Thursday, November 12, 2015

EPL Week 12 Recap: Arsenal and Tottenham Draw; City Held; Chelsea Lose Again

Week 12 of the Barclay’s Premier League opened with an important road win for struggling Newcastle 1-0 over Bournemouth, pushing Newcastle two points above the relegation zone, while the home side was pushed down to 18th. Later in the day, Chelsea suffered a seventh defeat of the season, further solidifying the worst title defense in the history of the Premium League, as they fell one-nil at Stoke. Leicester City came back yet again to claim victory 2-1 over Watford at home with you-know-who scoring yet again to move within one game of the EPL record for consecutive games with at least one goal. Sunderland lost to Southampton 1-0, probably forcing poor Sam Allardyce to wonder why in the world he took on this impossible task that could ruin his record of never being at the helm of a demoted team. Meanwhile, West Ham continued their struggles at home, only able to salvage a point against Everton, while Norwich piled more pressure on Swansea’ Gary Monk 1-0. And though it was not enough to impress all the pundits, Manchester United eased out of their recent scoring drought with a 2-0 victory over West Brom that included a late penalty converted by Juan Mata and a, along with his two main assistants.
Arsenal played Tottenham in the marquis Sunday matchup and after being largely dominated for the opening 70 minutes and finding themselves 1-0 down to a Harry Kane goal, came back to earn a draw, though a win was certainly within their reach (or on Giroud’s head to be more accurate). Both managers can take something from the game, though the Spurs will be disappointed to miss out on two points and Arsenal to fail to take sole possession of first place in the league (you can find my full match report here: That opportunity existed because earlier in the day, a depleted Man City were held to a surprising nil-nil draw at bottom-dwelling Aston Villa. In the final match of the weekend, Jürgen Klopp tasted his first defeat as Liverpool manager, as the home side lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace. Heading into the international break, many teams including Arsenal and City will be happy to get two extra week’s rest for their ailing stars, while others will hope none of their key players will come back from their international duties crocked.

Some thoughts on Game Week 12:
1. Chelsea Funk Continues: in what was their best performance in a few weeks, Chelsea still lost a game that they largely dominated and now find themselves closer to the drop (3 points) than the top 4 (13 points). They are an extraordinary 15 points behind co-leaders Arsenal and Man City and have a dismal -7 goal differential. What is perhaps most disturbing is the dearth of goals this year (16) and the extraordinary collapse of what was the best defense in the league last season. Mourinho wasn’t even on the grounds, as he served out his one-match ban for comments he made about the officials earlier in the season. Hazard had his best performance of the campaign, but was still unable to put the ball in the net and has now failed to score in any of his league performances, only chipping in a mere two assists. The defense was more solid, but still let in the decider and the continued profligacy in front of goal makes it all but certain that they will be dipping into the January transfer window to seek answers, with rumors suggesting they are interested in Higuain, Chicharito or Paco Alcacer up front and will go back in for Stones to shore up the defense (you can find my full match report here:

2. A Tough Week for Arsenal: the 5-1 thrashing Arsenal took at the Allianz on Wednesday made their route through to the knock out stage that much more difficult. But given that head-to-head record trumps goal difference, they still have hope if they can beat Zagreb and then travel to Olympiakos and win by at least 2 goals. Neither result is beyond them, though they’ve had some trouble in final games on the road in recent Group Stages. The reality, though, is this could be a blessing in disguise. If they happen to beat Zagreb and then say win by a goal at Olympiakos, or even lose that game, they are likely to head to the Europa League. That is a nightmare to many managers, but Wenger could use that opportunity to blood his youngsters and give some of the fringe players a few more games in the second half of the season. Freeing them of their almost perennial two-game knockout in the Round of 16, which seems to often negatively affect their domestic form as hangover, could free them to focus all their energy on winning the title for the first time in 12 years.

The draw with Tottenham cost them a chance to move two points above City, but it also showed some great fortitude in fighting back for the draw and showed how important the signing of Cech could be, as he almost single-handedly kept them in the game until the late surge. One question that might emerge if they do go on to win the league is whether this is the ideal time for Wenger to hang up his long zippered jacket and turn over the reigns to Pep Guardiola, who seems destined to head to England next summer, either with Man City, Arsenal or, I suppose, Chelsea. With their new fiscal power, a manager like Guardiola could find the perfect challenge in trying to outmaneuver a much tighter league than he currently finds in Germany, and maybe even add another Champions League crown to his bulging trophy cabinet. Unlikely? Maybe. But a Gooner can dream …

3. The Emerging European Battle: At present, the title challenge appears to be a three horse race, with City and Arsenal fighting it out and United just a rung below. No one honestly believes Leicester or West Ham can actually challenge for the title, do they? West Ham just doesn’t play well enough at home, and has some serious injury concerns after their game last weekend and Leicester concede goals at too great a rate (and one assumes Vardy will have some off games going forward). On the other hand, it does appear that the race to the Top 4 and the European places below is shaping up as the best in years. Tottenham are knocking on the door of a return to the Champions League if they keep up this form, Liverpool is starting to learn Klopp’s way and could push up the table, Everton is still in the conversation and then there are the two aforementioned interlopers in Leicester and West Ham. One assumes Arsenal, City and United will make the Top 4, barring some bizarre results, but below them is a real battle for that fourth (or maybe even third) place. On present results, I would favor Tottenham to finally overcome their late season devils and snatch it up. The others might have something to say about it before the season ends, though, and this could bring real excitement throughout the season. And I almost forgot the irrepressible Crystal Palace who are still playing above their weight for Alan Pardew.
4. Dawdling around the Drop Zone: surely Chelsea has too much talent to actually drop out of the Premier League this year, I think, so we are at a good point to have a look at the teams likely to finish in the ignominious bottom three this term. Sunderland still looks like a solid bet, as they appear to lack the talent and will to survive at present, though some of these players were around for the past two great escapes. I think Bournemouth, who I liked before the season began, are now in real danger of heading right back down to the Championship unless they find a way to start scoring goals (made harder without their goal-machine Wilson). Newcastle looked like a good bet a few weeks ago, but seem to be a side on the rise. I have written over the past several weeks that it is possible Leicester and West Ham are actual contenders for top four berths this year and while I think Leicester will have trouble beating their nearest competitors to keep their position in the table, the Hammers are certainly starting to turn some heads with their performance against the top teams. To reiterate, they beat Arsenal at the Emirates 2-0 to start the season, beat Liverpool at Anfield 3-0, beat Man City 2-1 at the Etihad, beat Crystal Palace 3-1 on the road and now Chelsea 2-1 at home. It is their results against some of the lower tier teams in the league – a 4-3 loss to Bournemouth and 2-2 draw with Norwich at home and 2-2 draw with Sunderland on the road – that call in question their credentials to keep up this pace, but it is hard to ignore that record. With a quick counterattacking game and the ability to shift tactics to suit their opponent and situation, this is a team to keep an eye on as the season develops.

5. Around the horn: while Chelsea will hope to prise hot Higuian from Napoli, the latter’s desire to get back to the Champions League or even win the league will make it a tough sale to complete. After their 1-0 win over Udinese on Sunday they sit in fourth place, two points from surprise leader Fiorentina (tied on points with Inter, though ahead by 10 in goal difference). Roma is in third on 26 points after winning their Derby with Lazio 2-0. In Spain, Barcelona continued to cruise without Messi, winning 3-0 over Villareal while Real Madrid were shocked by Sevilla 3-2 on the road to fall three points behind their bitter rivals with the El Classico on the other side of the international break their chance to draw back even. Atletico won 1-0 over Sporting Gijon to stay in third place, a mere four points behind the leaders, with Celta Viga continuing to reside in the Champions League spot for now, one point above Villareal. In Germany, Bayern won again (4-0), of course, but Dortmund beat Schalke 3-2 themselves to keep the champions lead within reach at five points. Wolfsburg, even after losing their best player, are still hanging around in third, though they are already 13 points behind the leaders after losing 2-0 to Mainz.

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