United, Gunners turn to old hands hoping for miracles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2012, 12:00am


'Out with the old, in with the new' is the traditional refrain associated with the new year in England, but clearly it has been lost on Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. First Paul Scholes reappears for Manchester United, at the age of 37 and seven months into his supposed retirement, and 24 hours later 34-year-old Thierry Henry dons the Arsenal red again to score the winning goal against Leeds in the FA Cup.

Surreal hardly begins to describe it. The only occurrence that could be more amazing is a goal for Fernando Torres - now there's something that truly seems a thing of the past.

Henry, whose two-month loan from New York Red Bulls seems to run counter to Wenger's youth policy, could have the bigger impact of the returning legends. His goal against Leeds showed he retains his scoring instincts, even if his pace has diminished, and he could provide a similar boost to Arsenal as Henrik Larsson did during a similar loan spell at United five years ago.

Arsenal's first Premier League game with Henry in the squad is away to Swansea, who (along with Manchester City) have been the toughest hosts to score against this season. Swansea have kept six clean sheets in 10 home games, conceding only four goals, and their sole defeat at Liberty stadium was 1-0 against Manchester United in November.

While Swansea are winless in six games overall against the big six, they kept the scores tight in four of them - including a narrow 1-0 defeat in the reverse fixture at Arsenal. The Gunners have had fluctuating form on the road, even against the lesser teams, and don't look reliable at odds-on even with Henry back. Under 2.5 goals looks the best bet.

Scholes is likely to be more of a steadying hand than a potent force for United and he should not be too taxed by Bolton's visit to Old Trafford. United were shocked by Blackburn in their last home game, but lightning is unlikely to strike twice for a team who have won 21 of their other 23 home games against bottom-half rivals over the past two and a half seasons. All the obvious options, such as over 2.5 goals and a United win-win on the HaFu, are well covered at the odds.

It is difficult to see Tottenham failing at home to Wolves, but Chelsea might have a little more difficulty against Martin O'Neill's resurgent Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. Sunderland have lost only one of their six league games under O'Neill (1-0 at Tottenham) and over Christmas they joined Chelsea as the only team to inflict a league defeat on Manchester City this season.

Chelsea remain inconsistent, interspersing good results (3-0 win at Newcastle, 2-1 victory at home to City and 1-1 away draw with Spurs) with draws against Wigan and Fulham, and a loss to Aston Villa in their last home league match.

Goals arrive late for Chelsea and, with their last seven games against domestic opposition all level at half-time, the best bet for Blues backers might be the draw-win on the HaFu. A Sunderland upset is not out of the question. Nor is Liverpool at home to Stoke the foregone conclusion suggested by the odds, given the hosts' difficulty at turning chances into goals. But Stoke's pitiful record away to the big six (18 defeats out of 20 since promotion) is a blot on their otherwise impressive progress.

With Manchester City away to Wigan, this looks a relatively trouble-free weekend for the title contenders and the best-value bets are in the lesser matches.

Top of the list is Newcastle at home to QPR, who have their first game under Mark Hughes. Newcastle have been strong at home to teams below them in the table, winning four out of six in the league as well as last week's FA Cup third-round tie against Blackburn.

QPR, meanwhile, have been poor on the road, with their three wins (against Everton, Wolves and Stoke) coming against opponents who were at their lowest ebb - a comment that does not apply to Newcastle after back-to-back home wins over United and Blackburn. Apart from those wins, QPR have taken only one point from their other seven away games.

Hughes is likely to wring some improvement out of QPR, just as O'Neill has done at Sunderland. But O'Neill inherited a better squad, whereas Hughes is likely to have to go to the transfer market to get QPR moving upwards.

The other factor that might raise concern for Newcastle backers is the absence of Demba Ba and Cheick Tiote from Alan Pardew's side, owing to call-ups for the Africa Cup of Nations. Ba has been outstanding this season but, as Hatem Ben Arfa showed with his wonder goal against Blackburn, Newcastle have some good replacements.

Blackburn are opposable at home to Fulham, with the poisonous atmosphere at Ewood Park contributing to a record of eight defeats and two wins in 10 home games. Steve Kean's strugglers have lost all three home games against bottom-eight sides, while Fulham have lost one out of seven in that category and are the handicap pick.

The other decent handicap bet is Norwich away to West Brom. Paul Lambert's newcomers continue to be underestimated, even though they have lost only two out of 12 against teams below them.

Shortlist: Fulham, Newcastle, Norwich, Hull, Birmingham, Reading, Sevilla.


1. Newcastle home win

Back on track after poor December

2. Hull home win

Nicky Barmby can continue his excellent start as manager

3. Birmingham on handicap

Unbeaten in 12 against bottom-half teams

4. Reading on handicap

In good form, with seven wins from last 10

5. Sevilla home win

Can build on midweek cup win over Valencia