The battle for Premier League safety

As you would expect, a lot of the focus on the English Premier League is directed to the top of the table. Even more so this season, as we have a title race that looks like it could go right down to the wire. The fight at the other end, the one to retain premier league status should definitely not be ignored though. It is every bit as fierce and close, and involves several teams that know the very future of their clubs hinge on what happens over the next 8 or so games.

Those that have gone

With apologies to Huddersfield and Fulham fans, I am going to assume you are already down. Fulham have been hamstrung from day one by a raft of signings that were bought with little or no knowledge of what it would take for a fight in the world’s most competitive division. As for Huddersfield, if they have achieved nothing else this season, they have made life easy for punters around the globe as a shoe-in for their for their weekly football accumulators. On the plus side, The Terriers at least will look like they will be well equipped for a challenge next season for a quick return.

Those that are relatively safe

Several teams that have flirted with the drop zone appear to have pulled themselves out in recent weeks. Newcastle are a case in point. They have had far from a vintage season, but they have picked up some crucial wins of late and have done enough for another season in the top flight. It is a reverse situation for Bournemouth. Their form and points picked up in the first half of the season should be enough to see them safe despite a worrying drop in form in recent weeks.

Those very much in the fight  

Crystal Palace

I was very tempted to put these in the preceding category. Though they have not got the points on the board to guarantee safety, they have been playing well – especially away from home – and have a team that should have enough to see them over the line. A win against rivals Brighton would have all but seen them safe, but it wasn’t to be, their poor home form coming back to haunt them. Their run in is not the easiest but they should be able to pick up the 3 or 4 points they need.

Brighton

Back to back wins, including that one at Selhurst have breathed new life into the Seagull’s fight for survival, and it has come at just the right time. They play Arsenal and Man City on the last two games of the season. They do however have home games against Cardiff, Southampton and Bournemouth, and you would think in those games alone they would be able to secure the points required.

Southampton

Sticking or twisting regarding the manager is always a tricky decision, but bringing in a new man in the shape of Ralph Hasenhüttl looks like it may be the difference to the Saints’ survival. They are playing with a belief and freedom that just was not there before, and crucially they are scoring goals. Their last three games are against Bournemouth, West Ham and Huddersfield, all who are unlikely to be playing for anything other than pride. They should be safe, and it will be interesting to see how they push on next season.

Burnley

Sean Dyche’s team payed heavily for their European run, one which meant their season started when most of their rivals were still on the beach. Since the turn of the year they appeared to have turned a corner, going on a run and picking up crucial points. Suddenly however their form has deserted them, just when they had safety in their grasp. Their run in is tricky to say the least. They face Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City as well as Wolves and Everton. It is doubtful how many points they will amass from that, and their fate will more than likely depend on how the one remaining team fare:

Cardiff

The Welsh outfit were all but down at the end of the year, but they have shown a fight and crucially a nose for goal, that has seen them still in with a sniff of safety. It comes down to a head to head with Burnley. Like The Clarets, Neil Warnock’s team have not been handed a comfortable run in, with games against Man U, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea to come. They will need to pick up points against Brighton, Palace and Fulham. There is however one game that could decide it all. Saturday 13th April sees the ultimate relegation 6 pointer when Cardiff go to Turf Moor. The winner of that match, as well as the 3 points could well also be taking home EPL survival.

Manchester United 3-2 Southampton: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men bounce back in some fashion

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Manchester United had a big chance to re-enter the top four positions for the first time in recent weeks, with their next fixture being at home to Southampton, a side that have only won six league games and are just above the relegation zone. With Arsenal and Tottenham facing one another in the early kick off, it was important for the team to pick up the three points and in a secure manner.

Overall, United dominated majority of the game from the first second of the match till the final whistle, where they could have even scored a further couple of goals to pile on the misery. Though, the much needed wakeup call came through a screamer from Yan Valery and a peach of a free-kick from James Ward-Prowse, which led Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to make some vital tactical adjustments.

The first half was quite good despite the poor finishing, as the front three failed to make an instant statement and did not help the side’s cause of a magical comeback. Despite the side’s list of injuries and lack of depth available to them and the manager, a brace from Romelu Lukaku as well as an incredible goal from Andreas Pereira allowed the hosts to pick the victory over the hostile visitors in the end.

Here are the three valuable factors we learnt from Manchester United’s latest league game…

Romelu Lukaku came up with the luxury goods

With the likes of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata missing due to injury issues, United were limited with their attacking options for the fixtures against Crystal Palace and Southampton. However, Romelu Lukaku showed up for when his side needed him the most, scoring four goals in United’s last two games and is now the side’s top goal scorer in the Premier League this season. Recent form of the Belgian striker could mean that it’s time to put him back into your Fantasy Premier League Team. To see which other players you should look at including in your selections for Fantasy Premier League take a look at Footy Accumulators.

On top of that, Alexis Sanchez failed to take this massive opportunity to prove to the coach and the critics that he is still a quality player. Focusing back onto Lukaku, he may not be the fan’s favourite player or a clinical forward, but he is showing huge signs that he has improved since the managerial change. The Belgian international may have done enough to remain in the club’s long-term plans.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer showed off his in-game management

Week after week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is proving that he has the intelligence to make the much needed changes to the team or the system, whether it’s to increase the amount of chances the side are creating or to see out the game until the final whistle. Some of his decisions maybe seen as bizarre and questionable, but in the end, he is yet to suffer a league defeat since taking on the job.

Solskjaer showed off his flexibility in the second half of the match, where he went to a back-three setup to match Southampton’s style, placing Ashley Young at right centre-back, whilst allowing both Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot to play as the advanced wing-backs. Due to this fine tweak, it allowed United to have an advantage on the opposition, letting them to turn around the game for the win.

The Red Devils are evidently missing a world beater of a centre back

At this moment of time, it can easily be stated that Victor Lindelof is United’s best centre-back, but he is in need of a partner that is vastly experienced and that has the presence to lift the mentality and spirits of the defence. Until this hole is filled within the backline, the side will constantly have grey patches and dark moments, where they will lapse in concentration and are bound to suffer from this setback.

If the board and Ed Woodward want to fix the ongoing defensive issues the side are facing, they should look to relentlessly target either of Jose Gimenez, Kalidou Koulibaly or Toby Alderweireld. These three centre-backs should be seen as the perfect and most realistic candidates, especially when you consider the incredible defensive contributions they have produced for their respective teams.

Does Solskjaer Perform Miracles?

Well, frankly it is looking like he just might, and here at freetips.com, we are rooting for him. It has been a turbulent season for United, and the silverware has looked so far out of their grasp it has been a humbling time for the once glorious reds who ruled Manchester.

As if Manchester City winning last season was not bad enough for them, it is looking likely that the Manchester blues will retain the title for the second year running while Old Trafford languishes as a former ground of glory that has now seen a downturn in luck.

Such has been the gravity of the situation that in December manager Jose Mourinho was given his marching orders. He may now live to regret one of his final comments when he stated that it would need ‘almost a miracle’ for the team to pull out of the nosedive and finish respectably within the top four. Clearly, caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took that as ‘challenge accepted’, and boy has he turned around the performance level of the Red Devils. When Mourinho left the club they were 11 points behind the much coveted Champions League place. It was indeed looking like an impossible task.

You can almost hear the “Mission Impossible” title credits rolling as Ole worked his magic, racking up an incredible eight wins and one draw in just six short weeks, landing Man United into that fourth place position one point clear of Arsenal and Chelsea. There is little doubt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer considers United his home, and his own playing career there was rather successful.

The Baby-faced Assassin as he was dubbed earned a reputation as a super sub frequently coming off the bench at the last moment and scoring some incredible goals. Unfortunately, a severe knee injury ended his career in 2007 and keen to stay with his club he became a coach and ambassador. Later his role was augmented, and he took on coaching responsibility for the reserve team.

He returned home in 2011 to manage Molde and secure them their first ever Tippeligaen title, and then just to prove it wasn’t a fluke he did it again for a second time. In his third season, he took them to the 2013 Norwegian Football Cup Final where the team triumphed. After a brief stint at Cardiff, he was back at Molde until 2018 when Man United came knocking, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer answered.

It is clear that momentum is building as fans, and players alike, feel that it is time Solskjaer was officially made the manager, but not everyone agrees. Gary Neville has said that he does not think the timing is right and the situation should be looked at in March and decided in April.

Wes Brown, however, feels that Solskjaer is by far and away the best fit the team have had for some time and that the formalities should be put in place to make him full-time manager. Whatever happens, it has to be said that Ole has actually performed the much-needed miracle.

Why Solskjaer’s Man Utd should finish fourth, above Chelsea and Arsenal

Manchester United are rapidly becoming favourites to finish fourth in the Premier League, a remarkable statement to make considering the club were 11 points off the pace when they dismissed Jose Mourinho back in December. A run of eight wins in all competitions (and over the hectic Christmas period no less) has put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to within three points of fourth. Don’t forget to share your tips on the UK’s biggest football tipping contest by clicking here.

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Five Players to sign in January for Fantasy League Success

It’s that time of year again. The Christmas leftovers are all gone, the decorations are back under the stairs for another year and lots of us are feeling our willpower beginning to weaken in the face of Dry January.

So what we need most of all is some kind of distraction to take our minds off the weather and the general gloom that brings in the start of the New Year. So what better to do than start fine tuning our fantasy football squad in preparation for the rest of the season?

It could be that your team’s already riding high in which case you may not need this advice. But if you really want to move up to a higher level then we’ve picked five players who could bring success whether you’re a relative fantasy football novice or a seasoned pro.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

When the captain of the Gabonese team signed for Arsenal just within last January’s transfer window it was for a record-breaking £56 million. Now, a year later, he’s certainly proved to be a good buy as he heads the list of Premier league scorers with a total of 14 goals to his name, many of them snatched from inside the box. With 10 goals scored last season no-one’s betting that he won’t double that total for this one.

Leroy Sané

For a 23 year old the winger and attacking midfielder Leroy Sané shows incredible maturity for his age and he has already gained experience in Germany as well as for Manchester City. His early days for the latter were beset with reported breathing difficulties but he seems to have put all that behind him now. As well as regularly assisting goals he also knows just when to score them with his 72nd winner against league challengers Liverpool being a case in point.

Eden Hazard

With Chelsea enjoying a very good season, secure near the top of the table, much of that has to be down to Hazard. Now in his sixth season at Stamford Bridge he’s part of the furniture, and what a valuable part too. Not only is he well up with the League’s leading goal scorers, he also tops the list of assists too with 10 to his name after 22 matches played.

Richarlison

The Brazilian stated his professional career in 2015 with Fluminense but a series of outstanding performances saw Watford’s Marco Silva snapping him up for £11.2 million.

A year later, Silva brought him into the Everton set-up where he’s continued to thrive, albeit with the occasional lapse of discipline. As an out and out forward, he’s never far from the action and there’s every reason to suppose that he’ll be adding to his 9 goal tally so far the season.

Alisson

No matter how many goals your fantasy league team may be scoring, it can all be undone without a safe pair of hands between the posts. And few are safer than the Brazilian Alisson. When Klopp paid the thick end of £70 million for him there were a few raised eyebrows but the number of clean sheets Liverpool have seen since his arrival is testament to his value. He won’t be cheap for you either, but he’ll almost certainly be worth it.

Of course, you may have your own favourites to add to your squad to see you through the rest o  the season so don’t take our selection as definitive. Just try to create as balanced a squad as possible and remember, past performance is never any guarantee of future performance. So you have been warned!

Chelsea show lack of attacking incision as Southampton collect vital point

Sunday’s clash between Crystal Palace and Chelsea, it is fair to say, will not be included on many end-of-season lists remembering the best games of 2018/19. There were very few chances at either end of the pitch at Selhurst Park, with N’Golo Kante dispatching perhaps the only clear-cut opportunity of the game to give the visitors a 1-0 win.

Chelsea’s next assignment, a home game against Southampton on Wednesday, again featured little in the way of goalmouth action. On this occasion the Blues were not able to find the back of the net at all, as Ralph Hasenhuttl’s charges succeeded in frustrating the top-four aspirants.

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Bad news for Morata and Giroud as Sarri hands Hazard central role

Given that Maurizio Sarri only made one outfield signing in the summer transfer market, he has done an excellent job at Chelsea so far this season. Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion moved the Blues three points clear of Arsenal in fifth place, with Tottenham Hotspur still just two points ahead in third.

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Arsenal can show Man Utd what they are missing

It was the best performance of Unai Emery’s time as Arsenal manager so far. Indeed, the Gunners’ display in the North London derby against Spurs on Sunday was everything the club’s fans wanted to see from their team in the post-Arsene Wenger era. It was fast and furious. There was a game plan. And most importantly, there was a victory.

One wonders what those Manchester United supporters who just so happened to catch the game thought of what they saw. 24 hours earlier, their team had struggled to a 2-2 draw against Southampton- the bottom team in the Premier League. It was in stark contrast to what Arsenal served up.

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Now, the two teams will face each other on Wednesday night. For both teams, this could be a season-defining clash. Man United are in desperate need of a win to give their chances of finishing in the top four a shot in the arm, while Arsenal also need a victory to shore up the progress they have made in recent weeks.

In terms of a sporting identity, there are plenty of parallels between Arsenal and Manchester United. They were fierce of rivals for years, when Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson locked horns for major honours, but in retrospect, there was more to unite them than there was to divide them.

Both sets of fans expect their team to play attractive, dynamic and attacking football. They also expect their team to challenge for silverware having grown accustomed to success. In recent years, the parallels have become even clearer, with Arsenal and Man United left looking upwards at teams like Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and even Leicester City.

But while United have festered and allowed malaise to grow at the club, Arsenal have taken measures to overhaul themselves. The replacement of Wenger with Emery in the summer was the most public- most significant part of that overhaul- but changes have also taken place behind the scenes.

This has manifested itself in what we have seen on the pitch from Arsenal so far this season. They have a transfer strategy, a clear and coherent notion of what they want the club to be, and of what they want the club to represent. This led them to the hiring of Emery through a comprehensive recruitment process in line with this approach.

United, on the other hand, are utterly dependent on one man, Jose Mourinho. And that one man is charged with imposing an identity on the club. This is an infrastructure that rarely works in the modern game, and we are seeing that in the way United have struggled this season.

Arsenal can show Manchester and their fans what they are missing on Wednesday night. They can show the Old Trafford club what happens when there is a plan and when that plan is implemented properly.

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After 19 games unbeaten, has Emery stepped out of Wenger’s shadow?

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Unai Emery is being hailed as the new messiah by Arsenal fans after the club convincingly beat their arch rivals Tottenham 4-2 at the weekend.

The Gunners have now gone 19 games in all competitions unbeaten after losing their first two matches of the season. But still question marks remained over the club because they had not beaten a top 4 side- at the weekend that changed with victory over Tottenham, and it was a win to saviour for the Arsenal faithful.

Not only did Arsenal beat the team they most want to beat every season but they also leapfrogged them into 4th place on goal difference, which has been richly deserved this season. This version of Arsenal, Emery’s version is slick, attacking and determined. Sure there is still some naivety at the back which allowed Tottenham back into the game but the team had fighting spirit circa Arsene Wenger’s team from 2004 and it showed this past weekend.

Every fan at the Emirates seems to have forgotten about Wenger, well at least the last couple of seasons version of him and all praise has rightly been aligned to Emery who has been a massive success for the club given that this is his debut season. The fans wanted change and were finally given it and Emery for now seems like the perfect coach to have been chosen. But have the club really improved this season from last?

It may be surprising to note that at least statistically almost nothing has changed at the club from last season. This time last season after 14 games Arsenal had 28 points under Emery they have 30. If this trend was to continue then Arsenal may finish the season with 5 points more than last giving them 68 points and perhaps missing out on  a top 4 place. But this is simply talk and this Arsenal team look like they will kick on.

But of course it is in how the Gunners are playing, and there is a massive change in how the team approach their games under Emery. The belief has been reinstalled and it was interesting to see how they reacted once going 2-1 down after leading the game. That should tell you everything that we needed to know about how Arsenal are playing now under Emery.

The real tests are yet to come, games such as playing Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United away from home. But for now considering Emery is just 4 months into the job, the man deserves respect and 10/10 for effort. Arsenal look like they are going places and that can only be a good thing for a team that have suffered from a lack of confidence for the past decade.

 

Manchester United unconvincingly reach the Champions League knockout stages

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For big clubs in Europe, it’s a must to be dominant and ruthless in the Champions League and importantly to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition. Manchester United completed the second half of that requirement by beating Young Boys on Tuesday to guarantee at least second place in Group B. However, their campaign in Europe has been unconvincing yet fruitful due to individual brilliance and lucky moments.

If not for Marouane Fellaini’s late winner at Old Trafford, the Red Devils would have formed an embarrassing record of going through three Champions League home games without a goal, a statistic that would reflect back on the poor job that Jose Mourinho is currently doing. However, he was once again saved by a player that has come up with a number of crucial goals in recent years.

On the other hand, if Young Boys had one clinical and dangerous striker that was in full confidence, they would have certainly punished a United defence that was playing a very high line whilst they were in possession of the ball. Not only that, but the home side’s full-backs fortunately escaped early bookings in the match which could have led to worse situations as the match went on.

Looking at United’s Champions League campaign so far this season with one group match remaining, there simply has not been enough evidence or memorable performances/results that makes a person feel or think the side can progress far in the competition. Many will simply believe that the victory over Young Boys to secure qualification will paper over all the cracks.

With no disrespect to the Swiss side, but a manager and a club that has spent just over £400 million in the transfer window over the last couple of years, and are relying on a last-minute winner at home really sums up the rather disappointing direction which the club is heading. From the lack of business planning off the pitch to the abysmal and boring football on it, a number of changes are required in order for Manchester United Football Club to be regarded as a serious football team once again.

As the side’s odds of winning the Premier League have been written off in the early stages of the season, it would not be a surprise to see the board and Ed Woodward hold on to Mourinho as the club’s manager until their chances of featuring in next year’s Champions League goes away. The hierarchy will have to make a crucial footballing decision in the coming months if things don’t go down as planned, in order to make sure they don’t fall behind from the other big European clubs.

Overall, given the club’s inconsistent and poor form in the league, Mourinho’s United will have to give their all in the Champions League this season in order to take part in the competition next campaign. With the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City being regarded as the favourites to lift the trophy, the Red Devils, realistically, have no chance of winning it.