It’s been a busy week on the football front – especially with two British teams battling it out in Europe.
Manchester City’s effort against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final second leg was lacklustre to say the least. Madrid were there to get at and I think they’re a better team going forward than they are at the back. But City were a little bit timid and didn’t take advantage. Aguero was quiet, Kevin de Bruyne had as bad a game as I’ve ever seen – though he has been out for a while – and Kompany went off injured early on. They’ll feel things have gone against them in recent weeks but they need to re-group and focus on securing that fourth Champions League spot.
As for Liverpool’s win against Villarreal in the Europa League last night, it was brilliant stuff. I think they’d like to pick up Anfield and take it to Basel because the atmosphere has been rocking there. Klopp orchestrates that brilliantly and the team performance reflects that too. The Spaniards cracked a bit under pressure and couldn’t handle the pace Liverpool played with, especially in the first 30 minutes.
I’m surprised Klopp hasn’t had more faith in Sturridge over the last two months but he picked him last night and he delivered. There were other good individual performances too from the likes of Firmino and Lovren at the back, who has been criticised in recent months but was excellent last night.
Liverpool now have a chance to get into the Champions League when it didn’t look a possibility judging by their domestic form. The manager has taken some criticism in recent weeks for his team selections, making nine or so changes against Swansea for example, but everything is justified now because they now have a great chance of making Europe’s top competition next season.
Elsewhere this week I spotted the Irish FA tweeting a video of my goal against Cameroon in the 2002 World Cup. It was a blast from the past to say the least. After it went in I thought ‘bloody hell, I’ve just scored in a World Cup’ and made a beeline for my family in the crowd. I’d spotted them before the game so knew where they were, but had four or five seconds of disbelief before I thought about trying to spot them. I did eventually find my wife and two boys when I came back down to Earth! It was amazing.
But back to the present day and this weekend, where we have a host of big games taking place – not least Middlesbrough’s promotion crunch clash with Brighton at the Riverside. It’s a winner-takes-all game. Three points for either side will guarantee them Premier League football next season – though Middlesbrough could do it with a draw too.
MIDDLESBROUGH V BRIGHTON
I’ve been involved in the play-offs quite a bit in my time. At Ipswich we missed out in the semi-finals a few times before getting promoted the 3rd time. Boro lost in the final last year and it’ll be on their minds. They won’t want to fall into the playoffs. It can be demoralising and tough for a team that has played so well all season, and who got so close to automatic promotion, then has to fight out more games.
Both teams are on good unbeaten runs. Boro have drawn the last three but Brighton have won more of their recent games and are 13 undefeated – so I make the Seagulls the form side. Hughton just won Manager of the Month and Knockaert scooped Player of the Month, so the confidence must be high. However with the game being in Middlesbrough I can probably see a draw on the cards. People say Brighton bottled it against Derby at home, where they draw 1-1, but the Rams are a decent team and are going to be in the playoffs themselves. It was a missed opportunity but it’s simply a shootout now – one that’s worth £170m!
NORWICH V MANCHESTER UNITED
Norwich beat United earlier on in season at Old Trafford and they have an opportunity to put pressure on Newcastle and Sunderland here with early kick off. But although they improved against Arsenal last week and played pretty well I think United, who are pushing for the top four, will be too strong.
Admittedly they’ve not been fantastic recently but they should have enough for three points. Unfortunately I think Norwich will slip out of the league. It’s a 50/50 split whether Newcastle or Sunderland joins them.
ASTON VILLA V NEWCASTLE
Villa were the better team last week against Watford and will be gutted to have lost the game with two very late goals. Lescott got ridiculed for comments about how they can play without pressure now they’re relegated – and it was a stupid thing to say – but I suppose I know where he’s coming from.
It’s one of those situations where they have nothing riding on it and they can play with more freedom knowing that. However they’ve suffered 11 straight defeats now and with so much at stake for Newcastle – even though they’ve been poor away from home themselves – I think they’ve got players who thrive in a relegation battle. Townsend has done well, Lasceless at centre-half has been great and Darlow had his best game in a Newcastle shirt last week. Colback makes a difference too when he’s back in midfield. Toon have a good chance of getting a result here.
SUNDERLAND V CHELSEA
This game all depends on what Chelsea turn up. They were so determined it seems to get a result against Spurs earlier this week, because they wanted to stop them winning the title, you wonder why they haven’t been up for it all season? Eden Hazard was terrific and changed the game against Spurs. Fans are asking where he’s been for the last ten months? Sunderland have a poor record recently at home and haven’t scored in three games, so they’ll need to find goals soon if they want to stay up.
WEST HAM V SWANSEA
A home win is the banker of the weekend for me. West Ham are fighting for the top four while Swansea have nothing to play for. Williams isn’t playing, he’s been given a rest because he’s played nearly every minute for them this season, and Sigurdsson is also out.
Payet cleaned up at the Player of the Year awards – he’s been unbelievable – and I think West Ham have their highest ever Premier League points total this season and will be keen to finish strongly. They have Manchester United on Tuesday so there’s everything to play for still.
LEICESTER V EVERTON
We can finally say it. Leicester City are champions and what a fantastic achievement. They’ve shown brilliant spirit all season, Ranieri kept pressure off the players and there are so many great stories surrounding their triumph.
They’ll have been celebrating all week so I’m not entirely sure they’ll win this game. They will have been doing extra media commitments and lots of other stuff players get asked to do, so I fear maybe their focus on football will have gone astray for the time being.
They’ll be presented with the trophy on their home turf and will want to perform but I’m not sure they’ll grab another three points. Everton aren’t bad away from home so I can see it being a draw. Backing Everton to win or draw wouldn’t be a bad bet.
TOTTENHAM V SOUTHAMPTON
I think it’s unfair on Spurs to say they lost the league this season. Leicester won it. Every time you felt the Foxes would falter, they went and did the opposite. Spurs might have lost at Chelsea but the target now will be to simply finish above Arsenal – something they’ve not done in a long time. They’ll want to finis the season strongly but it could be difficult because Southampton are in good form. The Saints beat Man City last week and I believe only Leicester have more points this calendar year then Koeman’s side. I think Spurs might edge it but it’ll be tight.
MAN CITY V ARSENAL
This is a bit of a hangover for Man City after being knocked out of the Champions League in midweek. They’ve got a few injury problems too with Kompany going off. It will be investing to see Pellegrini’s team section. It’s all about finishing top four for them now, especially with Pep Guardiola coming in next season. He’s going to want to play in Europe’s top competition. This is a difficult game to call but I’ll edge Man City – though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a draw. A few injuries problems too, Kompany going off again.