23 December 2014

Does the draw at Anfield close the door on Arsenal's dreams?

Everton, Newcastle, you’re dropped. Maybe you can scratch and claw your ways back in. West Ham, you’re in, not by default but by dint of your own efforts. If only for the sake of my fingers, my eyesight, and my marriage, we do start to see a somewhat-clearer picture with fewer clubs in contention, although they may resurrect their fortunes. For now, though, this was a tough weekend all around for Gooners, as it seems that almost everyone got the result they wanted (except Man U). We might console ourselves with the notion that only we played a key rival, but that would be cold comfort indeed.  The Prem looks to be a two-horse race, and one can only hope that Mourinho’s l’il pony has enough heart to stay in first. Off we go…

Chelsea
● Position: 1st.
● Record: 12-3-1
● Points: 42 (82.4%)
● Form: WDWLWW
● Key matches: Everton 3-6 Chelsea, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal, Man U 1-1 Chelsea, Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea, Chelsea 3-0 Tottenham (14 pts from 18)
● Last match: Stoke 0-2 Chelsea.
Chelsea had little trouble in seeing off Stoke, scoring in the match’s second minute and largely coasting to the end. True, Stoke had a few moments but nearly enough to trouble Chelsea. There was one blemish as Eden Hazard may have picked up a knock with no real reports or prognosis  that I’ve seen yet. Taking a broader view, Chelsea have slowed just enough in recent weeks to have to look nervously over their shoulders at Man City, winners of six in a row. Despite Chelsea’s early-season form, which had people murmuring and muttering about Invincible-level feats, they now have to worry about the much-more relevant matter of staying atop to Prem—which could propel both them and City past anyone else’s reach.
● Next match: Friday vs. West Ham

Manchester City
● Position: 2nd
● Record: 12-3-2
● Points: 39 (76.5%)
● Form: WWWWWW
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Man City 4-1 Tottenham, Man City 1-0 Man U, Southampton 0-3 Man City, Man City 1-0 Everton (17 pts from 21)
● Last match: Man City 3-0 Crystal Palace
At halftime of this one it looked like Palace might have enough in them to secure a draw if not the win as City looked a bit adrift without Aguero to conjure his magic. However, David Silva more than made up his for his absence with a second-half brace, with Toure blasting home as well, and City come away looking every the title-challengers. Last week I wondered if City would falter without Aguero, Jovetic, or Dzeko available, but the early returns suggest, once again, that my foresight is limited. What other squad—aside from Chelsea—could cope with the loss of three scorers, their best centre-back and one of their best defensive midfielders in Nastasic? It’s not as if Crystal Palace will inspire fear in many other squads, but such is City’s quality that they scarcely skip a beat.
● Next match: Friday at West Brom.

Man U
● Position: 3rd 
● Record: 9-5-3
● Points: 32 (62.7%)
● Form: WWWWWD
● Key matches: Man U 2-1 Everton, Man U 1-1 Chelsea, Man City 1-0 Man U Arsenal 1-2 Man U, Soton 1-2 Man U, Man U 3-0 Liverpool (13 pts. from 18)
● Last match: Aston Villa 1-1 Man U
Man U’s five-match streak nearly came to a screeching halt at Villa Park when Benteke fired the Villans ahead early in the first half, and Man U had no real response other than to see if incessant crossing might wear out Guzan. The method did finally bear fruit when Falcao nodded one home, but that was all there was despite Agbonlahor seeing red in the 64th minute. The visitors couldn’t find a way through, and “only” three minutes of Fergie Time remind us that Van Gaal, like Moyes before him, doesn’t command or cow the referees as Ferguson once did. Still, the result is just good enough to keep them ahead of in-form West Ham, who make their first appearance in the run-down.  Does the result imply that Man U have reverted to form, or is it a mere blip on the radar?
● Next match: Friday vs. Newcastle

West Ham
● Position: 4th
● Record: 9-4-4
● Points: 31 (60.7%)
● Form: LWWWDW
● Key matches: West Ham 0-1 Tottenham, West Ham 1-3 Southampton, West Ham 3-1 Liverpool, West Ham 2-1 Man City, Everton 2-1 West Ham (7 pts from 15).
● Last match: West Ham 2-0 Leicester
Finally, a few Hammers might say, and they might be right to say so. It remains to be seen whether West Ham can continue this form, but it’s lasted nearly half the season and includes a win over Man City, which is more than any of other clubs on this list can claim. It’s not as if a comfortable win over Leicester is enough to suddenly enough West Ham’s arrival; it’s more like the continuation of their season, in which they haven’t lost two Prem matches in a row all season. Their current run includes just one loss in their last eleven. Brace yourself for the next sentence: Allardyce has his squad playing an attractive style of football. Of course, they still resort to throwing it into the box to see what happens, but when you have a noggin like Andy Carroll’s to aim for, well, you might as well see what comes of it.  However, it’s new man Diafro Sakho who’s been most vital with seven goals scored to date. The Hammers still have their skeptics (such as me), but they’re in fourth place…for at least another week.
● Next match: Friday at Chelsea

Southampton
● Position: 5th
● Record: 9-2-6
● Points: 29 (54.2%)
● Form: DLLLLW
● Key matches: Liverpool 2-1 Southampton, Tottenham 1-0 Southampton, Southampton 0-3 Man City, Arsenal 1-0 Southampton, Southampton 1-2 Man U, Southampton 3-0 Everton (three points from 15).
● Last match: Southampton 3-0 Everton
Madness. Southampton go from losing four in a row, including crashing out of the League Cup at the hands (foot?) of League 1’s Sheffield United to smashing Everton. Have they righted themselves, or is this further evidence that Everton are not up to snuff? It is a sign of their early strength that their slump only saw them fall a spot or two—thanks also to Man U’s surge of six wins in a row. As with Man U, Southampton have only two campaigns to vie for: the FA Cup and the Prem. Unlike Man U, Southampton have a young and thin squad that might already be showing signs of fatigue. A win over Everton might inspire confidence, but even that may fade should the Saints falter yet again. They’l have a short week to celebrate their success.
● Next match: Friday at Crystal Palace.

Arsenal
● Position: 6th
● Record: 7-6-4
● Points: 27 (52.9%)
● Form: LWWLWD
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal, Arsenal 1-2 Man U, Arsenal 1-0 Southampton, Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal (7 pts. from 19)
● Last match: Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal
Why, oh why, did we expect to finish in anything other than a draw at Anfield? It’s becoming all the rage to get that result. If you had looked at the result, ignoring the details, a draw might have been tolerable, even given Liverpool’s own poor form. Closer looks might even encourage us to feel better. “Ten-man Liverpool.” Our lowest possession since 2003 (35%). 27 shots faced, most since 2003. Then, you look at how—and when—we conceded that equaliser. A set-piece goal headed in during stoppage time. Say what you will about injuries, the one suffering the most might be Per. Whether he’s being attacked as a strategy or is simply worn down from playing, he’s become a weak link in a very fragile chain. We’ve dropped more points from a winning position than any other club. Not much else I can say about that.
● Next match: Friday vs. QPR

Tottenham
● Position: 7th
● Record: 8-3-6
● Points: 27 (52.9%)
● Form: WWLDWW
● Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Tottenham 1-0 Southampton, Man City 4-1 Tottenham, Tottenham 2-1 Everton, Chelsea 3-0 Tottenham (7 pts. from 18).
● Last match: Tottenham 2-1 Burnley
After a rousing 4-0 League Cup win over Newcastle, which included an open-play goal from Soldado, one might have pegged Tottenham for a surge forward. Whether a 2-1 win over Burnley adds to that feeling is the next question to ponder. They are, after all, the only club on this list with a negative goal-differential (-1), and that kind of margin is simply not one that allows a club to continue to win matches. On the other hand, it’s and admirable display of creativity to find as many points as they have despite that anaemic production. A marginal increase in goals scored—or a decrease in goals conceded—might just elevate Spurs into the top five. If Pochettino can get this squad to play to the levels he’s promised, the second half of the season could see that surge.
● Next match: Friday vs. Man U

First things: Newcastle, Everton, and Liverpool have not been eliminated, simply dropped from this post. They may yet return. The top of the table looks to have distilled down to Chelsea and Man City, although Man U might have something to say about that if Van Gaal’s reputation for leading his clubs to second-half surges. The real scrum, though will occur, to no one’s surprise, for the fourth and fifth spots. Man U may sneer at West Ham and Southampton, but they’re there, with Arsenal and Tottenham close behind. We’ll keep an eye on Swansea as well as Toon and Merseyside to see whether any of them have what it takes to earn a spot at the table.