City too slick for woeful Royals
Our team provide a game-by-game preview of Saturday's bumper programme in the Barclays Premier League.
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Wigan are winless in four and very much looking over their shoulders already, with only two teams below them in the table. Bar a shock win at Tottenham their successes this season have been over the league's lesser lights - Reading, Southampton and, to a lesser extent, West Ham - and they're typically outclassed against sides like Arsenal. Liverpool, Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and Newcastle have all beaten Wigan to nil this season, each scoring at least twice in the process, and Robert Martinez's men haven't yet managed a home clean sheet. Arsenal arrive on the back of a confidence-boosting 5-2 win at Reading and it's reasonable to expect them to justify odds-on quotes, just as it is to expect that Wigan will have their chances. The hosts do have positive memories to call upon having won at the Emirates last season and who can forget their 3-2 win in this fixture two years ago? Both wins did come in April, a time when Wigan are typically at their best, but serve as notice that Arsenal simply can't be relied upon so we'll leave them unbacked. My colleague Andy Schooler made a fine case for heading to the Man Of The Match market on Monday and that's the place to look for value once more, with Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott rightly heading the betting at 6/1 and 8/1 respectively. If either scores and Arsenal win they're virtually certain to oblige and, given that we can probably rule out all defenders and goalkeepers in this game, dutching the pair at around 11/4 isn't a bad policy. Walcott would be our slight preference at the prices but if he doesn't score he probably won't land the award, whereas Cazorla could do so without finding the net given the headlines he created on Monday. All things considered we'll sit this one out with an eye to the future.
Verdict: Wigan 1 Arsenal 3 (BC)
It's hard not to fear for Reading, both in terms of this game and their future in the Premier League. Their display against Arsenal just wasn't that of a top-flight club and allowing both Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla to score with their heads underlines how poorly they are defending. Of course, going forward they remain a threat but you just have to wonder if they'll see enough of the ball to trouble even a relatively fragile back-line like that of City. The reigning Premier League champions can afford no slip-ups now, especially with leaders United having a very kind run of fixtures coming up, and I don't expect City to miss the chance to win easily. Remember, this is their first game at the Etihad since losing a two-year unbeaten league record at home and they'll want to put on a show on the back of a much-improved display at Newcastle. Reading have failed to score in each of their last three away games and Paddy Power's 10/11 about City winning to nil is very fair. However, evens about them giving Reading a two-goal start is a better bet. City really should run riot and it's more likely that they concede one but still cover the handicap than it is that they win 1-0 or 2-0. In truth I expect both bets to oblige comfortably but I'd rather not leave my fate entirely in the hands of City's defence.
Verdict: Man City 4 Reading 0 (BC)
"Must-win" and "massive" was Toon goalkeeper Tim Krul's description of this game as they try and get themselves out of a slump that has yielded just one win in all competitions since the end of October. Alan Pardew has tried not to blame injuries but his wafer-thin squad has been stretched to the limit and there will be much better 11/10 chances around over the Festive period. Demba Ba bagged his 11th goal from 18 starts last weekend in the home loss to Manchester City and he voiced the general level of frustration on Tyneside in a midweek interview - a rather unnecessary distraction for the team. The question for the visitors is whether they can now push on after their first win last week with the mercurial Adel Taarabt pulling the strings. Harry Redknapp has yet to see his side lose but I would not be rowing in at the rather unattractive 11/4 for them to collect three points. There has been just one goal in the last three meetings between the pair and that could be a potential betting angle but I am more than happy to let them play this one out without a financial interest.
Verdict: Newcastle 1 QPR 1 (DJ)
Just a single point separates these two with the former in better form lately as they find their stride a little in the top flight. They have suffered just one loss in their last six outings but will have to cope with the absence for the Festive period of the influential Adam Lallana after he suffered a knee injury against Reading. That could force a change of formation for Nigel Adkins so is something to bear in mind for punters looking to back the hosts at a fraction better than evens. Ever the realist, Martin O'Neill is under no illusion the task he has ahead with the Black Cats battling for top-flight survival. They have fallen behind in four of their last six games and left themselves too much to do - a good case in point was last weekend at Old Trafford where they did manage to finish the game quite strongly but it all came far too late. Striker Steven Fletcher is battling a back problem so that could mean a chance for Connor Wickham up front from the start following a couple of eyecatching displays. His inclusion still doesn't suggest this is going to be flush with goals so going for under 2.5 in that market should yield a return.
Verdict: Southampton 1 Sunderland 0 (DJ)
This looks an interesting encounter with the Potters on a seven-match unbeaten roll in the Premier League while Tottenham have won four out of five. The home side look set to welcome back Gareth Bale, who has trained again this week having missed a couple of games and presuming he is firing on all cylinders, he will be the man Stoke need to keep a close eye on. Stoke are not everyone's cup of tea but they may have been underestimated a little by the layers at 11/2 considering they won this fixture two years ago and were only pegged back last season by a 90th-minute equaliser. With Tottenham attempting to address their shaky defending late in games - last week's clean sheet against Swansea was just their third of the season - Stoke are just the type of outfit to keep the nerves jangling until the final whistle for Andre-Villas Boas. I have a feeling this will be closer than the betting suggests and the visitors look equipped to get something out of the game. You can back them at 5/4 with a one-goal start and a small investment is advised.
Verdict: Tottenham 1 Stoke 1 (DJ)
This clash at the Hawthorns brings together two teams heading in opposite directions. On November 24, West Brom were riding high in third after a 4-2 win at Swansea while Norwich were still down in 13th and 11 points behind the Baggies despite some encouraging results. Now they are next door in the table in seventh and eighth separated by just two points. Norwich are on a club-record 10-match unbeaten Premier League run, while West Brom lost three in a row before stopping the rot to some extent with an uninspiring goalless draw against injury-hit West Ham. The Canaries' surge has primarily been built on their form at Carrow Road, but they are still unbeaten in five on the road since losing at Chelsea on October 6 and, given West Brom's recent formline, look worth siding with at 2/1 draw no bet.
Verdict: West Brom 1 Norwich 2 (DT)
Everton may have started the season as the punters' pal, but they deserve to be friendless this weekend without the services of Marouane Fellaini. The Toffees are widely held as 6/4 favourites to pick up the points, despite winning just twice on the road this season and just once from their last six fixtures. David Moyes' side have also won just 17 per cent of games without their leading scorer, who begins a three-match ban, since the start of last season. Now I appreciate most reading are poised to hit back with the fact that West Ham have only won one is six, but that run has included facing Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, who they beat at Upton Park. The Hammers' shyness in front of goal and Fellaini's absence sees Sky Bet justifiably go odds-against in the over 2.5 goals markets, a rarity amid a Premier League which seems to deem defending unfashionable. It's hard to trust Carlton Cole or Modibo Maiga to do the business in front of goal but the ever-improving Mark Noble, who holds spot-kick duties and has netted three times this term, looks a decent value to net first at 16/1. For Everton, Nikica Jelavic will solely spearhead the attack in the absence of Fellaini, prompting bookmakers to make him the 13/2 favourite to score first. Those who have not been tempted to shift from the fence in favour of the hosts can back the Toffees to be involved in a 1-1 draw for a fifth time in six games at 6/1, but we'll avoid a really tough game to get a solid handle on.
Verdict: West Ham 1 Everton 1 (TC)
When Liverpool are odds-on at home, your first thought is always the same: oppose. But if there's one fixture where that's not the case, it's this one. Fulham have been notoriously poor on the road for years now, and this year is no different with a 2-1 victory at Wigan their sole success in nine road games. The Cottagers did win 1-0 at Anfield in May, but with only one win in their last nine they make limited appeal even against a Liverpool side smarting from last week's 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa. Even a favourite bet of ours - Luis Suarez to score Liverpool's first goal - makes limited appeal with the Uruguayan on a six-game goalless streak. This looks a game to avoid.
Verdict: Liverpool 1 Fulham 1 (DT)