Written by Damien Kayat for @Hollywoodbets.
The Premier League is well and truly underway, with most of the front runners delivering impressive enough starts thus far. Arsenal are the obvious exception, looking desperately undercooked at home against a spirited Villa side. Villa have certainly given a noble account of themselves in their first two fixtures at the Emirates and the Bridge, and this weekend they host a fledgling Liverpool side lacking a clinical edge. But all eyes inevitably turn to a potentially incendiary match at Old Trafford on Monday night, where Jose Mourinho’s active pursuit of Wayne Rooney adds an especially delicate flavour to what is always a titanic fixture. Important weekends loom for Newcastle and Sunderland, as Tyneside looks to avoid another difficult year in the top flight. Defeats for all three newly promoted sides last week showed that engendered goodwill and aptitude can take you only so far; some extra quality is needed if teams wish to navigate the perils of top flight football in England.
It’s crazy to think that with only the second fixture of the season, Arsenal are probably looking at this as a must-win. Their midweek win against Fenerbahce would really be for nothing without a much improved league performance at Craven Cottage. Martin Jol has masterminded some impressive signings for Fulham in the summer, with the signatures of Bent and Taarabt adding a greater degree of penetration to a team overly reliant on the guile of Berbatov. But Scott Parker, the unluckiest man in English football, has got to be the signing coup of the window. Deemed surplus to requirements at Spurs, the box-to-box midfielder could prove invaluable to Fulham going forward. This won’t be easy for Arsenal, especially considering Fulham’s proud home record. I suspect an entertaining draw that will do little to impress those critical of Wenger. Berbatov’s intelligence will frustrate an Arsenal defence that looks fragile. Back the draw at 24/10, but also have a look at the over 2.5 goals at 7/10.
Everton did well to bounce back at Norwich, with young Barkley scoring a sensational power drive that capped a commanding midfield display. I’m sure Martinez could have done without the distraction of United’s failed joint bid for Fellaini and Baines. West Brom will feel quite disappointed following their opening day home loss, especially considering the way their success last season was largely based on an electric start to the campaign. West Brom are well built for away fixtures, favouring swift counterattacking to more sustained periods of possession. Morrison was brilliant for Scotland last week, and will be hoping to kick on with support from the likes of Long and Brunt. Their biggest hope will be that Anelka can supplement the goals lost with to the departure of Lukaku. Everton should be too strong at home. Expect Kone and Fellaini to consistently push West Brom back while Baines and Pienaar do their balletic dance on the left hand side. The Toffees at 11/20 will have to do.
The fairy-tale rise of Rickie Lambert should not distract from the general consistency that Pochettino has brought to Southampton and St Mary’s. Names like Rodriguez, Lallana and Puncheon have become synonymous with attractive free-flowing football. Di Canio’s brand of aggressive man management at Sunderland has apparently proved divisive with the players, and last week his team looked a fragmented lot if I ever saw one. Players like Sessegnon and Johnson are what I call home ground heroes, seemingly disappearing when the going get tricky in away fixtures such as these. The weird blend of players that Di Canio has brought in has done nothing to assuage a supporter’s uncertainty. Southampton will win this one convincingly. Back them at 7/10.
This is a game that pits two likely relegation candidates against one another. Hull City were noble in defeat against Chelsea, with new signings Figueroa and Huddlestone having little impact on the complexion of the match. Norwich are always dangerous from the set pieces delivered by Robert Snodgrass, and this promises to be a match that closely resembles a Championship encounter. This fixture will not lack in steely determination, but will likely deliver little in real quality. A feisty draw is tipped at 23/10.
Newcastle are a team in disarray. The appointment of Joe Kinnear in a vague Director of Football role is really one of the worst management decisions that I have seen in some time. Did a team already rife with its own political infighting need to invite more pressure on itself? Stephen Taylor’s red card on Monday has done the team no favours and West Ham will be licking their lips at the chance of taking on Alan Pardew’s men. Stewart Downing made an encouraging start against Cardiff, while Kevin Nolan and Joe Cole secured the Hammers the win. Diame was also hugely impressive in the match and could prove a handful for the Magpies. Arsenal’s rejected bid for Cabaye has not done too much to settle the nerves at St James’ Park. West Ham appear a confident side and will heap more pressure on the beleaguered Pardew. Grab the Hammers at an incredible 23/10.
Stoke City proved stubborn, if aesthetically dull, at Liverpool last weekend. A late penalty miss by John Walters was probably just considering the way they were generally outplayed. They will be glad to be back at fortress Britannia, a ground where they were temporarily the best team in Europe last year. As weird as it sounds, perhaps Crystal Palace is not the ideal team for Stoke to face at home. Newly promoted sides will be up to the largely physical threat that Stoke offer, and Ian Holloway will be telling the likes of Dikachoi to “get involved”, so to speak. Stoke should get something at home with their pantheon of massive players like Crouch and Jerome. Expect Begovic to be hard to beat in the Stoke goal with far less to do. Back them at 8/10.
Few can forget Villa’s impressive 3-1 victory at Anfield last season. Christian Benteke ripped Liverpool apart and he has already started this season in ominous form. Liverpool were fluent in their debut but suffered from their lack of a final product, and were ultimately fortunate to escape with the points. Philippe Coutinho controlled the game while Steven Gerrard was subdued in his holding role. Villa seem to be playing with a new found confidence, and it is not only Benteke who is playing well for the Villains. Agbonlahor has looked pacey while Andy Weimann seems to be constantly improving. I would go for a Villa victory were it not for the reorganized match they had to play against Chelsea. The added strain will result in a draw at 26/10, with Benteke showing the other top teams what they have been missing right in front of their eyes.
Tottenham Hotspurs look close to finalizing the purchase of Willian, a move that further indicates the possible departure of one Gareth Bale. They looked rather insipid at Palace and will be hoping for a rousing home performance against a Swansea team clinically dispatched by the Champions last weekend. Paulinho looked a step behind the pace on debut and will no doubt improve as the season progresses. Soldado showed good signs and his Spanish compatriot Michu will complete an intriguing all Spanish striking duel. Spurs have become an impressive home side and with the depth they possess they should overcome Swansea. This is just the type of game that Dembele could impress himself upon, his speed and physicality likely to dominate the middle of the park. Be brave and take Spurs on the goal handicap at 7/4.
Ex-City player Craig Bellamy and his Cardiff teammates will no doubt have been quite dismayed by the performance of his former team against Newcastle on Monday night. Manchester City seemed to have no problem getting into the groove with a merciless taming of Newcastle at the Etihad. Jesus Navas showed the advantages of good old fashioned pace on the wing while Dzeko and Aguero linked up brilliantly with constantly threatening movement and precise interplay. On the basis of that performance, I can’t envisage anything other than an easy victory for City. Another goal handicap tip, with City at 5/4.
The Wayne Rooney saga is the intense subtext that gives this game some added dimension. Chelsea have been workmanlike thus far but have achieved the requisite results. Van Persie was sensational and looks to be growing completely into the mould of a Manchester United legend. David Moyes will know that detractors will be critically assessing his managerial capacities in this match. It will be interesting to see which striker Mourinho opts for, though I feel that Torres will be the likely option. Mata wasn’t overly impressive coming back from injury, which means he will likely stick to the team that was amazing for thirty minutes against Hull. United will likely force the action at home, which always seems to suit a Mourinho side. I’m probably going against popular thinking by saying I feel that United will win. The way they defied the critics at Swansea showed a team with more character than some suspected. Expect Welbeck to continue his rich vein of form as Mourinho is given food for thought. The champions, at 14/10.