26 February 2014

Champions League breaks our way...for the most part...

As we continue to size up our rivals in our chase for silverware, results in the Champions League have given us a bit of a boost. Once we slipped into second place in the group stage, finishing behind Dortmund on goal-differential, it looked like we would have to write off progress in the UCL for another year even if we had drawn someone less-dominant than Bayern. Now, of course, having lost the first leg at home, progress looks even less likely, and this suits me fine. More importantly, it seems to enhance our prospects in the Prem and FA Cups as our chief rivals in each competition have distractions of their own. Whether we can seize the slight advantage those distractions create depends on us, of course, but in a race that sees us a point behind Chelsea and two ahead of Man City (who have a game in hand at the moment), every little bit matters.

First, to Chelsea. Their 1-1 draw at Galatasaray positions them well to advance in the Champions League, the only competition outside the Prem in which they're still contending. Having been eliminated by Man City from the FA Cup and by Sunderland from the League Cup, they have an inside track on advancing in the Champions League. The only Prem side to not lose its first leg can host the second leg knowing that it has an away-goal and the comfort of playing at home. The distraction this can create—them playing a tense but winnable UCL match four days before we visit Stamford Bridge—could be significant. Should Galatasaray show a bit more mettle and verve, they might even pull off an upset. Heck, they were unlucky not to win after a typically cuntish move from John Terry saw a Gala goal get cancelled. Carrying the ball under his arm before a throw-in, Terry tossed it towards midfield while Gala restarted with a second ball. The ensuing goal was disallowed, and Terry was booked. If my hatred for Chelsea had been ebbing at all, it's spiked again. I'm therefore torn. It's too bad that a tie doesn't force a replay—although a 1-1 draw would force extra time and penalty kicks. Do I root for Gala to come away with a win, demoralizing Chelsea before our derby, or do I root for Chelsea to win, further sapping their strength with more Champions League fixtures to come?

Now, to Man City. Like us, they went down a man and lost at home 0-2 in the Champions League, making their trip to Camp Nou a bit more of a challenge. The 54th minute red-card that led to Messi's spot-kick goal and goal conceded in the 90th minute may encourage City to hold out hope for a second-leg rebound, even more so if Aguero is fit by then (a dicey one as he's scheduled to return 14 March and the second leg is 12 March). However, like us, they may have to reassess their priorities and focus instead on the Prem and FA Cup. Further complicating matters for them is that they have two matches to reschedule, home matches with Sunderland and Aston Villa (the former was cancelled due to high winds, hence their game in hand. The Aston Villa match is displaced due to their FA Cup quarterfinal). Much as I'd love to see those squeezed in before City travel to the Emirates in March, the fixture-fixers haven't done us many favors to this point, so there's little hope in asking for any such help now. As it stands, that game in hand probably works to Man City's favor, as it will likely be worked in mid-week when, giving them a cluttered week but little actual trouble. Here's hoping that they, like Chelsea struggle but advance in the Champions League. I'd love to see Wigan dump them from the FA Cup. This coming weekend, they'll play Sunderland in the League Cup. The Black Cats, for as much as they rolled over against us, have beaten Chelsea and Man City on earlier occasions, and I would certainly not mind in the least if they can beat City again.

As for us, our loss to Bayern all but clears the deck for us to focus on the Prem and FA Cup. I'm not ruling out a famous second-leg comeback by any means, but there's a lot less pressure around that match in my mind, which eases the intensity of our March fixtures just a bit. Ahead of that match, we continue our string of drawing Prem opponents in just about every round of League and FA Cup action, hosting Everton, followed by Prem matches at White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge, then a visit from Man City. This string of fixtures may very well determine who wins the Prem. If we could pull off the wins against Chelsea and City, I may even be willing to trade defeat—wait for it—to Spurs. Maybe. After all, taking six points from our chief rivals could vault us into a comfortable lead in the Prem, all the more vital when we look the fact that no one has a distinct advantage in their final four or five fixtures. If we can go in to Goodison Park first in the Prem, a draw there might be enough. We'd then host Newcastle and West Brom before finishing at Norwich. Let's deal with March first, though. We visit Stoke Saturday and then face Everton the following weekend in that FA Cup quarterfinal. Should we win both, we could then look ahead to FA matches against the winners of Sheffield United-Charlton Athletic, Hull-Sunderland, or Man City-Wigan.

Of course, there's also Liverpool who have nothing to play for but the Prem title. They're only three points behind us and are not to be written off. I have my doubts about their ability to continue to simply outscore opponents each week. They have three consecutive matches away from Anfield coming up, and if they drop points against Southampton, Man U, or Cardiff—all distinctly possible—this might shut the door on their title-tilt and force them to focus on holding onto fourth place.

All in all, it's all tighter than a hipster's pants. Maybe a gnat's chuff. It might have been nice for us to be free and clear of the pack. Then again, who among us can honestly say they'd predicted back in September that we'd be where we are in February?