only thing both managers will be keen for. Neither team needs another fixture added to their schedule.

Betting Instinct tip Draw at half-time/Arsenal at full-time is 11/4 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Ryan avatar RYAN KEANEY (ryankeaney) is a huge sports fan who spends most of his week toying around with sports data.  He is the editor of www.thefootballproject.net and a co-editor for In Bed with Maradona. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Manchester United and Sunderland face potential giant-killings in FA Cup 5th Round

Love is in the air this weekend, and I don’t mean the cheap Valentines Day booze-up and romp you regret nine months later. No, open your hearts, put down those homemade 50 Shades-inspired whips and chains, and rejoice as the magic of the FA Cup comes hurtling back with all the mystique of a Silent Witness episode.

In truth, last time out proved to be quite the upset as Chelsea were felled at home by League One opposition Bradford City (more on them soon), and the number of Premier League teams left in the competition were reduced to 10.

 

Out are big-hitters Chelsea and Manchester City, who have appeared in five of the last six finals, concentrating their efforts on league glory instead.

And now, just two rounds away from the Wembley showpiece, thoughts of the smaller clubs will start to turn towards the rare possibility of following in the footsteps of recent finalists Millwall and Cardiff. Two teams in particular will be hoping to do their best David impersonation as they take on top tier Goliaths.

 

Bradford City v Sunderland Betting Odds:

Bradford win 5/2

Sunderland win 19/20

Draw 23/10

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Bradford welcome Sunderland to Valley Parade for the first game between the two teams in 12 years. While the visitors’ ability should see them through, Bradford have pedigree in similar situations to these. In 2013 they overcame Premier League clubs Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan to reach the League Cup final. Although that proved a bridge too far, with the Bantams losing to Swansea 5-0, Bradford’s capacity to cause a shock result should not be doubted, having beaten Chelsea in the previous round.

Currently two places outside the League One play-offs, the Yorkshire club has lost only two of its last 17 games across all competitions, winning 10. And if they come out swinging like their co-chairman over the BBC’s decision not to show the tie, then we should be in for a full-blooded slugfest on Sunday afternoon.

 

In Sunderland’s case, this fixture could offer the respite needed from the doom surrounding their league campaign. Sitting a mere two points off the bottom three, Tuesday night’s loss to relegation rivals Queens Park Rangers will have dented their confidence further heading into the sell-out away FA Cup fixture.

But a game against lower league challengers provides the perfect opportunity for retribution, and a chance to improve their mind-set with a convincing win ahead of a crucial couple of months.

In all likelihood, it’ll be an attritional contest, fought out on a pitch resembling a tattered old rug won by the side with greater fitness and talent. Yet with Sunderland in need of shoring up their defensive errors that have seen them slip in the new year following a defiant November run, and struggles at the other end – even the January arrival of 32-year-old striker Jermain Defoe hasn’t mended Sunderland’s goal-woes – there’s every chance of a surprise.

 

Monday night’s prospect of Preston North End versus Manchester United should finish predictably too, but Preston’s manager Simon Grayson has form when it comes to defeating United. Five years on from his League One Leeds side stunning Manchester United thanks to a Jermaine Beckford winner, Grayson is hoping to repeat the feat.

Preston may not be on the kind of form Leeds were then, where they went into the game unbeaten in 17 matches, however they do reside comfortably in fourth place of League One with the third tightest defence in the third tier. Although struggling for goals in the league, Preston forward Paul Gallagher is the Cup’s leading scorer, and with United having conceded in six of their last eight league matches, he may well add to that tally.

 

For United the FA Cup has been a kind affair, though unnecessarily difficult to progress in, requiring a replay to defeat Cambridge United. In the midst of journalists and supporters bickering over whether they are a long-ball side and limp wins, United have crawled their way to third in the division. They have lost just once in 18 games in all competitions and manager Louis van Gaal seems content now to use a Plan B where essential.

It may well be another tough watch, but we can’t see past United leaving victorious and through to the quarter-finals having jinked past Premier League draws en route.

Betting Instinct tip – Paul Gallagher to score at any time is 10/3 with Coral.co.uk

 

FRANCIS KELLYfrancis avatar is a sports writer who has contributed to the Independent, the Guardian and The Cricketer magazine. He can be found waxing lyrical about Norwich City on Twitter

Cricket’s elite poised to deliver highest-scoring World Cup in history

The 49 matches involving 14 nations and preposterously spread over six weeks make the Cricket World Cup the most pointlessly truncated showpiece event in world sport. Yet despite the best efforts of the ICC and television broadcasters to elongate a process that guarantees the success of nations that provide the grandest viewing figures, the cricket itself will be of a high enough quality to dissuade the cynicism. Eventually.

The format from the drearily long 2011 tournament on the sub-continent has been retained for this year’s antipodean adventure; 14 teams will take part in the initial stages, divided into two groups of seven; the seven teams play each other once before the top four teams from each group qualify for the quarter-finals. The format ensures that each team gets to play a minimum of six matches even if they exit in the group stage.

 

Cricket World Cup – Outright Betting Odds:

Australia 2/1

South Africa 3/1

New Zealand 5/1

(All odds from Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The process guarantees that the major nations will all play each other, and with qualification a near certainty if they avoid humiliation against the associate and affiliate member nations – this year comprising Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates – meaning the competition may well prove a damp squib until the knockout stage begins on March 18.

While the format may work against the action and drama that World Cups bring across the sporting world, the fixtures that the group stage provides will at least bring a spectacle of world-class cricket. The tournament kicks off this coming Saturday – Valentine’s Day – where no love will be lost (apologies) between tournament favourites Australia, and England, who face each other just hours after the opening game between New Zealand and Sri Lanka.

 

The group stage is awash with potential classic encounters: the grudge match between Pakistan and India, the big-hitting of South Africa against the Indians and the carnage of world cricket’s arch mavericks West Indies and Pakistan.

Expect this to be the highest scoring World Cup in history; the pitches in Australia, and New Zealand to a lesser extent, tend to help batsmen, and with the trend of 50 over scores regularly in excess of 300, even 350, there will be runs galore.

 

As is always the case in these major tournaments, thoughts tend to extend to the players that will light up the stage. AB de Villiers, fresh from his record-breaking and astounding 149 off 44 balls against the West Indies last month cements his position as the number one batsman in ODI cricket. Elsewhere there is the nonchalant brilliance of Chris Gayle, who will surely produce something spectacular with the bat, the evergreen Sri Lankan stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene in their swansong tournament, and India’s superstar batsman Virat Kohli.

Heroic batting performances often take the plaudits and dominate the highlights reel, but there will be no shortage of high quality bowling on show either, especially with the juxtaposing nature of the pitches in Australia and New Zealand. The hard and bouncy surfaces in the former will suit the fast bowlers that look to hit the deck; look no further than Mitchell Johnson, Morne Morkel or Mohammad Irfan here. While the swing and seam-friendly conditions in New Zealand will assist the fast bowlers looking to add subtle variations to their deliveries, expect the likes of Dale Steyn, James Anderson and Lasith Malinga to excel in these conditions.

 

The destination of the Cricket World Cup trophy is between three teams; Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The holders, India (9/1 with AllYouBet.ag) , are on the back of a harrowing tour Down Under and have a record away from home that even Queens Park Rangers would be ashamed of. West Indies are in freefall both on and off the pitch while Pakistan lack the star quality. For South Africa, perhaps the nation packed with most quality in all three departments – batting, bowling and fielding – history is against them as they look to finally end their hoodoo of never winning a knock-out match in World Cup history.

New Zealand, so long the perennial dark horses, are now genuine contenders. Home advantage helps, but their form has been irresistible in the one day game and they now possess a litany of match winners, rather than simply leaning on the mercurial efforts of skipper Brendon McCullum.

 

For Eoin Morgan and England (also 9/1) a quarter-final finish would be a minimum requirement, and a semi-final berth a major overachievement. Despite the obvious improvement since Alastair Cook was stripped of the captaincy and removed from the side, they still struggle to post regular scores in excess of 300 – now par for the course in ODI cricket. The big-hitting of Moeen Ali, James Taylor and Jos Buttler will be key to their success, but so too the form of Joe Root at number four, so often the glue that holds the batting order together.

Whatever the qualms surrounding the format and the never-ending feel of the group stage, this World Cup is packed full of world-class cricketers at the height of their game. The ingredients are there for this to be a classic that the ICC needs after the disappointing fares of 2007 and 2011, even though you might be asleep for most of it.

 

JamesDutton JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to  run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football. Follow him on Twitter.