Monday, October 19, 2015

EPL Week 9 Recap: Extra, Extra … Newcastle Win! So do Arsenal, City, United, Chelsea and West Ham

After two weeks off for an international break, there is always an added excitement in the air when the first game of the weekend kicks off. And given that the kickoff this weekend included a new Liverpool manager that has gotten more press in the past two weeks than the entire Kardashian family (okay, maybe not), tensions were high at White Hart Lane. Unfortunately, the football did not live up to that hype and the game ended in a 0-0 draw. It was an somewhat impressive first game for Jürgen Klopp, the rock and roll manager who recently supplanted the much less sexy Brendan Rodgers, mainly for keeping a clean sheet lacking from the side since the first four games. Luckily, that was the only scoreless game of the weekend as goals were again crashing into the net with regularity. City scored 5 without Sergio Aguero, to beat Bournemouth 5-1, United eased past Everton 3-0 and Chelsea finally got back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over a reeling Aston Villa team that might soon be looking for a new manager. Of note in those games, was the first senior hat trick for Raheem Sterling, who has been in relatively scintillating form since moving to City, a first away goal for Wayne Rooney in 11 months and a goal and little trouble for Diego Costa, who just completed his three-match ban. Also noteworthy, as Mourinho tries to right his keeling ship, was the absence of Hazard from the starting lineup, along with several other usual starters. A slightly sterner test awaits in the Champions League when Chelsea travel to Dynamo Kiev; with Mourinho unsure of whether Hazard will remain on the bench, claiming Pedro and William are doing better defensive work on the wings.

Rounding out a busy Saturday, West Ham ended Crystal’s hot streak, with yet another road win (3-1), Southampton and Leicester had to share the spoils after yet another City comeback in the closing minutes, from you know who. Vardy now has nine goals in the league and could become the favorite to win a surprising golden boot if he keeps up this form. And poor Sunderland fell yet again, Big Sam unable to inspire the troops in his first game in charge. They lost 1-0 to Tony Pulis’ West Brom. In the final game Saturday, Watford played good defensive football and got out on the break several times in the first 60 minutes, but Arsenal’s relentless attack finally broke open the game, with three goals in less than 15 minutes of action (for a 3-0) lead. On Sunday, something quiet bizarre happened. Not only did Newcastle win a football game, they actually put six, that’s right, six past a Norwich defense that is admittedly among the worst in the league (they have conceded the most goals at 20). The 6-2 victory will raise the spirits around the club and may be a springboard to a run that can get them out of the drop zone. On Monday, Stoke City beat a Swansea team that has been on a terrible run of form 1-0, in Wales, after converting an early penalty. After beating United on 2-1 on August 30, the Swans have lost to newly promoted Watford, drew at home 0-0 with Everton, lost to Hull 1-0, got beaten up by Southampton 3-1, drew with Tottenham 2-2 and now lost to Stoke. They now find themselves in 14th place and only 4 points above the relegation zone.
Some thoughts on Game Week 9:

1. Klopp Mania: Has there ever been a new manager in the league who has garnered so much admiration and excitement before his team ever kicked a ball? Maybe, but the accolades and adulation thrown at Jürgen Klopp certainly seemed a bit excessive, particularly given the reality that he is stuck with the same team that Brendan Rodgers had trouble with for most of the past 15 months. The leaders of the team that almost won the title two seasons ago are all gone and, though the defense has been intermittently quite strong this season, there are real questions on the offensive end. Liverpool have scored only 8 goals in their 9 games (conceding 10) and have lost Ings for the season and are currently without both Benteke and the ever-injured Sturridge. Origi had a couple of glimmers of his potential in the game, though he probably should have scored with his best chance in the first half. I too would be excited to have Klopp on the sideline and I do believe it was a strong, if ill-timed, move from Liverpool to get one of the most exciting coaches in the world to help rebuild the team. But all the wasted spending, the lack of cohesion of the attackers and the absence of any world-class players – beyond maybe Sturridge on his best form and Coutinho in spurts – means that a LOT of work needs to be done to get this side back toward the top (or even the top four). Klopp can do it, but will have to hope the club management given him the time necessary for the daunting task.

2. Title Race Wide Open: Chelsea finally won a game, though it was largely gifted to them by goalkeeper Guzan and the inability of Villa to sustain the level from the start of the match. United rebounded nicely from their Arsenal drubbing two weeks ago, the Gunners won another game 3-0 (though less convincing in the first half) and City continued to impress, even without Silva and Aguero. It appears there are three teams currently vying for the title and all have a strong chance of rising to the summit. City, of course, have the most recent experience of what it takes to make it through the long drudge that is an EPL season and United have a few players left that tasted the elixir of success under Ferguson, but could it be that Arsenal are the best placed to take the crown? It might just be a hungry Gooner hoping to finally end the 11-year wait, but there is something different about this team. Sure they lost their first two Champions League games to inferior opponents, but there were some selection questions to be answered and some bad luck (along with some really bad playing, one should note). The Gunners have been flirting with the title the past two seasons, with a strong first half in 2013-14 leading them to the top of the table until February and last season ending with a blistering run that almost got them back in contention. After some up and down results, they are a mere two points from the top and have rediscovered both their offensive productivity and defensive discipline. City, of course, have more resources to deploy as they try to win their third title in five years, but have a tendency toward down periods, particularly on the road. And United have certainly exceeded expectations so far, though I still wonder if they have a team ready to take such a huge leap. In any case, it should be an exciting race going forward.

3. West Ham and Leicester Continue to Impress: West Ham currently sit in fourth place, two points behind United and Arsenal with the second most goals scored this season (behind City), with 20. They have conceded 12 though, and that is worse than every other team in the top eight besides Leicester (and tied with 8th place Southampton). Their victory over Crystal Palace on the road again showed that this team knows how to play to their opponent’s weaknesses and to exploit opportunities on the counter. The same can be said of Leicester, a team that seems in any game they play, whether they are down two with five minutes to go or 3-0 in the first half. Their comeback Saturday was wrapped up by Vardy’s ninth goal of the season and with the talent they have on the offensive end, they are a dangerous team for anyone to play. Their liability at the back means they will probably creep down the table as the season goes on, but they clearly could play a spoiler role in the title and top 4 races, and might even have an outside shot at a European place.

4. Relegation Watch: Can Newcastle rebound from their early season struggles? Of course they can and emphatic wins like the one Sunday can bring a renewed sense of belief to an entire team. The performance against Chelsea, where they jumped ahead 2-0 before having to settle for a point, showed hints of better things to come. With a quality coach and some talented players on the offensive end, I think Newcastle might have just enough to avoid the drop. That seems less likely for a Sunderland team that seems to have bought into the media narrative, unable to find any positive momentum so far this season. The hiring of Allardyce might help, but this is a team that has barely escaped relegation two seasons in a row. Big Sam has never seen one of his team fall backwards at the end of a season, but his streak is in real danger at the moment. Aston Villa are also a team that seems in real trouble, with Tim Sherwood close to the chopping block. Another loss might mean he is again looking for work and Villa for a manager that can save the team from the ignominy of the Championship after so many years in the Premier League. Two other teams to watch are Bournemouth, who are looking extremely vulnerable after their star striker Wilson went down for the season, and the leaky defense of Norwich, who do not have the offensive weapons to make up for the over 2 goals a game they are currently offering up to opponents.

5. Looking around the rest of Europe, Real and Barcelona both won (with Neymar scoring an incredible four goals in their victory and Ronaldo passing beloved Raul on the all time Real scoring list). The real surprise in Spain, though, is Celta Vigo, who are somehow level with the two giants of La Liga at present, after another victory Saturday. They even have a better goal difference than Barca, at 9 versus 6, though neither can match the +16 of Real at present. In Germany, Bayern is undefeated this season and already has a 7-point lead over Dortmund, who have rebounded nicely this term after Klopp left last season and 8 over Schalke. Wolfsburg, the surprise of last season, sit in fourth after their 4-2 victory over TSG Hoffenheim. The Series A race continues to be wide open, with Fiorentina holding onto first place by a point, over Roma and Inter, with Napoli and Sassuolo two points further back. Juve has moved up to 14th, one place below a struggling AC Milan, after a 0-0 draw at Inter. Finally, in France, PSG has already built a five point lead after 8 matches, including 2-0 victory over Bastia on Saturday.

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