WEEKEND BETTING PREVIEW – MCB’s Premier League Guide

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We look to continue our good run with our Premier League selections and, complete with the odds from your club’s betting service, take a glance at the big matches at both ends of the Premier League this weekend…

WEST HAM v LIVERPOOL

Having beaten them 3-0 at Anfield in August, West Ham (3.60) seek to do the double on Liverpool (2.05) for the first time since the 1962/63 season.
The injury-hit Hammers are also gunning for a third win in four meetings, a feat not achieved since 1965.

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Happy Hammer: Slaven Bilic adored at Upton Park

West Ham took four points from a possible six last weekend, having drawn 1-1 at bottom-of-the-table Aston Villa and then coming from behind to beat Southampton 2-1.

They have shown plenty of resilience under Slaven Bilic, but have drawn six of their last eight Premier League games and have netted just six goals in those eight games.

That said, they are just two points behind fifth-placed Crystal Palace and have already played Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool away from home (losing just one of those games).

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team can take apart anyone on their day, but they are eminently beatable when Daniel Sturridge is unavailable.

Yet their defence needs an overhaul and they have proved vulnerable on the road, as recent defeats at Newcastle and Watford has underlined.

The Hammers have had problems winning at the Boleyn Ground this term but they may be value to record just a fourth win in 24 against the Reds, although we would not want to risk the mortgage on it. We also feel there will be a few goals bucking the trend of recent games involving West Ham. [SM]

VERDICT: WEST HAM 3 LIVERPOOL 1 @ 34.00

BEST BET: BOTH TEAMS TO SCORE @ 1.91 

ARSENAL v NEWCASTLE

It’s fair to say that Arsenal (1.29) have been dominant over Newcastle (10.00) in recent years. The Gunners have won all of the last eight meetings between the two clubs and haven’t lost against The Magpies since 2010.

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Playmaker: Mezut Ozil

That said, their meeting in February 2011 is the one that sticks in the head of most neutrals. Arsenal famously threw away a four goal lead, with the game eventually ending 4-4 after a late Cheick Tiote leveller.

Newcastle will draw on their last trip to North London as inspiration for this one. Steve McClaren’s men shocked everyone after a late Ayoze Perez gave them a vital win away at Tottenham in early December.

The Gunners have won by more than a single goal on each of the last three meetings between the sides at The Emirates and we expect that run to continue at the weekend.

We see nothing other than a comfortable home win here. [CC]

VERDICT: ARSENAL 3 NEWCASTLE 0 @ 8.00

BEST BET: HT/FT = ARSENAL/ARSENAL @ 1.80

LEICESTER v BOURNEMOUTH

Even Claudio Ranieri couldn’t have forecast such a start to his managerial spell at the King Power Stadium.

Claudio Ranieri
Incredible run: Claudio Ranieri

Leicester (1.95) have surprised everyone this season, with Ranieri shaking off the ‘tinkerman’ title given to him during his previous stint in England by building a solid and stable squad.

Bournemouth (3.75) endured a tough start to the season, and found themselves lingering near the foot of the table by late November.

However, an amazing comeback saw them get a point against Everton on November 28, before back-to-back wins against Chelsea and Manchester United in early December saw them climb the table.

Eddie Howe’s men were denied victory in the reverse fixture back in August, when Jamie Vardy’s late penalty rescued a point for Leicester.

However, the Foxes are now flying high, and have a very good record against Saturday’s opponents in recent years. Leicester have won four of the last five meetings and we expect them to get the job done again on Saturday. Everything points to a home win here. [CC]

VERDICT: LEICESTER 3 BOURNEMOUTH 1 @ 15.00

BEST BET: LEICESTER TO WIN @ 1.95

MAN UTD v SWANSEA

Louis van Gaal would probably wish for an easier side to face than Swansea (6.50), who are scrapping for their top-flight status and who gained a solid point in a 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace on Monday.

Gomis
Gomis: Crisis of confidence

The Swans have won four of the last five meetings with Manchester United (1.50), including the last three. They also won their last two trips to Old Trafford by 21 scorelines.

United have won just eight of their last 19 League games and seek their first win in seven – a barren run that sees van Gaal as favourite to be the next manager to get the sack.

Three successive defeats against lesser lights Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke (before a 0-0 draw with Chelsea stopped the rot) has not helped his cause, but they showed plenty of signs that they can turn the corner with a more adventurous attacking display against the Blues on Monday.

Swansea are unbeaten in their last three, having earned a point against both West Ham and Crystal Palace, with a 1-0 victory over West Brom sandwiched in between.

However, their situation in perilous, as they sit just two points off the drop zone and have won away from home just once – at cast-adrift Aston Villa.

The lack of goals has been a major problem for Swansea, which is surprising since they have a decent marksman in Bafatimbi Gomis.

Scoring goals is a percentage game, yet his lack of strikes on goal compared to last term is a major reason why Swansea are not higher up the table. The 30-year-old has suffered an alarming dip in form and until his confidence returns, we see Swansea continuing to spiral. [SM]

VERDICT: MAN UTD 2 SWANSEA 0 @ 6.00

BEST BET: MAN UTD TO WIN @ 1.50

NORWICH v SOUTHAMPTON

Southampton (2.20) were convincing in their 3-0 win over Norwich (3.30) earlier this season and have only lost one of the last 10 meetings between the two sides.

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More expected: Pelle

However, the Saints have had a below par campaign so far. Ronald Koeman will be extremely concerned by his side’s lack of consistency, and will be looking for much more from the likes of Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane in the second half of the season.

There is no doubt that Norwich boss Alex Neil will be worried by his team’s lack of goals this season. The Canaries are among the lowest scorers in the league and haven’t been helped by the lack of stability up front. In truth, all four of the strikers at the club are full of quality and running, but none of Lewis Grabban, Cameron Jerome, Kyle Lafferty or Diuemerci Mbokani have the required level of composure or cutting edge in front of goal.

That said, each of the previous two meetings between the sides have ended with more than two goals being scored and we expect much of the same on Saturday. [CC]

VERDICT: NORWICH 1 SOTON 2 @ 9.00

BEST BET: OVER 2.5 GOALS @ 2.15

SUNDERLAND v ASTON VILLA

Enjoy it while it lasts. Both Sunderland (2.30) and Aston Villa (3.10) are mired in a relegation dog-fight and, with a lack of quality in each squad, it is hard to see either of them escaping the drop to the Championship.

Jordan Ayew
Signs of life: Ayew and Aston Villa

Villa have not won since opening day at Bournemouth, yet if ever there is a team that Villa like to face, it is Sunderland.

The Black Cats have not beaten Villa in their last nine meetings and have lost the last three meetings at the Stadium of Light. Indeed, they have won just two of the last 13 meetings at home.

This fixture can also get a little feisty, with 17 yellow cards and one red shown in the last four meetings. There have been seven dismissals in the last 15 meetings.

Heading into Wednesday’s fixture with Liverpool, Sunderland had lost their last four Premier League games and six of their last eight. With high-flying Tottenham next on the fixture list, a win over the Villains looks imperative as confidence is already at a low ebb.

Villa have shown signs of life in the last couple of outings, holding Newcastle and West Ham to 1-1 draws and creating a few notable chances in a 2-0 defeat at Norwich. The lack of goals in an ongoing theme, although Jordan Ayew can be a handful and Jack Grealish continues to look Villa’s most saleable asset.

Still, we see Sam Allardyce working his magic and Sunderland should have enough to break their hoodoo and earn a welcome win. [SM]

VERDICT: SUNDERLAND 2 ASTON VILLA 0 @ 10.00

BEST BET: SUNDERLAND TO WIN @ 2.30

WEST BROM v STOKE

Those who read our Best Bets for the New Year column will have noted that we tipped Stoke at a ridiculous 2-1 to finish in the top half of the table. They promptly won at Everton.

Mark Hughes3
The entertainer: Mark Hughes

And there are plenty of reasons for opposing West Brom (2.63), not least a solid trend that says the Baggies will have to make a little history if they are to thwart the Stoke (2.75) bandwagon.

For West Brom, who have won the last two meetings with the Potters, have never won three consecutive meetings with their Midlands rivals, dating back to 1901.

While Tony Pulis’s side managed to beat Newcastle thanks to a goalkeeping blunder by their rookie keeper on Monday, they have only won back-to-back games once this season, and can easily be sucked into a relegation battle.

Stoke appear to be on top form at present, gaining six points from their Christmas games with wins over Manchester United and Everton.

The triumvirate of Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic have proven some of the bargain buys of the season and their link-up play, at times, has been mesmeric. You would certainly pay to watch Mark Hughes’s hugely entertaining side.

Stoke have lost just one of their last eight trips to the Hawthorns and before last season’s 1-0 reverse, had won on their previous five visits.

West Brom’s best hope is to sit back and try to catch the Potters on the break. It may not make for a hugely enjoyable game and while our heads tell us an away win looks the most likely outcome, we will side with a draw. [SM]

VERDICT: WEST BROM 1 STOKE 1 @ 6.00

BEST BET: STOKE OR DRAW @ 1.44

WATFORD v MAN CITY

Even the most optimistic Watford (4.75) fan wouldn’t have expected Quique Sanchez Flores to have had such an impact since taking over at Vicarage Road in the summer.

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Road woes: Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini

The Hornets have been the surprise package in the Premier League this season, and now look near certainties to avoid relegation.

In truth, Watford don’t have the greatest record against the so called ‘bigger’ teams in the league, losing to both Manchester United and Arsenal at Vicarage Road already this season.

Manchester City (1.67) have really struggled for consistency this season, particularly away from home. Demoralising losses at Tottenham (1-4) and Stoke (0-2) have particularly hindered Manuel Pellegrini side’s form and confidence so far this season.

That said, City do have a wonderful record against Watford, winning the last three meetings and going without defeat since 1989.

We are going for an away win here. [CC]

VERDICT: WATFORD 1 MAN CITY 2 @ 8.00

BEST BET: MAN CITY TO WIN @ 1.67 

CRYSTAL PALACE v CHELSEA

When Crystal Palace (3.60) won at Stamford Bridge back in August, many expected the result to be one of the shocks of the season.

Yohan Cabaye
Bargain: Yohan Cabaye

However, nobody expected Chelsea (2.05) to be at the wrong end of the league standings come January after losing more games already this season than in the whole of last year’s campaign.

Yohan Cabaye arrived at Selhurst Park over the summer, and the club record fee Palace paid to PSG is now looking like a real bargain. The French international has been among the best players in the Premier League so far this season, offering goals and assists on a regular basis.

Chelsea have really suffered at the back this season, while this young Palace team look more than capable going forward. Thus we fancy goals at Selhurst Park on Sunday.

We are going for a scoring draw here. [CC]

VERDICT: PALACE 1 CHELSEA 1 @ 6.00

BEST BET: BOTH TEAMS TO SCORE @ 1.91

EVERTON v TOTTENHAM

Tottenham (2.60) have a fair recent record against Everton (2.63), having won three of the last six meetings and drawing the other three.

It is their best run over the Toffeemen since going 11 unbeaten between 1973/79.

Romelu Lukaku
Scintillating: Romelu Lukaku

However, last season’s 1-0 win at Goodison Park was their first in eight visits and Everton look a side full of goals at present, with Romelu Lukaku one of the hottest strikers in Europe.

Everton were a little unfortunate to lose 4-3 at home to Stoke on Monday, although, as any referee will tell you, Mark Clattenburg’s decision to award a late penalty to Stoke was the correct decision, regardless of what Everton fans and their manager, Roberto Martinez, may think.

Tottenham were very fortunate to win at Watford on Monday, their third successive league win, which lifted them to third in the table, four points behind leaders Arsenal. Their late winner was clearly offside, and it is not the first time Spurs have had officiating good fortune go their way.

Tottenham also have goals in them, although we do wonder where they will come from should Harry Kane pick up an injury in a long season.

Everton have no failed to win any of their last three games at home, but we think they are capable of halting Tottenham’s good run and they will be carrying our money. [SM]

VERDICT: EVERTON 3 TOTTENHAM 1 @ 19.00

BEST BET: EVERTON TO WIN @ 2.63

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MCB’s COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL-SEASON BETS

My Club Betting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham had you covered with another winning regular season. He continues his foray into the betting trends for every NCAA College Football Bowl from New Year’s Eve to January 3 in a bid to predict the winners on the handicap…

TEXAS A&M v LOUISVILLE

Music City Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (00:00)

Louisville won seven of their last nine games after a 0-3 start and while Texas A&M started hot, they fell away towards the end of the season. This is plenty about momentum and not-so-much about the better team.

Kyler Murray
Airing it out: Kyler Murray

A couple of exciting freshman quarterbacks square off in the shape of Lamar Jackson, who is the Cardinals’ leading rusher, and the Aggies’ Kyler Murray, who is expected to air it out to a well-coached receiving corps.

Can Jackson, who had 734 yards on the ground, be effective against an athletic Aggies’ front? He will be on the move a lot and we take the Aggies to win in a relatively low-scoring game.

VERDICT: TEXAS A&M +1.5

USC v WISCONSIN

Holiday Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (03:30)

Wisconsin’s defense under first-year head coach Paul Chryst was one of the best in the nation. They allowed an average of just 13.1 points per game and limited opponents to 97.9 yards per tilt on the ground.

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Joe Schobert: Pass rushing force

They possess an elite inside linebacker in T.J. Edwards and their pass rush is strong, with Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel accumulating 17.5 of the Badgers’ 26 sacks this season.

That is a worrying problem for USC, whose offensive line was the third-worst in the Pac-12, allowing 35 sacks in 13 games. There is no question that QB Cody Kessler is going to be under fire.

Still, the Badgers lack offensive punch and they may have to lean on their defense to keep things interesting. USC have limited opponents to 147.2 rushing yards per game and Wisconsin’s backfield duo of Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale have averaged better than four yards per carry.

USC outside linebacker Su’a Cravens, who will enter the NFL draft after this game, will keep senior QB Joel Stave under pressure and while the passer has completed 60.4 percent of his passes, his 10-11 touchdown to interception ratio shows the Badgers’ offensive limitations.

We like USC to extend its six-game winning streak over Wisconsin, who were 4-0 away from home this term.

VERDICT: USC -3

HOUSTON v FLORIDA STATE

Peach Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (17:00)

FSU is playing in its 34th consecutive bowl game but for the first time in three years is not playing for a national title (beaten by Oregon in the College Football Playoff semi-final at the Rose Bowl 59-20 last season). That ended a streak of six straight bowl wins for the Seminoles.

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High-powered attack: Greg Ward Jr

The Houston Cougars won the AAC and advance to their biggest bowl game since losing to Boston College in the 1995 Cotton Bowl. The Cougars relied on their high-powered offense to reach a 12-1 summit this term, averaging over 40 points a game and scoring 50 or more points four times. Their sole loss came to UConn (20-17).

QB Greg Ward Jr is not the biggest at 5-foot-11, but he completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns, but his ability with his legs stood out, running in another 19 scores. He led the Cougars’ rushing attack that averages 240 yards per game.

FSU knew there would be a few struggles in trying to replace Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston and Everett Golson has been up and down. A move to Sean Maguire later in the season stabilised the Seminoles, who run the ball with purpose. Dalvin Cook averaged nearly 7.9 yards a carry and scored 19 TDs, but was somewhat surprisingly left out of Heisman Trophy calculations.

Florida State’s defense is better than advertises and the Cougars are coming up against the fastest team with the most overall talent that they have met this year. The question is whether FSU will be motivated. We take the Cougars as a fun underdog pick.

VERDICT: HOUSTON +7

OKLAHOMA v CLEMSON

Orange Bowl Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (21:00)

This is the first of the National Championship playoff semi-finals. No.1 Clemson meets No.4 Oklahoma, who are considered 3.5-point favourites to beat the Atlantic Coast Conference winners.

Baker Mayfield
Top gun: Baker Mayfield

The Big 12 winners went 7-0 and 6-1 AST in their last seven games, putting behind them a stunning 24-17 loss to Texas as a 16.5-point favourite.

Over their last seven games, QB Baker Mayfield led an offense that piled up an average of 51.9 points per game to earn a trip to Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Clemson were the only team in College Football to avoid defeat, their 13-0 record capped with a 45-37 win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship game.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the Tigers were 6.5-point underdogs against a much weaker Oklahoma side in last season’s Citrus Bowl, but they still thumped them 40-6.

Revenge will be in the air as they fight for the right to face Michigan State or Alabama in the National Championship game.

Clemson survived a couple of scares, just managing to hold off Louisville 20-17 and Notre Dame 24-22 in games that they needed turnovers to benefit. Oklahoma went 5-0 against ranked opponents, while Clemson went 3-0 against Top 25 teams and it is fair to say that the Sooners are a more seasoned team, particularly since many of them faced Alabama in the Sugar Bowl two years go.

The handicap line may be misleading to some, as the Tigers are legitimately the No.1 team in the nation. But head coach Dabo Swinney was forced to send home three players from Miami after failed drug tests this week, among them burgeoning star receiver Deon Cain, who scored five TDs this term.

Clemson’s defense can stop the run – they held Georgia Tech’s diverse attack to 1.69 yards per carry and have only allowed 14 rushing TDs all season. When they force opponents to throw, they can dominate. However, they have not faced a tandem like Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who have thrived behind an emerging offensive line as the season has worn on.

The biggest issue for us is the battle in the trenches. If Clemson’s defensive line can dominate as it has throughout the season, the Tigers have a fair chance of winning. If Oklahoma manage to run the ball consistently, they should win.

We are taking a mighty chance with the underdog, but until they are beaten, they are still the top dog and are a bit of value to win outright at 2.60.

VERDICT: CLEMSON +3.5 @ 2.00

MICHIGAN STATE v ALABAMA

Cotton Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (01:00)

With the winner going on to face either Oklahoma or Clemson in the National Championship game, Michigan State are as big as 4.50 to beat Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

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Heisman hero: Derrick Henry

The Crimson Tide are considered double-digit favourites by some firms and that is expected, since the Spartans are 2-7 in their last nine Bowl games.

They won their first six games but failed to cover the spread each time, then turned a sloppy start around with a win at Michigan on a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.

Having allowed an average of just 10 points per game in their last four contest, the Spartans ended the season with a 17-14 win at Ohio State as a 14.5-point underdog, and then knocked off Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten Championship game.

In contrast, Alabama are 8-1 in their last nine Bowl games and beat their last 10 opponents by an average of 21.6 points per game. Star running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, and he should prove pivotal to the outcome.

Only two opposing running backs have compiled 100 yards or more against the Spartans this season: Purdue’s Markell Jones had 157 yards on 22 carries (68 of them came on one TD run), and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who managed 103 yards.

Alabama have won five of their last six games against Big Ten opponents, but the SEC team have looked a dominant force in all phases and it is no wonder they are favoured to win the National Championship.

If they can run effectively, they should triumph.

However, Michigan State’s QB Connor Cook has been stellar, not necessarily in terms of numbers (he does not have the surrounding talent possessed by some other schools), but in terms of leadership and game management.

He rarely makes mistakes and can put up decent stats when healthy: and that is the issue. Cook injured his shoulder against Maryland and he managed just three TDs and 516 total yards in his last three games as a result. However, he has had almost a month to heal and he should resemble the player he was before November.

The Spartans are battle-hardened, too. They have played a tough schedule and beat four teams ranked in the top 15 (Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon). The other three playoff teams have three wins against top 15 teams between them. Alabama does not have any.

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans should not be underestimated. They have a giant chip on their shoulder and can make this interesting.

VERDICT: MICHIGAN STATE +9.5 @ 1.92

NORTHWESTERN v TENNESSEE

Outback Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (17:00)

We like Outback Steakhouses. It is No.1 port of call whenever we are in the States (which isn’t often enough). In this 30th edition of the Outback Bowl, if Northwestern wins, Outback Steakhouses will be giving away free coconut shrimp on Jan. 1. If Tennessee wins, there will be free Bloomin’ Onions.

Anthony walker
Top talent: Anthony Walker

Take a breath mint with you, as Tennessee, riding a five-game winning streak, are expected to win. Whether they cover the 8.5-point handicap is another matter.

The Vols (8-4) boast the second-ranked rushing attack in the SEC, with dual threat QB Joshua Dobbs adding 623 yards and nine TDs on the ground to his 2,125 passing yards and 15 touchdowns trough the air. Tailback Jalen Hurd added 1,158 rushing yards and 11 TDs.

Northwestern’s defense is decent. The Wildcats (12-2) limited opponents to 16.4 points per game, led by outstanding LB Anthony Walker, who has 113 tackles, 19.5 of them for a loss.

The Wildcats have played plenty of close games and there is no reason to think that the Vols will blow the Big Ten outfit away. We’ll still take the free Bloomin’ Onions, thank you.

VERDICT: NORTHWESTERN +8.5 @ 1.92

MICHIGAN v FLORIDA

Citrus Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (18:00)

While they won’t finish the season as one of the nation’s big six, Michigan and Florida have had highly successful seasons under first year head coaches.

Jim Harbaugh
Overseeing a turnaround: Jim Harbaugh

Michigan’s turnaround from 5-7 a year ago to 9-3 this season (they were just a blocked punt away from having the chance to reach the National Championship playoffs), has been testament to former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Jim McElwain also did supremely well at Florida, who went 7-5 last season but only lost three times in 13 outings this year.

Points should be at a premium in the Citrus Bowl. Florida boast the eighth-ranked scoring defense, holding eight opponents to 14 points or fewer. However, they dropped off in their last two games, allowing 28 points per game to two top-10-ranked opponents.

Michigan’s defense posted three consecutive shutouts in October, including two against ranked teams. They rank 11th overall in points allowed per game (17.2) and fourth in total yards. They have been particularly good against the pass and that’s the best reason for taking on the Gators, despite the Florida ‘home-state’ advantage.

For the Gators’ attack has been pedestrian, to say the least. Treon Harris has thrown for 165 yards or fewer in five of his seven starts, while leading rusher Kelvin Taylor averages just 4.0 yards per carry.

It is hard to see how the Gators can match the Wolverines blow for blow and we take Michigan to cap a fine season with a relatively comfortable Bowl win. We would not put anyone off backing them at odds of 1.50 for the win.

VERDICT: MICHIGAN -4 @ 1.95

NOTRE DAME v OHIO STATE

Fiesta Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (18:00)

The No.8-ranked Notre dame Fighting Irish face the No.7-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in what promises to be an enthralling Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, home of the NFL’s Cardinals.

Ezekiel Elliott
Stomach for a fight: Ezekiel Elliott

For much of the season, these two looked like they could face off for the National Championship playoffs.

Ohio State are the current National Champions, but they are not able to defend their title this season after losing to Michigan State in their penultimate game of the regular season. It was their only loss of the season, but it sent the Spartans to the playoffs at the Buckeyes’ expense.

Notre Dame also lost just once – a heart-breaking defeat to No.1-ranked Clemson.

Ohio State was the unanimous No.1 choice in the polls before the season began, but they had a soft schedule and paid the price for that loss to Michigan State, who were heavy underdogs and missing their first-string quarterback.

Notre Dame choked at the death. A win over Stanford in their last game would probably have been enough to earn them a spot in the playoffs, but they could not hold on to a one-point lead that they took with just 30 seconds remaining.

The Buckeyes have not delivered as expected, but they should account for Notre Dame. The ground game will be significant. Ohio State runs the ball with authority – Ezekiel Elliott has surpassed the 100-yard mark in 11 of 12 games, averaging over seven yards per carry in five games. He ran all over Michigan’s vaunted run defense to the tune of 214 yards in their last game.

His one poor game came against Michigan State, where he carried the ball 12 times for 33 yards, and got little help from the passing game.

He should have a decent afternoon against the Irish, who rank 65th against the run.

We also feel that the Buckeyes’ pass rush will have some success against inexperienced passer DeShone Kizer, who has gone 8-2 as a starter behind one of the best offensive lines in football.

Even so, Ohio State will have its hands full trying to limit elite receiver Will Fuller, but they should be able to control the clock and grind out a narrow win, although the handicap line is right where it should be.

VERDICT: NOTRE DAME +6.5 @ 1.92

STANFORD v IOWA

Rose Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (22:00)

There is not going to be too much flash and rather more grind-it-out power-running football played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

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Big arm: C. J. Beathard

For the Stanford Cardinal and Iowa Hawkeyes, while not exactly mirror images of themselves, certainly have more than a passing resemblance in style. Or should that be a ‘running’ resemblance?

Full-backs and tight ends are not going to be bench-warmers and smash-mouth football is not something that the Cardinal often see in the pass-happy, finesse-fuelled Pac-12.

Iowa will commit to the run and they will stay committed to it. It is one of the reasons they rank 89th in the nation in passing, but don’t be fooled: QB C.J. Beathard has a decent arm and has good mobility.

He is just as likely to hit a 50-yard bomb off of play-action as he is to avoid the rush and keep the chains moving with his legs. It is a heavy pro-style attack, involving running out of zone-blocking looks to set up the play-action passing game.

Lane discipline is going to be vitally important if Stanford are to get their offense onto the field, as their pass defense is vulnerable and Beathard, while not prolific, is accurate, completing 61.4 per cent of his passes and was at his best against the two best defences Iowa faced (Pittsburgh and Michigan State).

Iowa lost just once in a surprising season, which saw them record their first 12-0 start in school history. Yet their schedule – which was largely out of their hands – was a soft one. The avoided games against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State or Michigan State.

The key match-up is likely to be how well Iowa’s ninth-ranked rushing defense stacks up against Stanford’s no.18-ranked rushing attack.

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is going to cause plenty of problems for the Iowa defense, who were worn down late against Michigan State, and if the Cardinal can pick up some big gains on early downs, then it could get problematic for Iowa. McCaffrey has an ability to break big plays in the passing game and Iowa’s linebackers lack closing speed.

Special teams could be a factor as well: Iowa has not covered kick returns well all year (ranking 106th), and in a game of field position, this could be crucial.

We take Stanford to break it open in the fourth quarter.

VERDICT: STANFORD -4 @ 1.67

OKLAHOMA STATE v MISSISSIPPI

Sugar Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (01:30)

Oklahoma State earned 10 wins for the fourth time in six season, but this year’s team will be remembered as the comeback kids.

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Growing in stature: Mason Rudolph

For they have erased a deficit of 15 points or more three times to win and are 4-0 in games decided by one score this term. They Cowboys are 7-0 in their last seven games decided by a single score.

Oklahoma State has won 12 of its last 14 games and has scored at least 30 points in 10 of its last 11 games, employing a two quarter-back system with Mason Rudolph (3,591 yards) and J. W. Walsh (who has accounted for 18 TDs in the last seven games).

The Cowboys have won four of their last five Bowl games and are 10-2 against in their last 12 games against current members of the Southeastern Conference.

Ole Miss are 6.5-point favourites despite the loss of dominant defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, an All-American junior who was projected as a top-five NFL Draft pick before being suspended and charged with Marijuana possession.

The OSU offensive line is still going to face a stiff challenge, however thinly their line is stretched at this point. They arguably played their best game when Nkemdiche was ruled out – against Texas A&M – although much of the defensive strategy runs through him. He attracts a lot of attention, even though big plays have been limited.

Arguably a bigger miss for Ole Miss is that of Fadol Brown, who can play end or tackle. Losing both is a big blow.

Teams that have managed to protect their QB sufficiently have had success against the Rebels’ secondary this season and the cornerback play has not been a strong as was anticipated in the spring, yet with a month off, the defensive line has had time to heal and could still dominate.

OSU’s defense has forced 13 turnovers in the last six games and 27 turnovers in total. Again, that is another component worth looking at.

This is a tough call, but while Ole Miss has the overall NFL-level depth, their defense is not good at stopping yards after the catch (13th in the SEC). If OSU can get the ball out quickly and stretch the field, the Rebels might have a fight on their hands.

VERDICT: OKLAHOMA STATE +7.5 @ 1.83

PENN STATE v GEORGIA

TaxSlayer Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (17:00)

Georgia lost head coach Mark Richt to Miami after falling sort of the SEC title game and they quickly replaced him with Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. He will stay with the Crimson Tide for the remainder of the season, so receivers coach Bryan McClendon will be the interim coach.

Grayson Lambert
Grayson Lambert: Efficient

Due to other coaching changes, they Bulldogs will be playing in the bowl game without the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach that it finished the regular season with.

QB Grayson Lambert was efficient, completing 64.4 per cent of his passes for 1844 yards and 11 TDs, but it is on ground game where they dominated, averaging 194.3 yards per game.

Defensively, the Bulldogs were solid. They yielded only 16.9 points per game on average and conceded less than 299 yards per game.

Penn State started strongly before falling away to a mark of 7-5 and head coach James Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan after they finished the regular season as one of the worst attacks for the second successive year.

QB Christian Hackenberg was efficient, tossing 16 TDs to five interceptions, but his play dropped off and while he was once thought of as a high NFL draft pick, it will now be interesting to see who will take a chance on him.

We feel the Nittany Lions’ inability to block sufficiently for Hackenberg will come back to haunt them, despite the coaching uncertainty at Georgia. The Bulldogs defense should lead the way, but we would not want to get too involved.

VERDICT: GEORGIA -6.5 @ 1.91

KANSAS STATE v ARKANSAS

Liberty Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (20:20)

Size matters. Arkansas boast one of the biggest offensive lines in the nation – and that includes NFL teams.

Brandon Allen.JPG
Underrated: Brandon Allen

That is going to be a problem for the Wildcats. Almost every offensive line in the Big 12 sports a size advantage over them and while they have managed to be a force against the run, the Razorbacks have mustered an average of 456 yards per game this season, with 192 coming on the ground.

It has been a tumultuous season for Arkansas. They started with losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, before a four-OT thriller against Auburn gave them some much-needed confidence. They beat 19th-ranked Ole Miss 53-52 in OT and a week later trounced ninth-ranked LSU 31-14.

While Kansas State plays in the pass-happy Big 12, only Kansas, a 0-12 team that lost to FCS South Dakota State, finished with a worse passing defense than the Wildcats. Kansas State finished 120th of 128 teams in the FBS in yards per game and gave up 24 TDs while getting just four interceptions.

Arkansas is 121st. The Razorbacks have a superior TD to INT ratio (17 to 10), but gave up 300 yards or more five times, including a 508-yard shellacking by Mississippi State. Neither team’s defense can be confused with Georgia’s.

The nub is this: Arkansas QB Brandon Allen led the SEC in touchdowns, was second in the nation in Total Quarterback Rating, completed 65 per cent of his passes and had the second best touchdown to interception ratio in the SEC (29 to seven).

While the Arkansas defense is similarly weak, it is not likely that junior K-State passer Joe Hubener will be able to keep pace with the Razorbacks. They are a near two-touchdown favourite for a good reason.

VERDICT: ARKANSAS -12.5 @ 1.91

OREGON v TCU

Alamo Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (23:45)

Following the return of QB Vernon Adams from injury, Oregon ended the year on a six-game winning streak, having dropped three of their previous five outings to go 9-3. Their very good defensive line masks an horrific secondary and that is going to be a major problem against a diverse TCU attack.

Vernon Adams.jpg
Sparked revival: Vernon Adams

While TCU receiver Josh Doctson is ruled out with a wrist injury, the Horned Frogs will still fancy their chances of covering a small spread. QB Trevone Boykin (2,928 yards) can hurt the Ducks with his legs (524 yards on the ground), but is still likely to target Kolby Listenbee and KaVontae Turpin with regularity.

Oregon will have to outscore TCU to win and they have the capability to do just that. Over the last five games, they have averaged 48.6 points per game and beat Stanford, USC and Arizona State.

They have a top-class running back in Royce Freeman (1,706 yards, 16 total touchdowns) and have speed across the board.

TCU’s talented offensive line was hit by injuries and suspensions down the stretch. The secondary also struggled due to injury, but with five weeks to recover, it will be interesting to see how often they will blitz and leave their defensive backs – who are used to man-to-man coverage – in isolation.

The key stats are perhaps these: Oregon is 109th in the nation at keeping its QB upright (sacks allowed), while TCU’s rushing defense ranks 80th in the nation in yards per game and 66th in yards per rush at 4.3.

This is a game to savour and we take TCU to win it in a shoot-out. Call us quackers, but we simply don’t like that Ducks secondary.

VERDICT: TCU -1 @ 2.00

WEST VIRGINIA v ARIZONA STATE

Cactus Bowl – Sun, Jan 3 (03:15)

This is another prickly pick ’em Bowl game between two teams that each had loftier aspirations.

Dana Holgorsen.jpg
Lucky to survive: Dana Holgorsen

West Virginia went 7-5, going 0-4 against ranked opponents and claiming its best victory over Texas A&M. Head coach Dana Holgorsen somehow survived a fourth season in which is teams have gone 25-25.  Yet the Mountaineers have the chance to gain their first eight-win season and a Bowl victory since 2011.

Arizona State Sun Devils fared well below expectations. Their 6-6 record in sharp contrast to 10-win seasons over the previous two campaigns. The Devils opened up with a loss to Texas A&M and largely struggled against better opposition. They only became Bowl eligible (six wins) on November 21.

The Sun Devils have given up 30 touchdown passes and are missing their leader in the secondary, safety Jordan Simone. While they have done a fair job against the run, they may have to sell out to stop the Mountaineers’ talented running back Wendell Smallwood.

That should mean more chances for QB Skyler Howard, who has been plagued by inaccuracy issues, to find speedy receiver Shelton Gibson.

ASU’s QB Mike Bercovici is a little more seasoned and while West Virginia’s secondary take chances (they have picked off 23 passes), they have better balance in attack, with Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard capable of moving the chains on the ground.

Put simply, we don’t have a lot of faith in this West Virginia attack with Howard struggling for form and take the Sun Devils with a small spread.

VERDICT: ARIZONA STATE +1 @ 1.92

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MCB’S TOP SIX BETS FOR 2016

We’ve throw away the wrapping paper, eaten the left-over turkey and taken the Pepto Bismol. We’ve over-indulged on winning bets through 2015 and now we are looking ahead. Another New Year, another ante-post wager to beat the January blues. So here follows My Club Betting’s idea of a few winners for 2016…

JORDAN SPIETH – TOTAL 2016 MAJORS

2015 was quite a year for Jordan Spieth. The talented young American was named PGA Player of the Year after gaining two major championship victories, claiming the number one world ranking and winning the illustrious FedEx Cup.

Jordan Spieth.jpg
Big year ahead: Jordan Spieth

There is no doubting that Spieth’s 2015 season will go down in history as one of the best of all time, but we don’t see the 22-year-old resting on his laurels anytime soon.

Speith has the complete golf game, and has very few weaknesses. He does have one major strength though – his putting. The talented Texan has some of the most impressive putting stats in the history of the game, and rarely looks like missing a putt from inside ten feet.

Oakmont and Baltusrol host the 2016 US Open and PGA Championship respectively. Both Golf Courses are perfectly set-up for Spieth and even at this early stage, we would fancy him to win at both.

Some would argue that Augusta is also tailor made for the young American, but we see the trend of first time major champions being crowned at Augusta continuing in 2016. [CC]

BEST BET: SPIETH TO WIN 2 MAJORS IN 2016 @ 8.50 

NBA CHAMPIONSHIP

Stephen Curry is a man on a mission. Last season’s MVP has continued where he left off and recently guided the Golden State Warriors to record start to an NBA season, which involved them winning all of their first 16 games.

LeBron james.jpg
LeBron James: Man on a mission

That said, Golden State look lost when Curry isn’t on the court and any injury to the exceptional point guard would massively hinder their chances of winning back to back championships.

It looks as though Curry will win Regular Season MVP and that won’t please the pre-season favourite LeBron James. The Cleveland forward has had a solid season so far, guiding his side to the top of the Eastern Conference.

LeBron is a man who loves accolades, and we see him doing his utmost to ensure that his Cleveland side go all the way to the finals, where a potential clash with Curry and Golden State may be on the cards.

We fancy King James to reign supreme and are sticking with our pre-season tip for the Cavaliers to win the NBA Championship. [CC]

BEST BET: CLEVELAND TO WIN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP @ 3.75

US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

You can look at Donald Trump two ways: Is he a bad person because he is a dull, fascist bully? Or is he a dull fascist bully because he is a bad person?

Hiary Clinton.jpg
Hillary Clinton: Just the ticket

Either way, America seems to have fallen in love with him. To be fair, he is only saying what a lot of people are too ‘politically correct’ to think. He has been taking a leaf out of Nigel Farage’s book, if you will.

And how did that work out in the end?

The right-minded part of the Western world hopes that, when it comes time to vote, the American electorate will come round to some sort of rational thinking.

And that can only mean one thing: The Republican Party will have a less bombastic Presidential candidate – and that Marco Rubio will justify odds of 2.88 to win the Republican nomination.

It probably won’t matter a jot, as we feel the Democrats are a certainty to remain in power.

Hilary Clinton is therefore likely to become America’s first female President and she is a backable price at 1.73 and is the more certain of the two selections. [SM]

BEST BET: HILARY CLINTON NEXT US PRESIDENT @ 1.73

BEST BET: MARCO RUBIO WINS REPUBLICAN PARTY NOMINATION @ 2.88

 OSCARS – BEST PICTURE

You will have to wait until Feb 28 to cash in this bet, but betting on the Best picture at the Academy Awards is usually worth a small ante-post wager.

Spotlight.jpg
Top movie: Spotlight

The Martian was one of our favourite films of 2015 but will it be voted the Best Picture? The American science fiction movie, directed by Ridley Scott, is the story of an astronaut who is mistakenly presumed dead and left behind on Mars. It depicts his struggles to survive and others’ efforts to rescue him. Matt Damon is 66-1 to win the Best Actor role and that tells you all you need to know.

Hollywood, being what it is, will probably see a betting move for Carol, which is a British-American romantic drama directed by Todd Haynes. The film is the story of a young aspiring photographer and her relationship with an older woman in 1952 New York., and Cate Blanchett is brilliant in the lead role. It is well worth a look. Carol is third-best in the betting at around 11.00.

The two to concentrate on are Spotlight and The Revenant, respectively 1.91 and 5.00 in the betting.

The Revenant is cinematically stunning – the story of uncharted American Wilderness and stars Leonardo DiCaprio – but it not on general release until January 2016. It was a true test of his acting ability and he deserves to be considered as Best Actor.

However, its release date means that Spotlight has the inside track on the Academy’s voters. Directed by Tom McCarthy, it is about the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ team, an investigative newspaper investigative unit, who methodically uncover a pattern of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts and the ongoing cover-up. It is hard-hitting, gripping and clever. We think Spotlight merits support at odds of 1.91. [SM]

BEST BET: SPOTLIGHT – BEST PICTURE AT ACADEMY AWARDS @ 1.91

QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE

Sir Peter O’Sullevan once told this correspondent that the key to longevity was “having an ante-post bet, because it gives you something to look forward to”.

Sage advice.

There was nothing he liked better than calling the horses on the biggest jumps stage of all – the Cheltenham Festival.

Cheltenham Festival - Ladies Day
Each-way value: Sire De Grugy

And we look to the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March to provide our ante-post wager.

Sire De Grugy won the two-mile chase in 2014 but finish 10-lengths fourth last year, not having had the ideal preparation. Yet he looks tremendous each-way value at around 12-1, having scored in style on his second run of the season in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in early December. He may not be the horse he was in 2013/14 but he is still capable of producing top-class form.

The obvious winner is youngster Un De Sceaux, who won the Arkle at Cheltenham last March and who followed up in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novices’ Chase at Punchestown in April.

However, he is too short for an ante-post plunge at 11-8 and we feel that, at his best, Moore’s charge can make the frame come March 16. [SM]

BEST BET: SIRE DE GRUGY – CHAMPION CHASE @ 13.00 EACH-WAY 

STOKE CITY TOP 10 FINISH

Stoke City are currently in 11th place, two points behind eighth-placed West Ham, with Liverpool and Everton in between.

Mark Hughes3
Top-half finish: Stoke City and Mark Hughes

Mark Hughes has put his stamp on the club, who play some of the most attractive football in the division.

And after suffering a sticky start with no win their first six, they have steadily climbed the table and have recently beat the likes of Manchester City, Southampton, Chelsea and Man Utd.

Their biggest concern is lack of goals, but they may well address this in the January transfer window and although they face a few tricky fixtures, including facing Manchester United twice in the space of six weeks, we fancy them to finish in the top half of the table at a massive 2-1. We have them nearer an evens chance. [SM]

BEST BET: STOKE TO FINISH IN TOP 10 @ 3.00 

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MCB’s COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL-SEASON BETS

My Club Betting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham had you covered with another winning regular season. He continues his foray into the betting trends for every NCAA College Football Bowl from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve in a bid to predict the winners on the handicap…

 

CONNECTICUT v MARSHALL

Thundering Herd.jpg
We are Marshall: Thundering Herd can cover

St. Petersburg Bowl – Sat, Dec 26 (16:00)
Definitely a game for the purist, as both schools rely on their feisty defence. The UConn Huskies offensive line was constantly pushed around this season and the Herd’s DE Gary Thompson and LB Evan McKelvey will prey on a sluggish passing ‘attack’, led by true freshman QB Chase Litton. VERDICT: MARSHALL -4

MIAMI v WASHINGTON STATE

Sun Bowl – Sat, Dec 26 (19:00)
Miami’s hiring of head coach Mark Richt is a big plus moving forward, but despite their 8-4 finish, The U is not ‘back’. Not yet, at least. Their average pass rush should get some pressure on Wassu QB Luke Falk (who is one to keep an eye on), because LT Joe Dahl could be missing with a leg injury. The Hurricanes should be able to keep pace with Falk in an aerial dual, as sophomore QB Brad Kaaya emerged as one of the best sophomore passers in 2015. We take the dog on the handicap, as the Canes have the ability to win this. VERDICT: MIAMI +3

WASHINGTON v SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI

Heart of Dallas Bowl – Sat, Dec 26 (19:20)
The Washington Huskies are a young team looking ahead to 2016 rather than looking back on three close losses and a signature win over USC. QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin are underclassmen, but have improved as the season has progressed.

Southern Miss averages 40 points per game and 519 yards per game, with QB Nick Mullens getting great help from backs Ito Smith and Jalen Richard, and the Golden Eagles’ pass rush will get after an ordinary Washington O-line.

However, this is the best defense that Southern Miss has faced since their opener with Mississippi State and the Huskies have the run-stuffing antidote to a decent ground game. This stout front seven should put the brakes on the Golden Eagles attack and win comfortably. VERDICT: WASHINGTON -8

INDIANA v DUKE

New Era Pinstripe Bowl – Sat, Dec 26 (20:30)
Duke has had a month to prepare to face a team that has yielded 37 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. Yet star running back Jordan Howard is rehabbing his knee and they will have to rely on Devine Redding, who ran for 274 yards in the Blue Devils’ last two games.

Indiana kept things close against Ohio State, Iowa, Rutgers and Michigan, as they have the offensive clout to offset their defensive deficiencies. The offensive line, particularly Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney, should be able to keep a clean pocket and boss a pedestrian Duke front seven. Indiana averages 36 points per game but will they have the firepower to cover the small handicap. We’ll take the points. VERDICT: DUKE +2

TULSA v VIGINIA TECH

Independence Bowl – Sat, Dec 26 (22:45)
Frank Beamer’s 23-year-old Bowl streak ends where it began, as the legendary head coach bids farewell to West Virginia in Shreveport at the Independence Bowl.

Tulsa is 1-5 versus teams with a winning record this year but the Hokies went 6-6 with a season-ending escape against Virginia.

The Hurricanes have given up 38 sacks this year and while their wide-open attack could offer a few surprises, the Hokies’ underrated attack, led by QB Michael Brewer and running back Travon McMillian, should just about be able to cover a lofty spread to see Beamer off in style. VERDICT: VIRGINIA TECH -13.5

UCLA v NEBRASKA

Foster Farms Bowl – Sun, Dec 27 (02:15)
UCLA started 4-0 and then finished 4-4, but at least they earned a bowl spot. Nebraska got in through the back door, as there were not enough six-team wins to fill the bowl criteria. Nebraska went 5-7 this season with 26 turnovers one of the major reasons for a disappointing first season in Lincoln for head coach Mike Riley.

The Cornhuskers’ QB Tommy Armstrong is a capable passer (2,856 yards and 21 TDs bears this out), but he also threw 16 picks. He must limit mistakes to keep Nebraska close. UCLA QB Josh Rosen has thrown for 3,351 yards and 20 touchdowns, but the biggest factor in the game will be how effective the Nebraska front seven copes with the UCLA backfield.

RB Paul Perkins has reeled off 1,275 yards at 5.2 yards per pop and 13 touchdowns. The Cornhuskers rank 8th in the nation at stopping the run. We take a chance with the Huskers and the points. VERDICT: NEBRASKA +6.5

PITTSBURGH v NAVY

Military Bowl – Mon, Dec 28 (19:30)
The Navy Midshipmen went 10-2 and finished tied for first in the American Conference West division, averaging 36.2 points per game and 319.2 rushing yards per game. They are considered three-point favourites to beat the 8-4 Pittsburgh Panthers, who finished second in the ACC Coastal division and who went 5-1 on the road.

Navy’s triple option attack helped them to a No.15 ranking at one stage and they seek their first 11-win season in history. While Navy ranked No.3 in rushing (319.2 yards per game and 48 TDs), Pitt’s passer Nathan Peterman and ACC receptions leader Tyler Boyd should keep this interesting. VERDICT: PITTSBURGH +3.5

CENTRAL MICHIGAN v MINNESOTA

Quick Lane Bowl – Mon, Dec 28 (22:00)
Coming off a run that saw them lose five of their last six games and back into a bowl with a 5-7 record, Minnesota are surprising six-point favourites to end a seven-game bowl-losing skid that is the longest in the nation.

CMU fielded the MAC’s best pass defense, which allowed 189 yards per game while holding opponents to 22 points per game. They also faced a tough schedule, taking on Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Syracuse. They have also won five of the last six games and the Minnesota secondary has been weakened by injuries. We still feel Minnesota will have enough to get off their losing streak. VERDICT: MINNESOTA -6

CALIFORNIA v AIR FORCE

Armed Forces Bowl – Tue, Dec 29 (19:00)
Cal beat Air Force in the 2007 edition of this bowl and there should be plenty of points when the pair square off again. The Bears went 7-5, having started 5-0, but finished off their season with a win over ASU.

Air Force’s on defeat in the Mountain West came in the championship game, where they went down by three points to San Diego State. Cal should fancy their chances, as they comfortably dealt with SDSU earlier in the season and they have the capability to win by double digits. VERDICT: CALIFORNIA -7 

NORTH CAROLINA v BAYLOR

Russell Athletic Bowl – Tue, Dec 29 (22:30)
The No.10 North Carolina Tar Heels ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense (40.9 points) and averaged 486.9 yards per game. They face the No.18-ranked Baylor Bears with a chance to reach the 12-win milestone for the first time in school history and secure the first top 10 finish nationally in nearly two decades. The Tar Heels are coming off a 45-37 loss to No.1 Clemson in the ACC title game, but they went 7-0 at home and compiled an 8-0 record in AAC regular-season play.

Baylor (9-3), without talented QB Josh Stidham, lost three of their last four including the last two games – to TCU and Texas – and their lack of quarterback experience has hampered them since he went down. Baylor’s inability to stop teams running on them is a major issue, but UNC’s defensive style is to allow a lot of yards but not a lot of points. We take the Tar Heels to win a shoot-out.  VERDICT: NORTH CAROLINA +2

NEVADA v COLORADO STATE

Arizona Bowl – Wed, Dec 30 (00:30)
Nevada secured bowl eligibility with a last-minute win over San Jose State, in which they went 75 yards in 13 plays to tie with 36 seconds remaining, before blocking a field goal in overtime and winning 37-34 on Tyler Stewart’s touchdown pass. The Nevada running game is better than their passing attack with James Butler (1,156 yards) and Don Jackson (1,025 yards) leading the way.

The Rams seek to close the year on a five-game winning streak. QB Nick Stevens has completed 62 percent of his passes with 21 TDs and 12 interceptions in his first year as starter, with receiver Rashard Higgins a favourite target with 66 catches and 933 yards.

If Nevada can run the ball, they will keep this competitive. The Rams have conceded 230 yards or more in five of their last nine games. The Rams have better balance and should win the day, but we chance the Wolfpack with the points in what should be a decent game. VERDICT: NEVADA +3

LSU v TEXAS TECH

Texas Bowl – Wed, Dec 30 (02:00)
Brilliant offense, woeful defense. If that’s how you like your football, then you’re a Texas Tech Red Raiders fan. This finesse team comes up against the Tigers who look sure to challenge for the national Championship next season.

They lost three of their last four down the stretch and struggled to get past Texas A&M, but they have a strong recruiting class coming in and have RB Leonard Fournette, who is going to be a premier NFL back in due course.

Bowl games are always a different animal, but the feeling is that LSU will control the clock when it matters and may well put on an offensive show themselves. A game well worth staying up for and LSU can cover the spread without too much difficulty. VERDICT: LSU -6.5

AUBURN v MEMPHIS

Birmingham Bowl – Wed, Dec 30 (17:00)
A tale of two Tigers. Auburn were massively disappointing in 2015. They were expected to win the SEC West but fell badly short, with the offense struggling throughout and the defense suffering meltdowns. Defensive co-ordinator Will Muschamp is now off to coach South Carolina.

To be fair, Auburn hung tough in a few games, notably against Alabama, Georgia and LSU over the second half of the season.

Memphis started 8-0 but as soon as their schedule got tougher, they became paper Tigers. They dropped three straight to Navy, Houston and Temple to start November, but head coach Justin Fuente – who is now to become Virginia Tech’s new coach – leaves Memphis in better shape than when he arrived.

Auburn need a few defensive stops early on, particularly on third down, where they have not been good. If they can, we see them rolling to a comfortable win, even though Memphis QB Paxton Lynch is one of the better passers in the SEC. Not a game to get heavily involved in, as Memphis are capable of causing a mild upset. VERDICT: AUBURN -2.5

NC STATE v MISSISSIPPI STATE

Belk Bowl – Wed, Dec 30 (20:30)
NC State Wolfpack were rightly criticised for playing a non-conference schedule that included one FCS opponent (Eastern Kentucky), two more that recently reached that level (Old Dominion and South Alabama) and a Troy team that went 4-8. Hardly a murderers’ row. Beating Mississippi State would give the school eight wins for a second straight season.

Yet the Bulldogs present a big problem for the Wolfpack – notably in the form of QB Dak Prescott (not to mention the loud cowbells that the Bulldogs fans always clang). Prescott has 2,413 passing yards and 25 TDs this season, yet he rarely throws interceptions (just four this term).

He makes plenty of throws under pressure and he as a couple of receivers who are all-SEC players.

There is plenty to like about the Bulldogs but the line is about right. We take them to cover. VERDICT: MISSISSIPPI STATE -5.5

Odds and handicap lines are subject to change. You must be 18+ to bet.
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MCB’s 12 BETS OF CHRISTMAS

We love Christmas. In fact, we’ve even thought about wearing a Christmas jumper, as well as backing one (have you seen Kempton’s Boxing Day card?). The Festive season is invariably an expensive one, but those bookies insist on giving us more Christmas markets than you’d find in your average German town. Given their generosity, it would be churlish not to take advantage of their Christmas spirit, so herewith are our dozen cracking Christmas bets…

CHRISTMAS DAY TV RATINGS

It is always a favourite punt of ours. Who wins the TV ratings war on Christmas Day has little to do with taste.

Lady Mary
Our muse: Lady Mary

That’s why most firms have the BBC’s Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special as odds-on favourite. You know it and we know it: It is truly dreadful and plunges the depths of ‘comedy’ that we never thought existed. And you, dear licence-fee payer, are forking out for the Crayola that the ‘writers’ use to pen up this guff.

The final episode of Downton Abbey will knock spots off the rancid BBC output (which also includes the truly dreadful soap Eastenders at 6.00).

At odds of 4.50, Lady Mary – upon whom we have a complete crush, daahling – and company look phenomenal value to win the ratings battle.

Want a fair value outsider? Try Dr Who at around 26.00. It will certainly beat Coronation Street.

But we’ll take safe, genteel and well-written drama over sad, crass desperately unfunny ‘comedy’ any day of the week. And we haven’t even mentioned the desperate ‘Miranda’!

The bookies may have got this very wrong. Take advantage. [SM]

BEST BET: DOWNTON ABBEY TO WIN CHRISTMAS DAY TV RATINGS @ 4.50

CINCINNATI v SAN DIEGO STATE

CHRISTMAS DAY – 01:00 (BT SPORT)

Presents wrapped and under the tree? Carrot for Rudolph and a mince pie for Santa on the hearth? Good. Don’t forget the sherry.

Then it is time to put your feet up and watch some College Football, namely the Hawaii Bowl from Aloha Stadium, Honolulu.

aloha Stadium
Aloha Stadium – site of the Hawaii Bowl

Hawaii are not involved, having failed to gain the pre-requisite six wins to qualify for a bowl berth.

The Cincinnati Bearcats (7-5) will take on the San Diego State Aztecs (10-3) in what could be a decent game. Rest assured, it won’t be played in front of too many people – Hawaiians rarely turn out in force at the antiquated venue, which also plays host to the annual NFL Pro Bowl.

The Aztecs placed first in the West division of the Mountain West Conference and after a 1-3 start, they are on a nine-game winning streak.

Runnin back Donnel Pumphrey is a game-breaker, who has accumulated over 1,500 yards this season, but the Bearcats could be missing quarterback Maxwell Smith, who tore his ACL towards the end of the year against Nevada.

It is likely that redshirt freshman Christian Chapman will try and keep pace with an explosive Cincinnati offense, led by QB Gunner Kiel, which ranks No.4 in passing yardage in the nation and No.5 in total offense.

Their third-down conversion rate, at 51.6 per cent is only bettered by Texas Tech.
We fully expect Cincinnati (1.83) to win and cover the 1.5-point handicap. [SM]

BEST BET: CINCINNATI -1.5 @ 1.91 

STOKE v MAN UNITED

BOXING DAY – 12:45 (SKY SPORTS 1)

Mark Hughes had a wonderful playing career, and his most successful periods were undoubtedly with Manchester United (2.20) with whom he spent two spells and made over 300 appearances.

Mark Hughes3
Top manager – Mark Hughes

The Welshman is now an established Premier League manager and has done a fine job since taking over as Stoke (3.30) boss back in 2013, transforming the Potters from a ‘route one’ team into a side that enjoys operating with a possession-based style.

This change in style has attracted some of the most exciting young talents in Europe to The Britannia, with the likes of Bojan, Ibrahim Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic all arriving at the club since Hughes was appointed.

Manchester United fans are crying out for a change in style. While Louis Van Gaal’s patient tactics have stopped the side conceding goals, it has also caused United to look like an overly defensive outfit, with the Red Devils failing to score in a staggering amount of games so far this season.

That said, meetings between these two clubs do usually produce goals. Of the last seven games between Stoke and United, only two have ended without both teams getting on the scoresheet.

We expect much of the same on Boxing Day, and fancy a scoring draw at The Britannia. [CC]

BEST BET: BOTH TEAMS TO SCORE @ 2.05 

KING GEORGE VI CHASE

BOXING DAY – 15:10 (CHANNEL 4)

Kempton Park’s Christmas feature is shaping up to be an open and competitive renewal.

The Irish appear to hold a strong hand in the chasing department this season, with the Gordon Elliott-trained Don Cossack (3.50), winner of his last four and eight of his last nine appearing to be the one to beat.

Don Cossack
Don Cossack – the one to beat

The eight-year-old won a sub-par renewal of the JNWine.com Champions Chase at Down Royal in October and has been ticking over at home since then. He looks like a Gold Cup winner in the making, but his jumping is faultless and if fully fit, will take all the beating.

Last season’s top-notch novice Vautour (3.75) jumped left when winning the Grade 2 Stella Artois 1965 Chase at Ascot and will have to up his game, but there is no reason to think he will not improve for that first run of the season. Willie Mullins’ inmate rates the biggest danger to the selection.

And you cannot dismiss Cue Card (5.00), who looked back to his best when taking the Grade 1 Lancashire Chase at Haydock last month, getting the better of Silviniaco Conti. We see Paul Nicholls’ runner turning the tables this time and he looks a solid each-way bet at around 9.00.

Still, we side with Don Cossack, who looks the class act. [SM]

BEST BET: DON CASSACK TO WIN THE KING GEORGE VI CHASE @ 3.50 

NEWCASTLE v EVERTON

BOXING DAY – 17:30 (BT SPORT 1)

Newcastle (3.20) have endured a tough season so far and all seems far from well at the Tyneside club. The fans are once again unhappy with the board and management team, which is without doubt, having a negative effect on the playing staff.

Romelu Lukaku
To young striker – Romelu Lukaku

That said, The Magpies have managed a few impressive results, with their 2-0 win over Liverpool being the highlight of the season so far.

Everton (2.25) are really starting to look like a settled outfit, after a transitional campaign last season. Roberto Martinez has assembled a talented, young squad since his appointment in 2013 and is now starting to reap the rewards.

Youngsters Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, John Stones and Gerard Deulofeu have all been outstanding for the Toffees this season, and keeping all four men fit will be vital if Everton are going to challenge for a European spot come May.

Newcastle have a wretched record against their Boxing Day opponents, with Everton losing just one of the last eight meetings between the two sides.

Everything points to an away win here. [CC]

BEST BET: EVERTON TO WIN @ 2.25 

SOUTHAMPTON v ARSENAL

BOXING DAY – 19:45 (BT SPORT 1)

Southampton (3.25) are a side struggling for consistency. Ronald Koeman’s men are not living up to the high standards they set last season, and have looked particularly lacklustre in recent home games against Aston Villa and Stoke.

Ronald Koeman2
Poor form – Ronald Koeman

However, they have also looked impressive on occasions, most notably during their convincing win away at Chelsea back in October.

Arsene Wenger finally seems to be prioritising Premier League football. Arsenal (2.30) have had a below-par Champions League campaign so far, eventually qualifying by the skin of their teeth after a win at Olympiacos in the final group stage game. The Gunners also suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat against Sheffield Wednesday to crash out of the League Cup.

That said, it has been a completely different story in the league for Wenger’s men. On their day, Arsenal look arguably the best side in the league, and this was particularly evident in their 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in early October.

These two sides may both possess a similar attacking style, but when they meet each other, goals aren’t usually on the agenda.

Four of the last six clashes between Southampton and Arsenal have ended with less than two goals being scored and we expect their game on Boxing Day to follow suit. [CC]

BEST BET: UNDER 2.5 GOALS @ 1.91

CHRISTMAS NO.1 BOOK

We are not exactly a nation of cooks. We like to think we are, with TV shows such as The Great British Bake Off, Masterchef anything containing the wonderful Jamie Oliver always among the top-rated TV shows. But we simply don’t have the time (we’re too busy watching cookery shows).

Nigella Lawson
She cooks, too – Nigella Lawson

And blokes being what they are (clueless) over what to buy their women for Christmas (or at any other time of the year for that matter), grabbing a cookery book on December 24 is a safe bet for those who have little imagination.

(And really, what are those blokes supposed to do when the reply to the question of: “What do you want for Christmas, honey?’” is met with the response, “Oh, nothing really. I’m fine”).

Lingerie is not cool – and most guys are embarrassed to buy it anyway. Be honest, have you a clue what bra size your missus wears?

So a cookery book is a safe bet. And while we may have heard of Mary Berry (an old lady who bakes, apparently), most blokes have heard of Nigella. Her real name is Nigella Lawson. I think we can all agree: she is the epitome of everything a chef should be.

And, Lo and Behold, she has a new cookery book out in time for Christmas. It is called Simply Nigella and it is 3.00 joint favourite (along with Guinness Book of World Records 2016) to be the Christmas Number One Book.

The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson) and Over The Top And Back (Tom Jones) are next in the betting, but we put out faith in a couple of things… ahem… to bring home the bacon: The nation’s penchant for cookery shows and the male’s psyche. [SM]

BEST BET: SIMPLY NIGELLA (NIGELLA LAWSON) TO BE CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE BOOK @ 3.00

CHRISTMAS NO.1 VIDEO GAME

We are fans of Madden. That’s about the only game we know well. FIFA isn’t bad, either.

Call Of DutyBut our knowledge of video games is limited, as we are all about sport – not about killing people or aliens, racing cars or generally wasting our time (see what we did there, teenagers?). We have lives.

So we got down ‘wiv da yoof, innit’ to find out what the best-selling vids are most likely to be this Christmas.

Our (little) man tells us that Call of Duty – Black Ops III will out-sell anything, including Star Wars Battlefront and FIFA 16. He says the graphics are excellent. We’ll take him at his word.

If it doesn’t out-sell the rest, there will be sure to be some Fallout 4 (see what we did there?).

You can get on at 2.75. That’s good enough for us, although you will probably need to have at least £50 on to make enough money to afford to buy the damn thing! [SM]

BEST BET: CALL OF DUTY – BLACK OPS III TO BE CRISTMAS NUMBER ONE VIDEO GAME @ 2.75

MAN UNITED v CHELSEA

28 DECEMBER – 17:30 (BT SPORT 1)

In truth, both of these sides have underachieved so far this season.

Manchester United (2.25) have suffered from a lack of goals during the current campaign.

Wayne Rooney1
Not the force he was – Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney has failed to impress and it looks as though Old Father Time is starting to catch up with him, particularly when running with the ball.

Anthony Martial was bought in at the start of the season, and seems to have suffered a real loss in confidence, despite a wonderful start to his Premier League career.

Nobody could have forecast the dreadful defence of the Premier League title that Chelsea (3.00) have made. Jose Mourinho’s men are miles off the pace after a wretched start to the season and in truth, a top four spot is now their realistic aim for the rest of the season.

The Blues’ recent loss against Bournemouth highlighted their lack of confidence in possession and defensive frailty. Both issues will need to be addressed if Chelsea are going to turn things round this season.

Chelsea are unbeaten in the last eight meetings between these two sides, with the last United victory coming back in 2012.

We see the Champions getting a point here – at the very least. [CC]

BEST BET: CHELSEA/DRAW (DC) @ 1.65

NFL REGULAR-SEASON MVP

With just two weeks of the regular season remaining, we have a 1.57 shot that, in our opinion, should be 1.01 at best.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers
Perfect season in sight – Cam Newton

Back Cam Newton to be the NFL Regular Season MVP. The Carolina Panthers quarterback has led his team to the NFC South title and may well lead them onto the Super Bowl.

His nearest pursuers in the market are Tom Brady (3.00) and Carson Palmer (11.00), respective passers for New England and Cincinnati. But both those players have at least one elite receiver to pass to, whereas the former Auburn man leads a no-name attack. Take him away from that team and the Panthers would do well to win half of the games they have.

Have no fear in betting odds-on. If is walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and balks at the words “a l’orange”, it probably isn’t a giraffe. Remember: It can be odds-on and still be value. [SM]

BEST BET: CAM NEWTON TO BE REGULAR SEASON MVP @ 1.57

LEICESTER v MAN CITY

KICK OFF: 29 DECEMBER – 19:45 (BT SPORT 1)

There is no doubt that Claudio Ranieri is leading the way when it comes to the Premier League Manager of the Season award.

JamieVardy
Top scorer – Jamie Vardy

Leicester (3.75) have dramatically overachieved so far this season and many would have forecast them to be in a relegation scrap, rather than battling for a European place.

The link-up play between Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez has been the main contributing factor for the club’s success, with both men currently at the top end of the goal-scoring standings in the Premier League.

Manchester City (1.90) are performing as many expected and find themselves at the right end of the table, unlike pre-season title rivals Chelsea.

However, while they have been typically impressive when attacking, they have come unstuck in defence on numerous occasions so far this season.

Defensive issues were particularly apparent in City’s home losses to West Ham and Liverpool earlier in the campaign, with Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis looking unconvincing and off the pace.

Leicester have an awful record against Manchester City. The Foxes have not won any of the last eight games between the sides and have lost all of the last four meetings.

We fancy an away win here. [CC]

BEST BET: MAN CITY TO WIN @ 1.90

SUNDERLAND v LIVERPOOL

30 DECEMBER – 19:45 (SKY SPORTS 1)

Sam Allardyce has certainly steadied the ship at The Stadium of Light since taking over from Dick Advocaat earlier in the season. Sunderland (5.25) have recovered from a disastrous start to the season, which saw them rooted to the foot of the table and have turned out some solid performances under their new manager.

Jurgen Klopp
Work in progress – Jurgen Klopp

One result that particularly comes to mind is Sunderland’s 1-0 win away at Crystal Palace in November, which perfectly highlighted their new found structure and organisation under the man affectionately known as Big Sam.

It has been much the same for Liverpool (1.55) who have also seen an upturn in fortune after changing their manager earlier in the season. Jürgen Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers back in October and has overseen impressive away wins against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea.

The most notable meeting between these two sides came back in October 2009, when a Darren Bent effort deflected off a beach ball to give the Black Cats a famous victory over the Mersysiders. However, Sunderland have a poor record against Liverpool and haven’t won any of the last six meetings between the two sides.

We are going for an away win at The Stadium of Light. [CC]

BEST BET: LIVERPOOL TO WIN @ 1.55

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NFL PICK SIX – Week 16 betting guide

Who will make the playoffs? With two weeks of the regular season to go, there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered.

Last week, the Carolina Panthers defeated the New York Giants 38-35 to improve to 14-0 for the first time in franchise history. The Panthers, who have already clinched the NFC South division title and a first-round bye, can secure homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win.

The Panthers are the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to start a season 14-0, joining e Miami Dolphins (1972), New England Patriots (2007) and Indianapolis Colts (2009). All three of those clubs advanced to the Super Bowl, with the Dolphins winning Super Bowl VII. The 1972 Dolphins are the only team to record a ‘perfect’ unbeaten season.

Mercury Morris
Perfect: Mercury Morris and the 1972 Dolphins

MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of Week 16 of the 2015/16 NFL season. In the last two weeks, our handicap selections have gone 21-10-1.

The odds are correct at the time of writing and are available on your club’s betting service.

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

SAN DIEGO at OAKLAND

(-5.5, Total Points 47.5)

Neither team can make the playoffs, so this is effectively a dead rubber in the early hours of Christmas Day (01:25) UK time.

The Chargers (4-6) may well have played their last game in San Diego as a potential move to Los Angeles has been mooted. At least they signed off in style, defeating perennial underachievers Miami 30-14 in San Diego on Sunday.

Philip Rivers 2
Great season: Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers has had a strong season and he completed 26 of 36 passes for 311 yards with three touchdowns. He ranks second in the NFL in passing yards (4,287) and eclipsed 4,000 yards for the seventh time in his career.

Rivers is 14-5 as a starter against the Raiders, who fell to 6-8 after losing 30-20 at home to the Green Bay Packers.

The Raiders have been inconsistent, but QB Derek Carr has been a bright spot. He passed for 276 yards against the Packers and two TDs, giving him 30 for the year. He, along with Daryle Lamonica, are the only Raiders to reach the 30 TD barrier in a season.

Rookie receiver Amari Cooper had six receptions for 120 yards against the Packers and two touchdowns. He broke the 1,000-yard receiving barrier (1,040), making him the first Raiders’ rookie to do so and the first Raider since Randy Moss (1,005) in 2005 to hit that mark.

This is an awkward start to the penultimate week of the regular season. The Chargers have won six of the last eight meetings and nine of the last 11 in Oakland. They have not been swept by the Raiders since 2010.

Both teams stack up evenly as far as the stats go and, despite their record, San Diego has hung tough against some decent teams since their bye week.

Oakland has improved their run defense markedly and they have a decent nucleus of a top-level attack. There is no question that the Raiders are rising and we take them, albeit tentatively, to cover the number.

VERDICT: SAN DIEGO 17 OAKLAND 27

BEST BET: OAKLAND -5 @ 1.91

WASHINGTON at PHILADELPHIA

(-4.5, Total Points 47.5)

After winning on the road and posting back-to-back wins for the first time this season, the Washington Redskins can clinch the NFC east title by beating the Eagles (6-7), yet they are 4.5-point underdogs.

Matt Jones
Injury doubt: Matt Jones

In truth, the Redskins (7-7) are winning the division by default. They were the only team in the NFC East to win last weekend, outlasting the Buffalo Bills, despite giving up 452 total yards.

Washington has a couple of injuries along the offensive line, which is a concern. Tackle Morgan Moses could be ruled out with an ankle injury and Ty Nsekhe could fill in, while back-up center Josh LeRibeus, who has filled in for Kory Lichtensteiger, is similarly hampered. Brian de la Puente is expected to replace him.

Running back Matt Jones, who has been effective catching the ball out of the backfield, is also a doubt with a hip injury.

This could negate any advantage Washington may have had. The Eagles boast the 30th-ranked run defense and the Redskins have run the ball over 100 yards in each of the past four weeks.

The onus will be on Redskins QB Kirk Cousins to keep the chains moving, but Washington’s inability to win on the road is a concern, as is Cousins’ penchant to tossing interceptions – he has had at least one in his last 12 road games.

Still, Philadelphia’s inability to tackle effectively – they give up on average 123 yards per run after the catch – and their offense, which has been held to under 20 points in four of the last six games, means this could be a nail-biter.

Washington should not be such heavy underdogs. The reason they are leads us to think that Philadelphia should keep the NFC East title in the balance until the final week of the season.

VERDICT: WASHINGTON 17 PHILADELPHIA 23

BEST BET: PHILADELPHIA -4.5 @ 1.91 

CAROLINA at ATLANTA

(+6.5, Total Points 48.5)

Atlanta’s offense has been stagnant since Week 5. They have eclipsed 21 points just once since then, scoring 23 points in a win at Jacksonville last weekend.

Jonathan Stewart
Fantasy option: Jonathan Stewart

Thumped 38-0 by unbeaten Carolina just two weeks ago in Charlotte, they are less than a touchdown underdog for the return at the Georgia Dome, where they have won on each of their last two visits. The Panthers seek a third successive victory there for only the second time in the series’ history.

The Panthers have won five of the last six meetings and have wrapped up the NFC South with two weeks to go. A win – or an Arizona loss to Green Bay – will see them lock down homefield advantage for the playoffs. The Falcons remain alive in the playoff race at 7-7 with New Orleans to play in the finale.

Panthers QB Cam Newton leads a big-play passing attack which hums along when faced with teams who cannot get pressure up front. The Falcons are last in the league with 13 total sacks, so the Panthers’ offensive line should be able to give Newton enough time when he drops back.

However, the Falcons’ defense does create turnovers – they are fifth in the league in interceptions.

We expect the Panthers to dominate on the ground, as Atlanta’s tackling is not great (ranking 26th in missed tackles per snap), and would not put anyone off having running back Jonathan Stewart in their fantasy teams this weekend.

The line is lower than we would expect, but the Falcons have plenty still to play for and this could be a tighter battle than many anticipate. We did not like the way the Panthers took their foot off the gas last week in New York, who showed they are vulnerable to elite receivers. We are looking at you Julio Jones. Still, the Panthers should

VERDICT: CAROLINA 27 ATLANTA 21

BEST BET: ATLANTA +6.5 @ 1.91

PITTSBURGH at BALTIMORE

(+9.5, Total Points 47.5)

The Steelers are 9-5 and can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss. The 4-10 Ravens are in the hunt for the first overall pick in the NFL draft after a bitterly disappointing season.

Ben Roethlisberger
Firing: Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers

Pittsburgh has lost three of its last four trips to Baltimore and four of the last five meetings overall, yet the Steelers’ offense is firing now that Ben Roethlisberger is healthy. They have put up over 30 points in each of the last six games and Big Ben is averaging over 330 passing yards per game.

Consequently, the Steelers enter this as heavy favourites, despite allowing a poor 7.7 yards per pass play average.

The reason for the big handicap line is the uncertain status at the quarterback spot. Joe Flacco tore his ACL in week 11 and was replaced by Matt Schaub, who suffered a chest injury and was then benched for Jimmy Clausen after two games.

Clausen started the last two weeks, but has gone a combined 49 of 85 pass completions for 555 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Joe Montana he isn’t. It could be that Ryan Mallett, the former New England back-up who was cut by Houston earlier this season, makes his first start.

Pittsburgh’s record in Baltimore is not good. Their total points in the last 12 visits were: 10, 13, 13, 0, 21, 13, 17, 13, 7, 23, 20 and 6. They won just three of those games.

Can we trust them to cover such a large number against a division foe with nothing to lose? The simple answer is yes. The Ravens simply are not a good football team right now.

VERDICT: PITTSBURGH 27 BALTIMORE 13

BEST BET: PITTSBURGH -9.5 @ 1.91

NEW ENGLAND at NEW YORK JETS

(+1.5, Total Points 45.5)

The New York Jets need to win their last two AFC East division games – against New England and Buffalo – and see either the Chiefs, Steelers or Broncos lose if they are to make the playoffs as a wildcard.

Tom Brady
Seeking homefield comforts: Tom Brady

They are riding a four-game winning streak thanks, in part, to some clutch performances from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has tossed 10 TDs and one interception in that span.

Standing in their way are the Patriots, who can clinch homefield advantage with a win or a Cincinnati loss.

The banged-up Patriots, who have won eight of the last nine meetings, could well rest some starters as they bid to extend their 23-7 record over the Jets in the Tom Brady era.

But ever since the infamous Butt-fumble in 2012, games between these two have been close, decided by three, three, two, three and seven points – all Patriots wins.

Much depends on how the Patriots approach this. Still, the Super Bowl champs are unlikely to let up and we see them as one of the better bets of the weekend, regardless of what is on the line for the Jets.

VERDICT: NEW ENGLAND 23 NY JETS 17

BEST BET: NEW ENGLAND -1.5 @ 1.91 

GREEN BAY at ARIZONA

(-4.5, Total Points 50.5)

This is possibly the best game of Week 16, with the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals already having secured respective playoff berths. The Packers lead the NFC North by one game after a 30-20 win in Oakland and can secure the title this weekend with a win and a Minnesota Vikings loss. The Packers and Vikings meet in week 17.

David Johnson
Full deck: Cards are stacked with David Johnson

The Cardinals have won a franchise 12 games and clinched the NFC West last week with a 40-17 win at Philadelphia. The Cardinals will receive a first round playoff bye with a win.

Green bay has a fair record at Arizona, only having lost back-to-back visits once since 1949 (and those losses came nine years apart).

The Packers have won their last three games and five of seven on the road, while the Cardinals are riding an eight-game winning streak and playing arguably the best football in the league right now.

Arizona suffered a blow last week when safety Tyrann Mathieu suffered a torn ACL. He led the team in passes defended (16), was tied for the most interceptions (five) and was second in solo tackles (80). So we expect the Cardinals to drop off a bit defensively.

The one thing they don’t have is a dominant pass-rusher and if given time, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers will pick any defense apart.

Yet their running game is not the best and to keep one of the best attacks on the sidelines, you need to be able to control the clock. We are not sure that the Packers can do this.

The Cardinals’ offensive line is greater than the sum of its parts, but they have a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer who is playing some of the best football of his career and they can hit you deep off of play action.

Yet it is the running game that impresses us the most. David Johnson, a third round selection from Northern Iowa, is the real deal. In three starts, he has rushed for 378 yards at 5.4 yards per carry. He catches the ball well and is also a capable pass blocker.

We see the Packers’ defense wilting under pressure and take the Cardinals to cover a lofty number.

VERDICT: GREEN BAY 23 ARIZONA 31

BEST BET: ARIZONA -4.5 @ 1.91 

OTHER HANDICAP SELECTIONS 

DALLAS +6.5 at Buffalo: Buffalo’s playoff drought continues after their loss to Washington and their motivation will be to beat a team that beat them in back-to-back Super Bowls (1993 and 94). The Cowboys are in the hunt for the first pick in the NFL draft (Tennessee and Cleveland have the inside track) and have little motivation, but the handicap is big enough to warrant a small play. Bills 24-20

SAN FRANCISCO +9.5 at Detroit: The Lions have lost 14 of the last 15 meetings against the Niners, including four of the last five at home. Nothing rests on this game, but a play on the points total at 43 might be worth taking. We’ll go over. Lions 28-20 

KANSAS CITY -12.5 over Cleveland: The biggest handicap line of the weekend and we take the Chiefs to cover it. They are the only team in NFL history to win eight consecutive games immediately following a five-game losing streak. Amazing what a trip to London will do for you. At 9-5, the Chiefs can clinch a playoff berth with a victory and a loss by either Pittsburgh or the New York Jets. Chiefs 31-13 

MIAMI -2.5 over Indianapolis: The Colts have shut down QB Andrew Luck for their final road game of the season and should Houston win at Tennessee, it won’t matter. They already need help to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. This could be Matt Hasselbeck’s last hurrah, the 40-year-old gunslinger looked to have little left against Houston and it could be that Charlie Whitehurst will start. Miami have been poor all season but they may well nick a home win against a banged-up opponent. Dolphins 21-17 

TAMPA BAY -3.5 over Chicago: The Bears have not won three consecutive meetings in Tampa since winning on six consecutive trips from 1983-88. Consecutive losses to New Orleans and St Louis meant the Buccaneers miss the playoffs for the eight consecutive season and this young team, though improving, made to many mental errors when it mattered (including 21 penalties in those two losses). The Bucs have had 10 days rest and the Bears are in a tailspin, having lost their last three. Not a game to get too involved in. Buccaneers 24-20 

TENNESSEE +4.5 over Houston: The Texans moved into sole possession of first place in the AFC South with last week’s 16-10 win at Indianapolis. Houston QB Brandon Weeden came on in relief and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to rookie receiver Jaelen Strong in the fourth quarter. The Texans can clinch the division title with a win and an Indianapolis loss. The Titans are going nowhere, but they are worth a punt at home. Titans 16-13 

NEW ORLEANS -5.5 over Jacksonville: The post-season playoff drought in Jacksonville now stands at eight seasons after their loss to Atlanta and they will face a severe test from the Saints’ passing game, which is averaging over 303 yards per game. The Jaguars’ secondary gives up 260 yards per game, but bear in mind that the Saints have failed to cover the handicap in three of their last five home games. Saints 34-27 

SEATTLE -13.5: Seattle have clinched a wildcard and despite losing five games, are still the NFC champions and the team no-one wants to face. The Rams have lost their last 10 trips to Seattle and in just two of those contests have they managed to keep it to a one-score margin of defeat. The line is about where it should be, but we take the Rams to keep this competitive for a while. Seahawks 31-16 

NEW YORK GIANTS +5.5 at Minnesota: The Giants are a game behind Washington and are tied with Philadelphia in the NFC East, with whom the Giants face in week 17. The Giants can still win the division title but need to win their last two and get help along the way. Minnesota will clinch a playoff berth with a win and should they defeat Green Bay next week, will clinch the NFC North title. Tough call. Vikings can win, but it may be close. Vikings 27-24 

DENVER -3.5 over Cincinnati: Cincinnati can clinch the AFC North division title and a first-round bye with a win on Monday night. The Broncos can secure a playoff spot with a win and a loss by either Pittsburgh or the New York Jets. Denver clinches the AFC West title with a victory over Cincinnati and a loss by Kansas City. The Bengals have lost their last nine trips to Denver and with receiver AJ Green suffering a back injury and with AJ McCarron still deputising for starting QB Andy Dalton (broken thumb), we see the Broncos covering the field goal handicap. Broncos 27-21

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MCB’s 12 BETS OF CHRISTMAS

We love Christmas. In fact, we’ve even thought about wearing a Christmas jumper, as well as backing one (have you seen Kempton’s Boxing Day card?). The Festive season is invariably an expensive one, but those bookies insist on giving us more Christmas markets than you’d find in your average German town. Given their generosity, it would be churlish not to take advantage of their Christmas spirit, so herewith are our dozen cracking Christmas bets…

CINCINNATI v SAN DIEGO STATE

CHRISTMAS DAY – 01:00 (BT SPORT)

Presents wrapped and under the tree? Carrot for Rudolph and a mince pie for Santa on the hearth? Good. Don’t forget the sherry.

Then it is time to put your feet up and watch some College Football, namely the Hawaii Bowl from Aloha Stadium, Honolulu.

Donnel Pumphrey1
Game-breaker: Donnel Pumphrey

Hawaii are not involved, having failed to gain the pre-requisite six wins to qualify for a bowl berth.

The Cincinnati Bearcats (7-5) will take on the San Diego State Aztecs (10-3) in what could be a decent game. Rest assured, it won’t be played in front of too many people – Hawaiians rarely turn out in force at the antiquated venue, which has regularly played host to the annual NFL Pro Bowl.

The Aztecs placed first in the West division of the Mountain West Conference and after a 1-3 start, they are on a nine-game winning streak.

Running back Donnel Pumphrey is a game-breaker, who has accumulated over 1,500 yards this season, but the Bearcats could be missing quarterback Maxwell Smith, who tore his ACL towards the end of the year against Nevada.

It is likely that redshirt freshman Christian Chapman will try and keep pace with an explosive Cincinnati offense, led by QB Gunner Kiel, which ranks No.4 in passing yardage in the nation and No.5 in total offense.

Their third-down conversion rate, at 51.6 per cent is only bettered by Texas Tech.

We fully expect Cincinnati (1.83) to win and cover the 1.5-point handicap. [SM]

BEST BET: CINCINNATI -1.5 @ 1.91 

CHRISTMAS DAY TV RATINGS

It is always a favourite punt of ours. Who wins the TV ratings war on Christmas Day has little to do with taste.

That’s why most firms have the BBC’s Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special as odds-on favourite. You know it and we know it: It is truly dreadful and plunges the depths of ‘comedy’ that we never thought existed. And you, dear licence-fee payer, are forking out for the Crayola that the ‘writers’ use to pen up this guff.

Lady Mary
Our crush: Lady Mary

The final episode of Downton Abbey will knock spots off the rancid BBC output (which also includes the truly dreadful soap Eastenders at 6.00).

At odds of 4.50, Lady Mary – upon whom we have a complete crush, daahling – and company look phenomenal value to win the ratings battle.

Want a fair value outsider? Try Dr Who at around 26.00. It will certainly beat Coronation Street.

But we’ll take safe, genteel and well-written drama over sad, crass desperately unfunny ‘comedy’ any day of the week. And we haven’t even mentioned the desperate ‘Miranda’!

The bookies may have got this very wrong. Take advantage. [SM]

BEST BET: DOWNTON ABBEY TO WIN CHRISTMAS DAY TV RATINGS @ 4.50 

STOKE v MAN UNITED

BOXING DAY – 12:45 (SKY SPORTS 1)

Mark Hughes had a wonderful playing career, and his most successful periods were undoubtedly with Manchester United (2.20) with whom he spent two spells and made over 300 appearances.

Mark Hughes3
Hughes: Top manager

The Welshman is now an established Premier League manager and has done a fine job since taking over as Stoke (3.30) boss back in 2013, transforming the Potters from a ‘route one’ team into a side that enjoys operating with a possession-based style.

This change in style has attracted some of the most exciting young talents in Europe to The Britannia, with the likes of Bojan, Ibrahim Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic all arriving at the club since Hughes was appointed.

Manchester United fans are crying out for a change in style. While Louis Van Gaal’s patient tactics have stopped the side conceding goals, it has also caused United to look like an overly defensive outfit, with the Red Devils failing to score in a staggering amount of games so far this season.

That said, meetings between these two clubs do usually produce goals. Of the last seven games between Stoke and United, only two have ended without both teams getting on the scoresheet.

We expect much of the same on Boxing Day, and fancy a scoring draw at The Britannia. [CC]

BEST BET: BOTH TEAMS TO SCORE @ 2.05 

KING GEORGE VI CHASE

BOXING DAY – 15:10 (CHANNEL 4)

Kempton Park’s Christmas feature is shaping up to be an open and competitive renewal.

The Irish appear to hold a strong hand in the chasing department this season, with the Gordon Elliott-trained Don Cossack (3.50), winner of his last four and eight of his last nine, appearing to be the one to beat.

Don Cossack
Solid gold: Don Cossack

The eight-year-old won a sub-par renewal of the JNWine.com Champions Chase at Down Royal in October and has been ticking over at home since then. He looks like a Gold Cup winner in the making, but his jumping is faultless and, if fully fit, will take all the beating.

Last season’s top-notch novice Vautour (3.75) jumped left when winning the Grade 2 Stella Artois 1965 Chase at Ascot and will have to up his game, but there is no reason to think he will not improve for that first run of the season. Willie Mullins’ inmate rates the biggest danger to the selection.

And you cannot dismiss Cue Card (5.00), who looked back to his best when taking the Grade 1 Lancashire Chase at Haydock last month, getting the better of Silviniaco Conti. We see Paul Nicholls’ runner turning the tables this time and he looks a solid each-way bet at around 9.00.

Still, we side with Don Cossack, who looks the class act. [SM]

BEST BET: DON CASSACK TO WIN THE KING GEORGE VI CHASE @ 3.50 

NEWCASTLE v EVERTON

BOXING DAY – 17:30 (BT SPORT 1)

Newcastle (3.20) have endured a tough season so far and all seems far from well at the Tyneside club. The fans are once again unhappy with the board and management team, which is without doubt, having a negative effect on the playing staff.

Romelu Lukaku
Quick and powerful: Romelu Lukaku

That said, The Magpies have managed a few impressive results, with their 2-0 win over Liverpool being the highlight of the season so far.

Everton (2.25) are really starting to look like a settled outfit, after a transitional campaign last season. Roberto Martinez has assembled a talented, young squad since his appointment in 2013 and is now starting to reap the rewards.

Youngsters Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, John Stones and Gerard Deulofeu have all been outstanding for the Toffees this season, and keeping all four men fit will be vital if Everton are going to challenge for a European spot come May.

Newcastle have a wretched record against their Boxing Day opponents, with Everton losing just one of the last eight meetings between the two sides.

Everything points to an away win here. [CC]

BEST BET: EVERTON TO WIN @ 2.25 

SOUTHAMPTON v ARSENAL

BOXING DAY – 19:45 (BT SPORT 1)

Southampton (3.25) are a side struggling for consistency. Ronald Koeman’s men are not living up to the high standards they set last season, and have looked particularly lacklustre in recent home games against Aston Villa and Stoke.

Ronald Koeman2
Ronald Koeman: Saints struggling for form

However, they have also looked impressive on occasions, most notably during their convincing win away at Chelsea back in October.

Arsene Wenger finally seems to be prioritising Premier League football. Arsenal (2.30) have had a below-par Champions League campaign so far, eventually qualifying by the skin of their teeth after a win at Olympiacos in the final group stage game. The Gunners also suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat against Sheffield Wednesday to crash out of the League Cup.

That said, it has been a completely different story in the league for Wenger’s men. On their day, Arsenal look arguably the best side in the league, and this was particularly evident in their 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in early October.

These two sides may both possess a similar attacking style, but when they meet each other, goals aren’t usually on the agenda.

Four of the last six clashes between Southampton and Arsenal have ended with less than two goals being scored and we expect their game on Boxing Day to follow suit. [CC]

BEST BET: UNDER 2.5 GOALS @ 1.91

CHRISTMAS NO.1 BOOK

We are not exactly a nation of cooks. We like to think we are, with TV shows such as The Great British Bake Off, Masterchef and anything containing the wonderful Jamie Oliver always among the top-rated TV shows. But we simply don’t have the time (we’re too busy watching cookery shows).

Nigella Lawson
She cooks, too: Nigella Lawson

And blokes being what they are (clueless) over what to buy their women for Christmas (or at any other time of the year for that matter), grabbing a cookery book on December 24 is a safe bet for those who have little imagination.

(And really, what are those blokes supposed to do when the reply to the question of: “What do you want for Christmas, honey?’” is met with the response, “Oh, nothing really. I’m fine”).

Lingerie is not cool – and most guys are embarrassed to buy it anyway. Be honest, have you a clue what bra size your missus wears?

So a cookery book is a safe bet. And while we may have heard of Mary Berry (an old lady who bakes, apparently), most blokes have heard of Nigella. Her real name is Nigella Lawson. I think we can all agree: she is the epitome of everything a chef should be.

And, Lo and Behold, she has a new cookery book out in time for Christmas. It is called Simply Nigella and it is 3.00 joint favourite (along with Guinness Book of World Records 2016) to be the Christmas Number One Book.

The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson) and Over The Top And Back (Tom Jones) are next in the betting, but we put out faith in a couple of things… ahem… to bring home the bacon: The nation’s penchant for cookery shows and the male’s psyche. [SM]

BEST BET: SIMPLY NIGELLA (NIGELLA LAWSON) TO BE CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE BOOK @ 3.00

CHRISTMAS NO.1 VIDEO GAME

We are fans of Madden. That’s about the only game we know well. FIFA isn’t bad, either. But our knowledge of video games is limited, as we are all about sport – not about killing people or aliens, racing cars or generally wasting our time (see what we did there, teenagers?). We have lives.

Call Of Duty
Top game (apparently): Call of Duty – Black Ops III

So we got down ‘wiv da yoof, innit’ to find out what the best-selling vids are most likely to be this Christmas.

Our (little) man tells us that Call of Duty – Black Ops III will out-sell anything, including Star Wars Battlefront and FIFA 16. He says the graphics are excellent. We’ll take him at his word.

If it doesn’t out-sell the rest, there will be sure to be some Fallout 4 (see what we did there?).

You can get on at 2.75. That’s good enough for us, although you will probably need to have at least £50 on to make enough money to afford to buy the damn thing! [SM]

BEST BET: CALL OF DUTY – BLACK OPS III TO BE CRISTMAS NUMBER ONE VIDEO GAME @ 2.75

MAN UNITED v CHELSEA

28 DECEMBER – 17:30 (BT SPORT 1)

In truth, both of these sides have underachieved so far this season.

Manchester United (2.25) have suffered from a lack of goals during the current campaign.  Wayne Rooney has failed to impress and it looks as though Old Father Time is starting to catch up with him, particularly when running with the ball.

Wayne Rooney1
Not the force he once was: Wayne Rooney looks jaded

Anthony Martial was bought in at the start of the season, and seems to have suffered a real loss in confidence, despite a wonderful start to his Premier League career.

Nobody could have forecast the dreadful defence of the Premier League title that Chelsea (3.00) have made. Chelsea are miles off the pace after a wretched start to the season and, in truth, a top-four spot is now their realistic aim for the rest of the season.

The Blues’ recent loss against Bournemouth highlighted their lack of confidence in possession and defensive frailty. Both issues will need to be addressed if Chelsea are going to turn things round this season.

Chelsea are unbeaten in the last eight meetings between these two sides, with the last United victory coming back in 2012.

We see the Champions getting a point here – at the very least. [CC]

BEST BET: CHELSEA/DRAW (DC) @ 1.65

NFL REGULAR-SEASON MVP

With just two weeks of the regular season remaining, we have a 1.57 shot that, in our opinion, should be 1.01 at best.

Back Cam Newton to be the NFL Regular Season MVP. The Carolina Panthers quarterback has led his team to the NFC South title and may well lead them onto the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton: Odds-on value

His nearest pursuers in the market are Tom Brady (3.00) and Carson Palmer (11.00), respective passers for New England and Cincinnati. But both those players have at least one elite receiver to pass to, whereas the former Auburn man leads a no-name attack. Take him away from that team and the Panthers would do well to win half of the games they have.

Have no fear in betting odds-on. If is walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and balks at the words “a l’orange”, it probably isn’t a giraffe. Remember: It can be odds-on and still be value. [SM]

BEST BET: CAM NEWTON TO BE REGULAR SEASON MVP @ 1.57

LEICESTER v MAN CITY

KICK OFF: 29 DECEMBER – 19:45 (BT SPORT 1)

There is no doubt that Claudio Ranieri is leading the way when it comes to the Premier League Manager of the Season award.

Leicester (3.75) have dramatically overachieved so far this season and many would have forecast them to be in a relegation scrap, rather than battling for a European place.

JamieVardy
Top of the league: Jamie Vardy and Leicester

The link-up play between Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez has been the main contributing factor for the club’s success, with both men currently at the top end of the goal-scoring standings in the Premier League.

Manchester City (1.90) are performing as many expected and find themselves at the right end of the table, unlike pre-season title rivals Chelsea.

However, while they have been typically impressive when attacking, they have come unstuck in defence on numerous occasions so far this season.

Defensive issues were particularly apparent in City’s home losses to West Ham and Liverpool earlier in the campaign, with Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis looking unconvincing and off the pace.

Leicester have an awful record against Manchester City. The Foxes have not won any of the last eight games between the sides and have lost all of the last four meetings.

We fancy an away win here. [CC]

BEST BET: MAN CITY TO WIN @ 1.90

SUNDERLAND v LIVERPOOL

30 DECEMBER – 19:45 (SKY SPORTS 1)

Sam Allardyce has certainly steadied the ship at The Stadium of Light since taking over from Dick Advocaat earlier in the season.

Sunderland (5.25) have recovered from a disastrous start to the season, which saw them rooted to the foot of the table and have turned out some solid performances under their new manager.

Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool are a work in progress: Jurgen Klopp

One result that particularly comes to mind is Sunderland’s 1-0 win away at Crystal Palace in November, which perfectly highlighted their new found structure and organisation under the man affectionately known as Big Sam.

It has been much the same for Liverpool (1.55) who have also seen an upturn in fortune after changing their manager earlier in the season. Jürgen Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers back in October and has overseen impressive away wins against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea.

The most notable meeting between these two sides came back in October 2009, when a Darren Bent effort deflected off a beach ball to give the Black Cats a famous victory over the Mersysiders.

However, Sunderland have a poor record against Liverpool and haven’t won any of the last six meetings between the two sides.

We are going for an away win at The Stadium of Light. [CC]

BEST BET: LIVERPOOL TO WIN @ 1.55

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