Tuesday, April 19, 2016

EPL Match Week 34: Tottenham Closes; Arsenal Done; West Ham Screwed by Refs Yet Again

Saturday started with a key six-pointer between Sunderland and Norwich, with the visitors winning 3-0. Next up was Everton, who again settled for a draw at home (1-1 with Southampton) and thus secured their worst home points total ever (congrats to Roberto Martinez who was somehow impressed with the performance from his 10-man side). Manchester United continued their mini-streak with a 1-0 victory over the punching bag of the league, Newcastle cruised over Swansea 3-0, Watford won 1-0 at West Brom (after Berahino missed not one, but two penalties) and Man City stormed past a jaded Chelsea side 3-0.
On Sunday, Leicester salvaged a point with almost the last touch of the game after Adebayor was adjudged to have fouled a player in the box for a minor bump at the death. This might have been a makeup call for an earlier minor raping of Wes Morgan in the box, but must have driven Bilic crazy, as the third game on the bounce where some questionable refereeing cost them points. Liverpool kept up their recent form with a 2-1 win at Bournemouth and then Arsenal blew two points yet again, after doing the same against West Ham, Tottenham and Swansea in recent games. To be fair, they gave up all three points against Swansea after leading 1-0. It is another abject season for Wenger and his team, this time with no hope of an FA Cup crown to assuage the league failure. One begins to wonder what it will take for the Frenchman to be shown the exit …
Thoughts on Match Week 34:
1. Tottenham Can Continue to Dream: Leicester was the beneficiary of a late, questionable penalty in drawing 2-2 with West Ham, and Tottenham’s decisive 4-0 win at Stoke cut the lead at the top to five points with four to play. Leicester are still the favorites, but with Vardy likely to sit out half of the remaining four games and Tottenham with a pretty comfortable run-in, it might just be that the other half of North London is finally celebrating a title that seems even more elusive than their cross-town rivals. Even if they do fall short, as seems likely at this point, it will have been their most successful season in decades and further evidence that Pochettino is one of the better managers in the league. Leicester, however, were able to snatch at a point at the death and one that could just help see them over the line. It was another gritty performance and a comeback from a man down.
West Ham should have grabbed all three points, as they should have in their previous two league games, but the refs again intervened to cost them – now six points in three. For anyone examining the table, those six points would put have put them even with Arsenal (who would have lost one point), only behind on goal difference. The Hammers have had an excellent season as they prepare to start their residence in the Olympic Stadium, but they might rue the late goals that have cost them far too many points across this campaign, even as they have played the best against the top teams of anyone in the league.
2. Arsenal Throw It Away Again: how much longer can we Gooners take this? It’s like a record that hits the last song and then somehow rewinds to start over and over and over again, week after week, year after year. Wenger generally puts a positive face on his own mediocrity blaming injuries, bad luck or a “jaded” performance, but how much more can we take? Will we ever have a chance like this again? Just as a reminder, Chelsea, United, Liverpool and City are all having mediocre season. Leicester is in the lead; yeah that same Leicester who needed a run of 7 wins in 9 just to avoid relegation last term. And Tottenham is in second. Yeah, that North London rival we’ve been taunting for decades. Arsenal were two points from the Apex a couple of months ago, still in the FA Cup and Champions League. 12 games later, with only three wins, the season is over – except our perennial pursuit of the Top 4. 12 years of settling for this meager goal. Sure we have a few FA Cups in the interim, but that is it. No late title charge, no quarterfinals in the Champions League in 8 years and not even a League Cup to keep us sated. Two years of FA Cup triumphs papered over the obvious reality today. Wenger has no idea what he is doing anymore. He continues to come up with excuses, continues to blow it in every pursuit except keeping up in a competition we always fail in at the first ask of the knockout stage, keeps claiming the future is bright. He actually told the media after our latest blown game that the young players on the squad need time to grow. If that were true, why not use our veterans instead? Why not sign some seasoned professionals to see us over the line? The answers only exist in the head of a man who, like Mourinho argued a couple of seasons ago, “specializes in failure.” And so the beat goes on …
3. Relegation Watch: Saturday kicked off with the key relegation battle between Sunderland and Norwich and decisive 3-0 road win for Sunderland should give Allardyce hope that he can maintain his record of never leading a relegated side. Norwich can still have something to say about that, currently still in 17th by a point, though they have played a game more than both Sunderland and Newcastle. Newcastle matched Sunderland’s win with their own 3-0 victory (over Swansea), but must be looking at their next three games with forlorn, with a visit from the suddenly hot Man City, a trip to trending Liverpool and then a visit from a Crystal Palace side that seems to be coming out of an almost five-month slumber. The only good news is a trip to already relegated and truly awful Aston Villa, before finishing up with title-challenging Tottenham. Sunderland have a slightly better schedule, facing a reeling Arsenal, traveling to Stoke, hosting an indifferent Chelsea, an underperforming Everton and then traveling to Watford to close the season. Finally, is Norwich, who play Arsenal, United, Watford and Everton. If I were a betting man, I think I would now pick Sunderland to avoid the drop yet again, while Newcastle and Norwich join Aston Villa in the championship next season. On the other hand, Newcastle probably has the most talent of the three and might very well be able to pull off an upset or two to stay up.
4. Champions League Roundup: things are rarely easy in the knockout stage of the Champions League and the same was true last week. Tuesday we saw Real Madrid, as many predicted, come back from a 2-0 first leg deficit to win 3-0 at home, on a hat trick from Ronaldo, as they booked their passage into the semifinals. Man City was not the favorite to progress, though most predicted a close tie between two sides that have never made the final 4 of the European Cup. Man City, after an impressive 2-2 draw in Paris, eliminated the runaway French League champions 1-0, as Kevin De Bruyne again played the hero, along with the oft suspect City defense (sans Kompany). City now have a legitimate shot at a seemingly unlikely Champions League crown, particularly after Wednesday’s results.
Wednesday, Barcelona’s stunning collapse of the past month continued, as they surrendered their 2-1 first leg victory and lost to a team that has only beaten them twice in 17 matchups under Diego Simeone. However, those victories both eliminated Barca from the Champions League and one should not forget the late draw two seasons ago that saw Atletico win La Liga. He might not have an impressive record against the Catalans, but he finds a way to get results on the biggest stages. Bayern were luckier, advancing even as they were held to a 2-2 draw at Benfica. They were all square after Benfica opened the scoring, but a powerful volley from Vidal at the top of the box saw them jump ahead and a second goal meant Benfica needed three. They got one, but Bayern are probably now the favorites heading into the final five games of this year’s tournament.
In the marque matchup of the Europa League, Liverpool pulled off another miracle, coming from behind (2-0 and 3-1) to beat Dortmund at the death 4-3 (5-4 on aggregate). The Klopp effect was in clear view and Liverpool now have a clear, though not easy, path to the Champions League – winning at least two of their final three games in the competition to gain a spot in the qualifying round. They are joined by Villareal, who they will face, Shakhtar Donetsk and a Sevilla team that specializes in winning this Cup.
5. Around the Horn: Barcelona followed their Champions League disappointment with yet another loss in the league and are now even on points with Athletic (only ahead on head-to-head) and a solitary point over a Real side they led by 13 points not so long ago. The talk a month ago was of a probably double-treble. Now they might be lucky to win even one of the three titles that seemed well within their grasp. The good news for Barca is they only have five games left in the season; the bad news is any slip-up could well cost them the title they seemed to be cruising toward. Meanwhile, the race to fourth place has tightened, with Villareal now only six points above Bilboa after they seemed certain to return to the UCL. In Italy, Napoli were beaten 2-0 at Inter while Juve cruised past Palermo 4-0, stretching their lead at the top to nine points, with Roma four points above Inter in the race for the third, and final, Champions League place. Meanwhile, in France, where PSG won the title long ago, its is Monaco and Lyon currently holding the other two UCL places, while Nice, St. Etienne and Lille all sit within striking distance. Finally, to Germany, were Bayern won 3-0 before Dortmund matched them with a 3-0 victory of their own, rebounding nicely after giving up a 2-0 and 3-1 lead in falling out of the Europa League to Liverpool.  

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