Monday 26th December
English Premier League
Manchester United v Wigan
Manchester United have rediscovered their form in recent weeks so go into the Boxing Day clash with Wigan in high spirits despite trailing neighbours City by two points.
Sir Alex Ferguson was coming under pressure from a few quarters after his side’s Champions League elimination to Basle at the start of the month but he has been in similar situtations before and will have laughed off claims that this United side are not as good as one’s from recent history. Despite not being top at Christmas this year, United have actually accumulated more points compared to this stage last season. Wednesday’s 5-0 away win against Fulham was their second win in London in a three days after a comfortable 2-0 success at Loftus Road against QPR. The most pleasing aspect for Ferguson will have been the amount of chances they created in those games as well as the 4-1 over Wolves in their last home match. It was getting back to something like the form they showed at the beginning of the season when their attacking play was immense and they were scoring goals for fun. With back to back home matches in their last couple of games of 2011 against Wigan and Blackburn, it provides United with the perfect opportunity to boost their goal difference as it may well come down to that at the end of the season with the two Manchester clubs so evenly matched.
Wigan are coming to the end of a difficult run of fixtures after playing both Chelsea and Liverpool at the DW Stadium within the space of a week. They managed to get a draw out both of those games despite looking like second best for the majority of both games. A late leveller from Jordi Gomez against Chelsea last Saturday and a penalty save from Charlie Adam’s spot kick against Liverpool may prove to be vital come May. It’s so tight at the bottom of the table that every point counts and those two draws are as valuable as wins when you consider the opposition. Monday’s match may well be the most difficult of the lot with the form of United so Roberto Martinez has to get his players to take confidence from the two home games and use it when they go to Old Trafford. Currently still in the bottom three, any sort of result on Monday would be a massive bonus and would mean they had played three of the divison’s best sides and remained unbeaten. In order to get a result, however, Wigan must begin the game better than they did on Wednesday against Liverpool as they could have lost the game in the opening half hour if it wasn’t for their goalkeeper and their opponents being so wasteful infront of goal.
Wayne Rooney has scored in each of his last three games including an excellent strike in the comprehensive win against Fulham. His double against Wolves were his first goals since October and his first strikes in the league since September. The fact he has 13 goals to his name this season in league competition alone shows how prolific he wss in the early stage of the season. His return to form also proves how important he is to United’s attacking play so Ferguson, his team-mates and the supporters will be hoping that he can continue it over the course of the rest of the season.
Unsurprisingly Wigan have struggled to accumulate points on the road again this season with five defeats from their first eight matches on the road. Their two victories, however, came in their last two matches away from the DW Stadium against West Brom and Sunderland. They will definitely improve the morale of the team when they make the short trek to Manchester but they will also be under no illusions as to how difficult it will be. The last four games between the two clubs have yielded zero points for Wigan, zero goals for Wigan and a woeful 16 goals against.
No surprise to read that I think United will continue their dominance against a Wigan side they have never failed to win against and it will be a comfortable one at that.
My Selections: Manchester United (-2) to beat Wigan
Best odds available: 11/8 available with Boylesports
Reading v Brighton
Reading will be aiming to continue their recent good form against a Brighton side who have lost their last two.
After losing Shane Long to West Brom at the start of the season, Reading found it difficult to get any sort of consistency to their game and it was obvious that the other players had not adjusted to both Long’s departure and the loss of captain Matt Mills who joined Leicester. Slowly but surely, however, the Royals are finding their best form at just the right time with the games coming thick and fast. Last week’s 1-0 win over Leeds at Elland Road was their fourth win from their last five and it means that they have climed the table in recent weeks and are just outside the play-off positions. Three defeats in 15 is good going considering the competitive nature of the Championship and the difference in recent weeks has been the conversion of draws into wins which of course, makes all the difference. The players will take most confidence from their last two wins against Leeds and West Ham as they are sides which are in and around them at the moment.
Brighton looked as though they had recovered from their indifferent spell after a great start to the season. Three straight wins got their season back on track and they were threatening the teams in the play-off zone but they followed that run up with two consecutive losses against Burnely and Middlesbrough, both by a solitary goal. Gus Poyet will not be too disheartened by those results considering the teams that did beat them were in good form and they were also closely fought encounters as well. He may be more worried by the fact that his players still continue to struggle infront of goal. The Seagulls have managed just six goals from their last 10 games so it’s evident where they need to improve. Their top scorer, record signing Craig Mackail-Smith, has just six goals in the league and has scored just one goals in his last 13 games for his club side.
With the goals of Shane Long, well, long gone, Reading have had to spread the goals around the team as opposed to relying on one man for the majority of their strikes. Adam Le Fondre has managed five, Simon Church has six and then it’s a case of a handful of players having two or three to their name, including Noel Hunt. It is noticeable, however, that Reading are not as potent infront of goal this term as compared to previous season when they had the likes of Long, Kevin Doyle and Dave Kitson.
Brighton have managed even less goals to date but they still remain dangerous and as the old saying goes, if you keep a clean sheet, you can’t lose. The story of Brighton’s season is that when they do keep a clean sheet, they normally win. Six of Brighton’s nine wins have came with clean sheets so they will be hoping they can keep Reading’s forwards out in order to aid their chances of coming away with a win which would put them ahead of their opponents.
I can see this match being particularly close as the sides are very evenly matched in terms of ability as well as their current league positions and records to date. Reading are in slightly better form going into the match but that can often count for nothing in this league. Brighton have lost three of their last four away form home in the league with their only win being against a Derby side who were in terrible form at the time. With that in mind, I am on the home team’s side to prevail – just!
My Selection: Reading to beat Brighton
Best odds available: 4/5 available with Betfred
English League One
Walsall v Sheffield Wednesday
Second top Sheffield Wednesday travel to Walsall hoping to keep the pressure on league leaders Charlton.
Walsall have been in and around the relegation places for much of the season and find themselves occupying the final position in the dropzone ahead of Wednesday’s vist – on Monday. Their recent form has been littered with draws, four in the last five to be precise. It’s a lot better than losing four of their last five but if teams close to them are getting the odd win it makes it so much harder to climb the table. Charlton visited in the middle of the month and could only manage a draw so although their fans will be hoping that they are converted into wins sooner rather than later, they will be delighted with the players’ desire and hardwork, especially against the better sides in the league. Manager Dean Smith will no doubt take heart from that performance as well when the Owl’s come to town and will be reminding his players that it will take the same level of performance if they wish to get anything out the match on Boxing Day.
Wednesday were involved in the game of the season in League One last Saturday against Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield. After going down 2-0 early on, Wednesday recovered and eventually took a 4-2 lead late on only to end up with the one point after Jordan Rhodes scored two late goals and rescued a point for their visitors. Gary Megson is not known for his side’s free flowing football so he will be disappointed that they not only failed to win, but also because they conceded four goals at home. That will be fresh in the mind for Megson and his defenders so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the away side adopt a slightly more conservative approach, especially early on against Walsall.
Walsall have still not won since October but for the reason’s mentioned earlier in this preview, the result of Monday’s match is certainly not a forgone conclusion. Jon Macken scored against Charlton as well as when these sides last met back in April so he’ll be closely monitored by the Wednesday defence and is the biggest threat for the home side.
Wednesday will again be without Gary Madine who is out with a broken toe but the four goals last week prove they are still very dangerous going forward. Nicky Weaver is expected to come into goal as Stephen Bywater has returned to his parent club after his loan spell. Wednesday have been in excellent form on the road of late with three straight league wins and four in all competitions.
Wednesday are in far better form than their Boxing Day hosts and I expect them to go one better than Charlton by taking all three points.
My Selection: Sheffield Wednesday to beat Walsall
Best odds available: 10/11 available with Totesport
Finally, I hope all readers have a very Merry Christmas. Let’s hope Boxing Day brings with it a few delayed presents.