19 March 2015

Dumped from Champions League, can Arsenal chase down Chelsea in the Prem?

After a disappointing win at AS Monaco, one good enough to win the battle but not the war, we turn our attention back to the Prem. With Chelsea and Man City having been dumped from the Champions League as well, only Everton (remember them?) carry on with continental commitments. In other words, the fight for a top-five finish has tightened quite a bit, with only Liverpool and Arsenal still fighting through fixtures in the FA Cup. Chelsea still look to have first place pretty well in the bag, but the race for second place has tightened considerably, with three teams now separated by only two points. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see us locked in such a struggle rather than desperately hoping to climb into the top four. Without further ado, then, let’s get to it…

Chelsea
● Position: 1st.
● Record: 19-7-2
● Points: 64 (76.2%)
● Form: DWWDWD
● Last matches: Chelsea 2-2 PSG (UCL), Chelsea 1-1 Southampton
This has to have been a bit of a nightmare for Mourinho’s minions, who staggered to an embarrassing second-leg draw at home to ten-man PSG. Then, seeking some kind of response, the Blues could only manage another home-draw against Southampton. The Saints can be a tough nut to crack; Chelsea unleashed 22 shots on goal and must be frustrated to come away with just the point, all the more so because Costa was denied by the woodwork. Then again, Mourinho has to feel like the point helps at least a little—he now has a six-point lead over City plus that game in hand (at Leicester). Chelsea may not run away from the rest of us, but they’ve built enough of a lead that they can probably afford a hiccup or two like this last one.
● Next match: 22 March at Hull.

Manchester City
● Position: 2nd
● Record: 17-7-5
● Points: 58 (66.7%)
● Form: DWWLWL
● Last match: Burnley 1-0 Man City, Barcelona 1-0 Man City (UCL).
Two losses in three outings (three in four if we add in the loss at the Camp Nou) have got to have Pellegrini just a bit chagrined as his high-octane offense has now scored just three goals in four matches after exploding for five against Newcastle. If they can’t find a solution to this impotence—which apparently hasn’t been Bony—they run a real risk of slipping down the ranks. Already, their lead over their third-place rivals has narrowed to just one point, and they’re watching as Chelsea slowly pull away. The gap was widened to a point that City, who might have fancied a deep run in the Champions League, now have only the Prem to focus on, but they're running short on time and options. In other words, this could be City’s second trophyless season in five years.
● Next match: 21 Match vs. West Brom

Arsenal
● Position: 3rd 
● Record: 17-6-6
● Points: 57 (65.5%)
● Form: LWWWWW
● Last match: Arsenal 3-0 West Ham, AS Monaco 0-2 Arsenal (UCL).
Last time we checked in, I wondered if we could reel in Man City, thinking ahead to the final weeks of the season. Here we are, now, just a point behind them thanks in part to a string of six wins, including that fantastic one at Old Trafford. Instead of an emotional letdown against the staggering, fading Irons, though, we seem to have gathered strength and confidence enough to deliver one of our more-compelling performances of the season. Of course, we've failed yet again in our annual quest to overcome an embarrassing first-leg defeat, bowing out to AS Monaco despite winning 0-2. At least we, by contrast with Chelsea and Man City, won our second leg. While we’re now neck-and-neck with Man City, we’re also cheek-to-jowl with Man U. It’s far too early to start penciling ourselves in for a second or even a third-place finish.  Heck, I’m not even willing to mention a certain St. Somethingerinham just yet. Yes, we're still alive on two fronts, but can we make the most of either?
● Next match: 21 March at Newcastle.

Manchester United
● Position: 4th
● Record: 16-8-5
● Points: 56 (64.4%)
● Form: DWLWWW
● Last matches: Man U 3-0 Tottenham
Ousted from the FA Cup against Arsenal on Monday, the first time Arsenal has won there since 2006, Man U apparently went out and got some revenge on the closest available target, Tottenham. Three goals in 25 minutes ensured that Man U would match our pace in the Prem, and their deck is now cleared.  What’s more, losing to us might inspire them to scratch and claw ever-harder to overtake us, making their trip to the Emirates fraught with even more peril and significance—it’ll be the second-to-last match of the season for them; for us, it might be the third, depending on when our Sunderland match is rescheduled. Man U might have the toughest run-in of any club in the top-four, but they are packed like sardines right in with us and City all the same.
● Next match: 22 March at Liverpool.

Liverpool
● Position: 5th
● Record: 15-6-7
● Points: 51 (60.7%)
● Form: DWWWWW
● Last match:  Swansea 0-1 Liverpool.
The hottest squad has added yet another win to their belts, and they've made the top-four race even more crowded. For those wondering, this would be against Man U next Sunday (22 March), so it carries even more tension and significance than those rescheduled against Sunderland or Leicester. Liverpool have lost just three times in their last 28 matches across all competitions and have in the process eclipsed wanna-be’s like Southampton and Tottenham while others, like Newcastle and West Ham, have wilted away. Only a heated Merseyside derby draw has slowed them down in recent weeks, but they look hungry despite their inability to break down Blackburn last Sunday. The replay at Ewood Park will take place just four days after they visit the Emirates, but the form Liverpool is in suggests that this will do little to slow them down.
● Next match: 22 March vs. Man U.

Southampton
● Position: 6th
● Record: 15-5-9
● Points: 50 (57.4%)
● Form: WDLLWD
● Last match: Chelsea 1-1 Southampton
Southampton have to feel good to come away from Stamford Bridge with a well-earned point, but it may not be enough to get them back into the conversation or the competition for a top-five spot. They’re now six points behind Man U, a not-insurmountable gap but one that they have precious little time to close.  They’ve enjoyed (and endured) a season that has been both exhilarating and exhausting, and they might have one last surge left in them. With a manageable run-in that closes against Man City, they are in a decent position to improve. It’s not all up to them, of course, but if they take care of their own business, they could still slip into the top five. If their defense holds up as well as it has all season, that’s a possibility even if it’s not quite a likelihood.
● Next match: 21 March vs. Burnley.

There you have it. I’d like to apologise to Tottenham (but prefer to leave it saying “I’d like to…”) for again leaving them out of consideration here. They’re not out of contention just yet (after all, they’re level on points with Southampton), but one has to draw the line somewhere even if it’s arbitrary, capricious, or worse. As mentioned above, Chelsea look likely to stay out of reach of anyone. The scrum for second could soon involve as many as four squads. With only nine matches to play and 27 points on offer, anyone who drops points against anyone else will sorely regret it, especially given how tightly packed positions two through four (and maybe five) are. Chelsea, Southampton, and Man U are free to focus on the Prem. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City have distractions to deal with. The picture, in other words, is a bit of a muddle.