Another weekend in the English Premier League filled with twists and turns. Let’s take a look at four talking points and some odds and ends as the finish line in May becomes a little less distant on the horizon.
1. Begrudged Respect for the Boys in Blue.
My personal disdain for Chelsea is no secret on the Internet. That said, Saturday’s vomit-inducing 1-0 win over Everton in stoppage time via a Branislav Ivanovic header that Tim Howard couldn’t save (and resulted in an own-goal) is impressive in its own right. I didn’t like it, but I’ll respect it gritting through my teeth.
In 2014 every aspect of sports analysis — unless you want to face ridicule — must, underline must be data-driven. That said, there might not be an exact “measurable” that tracks Chelsea ability to grind out late wins — trademark of Mourinho’s two stints at Stamford Bridge — unless you want to adopt Hawk Harrelson’s “The Will To Win” metric. (The idea that Chelsea won because of “lionhearted John Terry” is simplistic, yet there is a kernel of truth to it. We can’t just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist.)
Nowadays in soccer you can track player runs, passes, shots, etc. and come up with all sorts of data which you can try to analyze to glean an edge on your competition. Sometimes you just have to win games — independent of what the heat maps says — and Chelsea did that Saturday. John Terry (heart-and-center at the Chelsea game-winning goal) has won games for Chelsea with goals like that consistently over his length career in West London and it drives you crazy each time — let’s hope Saturday was the last since his career is winding toward it’s conclusion. Looks like some of this has rubbed off on Ivanovic, too, unfortunately.
Chelsea, in first place over Arsenal by a point, have won eight games by one goal this season — three 1-0s — including the title-shifting match vs. Manchester City earlier this month. Ultimately, if Chelsea win the title in May it’ll be due to its superior talent across the board. Even so, the drive to win doesn’t hurt every so often. It certainly grinds your gears if you’re an avowed Chelsea-hater that the Blues can win games 4-0 thanks to its overflowing talent from its young attackers like Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, et al, yet still find a way to pull out results 1-0 from its old guard like Terry and Lampard.
If you’re a Chelsea supporter, cross your fingers nobody important picks up an injury or a “knock” during the midweek game vs. Galatasaray.
2. The Least David Moyes Thing David Moyes Would Ever Do:
Manchester United should put all its eggs in the Champions League basket and roll the frickin’ dice, as television gold miner Todd Hoffman might say.
Saturday United beat Crystal Palace on goals from Wayne Rooney (yay new contract!) and Robin van Persie (penalty!). If United can’t beat Palace with Rooney, van Persie and Juan Mata all in the lineup, back up the truck and start over. No sense rehashing those boring 90 minutes of soccer from Selhurst Park.
As it stands, United are 11 points behind Liverpool with 11 league games remaining for the final Champions League spot for 2014-15 season. David Moyes team isn’t catching fourth place. It’s an unrealistic goal. Not even Sir Alex Ferguson at the height of his psychological control over the Premier League could pull that one off, yet figure Moyes being Moyes he won’t give up the ghost until May.
It’s a lost season for United, but why not push hard to advance in the Champions League? United has a winnable Round of 16 match with Olympiacos this week. After that the road is considerably more difficult. Odds are long, granted. On paper — or any measurable — United aren’t on the level that Bayern Munich or Barcelona or even a PSG or either Madrid club came achieve at the moment. United does at least have a shot, something that can’t be said about the other parts of its season.
Again, even if United somehow made a run — say to the semifinals — it restores some of the club’s tattered prestige and helps keep Old Trafford an attractive destination for elite-level players in the next transfer window. It’s probably the only way the club can still show the world it’s still Manchester United for the time being. Functionally defeating Crystal Palace sure isn’t going to do that, is it?
3. Crushing Debut:
Felix Magath, good luck … at least your eyeglass/scarf game remains strong.
Fulham nearly pulled out the ideal result in the German’s first match in charge — all three points vs. fellow struggler West Brom. It wasn’t to be, as the Baggies tied it late through Matej Vydra in the 86th minute.
Fulham (21) are four points from safety — the spot now occupied by West Brom. There are still a lot of American fans wrapped up in the team, so it’s worth tracking their fight to survive.
Right now there are certainly a lot of pieces at Fulham for Magath to tinker with, but it’s not encouraging when the top player seems to be Tottenham washout Lewis Holtby, while club-record signing Kostantinos Mitroglou remains less than 100-percent via an array of nagging injuries. Realistically the nicest thing you could say about Fulham is the team is still giving an effort and doesn’t appear like it’s stopped fighting.
At this time of the season fight — as Terry showed us — can win you games. Unfortunately if you’re Fulham you can “fight” for 80-odd minutes only to be undone by one moment, leaving you in worse position than when you started.
4. Arsenal, Arsenal, where have you gone?
That’s a refrain Gunners supporters have been wondering the last couple weeks. The verve the team displayed in autumn disappeared in recent weeks — with Mesut Özil’s dip no small coincidence. Saturday’s game with Sunderland had the potential to turn into a mess and extend the misery.
Arsenal could have come into the match demoralized by the Champions League defeat to Bayern. The Gunners weren’t exactly run off the field as the game’s final stages indicated. Realistically Arsenal did a lot to beat itself — a missed penalty, Wojciech Szczęsny sent off, etc. You’re not winning against the best team in the world making those crucial errors and those errors tend to overshadow a lot of good play from the team during parts of the match.
Anyways, who knew how Arsenal would react Saturday, especially given the off-field drama swirling around Olivier Giroud? Remember the team’s last game in the Premier League was a 5-1 debacle vs. Liverpool. Under Gus Poyet Sunderland’s been scrappy and are in the League Cup final. The Gunners easily could have come out Saturday flat, but instead got an early goal from Girioud and it was time to relax and watch Tomas Rosicky finish off vintage North London passing, easing to a 4-1 victory.
That, at least, base-level resiliency from Arsene Wenger’s team to pull out of the minor tailspin — which did, in fairness, include a win over Liverpool in the FA last weekend. It’s remarkable Arsenal remains one point off first-place Chelsea despite nobody save for maybe Jack Wilshere, Per Mertesacker and Santi Carzola providing reliable performances week-in, week-out. Arsenal gets Stoke and Swansea the next two weeks and can’t afford a slip-up with Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City looming three straight weekends to close March.
5. Odds and Ends:
Liverpool can score a lot of goals, and concede a lot of goals. It’s fun to watch, but needs to be addressed in the summer. It’s a shame if the great season (and chemistry) between Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge amounts to nothing trophy-wise. Sturridge is up to eight straight games with a goal while Suarez still tops the EPL scoring chart with 23 despite only one in his last six. … Liverpool surpassed Manchester City as the top-scoring team in the league with 70 goals, albeit with one more game played than City, which has 69. … Speaking of City, the grueling English winter fixture list looks to be getting to Manuel Pellegrini’s club. Without Sergio Aguero to score it’s a different team and there’s only so much mileage Yaya Toure can put on his odometer before he’s worn out, too. Alvaro Negredo needs to recapture his scoring form with Stefan Jovetic injured again and Edin Dzeko consistently inconsistent. … Tottenham (56 points), Manchester United (45) and Everton (45) could be a fun fight for which club wants to play in the Europa League the least next year. … Cardiff City’s 2013-14 is going to end up a blueprint for how you’re not supposed to react upon promotion to the EPL the first time. … West Ham United were in a relegation spot a month ago, but followed up their 0-0 draw with Chelsea with four straight wins.
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[Photos via Getty]