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.

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.

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+.

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

Will Liverpool and Man City miss key men in Champions League showdowns?

Who will be missed more, Sergio Aguero or Daniel Sturridge?

Who will be missed more, Sergio Aguero or Daniel Sturridge?

While Chelsea and Arsenal have sealed their progress to the Champions League second round with a game to spare, things are not so simple for the remaining two Premier League representatives.

A combination of tough opponents and underwhelming performances have left Liverpool and Manchester City with a tough task to qualify, but both have their fate in their own hands going into matchday 6.

Liverpool v FC Basel Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 7/10

Basel win 7/2

Draw 53/20

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

Liverpool’s return to European football’s top table for the first time in five years has been overshadowed by attacking woes, with Daniel Sturridge’s absence through injury adding to the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. Strikers Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert have scored just once each in the five group games so far, with Brendan Rodgers’ side picking up just one more point after a narrow win over Ludogorets in their opening game.

However victory over FC Basel would be enough to ensure progress behind group winners Real Madrid. The Swiss champions edged past the Reds at home thanks to a Marco Streller goal, but have won just one of their last five away games in the competition. That was in England, though, when a Streller winner made the difference against Chelsea last season.

An absent striker is the main story for Manchester City as well, with the injury picked up by Sergio Aguero in Saturday’s victory over Everton ruling the Argentine out of Wednesday’s trip to Roma. And after his hat-trick in a last-gasp win over Bayern Munich, it is fair to say that Aguero will be missed, with Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko both yet to score in the competition this season.

Like their fellow Premier League club, City have just one win from five games so far. However, due to a quirk in the Champions League’s head-to-head tiebreaker, Manuel Pellegrini’s men could progress with six points or exit with eight. All they know is defeat in the Italian capital (or a goalless draw) would see them eliminated.

Will we have a repeat of 2012-13, where two English sides failed to make it past the group stage, or could we still see the perfect qualification record enjoyed by Premier League outfits last season?

Betting Instinct tip Liverpool to win and Manchester City to win or draw is 2.6 with Intertops.eu

tv TOM VICTOR (editor) is the editor and co-founder of Betting Instinct. He has written for a variety of    sports sites in the past, including JustFootball, Footy Matters and BeNeFoot. You can follow him  on Twitter.

Things we’ll learn in the Premier League this month – December

Will Aleks Kolarov get into the Christmas spirit once more? (photo credit: YouTube/Manchester City FC)

Will Aleks Kolarov get into the Christmas spirit once more? (photo credit: YouTube/Manchester City FC)

Goodness me it’s December already, and amongst other things that means the traditionally packed Christmas schedule. With it being a bumper month for football you’d think that would mean a bumper column, but I’m getting paid the same for this as I would on a normal month so that won’t be happening.

 

We get an early Xmas present (yes there will be a festive theme running throughout, deal with it) with the first round of fixtures in December being played mid-week. What better way to break up the drudgery of our miserable lives than a televised feast of Leicester vs Liverpool on a Tuesday and Arsenal vs Southampton on a Wednesday. Both clashes are tricky to predict as Leicester pretended to be good for a bit before discovering they were actually rubbish and Liverpool pretended to be really good for a bit before discovering they were actually rubbish. It’s a similar dynamic in the Arsenal vs Southampton game as Wenger’s men are pretending to be rubbish (they’ll get better soon) and Southampton are pretending to be good (they’ll get less good soon). Now none of that might make much sense to you right now but don’t worry it’ll become clear in time.

Betting Instinct tip – Liverpool and Arsenal to both win is 3.51 with Intertops.eu

 

The first weekend of the month throws up a set of fixtures that are surely designed to let us get our Christmas shopping done. So head to the high street my friends and spend more money than you can afford on unwanted gifts for people you don’t even like. It’s what Jesus would have wanted*.

* My editor insists that I make it clear I do not speak for Jesus and have no way of knowing what he would want us to do with our weekends.

 

Come the middle of the month we have two of the Premier League’s flagship fixtures. First up it’s Arsenal hosting Newcastle, now at the time of writing Arsenal are the club in turmoil, but by the time this game comes around both clubs could conceivably have been in and out of a season defining crisis on three or four occasions. Also the two managers really don’t like each other, so that’s worth keeping an eye on. Then on Sunday it’s Man Utd vs Liverpool, English football’s one true firecracker of a fixture and it’s a game both teams will be even more desperate than usual to win. Last season Liverpool, high on the scent of a potential first title in decades, ripped through a hesitant and meek United, but this time it’s Liverpool who look primed for a doing. Louis van Gaal hasn’t got things right quite yet but his side are brimming with talent and are going to run up a big score against someone soon, it may as well be their fiercest rivals.

It doesn’t get much easier for Brendan and his merry men as the week after the trip to Old Trafford they welcome Arsenal to Anfield/A bit of relief for Brendan and his merry men as the week after the trip to Old Trafford they welcome Arsenal to Anfield**.

** Delete as appropriate taking into account the current Arsenal crisis level.

 

It matters little that the Boxing Day fixtures aren’t up to much, we have a full Premier League card the day after Christmas. Who cares if the televised matches are two middling London derbies, you can spend a full day gorging on chocolate and leftovers slumped in front of Sky Sports basking in the glory of your existence, it’s what Jesus would have wanted (we’ve already been over this – ed.). Alternatively you could actually go to a game, work of some of the holiday excesses by cheering on your chosen side. Keep in mind it will be cold and your side will probably lose on account of your left back being even more sluggish than usual thanks to a serving or two too many of trifle the day before

Just to add to the anarchical nature of the days between Christmas and New Year there is another round of games on the Sunday, just two days after the Boxing Day extravaganza. How anyone is supposed to know what day it is and where they’re meant to be is beyond me. As long as you don’t accidentally go to work you have Southampton vs Chelsea to look forward to, at the time of writing this is a top of the table clash but that may not be the case come the end of December depending on how quickly Southampton regress to the mean.

 

Anyway that’s enough from me, I hope your December is full of wonder and joy and that your football team doesn’t extinguish that wonder and joy with their ineptitude.

 

Come wish me a Merry Christmas over on Twitter 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.

 

Real Madrid out for revenge against unpredictable Liverpool

Jay Spearing's cameo was an integral part of Liverpool's most memorable meeting with Real Madrid

Jay Spearing’s cameo was an integral part of Liverpool’s most memorable meeting with Real Madrid

 

‘We made Madrid look like sidemen.’

So went the tweeted verdict of one Liverpool fan reflecting on his side’s 2009 Champions League demolition of the current competition holders. And, it’s true, they did. Liverpool are these days no strangers to making entire teams look like ‘sidemen’, of course; despite a rocky start to this campaign, the last saw sideman after sideman capitulating to the talents of Suarez, Sturridge, Rodgers, and the rest. But there was a greater romance to the feat five years ago: Ryan Babel laid on a goal; Andrea Dossena scored; and in the ultimate indignity for the Spanish side, Jay Spearing replaced Steven Gerrard with fifteen minutes still to play (‘After the skewering, the Spearing’, as Henry Winter so characteristically put it).

Though at least Liverpool had some romance to lose. Their opponents on Wednesday are the antithesis of such an idea. Real Madrid aren’t a team, but a machine – if anything too well oiled – at once both beautiful and ugly. Cristiano Ronaldo spits on your ‘romance’, Pepe headbutts it, and Carlo Ancelotti neatly – but firmly – files it away in a drawer.

They showed it again in Saturday’s 5-0 trashing of Levante. Ronaldo scored his tenth goal in four league games and his fifteenth this season, bringing his Football Manager average rating up to a staggering 9.37 in the process: truly unprecedented. The week before that? Another 5-0 win at home to Athletic Club. Though they sit third in La Liga, their results of late (in all competitions) have been nothing short of ridiculous: since the 2-1 loss to Atletico on September 13, the list reads, 5-1, 8-2, 5-1, 2-0, 2-1, 5-0, 5-0. Gareth Bale will be injured for the away side, and a potential distraction lurks in the background in the form of Saturday’s El Clasico, but even taking both into account, Liverpool ought to be worried.

 

Liverpool v Real Madrid Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 3/1

Real Madrid win 4/5

Draw 13/5

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

 

The English side’s weekend win at QPR was an absurd spectacle; one that you would think had been made up were it not for the eminently plausible event of a Richard Dunne own goal. Absurd, perversely impressive, but far from convincing, it was a performance that will no doubt encourage Real Madrid. Liverpool, remember, have some of their own injury problems – Sturridge is out for another few weeks; Raheem Sterling might well, if he can keep his eyes open, watch from home with some warm milk and a blanket – and their form in Europe has been patchy at best: the last gasp win at home to Ludogorets was concerning enough, but to follow it up with a 1-0 loss to Basel was to put their place in the competition in doubt.

 

It could well be that Liverpool need a tie like this, something to kickstart their stuttering season. There is (rightly) much made of the Anfield atmosphere on big European nights, and Wednesday should be, to quote Rodgers, ‘special’: ‘To see that flag back out in the middle of the pitch and for the supporters to get behind their team, like they do, is going to be an amazing experience.’ Being excited, however, is not the same as being prepared.

There will be no repeat of 2009’s 4-0, not this time. And if you can find odds on Mario Balotelli pulling down Pepe’s shorts, kicking him up the backside, and telling him that he looked better baldy, take them. With such a craaaazy guy – What’s he gonna do next? Dye his hair RED? HAHA! – leading the line, Liverpool have next to no chance. Far better to take a punt on the dependable Rickie Lambert, a man much more likely to terrorise young Raphael Varane than he who dragged his country, kicking and screaming, to the final of Euro 2012.

Otherwise, as a Real Madrid supporting friend of the Liverpool fan we met earlier replied, ‘this time we will see who will be the wasteman.’ It’s up to you, Brendan.

 

Betting Instinct tip Real Madrid to win by two or more goals is 37/20 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Five incidents bound to happen during Manchester City vs. Liverpool

David Silva's Premier League campaign is already an improvement on his World Cup

David Silva’s Premier League campaign is already an improvement on his World Cup

Remember the World Cup? How good was that! Remember all the big games that happened right at the start and all the goals that were scored to get everyone into the mood in record time?

Well turns out that the World Cup was such a good idea that the Premier League have gone and borrowed its best bits in order to make sure the beginning of the new season doesn’t disappoint after all the fun of the summer. By which I mean they’ve scheduled a really rather large fixture to be played in the second round of matches: last year’s champions, Manchester City, against last year’s runners-up Liverpool.

 

Manchester City v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Manchester City win – 1.85

Liverpool win – 4.00

Draw – 3.50

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

 

Clearly this game is set for yet more Brazil 2014-themed surprises to spice up the action, with kick-off scheduled for an appropriately trans-Atlantic 8pm on a Monday evening. If that’s not group stage scheduling, I don’t know what is.

So without further ado, here’s what’s probably, definitely, bound to happen as Manuel Pellegrini’s Premier League winners take on Brendan Rodgers’ Champions League returnees, for a chance to top Group A, which is the only group in this competition.

 

Someone will score a really good headed goal from a left-back’s cross

And that left-back will most likely be Glen Johnson, who started on his non-natural flank against Southampton in Liverpool’s opening game of the season.

With Daniel Sturridge set to start up front for the Reds, the displaced right-back will stumble upon some space, look up and see his England team mate dashing towards Joe Hart’s area.

We’ll then watch, disbelievingly, as Johnson produce the cross of his career with the part-time sandwich artist jumping up and flopping like a salmon (teriyaki, with extra green peppers? – Ed.) to head the ball into City’s net.

 

Luis Suarez will bite someone again

On Twitter anyway, because as far as English football goes, Luis don’t live here anymore.

That’s right, while the action takes place on the field of play, thousands of rehashed memes and tired, old jokes will surge forth onto various social media channels.

Liverpool will “lack bite”, according to the pictorial punchlines that are to come. Some will overreach in an attempt to force relevancy. A Uruguayan family will go hungry without a supply of Martin Demichelis’ shoulder meat, they’ll say. In text speak.

Maybe some will go for a different angle, trying to use Rickie Lambert’s lesser-known past as a beetroot technician to create an ethical, vegetarian friendly version of all this great new ‘comedy’ that will be taking place. It’ll be like football itself has taken the trapezium muscle of an Italian defender and won itself a transfer to BBC Three, to play alongside Nick Grimshaw and Russell Kane or something.

 

A physio will be injured

Gary Lewin’s stumble against Italy will not have happened in vain. The Premier League are already making plans for the fourth official to go behind one of the team’s physios during the game and take out their knees with a large spanner, as a loving tribute to the fallen England backroom staffer.

No word yet as to who the bookies think the man in the stands will target, but it’s sure to only add to the tense occasion that will be gripping the Etihad, as fans pour into the stadium to see who will be left standing at the end of 90 minutes.

 

Liverpool’s South Americans will sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” really loud for ages just before kick-off, which City’s Brazilians will boo mercilessly

One of the most endearing features of the World Cup was the heart, passion and a capella abilities shown by the South American fans prior to the start of their teams’ games.

Brazil and Chile in particularly showed off the intensity of feeling held by their players and fans during their national anthems. In order to bring some of that pre-match vibrancy to the Premier League, Liverpool’s South Americans will be encouraged by officials to belt out that Rogers & Hammerstein classic, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

As an added twist however, City’s Brazilians will be allowed to try and disrupt the singing without censor, much as their fellow countrymen in the stands did with boos and whistles when Chile and Brazil met in the second round this summer.

It’s at this point that the sponsors will begin to feel a little nervous over the whole charade.

 

Both sets of fans will peer into the future and realise that neither City or Liverpool can win this year due to their lack of Germans

Germany won the World Cup, so it stands to reason that they’ll also win the a post-World Cup, World Cup-themed Premier League. That’s logic.

Therefore, the title is between Chelsea and Arsenal, which means Jose Mourinho’s already won it.

City do have the best Argentinians in the league however, so second-place is theirs. Meanwhile, it’s doesn’t look good for English talent-laden Liverpool. Roy Hodgson’s team didn’t even make it out of their group in Brazil, which means the Reds will slip out of the Champions League this year, determined to do better in 2016.

 

A Chilean will invade the press room

Whatever the result on Monday, Manuel Pellegrini will storm the press room, flip the buffet table and ensure a couple of temporary walls fall onto the heads of some of the journalists present, in the spirit of the 150 Chileans who invaded the press centre at the Maracana.

It’s not been announced what the mild-mannered manager is expected to do once he’s caused the carnage, with many insiders suggesting he’ll just meekly walk away, ashamed of being dragged into the surreal affair, but anything could happen in the one-man melee that may ensue.

 

Betting Instinct tip – No bookmakers are offering odds on some of these more specific predictions, but more than 3.5 goals, in keeping with the early World Cup theme, is 2.75 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Unfamiliar with decimal betting odds? Check out our odds calculation guide to find out how to translate to decimal or fractional

Greg avatar GREG JOHNSON (gregianjohnson) is a freelance football writer based in London and contributor to  FourFourTwo, Squawka, Drowned In Sound and Mirror Football. He also co-edits The False Nine football  blog and podcast. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

Chelsea set to field a weakened manager against Liverpool

Is José Mourinho on the verge of a Napoleonic downfall?

Is José Mourinho on the verge of a Napoleonic downfall?

In seasons gone by, the threat of rocking up to a title decider with a purposefully depleted hand—enfeebled in protest at having to play on a Sunday—would have been celebrated as classic José Mourinho. He strode the Premier League like Banksy spitting up something pithy onto an unguarded wall, or Marcel Duchamp plonking down a toilet in an art gallery and declaring it a fountain.

 

English football  had found a new crown prince-cum-arch satirist, who was bent not only on winning everything he could but doing so while fiddling with the well-worn levers of the British manager’s identity, much to the amusement of the game’s cossetting, chattering classes. “Oh, José!” they squealed, rocked back into their writing chairs, as he fired off yet another belter of a sound bite or tugged at yet more of the tropes set down by the likes of Brian Clough, Don Revie, Bill Shankly & Co.

Yet something has changed on his return to Stamford Bridge. It’s hard not to think that compared to the man who previously terrorised the establishment with both his flamboyant antagonism and trophy count, that come Sunday Chelsea will be fielding a weakened manager as much as a weakened team.

 

Liverpool v Chelsea Betting Odds:

Liverpool – 1.63

Chelsea – 4.80

Draw – 3.85

(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

For all his absurd, syrupy nonsense and motivational envelopes, Brendan Rodgers looks like a man composed, calm and in his element at present. By contrast, Mourinho has at times appeared trite and perhaps even desperate.

The usual jibes and mind games have never quite come off for him as they used to. His ploy to write off his team’s chances at every opportunity became flat and old in a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible during his more electrified tenure back in the early days of Roman Abramovich’s reign.

 

Of course, momentum can often be everything when it comes to the dubious art of mind games, and perhaps too there is more than a hint of over-familiarity with his methods that has generated a considerable about of contempt for him of late. However, from day one something didn’t feel right about his return. He announced himself to be happy rather than special in what was an oddly subdued press conference—vibes that some put down to him feeling aggrieved at having not been granted a shot at the Manchester United job.

Though his ego surely yearned to be a feature of the intrigue that has swept through Old Trafford this season, it seemed more likely that the scars of the past were weighing heavy upon him rather than jealousy for the future.

 

It’s not often that Mourinho has tasted failure since his ascendency to the top of the game with Porto in 2004. At Chelsea and Inter he achieved the vast majority of his objectives and sometimes over-reached even his own expectations with a record points tally and treble win respectively.

His years in Madrid changed all that however. While the location of the biggest job in football is an argument that will never be settled, it’s hard to think of a more demanding post in the game than taking up position in the home dug out of the Bernabeu.

The manager of Real shares the same average life span and political workload as an average Game Of Thrones protagonist (could have given us a spoiler warning – ed.), and yet faces even greater demands that stretch beyond simply amassing trophies. Real must win in style, to some self-styled ideal of false-modesty, with the most glamourous players in the world, constantly bettering themselves like gentlemanly aristocrats charged with civilising others through their own great works.

 

It’s a level of pressure and pedantry that broke José, who has become a figure of self-parody; his pronouncements now sounding just off-key enough to scan as slightly hackneyed and irrelevant. The Premier League almost feels as if it has left him and his kind behind when in the past it seemed as though Mourinho himself controlled English football’s zeitgeist.

Now reports abound about Mourinho fielding a weakened line-up for Sunday’s trip to Anfield, and with it throwing away his chances of snatching a seemingly impossible title from Liverpool’s grasp: is it a hardnosed protest or an act of sheer petulance?

 

It’s hard not to think that the Mourinho of old would have come up with something more cutting, original and, well, effective. He looks like a man feeling the impact of having to compromise his chances of winning to make a point. The ruthless master of his own destiny who once looked set to force Alex Ferguson into (relatively) early retirement surely would never have told the public of his intentions to give up on a chance of silverware.

Yet Real got to him, with his demands for the likes of Iker Casillas to wage total war against Barcelona turning into an internal conflict against his own authority and methods. Without the ends to justify the means—only one La Liga title and a Copa del Rey to show for three years of viciousness that never seemed to bring Real any closer to La Decima—he was ultimately rejected. Like Napoleon’s downfall after failing to overcome the Russian winter, he has now been exiled to an island off the mainline for his failings.

 

Mixed up in all of this are the intentions of Abramovich himself, who may well have re-hired Mourinho in order to hand him enough rope to implode his rival personality cult as much as benefit from his gift of winning trophies.

If the Portuguese is unable to rediscover the edge that he enjoyed in England prior to 2007, then his own defeat at Waterloo—and the popular and political backlash that brought upon his historical likeness—may well come sooner than many might think. Having faced off against opposition of his own from Jose loyalists in the past, reappointing his former champion to destroy his own legacy, so soon after tilting in Madrid, is a Machiavellian move that will play right into Roman’s hands even if he achieves the opposite.

 

Until then, Liverpool look set to be denied their final, title-clinching triumph, not they’re likely to care too much. With Atletico Madrid readying themselves for a second-leg raid of Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s determination to appear as though he never wanted the win at Anfield—rather than losing at full-strength to a superior rival—will also double up as a handy excuse should the worst happen against Diego Simeone’s men.

Yet it may not be Chelsea who are too tired to rise against the Argentinean’s rampaging La Liga chasers or Rodgers’ surprise Premier League title favourites, but the special one himself who is now at risk of becoming all-too-ordinary.

 

Betting Instinct tip – If Chelsea do give the likes of Nathan Aké and Andreas Christensen a run-out on Sunday, it could well be worth backing Liverpool to be winning at half-time and full-time at 2.64 at with GR88.com

 

Greg avatarGREG JOHNSON (gregianjohnson) is a freelance football writer based in London and contributor to FourFourTwo, Squawka, Drowned In Sound and Mirror Football. He also co-edits The False Nine football blog and podcast.

Liverpool v Manchester City – A Potential Premier League Title Decider

Steven Gerrard will be looking to add to his 13 goals this season

Steven Gerrard will be looking to add to his 13 goals this season

 

Liverpool have been the irresistible force of 2014 in the Barclays Premier League. Brendan Rodgers and his players have notched up nine wins in a row in the league, the first team to do so in the last four years of the English top flight, and are steadily earning the tag of title favourites, never mind just being title contenders.

Sunday’s opponents were the unstoppable force of 2013. Manuel Pellegrini hit the ground running as Manchester City and could seemingly do very little wrong, a defeat at the Etihad Stadium to Bayern Munich aside, as his side romped to a string of impressive victories and scored hatful’s of goals as they went.

The meeting of the two this weekend makes for the most anticipated contest of the Premier League season so far. Both teams like to attack. Both teams like to score goals. And everything points to both teams showing up at Anfield on Sunday with the intention of winning the game.

 

Liverpool v Manchester City Betting Odds:

Liverpool win – 2.32

Manchester City win – 2.72

Draw – 3.40

(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Liverpool have shown that they don’t know any other way since Brendan Rodgers took over at the club. They don’t have the defence solidity to frustrate the attacking talents of Yaya Touré, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Agüero for 90 minutes. As such, it’s better for them to play with their front-foot forward. So what if they concede three goals away to Stoke? They’ll reply with five of their own.

As Chelsea and José Mourinho are starting to churn out a string of daunting home clean sheets, Brendan Rodgers has got his team playing with pace, verve and cutting edge. They go out, score early, sit on the lead and attempt to pick off their opponents through the pace of Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. The Reds lead the division for first half goals and had – up until recent handsome victories for David Moyes’ side – scored as many in the opening 45 minutes as Manchester United had managed in total in the Premier League.

 

Conversely, Manchester City are the highest scorers in the second half of Premier League matches this season. Manuel Pellegrini has been able to get the best out of the exceptional Yaya Touré and been rewarded with 18 league goals already this season. The Ivorian has been deadly from set-pieces, scoring free-kicks and converting penalties at will.

And what of a penalty to opening the scoring? Steven Gerrard is having his best goalscoring season since 2008/09 even though his campaign has been spent operating in a new, deeper, more disciplined midfield role than the England captain is used to. That’s thanks to the sheer number of penalties that Liverpool’s attacking trio have been able to earn. All three are quick off the mark and possess lightning fast feet that make pressuring them in the area a difficult task for fear of a clumsy challenge.

 

The match itself is hard to predict as Manchester City head to Liverpool needing to win. They have games in hand that make them title favourites but they can’t allow Liverpool to open up the gap to as many as seven points. Even a draw, leaving the difference at four points, isn’t ideal as it ramps up the pressure on the City squad to take maximum points from their remaining games.

An away victory will help deflate Liverpool’s title ambitions and just do enough to place doubt in their minds that they aren’t ready to compete with the very best in the Premier League.

 

For Liverpool, the possibilities that come with claiming all three points are only to be whispered around Anfield for now. On an emotional weekend, with every major game across England kicking off seven minutes later than normal to commemorate the 96 men, women and children that passed on that fateful day at Hillsborough, the Reds can take a huge step towards an unexpected league championship.

The decision for Brendan Rodgers will not be about trying to stop Manchester City. He has enough arrogance to support his own style of football and too much confidence in his attacking players to score goals that he’ll not revert from type, not even for these visitors. However, he may just err on the side of caution in midfield. Philippe Coutinho may miss out in midfield at the expense of Joe Allen or Lucas, in a similar fashion to the team that started at Old Trafford. But even then, it’ll just be to ensure his three flowing attackers have a platform to build off.

 

All I can promise you is goals – and plenty of them. Jose Mourinho has shown in big games so far this season that he is happy to kill the flow, speed and momentum of the game in favour of not losing. Thankfully both Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers are still interested in entertaining while winning. Their clashes with the other teams around them this season have produced a slew of goals.

Whichever way the game goes on Sunday afternoon and no matter the team that continues to have “destiny in their own hands” at the final whistle, they are sure to both find the back of the net. Even if Touré or Gerrard have to do it from the penalty spot.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Back there being more than 3.5 goals at 2.25 with Intertops.eu

 

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.