06 March 2015

Yes, Arsenal's risen to third—but are they good enough to stay there?

And we’re back. These midweek fixtures are tough for me to deal with—too many results crushed together to sort, especially when the Tuesday-Wednesday results come in right at the worst part of my workday. So it goes. The good news is that, in addition to winning both of our most recent fixtures, a variety of rivals dropped points over the weekend. Even if the midweek results didn’t change things, we can still enjoy a a lengthy spell in third place with an increasingly realistic eye on second. Heck, if Man City and Chelsea continue to leak points here and there, and if we can go on a run, who knows? I’m not making any promises. I’m just suggesting we look at where we are and where we once were and dare to dream. Ten matches left. On to the rundown…

Chelsea
● Position: 1st.
● Record: 19-6-2
● Points: 63 (77.8%)
● Form: WDWWDW
● Last match: Chelsea 2-1 Tottenham (League Cup Final), West Ham 0-1 Chelsea.
Before you get too excited about trailing Chelsea by “only” nine points, remember that they have a game in hand. Having won the League Cup final must take a monkey off of Mourinho’s back; he can now claim to have won a trophy on British soil more recently than Arsène has, such as it is. We do owe him a bit of thanks for denying Tottenham any silverware. Back to business. Chelsea went into Upton Park and came out victorious, overcoming a determined Irons side that troubled but never topped them, as Hazard gave them the one and only goal that Mourinho ever seems to seek. Mock it if you will, but, dammit, results are everything. If this was Olympic diving or synchronized swimming, style-points might come into play. They don’t. As such, we know what to expect: boring football, stubborn defending, and very few dropped points. It’s working so far. We’ll see if it works against an even-more stubborn defense in due time.
● Next match: 11 March vs. PSG (UCL), 15 March vs. Southampton (Prem)

Manchester City
● Position: 2nd
● Record: 17-7-4
● Points: 58 (69.4%)
● Form: DDWWLW
● Last matches: Liverpool 2-1 Man City, Man City 2-0 Leicester
Man City succumbed to resurgent Liverpool over the weekend before rebounding against Leicester midweek, but they can no longer hide behind the “Toure’s at AFCON” excuse. He’s back, but other issues arise as Vincent Kompany, long-lauded as one of the Prem’s best CBs, seems to be off his game. Against Liverpool, he was dispossessed by Coutinho in his 200th league appearance, and this led to Liverpool’s first goal. He’s a man off his game on many levels, so much so that he was an unused substitute against Leicester. Apparently, Pellegrini equates City’s inconsistency with that of Kompany and might seek greater solidity in back from Demichelis and Mangala, who helped to earn a clean-sheet against Leicester. If you just smirked or chuckled, congrats. City’s struggles are, of course, Arsenal’s gain, but never underestimate a side that can score in bunches as well as City can.
● Next match: 14 March at Burnley (Prem), 18 March at Barcelona (UCL)

Arsenal
● Position: 3rd
● Record: 16-6-6
● Points: 54 (64.3%)
● Form: WLWWWW
● Last match: Arsenal 2-0 Everton, QPR 1-2 Arsenal
Four consecutive wins have us sizing up Man City: do we have what it takes to reel them in? Giroud scored his fifth goal in as many Prem matches against QPR, Alexis scored his first goal since late January, and Coquelin has apparently emerged as The Not-At-All Hyperbolically Best DM in the Prem™. After a truly depressing showing against AS Monaco, we’ve gotten back to winning ways in ways that suggest that we could be set for a run. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve lost catastrophically in a UCL first-leg only to fight back rather famously. To do so against Bayern was galvanizing; to do so against Monaco was embarrassing. In each case, it looks as if we’ve taken our lumps and doubled down. Despite the early season dominance of Chelsea and Man City, we’re now within striking distance of the latter if not the former. If nothing else, it looks like we’re well-positioned to defend a position rather than chase it. Dollars to donuts they’re going after both—with us in the cross-hairs.
● Next match: 9 March at Man U (FA Cup), 14 March vs. West Ham (Prem), 17 March at Monaco (UCL)

Manchester United
● Position: 4th
● Record: 15-8-5
● Points: 53 (63.1%)
● Form: WDWLWW
● Last match: Man U 2-0 Sunderland, Newcastle 0-1 Man U
Like us, Man U emerged from the weekend with two victories, one a bit less confident than the other. After comfortably dealing with Sunderland 2-0, they needed a late, late¸winner at St. James’s Park to see off Newcastle. The absence of van Persie seems not have slowed them much and, as alluded last time, it may actually liberate Man U’s attack. We’ll find out soon enough when we arrive at Old Trafford on Monday. There is open debate about which trip to Old Trafford matters more to Arsenal, this one or the one on 16 May as if it’s an either-or proposition. Somehow, I doubt they’re seeing it that way. The race for a top-four spot has got to be first and foremost on Man U’s minds after a season out of Champions League play, but winning the FA Cup only depends on winning just three more matches.
● Next match: 9 March vs Arsenal (FA Cup), 15 March vs Tottenham (Prem)

Liverpool
● Position: 5th
● Record: 15-6-7
● Points: 51 (60.7%)
● Form: WDWWWW
● Last match: Liverpool 2-1 Man City, Liverpool 2-0 Burnley
For the first time in what feels like ages, we have a top five that resembles what people might expect—the biggest clubs, those with the most resources, have for now displaced various up-starts and wannabes to their “proper” places. More to the point, though, Liverpool has emerged as the hottest club in the Prem, going undefeated in their last eight domestic matches with only a second leg loss to Besiktas marring their streak (and dumping them from the Europa League, adding further concerns for their rivals). They’re no flat-track bullies as shown by the weekend-win over Man City. They might a easier time of things in their FA Cup clash on Sunday against Blackburn (even for as much as our own history might suggest otherwise). The return of Sturridge has given them a much-more diverse and potent attack, and their dramatic rise should serve notice to the clubs just above them that they mean business.
● Next match: 8 March vs Blackburn (FA Cup), 16 March at Swansea (Prem).

Southampton
● Position: 5th
● Record: 15-4-9
● Points: 49 (58.3%)
● Form: LWDLLW
● Last match: West Brom 1-0 Southampton 1-0 Crystal Palace
Are Southampton following West Ham’s lead, fading from dizzying heights towards mid-table mediocrity? That might overstate things a bit, but their uneven form has sent them to their lowest position all season. Ironically, they’ve emerged from two earlier stretches of tough fixtures relatively unscathed, and so it seems that they might be finally succumbing to the accumulation of stress and fatigue before the final run-in. Perhaps like Everton a season ago, who fought for a top-four finish all season to fade in the final weeks, They’ve taken only seven points from their last six matches, the kind of form that would send them to 13th. Things are apparently urgent enough that Koeman has taken the squad to the Swiss Alps for a bit of morale-building. The proof, such as it is, will come out when they face Chelsea next weekend.
● Next match: 15 March at Stamford Bridge.

Ten matches to go—except for Chelsea, of course, and Tottenham, who face QPR on Saturday. I’m not sure our fellow Londonites (Londonians?) merit a mention in this column, with apologies to the Hoops. The race has tightened up to the point that, not only are third and fifth place only separated by three points, second and fourth are only separated by five. Chelsea still look like first is theirs to lose, especially with a game in hand. With another week to go before the next round of Prem fixtures, we might have to take a closer look at remaining fixtures to see who looks to have the easiest run-ins. On the hear-horizon, though, we have an FA Cup clash oat Old Trafford to prepare for. We'll take a look at that one in the ext post. 'Til then...