Monday, September 28, 2015

EPL Week 7 Recap: United Go Top; City Lose; Arsenal and Tottenham Win

The story of Saturday was goals, goals and more goals. By the end of the day, 35 had been scored. The weekend kicked off with yet another early season upset, as Tottenham crunched a depleted Man City 4-1, coming back from a goal down to score four straight, with Harry Kane finally getting his first goal of the season. Arsenal followed up by ending Leicester’s undefeated start to the season with a scintillating 5-2 win, in a back and forth game where Alexis Sanchez scored a hat trick to cancel out Vardy’s early opener. Liverpool held on to probably save Brendan Rodgers job with a 3-2 win over Aston Villa at Anfield while Swansea lost to Southampton 3-1, their third loss with a draw since beating United 2-1. United, on the other hand, have won three league games on the bounce and now, surprisingly, sit at the top of the table – after beating Sunderland 3-0. Rooney, Mata and Depay all chipped in for the win over a Sunderland side that seems increasingly certain to go down after escaping the drop for the past two seasons. Stoke City got their first win of the season with a 2-1 victory over Bournemouth, who might have lost their star striker Calum Wilson for a long stretch after what looked like a pretty serious knee injury. If he does spend a spell on the sideline, questions will be asked of the coaching and medical staff, after allowing him to play on after twisting his leg a minute earlier. West Ham rounded out the earlier games with a 2-2 draw against Norwich, looking like a team likely to stay up this term.

The late Saturday affair pitted Newcastle against a resurgent Chelsea, yet it was the struggling Magpies who were in the ascendancy for most of the first half, unlucky not to be ahead before they finally scored in the 42nd minute when Ayote volleyed in a wonder goal between Zouma and Ivanovic. That was how the half ended, after Fabergas sent a decent shot just over in extra time (after an earlier attempt was well saved in the 38th minute). The second half saw Chelsea pinning the home side back, before a second goal by Newcastle against the run of play on 60 minutes found them down two-nil. In the 78th minute, Ramires scored a stunner from distance to put Chelsea back in it. They completed the comeback in the 87th minute with a William free kick that went straight in with a calvalcade of Blues storming in. That’s how the game ended, with Newcastle still in the drop zone on three points and Chelsea only on eight points after seven games.

Sunday had a solitary game, with Watford squaring off against Crystal Palace.  The promoted team has yet to be scored on at home in the league, but a late penalty saw Palace break that streak and win the game 1-0. The weekend ended with Everton traveling to West Brom on Monday. The hosts jumped to a 2-0 lead early in the second half, but Everton then got one back from a Lukaku header of a Deulofeu cross soon after and recent statistics were suddenly against the Tony Pulis side, whose last 15 wins in the league have come when they held a clean sheet. The trend held up when the big Belgian shift turned from scorer to provider, sending Kone in for the equalizer with 14 minutes left on the clock. Kone appeared to be marginally offsides, but it was very tight, before he finished well across goal. At 2-2, Everton looked the more likely to grab the winner and did just that when Deulofeu again sent in a dangerous ball that Lukaku was able to squeeze past the keeper and into the near corner from close in. West Brom had some chances to equalize late, but were unable to take advantage and Everton thus held on for the impressive 3-2 come-from-behind win. It also brought the total goals scored for the weekend to an astounding 41, averaging over two a game, after a number of nil-nil games over the first two months of the season.

Some thoughts on Game Week 7:

1. Spurs Stun City; Refs Awful: Kevin De Bruyne started things off for Man City continuing his impressive start at City with a well-taken goal on 24 minutes, for his third in his last three. City almost made it 2-0 a minute later, only held out by a fine Lloris save of a Sterling shot. Right on the strike of halftime, Tottenham equalized as Eric Dier scored from way outside the box off a rebound. In the second half, Harry Kane finally got off the snide with his first goal of the season, off a rebounded Erickson shot, though he appeared to be offsides (as De Bruyne had been for the opener and Kyle Walker by at least two yards in the buildup to the equalizer). A Son Hueng-Min goal was then incorrectly ruled out offsides before Lamela finished off the victory. It was a terrible game for the officials, who have as many questions to answer as City. After starting the season with five clean sheets, they have since conceded two to Juve in the Champions League, two to West Ham in a second loss at the Etihad, one to struggling Sunderland in a 2-1 Capital One Cup win and then the four to Tottenham today. The absence of both Kompany and Mangala is part of the problem, of course, as might have been the surprising decision to bench Hart for Caballero, but just as important is the continued goalless stretch from Sergio Aguero along with the absence of injured David Silva, really the machines of this star studded cast of expensive players.

For all the talk of crisis for Tottenham and Liverpool, the two sit in fifth and seventh, four and five points behind United, respectively. Sturridge was on the mark twice for the Reds in a huge 3-2 win, though their continued defensive woes kept it close.

2. Mercurial West Ham: West Ham have beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and City on the road this season, but seem to have a lot more trouble winning at home in their final season at Upton Park. They lost their home opener 2-1 to Leicester city, then 4-3 to Bournemouth, did beat an awful Newcastle 2-0 and then drew against Norwich 2-2 today. It is a strange series of results for the team that is currently third in the table, setting up well to play the best of the league but struggling against midtier and lower teams with a defense that is certainly built to concede goals. One assumes they will thus end up comfortably in the midtable by the end of season, though with Bilic at the helm and plenty of attacking intent, they certainly have a shot at getting back to the Europa league for a second season running.

3. Arsenal Finally End their Scoring Slump; United Go Top: the new formula for victory for Arsenal might involve a goal from Walcott, a goal from Giroud, and some decent, if not stellar, defending. Saturday, they put five past Leicester after going down 1-0 and held on for a 5-2 win. It was the best offensive display of the season for the Gunners, on the back of their midweek 2-1 Capital One derby win over Tottenham, and serves as a nice foundation heading forward. Most importantly, Alexis Sanchez finally ended his own goal drought in style, with a hat trick. Even with the up and down start, the Gunners are only three points behind new league leader United, who they host next weekend.

Speaking of United, the team that many were asking serious questions of at the start of the new season now find themselves top of the table above their cross city rivals. Louis Van Gaal has spent a fortune building this team, with plenty of stops and starts, but seems to have developed a habit of winning even when they play poorly. That was not the case Saturday, as they crushed a struggling Sunderland 3-0, with Wayne Rooney finally getting off his league drought together with a goal from Depay and man-of-the-match Mata (who also assisted on the Depay opener). The signing of the season might, in fact, be De Gea, who looked certain to go before a transfer day snafu with Real kept him at United. He has since signed a new deal as United rise to the summit for the first time since winning the crown in Fergie’s final season.

4. Chelsea Defense Still Shambolic: If Newcastle were not so poor in finishing their chances, they could easily have been 3-0 up before 30 minutes had elapsed on the clock. The struggling side were rampant early and only Begovich and some poor finishing kept them from piling more pressure on the Chelsea defense. Even when driving forward three on five, they were finding space to get off shots or crosses, as it seemed the decline in Matic’s form continued to leave gaping holes through the middle, with absolutely no defensive assistance from the struggling Fabergas. The offensive display finally reaped benefits as halftime neared, sending them ahead of Chelsea 1-0, a habit in recent fixtures against last year’s champions when they play them at home. Chelsea almost scored early in the second half, as Remy was well-saved by Krul, before the offsides flag came up late. On 60 minutes, Chelsea were again suspect on the defensive end as Wiljnaldum found himself free six yards out on a corner to take a 2-0 lead. This time it was Fabergas to blame, letting his player get a free header close in that was well placed in the far corner. Just as troubling, was the lack of real intent on the offensive side, even as they missed a number of good chances. Chelsea did awaken and were able to draw even and snatched a point, staving off their first time losing four of their first seven for since way back in 1978-9. Yet a brewing crisis still seems to be simmering for the Champions, who are now eight points behind United.

5. Everton Rebound Continues: In Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge, Everton were a whisker away from snatching fourth place from Arsenal after beating them 3-0 in April to take a one-point lead over the Gunners, only falling out of that position after losing to eventual champion Manchester City and then fading late as the Gunners finished strongly. Last year, the side underperformed throughout the season, as their defense became more porous, they scored fewer goals and Howard had an off season, finishing in a disappointing 11th place (dropping an astounding 25 points from 72 to 47). This term, they appear to be back toward their best. The difference is a substantially more potent offense led by a resurgent Lukaku, who contributed to all three Everton goals Monday, and a supporting cast that includes the pacey Kone and Lennon, the skillful Deulofeu, the hard-working and wily Naismith and an improved Ross Barkley, together with an improved defensive performance. Barkley still has work to do with his decision making, particularly on the counter, and his finishing, Deulofeu could use increased discipline, and Barry has been a little below par so far, but it is hard to argue with a tie for fifth place on 12 points with a goal difference of +4. Last year, Everton scored 48 goals in their 38 league games and conceded 50. That is a rate of 1.26 goals for and 1.32 against. This year, those numbers are 1.57 for and 1.00 against, a big improvement if they can be maintained over the remainder of the season. And they are currently on track for 65 points, which would put them between 5th and 7th over the past five years.

Taking a quick look around the rest of Europe, Real Madrid were held to their second 0-0 draw of the young season, failing to connect with any of their 30 shots on goal, with Ronaldo missing a gilded header in the last minute of extra time, after Real had played the last sixteen minutes of the game a man up. That allowed Barcelona, 2-1 winners over Las Palmas, to return to the summit of the La Liga by a solitary point. It came at a huge cost, however, as Messi will miss seven to eight weeks of action after sustaining an early knee injury. Bayern Munich won in Germany 3-0 on the road against Mainz, not surprisingly, while Dortmund were held to a 2-2 draw against SV Darmstadt as were Wolfburg (1-1 versus Hannover 96). In Italy, AS Roma beat Carpi 5-1 to draw closer to surprise league leaders Fiorentina (who drew even on points with Inter Milan after crushing them 4-1), while Juve continued to struggle losing to Napoli (2-1) and AC Milan were beaten 1-0 at Genoa.

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