Friday, April 29, 2016

EPL Match Week 35: One Win Away from the Leicester City Miracle Realized!

The weekend commenced with a commanding 4-0 victory for City over a Stoke side that seems to have lost their motivation as their season peters out. Chelsea then beat Bournemouth 4-1, Southampton took down Aston Villa 4-2 and Liverpool, after jumping to a 2-0 lead, had to settle for a point with Newcastle after the relegation-threatened visitors bounced back with two goals in the second half.

Sunday saw Arsenal continue to reach new depths of ineptitude in a 0-0 home draw at the Stadium of Lights () followed by a comprehensive 4-0 win for Leicester City, after an early Mahrez goal settled the nerves in the absence of suspended Vardy. Monday, Tottenham forged ahead for a 1-0 lead before giving it back, drawing with West Brom in a game that probably ended their dimming title hopes. Worse news followed the game as Dele Alli was eventually suspended for the remaining three games of the season, after a punch of an Albion defender went unnoticed by the match day referee.

Thoughts on Match Week 35:
1. Leicester Best in the EPL? as Leicester City sit one win (or a Tottenham loss) from officially raising the Premier League crown, an interesting question has surfaced in the ether of football journalism: are they the “best” team in the EPL this season? On paper, a squad of journeyman, youngsters and lower division players paired with a manager who has a rather feather light resume would lead one to say no way. Looking at how much the team cost to assemble (around 20 million pounds) provides further fodder for that argument. And the simple reality that not one of these players has ever been anywhere near world-class in their careers and few have any international record to speak of (beside Mahrez playing for Algeria) seems to solidify the point that they are not the best.

And yet the counterargument is equally strong – each team in the EPL plays every other team in the league two times, home and away, with three points for a win, one point for a draw and, of course, no points for a loss. They are on course, barring a collapse in their final three games and Tottenham winning out without one of their players of the season, from garnering the most points of any team in the league. Was there luck involved? Maybe with the point against West Ham and a couple of other games I can’t think of, but it did not appear to play a measurable role. In fact, a stronger argument can be made for at least two of United’s titles, when questionable red cards and ghost penalties earned them just enough points to snatch the crown (as in Ferguson’s final season). Leicester City didn’t have to play European football and didn’t make deep runs in either of the Cup competitions, but does that really discount their achievement? Liverpool had the same advantage a few years ago and couldn’t make it count down the stretch.

On the other hand, is the question of how they would do against the elite of Europe. Some argue they would be destroyed by Bayern, Barca, Real or Juve, but I’m not so sure. One of the trends of the season is that counterattacking teams that are well-organized defensively are doing quiet well. Arsenal used that approach to beat Bayern in the Group Stage of the Champions League, Juve used it in general to win Series A yet again and Atletico has taken a squad built at a huge discount in comparison to Real and Barcelona and stand at the acme of the table and through to the semifinals of the Champions League. And though they could end up with no silverware, they have shown that not only can defensive-minded football still win, but that it can actually be rather engaging to watch. Given how many clean sheets Leicester have in the second half of the season and the blistering pace and lethal finishing they show on the counter, I’m not so sure they could not compete with the best of European football. The unfortunate fact, though, is we probably won’t ever know the answer to the question, as it is likely they will lose at least one, if not two, of the stars that helped this team to the unthinkable. For now, I am relatively comfortable in arguing they are the best team in England this season.

2. Wenger Blames the Fans: while the Leicester story can even inspire a Gooner with a Grinch’s heart, like me, it is still hard to swallow how dramatically Arsenal’s season has plunged into mediocrity and despair. Assuming Leicester do beat United on Sunday, Arsenal will probably finish in the Top 4, but can we really continue to call this a success? 12 years without a title, six straight years exiting at the Round of 16 in the Champions League and no trophy for all but three of those seasons. It is a story so familiar that it is becoming cliché. Yet when our manager then turns and blames the fans for the terrible home form that has contributed to our collapse it is time to ramp up the calls for his dismissal. It’s like a President complaining that his performance is poor because his constituents are complaining about how poor his performance is. Sure the Emirates has been eerily silent at times this year, but isn’t that the result of a massive failure to take advantage of a unique season in which United, City, Chelsea and Liverpool all struggled simultaneously? Might the fans be more excited if he followed the advice of every pundit who knows anything about football and bought the striker and DM we needed last summer to take us over the line? Has Arsenal become such a Theocracy that even questioning our manager of 20 years is no longer allowed? Our tone-deaf board will probably continue to support Wenger, at least for one more season, but does he even deserve it? On his record over the past 12 years, I think the answer is a resounding no. Last weekends 0-0 draw with Sunderland provides all the evidence we really need … and we were on the road for that one, so what’s your excuse for that insipid performance Arsene? Update: Wenger added the media to his critique, claiming they have turned the fans against him ...

3. Relegation Watch: Sunderland’s draw with Arsenal was a nice point earned that they probably didn’t calculate in their formula for staying in the league for another season. What it did do, though, is provide them with the psychological boost of stepping outside the bottom three for the first time in weeks, though they remain tied with Norwich on points. Both Sunderland and Norwich now have games in hand on Newcastle and it is looking increasingly like the Magpies are heading down, even with their impressive draws from losing positions against City and Liverpool. On the other hand, they do have three fixtures to end the season that could earn enough points to put real pressure on the two above them (who are only a point ahead). Crystal Palace has been downright awful in the league this season – except when they played Arsenal to a 1-1 draw, of course – and they will be dreaming of the FA Cup Final at Wembley rather than their league games at this point, one imagines. Then they have an almost guaranteed three points when they visit Aston Villa. And the final game, which looked like a tough ask against Tottenham, might actually be meaningless for the Spurs and provide an opportunity for unexpected points to finish the season. Norwich, on the other hand, as I mentioned last week, could very well finish the season with four straight losses, though they might think three points at home against the reeling Watford is a strong possibility and that Everton, who have been shocking at home this season, could be ripe for an upset. Sunderland don’t have an easy game in their final four either, but they start their end of season run against a Stoke City team that already seems to be on vacation (having conceded four goals in each of their past three matches), a Chelsea side that has little to play for, an Everton that looks set to finally put Roberto Martinez out of his misery a week or two after that game and a finale at Watford, who will have nothing to play for. The relegation battle could go down to the last game and might provide the most excitement as the champion and top 4 will probably be decided before the last game. 

4. European Roundup: Liverpool were less than three minutes from a respectable 0-0 draw at Villareal that would have put them in the driver’s seat to win the Europa League semifinal tie back at Anfield next week. And then the poor defending that has too often defined their season came to the Yellow Submarine’s rescue and they snatched a late 1-0 win as they cut right through the Red’s defense. Liverpool will certainly believe they can overcome that deficit back at Anfield, particularly after what they did to a hot Dortmund in the previous round, but Villareal does have the third best defense in La Liga and stands firmly in fourth place, far ahead of Liverpool at the moment in the EPL. The most confounding decision of a match that Klopp seemed to get right in some ways, was the exclusion of Daniel Sturridge for all 90+ minutes. I was certainly surprised to see him on the bench for the first half, but absolutely apoplectic he wasn’t on in the second as the visitor’s moved into the ascendancy while Sturridge’s replacement (Firmino) had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play. Does this indicate Sturridge’s time at Liverpool is coming to a close? There is certainly the sense that he is not a Klopp sort of player, first broached when the German “heavy metal” manager questioned the injury that kept him out around Christmas. With Origi out injured, it is hard to understand the thinking of one of the fastest Liverpool strikers to 50 goals in their long, storied history.

In the Champion League, Real Madrid could be made to rue some missed chances in the first leg as they head back to the Bernabeu, but City will also worry that they couldn’t beat a Real team without Ronaldo or Benzema (for most of the game). The clean sheet at home will give them hope, though, as an away goal could see them through in a draw. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola is now staring down a potential third year in a row where he was beaten in the semifinals by a Spanish side. Munich had the lion’s share of possession throughout the game but could not break through an Atletico side missing what is arguably their best defender. Saul provided the moment of magic with his early goal, slaloming past five Bayern defenders before finishing to the far corner in one of the goals of the season, but the entire team provided the victory with their disciplined and resolute defending. Munich will think they have enough to win the second leg, but they too might be wondering what Guardiola was thinking leaving out Mueller for most of the game. I predict Real will slip by City by a goal (1-0 or 2-1) and Atletico will win with an away goal (1-1, 2-1 in the second game). Both games could go the other way, though.

5. Around the Horn: Allegri’s credentials were sometimes questioned as the manager of AC Milan, particularly as they floated out of European football in his last years in charge, but he has fully resuscitated his reputation with Juve, having now won the league for the second season in a row. He might feel that his team missed out on a golden opportunity to make another run to the final of the Champions League when they were robbed of a first-half goal in the second leg, but it is clear that he is emerging as one of the best managers in world football. Meanwhile, PSG has added the second piece of their attempt at a domestic treble, winning the French Cup with a 2-1 victory over Rennes. They will have the opportunity to complete the task on May 21, in a final with Marseille. La Liga has tightened up to the extent that a slip from Barcelona in any of their last three games could very well cost them the title. They are tied on points with Atletico and a sole point above Real. The bad news for the two Madrid challengers is their opponents for those final three games, Betis, Espanyol and Granada – 13th, 15th and 17th in the league, respectively. And after a poor run, where they won only one of six (with four losses), they have won their last two league games by a combined 14-0. Finally, to Germany, where Bayern have stretched their lead at the top to 7 points with only three games to play.

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