Sunday, May 04, 2014

Arsenal Win & the Week in the EPL

The title favorite shift from last weekend was solidified when Man City held on to beat their road nemesis Everton 3-2. It was a back and forth affair that included Everton opening the books with a stunning goal-of-the-season nominee from Ross Barkley, a strong penalty appeal for the Toffees that could have made it 2-0, an equalizing goal by Sergio Aguero right before he went off with an injury (on poor goalkeeping from Howard, who was beat at the near post), a strong-hand save by Joe Hart at the beginning of the second half that kept out the equalizer and two goals from Eden Dzeko, who has quietly played a huge role in City’s probable title run. Everton pushed for the late equalizer after another Lukaku goal, but came up just short. Now with two games left for both Liverpool and City, it appears likely the crown will remain with the current leaders – on goal difference alone!

In other action, both Fulham and Cardiff’s campaigns to stay up came to an end with 3-1 losses, combined with Sunderland’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford, to end yet another long losing streak (this one going back to the 60s) in the worst United season since the 80s. And Chelsea all but ended their remote title chase with a tepid 0-0 draw at home to Norwich, with Mourinho taking irony to new levels with his complaints about the visitors sitting back and not attacking enough. He might have had a point here, as Norwich will be all but officially relegated if Sunderland win or draw in their game Wednesday and thus really should have chased a win with more urgency. It was the conclusion of a weird week for Chelsea, who parked the bus to beat Liverpool at Anfield 2-0, then failed to keep a lead at the Bridge, losing 3-1 to Atletico in the second leg; giving Mourinho his 6th loss in 8 attempts in the semis of the UCL. Then this draw which all but ensures that the special one will go two years without any silverware.

That brings us to the second great Mourinho irony, in that Arsene Wenger could finish the English season off with a victory in the FA Cup final in fortnight, ending his 9-year wait for silverware and begging the question of whether Mourinho is becoming an “expert in losing” himself. Arsenal already knew they had secured fourth place after Everton’s loss on Saturday, but still won their final game of the season at the Emirates today, 1-0 over a rather uninspired West Brom team all but secure unless Norwich beat Arsenal next weekend and they lose both of their remaining games.  And so, after a long season that has seen over 20 changes at the top of the table and an endless number near the bottom, all is all but decided. The four teams for the Champions League are in, Norwich appears all but certain to follow Cardiff and Fulham down to the Championship and the title is City’s to lose. But we should not discount the possibility of a late surprise --  particularly looking over at Spain, where Atletico followed up their impressive victory away at Chelsea by losing to midtable Levante today – after Barcelona drew yesterday. On top of this, Real had to fight back for a 2-2 draw against Valencia at home; meaning they are now in the unenviable position of rooting for a Barcelona win over Atletico in the season finale (assuming they win their remaining 3 games).

Three Quick Thoughts for the Week
  1. Wenger Magic Escapes: Wenger’s career has been magical in three ways that come immediately to mind: a) His early years with the 11 trophies and the only undefeated season in English football history, b) The 17 straight years in the top four, which really is an achievement if you think of all the teams that haven’t and c) His ability to be the steward of so many near misses (catalogued in detail in one of my previous posts). Assuming Liverpool and City win their games in hand this weekend, that will put Arsenal a mere 7 points off the title chase. So where did those seven points go? Obviously we can think of the home draws against United, Chelsea and Everton (there’s 6 points), the 1-0 loss to Stoke (3 points), the own goal that blew a nice comeback against Southampton (2 points) and their road record against the top seven (a measly 3 points against Tottenham, out of a possible 18). This was Arsenal’s real chance to nab the title that has eluded them for so long and it appears that it was again Wenger’s stubbornness that cost us – mainly with his unwillingness to sign another striker and DM (though the former alone would have done). And so the magic of Wenger could very well reap a trophy after a near decade of futility, but will it still leave a bitter taste in many Gooners? It certainly does in this one’s.
  2. Giroud-fatigue: Endless print has been inked this year on the mercurial French striker, who was hailed as one of the best players in the league through mid-December, before being maligned as a key reason for the Gunner collapse in the second half. So which narrative is true? Giroud has clearly had a reasonably strong season for Arsenal, scoring 16 goals and adding 7 assists in 35 EPL games –with 22 and 8 overall. His goals in the FA Cup run have been crucial and he has been the fulcrum of the attack in many games. And yet his scoring record against the other top teams is paltry, with only 1 goal in those essential games. And it is this absence of production that has cost us so dearly this year. I can remember several spectacular goals by Olivier this year, but even more near misses that could have added the necessary points for a title. In the end, he is an integral part of the team, but needs a partner or to be replaced if we are to take the next step.
  3. Ozil Overcriticized?: Mesut Ozil has taken a lot of the criticism for Arsenal’s second half collapse, even as he was out injured for much of it. He has seven goals overall for the Gunners (and 11 if we count Germany and Real) and 14 assists (19 total) in 37 appearances. As I mentioned last week, he was overplayed early and has created more chances than anyone in the EPL – and unfortunately can’t finish for the often inept Giroud. What if’s abound, of course, particularly in the first leg of the UCL tie against Bayern, but as I’ve stated before – the Gunners were not going to win it this year. English press needs something to write about, and love to talk about “flops,” always privileging goals over assists and failure over success. For example, is the impressive season of Bale, that has been all but ignored in the English press. But I would say Ozil has been a success overall this season and that he will improve next year, as Arsenal attempt to improve on their best points total in 7 years, with one game to go!

One week to go in this long mixed season and then the FA Cup final we have been waiting for for so long. COYG! As I watch the final few games of the campaign, I can't help but root for a City slip-up, by the way, particularly with their failure to meet FFP requirements this year. Don't discount a final twist in an odd year indeed. 

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