Tuesday, April 12, 2016

EPL Match Week 32-33: Leicester Seem Certain to Be Crowned Kings; Barcelona Slipping in La Liga

Saturday began with a scintillating battle between West Ham and Arsenal, with the visitors jumping to a 2-0 lead only to give it back in the three minutes right before halftime. Andy Carroll was the unlikely hero, gaining a rare start and even rarer hat trick before Koscielny struck back for the late equalizer. The draw all but ended Arsenal’s title hopes, confirmed 24 hours later when Leicester won 2-0 at the King Power. In other action Saturday, Aston Villa lost again (2-1 to Bournemouth), Crystal Palace finally secured a win (1-0 at Norwich, giving Newcastle and Sunderland some modicum of hope), Southampton quashed some of that Newcastle hope by crushing the visitors 3-1, Watford and Everton shared the spoils (1-1) and Chelsea’s league unbeaten streak under Hiddink came to an end, as Swansea hit the magical 40-point mark. In the late game, Man City swept past West Brom 2-1 to keep the pressure on the Hammers and United.
United failed to keep up with their crosstown rivals, rather summarily beaten by a Tottenham flurry of three goals in eight second half minutes (3-0). Liverpool cruised past Stoke rather handily (4-1) and Leicester moved a step closer to their title with a professional 2-0 win at hapless Sunderland. With five games to go, Leicester hold a seven-point advantage over Tottenham, 13 over Arsenal (who do have a game in hand) and 15 over Man City (who also have a game in hand). United sit four points behind City with six games to make that deficit up, though with a much inferior goal differential, will actually need five points in all likelihood. West Ham are a further point back and might look at two referee decisions that cost them four points in the past two games. At the bottom, Norwich sit four points above Sunderland and six above Newcastle, though both have a game in hand. Six further points lead us to Crystal, who now look likely to stay up, though one more win should confirm it. That appears to mean either Sunderland and/or Newcastle are on their way out of the Premier League!
Thoughts on Match Week 32-3:
1. Title Race All but Over: Leicester are not only charging toward the most unlikely title in the history of English, and possibly European, football, but they might even wrap that title up with games to spare. Arsenal dropped two points at West Ham and even as Tottenham pulled off an unusual victory over United, they are still seven points back with five to play. Arsenal do have a game in hand, but they would need the two above them to outright collapse to have any hope. That hope is a waste of energy. Leicester continued their recent run of clean sheets and looked like 1-0 winners once again before a late Vardy goal secured the three points for certain. Vardy was on the score sheet for both goals after a short scoring slump and both were vintage Leicester, scored on breakaways with Vardy’s speed and finishing touch.
2. Tottenham Rising; Arsenal and the Tradition Big Four in Trouble? With the rise of Leicester City, West Ham and Tottenham (not to mention Southampton), the traditional makeup of the top 4 has been thrown into chaos. One of Arsenal, United and City will be left out in the cold this season, while Liverpool will be hoping to climb up the ladder next season. One expects LC to take a step backward next term, but West Ham will be moving into a new stadium and have some money to throw around and Tottenham have one of the best coaches in the league and young talent that should only improve with another season under their belt. What does that mean for the Champion’s League places going forward? It appears the race will be expanding outward, with the traditional powers of Arsenal, United, Chelsea and, more recently, Man City, facing upstarts including Liverpool, Tottenham and maybe even Southampton or Leicester City going forward. The old giants have the financial power to outspend their rivals, but that money will have to be well-spent, as Leicester, Tottenham and Southampton – and even Stoke – have shown that you can build a quality (or even title-winning squad) with quality recruiting instead of money. And all will have more of the latter with the new TV deal. With City, United and Chelsea all likely to have new managers with world class credentials coming in, Arsenal better look over their shoulders as they appear poised to keep Wenger at the helm for at least one more season.
3. United & Liverpool Inconsistency: a rumour has spread from Holland that Louis Van Gaal will see out the final season of his contract, even if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. At the same time, Mourinho’s agents continue to report that he is confident he will be in charge this summer. One of the two is, of course, false, but it is anyone’s guess which. One thing that seems certain is that the United season will fall short of expectations, barring a late run to fourth place and an FA Cup win. LVG can be commended for playing youth and finding some results with the pressure on, but his side were absolutely plastered by Tottenham 3-0 on Sunday, making it highly unlikely they will get that fourth place finish. One wonders if United has been watching too many Arsenal games if they actually keep the aging Dutchman on for another season. He has not only failed to live up to expectations and wasted almost 100s of millions of pounds, but has taken United away from the attacking football that made them one of the most beloved (and hated) brands in world football.
To the southwest, Liverpool is starting to impress again after a rollercoaster season of their own. The 1-1 draw with Dortmund, one of the hottest teams in Europe up to that point, was an impressive display indeed, and they were somewhat unlucky not to leave as winners. They followed that result up with an impressive 4-1 win over Stoke on Sunday, showing the gegenpress is starting to really pay dividends. Klopp returned to Dortmund to warm applause and some love from his old squad, but left as a rival they must now fear. Liverpool could well drop off Thursday and fall out of the Europa league, but a win or favorable draw (0-0) could see them with a new route to the Champions League, as winners of the lesser competition. They will need another first-rate performance across the board, some luck and the will to win, but the league should watch out for a manager who will finally be able to build his own team this summer. United, on the other hand, seem far afield of their best years, a mere three seasons after their iconic manager finally hung ‘em up.
4. Champions League Roundup: All four of the quarterfinal second legs are poised to be tight affairs, with two sides holding a one-goal lead, one expected to cede their two-goal lead and the other all square (though City have the two away goals at their disposal). Tuesday we will see Real Madrid try to turn around their tie with Wolfsburg, considered the easiest matchup of the four before they forgot you actually have to play a game to win it and lost 2-0 to the UCL upstarts. One assumes Real can pull even or even win in regular time, but a goal from Wolfsburg would mean Real would need three to progress. I predict the first goal wins it and that Real is more likely than Wolfsburg to score it. Next up is an excellent match between two sides starving to get to the semifinals, with City marginally in the lead with their two away goals. The fact both PSG goals were based on defensive lapses (and maybe poor refereeing) means that City certainly has the tools to win this one, though the potential start of Demichelles in the middle of defense could certainly derail their dreams. I see a 1-1 draw and City going through. On Wednesday a Barcelona in a mini slump, with losses in their last two league games and a lucky 2-1 victory over Atletico that benefitted greatly from Fernando Torres’ boneheaded red card (and the lack of one for Suarez), head to Atletico for a match the home side could snatch with a 1-0 victory. I think they have a better chance than anyone at the moment and might just be able to pull it off, assuming they keep 11 men on the pitch and avoid mistakes. I’ll take Atletico in the upset. Finally, Bayern take a slender 1-0 lead to Benfica, giving the Portuguese side a glimmer of hope. I think that will fade when Munich score their first goal, meaning Benfica will need three. A 1-1 or 2-1 scoreline for Bayern seems about right.
5. Around the Horn: PSG secured the French league title weeks ago, but just keep on winning, pulling off a 2-0 victory at Gingham. That gives them a ridiculous 28-point lead with five games to go! In Italy, Juve won again, 2-1 at AC Milan, to maintain their six-point lead over Napoli, with Roma another six behind and Inter six further back, outside the Champions League with six to play. Meanwhile, in Spain, the El Classico result is starting to take on increased importance as Barcelona lost 1-0 at Real Sociedad, while Real cruised past Eibar 4-0 and Atletico won 3-1 at Espanyol. That means their lead has slipped to only three points over Atletico and four over Real with six games still on the slate. Could Barcelona run out of steam and fail in all three remaining competitions? Don’t count them out yet! Finally, to Germany, where a 2-2 draw between Dortmund and Schalke, coupled with a 3-1 Bayern win means they have extended their lead to seven points at the top with nine to play. 

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