Monday, September 14, 2015

EPL Week 5 Recap: Leicester Remain Hot; Chelsea Sing the Blues

The weekend got off to blistering start when Everton held serve at home to further dent Chelsea’s title hopes, beating them 3-1 on a hat trick from early sub Steve Naismith. Man City then kept it until late, scoring in the 90th minute to snatch all three points at hot Crystal Palace (1-0). Arsenal cruised past Stoke City 2-0, though it really should have been 4 or 5 (or maybe 8 or 10). Norwich crushed fellow promotional team Bournemouth 3-1, Watford upset Swansea 1-0 (a man down for 26 minutes) and West Brom and Southampton played out another stale 0-0 result, a score that has occurred a surprising amount in the early season. In the late Saturday fixture, Liverpool travelled to United to take on a team that looks quite different from the one LVG inherited a little over a year ago. After a pretty muted first half, the game came to life in the second as United won 3-1.

On Sunday, Harry Kane and Tottenham misfired for much of the game, before Ryan Mason came through with a late goal for a 1-0 victory over winless Sunderland. Then, in the game of the weekend, Leicester City came back from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 and move up to second in the league, in front of United and Arsenal and only behind the perfect Man City. The final match on the fixture list pitted West Ham against a hapless Newcastle and the Hammers made it two in a row with a comprehensive 2-0 win over the Toons, Belic getting the best of McLaren again after the nightmare game when England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. West Ham, surprisingly, have moved up to fifth in the table with Newcastle added to the scalpings of Arsenal and Liverpool. It was the only good news of the past few weeks for Chelsea, who were spared falling into the drop zone by Newcastle’s continued ineptitude, only able to win three matches the entire calendar year and again in danger of falling into a relegation battle.

Some thoughts on Game Week 5:

1. Chelsea Crisis? Sure, why not? 5 games, 13 points. That was last year’s total at the same point in the season, on the way to a Premier League crown. This year they have garnered a mere 4 from 5, having given up two or more goals in each of the matches this year (for a total of 12). On Saturday, three went past substitute keeper Begovich on 14 shots (9 on goal) in what is now Chelsea’s worst start since 1986, when they finished 14th. On evidence of their performances so far, things might get even worse before they get better if they do not figure out their defensive woes quickly – with anyone paying attention having to wonder how in the world Ivanovic is still starting at this point. While Mourinho claimed the Blues outplayed the Toffees and were unlucky not to win, I don’t think I was the only one left scratching my head. What game is he watching, exactly? Has he caught Wenger’s myopic inability to believe his team can play poorly? Whatever the case, while all of last season they only conceded 32 goals, this season they are on track to given up 91! Of course, they won’t, but it has to be a major concern to be this far off the pace this early when most pundits had them repeating as champion. Maybe most troubling is the reality that this is a Mourinho trend, having failed to have a great third season at any of his managerial stops, coupled with the fact this is the first time he has lost successive games in the league since way back in 2006. Chelsea can get back to winning ways on Wednesday against UCL minnows Maccabi Tel-Aviv before a key matchup against Arsenal at the Bridge next Saturday.

On the flip side, the Martinez project at Everton appears to be back on track, though one should mention there was a little luck involved – as the Spaniard chose to play a more defensive lineup before an early injury to Besic (9’) forced him to bring on a replacement, in this case the Chelsea killer Naismith, who became only the sixth player in EPL history to score a hat trick from the substitute bench and only the fifth to ever score one against Chelsea. The Toffees are still sometimes shaky at the back, but Stones looked very impressive throughout and they are one of the more dangerous teams in the league going forward at the moment.

2. City Steal It: City’s offense, minus Sterling and Silva, was being held at Crystal Palace for the first 89 minutes of the game before an unheralded teenager named Iheanacho, surrounded by super stars, was Johnny on the spot, poaching in a goal from a yard out after the Palace defense failed to get back with the clock running out. It reminded of the Citizen team of two years ago, that won a number of games late to slip past Liverpool and snatch the title. City could be getting into the habit of winning the title every other year and are well poised to make a strong run at a third in five years now. They have still yet to conceded a solitary goal in five games and sit on a perfect 15 points with a goal difference of +11. Other teams will take some hope from Crystal almost holding this offensive juggernaut scoreless, but less so when they notice who was not playing. It is too early to say with any conviction, particularly given their dip at the turn of the year last season, but it does appear to be Man City’s title to lose at the moment.

3. I’ll Gladly Pay you Tuesday, for a Striker Who Can Score: Arsenal did win 2-0 at home, ending a run of only one win in their last six at the Emirates (failing to score in five of those games), but they missed at least 26 other chances in a game they dominated for all but about six minutes. The calls for signing a striker will become louder and louder if this trend continues, even as Giroud and Walcott both did put the ball in the back of the net. Walcott, in particular, was guilty of blowing at least five other chances to score and Giroud a couple in his 15 minutes on the pitch. Three points are three points, but they easily could have lost two of them if Stoke had had a little luck. Giroud will get his goals this season. Walcott, on the other hand, appears to lack the scorer’s instinct necessary to play through the middle. He showed signs of it in the past, but clearly lacks confidence even as he has scored 11 in his last 11 league games. His best position appears to still be on the right flank, though him playing there means sitting Ramsey or Cazorla, something Wenger seems unlikely to do with any frequency. This means both Walcott and Ox might struggle to get starts this season. And it does beg the question of whether Jack Wilshere might have to consider a move if he ever gets over his injury woes. Rumours continue to link the Gunners with PSG’s Cavani and he is a player they could really use, if he truly does become available in January.

4. Most Exciting Team in the League? Many would, of course, argue that City are the team to watch this year, full of stars, creativity and finishing flair, together with five clean sheets to start the season. It’s hard to argue against that record, but for me it is Leicester City who combine speed, creativity and flair dribbling with a panoply of players that can finish chances. When they are on their game, they are like a swarm overwhelming opponents, sometimes even when those teams are defending leads. Ex-Swansea player Nathan Dyer was all over the field and scored the late winner with an excellent header, Mahrez appears to be as good as the hype would have us believe, Vardy now has three goals this season and they are surrounded by an impressive supporting cast. Their defensive struggles just add to the pleasure of watching them play, as they have had to come back in three of their five games so far this season, including from 2-0 down to beat visitors Aston Villa on Sunday and move into second place in the league. After giving up that second goal, the team came alive, scoring in the 72nd, 82nd and 89th minute. On top of all that, they have a player who is quite literally a Drink[of]water! What a team and what a return for Claudio Ranieri.

5. Martial Mania; Liverpool Listlessness: Anthony Martial, the most expensive teenage footballer in the world, came on in the second half to make his debut after the record move that many have questioned – if for no other reason than the exorbitant price tag for unproven potential. The critics might be questioning themselves already, after he slalomed around three Liverpool defenders, cut in and then shot across goal to score in his first EPL appearance; looking spookily like his purported doppelganger Thierry Henry. It was the icing on the cake of a third straight win for United against Liverpool and important in restoring order after a stunning overhead goal from Benteke two minutes earlier had given the visitors hope. For United, it was an impressive second half after a pretty insipid first 45, and maybe something to build on going forward, though there are still concerns about their play from back to front and the lack of fluidity and speed in attack.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have only scored three goals in five games and Brendon Rodgers appeared to get his tactics wrong again in the first half, failing to push a United team that has looked rather vulnerable at home this season (and really in the last two plus years). Rodgers went into the season as the most under pressure manager and must be wondering if he’ll make it to Boxing Day if the offensive woes continue. One manager who has been mooted as a potential replacement is Jurgen Klopp, though I wonder if he wants to take the step down to a club that won’t have Champions League football this season and is looking increasingly unlikely to return in 2016-17. It could be the Gerrard slip will be the closest the Reds come to a title for a long, long time.

Tuesday and Wednesday, Arsenal, Chelsea, City and United will all get their Champions League Group Stages underway, with City having the toughest game facing reigning Finalist and Series A Champion Juve, though they have started the new season almost as poorly as Chelsea, Arsenal heading to Dinamo Zagreb and United visiting PSV. Next weekend, Chelsea host Arsenal in the most interesting game of the slate, though Swansea v. Everton, Man City v. a surprising West Ham and Tottenham v. Crystal Palace should also be interesting. Southampton will try to kickstart their stuttering season with a win over visiting United, Liverpool host Norwich off the tail of a win and a series of midtier and lower tier teams take each other on with a chance to gain early points in the battle to stave off relegation.

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