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SPORTS STORY

Festive flutters

Ross White guides you through the Christmas and New Year’s fixtures with his usual through and methodical approach, suggesting a few sensible strategies and a couple of bold punts

Any Arsenal and Chelsea fans hoping for a relaxing Christmas period will be out of luck as they spend Christmas Day and Boxing Day fretting about the teams’ vital Monday night clash at the Emirates.

Blues supporters will know that defeat could open up the title race while Gunners followers will fear further humiliation after losing the last five meetings with Chelsea, including some embarrassingly one-sided thumpings.

Despite that head-to head record this match is anything but a foregone conclusion as there are big question marks over Chelsea on tough trips this season, having been beaten at Liverpool and Man City without scoring.

Arsenal will be determined to overcome Chelsea this time and with arguably more attacking options in their squad at this busy stage of the campaign I reckon they might win this one at pretty decent odds.

The pick of the fixtures on 26 December is Liverpool’s trip to Blackpool, where they will aim to avoid an embarrassing double after the Seasiders’ sensational 2-1 win at Anfield in September. The Reds’ away form in 2010 has been abysmal, with just two Premier League wins to date and Blackpool have a pretty good chance of heaping further humiliation on them.

Although the Tangerines’ home form has been poor so far they have performed well at Bloomfield Road against decent teams, matching Everton in a 2-2 draw and being very unlucky to lose 3-2 to Man City. In fact manager Ian Holloway’s positive attitude convinced me to make this my shock of the month, particularly as Blackpool currently average 1.80 goals scored per home match while Liverpool average just 0.57 goals per away match.

As I write this anyone following my accumulator tips in 2010/11 will be roughly breaking even but statistics show it is getting harder to pick several outright winners from the average round of Premiership fixtures. So far this season, the percentage of matches drawn has risen from last season’s 25% to almost 35%, with an 8% drop in home wins, which have accounted for just 42% of results between August and mid-November.

Therefore my first accumulator will be a 3pm home treble on the ‘Draw No Bet’ market so if none of the selected home teams lose you will be guaranteed some sort of return.

So who are the three teams that cannot lose? Firstly Blackburn have shown pretty decent home form in only losing to Arsenal and Chelsea and should be ok against a Stoke side who lost five of their first six away matches. Secondly Bolton, who are riding high in the table as I write, joint fourth top scorers and have only lost twice. With strikers Davies and Elmander on form they should win at home to West Brom, who have sparkled at Arsenal and Man United but lost at Blackpool and Wigan. And to complete the treble we will go with Everton, who beat Christmas visitors Birmingham 2-0 in the teams’ reverse meeting at St Andrew’s in October.

For the final accumulator of 2010 we will simply go for two straight home wins with no safety net. Stoke beat Fulham 3-2 at home in their very first Premier League fixture of the year and we should back them to finish off in a similar vein. Although they have lost to Man United and Spurs, Stoke have taken 13 points from 15 in their other home matches at The Britannia this season while Fulham are currently 25 away league games without a win and lost 2-0 at Stoke in the League Cup in September.

We will double Stoke with a Sunderland home win over Blackpool, who are starting to lose away matches after a honeymoon period in the early stages. The Black Cats are unbeaten at home this season and have beaten Villa, Man City and Stoke while drawing with Arsenal, Man United and Birmingham.

Elsewhere I would suggest laying the Arsenal victory at Wigan, where the Gunners’ title chances were ended last May with a 3-2 defeat with Chelsea and Liverpool also beaten at the DW Stadium last season.

Because of their home record we will again put Sunderland in a home double to kick off 2011 as they host a Blackburn side whose joint top scorers have netted twice each while Mackems’ strikers Bent and Gyan are both among the goals thus far in 2010/11.

This time we will add Spurs to beat Fulham at White Hart Lane. Although Spurs’ home form has been very mixed so far they love home London derbies, being unbeaten in their last 13 and having won all five of them last season including victories over Fulham in the league and FA Cup. Tottenham also won 2-1 at Fulham in October to confirm their superiority.

The following weekend there is a big top-end-of-the-table fixture as Man City travel to Arsenal, where they drew 0-0 last season. As we know the Gunners often struggle to break down stubborn defences at the Emirates, losing 1-0 to Newcastle this season and taking until the 89th minute to break the deadlock against West Ham. Therefore, with City’s defensive outlook less than three goals will be a sound bet and another draw will be the best value result.

In another important fixture Everton host Tottenham, who will need to hit good form during the winter Champions League break. Meanwhile Everton have not lived up to their excellent form from the second half of last season and I suspect that Spurs will have that extra bit of class in the final third of the pitch on a lucky ground for them, having taken 10 points from their last four trips to Goodison Park. Be bold and back the away win.

For another safe-looking double we should back Bolton to beat Wigan at home and Chelsea to win at Wolves. Wigan lost 4-0 at The Reebok last season on their way to conceding 79 Premier League goals and Bolton should have too much for them. Chelsea have won all five Premier League meetings with Wolves, who are currently the top flight’s third-worst home team.

After a weekend of FA Cup action the Premier League returns in mid-January with a selection of bitter derby clashes in Birmingham, Liverpool and the North East. Villa and Birmingham drew 0-0 at Villa Park in October and with both sides being draw specialists another share of the points seems most likely at St Andrew’s. On Wearside Sunderland fans will be desperate for their team to avenge their 5-1 drubbing in the last meeting at St James’ Park but that could put too much pressure on the Mackems players and Newcastle have been a pretty resolute away side so far, so a tense draw is expected.

Meanwhile on Merseyside Everton were by far the better team in their 2-0 home win over Liverpool earlier this season, with Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta scoring. Whatever Roy Hodgson says, his side only came into the game when Everton eased off to protect their two-goal lead. With Liverpool at their poorest in living memory for many of us, the Toffees have a great chance to notch their first win at Anfield since 1999 but again I feel a draw offers the best value. Let’s have a cheeky quid on a treble of derby draws.

Perhaps the biggest match of that day though is Tottenham versus Manchester United. In the past 18 months Spurs have beaten Liverpool, Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Inter Milan at White Hart Lane but they still lost 3-1 at home to United in September 2009 and have lost away to them three times since then.

This match though is a huge chance for the North Londoners to prove they can beat any English side on home turf as United won just one of their first seven away matches and drew the rest. Spurs are a much more dangerous attacking side than any of the teams that drew at home to the Red Devils and can go one better here.

Take a leap of faith then and put Spurs in a double with local rivals Arsenal to win at West Ham the previous day. Arsenal are to date the best away side of 2010/11 and have won three and drawn one of their last four visits to Upton Park.

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