Those who have been reading the blog for a while will appreciate that I am no fan of Manchester United. I certainly respect what they have been able to accomplish within the constraints of the money that they bring in (and without the benefit of oil money) but I am the farthest thing from a Manchester United apologist that there is. That said, they got screwed yesterday. Whether you believe Nani's high boot is rightly a red card offense (I don't think it was but there's a legitimate argument to be made the other way on the topic). Still, if you look at the way the rest of the match was called, the referee erred on the side of not unduly influencing the outcome of the match with his whistle on every call but that one. There were certainly other close calls that could have been penalties or yellow cards where nothing of note was given. The question you have to ask is why in that one instance did he err on the side of a call that could turn a huge match.
The call reminded me of the insanely stupid second yellow card given to RvP (while still at Arsenal) against Barca in the Champions League for kicking the ball after a whistle that he clearly didn't hear/process. It was technically within the rule book to make that call but the official has to a) be consistent within the confines of the match and b) understand the importance of the stage and how a given call will impact the outcome of a huge match. In neither case did the call live up to those standards. The guy I was watching the match with (a United supporter) went immediately to "the match is fixed" which I don't believe to be true. What I do believe to be true is that the official was out of line and it cost the Red Devils dearly. It is unfortunate but that's the way it is.
With that rant out of the way, we're on to this week's player picks. A reminder that the only scheduled matches are the following due to FA Cup conflicts:
Sadly, with the possible exception of Tottenham having an advantage over hasn't-beaten-a-top-half-side-fielding-their-starting-XI Liverpool, there isn't much to be said about the match-ups which means that you should be looking for quality players and favoring the home side as the tie-breaker when making decisions (again, except Liverpool who are all set up to disappoint after two strong matches against weak opponents).
Rickie Lambert - I'm going with the Shinji Kagawa theory that my pick will have come a week too early here. Norwich have fallen WAY off the pace that they had set earlier in the season and even at home they are likely to struggle against the Saints.
Romelu Lukaku - Looking for somewhere to spend all that money that you aren't using on Rooney, RvP, Walcott, Aguero, Baines, etc? He's definitely over-priced but in a week where Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez are the only other premium players playing Lukaku looks like something of a bargain at home.
Peter Crouch - With Coloccini and Krul out for Newcastle it might mean an opportunity for Stoke's usually tepid away attack to put up a goal or two.
Loic Remy - I hate making this pick because he has generally followed up any hopeful performance with either an injury or a disappearing act but there aren't many choices.
Gabby Agbonlahor - Call it a Funny Feeling Thursday but Reading is starting a reserve keeper and it isn't like they're Manchester United even with Federici starting.
Moussa Sissoko - He's a hard one to figure in that he's already scored more and gotten more assists in 5 matches with Newcastle than he did in 19 with Toulouse this season and his total of 3 goals is more than he had in 35 matches for the same club last season. At 23 he could just be coming into his own at a good time for Newcastle. The alternative is that this is a spike in performance and he won't score for the rest of the season. It is also worth mentioning that he's only scored more than his current price once (the 30+ point match that sent his price through the roof). In a week with few options he's interesting but I'm a little concerned about getting carried away.
Yohan Cabaye - He's more expensive than his countryman/teammate Sissoko but he's probably more likely to get you some solid points.
Brek Shea - Call it a homer pick but how can you argue with the price assuming that Eth doesn't make it back for this weekend (which could go either way so check in on the Team News tomorrow before you create a strategy around Shea's sub-2 price).
Gaston Ramirez - Southampton's midfield is a bit tricky because the points seem to come from different places each week. Ramirez looked great last time out but this pick could just as easily be Adam Lallana (who didn't look so great last time out but appears likely to be back for this match) or James Puncheon (who is the definition of "up and down").
Philippe Coutinho - His price continues to rise but his performances have been impressive (clearly he's no Nuri Sahin) and hint at even more to come. The only minor concern is whether Rodgers rests him against Spurs in favor of a Downing, Sturridge, and Suarez attacking group. I doubt it given the need to get a win against a top club but still, if Wayne Rooney can be rested against Real then the possibility exists.
Hope Akpan - Reading are a tough one to figure this weekend because the solid (but not great) players like Adam La Fondre, Ian Harte, Hal Robson-Kanu, and Jobi McAnuff are all WAY over-priced even for home against Villa. That leaves Akpan who disappointed fantasy managers over the last couple weeks but carrying a reasonable price. Talk about a weak recommendation.
Gareth Bale - If you can make it work. If you can't then consider Aaron Lennon to be the fallback position.
The question with defenders is really which ones on a discount you should be dropping. I'm keeping Vidic at 4ish but dropping Nacho at 6ish (as much for failing to track the most dangerous attacker in Europe thereby allowing Spurs' first goal in the NLD last weekend as not wanting to take the zero). Here's what that leaves you with:
Stephen Kelly - The price has crept up but is still under 5 at home to Villa.
Michael Dawson - I'm not sure how I feel about the chances of a Spurs away clean sheet at Anfield but the price is right if you need an inexpensive defender (because there aren't any expensive ones worth buying at retail this week).
Jose Fonte - Away clean sheets are rare, especially for teams toward the bottom of the table, but if ever there was a chance then Norwich playing at home over this past month would be the chance and Fonte is a cheap way to try to buy in on that chance.
There really isn't much to love here so keeping the guys you have at discounts, assuming they're playing this weekend, is probably the way to go.
Artur Buroc - The price, as they say, is right and so is the opposition. The warning is that we said the same thing last weekend and it came out as a -6.
Mark Bunn - Same logic as Buroc plus Bunn is at home.
Stuart Taylor - With Federici out, Taylor steps in for a cheap price at home against Villa.
Brad Guzan - He's a good 'keeper behind a bad defense. The question is whether Reading can mount a credible atttack (their ability to do so seems to come and go).