Why Milan must focus on securing fourth place

 

AC Milan players applaud fans for their support.

AC Milan players applaud fans for their support.

Talking about AC Milan competing for any championship these days sounds odd to hear. The Rossoneri are years away from becoming the force that once conquered European club football. And on the domestic front, it’s difficult to imagine them breaking Juventus stranglehold of the league, at least, not in the nearest future.

After last Sunday the 1-1 draw against Cagliari, Milan Legend Paolo Maldini Summarized the current status of the team in a very reflective statement. “Being the anti-Juventus? Let’s be serious, we’re still a long way off being that. We’re aiming to reach the top four in the league and have a great run in the Europa League. Projects are important, but you can’t yet compare Milan to Juventus.”

One big take out from this comment is the admission by the former Iconic Milan Captain that, the Rossoneri will not win the Europa League. Sure, Milan are looking to have a great run in the competition, but how far can they go, quarter-final or Semi-final? And will that be a prudent use of their current strength or a focus discussion on securing fourth place in Serie A should be the way to go.

Despite the improvement in key areas this season, Milan’s performance last season suggest they need to choose between the Europa League and fourth place in Serie A. And for a club of Milan’s stature qualification for Champions league should be the Holy Grail.

Milan started very well in the qualification round of the Europa League last season, before witnessing some disappointing results and insipid display during the group stage. However, it became a platform for players such as Andre Silva  and Fabio Borini to make a case for a starting place in the team which did not quite materialised. The Portugal international, Silva, who is currently on loan at Sevilla could not translate his European form into domestic performance.

Gannaro Gattuso managed to take Milan to the round 16th of Europe’s second tier competition, but stumbled against English side Arsenal both at home and away grounds. Notwithstanding the Gunners ordeal during that time in their English Premier League, which read eight points behind fourth place, the chasm in quality, maturity and organisation was huge. Of course, Arsenal had a crop of players who had been together for quite a long time whiles the Rossoneri were going through what one will describe as a teething problem.

The Europa League could disrupt Milan’s domestic campaign, as it can put a strain on the squad. Compared to last season, Gattuso has got a bigger group of players must be tactful in how he rotates the lads whiles guarding against injuries. The inclusion of Samu Castilljo, Diego Laxalt, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Alen Halilović could provide the Diavolo cover in crucial moments. The team still awaits the return of right back Andrea Conti from rehabilitation after a long spell in the treatment room.

Milan kick start their campaign against Dudelange in Group F which also has the likes Real Betis and Olympiacos. They will qualify and possibly lead the group, but do they have the quality to compete against some of the big dogs who may fall from the Champions league. How would Milan fair against teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, Sevilla or even Olympiacos and Real Betis in the group stage.

From an administrative perspective participation in the Europa league is a great call because it comes with some financial incentives, whiles from a supporter’s point of view, this an opportunity to witness European football at the San Siro, especially, when their rivals from the blue side of the City, Inter Milan, are involved in the bigger one, the Champion League.

It’s early days yet but, Milan’s domestic form isn’t that great and Maldini had some few words on how the team can develop “What to improve? We have to try to accelerate the growth of experience, we have an opportunity and the results of the other teams show it. The team is not yet aware of how strong it is, many guys have not realized how much they can give. Dialogue with us directors could be important for them”.

Certainly, having a discussion with the squad could do a lot for their confidence and provide them with a sense of self believe, but the bigger problem is, there are a few reliable players in this group.

Milan must choose between spending their energies in finishing fourth in Seire A or risk being derailed by their participation in the Europa League as they do not have the quality to compete against the big guns in the competition.

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Europa League is of utmost importance to Arsenal

Arsenal’s entire season came down to the Europa League last term. Who knows, had the Gunners progressed past Atletico Madrid in the semi finals and gone on to win the competition, qualifying for the Champions League, Arsene Wenger might well have stayed beyond the summer.

Indeed, the 2017/18 campaign hinged on Arsenal’s success or failure in European club football’s second tier tournament. It became clear early on in the season that they would miss out on a place in the Premier League’s top four and so the Europa League became the most realistic route back into the Champions League.

Alexandre Lacazette

The Gunners find themselves in a not too dissimilar position this season. The Unai Emery age at the club has got off to a slow start with many of the problems experienced under Wenger still evident under the new manager. Finishing in the top four this season might be beyond Arsenal once again.

Emery is a proven winner at Europa League level, winning the competition no fewer than three times during his spell as Sevilla manager. This will be encouraging to Arsenal, who would regain entry to the Champions League should Emery win the competition for a fourth time in his career.

But the Europa League has to be about more than just qualifying for the Champions League for Arsenal. This is a team that has lost its winning mentality. This is a club that has now gone 14 years without winning a major honour. They might have won a few FA Cups in that time, but the Gunners find themselves cut adrift from the top of the sport both in terms of results and spirit.

This is where Emery must use the Europa League to foster a new mentality for a club that has lost its way in recent years. Look at the way Jose Mourinho used the competition two seasons ago to harden the minds of his players. Sure, qualifying for the Champions League might have been the carrot Manchester United chasing, but winning the Europa League was seen as part of a larger project.

Arsenal start their Europa League group stage campaign against Vorskla of Ukraine on Thursday. For a game of this type, against an opponent of this calibre, the Emirates Stadium will most likely be subdued. There will be a number of empty seats. But Emery can’t allow this to dull the approach of his players.

This is a chance for the Gunners to build some momentum and make some progress on untangling the mediocrity of the last 10 years. Many focus on things like personnel, signings and tactics when looking at how Arsenal have fallen away from the top level of late. But it has as much to do with the culture around the club. Emery must use the Europa League to address that. That’s where the real benefit of winning the competition would be.

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Unai Emery is right about Mesut Ozil

Is there a player in the Premier League who has as much said and written about him as Mesut Ozil? The German playmaker has become a lightning rod of opinion like no other since signing for Arsenal from Real Madrid back in the summer of 2013. The past five years has witnessed incessant talk of what his best position is, his true worth to the Gunners and his commitment as a professional.

But even by such a standard, chat around Ozil has reached fever pitch in recent months. First there was the controversy following Germany’s exit from the World Cup, with the playmaker retiring from international duties amid accusations of racism. Then there was a reported feud between Ozil and new Arsenal manager Unai Emery, with the 29-year-old left out of the squad for a game against West Ham last month.

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The real Ozil stood up for Arsenal in their win over Newcastle United at the weekend, though. The German scored what proved to the winner for the Gunners at St James’ Park and was influential throughout. It offered a glimpse of the player Ozil could, and perhaps should, be for Arsenal.

“I want to find with him the possibility to do the best, to make decisive passes, to do more near and in the box to score,” Emery explained after the win in the North-East. “He is working for the team to help us with his quality. But he is feeling like I am feeling. He can improve, he can do more. We will work, we will help him, give him the possibility on the pitch to be together, to find his qualities for us.”

Some have been quick to question Ozil’s commitment over the years. It is something of a quirk of his Arsenal career to date that before the weekend the German had never travelled to Newcastle as a Gunner. That’s the kind of thing that would be used by certain figures to angle allegations of laziness at the playmaker.

It’s true that Ozil’s languid body language doesn’t always do him a favour, but Emery is talking about something different. He is talking about the influence that the German has on his side. Ozil quite clearly has the ability to dictate games for the Gunners, but we rarely see that sort of performance from him.

Emery needs leaders on the pitch at this early stage of his Arsenal career. Ozil, given his experience at the very top of the game, should be one of those leaders. At present, he isn’t, though. That’s where the frustration must like for the Spaniard. Ozil’s performance against Newcastle United showed just how dominant he can be. Now, he must repeat that sort of display on a more regular basis.

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Fantasy EPL – Predicted Lineups

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Tottenham vs Liverpool

Tottenham predicted lineup: Vorm, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Trippier, Davies, Dembele, Dier, Eriksen, Moura, Kane
Questionable: Lamela, Son
Out: Loris, Sissoko, Ali

Liverpool predicted linup: Alisson, Van Dijk, Gomez, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Milner, Mane, Firmino, Salah
Questionable: Keita, Matip
Out: Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lovren

Bournemouth vs Leicester

Bournemouth predicted lineup: Begovic, Frances, Ake, Cook, Smith, Gosling, Lerma, Rico, King, Wilson, Fraser
Questionable: Cook, Smith, Ibe
Out: Pugh Stanislas

Leicester predicted lineup: Schmeichel, Maguire, Morgan, Chilwell, Pereira, Mendy, Ndidi, Ghezzal, Albrighton, Maddison, Gray
Questionable: Iheanacho, Silva
Out: James, Soyuncu

Chelsea vs Cardiff

Chelsea predicted lineup: Kepa, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Azpilicueta, Kovacic, Kante, Jorginho, Hazard, Giroud, Willian
Questionable: Morata, Barkley, Loftus-Cheek
Out: Fabregas

Cardiff predicted lineup: Etheridge, Bamba, Morrison, Bennet, Manga, Camarasa, Reid, Ralls, Arter, Ward, Hoilet
Questionable: Zohore, Murphy
Out: Gunnarsson, Mendez-Laing

Huddersfield vs Crystal Palace

Huddersfield predicted lineup: Lossl, Kongolo, Schindler, Zanka, Hadergjonaj, Lowe, Billing, Moy, Van La Para, Diakhaby, Kachunga
Questionable: Mounie, Pritchard
Out: Hogg, Sobhi

Crystal Palace predicted lineup: Hennessey, Van Aanholt, Sakho, Kelly, Wan-Bissaka, Milivojevic, McArthur, Townsend, Ayew, Sorloth
Questionable: Benteke, Zaha, Soare
Out: Tomkins, Dann, Wickham

Manchester City vs Fulham

Manchester City predicted lineup: Ederson, Laporte, Stones, Walker, Mendy, Gundogan, Fernandinho, David Silva, Mahrez, Jesus, Aguero
Questionable: Kompany, Silva, Sterling
Out:
De Bruyne, Bravo

Fullham predicted lineup: Bettinelli, Le Marchand, Fosu-Mensah, Mawson, Odoi, McDonald, Sessegnon, Seri, Schurrle, Mitrovic, Vietto,
Questionable: Anguissa, Christie, Chambers

Newcastle United vs Arsenal

Newcastle United predicted lineup: Dubravka, Lascelles, Clark, Fernandez, Yedlin, Dummett, Diame, Ki, Kennedy, Perez, Rondon
Questionable: Joselu, Atsu
Out: Ritchie, Shelvey, Manquillo, Lejune

Arsenal predicted lineup: Cech, Mustafi, Sokratis, Nacho, Bellerin, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ramsey, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan
Questionable:
Torreira, Lichtsteiner, Iwobi
Out: Koscielny, Kolasinac

Watford vs Manchester United

Watford predicted lineup: Foster, Cathcart, Kabasele, Janmat, Holebas, Doucoure, Capoue, Pererya, Hughes, Deenye, Gray
Questionable: Success, Mariapa
Out: Cleverly, Deulefeu

Manchester united lineup: De Gea, Smalling, Lindelof, Valencia, Young, Pogba, Pereira, Matic, Lingard, Sanchez, Lukaku
Questionable: Bailly, Herrera, Martial, McTominay
Out: Fellaini, Shaw, Jones

Wolves vs Burnley

Wolves predicted lineup: Patricio, Coady, Boly, Bennet, Jonny, Doherty, Neves, Moutinho, Jota, Traore, Costa
Questionable: Jimenez, Saiss, Bonatini
Out: Enobakare, Cavaleiro

Burnley predicted lineup: Hart, Mee, Tarkowski, Bardsley, Taylor, Cork, Hendrick, Lennon, Westwood, Wood, Barnes
Questionable: McNeil, Gibson
Out: Brady, Defour, Pope, Walters,

Everton vs West Ham

Everton predicted lineup: Pickford, Holgate, Zouma, Kenny, Digne, Sigurdsson, Davies, Schneiderlin, Tosun, Calvert-Lewin, Lookman
Questionable: Walcott, Baines,
Out: Richarlison, Keane, Jagielka, Mina, MaCarthy, Bernard, Coleman

West Ham predicted lineup: Fabianski, Cresswell, Diop, Balbuena, Fredericks, Wilshire, Sanchez, Snodgrass, Antonio, Andersen, Arnautovic
Questionable: Masuaku, Noble, Chicharito, Yarmolenko
Out: Reid, Carrol, Lanzini

Southampton vs Brighton

Southampton predicted lineup: MaCarthy, Soares, Hoedt, Vestergaard, Bertrand, Lemina, Hojbjerg, Elyounoussi, Redmond, Ings, Long
Questionable: Austin
Out:

Brighton predicted lineup: Ryan, Dunk, Duffy, Bong, Montoya, Propper, March, Bissouma, Knockaert, Murray
Questionable:
Balogun, Gross, Bruno,
Out:
Izquierdo, Andone
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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang vs DeAndre Yedlin a worrying prospect for Newcastle

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Heading into the international break without a win on the board was far from ideal for Newcastle United, but looking at the fixture list, and considering all the issues the club has been through this summer, it arguably was expected. The harsh nature of the Premier League is in evidence again this weekend, as Unai Emery’s Arsenal head to St James‘ Park on Saturday afternoon.

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Lucas Torreira must replace Granit Xhaka in Arsenal team

Arsenal’s summer transfer strategy was a peculiar one to work out. The Gunners clearly needed an overhaul of their squad, with the departure of Arsene Wenger at the end of last season opening up the opportunity for them to go through with this. And yet few of their signings caught the eye.

The addition of Lucas Torreira was the one exception, though. The Uruguayan became something of a star at the World Cup, showing fans why Arsenal were so keen to sign him for £26.5 million from Sampdoria. He is the type of central midfielder that the Gunners have needed for a long, long time. Torreira has the potential to be Arsenal’s very own N’Golo Kante.

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But so far Unai Emery has kept Torreira on the bench. The 22-year-old has yet to make a single start in the Premier League this season, coming on as a substitute in all four of Arsenal’s opening four games of the new campaign. Instead, Emery has favoured a midfield partnership of Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka, with Aaron Ramsey slightly further up the pitch as more of an attacking midfielder.

Guendouzi is a different sort of midfield operator to Torreira, with the French youngster more of a pass master, a tempo setter. Guendouzi isn’t costing Torreira his place in the Arsenal team, but Xhaka is. As things stand, the Swiss midfielder is ahead of the Gunners’ big summer signing in the pecking order.

Xhaka divides opinion, even among his own fans. The 25-year-old has failed to live up to his billing in his two years since joining Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2016, but every so often there is a glimpse of what he can do. Of why he was once considered one of the best young midfielders in the Bundesliga.

Emery, it would seem, is a fan of Xhaka. But by picking the Swiss over Torreira, he is robbing Arsenal of the energy the Uruguayan would bring in the centre of the pitch. Torreira is similar to Kante in the way he covers so much ground, from left to right, top to bottom – he is irrepressible.

He is a nightmare to play against and Arsenal desperately need more of those sort of figures in their team. Stephan Lichtsteiner is another one of those figures and yet he too has so far failed to win a place in Emery’s starting lineup since signing as a free agent from Juventus in the summer.

Arsenal have been criticised for their soft centre for years. That is a problem that long predates Emery. But in picking Xhaka over Torreira, the new man in the job at the Emirates is only accentuating this issue. Torreira won’t fix all Arsenal’s problems, but he would at least help address one of them.

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Can Arsenal afford to lose Nacho Monreal?

He was one of the players thought to be on his way out of Arsenal following the appointment of Unai Emery in the summer. Nacho Monreal had just enjoyed his best ever season at the Gunners, scoring five times in 26 Premier League starts over the course of the 2017/18 campaign, but nonetheless, the Spaniard was expected to return to his homeland.

Some reports even claimed that Real Sociedad had agreed a deal with Arsenal for the signing of the left back. And yet the summer transfer window passed, the deadline came and went, and Monreal remained in North London. What’s more, he has started three of the Gunners’ opening Premier League fixtures.

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Now, however, speculation is starting to swirl once more. Barcelona are the latest club reported to be monitoring the 32-year-old, with the Catalans keen to add some depth to their squad in the January window. Lucas Digne was never replaced following his summer move to Everton and so Ernesto Valverde is nervous about the prospect of an injury to his only out-and-out left back, Jordi Alba. Filipe Luis could be another option for the Camp Nou side.

So what happens if Monreal leaves in January? Could Arsenal cope without the 32-year-old? How important is he to what Emery is attempting to build at the Emirates Stadium? Should the Gunners be worried about Barcelona potentially luring away their starting left back in the middle of the season?

Reports that emerged on Wednesday suggest that Emery sees Monreal as very important to his Arsenal project, with the Gunners set to offer the Spaniard a new contract to ward off any interest from Barcelona or any other potential suitors. “At the moment we are talking with the club,” he said.

“I’ve always said I am really happy, I feel very happy playing for Arsenal. I came six years ago. I have a good relationship with them. We are in contact in any moment so don’t worry about that. I am happy here. That is the most important thing.”

Indeed, Monreal does have a good relationship with Arsenal and most notably with the club’s support. The Spaniard has become something of a cult figure since arriving at the Emirates all the way back in 2013, with that status only underlined by his impressive performances for the Gunners last season.

Losing in Monreal in January wouldn’t be a disaster for Arsenal. As popular as the 32-year-old is, he’s not good enough to take the Gunners back to the top of the game. But it would certainly be an unwelcome inconvenience for Emery just at the point he would be hoping to build some momentum towards the second half of the season. All things considered, losing Monreal would be a blow.

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EPL Weekend Picks – Round 5

Alexandre Lacazette

Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard and Marcos Alonso are among the high-scorers for EPL Fantasy managers so far this season, but there are plenty of other players across the league who could be worthy of inclusion in your team this weekend.

GK – Kepa Arrizabalaga (Chelsea)
Chelsea’s big-money summer signing has picked up 12 points so far this season – Liverpool’s Alisson is the only goalkeeper with more – and he will surely add to that tally in the upcoming matches against low-scoring Cardiff and West Ham.

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Can Olivier Giroud’s goal for France reignite his career with Chelsea?

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It was a summer all about France as they became world champions for a second time in Russia but if there was one negative pointed at Les Bleus it was that their forward Olivier Giroud failed to score in all 7 World Cup games.

It got to the stage that every time France completed a game at the World Cup it felt embarrassing almost awkward to repeatedly see Giroud finish it with no goals despite the fact that France scored 11 times alone in the knock out stages and Giroud had 13 shots on goal. But Giroud wasn’t useless in the team, because even though he failed to score he held up the ball and was able to bring in Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann into the game. A bold example was in the semi final against Belgium when he dropped back and defended well.

When France won the World Cup Giroud was cheered just as loudly as any other French player by the French public, they understood his ‘silent’ contributions. But still it would have chipped away at Giroud that he wasn’t scoring goals and that was very evident at the weekend when he scored against the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League.

It was a smart goal too, a quick shot flick in from a pacey cross and it ended up being the winning goal in a 2-1 defeat of the Dutch. Friendlies aside this was his first competitive goal for France since last October when he got the winner against Belarus in a World Cup qualifier. The relief was immense with his latest goal and seemed to shake off his uncertainty as a forward, it was no surprise to see him sink to his knees and his teammates surrounded him. For that moment it wasn’t about going in front it was about his own personal coming back.

The goal was significant too as it put him past Zinedine Zidane in France’s top ever goal scorers list with 32. Even though Giroud is the ripe old footballing age of 31 and will be 32 by the end of this month there are no signs of him retiring from international duty just yet and so he should be able to pass David Trezeguet, needing 3 more goals to do so to enter the top 3, that’s no mean feat and should be remembered every time someone wants to point to his goal scoring record.

So with Giroud finding himself once again how will this bode for Chelsea? At the Blues he has played 3 games so far this season with no return. Overall in his career with Chelsea he has played 21 games and netted 3 times and it does seem a lack of opportunity and age is catching up with him.

Does current Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri have the patience with the Frenchman is the key question? It is still, after all, seen as a shock that Chelsea came in for Giroud when most people would have expected a lesser quality team to be after his trade. Perhaps that could have been the perfect fit for Giroud to get more playing time and score more goals. Under Chelsea who want everything and with expectations that are much higher, Giroud, who is not in the prime of his footballing days could feel more frustrated and lack more confidence if he stays. A move away from Stamford Bridge in January would not be a surprise.

 

 

EPL Fantasy Predictions: Matchweek 5

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Tottenham vs Liverpool Wembley Stadium

This lunchtime kickoff is one you won’t want to miss. While Spurs slipped up against  surprisingly imperious Watford,  Liverpool remained stalwart at the King Power. These kinds of tests away from home prove championship quality, and we think Klopp and the reds are at that level. Salah was Liverpool’s sole scorer against Spurs last season, and this may be a good time to jump on the wagon.

Bournemouth vs Leicester – Vitality Stadium

Two teams commanded by two impressive managers who know how to get results in the Premier League. Chelsea gave nothing away to Bournemouth when the Cherries visited Stamford Bridge before the international break, but we are picking Howe’s men to beat the Foxes who looked uncoordinated in the attack against Liverpool without Jamie Vardy.

Chelsea vs Cardiff – Stamford Bridge

If I were a fantasy Premier League manager I’d be jumping out of my seat to bring in a couple of Sarri’s forwards in for this one-sided looking clash at the Bridge. Pedro is in a good run of scoring form, while Hazard netted for Belgium against Scotland during the break.

Huddersfield vs Crystal Palace – John Smith’s Stadium

Huddersfield did very well to get a point at Goodison Park last matchweek, but Crystal Palace will know they absolutely need to start picking up points sooner or later. We are looking at the height of Crystal Palace to make the difference and snatch a draw from a set piece.

Manchester City vs Fulham – Etihad Stadium

If you’re asking us to pick Fulham over the champions, it’s a real shout. But Wolves held the stellar Citizens attack at bay earlier in the season, and Fulham have shown more in an attacking sense. – especially with Mitrovic’s double for Serbia over the break. We are still going with Pep, singling out Mr. Aguero to continue his good run of form.

Newcastle vs Arsenal – Saint James’ Park

With defense proving as optional as ever under Emery’s brief tenure, Newcastle will feel they could really upset the oddsmakers when the Gunners visit Tyneside. Solomon Rondon will by drooling at the chance to have the home crowd behind him as he runs at the shaky pairing of Mustafi and Sokratis.

Watford vs Manchester United – Vicarage Road

We like Holebas and Pereyra in this one, but goals are coming from everywhere amongst the Watford ranks these days. United meanwhile have had to rely thoroughly on Lukaku. The big Belgian has only 16 in 68 games against the top six, and since Watford have already beaten a top six club, we feel this will be a draw, with Mourinho shutting up shop as he is want to do away from home.

Wolves vs Burnley – Molineux

Nunu Espirito Santo is doing his best to make Molineux a fortress in his first EPL season, and we think this is a good opportunity to nab some clean sheet points from the Wolves defense and GK as Burnley are tied for the second fewest goals scored.

Everton vs West Ham – Goodison Park

Away at Everton will be a difficult place for Manuel Pellegrini to try and affect some positive change around the Irons dressing room, so we are going with Everton and backing Theo Walcott to make the difference.

Southampton vs Brighton – Saint Mary’s Stadium

We like Southampton in this South Coast clash, with Danny Ings looking particularly good for his price. He’s already scored with the Saints this season, even after such an enormous spell out with knee injuries at Liverpool.
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