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Azzurri aggression no match for Johnno’s men

ITALY VS ENGLAND
Sunday – 2.00pm BBC1
MARTIN Johnson must be a relieved man. After at least a couple of aimless performances in November, his side looked progressive and threatening – all that he’d promised when he took the job. Both the victory and the way in which they withstood plenty of pressure from Wales will give England confidence for the rest of the Championship.

Johnno seems to have worked hard to keep his players’ feet on the ground ahead of Sunday’s fixture. While Italy are, by a distance, the weakest team England will face in these six weeks the team are also aware that the Stadio Flaminio throws the hosts a lifeline.

The facts are these. Italy have never beaten England. Of the Italians’ 51 Six Nations matches they have lost 44. And in ten years of the tournament, they have conceded 957 more points than they’ve scored.

It’s not hard to see why England are a best-priced 1/9, but, as only four points separated the sides last time they met in Rome, there are worthwhile questions to ask about the 14 point handicap. Considering the Italians’ appalling record and that Riki Flutey will be back for England while experienced lock Carlo Del Fava will be missing for the home side, I suggest backing England at evens with Boylesports’ Friday offer.

Another attractive bet is England to score the first points in the match from a penalty at 13/8 on Betdaq. As predicted, Jonny Wilkinson looked much more comfortable with a little less attention on him and in turn eased the pressure on his teammates by kicking six from six against the Welsh.

We can assume England will attack from the off and the Azzurri to be resolute in defence, at least in the early stages. In front of a vociferous home crowd the Italians could be a touch over-eager and we’d expect to see early penalties. England were awarded, and scored, a penalty in front of the posts on 10 minutes against Wales; Italy conceded a straightforward penalty around the same time in Dublin. The hosts are likely to give away more penalties under pressure than Wales did and for this reason it’s worth a speculative buy of England’s kicking metres at 165 with Sporting Index. The spread made up exactly 165 metres last Saturday.

FRANCE VS IRELAND
TOMORROW – 4.15PM BBC1
THIS clash is being touted as a premature Six Nations decider and France are favourites for the tournament largely because of their home advantage. It’s a crucial match for both teams and, on St. Valentine’s weekend, it’s set to be anything but a romantic trip to Paris for the Boys in Green.

They have not won here since 2000, and their poor performance against Italy would suggest the winless run should stretch to more than 10 years. Les Bleus, conversely, looked hungry for a first Championship in three years in a typically physical 18-9 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield. On these performances France should easily overcome their five point handicap and it is certainly worth backing them to do so at evens with Boylesports.

Centre Mathieu Bastareaud, 24, stood out on his return to the international arena after causing a diplomatic incident by pretending he was attacked in New Zealand last summer. He scored both of his nation’s tries and is duly rewarded with another start.

It might be tempting to back the Stade Français man to grab another but up against opposite number Brian O’Driscoll we should expect the touchdowns to come from elsewhere. Vincent Clerc came close to scoring shortly after coming onto the field last weekend and has been called upon to start tomorrow due to Aurélien Rougerie’s injury. He’s good value to be first try scorer at 10/1 with Boylesports.

The undoubted attacking quality in both sides notwithstanding, we should anticipate a low scoring match tomorrow. The cold, windy and overcast conditions won’t suit anyone, not least kickers Ronan O’Gara and Morgan Parra, and the Irish defence is more than capable of keeping France at bay for extended periods. It looks a good idea to therefore sell points at 39 with Sporting Index.

SOUTHAMPTON VS PORTSMOUTH
TOMORROW – 12.30PM ITV1
TOMORROW’S south coast derby has added spice thanks to Portsmouth’s precarious Premier League position and Southampton’s fall from grace into League One. This is the first time these great rivals have met since 2005 and their penultimate contest was an FA Cup fourth round tie at St Mary’s that year which the Saints won 2-1.

Avram Grant has so many problems at Fratton Park that the FA Cup will come as a welcome distraction. His team look doomed to fall into the Championship and their away form this season has been unsurprisingly terrible. They have lost their last five straight league games on the road and were lucky to get through their third round replay at Coventry.

The Saints have been showing much improved form recently and are unbeaten in eight games in 2010. A play-off spot is a distant hope due to their 10-point deduction at the start of the season, but progressing to the quarter finals of the Cup will give a much needed boost to their coffers.

League One sides actually have a stronger record at home against top flight sides in the FA Cup than Championship teams. In the Premier League era, League One sides at home have won 33 per cent and drawn 30 per cent and in four such games in the fifth round only one home team has lost – Brentford, to the then top flight Saints five years ago.

Pompey fans have to go back to 1988 for the last time their side beat the enemy on their own patch and have lost all of the last five here since an FA Cup tie in 1996.

This is a big game for both sides, but home advantage could be key and I’m happy to back the Saints at 2/1 on Betdaq.