Posts by James Dutton

Champions Chelsea can punish complacent Liverpool

A week is a long time in politics. By the time Chelsea and Liverpool take to the field on Sunday there could well be a new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Or, as is more likely, the political parties will remain locked in darkened rooms, thrashing out deals and compromises to form another coalition government. As for the two football clubs, you could hardly drive a larger political wedge between them, with Chelsea sitting in the Conservative safe seat of Kensington – the only Tory club in the Premier League – and Liverpool a notorious Labour heartland.

 

Chelsea v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Chelsea win 21/20

Liverpool win 5/2

Draw 9/4

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

 

If a week is a long time in the political world, then a year in football is an eternity. These two faced each other with three games remaining last season in what is now a well run story; Steven Gerrard slipped, Demba Ba scored, Liverpool capitulated and Manchester City won the title. The Reds sold Luis Suarez and recruited poorly, the Blues sold David Luiz and recruited well.

With three games to go in 2014-15 Chelsea have already wrapped up the title and with nine points left to play for sit 13 ahead of second placed Man City, with Brendan Rodgers’ side a further 22 points back. The momentum that his side took into this fixture in April last year has well and truly evaporated after a chastening year, and defeat at Stamford Bridge would represent their 11th of the season, well and truly extinguishing their slim hopes of retaining their Champions League status for a second campaign.

 

Chelsea will be overwhelming favourites in a fixture that has so much less riding on it than would have been predictable even a month ago. Jose Mourinho’s team have strolled to the league title, barely breaking sweat in the second half of the season and undefeated since a 5-3 reverse at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day, while three defeats in Liverpool’s last six have cost them hugely in their unlikely bid to make the top four.

While some managers would see the visit of the Reds as a chance to put down a marker, to emphasise your superiority in this league, for Mourinho only victory matters as their 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace showed last Sunday. After taking the lead on half time, every substitution was designed to make sure of victory and deny the opposition a way back; John Obi Mikel for Juan Cuadrado, Kurt Zouma for Willian and Filipe Luis for Eden Hazard. “Boring” it may be to some, but no one can deny the effectiveness of Mourinho’s tactics this year.

So entrenched in negativity have been perceptions of Mourinho’s side since the new year that many have overlooked their stellar start to the year, when they attacked with verve and dynamism, spearheaded by summer signings Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. Their second, and so far final, league defeat of the season came in that loss to Tottenham in January. It was viewed then as a sign of complacency creeping into their game, of defensive frailties and vulnerabilities that other sides had failed to pick up on.

 

Conversely it was the best thing to happen to them. It has led to the pragmatic approach, the defensive lockdown that has been behind their title victory. Only Hull have scored more than once against them in the past four months. The Blues may have the best eleven in the league, but they have a manager who saw the problems and addressed them, where others may have ignored them. It is as much Mourinho’s win as Eden Hazard’s, Diego Costa’s or John Terry’s.

Pragmatic has become a dirty word in footballing circles, its connotations with negative, defensive football too readily assumed. Instead it is the mark of doing what it takes to win, it is perhaps the ultimate skill set a manager can learn. It is what separates the best from the rest. While Mourinho has it in spades, his opposite number and former apprentice Brendan Rodgers, is still learning it. It would be lazy to accuse the Liverpool manager of being too idealistic for he is more pragmatic now than when he took over the Reds in June 2012.

 

The move to the three at the back midway through this season, the use of the midfield diamond last season, all manoeuvres that point to a coach who can be pragmatic. However that’s not to say he couldn’t have been more pragmatic. The 3-4-2-1 could have been hooked earlier, the 4-3-2-1 of the autumn should have been abandoned almost immediately, while the need to prioritise goals over defensive solidity has not been properly addressed.

As we enter the denouement of the 2014-15 season, the sense of regret and a missed opportunity abounds on Merseyside. Liverpool took their foot off the gas after a dire FA Cup semi-final showing against Aston Villa, taking just one point off West Brom and Hull City. Victories would see them sitting in fourth now, given the three consecutive defeats suffered by Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United; instead complacency crept in.

 

Brendan Rodgers has a poor record against top four sides this season, with only a home win against a disinterested Manchester City to shout about. But this isn’t where Liverpool have fallen short this year, it’s in failing to beat the bottom ten teams home and away; they’ve only done that over Burnley and QPR, the weakest two sides in the division.

Liverpool do not deserve to finish in the top four, and they will lose at Stamford Bridge on Sunday because fear has replaced bravado at Anfield, ever since Steven Gerrard slipped over and Demba Ba scored that goal.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Liverpool not to score is 31/20 with Intertops.eu

 

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.

Bayern Munich facing elimination in Champions League Quarter Finals

 

Few observers predicted any surprises when the Champions League quarter final draw was made last month, but after last week’s first legs one of the bookies’ favourites, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, are facing premature elimination.

Three of the four ties are delicately poised, Barcelona should sail through after their convincing 3-1 win in Paris last week, but it is the prospect of FC Porto defeating the Bundesliga runaway leaders that has gripped the neutrals.

 

Champions League Outright Betting Odds:

Barcelona 27/20

Real Madrid 7/2

Bayern Munich 7/2

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

 

The Portuguese club, winners in 2004, were outstanding in victory last Wednesday, with the rejuvenated Ricardo Quaresma scoring twice in the opening 10 minutes, before Jackson Martinez extended their lead in the second half after Thiago Alcantara’s away goal. For all of Porto’s quality, Bayern were generous in defeat, gifting away all three goals through glaring individual errors from Xabi Alonso, Dante and Jerome Boateng.

The 2013 champions have been one of the form sides in this season’s competition, with Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk both on the wrong end of seven goal thrashings from the Bavarians, but they must win by at least a two goal margin to progress to a fourth consecutive semi final appearance. It says much about the expectations in modern football that two seasons without a Champions League trophy is unthinkable for a coach as feted as Guardiola.

 

With a mounting injury list that includes Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Javi Martinez and Mehdi Benatia, this could prove one uphill struggle too far for Pep. With Barcelona overwhelming favourites to finish the job against Paris Saint Germain on Tuesday night at the Nou Camp, attention turns to Wednesday’s two fixtures where there remains everything to play for.

Atletico and Real Madrid played out a tense goalless draw at the Calderon last week, and will line up at the Bernabeu for their eighth meeting this season. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and that was certainly the case given the needle on show between the two Madrid clubs last week. Real’s failure to score an away goal could cost them more than Atletico’s failure to ram home the home advantage, especially with Luka Modric and Gareth Bale likely to miss out through injury.

 

Atletico have shown they are the masters of the two-leg format under Diego Simeone, beating Real twice in this scenario already this season in both the Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup. They have form, too, for turning a 0-0 first leg at home into a two-legged victory, as their 3-1 semi final win at Stamford Bridge last year so ruthlessly demonstrated.

Last season’s Final defeat in Lisbon remains Atletico’s only loss in their last 10 European matches against Spanish rivals and, in Antoine Griezmann, they have one of Europe’s most in-form players; the French international has six goals in his last five games. With history against Real in their bid to become the first side to retain the Champions League, Atletico look a good prospect to upset their city rivals once again.

 

In the final quarter final clash, Juventus have a single goal lead to defend in Monaco thanks to Arturo Vidal’s penalty in Turin last week, though the winning margin should have been higher given the wastefulness of Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata. The Serie A leaders are the stronger side on paper, and with the principality club required to open up at home in pursuit of goals, they will be easier to pick off than the side that came to defend in Italy. As Arsenal showed in their 2-0 win there in the Last 16, when the onus is on the Ligue 1 club at home they can become vulnerable, despite their excellent defensive record at the Stade Louis II.

With three results still all to play for, this week’s second legs clashes remain on a knife edge. The prospect of seeing this season’s Big Four – Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and Real – in the semi finals remains a very real prospect, but nothing can be taken for granted.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich all to win their home legs is 3.26 with Intertops.eu

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.

Liverpool and Manchester United battle for Champions League place

Liverpool come full circle on Sunday as Manchester United visit Anfield – a grudge match in every sense of the word – and yet intensified by what lies at stake. When the sides met at Old Trafford in the middle of December Brendan Rodgers debuted his innovative 3-4-2-1 formation, but his team still ended the game on the wrong side of a 3-0 thrashing. The Reds dropped to 10th in the table and 10 points behind their arch-rivals, and at that stage their prospects of a top four finish looked incredibly bleak.

But the seeds of Liverpool’s revival were sown in those harrowing 90 minutes at Old Trafford. The 3-4-2-1 has been an ever-present since, it has led to greater defensive solidity and allowed Liverpool to replicate a hint of their attacking zest from last season; most importantly they haven’t suffered defeat in the league since, and they now sit two points behind their fourth-placed rivals with nine games remaining.

 

Liverpool v Manchester United Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 21/20

Manchester United win 12/5

Draw 12/5

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

 

The system may have come by design, but the personnel in the eleven that will probably start at Anfield very much by accident. Brad Jones infamously displaced Simon Mignolet in goal and his novel trait of playing dodgeball, rather than, say, goalkeeping, lasted until a Boxing Day injury picked up at Burnley. The Belgian has subsequently found his best form since his move to Merseyside behind the settled back three of Emre Can, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho.

Can’s elevation to a ball-playing right-sided centre-half came in that trip to Turf Moor, after an injury to Glen Johnson and half-time substitution of Kolo Toure. Sakho’s opportunity on the left finally came after Rodgers’ patience with £20million summer recruit Dejan Lovren wore thin. Those three and Mignolet have formed an effective defensive unit and underpinned Liverpool’s surge up the table since the turn of the year.

 

P 13 W 10 D 3 L 0 F 24 A 8

Those are the numbers behind the Reds’ transformation since the bleakest of midwinters; a season that looked a write-off is now full of opportunity and progression. The highlight of their current five-game winning streak came with Philippe Coutinho’s stunning winner against Manchester City, but it has also included important victories against Tottenham and Southampton, teams that they have left behind in pursuit of Champions League football next season.

A similar outcome against Louis van Gaal’s Man United on Sunday will see Liverpool enter the top four for the first time since August. United fans may have feared retribution from their Red rivals on Sunday, but the manner of their 3-0 win over Spurs last weekend has changed the conversation somewhat. It was easily their best performance since the turn of the year and has soothed the heavy criticism of the manager and his playing style in the wake of the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal.

It hinted at a reinvigoration at both ends of the pitch; David de Gea remains in fine form while Wayne Rooney, restored to the strike force, has struck four goals in as many games. While results have remained mostly positive throughout the season, a progressive style of play has mostly eluded van Gaal. The Spurs result is a small sample size, granted, but it had United playing fluid football, quicker in tempo and largely to their strengths.

 

The increasing use of Marouane Fellaini has been a lightning rod for criticism of van Gaal and his tiresomely lampooned “philosophy”, but it’s a red herring. United have failed to convince this season not because of a perceived over-reliance on long-balls, but because of painfully slow build-up play that made them pedestrian and predictable. Against Spurs they combined Fellaini’s physical presence with quick counter-attacking – it was, for the first 45 minutes, brutally effective, and could well cause problems at Anfield.

While Liverpool are not the defensively brittle side they were earlier in the season, the first half of their 1-0 win at Swansea on Monday night was their most unconvincing defensive performance in months. Garry Monk’s men cut off the attacking supply line from deep and repeatedly got in behind their backline. The Reds have discovered, though, what United have thrived on this season – ways to win football matches.

 

Problem-solving has come to define both teams in recent months. A head-to-head joust for the fourth Champions League spot is not where either side wants to be in the long-term, but this is a defining game in what will prove a defining end to the season for both Brendan Rodgers and Louis van Gaal.

 

Betting Instinct tip – With both teams aware of the cost of defeat, consider backing fewer than 2.5 goals at 9/10 with Intertops.eu.

 

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.

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.

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.

Absence of key names could hinder Chelsea in potential early title-decider

January 1, 2015

  1. Chelsea P20 W 14 D 4 L 2 GF 44 GA 19 PTS 46
  2. Man City P20 W 14 D 4 L 2 GF 44 GA 19 PTS 46
On New Year’s Day it was tempting to look at this weekend’s clash between Chelsea and Manchester City as the titanic title tussle that we thought this Premier League season would never get. But City being City, the winner-takes-all tag has disappeared and a five point gap has resurfaced between the two ahead of Saturday evening’s Showdown at the Bridge.

 

January 31 is no time to be having the final top-of-the-table clash of the season, with there remaining 15 games still to play even as the dust settles after the Stamford Bridge match. That quirk is not just the fault of the fixture list but everyone else in the league failing to consistently test either side, whose fallibilities and vulnerabilities have crept to the surface since the turn of the year.

 

 

Chelsea win – Evens
Man City win – 13/5
Draw – 23/10

 

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

 

City’s seven-game winning sequence from late November to Boxing Day whittled away Chelsea’s eight-point lead at the table summit. On New Year’s Day the pair sat neck-and-neck with only alphabetical order separating first from second. But City’s flimsiness when expectancy rears its head has one again crept in.

 

There is no shame in drawing 1-1 at Everton, but failing to hold on for three points after taking a 74th minute lead against a side who had suffered four straight defeats is unforgivable. That was then followed by a lethargic, tempo-less performance against a disciplined Arsenal, where they crumbled to a 2-0 defeat. Only 24 hours previously Chelsea had demolished Swansea 5-0, a performance that Jose Mourinho hailed as “perfect”.

 

But both sides enter the weekend game against a peculiar backdrop. City’s horrendous run of form since the New Year has clouded their preparation, and Chelsea have had their own soul-searching to do after a week of mixed cup fortunes and the acrimony of Jose Mourinho’s siege mentality. Manuel Pellegrini’s side look in dire need of attacking inspiration, with David Silva and Sergio Aguero yet to get going after their respective returns from injury.

 

The embarrassing truth that has been peddled out most frequently this month is that City have failed to win a game without Yaya Toure since January last year. The desperation to field their dynamic midfielder, and £30million new boy Wilfried Bony for that matter, was underlined by the fact that Pellegrini wanted them in the squad if Cote d’Ivoire crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday. As it is the Chilean must make do without them again, and face that Toure-less record head on again, if new life is to be injected into the title race.

 

Defeat – and an eight point lead for Chelsea – will surely leave City with too much to do, given the kinder fixtures remaining for Mourinho’s men in the second-half of the season.

 

Chelsea have won each of their 10 Premier League games at Stamford Bridge this season, scoring at least twice on each occasion, and will be confident of keeping that record up given that City have conceded at least two goals in four of their last five league fixtures, and with Vincent Kompany looking extremely shaky since his return form injury.

 

Yet one can not escape the feeling that Mourinho will approach this game from a damage limitation viewpoint. He will know that he has the kinder fixture list, with City still to travel to Anfield, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane before the end of the season, and may as a result look to keep the five-point lead intact, rather than risk losing it again.

 

It is not an approach that Mourinho tends to go with at home, usually saving it for away games as he did last season in grinding out goalless draws at Old Trafford and the Emirates. But don’t be surprised if he favours a Mikel-Matic axis in defensive midfield, given the attacking riches that they will likely be missing. Cesc Fabregas limped out of Tuesday night’s win over Liverpool and much will rest also on the outcome of Diego Costa’s FA charge of violent conduct for stamping on Emre Can; and Chelsea are a very different prospect without their snarling Spaniard leading the line.

 

It is not just his goalscoring record they’ll miss – eight different times he’s struck at Stamford Bridge this season – but his sheer presence, will to win and the way he upsets the rhythm of opposing defenders. Without Toure, Fabregas and Costa the fixture will lack that extra class and spice; but the presence of Frank Lampard – back at Stamford Bridge after leaving Chelsea in the summer – will at least distract the media narrative.

 

Betting Instinct tip – with plenty of attacking talent sidelined, it could be worth backing fewer than 1.5 goals at 23/10 with Intertops.eu

 

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

Old Trafford trip highlights Liverpool’s season of decline

Defeat this weekend will increase the pressure on Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers

Defeat this weekend will increase the pressure on Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers

As we approach the half-way stage of the 2014-15 Premier League season, once again Liverpool fans are being bombarded by the Groundhog day sensation. The visit of Chelsea and the trip to Selhurst Park last month were reminders of where last season’s title challenge disintegrated, but Sunday’s encounter with Manchester United at Old Trafford promises to be the most harrowing reminder yet of how far Brendan Rodgers’ side have plummeted.

Last March Old Trafford reverberated with the sounds of Poetry in Motion as the revelling hordes of travelling Liverpool fans lauded their side – “We’re gonna win the League”. Their title chances then still looked unlikely, but the swaggering momentum they were building up was undeniable and at times irresistible.

The 3-0 victory that afternoon was one of control and precision, not the swift counter-attacking that came to define them, and that it came at the home of their decaying neighbours made it ever sweeter. How Liverpool fans must wish they could bottle the mood of that afternoon and carry it with them this weekend.

But there will be no repeat of that this Sunday; David Moyes has gone, much to the chagrin of United’s rival fan bases, and the club are in a significantly healthier position this December. Liverpool’s win in Manchester back March was their fifth in succession and they won another six in a row afterward; Louis van Gaal’s United have won their last five and shoved their way into the top three – they could be there for some time now.

 

Manchester United v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Manchester United win 4/5

Liverpool win 3/1

Draw 13/5

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

 

Besides the intrigue of their respective fluctuating fortunes, is the resumption of what remains England’s greatest fixture and club rivalry as it enters a new era. The departure of Luis Suarez removes the most volatile character in its recent history, but the arrival of Van Gaal guarantees that the rivalry cycle continues.

The 63 year-old is no stranger to rivalries and the importance associated to it by supporters. Watching his end-of-season victory speech at Bayern Munich in 2010, where he claimed his side not only to be the champions of Munich and Germany, but of Gelsenkirchen, Bremen and Hamburg too, you can imagine he would require little encouragement to proclaim Manchester United as the champions of Liverpool.

 

His revival of United has been in stark contrast to the slapstick moments of August; they have not quite gone down the route of simply trying to outscore opponents. The defence remains makeshift and rarely convinces, but it is nowhere near as porous as many make out; since the second-half collapse at Leicester in September, West Brom are the only team to score more than once past them. The improved form of David de Gea, who is playing at his most consistent peak since joining three years ago, is an undoubtedly strong factor behind this.

The integration of Marouane Fellaini higher up the pitch has given the Red Devils more than just an aerial reference point, and he doesn’t look quite the £28m waste of space that he did under Moyes last season. The entire side looks to be regaining a presence and purpose under their new Dutch manager, a knowhow for winning all manner of football matches no matter the circumstance and situation – for all of Southampton’s endeavour against them on Monday night, United’s victory felt somewhat inevitable.

 

How Brendan Rodgers desires that winning habit that has so deserted him and his team since the spring. The sight of Martin Skrtel operating as an emergency centre-forward as Liverpool limped out of the Champions League on Tuesday was a painful one for supporters and highlighted the disintegration of the attack that had carried them there in the first place.

In the light of a harrowing run of form in the autumn, which culminated in a fourth successive defeat at Crystal Palace last month, Rodgers has abandoned his idealism and resorted to pragmatic football, selecting the players he trusts most and bringing short-term gains. Play is not built from the back, full backs have stopped rampaging forward and midfielders are charged with stopping the opposition resulting in a static rather than fluid attack. Seven points from the last nine available in the league suggests it’s had some effect, but it did not prevent Champions League elimination.

The autumnal slump has been arrested to some degree – Liverpool have not lost since last month’s aberration at Selhurst Park – but they remain in the full grip of a malaise, and on the precipice of a deeper crisis. If the midweek disappointment is followed by defeats at Old Trafford, away to Bournemouth next week and against Arsenal the weekend after – not out of the question for a team with three wins in 12 – then the pressure on Rodgers could grow insurmountable.

 

There is still time for Rodgers to turn this around and the next three fixtures can be viewed as opportunities to regain pride for himself and his team; to do that he must trust in and accentuate the qualities of his players not fear the opposition’s. It is impossible to say in this day and age without sounding like a glib Alan Hansen rehash, but Liverpool still possess the one weapon that can truly unsettle opposition defences; pace.

If the manager decides again to lead the line with a 32 year-old and a 34 year-old, with the combined pace of a bowl of porridge, it will play right into the hands of van Gaal. Failure to pressurise another changed backline, with Chris Smalling now joining Phil Jones and Luke Shaw on the United treatment table, would be another illustration of the fear that has overcome Rodgers and Liverpool.

 

Betting Instinct tip – With Liverpool having only a few days to recover from their Champions League exit, the hosts can take advantage. Manchester United to win by two or more is 2/1 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

Role-Reversal For Liverpool and Chelsea Six Months On

Fringe players like Emre Can performed against Real Madrid in midweek, but how many will keep their place against Chelsea?

Fringe players like Emre Can performed against Real Madrid in midweek, but how many will keep their place against Chelsea?

Has it really been six months?

 

Steven Gerrard, receiving a square pass from Mamadou Sakho on the half-way line, lets the ball slide under his right boot. Unbeknownst to the Liverpool captain, Demba Ba is lurking not far away, and as the Senegalese races to pick up the loose ball, Gerrard slips. Liverpool’s centre-backs are split, Ba has a free run on goal and slots the ball comfortably past the onrushing Simon Mignolet.

It’s a sequence that has been immortalised since in vines, photoshops and tweets; the moment where Liverpool’s title bubble burst. The goal panicked Brendan Rodgers’ outfit, who put in one of their most dysfunctional performances of the season; 73% of possession, 21 shots from outside the box and 29 open play crosses. It smacked of desperation, and they haven’t been the same since.

How the past six months have changed the outlook of this fixture as Chelsea return to Anfield, four points clear at the top of the Premier League, and 12 clear of a Liverpool side struggling to rediscover the swashbuckling, marauding verve that propelled them on an 11-match winning streak and three games away from a first league title in 24 years.

 

Liverpool v Chelsea Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 9/4

Chelsea win 11/10

Draw 47/20

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

 

Liverpool were the title favourites and Chelsea were the underdogs that day in late April, with Jose Mourinho in full “us against the world” siege mentality. The roles have reversed substantially; as many who micro-analysed Liverpool’s rotated starting lineup away to Real Madrid this week will have told you, it is now Brendan Rodgers who has his team in lockdown mode.

The pressure to claim a result against the champions-elect has been magnified by a return of only four points from the three recent, yet presentable, fixtures against Queens Park Rangers, Hull City and Newcastle United. And given the ‘relative’ success of a second-string line-up restricting Real Madrid to victory by a solitary goal at the Bernabeu on Tuesday, Rodgers has much to ponder ahead of another acid test.

 

The first of which lies in team selection, namely whether any of the seven midweek changes will retain their place come Saturday. Herein lies the conundrum for Rodgers, after Liverpool put in their most defensively organised and disciplined performance since the Merseyside derby in late September.

It seems likely, however, that the Liverpool boss will revert to type; Kolo Toure’s finest hour in a Liverpool shirt has been eulogised across the internet over the past 24 hours, but Dejan Lovren will be recalled, despite his less than impressive start to life at Anfield. Lucas Leiva’s hour of control and ball retention will give way to Steven Gerrard’s ailing legs and Hollywood diagonals, while the continued promise of Javier Manquillo will give way to the familiar calamity of Glen Johnson.

 

In Chelsea, Liverpool are facing a team without any real or obvious weaknesses, who have strolled through the first quarter of the Premier League season barely challenged. Jose Mourinho’s side have dropped points only twice this season, but both times when protecting single goal leads away to the two Manchester clubs. Will Mourinho once again choose to counter-attack and contain, or go for the jugular against a team with such obvious defensive frailties?

With the added firepower of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, it would be unreasonable to expect Mourinho to “park two buses”, as Rodgers quipped after the Blues’ dogged and defensive display in their 2-0 win at Anfield last season.

 

Rested for the Champions League trip to Maribor, the trio of Thibaut Courtois, Oscar and Costa will be pushing for selection, though Mourinho may be persuaded to persist with Didier Droba, who has scored 11 career goals against Liverpool, nine of them for Chelsea. During Mourinho’s previous dominant start to a Premier League season in 2005-6, his Chelsea side bullied Liverpool in a 4-1 win, with the Ivorian tormenter-in-chief that day.

The element of surprise could be Liverpool’s biggest weapon on Saturday, though the high-tempo, aggressive starts that so typified last season’s title charge have been conspicuous by their absence so far in 2014-5. A slow, probing and controlled performance would play right into Chelsea’s hands; Rodgers cannot play Mourinho at his own game.

 

An unlikely victory would send Liverpool joint-fourth, if only temporarily, and dispel the “dark cloud” that former striker John Toshack claimed was hanging over Anfield this week. Or Chelsea will power onwards to the most ominous and inevitable Premier League title in recent times. Resistance is futile.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Despite, or perhaps because of, Steven Gerrard’s likely return, Chelsea are stronger favourites now than in May. A repeat 2-0 away win is 15/2 with Intertops.eu

 

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

Tough tasks for Ireland and Wales in Euro 2016 Qualifying

robbiekeane

34-year-old Robbie Keane is still going strong for Ireland

 

No one enjoys the international break do they? There are very few that pipe up to defend it, or argue in favour of it. For some it inspires complete apathy, while for others it is utterly intolerable.

A fortnight of England-centric media coverage, of footballers pretending to care and Roy Hodgson bathing in the limelight. The World Cup was great, EURO 2016 will undoubtedly be a lot of fun, but the whole truncated and tiring qualifying process can do one.

Unfortunately the world doesn’t work like that and we’re stuck with the qualifiers and the regular fortnights of doom forever.

So early are we in the qualifying process for EURO 2016 that very little importance rides on the next week’s set of fixtures, but for some of the Home Nations this has traditionally proved to be the hurdle where qualification has been lost.

 

Euro 2016 Qualifying Group B Betting Odds (To Win Group):

Belgium 11/50

Bosnia and Herzegovina 5/1

Israel 18/1

Wales 18/1

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

 

Wales lost three of their opening four qualifiers for World Cup 2014, while Scotland, in the same group, drew twice and lost twice. By October 2012 and with the tournament still 20 months away, it had become a foregone conclusion and the process reduced to a demoralising, damage-limitation exercise.

For Chris Coleman’s side, their scrappy 2-1 victory over Andorra on one of the most disgraceful 3G pitches ever provided for an international match, looks ever more important now. Back-to-back home fixtures against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Cyprus provide a real catalysing opportunity.

 

By virtue of Michel Platini’s utopian dreaming, qualification for EURO 2016 is decidedly easier than it has ever been for a European Championships, but Wales have been dealt with a blow with the injuries to Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey – the only two Welsh footballers who can hope to hold a candle to the blistering talent of Gareth Bale.

Bale will need to be in full Superman mode and evoke his latter-day Spurs form if he is to single-handedly fire his country through this great opportunity.

 

Gordon Strachan, taking a break from ITV punditry to fulfil his other duty as Scotland manager, will be approaching their games against Georgia and Poland in characteristically forthright manner after their narrow loss to world champions Germany last month.

If the Scots can recreate the no fear attitude that Strachan cited in their 2-1 defeat in Dortmund, they will be confident of coming away from Warsaw with a positive result to set their qualification hopes alight.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Scotland to beat Georgia is 7/10 with Intertops.eu

 

Elsewhere in Group D the Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane experiment continues apace for the Republic of Ireland, with an effective bye against Gibraltar coming before a mid-week trip to Germany. It may be 2014, iPhones may bend and even watches are becoming must-have gadgets, but somehow there is still space in the Ireland squad for Robbie Keane and Shay Given.

Northern Ireland’s first away win in four years, coming in Hungary last month, has similarly ignited their qualifying campaign. They host minnows Faroe Islands on Saturday, the rare sight of Northern Ireland with six points from six a very real possibility. A trip to harbingers of doom Greece next Tuesday will likely prove their toughest assignment during qualifying; don’t expect goals.

 

Betting Instinct tip – A £10 bet on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to both qualify for Euro 2016 returns £166.70 with Coral

 

As for England, frankly, who cares? The empty Wembley bowl will play host to the neutral’s darling San Marino, Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend will insult the part-time plumbers and brick-layers causing some overdue twitter beef between the Sammarinese FA and ITV.

Hodgson’s men beat San Marino by five and eight during World Cup qualifying; can we expect another Danny Welbeck hat-trick to go with his double salvo in Switzerland last month?

Or how about another Captain Wayne Rooney sending-off? He could do with a bit of a break in November.

 

Betting Instinct tip Danny Welbeck to score a hat-trick is 4/1 with Coral

 

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