Monday, January 18, 2016

EPL Week 22: Arsenal Stay Top; United Nip Liverpool; City Win

The weekend started with Tottenham cruising past Sunderland 4-1, after conceding the first goal. Bournemouth followed with an impressive 3-0 victory over fellow relegation threatened Norwich. Man City crushed an injury-plagued Crystal Palace, Newcastle continued their mini renaissance with a 2-1 win over West Ham, with Jonjo Shelvy impressing in his Toon debut, Southampton beat West Brom 3-0 and Aston Villa and Leicester shared the spoils as Mahrez missed his second penalty in two games. The marquis matchup Saturday was between Everton and Chelsea, with the Toffees racing to a 2-0 lead before a five-minute patch in the second half drew the Blues level. An injury time goal seemed to give the Meyerside club the victory, before a dramatic 98th minute equalizer from captain John Terry. Terry was clearly offsides, but it again showed Everton’s frailty at the back, the second time they have drawn a game with a 98th minute equalizer after taking the lead in extra time.

Sunday gave us two quality matchups, with Manchester United visiting Anfield and Arsenal trying to end a six-year winless streak at the Britannia. Liverpool dominated the first half of their matchup with United but were unable to finish any of their multiple choices and it was instead United who won it late with a Rooney rebound off a Fellaini header that came back off the woodwork. Arsenal had chances to finally end their winless streak but Stoke had their own chances to take all three points. Instead the game ended 1-1. In the final game of the slate, Swansea earned a much needed three points with a 1-0 victory over Watford.

Some thoughts on Game Week 21-22:
1. Meyerside “Mitts” Malaise: 'We want to be a brave team and win games by not running the clock down or playing with aspects that aren't what we want to be,' said Everton manager Roberto Martinez after his side had conceded a 98th-minute equalizer against Chelsea. John Terry was offsides; there is no doubt about that. But Everton were up 2-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in this game and were still only able to earn a point. They are the second highest scoring team in the league this season (39 goals), play some of the most attractive football and yet sit in 12th place. They have one of the best squads around and will be lucky to finish in the top half of the table. Is it time for Martinez to finally stop putting his faith in outscoring his opponents and actually set up his teams to defend; particularly when they have the lead? His Wigan squad back in 2012-13 won the FA Cup the same year they were relegated, with the fifth highest goal total (47) for any team to face the drop since the Premier League switched to 20 teams. That same season they conceded an astounding 73 goals to fall to the Championship.

This year, Everton have already shipped 32 goals, with three teams below them bettering that total. They have dropped 11 points from winning positions, 9 goals in the last 15 minutes of game, and would actually be in the Top 4 if they had protected all of those leads. At the center of the problems, beyond Martinez’s unwillingness to stop playing the beautiful game beautifully from the first whistle to the last, is the unfortunate decline of one of the best Americans ever to ply his trade in English football. Howard has been an exceptional lieutenant at the back for many years now, but it also appears his best years are behind him. Everton are probably stuck with him until the end of the season, but should be in the market for his replacement now, to snag a top keeper before they move on to the top clubs of Europe. That alone will not address their defensive weakness however, they need their manager to take defense seriously, rather than defending John Stone pulling Cruyff turns in his own box. The big question if he doesn’t is how long the Everton faithful, and top brass, will put up with attractive football without attractive results.

Across the city, Liverpool are suffering their own defensive liabilities. Ahead 1-0 and 2-1 against Arsenal on Wednesday, they conceded three times and were lucky to earn a point. Against Manchester United Sunday they dominated the game but their inability to finish their chances led to the late goal by Rooney that cost them all three points. While few would argue Mignolet was completely to blame for that goal, his inability to quickly adjust after Fellaini’s header hit the bar made Rooney’s shot a sure goal. He allowed a corner to sneak past him at the near corner against Arsenal (for not the first time this season) and the belief that he is a little too uncertain, a little too weak in the box and, though a quality shot stopper, a little below the quality expected at a club like Liverpool have cost the club points this season and probably a chance at the Top 4. The issue can be fixed this summer and the Liverpool brass and Klopp should finally give up on the Belgian and move on to someone that can provide more solidity at the back. Arsenal has done that this season, and Cech has probably already garnered them somewhere in the region of 10 points.

2. Chelsea Rebound or False Dawn? Chelsea are undefeated since Hiddink took over for Mourinho on December 19. The streak started with a 3-1 win over Sunderland, followed by draws with Watford (2-2) and United (0-0), an impressive 3-0 win at Crystal, a 2-0 win in the FA Cup Third Round over Scunthorpe and then draws with West Brom (2-2) and Everton (3-3). So three wins and four draws and 10 of Chelsea’s 25 points in the league this season. The Blues are now 14th in the table and absurd discussions of them facing the drop seemed to have halted, at least for the moment. They have become more solid at the back, seem to be enjoying their football again and have found some joy on the offensive end. But are they a team that can march up the table and challenge for a European place now? It seems unlikely at the moment. Hiddink has been good for Chelsea in both stops to the club, but questions remain about whether he has the talent for the sort of run it would take to get back in a European spot. At the back, Ivanovic has improved without returning to his form from last year, Terry went from heel to hero but still seems more suspect than in the past, Diego Costa is getting back on the scoreboard regularly (5 in his last 5) but still seems to be susceptible to niggling injuries, Fabergas has found some form of late, as has Oscar and Mikel has brought some solidity to the back (though the five goals in the past two games makes one wonder if that is a genuine solution to the defensive frailties with Matic in the mix). Overall, Hiddink should be congratulated for his ability to bring a team back together in short order, but I still think this might be a false dawn and Chelsea will finish no better than sixth or seventh this season, barring reinforcements coming in in the next two weeks.

3. Relegation Battle Hotting Up: Newcastle made two important additions this week and one of them played a huge role in a big victory Saturday. Jonjo Shelvey has had an up and down career since getting playing time in his teens with Liverpool. He moved on to Swansea and showed patches of excellent play, surrounded by questions about his attitude, finishing touch and consistency of performance. But if the win Saturday is any indication of his role at Newcastle, he might just help the Jordy side stay up again this season. Newcastle certainly have enough quality to move up the table now, but their inconsistency from one game to the next continues to be a concern. His old club, Swansea, might be wondering if letting the English international go was the right decision, as they slipped into the relegation zone themselves before their unexpected 1-0 victory over Watford Monday. Swansea had been on such a bad run of form, they looked like the most likely side, besides Aston Villa, to drop. Bournemouth, on the other hand, have been streaking, and have a real chance to solidfy their position in the league while they await the return of their talisman striker next season (they are currently in 15th). Sunderland, as well, have been playing better football, though whether it will be enough to stay up is still open for debate as they stand four points from safety. Norwich City is the last team in the relegation battle at the moment, and only stand two points above 18th place. My current prediction would be that Aston Villa, Norwich and Swansea ultimately fall out of the Premier League come May, though Sunderland, Newcastle and Bournemouth are certainly strong contenders for that inauspicious achievement as well.

4. The Title Race: As predicted, the goals have started to dry up for Leicester City, with only five in their last five league games after a 3-2 win at Goodison on December 19. That includes a 1-0 loss to Liverpool, two straight 0-0 draws (against City and Bournemouth), a 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane and the rather awful 1-1 draw with Aston Villa Saturday. Few thought Mahrez and Vardy could keep up their blistering pace from the first half, but Vardy has gone ice cold at the same time Mahrez has shown a penchant for missing key shots and penalties (two in two). Nonetheless, Leicester are still joint top with Arsenal, after the Gunners failed to win either of their past two games. Arsenal have dropped four points themselves this week, with the disappointing 3-3 draw at Anfield followed by a more respectable (but still damaging) 0-0 draw at the Brittania. Arsenal play the majority of their toughest games on the road in the second half and will have to do better than this week if they are to stay at the top through May. Man City have perhaps been the most impressive team over this spell, rebounding nicely after the 2-1 loss to Arsenal on December 21. Since then, they have beaten Sunderland handily, earned a respectable 0-0 draw at Leicester, beat a hot Watford 2-1 and cruised past Crystal 4-0, with only the 0-0 draw with Everton disappointing. They stand a point behind Leicester and Arsenal, with a better goal difference, and appear to have the most momentum heading into the last 16 games. Arsenal clearly have a chance, but they need to start turning one point into three, and one discounts Leicester’s long shot at their own peril.

5. Around the Horn: Real are 2-0 under Zinedine Zidane, having scored 10 goals over that stretch. The players claim to be happier and they are showing it on the pitch, though their young opponents in both of those fixtures mean we will have to wait and see if the change at the top really will alter the narrative of the season. At present, they are two points behind Barcelona, having played on more game, and four behind surprise league leaders Atletico (who have played the same number of games, winning five of their last six). After drawing three of four, Barcelona also got back to winning ways, with a comprehensive 6-0 victory over Athletic Bilboa on the heels of a 4-0 victory over Granada. Hapless Gary Neville remains without a win at Valencia, as they had to settle for another draw. In Italy, Juve continued their impressive run up the table with a 4-0 win at Udinese, AC Milan beat Fiorentina (2-0), Lazio, Inter and Roma all settled for draws and Napoli won 3-1. That means Napoli have risen to the top of the table, with Juve only two points behind, followed by Inter, Fiorentina, Roma and Milan. PSG remained 19 points above Monaco and can thus put their emphasis on the Champions League games to come, while Chelsea still has to at least consider the remote possibility of a relegation battle. Finally, Germany remained on their winter break until next weekend, with Bayern currently leading by eight points over Dortmund.

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