Sunday, March 20, 2016

EPL Match Week 30: Leicester Edge Closer but Tottenham & Arsenal Win; City Lose Derby to United

Arsenal finally got back to winning ways in the early Saturday fixture, beating Everton 2-0 at Goodison Park, where the Toffees have been abject most of the season. Welbeck got the opener early (his 3rd in his last 5 league starts) and Iwobi got the second, his first senior goal for the Gunners. Next up were four fixtures, with Chelsea winning a questionable late penalty to equalize West Ham in a 2-2 draw that kept the London side from jumping above City into fourth place. Fabergas had a brace as he continues a mini-renaissance with the Blues. Stoke City held on for a 2-1 win over Watford, Norwich City earned three valuable points at West Brom (1-0) and Leicester City moved a step closer to the title with a professional 1-0 win at struggling Crystal Palace. In the final Saturday match, Swansea City piled more frustration on Aston Villa with rumors surfacing today that Remy Garde will leave the club tomorrow.

Sunday Newcastle hosted Sunderland in a key relegation derby, though the two had to share the spoils after a Mitrovich’s header across goal in the 83rd minute cancelled out Defoe’s 44th minute opener. Liverpool stormed to a 2-0 lead over Southampton only to run out of steam in the second and ultimately lose 3-2, the first time the Reds have ever lost after taking a 2-0 lead into halftime in the Premier League era. Tottenham stayed within striking distance of Leicester with a commanding 3-0 takedown of Bournemouth, with Kane on the double. And in the Manchester Derby, Marcus Rashford’s 16th minute gem of a goal was the decider as United moved within a point of struggling City, alongside West Ham.

Thoughts on the Week of Fixtures:
1. Leicester Clear Favorites From Here: throughout the early good form of Leicester, when no one considered them even a long shot at the title, they had only two 1-0 victories, over Crystal Palace on October 24 and at Tottenham on January 13. However, they have now won four of their past five fixtures by that score, beating Norwich, Watford, Newcastle and Crystal Palace by a solitary goal, while keeping clean sheets in each match. While the level of competition must be taken into account during this run, the impressive discipline and focus necessary to keep four clean sheets in five with so much pressure on them has been astounding. The big concern now is that the level of competition will increase substantially for the final run-in. Next up is a visit from a Southampton team that is in fine form, then a trip to relegation-threatened Sunderland, before a trip to a West Ham fighting for a Top 4 finish. A visit from Swansea should be good for three points, but those last three games now loom large, as they face a United side gaining some momentum in the league, an Everton side much better on the road than at home and a finale at Stamford Bridge against a Chelsea team that is much improved since Mourinho’s departure. They are still the odds on favorites to win it, but I think one should watch the Southampton and West Ham results with great interest, as it could allow Arsenal and/or Tottenham to sneak closer and add pressure to those final three fixtures.

2. City Malaise: City have won one game against the current Top 9 teams this season, beating Southampton at home. Yes, you read that right. They have done well against the lower half of the table, but have been abject against the top teams, continuing that trend today by losing to a youthful United side at the Etihad, after drawing with them in the reverse fixture. With four of their remaining fixtures against teams in the Top 9, the impossible is becoming increasingly probable. Can you imagine Pep Guardiola having to ply his trade in the Europa League on Thursday nights next year? It has become a distinct possibility if the side do not find the form from two seasons ago. Injuries have played a role, with the creativity of Kevin De Bruyne, in particular, felt, alongside the continued absence of team leader Vincent Kompany and niggling injuries that appear to keep Aguero off his best. But it is the overall play of the team from back to front that has to be of great concern to Pelligrini and the City brass. The team just seem uninterested far too often, making mistakes on the defensive side and failing to take advantage of possession and shots (only three of their 26 shots were on target today). There is also the sense that the premature announcement of Guardiola’s appointment has negatively affected the team as they moved from a mere two points behind Leicester to the current 15; alongside being knocked out of the FA Cup. Pelligrini can at least point to the League Cup this season alongside his other trophies and league title, but this has to be one of the greatest underperformances in league history – in a year when that same charge can be leveled against Chelsea, United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. West Ham and United are now breathing down their necks and they better figure out their problems quickly.

3. Surging or Falling Aside: as we turned to the new year, West Ham were the giant-killers of the first half of the season and higher in the table than in years, Crystal Palace had continued the hot run from the second half of last season and Watford looked poised to push for a European place. Only West Ham have kept that momentum into the second half, with Crystal Palace now 13 games without a victory and getting sucked toward the relegation battle (currently in 16th place) and Watford two places above them in 14th, though they are still in the FA Cup and probably safe on 37 points. In a year when one of the Manchester sides are almost certain to miss out on Champions League football, Chelsea are hoping for a late run to earn a place in the Europa League, Leicester City seem poised to become the most unlikely champions in the history of the Premiership and Tottenham could very well finish above Arsenal (or, god forbid, win the title), it appears we have entered the twilight zone. West Ham is among the biggest surprises of the season, with most seeing them lucky to finish in the top half. The emergence of Payet as one of the top players in the league and the brilliant tactical flexibility of Bilic have helped, with even Andy Carroll chipping in goals this season as the Hammers push toward a UCL spot. Even United, maligned for most of the season, are now in with a decent chance of finishing in the Top 4. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe the league from top to bottom, with the possibility that three relative stalwarts of the EPL on the brink of disappearing into the Championship mist.

4. Race to the Bottom: Aston Villa are going down, as most of us have predicted for months now, but the question of who will join them seems to change from one week to the next. Sunderland and Newcastle currently reside in those dubious spots, but Norwich, Crystal and Swansea should still be in the conversation. The Swans are almost safe, though, on 36 points with 7 games to play. Norwich earned a valuable three points on Saturday, but have played a game more than both Sunderland and Newcastle and could thus find themselves in the relegation zone when the other two catch up. Newcastle appear to be playing the best of the bunch, but still keep dropping points. They will need to score more consistently in the run-in and keep their defensive discipline throughout their remaining games. Benitez should help, though Allardyce is himself an expert on avoiding relegation throughout his career. Something has to give, though, and it does appear at least one of these two is going down so my current prediction is Aston Villa, Sunderland and Norwich say sayonara to the league while Newcastle stay up by the hair of their chinny chin chins.

5. Around the Horn: The quarterfinals of the Champions League are now set with PSG-Man City and Barcelona-Atletico the pick of the litter. Real Madrid were gifted Wolfsburg while Bayern should have little trouble with Benfica. Predicting the ties, I like Barcelona to beat Atletico, Man City to surprise PSG, Real Madrid to crush Wolfsburg and Bayern to slide by Benfica without too much trouble. Bayern are, of course, lucky to still be in the tournament after an extra time equalizer by Mueller saved them from going out to Juve, who fought valiantly but were undone by some late mistakes. City’s form in the league would make most chose PSG, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them steamroll City’s nervous defense, but the Manchester side have been much better in Europe this year and certainly have the offensive nous to give PSG trouble. As far as the leagues go, Barcelona are now cruising, nine points above Atletico and 10 over Madrid. Munich are still only five points above Dortmund with 11 to play, but are still the clear favorites. In Italy, Juve have a three-point lead over Napoli and will have to recover quickly from their UCL disappointment to avoid giving away the title. And PSG sealed up Ligule 1 last weekend and can now concentrate all of their energy on the Champions League and the two French Cups. Really, it appears Italy and possible England are the only two leagues where we could see a shift at the top, though the Champions League ties are anything but certainties.

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