Wednesday, December 09, 2015

EPL Week 15 Recap: Leicester Back on Top; Arsenal Win; Chelsea, City & Liverpool All Lose (And the Champions League Results …)

As has become almost an almost weekly occurrence, the weekend commenced with an upset, this time Stoke City playing inhospitable host to table leading Manchester City, in a 2-0 win. Six simultaneous games followed, with Arsenal finally winning a game after giving up the lead for the third game running (3-1 over Sunderland), Southampton and Aston Villa drawing 1-1, Leicester City keeping up their hot streak with a 3-0 road win over hapless Swansea, Watford winning 2-0 over Norwich and West Brom holding Tottenham to a point in a 1-1 draw. The biggest news of the slate was United, who played out their fifth 0-0 draw in their last nine games, missing out on a chance to go top and asking further questions of LVG, who then saw his team exit the Champions League unceremoniously three days later. Saturday ended with yet another loss for Chelsea, falling to Bournemouth at the once impenetrable Stamford Bridge 1-0. Incredibly it was their eighth loss in the first 15 games!

In the sole Sunday game, Liverpool was brought down from their lofty recent run by a 2-0 loss at Newcastle. Rather optimistic talk of a title run seems premature. Finally was a Monday encounter where Everton’s Romulo Lukaku kept up his recent purple path scoring the equalizer five minutes after Scott Dann had headed Crystal Palace into the lead in the 76th minute, with the game finishing in a lively 1-1 draw. Tuesday and Wednesday, the four English representatives in the Champions League all had matches with implications as Man City tried to jump above Juve into first place in the Group and Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal tried to secure advancement. Three of the four earned the necessary results while Manchester United continued their uneven form, falling 3-2 to Wolfsburg and being dumped out of the easiest draw of the four teams. Just before the Wednesday kickoffs, we learned that Swansea’s run of 1 win in 11 games was enough to cost Gary Monk his job, mere months after he had led them to their greatest point total in the BPL ever. More on those results below …

Some thoughts on Game Week 15:
1. Wide Open Title Race: Beyond Leicester, who actually wants to win the title this year? Obviously all 20 teams, but those near the top are doing their best to play coy pretenders to the crown. Man City, like last season, seems to drop points out of nowhere, most recently in the insipid performance at Stoke Saturday. United are somehow in third with one of the most uninspiring starts to a season in recent memory, unable to hit the side of a barn, much less the net. Arsenal are, well, Arsenal, and the rest of the crowd seems players and points short of mounting a title charge. So could the impossible occur, and Leicester actually steal away with the title. I still believe they will drop points down the road and fade a little, though it is hard to see them outside the Top 6 (or maybe even 4) at this point. With a little luck, the title is not beyond them. The result by Arsenal on Wednesday in the Champions League is the sort of victory that can catapult a team to greater glory and they do sit a mere two points off the acme of the table. I think the race is really between the Gunners and City with the two head-to-head matchups and road performances probably the deciders this year. Some will claim United still have a shot, but I just don’t see it with this squad and the lack of goals and creativity and Tottenham is, well, Tottenham. Liverpool have looked good in recent weeks, but their loss Sunday should give people pause, as will yet another injury to Daniel Sturridge.

2. Chelsea Nightmare Before Christmas: rather than continuing to catalog one of the worst title defenses in history, I thought I would instead provide some numbers that perfectly capture the Blues struggles:

22 – the number of years since Chelsea had so few points in their first 15 games
8 – the highest a team has finished with this few points after 15 games
8 – the number of losses so far, more than twice the total all of last season
11.3% - the number of shots converted (the worst in the league)
17.3% - cross completion rate (also the worst in the league)
200m – how much more the Chelsea 11 cost than Bournemouth’s squad
2 – number of assists by Fabergas (versus 11 at the same point last season)
15 – the number of goals conceded by Chelsea in the last 15 minutes of matches
24 – the number of goals conceded overall
17 – the number of goals scored (50% fewer than the same time last year)
0 – the number of goals by Hazard in 22 appearances this season (vs. 7 LS)
41 – the number of years since a champion last lost 8 of their first 15 games.
3. Klopp Love Fest Interruptus: people were beginning to speak of a Liverpool title charge after a good run of fixtures under new manager Klopp, who really is a likable guy in a sport where managers are often either arrogant children or vapid cliché machines. But the 2-0 loss to Newcastle should steady those expectations. Liverpool have been playing better football, but the loss of Sterling last summer still smarts and real questions remain about where goals will come from, particularly with Sturridge set for another spell on the sideline. Klopp is a great manager, clearly, but I don’t see this squad as worthy of raising the trophy at the end of the season, unless major reinforcements come in this winter. The Top 4, on the other hand, might be possible, particularly with the stolid form of United, who are somehow still in third place at the moment. On the other hand, Tottenham seem like a real challenger to that position.

4. Around the Horn: Just when it looked like Real Madrid were toast in La Liga, they picked up two points as Valencia drew 1-1 with Barca while Real beat Getafe 4-1. Atletico also won, 2-0 at Granada, to draw within two points of the leader. In Germany, Bayern missed out on the possibility of a perfect season, losing 3-1 at Borussia Mönchengladbach, seeing their Bundesliga lead fall to five points over a surprising Dortmund. And in Italy, Inter got back to winning ways with a 1-0 victory over Genoa while Fiorentina also won (3-0 over Udinese) Napoli lost at Bologna (3-2) and Roma and AC Milan were both held to draws against Torino and Carpi, respectively. Inter now leads Fiorentina by a point, Napoli by two and Roma by five, with a resurgent Juve in fifth a mere six points from the top after their 2-0 Friday win at Lazio.

5. Champions League Relief x 3: Manchester United headed into their match at Wolfsburg knowing a win guaranteed passage to the next round, while a draw might be enough. And they scored first, as Martial finally ended his scoring slump on 10 minutes. Three minutes later, the lead was gone and another first half goal saw them staring at an early exit. An own goal gave them hope, particularly when CSKA pulled ahead of PSV for a time, but PSV came back and Wolfsburg sealed United’s fate with a Naldo header in the 84th minute. In the end, PSV won 2-1 and United would have needed two goals to finish second in the group. Instead, Thursday night Euro League games await the club that has spent around 300 million pounds in the past year and a half. Not good enough, one could say, but certainly sweet revenge for those of us still smarting from years of United success under Fergie.

Two games ago, after being thrashed by Bayern, Arsenal’s Champion’s League hopes were in tatters, but it was clear they still had hope. The necessary victory over Dinamo Zagreb followed and now they needed to head to Greece and beat Olympiakos by two goals (or by any win with at least 3 goals for the Gunners). And they did just that, winning 3-0 on a hat trick from Olivier Giroud and some timely defending. It was not easy, as Olympiakos passed and pressed well, but their inability to convert their chances meant Arsenal pulled off the “Miracle in Piraeus;” okay, not a miracle, but a great turnaround for the Gunners. Meanwhile, Chelsea scored an early own goal, off a shot by Diego Costa to pull ahead in their match with Porto, ultimately winning 2-0 to top their group. And on the same day United fell out of the tournament, City came back from a 2-1 deficit to win 4-2 and, coupled with the Juve’s 1-0 loss to Sevilla, meant City topped the Group. Heading into the knockout stage, Arsenal face the most perilous route to the quarters while Chelsea and City will hope for optimal draws as England attempts to keep itself above Italy in coefficient points.

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