Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yet Another Twist in Epic EPL Season

Liverpool stood three games and seven points away from their first title in 24 years – with Chelsea the last significant challenge to their once unlikely coronation. But as has so often been the case this season, something funny happened on the way to the trophy, and the powder blue of Manchester City wrestled control away from Liverpool red. The game of the weekend, framed as a potential crowning-in-all-but-official-terms for Liverpool and the final-nail-in-the-Mourinho-title-challenge-coffin, turned in the cruelest of ways, as an errors by captain and star Steven Gerrard in the 48th minute sent Demba Ba in on goal for the opener after Liverpool had dominated the first half (though without creating many clear chances). The Reds then chased the equalizer that would have still left them as favorites for most of the second half, before ceding a late second goal on a two-on-goalie counter, finished by Willem after a nice pass from Torres in close. Man City then confirmed the shift in odds with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, led by an assist and sublime goal from the just returning Yaya Toure in a dominant first half that held up.

In the top four race, there were big ramblings as well as Everton barely showed up for a near must-win game at Southampton, losing by the same 2-0 score that cost David Moyes his job last weekend (as United’s minute chances of sneaking back in disintegrated). Everton not only lost, but were outplayed from beginning to end, reminding of the Southampton team that took the EPL by storm earlier in the season, before a serious tailing off around the New Year. This should give Arsenal a little breathing room in the race to 4th (assuming they win at Newcastle tomorrow). Even with an unlikely loss, they would still hold a one-point lead – meaning Wenger will probably sign that extension to his contract, as the rumour-mill has been predicting this week (alas). At the bottom of the table, Sunderland continued their impressive Houdiniesque escape effort, grabbing all three points against Cardiff City and sneaking into 17th place – while making Cardiff owner Tan look foolish for sacking the coach who got them up in the first place and had them above the bottom three during his entire short reign in the EPL. Fulham suffered a heartbreaking draw after holding a 2-0 lead at home against Hull and now look likely to exit the Premier League for the first time in 13 years. And Norwich dropped into 17th themselves, losing 4-0 to Manchester United, in their first of four games under interim manager Ryan Giggs.  The bottom three will have a tough time climbing out now, as the three teams above them all have a game in hand (including Sunderland). But who knows in this crazy season.

Some thoughts on the weekend and what it means for one of the most highly contested title/top four/relegation battles in recent memory …

Thinking back over the course of the season, City were the title favorites before Arsenal went on an impressive run and led the league for the longest stretch of anyone all season. But their expected second-half fade opened the door for first Liverpool, then Chelsea, then City, then Liverpool and now City. And upstarts Everton and Southampton looked likely to crack the top four at various times before fading late, as Tottenham spent a fortune to finish a place lower than the past two seasons (actually, it looks like they will go from 4th to 5th to 6th).

1.  It’s hard to ignore how impressive Mourinho’s tactics are in big games. It led him to two Champions League titles earlier in his career (at Porto and Inter, of course), title after title challenge and a host of other cups – though his record against Barca and inability to win the UCL with Real dented that record. Looking at his performance this year, and the real chance of moving onto the UCL final yet again with a win at Stamford Bridge Wednesday, reminds both of his flexibility and the deep contrast with my man Arsene Wenger. Chelsea played a wide-open game against City at the Etihad and beat them 3-2, then sat back for most of the game against Liverpool at Anfield and won 2-0. They did the same thing on the road at Arsenal in December, playing to a dull 0-0 draw that stifled Arsenal’s chance to forge further ahead and then crushed them with a blitzing attack at the Bridge in April. And they parked the bus against the favored Atletico on the road, escaping with another 0-0 draw that makes them the favorite to advance to the final yet again. Mourinho can be obnoxious, demonstrate complete lack of class and fall back on negative tactics whenever he feels overmatched, but it is hard to fault his record. Ironically, it is Chelsea’s record against lesser opponents and the surprise ending of his undefeated record at the Bridge last weekend that will probably cost them the title.

2.  Poor Steven Gerrard: the captain of Liverpool who has won the Champion’s League, FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League title looked ready to claim his first EPL crown in the waning days of his illustrious career. And then a bizarre error on the wrong side of the midfield line and a slip in trying to recover might have cost the team that title he so coveted. The sick irony, particularly given his impressive form all season, after two years of injury-ridden declining returns, must be hard for anyone in Liverpool to stomach (except those pesky Everton fans, of course). A few weeks ago, it looked like Liverpool would win the league and Everton snatch fourth from under Arsenal’s grasp. Today, both look more likely to come up just short … though Everton, ironically, provide the toughest test to City’s attempt to win yet another title on goal difference alone (assuming both clubs win out).

3.  Stats Only Tell us So Much: coming into the game today, Liverpool had lost only once since December 29th (to Arsenal in the FA Cup), when they were beaten in the opposite fixture at Chelsea. They led in possession in the game today 69-30 percent and outshot Chelsea 26 to 11 (and 8 to 4 on goal). They played a Chelsea team that was without Hazard, Terry, Eto’o, Oscar and Cahill (until late on). Ashley Cole played for only the 15th time all campaign and Tomas Kalas made his debut as CB. And yet Mourinho’s bank of four and three, with two additional mids pushing up on the ball was all but impossible for Liverpool to break through, and their lack of width (and the absence of Sturridge until the 60th minute) failed to find the necessary break through. Gerrard actually had a rather average game, after trying to make up for the error, Suarez was largely ineffectual and Sterling’s sterling start failed to produce the goal it sometimes seemed to deserve. In the end, the reality is that errors lead to goals and goals trump every other statistic. Arsenal have been losing games where they dominate possession for years and the Liverpool offensive juggernaut just seemed unready for the defensive wall they faced from the first moment to the last.

In this crazy season, don’t bet against the most unlikely of results when all is said and done – with a late six-point charge by Fulham somehow saving them, an Arsenal flop leaving Everton in fourth or Chelsea squeaking by for the crown. But both City and Arsenal now have their destiny in their own hands … let’s see if they can seize the moment for the last few games of the season.

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