Sunday, February 14, 2016

EPL Match Week 26: Leicester Stumble, Arsenal and Tottenham Move Closer, Chelsea and Liverpool Romp

The top four matched up against one another on Sunday in one of the biggest days of the season so far, but first we had seven games on Saturday. In the early starter, Manchester United saw their recent run end in troubling fashion, losing to lowly Sunderland 2-1. This was followed by Stoke City ending their losing streak, with a commanding 3-1 win at Bournemouth. Crystal Palace, on the other hand, continue to freefall down the table (all the way to 13th, after talk of a European slot) losing 2-1 to Watford at home. Everton also lost at home, 1-0 to West Brom, as Salomon Rondon finally came good with the winner after a really disappointing season so far. Norwich and West Ham shared the spoils and Southampton piled the pressure on Swansea with a 1-0 away victory. Finally, Chelsea played one of their finest games of the season so far, crushing a relegation-endangered Newcastle 5-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Sunday brought us three entertaining affairs, starting with Arsenal. After going down 1-0 on a questionable penalty call, Arsenal were given a man advantage after a second yellow saw Danny Simpson leave the pitch. The Gunners took advantage, courtesy of two super subs – Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. Afterwards, Liverpool seemed in high spirits after getting many of their injured players back, and exploded for six goals against an Aston Villa side that, even after a decent run, still seems confident of finishing in the bottom three. In the final game of match week 26 fixtures, Tottenham jumped in front of City on an even more questionable 53rd minute penalty call on Raheem Sterling, but City clawed back and were even after 74 minutes, when emerging force Iheanacho scored his ninth goal of the season, including three in the league, four in the FA Cup and another two in the Capital One Cup. City were in the ascendancy before Pochettino decided to go for the game taking out a tiring Del Alli and replacing him with the more attack minded, and defensively lax, Lamela, who, of course, set up the winner moments later. It started with the Spurs first losing and then regaining possession. Lamela streaked forward and laced a ball between four City defenders sending birthday-boy Cristian Erickson free on goal. He took his time impressively before slotting coolly past Hart for the winner (2-1). And thus the Top 4 consists of Leicester City, Arsenal and Tottenham two points behind and City a full six back.

Some thoughts on Match Week 26:

1. Exploring the Table: Even as United and Everton lost, a gander at the table tells us both had an opportunity to move up as the season draws to a conclusion. City are reeling at the moment and United can make up half that deficit with a win in the upcoming Derby. Given that City have a run of road games coming up, it could mean dropped points – assuming United can make this weekend a fluke and return to their better forms of the past few weeks. And Everton sit in 11th at present, only five points from a Europa League berth, with the talent to finish off a disappointing season with a mini-run. Then there is Liverpool, a side that has been erratic after starting strongly under Klopp, and now only three points behind United in eighth place. At the bottom, Aston Villa look certainties for relegation, while a victory for Sunderland and better form overall for Newcastle mean that any of them, Norwich, Bournemouth or Swansea is in danger. In fact, Crystal Palace have been in such freefall of late, they too could become part of the conversation with a couple more losses (they are currently eight points clear, but on a torrid run of ineptitude). Chelsea have finally started to find the net again and this victory continued their unbeaten streak since Hiddink’s arrival, while pushing them up to twelfth in the table and their goal difference to positive 2. Finally, are West Ham and Southampton, seemingly sparing above their weight classification, but solidly in the sixth and seventh slots an aiming at European football for next season. What it all means is a lot of games with consequences for both teams as the season begins its inevitable winding down.

2. A North London Derby to Remember? every game between Arsenal and Tottenham has stakes, as one of the longest and nastiest in all of football. Arsenal have almost always come out on top in the table race, but the derbies have been lively affairs for years, with as many memorable moments for the Spurs as the Gunners. In total, the two teams have played 182 times, with Arsenal winning 78, Tottenham 55 and 49 draws. However, the games in recent years, beyond the cup showdowns like the one earlier this year in the Capital One Cup, have been more about the top four (or top three in 2012) or bragging rights. This year, the March 5 showdown could go a long way in deciding the title, with all due respect to Leicester, who acquitted themselves well in defeat today. Arsenal and Tottenham are currently level on points, with the Spurs having the better goal difference and the latter the highest they’ve been in the table at this point in a Premier League season. Spurs will have the advantage of home field, while Arsenal might have the advantage of history on their side. In any case, the winner of that game could be raising the winner’s trophy two months later.

3. City Stumbling: Kompany’s return might have given City hopes of stopping a skid that has seen them fall behind in the title chase. Instead, a questionable penalty call (actually, a terrible penalty call) and heroics from sub Lamela saw them lose their second home game in a row against a top four opponent. As the most expensive team in the EPL this season, and probably the most expensive team ever assembled in the league, one assumed City would skate to the title this year, particularly as Chelsea fumbled early and Arsenal hit the skids twice. Yet this is a mercurial group, scintillating one moment and then downright insipid the next. Today they let one get away, after Leicester outplayed them at the Etihad last weekend. They have the most wins at home in the league (9), but only one draw and now four losses. And they have been relatively abject on the road (5W, 4D, 3L, 13 goals for, 11 against).

The unfortunate element of the first Tottenham double over City in 32 years is the bad calls that contributed to the Spurs’ two wins. In the first game, two offside goals helped Spurs along the road and this time it was the absurd penalty, with Sterling’s back to the ball right on the inside of the box and the ball hitting his body before nipping his upper arm. City looked like the better side for most of the rest of the second half, scored the equalizer and then got beaten by the press and were never able to restore parity, with Hugo Lloris impressively imperious in goal to the final kick.

No team has ever won the league with seven losses, and City now have that albatross hanging over their heads. On the other hand, it is Leicester City, perennial chokers Tottenham and late faders Arsenal above them and this season could end with the lowest points total for a winner in quite some time. If City are to fall short, however, they do have another concern to contemplate, as they are only six points ahead of their hated crosstown rivals (though really seven, with the vastly superior goal difference). City head to Chelsea, Newcastle and then Liverpool in their next three games (needing to turnaround their away form rather quickly) with a road Champions League game in Kiev and a Capital One Cup final against Liverpool thrown in. Slip-ups in those encounters could mean the Manchester Derby on March 20 could take on rather dire consequences. Can you imagine if Guardiola had to play in the Europa League next season?
4. A Good Day for English Internationals: Sunday was a great day for English internationals, indeed. First Theo Walcott, after a pretty poor season, scored the opener on the way to Arsenal’s first comeback win from a halftime deficit all season. In the same game, of course, it was Danny Welbeck coming on for his first appearance in 10 months, who scores the winner in the last minute of extra time. Then Sturridge, finally back from yet another injury setback, scores the first goal in an explosive 6-0 Liverpool dismantling of bottom club Aston Villa. Long time international James Milner scored the second and then Harry Kane scored the opener in the 2-1 win for Tottenham at the Etihad. Sterling had an unlucky game, even as he often looked dangerous on the offensive end. Looking across the young English squad that will replace the last generation, there is a lot of quality players now, with skill sets the majority of the “golden generation” lacked. I think England might actually be a team to watch at the Euros next summer and the World Cup two years after that. They have a lot of attacking flair and some young defenders who are starting to come into their own, with one of the best goalkeepers in the world between the sticks.
5. Around the Horn: Barcelona are three points clear of Atletico and four of Real in La Liga, with a game in hand on each. Atletico did win 1-0 on the road at Getafe and Real surged past Athletic Bilboa 4-2, but Barcelona dispatched Celta Vigo 6-1 to maintain a lead they can extend with that extra game. After a largely defensive affair between Juve and Napoli, a late winner from Zaza gave the home side all three points, jumping above Napoli into first place by a point. Fiorentina sits in third, eight points behind Juve, with Roma two points back and two above Inter. In Germany, Bayern restored their eight-point lead over Dortmund, beating FC Augsburg 3-1 a day after Dortmund snatched a 1-0 win over Hannover 96. Leverkusen sits in third and Hertha Berlin in fourth, two points above Mainz and Schalke. Meanwhile, in France, PSG’s lead has ballooned to an inexplicable 24 points above Monaco, with Nice and St. Etienne fighting it out for third, Lyon and Nantes a mere point further back.

This week, European football is back. Chelsea travel to PSG for the first leg of their tie on Tuesday while Benfica host Zenith. On Wednesday, Gent match up against Wolfsburg while Roma try to get a home lead against Real Madrid. There are 16 Europa League fixtures as well, with Tottenham traveling to Fiorentina, United to Midtjylland and Liverpool to Augsburg. Next week, City and Arsenal get their Round of 16 games underway.

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