Confession: sometimes when you’re following European soccer it’s a lot more enjoyable to root for teams to lose rather than vice versa. Look no further than how much everyone is revealing in the David Moyes-infused malaise afflicting Manchester United at the moment. For almost a decade this spot on the calendar has provided fans with a yearly dosing of schadenfreude courtesy of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal.
So with that in mind it was a little strange watching EPL title contenders Arsenal and Manchester City playing Saturday morning vs. Fulham and Cardiff City respectively and not rooting heavily for the underdogs.In short, here’s not a lot to outwardly dislike about the current cast of characters at either club unless you’re, say, a partisan of say Tottenham or Manchester United.
Sure Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere has some tendencies which we’d describe as “douche-y” but even so, his current form is making it harder and harder to dislike him. After that the rest of the current Arsenal team is mostly innocuous, defined more by their slick brand of soccer than anything personality-wise. (Nic Bendtner is more of an idiot who makes himself look like a fool, rather than somebody you openly dislike.) If you’re a fan of the sport it’s hard not to like the combination between Wilshere and Santi Carzola that set up the first Arsenal goal vs. Fulham. That’s the way most clubs wish their team played.
As for Manchester City? Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all the billions of dollars its Qatari ownership group poured into the club is that they aren’t despised the way Chelsea was after the Roman Abramovich takeover. Look no further than the two club’s captains, who both happen to play center back. City hands the armband to Belgian Vincent Kompany one of the most respected and forward-thinking players in the game, whereas Chelsea are still marshaled by the loathsome, offensive brute known as John Terry.
City’s massive financial outlay in the last few years is going to be off-putting to many fans on principle alone, yet it’s not like the club is going out of its way to rub it in everyone else’s noses. If a team can somehow quietly spend billions, City have done so.
More than that, under Manuel Pellegrini’s management the team is all about the game and none of the off-field drama we saw at the club when guys like Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez were around. The face of City nowadays is midfielder Yaya Toure, a universally acclaimed player every club in the world would love to have in its starting XI. While it’s true Samir Nasri is a bit of a jerk, but that’s a reputation from the French media and I’m always a little leery of agreeing with that distinguished group of scribes.
Again, it’s fairly simple: Arsenal and City play attractive soccer, or at least strive to do that each week. City already have 100 goals on the season — 63 in Premier League play — while Arsenal might just finally win a trophy with that pass-first, fluid system Wenger has tried to use fruitlessly for years.
You don’t exactly have to root for either Arsenal or City but they way they’re going about their business in 2014 makes it increasingly hard to root against them, unlike say Manchester United or Chelsea did in the past.
Fulham’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal on Saturday was probably the first time most American soccer fans had the chance to watch Clint Dempsey play during his brief loan back to the Cottagers. Most signs were not encouraging for the American captain. For one, he name wasn’t mentioned in the Guardian match report. This isn’t surprising, but a sober reality for U.S. National Team fans.
If you’re into passing charts and stats, Dempsey didn’t do very much to impact the game offensively for Fulham, either.
Given his track record and history, you’d figure by the time the World Cup roles around in June Dempsey will have recaptured his form and be an offensive leader for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team. That said, dating back to his move to Seattle last summer it’s well over six months of indifferent form from Dempsey, who remains one of the National Team’s most important players. The sky isn’t falling, yet, but let’s hope Dempsey pulls out of his slump sooner rather than later.
Tottenham is back in strong contention for a Champions League spot following a 3-1 win over Swansea City on Sunday. The win pulled them even on 43 points with Liverpool, although the Reds maintain fourth due to a far superior goal difference. Spurs are 3-0-0 in league play this month and haven’t lost an EPL game since a 5-0 beatdown by Liverpool on Dec. 15 that cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. At the heart of Spurs turnaround is new manager Tim Sherwood using Emmanuel Adebayor at striker. After spending the start of the season on the bench, the big Togolese forward has responded with five goals in six games.
Adebayor is one of those special cases in soccer, for some spells he’s absolutely unstoppable in front of goal, while others he’s next to useless. You really don’t know what you’re going to get, so might as well ride the hot hand while it lasts. Relying on Adebayor — long term — to win a way back into the Champions League isn’t the soundest strategy, but right now it’s all Tottenham’s has so it’s worth a shot.
Almost as important as Adebayor is the play of Christen Eriksen. While some of the players Spurs signed with their windfall from selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid have flopped under both AVB and Sherwood, like Erik Lamela, Eriksen has become much more influential this month returning from injury. Sherwood also turning to teenage French academy product Nabil Bentaleb has paid immediate dividends.
How far Sherwood’s turnaround has taken Tottenham will be on full display Wednesday when Spurs host Manchester City, which beat them 6-0 back on Nov. 24.
Luis Suarez, naturally, provided us with our dumb EPL “controversy” of the week via his apparent dive to win a penalty in the second half of Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Aston Villa at Anfield. We’re well past the point where the Premier League should have one of those signs reading, “x days without something dumb happening to distract us from the actual games themselves.”
Looking at the video, it’s fairly clear Suarez embellished the contact from Villa keeper Brad Guzan. Given his reputation, Suarez isn’t going to get the benefit of doubt from too many.
On a larger scale, unless the governing bodies running soccer across the world issue stiffer penalties for dives it’s going to continue. (Hasn’t this been said a million times before?) If you’re in Suarez’s shoes with your team trailing 2-1 in the second half the worst case scenario here is receiving a yellow card, the best case is winning a penalty. The reward far out-weighs the risk, so it’s not hard to see why players continue to exploit this “gamesmanship” loophole.
Liverpool have bigger problems to worry about with Lucas potentially lost for the season (again) and where exactly to play club legend Steven Gerrard since a deep-lying “Andrea Pirlo” role doesn’t quite suit him.
Interesting Little Nugget:
Around the league:
It appears Nic Anelka’s gesture a few weeks ago has cost West Brom a shirt sponsor. … No sense piling on Manchester United for losing 3-1 to Chelsea on Sunday. The Blues fans did enough themselves. United gave a solid effort in the first half, but expecting much while Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are hurt doesn’t make all that much sense. In short, you can’t write the same thing every week about United in 2014. … Cardiff City are now in 20th — aka last. I’m sure those were the headlines Vincent Tan was looking for a month ago. … It’s been fun to watch Yohan Cabaye this season at Newcastle. He scored another nice goal on the weekend vs. West Ham, but if PSG comes calling looking to offer a ton of money for the Frenchman, you probably have to take the cash. … Right now there is a 25-point gap between first and 10th, whereas only six points separate last place from 10th.