Premier League bets of the weekend: Sunderland and Newcastle see chance to close in on Norwich in basement battle
The Canaries could be firmly in bottom three by the time they play again, but Liverpool and Arsenal are unlikely to be in a benevolent mood to North East sides
The Manchester clubs have not lived up to expectations in the English Premier League but both still have hopes of silverware this season, with United favourites for the FA Cup as they take on Everton tomorrow on semi-finals weekend and City facing Real Madrid at home in their Champions League semi-final first leg on Tuesday night.
The FA Cup has been even more of a sideshow than usual this season, with so much interest in the Leicester City fairytale and Tottenham’s emergence as a major force, but for United and much-maligned coach Louis Van Gaal the competition has taken on great importance.
United have found better form in recent weeks, with only three defeats in their last 14 matches in all competitions since their away loss at Midtjylland in the Europa League in mid-February, and are pushing hard for Champions League qualification as well as FA Cup success.
It is probably no coincidence that the revival came with the elevation to the first team of Marcus Rashford, who announced himself with two goals on his debut in the return leg against Midtjylland and has started all 12 matches since then, scoring another five goals.
Rashford has helped bring the dynamism and directness that had been missing from United’s play, in partnership with others such as Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, and their FA Cup quarter-final replay win at West Ham was arguably their performance of the season.
By contrast, opponents Everton have hit a rocky patch and their manager Roberto Martinez suddenly seems under more pressure than Van Gaal.
Apart from their victories in the last two rounds of the FA Cup – both meritorious, away to Bournemouth and home to Chelsea – Martinez’s side have won only one match in the past two months and that was against bottom club Aston Villa.
United will have to guard against a repeat of last month’s failure against Liverpool in the Europa League, when they seemed unable to grasp the opportunity, but they look good value for the win.
City have a much more difficult task in the Champions League semi-final, as you would expect in Europe’s premier club competition. Real Madrid have won eight of their 10 games in this season’s Champions League and their only failures came when they were shut out.
With only two clean sheets in their 10 Champions League games, City will have difficulty stopping Real and the visitors are the handicap pick.
The race is on at both ends of the English Premier League, with Tottenham closing the gap on leaders Leicester to five points and only two points separating Norwich, Sunderland and Newcastle – the three clubs battling for the probable one place that will ensure safety.
Norwich will be hoping for nothing so dramatic as last weekend, when their 3-0 home defeat by Sunderland allowed their rivals to move on to their heels. The Canaries are not in action again until next Saturday, by which time they could have dropped two places to second-bottom depending on results for the other relegation battlers.
Sunderland and Newcastle both play twice before Norwich kick off at Arsenal a week tomorrow, and first into action on this weekend’s programme are Newcastle away to Liverpool tomorrow.
Rafa Benitez has finally sparked Newcastle into life with four points from two matches in the past week, although both of those games were at home and the remaining big issue is that their away form is terrible.
Newcastle have gone nine away games without a win and 15 without a draw, leaving them with just seven points from 17 trips this season – only one more than already-relegated Aston Villa.
Benitez is hoping for something for old time’s sake on tomorrow’s visit to his former club, but Liverpool are another club in late-season bloom (one defeat in 15) and would have to be in benevolent mood to miss out on victory.
Sunderland have better hopes with home advantage against Arsenal tomorrow night. The visitors are strong favourites but there are question marks after the tame surrender of their trophy chances, with only four wins in their last 13 games in all competitions.
Arsenal look too short and Sunderland could be worth chancing on the handicap.
Finally the Premier League stage will be left to Leicester and Tottenham. The leaders play first, at home to Swansea, and rate a good bet at the odds even without striker Jamie Vardy.
At much shorter odds Tottenham are banker material on Monday night at home to West Brom, who appear to have lost all interest in adding to their 40 points with only one goal scored in their last five matches.
Leicester home win
Much more than a one-striker team
Manchester United win
Clear form choice in FA Cup semi-final
Derby home win
Back on top form with five straight home wins
Bristol City on handicap
Worth a bet after strong recent run
Mainz on handicap
Can bounce back from last week’s defeat
Consecutive scoring league games for Leicester