Tuesday, March 01, 2016

EPL Match Week 27: Leicester and Tottenham Save it for Late; Arsenal Stumble; City Wins First Trophy of the Year

While Leicester City and Tottenham both found ways to win tough games this weekend, Arsenal could not find their way back from an early deficit to Manchester United, ultimately falling 3-2 at Old Trafford. Leicester relied on an 88th minute winner from sub Leonardo Ulloa to undermine a valiant defensive display from Norwich, who could have easily taken the lead with several clear opportunities earlier in the game. Tottenham’s win was even more impressive, coming back from a 1-0 second-half deficit to Swansea to earn all three points with goals from sub Chadli (70’) and Danny Rose (77’). The two relegation strugglers were joined by Sunderland, who lost 1-0 at West Ham, and Aston Villa, who lost 2-1 at Stoke. Watford and Bournemouth played out a lively 0-0 draw while Chelsea was also able to come back from a deficit themselves, winning 2-1 at Southampton to continue their renaissance under Hiddink. West Brom beat struggling Crystal Palace 3-2 in the late Saturday game.

On Sunday, while Tottenham was forging their comeback, Arsenal’s fell short to a group of United youngsters, putting a serious dent in their title run (http://sidelinesapp.com/item/arsenal-insipid-in-3-2-defeat-at-old-trafford/). The weekend ended with the Capital One Cup final, with Manchester City smashing Liverpool in a shootout after Liverpool had equalized late. Willie Caballero was the hero, a week after a poor performance in the FA Cup loss to Chelsea, saving three Liverpool penalties as he gave Pellegrino at least one trophy in his final season with the club.

Some thoughts on Match Week 27:
1. Leicester and Tottenham Continue to Display Title Credentials: with each passing game, Leicester move closer to making the impossible possible. After losing their last league game to Arsenal, and being held by bottom-dwelling Norwich for 88 minutes, the old questions were resurfacing in a serious way. And then the Norwich defense shut off for a mere instance, and a cross from Albrighton was touched cleverly by Vardy on its way across the face of goal, where Ulloa finished coolly. It was an impressive win and, with 11 games left, Leicester have every opportunity to complete their dream season. One club that might turn that dream into a nightmare is the hot Spurs, who looked in trouble themselves at home against Swansea City, down with just over 20 minutes left on the clock. But the much improved Chadli equalized in the 70th minute before Danny Rose knocked home the winner seven minutes later. This is the highest Tottenham have been in the table this late in the season in 50 years and, unlike the teams of the past, that were even worse than Arsenal at late collapses, this young team seems to have the nous to ride an excellent season all the way to the last game. Their next big test will come Saturday, when they host Arsenal in the latest incarnation of the North London Derby. Both have much easier run-ins than the Gunners, who are fading late, as has become their habit.

2. Speaking of Arsenal: when the Gunners are fighting for fourth place late in the season, they have a tendency to find a way to win enough games. That was true two seasons ago, when a loss to Everton saw them in fifth place with time running out. And yet they finished strong, keeping their place in the Champions League, as they have every year since their last second place finish, way back in 2004-05. In a few of those season, the title was within reach as the second half of the season commenced, including in 2013-14, when an embarrassing capitulation against the top sides saw them fall to fifth, before they took care of midtable to lower teams to surpass Everton in the end. The same was the case in 2008, when they lost the title with a poor run-in, and several other seasons have seen similar trends. The question that now emerges is whether the team can pull it together quickly enough to stay in the title race, and whether a strong finish will be enough now, with five points separating them from Leicester and three from Tottenham, with both having far superior goal differences. If they don’t make up that deficit this season, real questions emerge about when the next chance will arrive, with Man City, Chelsea and United all likely to have world-class managers next season – along with millions in investment – Tottenham and Leicester young teams that can continue to compete and Liverpool potentially back on the rise. While Wenger has been to blame for many of the failures of the past, one must admit that this slide has been largely on the underperforming players, including Giroud, Sanchez, Walcott and Ramsey – and increasingly, a more porous backline. On the other hand, Wenger was the only manager in Europe not to invest in an outfield player last summer and that has contributed greatly to the disappointing results from November onward.

3. The Underdogs Going in Different Directions: while Leicester City continue to shine, others who were playing above their weight have started to fall back in the pack. Crystal Palace has ridden a string of injuries and poor results all the way to 14th in the table. Stoke City’s dream of European football has faded as they fall to eighth in the table, even with their win Saturday. Watford have dropped from the top 6 to 10th and Liverpool are only one place above, with the “Klopp Effect” a short-lived phenomenon that has been replaced by inconsistent results and a surfeit of goals. Two teams that continue to impress, however, are West Ham and Southampton, currently in sixth and seventh place. Bilic would be the leader for manager of the season at present if not for the work of Ranieri and Pochettino above him, displaying flexible tactical brilliance that have made them dangerous on the road and at home to any team they face in the league. In fact, West Ham have the opportunity for another Top 4 scalping Wednesday, when they could do Leicester and Arsenal a huge favor by taking points against Tottenham. Of course, Tottenham are also playing far above expectations, having only lost three league games all season with the best goal difference (+28) in the entire league. Most thought the overreliance on Kane would again derail their Top 4 aspirations, but they are tied for the most goals scored in the league (49) with Leicester. And thus this unpredictable and, admittedly, bizarre season is still beyond clear predictability, with any of four teams in with a chance at the title and as many as five potentially fighting to avoid relegation alongside Aston Villa.

4. City Rebound: it might be beyond City to win the title at this point, nine points adrift of Leicester (though not beyond the bounds of possibility), but their victory in the Capital One Cup and decisive win in the first leg in Kiev means they still have a chance to make noise in the Champions League, for the first time in their history. Many would argue they are a level below Barcelona, Bayern, Real and Juve, but one of those four will be out in three weeks and Real are clearly a team below their best this season. A lucky draw and good play from their core of key players could allow them to make a run toward the Finals and slipups from those above them certainly give them an outside shot at the title, just as they did two seasons ago when Liverpool slipped up against Chelsea. The two victories have been the result of better performances from Toure and Silva, with Aguero and Kompany doing the work necessary to get the team playing at their best. They have also benefitted from Sterling improving his play on the wing, even as his ability to finish clear opportunities remains suspect. Do not count them out of either competition just yet.

5. Around the Horn: outside of England, the rest of the major leagues in Europe are starting to shape up with clear favorites. PSG essentially wrapped up Ligue 1 months ago, and still hold a startling 23-point lead at the top. Bayern Munich are catchable, but their eight-point lead over Dortmund with 11 games to go seems relatively safe. Juve is a mere three points above Napoli at the top, but their long winning streak and less consistent results from their closest challengers makes it hard to see them not winning their fifth title in a row. Finally, is La Liga, where Barcelona’s own long unbeaten streak translates to an eight-point lead over Atletico and 12 over a disappointing Real. Juve was particularly impressive in dispatching Inter rather handily, 2-0. Barcelona again showed their ability to simply outscore opponents when off their best, coming from behind to beat Sevilla 2-1. And Bayern dispatched Wolfsburg 2-0 on the road.

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