Soccer

Odds and Ends: Aston Villa’s home comforts could add to ‘crisis’ talk at champions Manchester City

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has a few more headaches at present than usual and his side face another tough test away to a free-scoring Aston Villa side Picture by PA
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has a few more headaches at present than usual and his side face another tough test away to a free-scoring Aston Villa side Picture by PA Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has a few more headaches at present than usual and his side face another tough test away to a free-scoring Aston Villa side Picture by PA

IN this era of 24-hour rolling news with TV companies trying desperately to fill air time, the next sporting ‘crisis’ is never too far away.

TNT Sports presenter Matt Smith admitted as much during an interview with Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag last week ahead of the Champions League clash with Galatasaray, telling the Dutchman the broadcasters love it when the Red Devils are struggling.

Life seems a constant struggle at Old Trafford these days, but across the city things are generally pretty perfect for Pep Guardiola.

However, a dreadful run of results have sent the graphics men scurrying for the ‘crisis’ artwork yet again.

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Of course, that run of results should be put in context, and after sweeping all before them on the way to the Treble last term, City have indeed been falling below their own very high standards of late, drawing a wretched three Premier League games on the bounce.

The fact those three draws came against good teams in Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs doesn’t really come into the minds of analysts, and it is only a matter of time before the champions hit their swaggering stride again.

That said, there have been a few issues of late at City, with the amount of goals being conceded bound to have had Guardiola scratching his head even more than usual, with eight let in during those three draws.

If you factor in that they went two down at home to RB Leipzig in the Champions League before hitting back to win 3-2 last week, the evidence is mounting up that City have become quite easy to get at.

The absence of John Stones in his hybrid defender-midfield role has had a bearing on that, with Rodri having to do overtime in the middle of the park.

The Spaniard has picked up a suspension on the back of all the covering he has had to do, and will miss Wednesday night’s difficult trip to Aston Villa in the pick of a full round of midweek Premier League matches.

Unai Emery has done a stellar job in his year at the helm in Birmingham, the club’s rise built largely on a superb home record, with 13 league wins on the bounce recorded at Villa Park.

It is not the fixture Guardiola would have chosen to get out of any slump that has kicked in, and a failure to pick up three points would only heighten talk of a genuine title race involving the holders, Arsenal and Liverpool.

Indeed, Villa might feel they should also be in that chat as a victory on Wednesday would take them above City, and there will be plenty of punters backing them at a best-priced 15/4 (Bet365) to take the win.

If they are to do so, history will need to be turned on its head, with City winning their last 13 games at Villa, but in that time they will never have faced a side so high in confidence.

City are favourites at 8/11 to get back to winning ways, but it won’t be easy, with Villa scoring 23 goals in their six home league games this term.

All the stats and recent form suggest there will be goals in this one, so the first port of call as far as I’m concerned is to back over 3.5 in the game at 5/4 (Betway).

The 15/4 about a home win is very tempting indeed, but it might just be more prudent to side with the Villa-draw double chance at 6/5 (Unibet) as they can give City a real scare at the very least, especially without Rodri, who missed both of their away losses to Wolves and Arsenal earlier in the season and is probably their most important player in the absence of Kevin de Bruyne.

While City are on the road, neighbours United will be glad to get back to home turf after another abject performance at Newcastle on Saturday night, when the 1-0 scoreline was extremely flattering.

In the fall-out from that defeat, the talk has been of the players losing faith in Ten Hag, and the Dutchman is starting to look like the next victim of a squad who are regrettably far more powerful off the pitch than on it.

Chelsea are the visitors to Old Trafford on Wednesday, and while United are three places above them in seventh, the Blues go into the game as slight favourites with most firms, with 29/20 available (Bet365).

Mauricio Pochettino has had a trying first few months at the Stamford Bridge helm, and the results continue to be a mixed bag, but there are clear signs his gameplan is getting across to a young and hungry group of players.

Their frenzied, all-action approach to pressing gave City all sorts of issues in their 4-4 draw last month, and it could be a nightmare for a United side who are slow and ponderous in possession, have too many players who don’t track back, and give up far too many chances.

Marcus Rashford is little more than a passenger at present and United will need everyone on board to deal with Chelsea’s ferocity, which might be beyond them.

The Blues haven’t won a Premier League game at Old Trafford in a decade but that could change and the 29/20 is a very appealing price, as is the evens quoted by Unibet about Chelsea having more than 13.5 shots in the games.

United have seen 106 shots against them in their last six games, a run that has included fixtures against Luton, Fulham and Everton, so Andre Onana could be in the firing line, and on recent evidence you’d expect him to let one slip through his fingers at some stage.

Chelsea have to be fancied to come away with three points and really ramp up the pressure on Ten Hag, and with big games against Bayern Munich and Liverpool to come next week, it could be an uncomfortable Christmas in the hotseat for the United boss.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are huge favourites to keep their title challenge on track at Sheffield United
Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are huge favourites to keep their title challenge on track at Sheffield United Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are huge favourites to keep their title challenge on track at Sheffield United

Elsewhere, Jurgen Klopp takes his title-challenging Reds to Sheffield United, and anything other than a victory would be huge surprise given that they are no bigger than 1/6.

The Blades finally got round to telling Paul Heckingbottom he had been sacked on Tuesday, having apparently made the decision at the weekend after a 5-0 defeat at Burnley that would be nigh on impossible for any manager to survive.

Sheffield United have actually been unlucky at home on a few occasions this season, with only Newcastle beating them out of sight at Bramall Lane, and City and United both needing late goals to record 2-1 wins.

It might be a bit more comfortable for Liverpool with Chris Wilder still getting his feet back under the table, but the Blades do tend to score on home soil and Liverpool are giving up plenty of goals, as they did in the 4-3 victory against Fulham at Anfield on Sunday.

Klopp has got the fight-to-the-finish mentality back in his side, however, and they could go close to a second Premier League title, and if those ambitions are to be realised games like this need to be won.

A Liverpool win with both teams scoring looks a decent bet at 11/8 (Bet Victor) on a night when City’s title aspirations might well get a closer examination.

PREMIER LEAGUE


Aston Villa-draw double chance v Manchester City, 6/5 (Unibet); over 3.5 goals in the game, 5/4 (Betway);

Aston Villa-draw double chance and over 3.5 goals, 9/2 (Betway);

Chelsea to beat Manchester United, 29/20 (Bet365); Chelsea to have over 13.5 shots in the game, evens (Unibet);

Liverpool to beat Sheffield United and both teams to score, 11/8 (Bet Victor)