Hello all, hope you had an enjoyable break? Whilst I did not have time to complete a full column, I was active on the Twitter with some, unfortunately not great, tips. However comma we are still well up for the season so far at the halfway point so let's hope this new year brings yet more profitable selections.
West Brom v Norwich - Lose 2 points.
Southampton v Sunderland - Win 1.9 points.
Malaga v Real Madrid - Win 2.8 points.
Atalanta v Udinese - Lose 2 points.
Kasimpasa v Istanbul BB - Lose 2 points.
Trabzonspor v Galatasaray - Lose 2 points.
Totals - Lose 3.3 points.
Running Total - Up 11.35 points.
Music this week comes from Cory Branan with Survivor Blues.
This weekend sees the FA Cup returning to England and I'm no huge fan on picking these matches in advance as team line-ups are very volatile depending on how seriously the sides are taking the competition. This being said, there's no doubt some value out there so here goes...
Crystal Palace v Stoke City, Saturday 1500
West Ham United v Manchester United, Saturday 1715
I am grouping these two matches together as they are bets I fancy for roundly similar reasons. Both involve sides with other interests and sides that are safely tucked away from danger. Whilst Crystal Palace started the season like a rocket under manager Dougie Freedman they have stuttered a bit since the appointment of Ian Holloway. The 'mad' manager from Devon is something of an expert at this level and there are already signs he is turning things round again for a play-off push. This is the team with other things on their mind in this tie and I would expect Holloway to forfeit a chance at a cup run in favour of a crack at promotion so any players tired or carrying the slightest knock will be rested in all likelihood.
Stoke, on the other hand, had a poor start by their standards but have improved a lot to now occupy a mid-table berth, which is about the target for them. They have one of the best defensive records in the entire Premier League and with a cup final appearance lately I would expect them to put out a strong side and go for another crack at the FA Cup. Their defence should cope with even the strongest Palace side so I'll be with them in this.
West Ham are in a similar position to Stoke in that their target was always going to be safety and they look well on course to achieve that. Sam Allardyce has his weak spots, but if you want a manager to sort out a defence and avoid trouble then he's pretty much the best there is available to most sides. They are more than capable of beating the big sides on their day and if Man United turn up with less than a full strength side then they could be in for an early exit.
As mentioned above, anything less than a full strength United side could be punished with exiting the FA Cup. When you consider they are top in the league and still in the Champions League they have better things to worry about than a domestic cup too. I would expect to see the likes of Robin Van Persie and Nemanja Vidic rested to keep them available for matches in the two aforementioned competitions and the back-up is nowhere near their level. I'm no huge fan of Danny Welbeck and with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes possibly also playing a key role I would think United look short in this.
Back Stoke City at 2.45 with BetVictor. 2 points.
Lay Manchester United at 1.71 on Betfair. 2 points.
Swansea v Arsenal, Sunday 1330
The low point of many Arsenal fans seasons so far was probably the loss at home to Swansea. For many it was another glaring illustration of how far behind some of Wenger's previous teams the current side are and I would agree. But, this does something of a dis-service to a Swansea side who look to have picked up where Brendan Rodgers left off and are possibly even have more dimensions to their play now under Michael Laudrup. The Dane went to Spain over the summer for transfers and has been rewarded with some fantastic attacking talent at bargain prices. None more so than Michu who is bothering much bigger names at the top of the Premier League scorers chart. I think they are always slightly undervalued at present due to the quality they possess being more likely to win out in tight matches.
Arsenal fans may even look at someone like Michu and wonder why Arsene Wenger no longer finds foreign bargains like that any more. The likes of Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars and Robert Pires were all picked up from abroad due to an excellent scouting network and contacts in Europe, but this seems less and less the case now. As manager the buck always stops with Wenger and his tactics don't seem to have evolved at all either. If a side is naive enough to let his side play then they are likely to get turned over, but if they set up cleverly then Arsenal seem to struggle more than ever to break them down, Southampton a few days ago being a case in point. They have shown many times they are far from a brilliant side, but with organised defending in numbers they nullified Arsenal for the most part and came away with a point. With the league and Champions League more important to Wenger I would not fancy them as favourites in this.
Lay Arsenal at 2.26 on Betfair. 3 points.
Levante v Athletic Bilbao, Saturday 1500
Two sides I've paid a lot of attention to in the last 18 months meet in Valencia on Saturday afternoon. Levante were the shock of last season in La Liga when they pushed all the way for a Champions League spot and narrowly missed out at the finish. They did still qualify for the Europa League though and have shown what a tough side they are to beat. When you look through their squad it is not filled with young players looking for a move, rather seasoned professionals who are all pulling in the same direction and looking for one last chance to impress. They are particularly good at home as is borne out in a record of won five, drawn one and lost two so far. The two losses were also too Real Madrid and Barcelona and the draw was against Atletico Madrid, so they are only not beating the very best in the division.
Athletic Bilbao would have fallen into the best in the division bracket at this stage a year ago, but have fallen considerably since. The manager Marcelo Bielsa has a track record of short spells of excellent performances followed by quick, huge, downturns. This can probably be put down to his rather eccentric personality and the demands he puts on the players in terms of training and matches to constantly press the opposition looking for gaps to exploit. Throw in the loss of star man and captain Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich and the exile of their best forward Fernando Llorente due to contract issues and they would have struggled anyway. They still look poor to me and Levante look great odds.
Back Levante at 2.4 with StanJames. 2.5 points.
Lazio v Cagliari, Saturday 1945
With a strong finish to their league campaign in 2012, Lazio finished the year in second spot going into the winter break. This break probably came at the right time for one of the smaller squads amongst the top sides in Serie A and they will hope the key players are back refreshed and raring to go. The fact they are doing so well has largely been down to the performances they have put in at home with a record of won seven, drawn one and lost one, with eighteen scored and just eight conceded. It is their away form that leaves them so far behind Juventus, but that is of little consequence here. They went into the winter break with four home wins in a row, including the Rome derby and also a 1-0 win against Inter Milan, and they look a good price in this.
Cagliari find themselves struggling once again near the foot of the table. In fact, if it wasn't for Siena's points deduction they would be in the bottom three and adrift there. They are far from a big side though and are probably only ever going to aim for safety and may well drop back into Serie B this year or in the near future. Their problems are not hard to identify, they concede too many and don't score nearly enough. With nineteen conceded away from home so far they actually have the second worst record for that in the entire division. They have also only scored eight and look very short for this match in the betting, I can only imagine Lazio's possible rustiness as a factor. I don't see this being enough to put us off though so I'll be going big on them.
Back Lazio at 1.61 with BetVictor. 3 points.