Thursday, February 04, 2016

EPL Match Week 24: Leicester Keep on Winning; City and Tottenham Move Above Arsenal; United Win

Match Week 24, played on Tuesday and Wednesday, included only one marquee matchup, between Liverpool and Leicester City, but gave us plenty of goals and important results for a number of teams. Liverpool visited Leicester in something of a slump and that continued at King Power Stadium as a double from Vardy saw the league leaders snatch all three points. It was a vital win for the home side, who must face Man City and Arsenal in their next two fixtures, and provided further evidence that the unthinkable is in fact anything but. Vardy, whose form has not seen the heights hit earlier in the campaign, came good at the perfect moment Tuesday, scoring a scorcher from 25 yards in the 60th minute to open the scoring, after a string of excellent saves by Mignolet, before adding a second 11 minutes later, chipping the Liverpool keeper. Meanwhile, Arsenal were held scoreless for the third league game running, settling for a point at home against Southampton.

Manchester United, on the other hand, came to life, putting three past Stoke while City crawled to a 1-0 victory over bottom-dwelling Sunderland. West Ham took care of Aston Villa 2-0, as the latter prepares for life in the Championship after deciding against bringing in any reinforcements in the Winter window. Crystal Palace continued their recent struggles, losing 2-1 to Bournemouth at home while West Brom and Swansea shared the spoils (1-1). In the battle of North London, Tottenham leapfrogged Arsenal with another impressive win, this time 3-0 at Norwich.

On Wednesday, Everton finally overcame their defensive struggles, at least for a game, winning 3-0 over Newcastle. John Stones was ironically on the sideline for the game, while Ross Barkley continued to impress with a brace from the spot in what is becoming a breakout season for him. And Chelsea remained undefeated under Hiddink, but settled for a point in a 0-0 draw at Watford.

Some thoughts on Match Week 24:
1. The Drop Off that Just Won’t Come: the next two fixtures could be telling for Leicester City, but they just keep leaving oddsmakers and pundits scratching their heads, unwilling to let an odd bad result stop them from dreaming the impossible dream. And with the incipient talent and workrate of their star players, whose to say this miracle won’t come true. If it does, one could argue it rivals the U.S. victory over Russia in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics, or maybe even surpasses it. Given the gulf in spending between a side that was bottom of the table at the midpoint of last season and their main rivals at the top (Arsenal, City and Tottenham) it is hard to believe they still lead the pack. And yet they continue to impress with their attacking vivacity and verve while they have dramatically improved on the defensive end. And the advantage of not having to fit European football into their schedule could well pay dividends in the coming months as they seek to complete what would arguably be the greatest Cinderella story in the history of English football.

2. United Rebound: though people have been screaming for LVG’s head for months now, and not without reason, results have actually not been as bad as one might think since the turn of the year. United beat Swansea 2-1 and Sheffield 1-0 in the FA Cup third round, drew 3-3 at Newcastle, beat Liverpool 1-0, lost to Southampton 1-0, beat Derby County 3-1 and now crushed a quality Stoke team 3-0 at Old Trafford. That makes six goals in their last two games and 10 in the last five, a dramatic improvement on their December form. The football is still ugly for long stretches and they still sit five points out of the Champions League place, but maybe the return of Wayne Rooney’s scoring touch and a dramatic improvement in Martial could lead United back into the Top 4 before the season is done. I still think LVG should be out, but it appears the United brass are willing to let him see out his second year, and maybe even see the last season of his contract beyond that.

3. Arsenal Second Half Blues: it pains me to watch the second half fade starting to emerge yet again for my beloved Gunners, but it is hard to ignore the dramatic drop in form just as a number of their absent starters return to the fold. Luckily, the league looks up for grabs with what should be the lowest points haul in several years, but Arsenal are running out of chances to stay in the title race dropping points against lower opponents with great frequency. November was the first slip in their charge to a first title in 12 years and one can now add January/February to the list. With matchups against Bournemouth and Leicester City in the next 10 days, they better figure out how to put the ball in the net again or another season could be flushed down the toilet before we even hit March. If the Gunners do again fail to win the title, can the board really justify sticking with Wenger for much longer? The logical among us would answer no, but where has logic interfered with the decision-making at the club over the past decade?

4. Transfer Window Winners & Losers: the big story of this transfer window has been the relative dearth of movement among the top teams in England. Chelsea did make two moves that could pay dividends, bringing in Pato as a backup striker and the young defender Miazga from the U.S. Arsenal signed a useful midfielder in Elneny while United brought back Januzaj and Pereira (along with two unknowns in Keane and Love), the apparent uncertainty of the future of their manager keeping them from spending big for a fourth straight window. Tottenham’s only business was signing Shilow Tracey, failing to get the backup striker most think they need to charge even higher up the table. Meanwhile, Liverpool made three signings but failed in their bid to bring in the exciting Texiera (who, if rumors are to be believed, could be heading to China instead). Even Everton, who seem in dire need of some defensive reinforcements, failed to make any signings anyone had ever heard of (Foulds, Tarashaj and Niasse) while letting useful supersub Naismith leave. Man City seems content with their current loaded squad, only adding Caceres while Leicester will be happy to keep all of their emerging stars while planning for the future by signing three promising players. 

Further down the table, with the exception of Aston Villa (who did no business), some teams were quite active. Southampton only made one signing, but what a bargain – Charlie Austin who opened his account in his very first game with the club. Newcastle were also active, adding Shelvey, Townsend, Saivet and Doumbia. If they avoid the drop, these signings will probably be a big part of that escape. Bournemouth arguably had among the best windows, adding striker Afobe (who has already chipped in with goals), Lewis Grabban, the talented Iturbe from Italy, Rhoys Wiggins and Marius Adamonis. Watford were also busy, adding goalkeeper Pantilimon, solid midfielder Mario Suarez and the attacker Amrabat. Norwich were the ones that nabbed Naismith from Everton, along with a host of others including Matt Jarvis that could help keep them in the Premier League. Crystal Palace only made one signing, in bringing the controversial Adebayor back to the EPL, and if he comes good, it could be a great addition – particularly given the dearth of goals in recent games. West Brom kept Berahino, though it is unclear why, while adding the strong DM Sandro and the talented but underperforming Alex Pritchard. Finally is Sunderland, who added a number of players including Jan Kirchoff from Bayern, Steve Harper, Dame N’Doye, Lamine Kone and Wahbit Khazri. Whether any of them will help the struggling side to move up the table is still to be seen. 

So very few big names moved, most of the rumors turned out to be little more than click bait, the top teams did little to improve – barring some surprises from risky acquisitions while teams in the middle and lower could very well improve their prospects for the final 14 games of the season and beyond. 

5. Tap ins: looking at the “Big 5” leagues of European football, two races appear to be almost run (it would take a miracle for PSG to lose the crown and Bayern are cruising as well) and Barcelona are slowly inching away from Atletico and Real (a 7-0 win over Valencia added more pressure to Gary Neville, whose move from the booth to the sideline might forever malign his ability to critique the work of other managers). That leaves Italy, which is a five-horse race at the moment even as the quick ascent up the table of Juve (who set a new record by winning their 13th league game in a row) will put fears into all the other pretenders to the crown, and the EPL, where Leicester, City, Tottenham and Arsenal (cough, cough) are all in viable position to win the title (I suppose even United have a shot, if they go on a long winning streak). Barring a slip from Barca, one might see even higher ratings for the Premier League (and Series A) heading into the final months of the season, as the two races are truly wide open.

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