Sunday, December 20, 2015

EPL Week 17 Recap: Leicester Keep on Winning; Chelsea Finally Do; LVG on the Hot Seat as We Say Adieu to Mou?

Two days after Mourinho got the sack, Louis Van Gaal must be putting his phone on silent and hiding in the closet, hoping that a six-game run without a win (and three straight losses) doesn’t see him deposed of his position at United. The latest effort will do little to quell those doubts, as Norwich came into Old Trafford Saturday and left 2-1 winners as United’s underperforming senior players (most obviously Rooney and Carrick) and their young guns were equally poor in a loss to a team closer to the other end of the table. Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Southampton at the same time meant they catapulted above United, on goal difference, and into the final Champions League spot. Crystal Palace’s late winner in a 2-1 victory at Stoke meant they too drew even with United on 29 points.
Meanwhile, two of the hottest teams in the league continued their impressive runs. Leicester City held on for a hard-fought 3-2 win over an Everton team that cannot seem to sustain momentum or win enough games against this year for Martinez, who might be starting to feel a little pressure himself. And Bournemouth made it three on the bounce, winning at West Brom 2-1, and are now unbeaten in 5, since the 1-0 loss to Newcastle. Given all of the injuries the newly promoted side have encountered, it is a truly impressive run, while West Brom must be worried they could be drawn into the relegation battle if this form continues. Chelsea, of course, rebounded from their recent struggles to win 3-1 in their first game post-Mourinho, though the fact it was Sunderland should stop anyone from talking of a phoenix-like renaissance just yet. And in the final game Saturday, relegation strugglers Newcastle and Aston Villa played out a 1-1 draw that will do little to inspire hope of a second half escape for the visiting long time stalwarts of the league.

On Sunday, the Klopp project suffered its second disappointing result in a row as upstart Watford capitalized on an early error by new Reds keeper Bogdan to take a 1-0 lead they would build on throughout the game, ending it 3-0 winners and seventh in the table (a mere point from fourth place). It is an extraordinary achievement from a newly promoted team and is based on high pressing, stout defending and a great duo up front of Ighalo and Deeney. Their next three opponents – Chelsea, Tottenham and City – beware! Swansea dominated possession, chances and shots in their home encounter with injury-plagued West Ham but had to settle for a 0-0 draw after failing to capitalize on any of those 21 shots. West Ham will probably take the away point as they continue to await the return of most of their offensive threats.

The biggest game of the weekend is Monday, between title-challengers Arsenal and City, but since I’m travelling the next 24 hours, I decided to post this now and follow with my match report of that game on Tuesday …

Some thoughts on Game Week 17:
1. Vardy & Mahrez Deadly Duo: the most deadly duo in the league so far this season includes two players few would have predicted to be first and second in scoring, much less in the league at all. Vardy was playing non-league football a few years ago and is having his first great year as he approaches 29. Mahrez cost a measly 500,000 pounds, passed over by all the big boys despite his impressive skill set, vision and finishing touch. Yet it is hard to overstate how impressive the two have been as Leicester went from dead last to first within a year’s time. Vardy, of course, scored in 11 straight games, and has added 4 others (including two against Arsenal and one against Chelsea) to total 15 in 17 games, along with 3 assists. How many did he have before this season began? Well, he scored 5 in 27 appearances last season, 14 in 37 the year Leicester were promoted, five in 19 in 2012-13 and an impressive 34 in 38 for third tier Fleetwood Town back in 2011-12. Now he is, inexplicably, the most feared striker in all of England. Or is it Mahrez? He is on a hot streak of late that includes two on Saturday against Everton, a wonder goal and assist in the 2-1 win over Chelsea and all three goals in a dismantling of reeling Swansea. Mahrez has always had an eye for goal, but nowhere near this level. In his first full season for Ligue 2 side Le Havre, he scored 4 in 18. The next season 2 in 15 before moving to Leicester, where he added 3 goals and 4 assists in 12. Last season he scored four and provided three more in 25 premier league appearances. Decent numbers but nothing that would predict this incredible run of form, particularly taking into account that he has never scored for Algeria. He now has 13 goals and 7 assists in 15 games in the league, along with an assist in two sub appearances in the Capital One Cup. There will be plenty of courters for their signature in January, but will the league leaders even consider selling players that could lead them to the unlikeliest title run since Brian Clough led Nottingham Forrest to the 78 title (and then those even more unlikely successive European Cups?

2. Mourinho’s Madness: it is impossible to argue that Mourinho is not among the top managers in all of world football, with a cabinet full of trophies to his name including titles in Portugal, Spain, England and Italy, alongside cups and the two Champions League crowns, but hiring him almost invariably means chaos will ensue. He generally takes a year to settle in, wins you the league title and/or champions league and then things start to unravel. This year is the most stunning turnaround in his career, but it is the second stop in a row where he lost the script and the team three years in. I have detailed the troubles at Chelsea before he was sacked, but it is hard to ignore all of the baggage that comes with the Portuguese firecracker. He takes all of the credit when the team wins, throws the blame off to players and officials when he loses, calls out underperforming players in the media, maintains seemingly destructive rivalries with opposing coaches and seems to find controversy in every corner of the insular football world (from medical teams (twice) to the ball boys). Chelsea fans might miss Mourinho, but it appears few of the players or management will. He can add another two trophies to his cabinet from last year, but one wonders if he is worth all the trouble that accompanies him wherever he goes.

Irrespective of these reservations, United are said to be contemplating a sensational move to bring him in to save a season that is suddenly going in the wrong direction. Three draws followed by three straight losses, two to bottom dwellers, means that LVG’s grasp on the top four is collapsing, soon after they exited the Champions League at the group stage. The dual problem for United are that their seasoned veterans might be a little too seasoned while their youngsters are still unable to score enough goals or keep their discipline throughout a game. LVG’s conservative approach is also a concern, though United fans might now be pining for those dull 1-0 wins from earlier in the campaign. Could Mourinho be next in the United firing line? I put it at 40-60.

3. The Guardiola Race Begins: what most have considered a foregone conclusion has now been confirmed as true. Pep Guardiola will make this his third and last season at Bayern and is now looking to move to the premier league in world football – the Premier League. Given the recent sacking of Mourinho, he will now have three (and maybe even four) choices of his next destination, though Manchester City appears to be in the driving seat. Two of the top executives from his time at Barcelona are already in place and they have the money, squad and academy to build a dynasty for the future. They also have a style of play that is partially suited to Guardiola’s style, though the defensive laxness of the flair players and their inability (or unwillingness) to press might be a source of concern. United are the other option, a dream job for a coach who has already been at the helm of two of the iconic teams in world football. The problem is a squad that lacks the kind of cutting edge talent he is used to and questions about whether they will even be in the Champions League next year. But United have money to burn and might be able to entice him with a few marques summer signings. Chelsea might be after him as well, but it is hard to see Mourinho choosing such a volatile environment for his first stop in England. The finally, fascinating possibility, is that Wenger wins the league and retires handing over the reigns to the ideal replacement. Arsenal probably play a brand of football most aligned with Guardiola’s approach and have even shown the ability to press up the field intermittently over the past calendar year. With a couple of world-class additions, Guardiola could certainly lead the Gunners to glory in the league and maybe even in Europe. Man City is clearly in the lead at the moment, but there is plenty of time to convince the Spaniard that his long-term future lies elsewhere.

4. Around the Horn: PSG won 3-0 at Caen to take an incredible 19-point lead at the top of French League 1, meaning they can focus on Chelsea when they come calling in February and March. The even more impressive Barcelona won their fifth trophy of the year, adding the Club World Cup to their Champions League, Copa del Rey, La Liga and Supercopa titles. The only blemish in 2015 was the two-leg surprise loss to Atletico Bilboa in the Spanish Supercopa, costing Luis Enrique matching Guardiola’s sextuple in 2012. The trio of Suarez, Neymar and Messi also surpassed the 2012 tally of 175 goals in a season to set the Barcelona record at 176. Who can doubt this team pulling another treble by yearend? Real might have something to say about it, as they scored 10 league goals for the first time in 50 years in beating Rayo Vallencano 10-2. It wasn’t enough to stop the techy home fans from booing the first half 2-1 deficit and Ronaldo in particular and Real are still two points behind Barca and Atletico, having played one more game.

In Germany, Bayern won 1-0 at Hannover 96 1-0 while Dortmund fell 2-1 to Cologne, expanding the Munich lead to eight points. And it Italy, Juve won 3-2 at Carpi, Roma won 2-0 over Genoa, Napoli took down Atalanta 3-1, Milan won 4-2 as Frosinone and Inter was losing to Lazio as I write this column. Inter will stay top regardless of the result, but will only lead Fiorentina and Napoli by one point and the resurgent Juve by three if the 1-0 deficit holds up.

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