21 April 2015

Rivals' Rundown #32-ish: Chelsea ain't the only ones with a game in hand...

Any lingering hopes about anyone catching Chelsea disappeared this weekend as they ground out another win to go ten points clear; even if Arsenal now have a game in hand thanks to the FA Cup semifinal, both clubs have just six matches left to play. Even if Arsenal were to run the table, getting to 84 points in the process, Chelsea would still have to drop seven more points from five remaining matches, and that’s so unlikely that I wanted to get it out of the way from the start. That said, there are still flaming torches to be juggled, so let’s get to it.

● Position: 1st.
● Record: 23-7-2
● Points: 76 (79.2%)
● Form: WDWWWW
● Last match: Chelsea 1-0 Man U
“The usual,” Arsène quipped when learning that Chelsea had won 1-0 at home. Managing 30% possession might seem like a recipe for disaster, but it was precisely what Mourinho wanted. Say what you will about method, he gets results. There are no points for style, a fact that might chafe us at Arsenal just a bit. Chelsea have now gone unbeaten in fourteen straight matches despite scoring than two goals just once in that span. While that wasn’t quite enough to secure progress in the Champions League, it’s served them quite well in the Prem. In a way, it almost comes as a surprise that Chelsea bothered to score against Man U, as we’ve come to expect—rightly or wrongly—that Mourinho will set up to secure a draw against serious rivals. It comes as almost more of a surprise that Mourinho didn’t let Man U earn at least a point, all the better to complicate Arsenal’s aspirations—much as he did in selling them Mata last January. So it goes. It’s clear-sailing for them, and I’ll have to grudgingly concede.
● Next match: 26 April at Arsenal.
● Remaining fixtures: Arsenal (a), Leicester (a), Crystal Palace (h), Liverpool (h), West Brom (a), Sunderland (h).

● Position: 2nd
● Record: 20-6-6
● Points: 66 (68.75%)
● Form: WWWWWW
● Last match: Reading 1-2 Arsenal (FA Cup Semifinal).
We went into the weekend under the tetchy feeling that a Man U win could see us slide to third, even if temporarily, and that threatened to cast a pall over our FA Cup ambitions. However, we fought our way past a determined Reading side who gave as well as they got and must feel aggrieved not to have at least gotten to penalties. When Alexis’s shot squirmed past Federici, it felt almost unjust.  Then again, that’s the cup. Anything can happen. Heck, in our last four trips to Wembley, only one of them ended on 90 minutes—the Community Shield win against Man City. To have gone to extra time against a Championship side might seem like ineptitude until we remember that so many rivals lost in the fourth round (including Chelsea’s loss to League One Bradford). This win over Reading might not provide quite the emotional spark that last season’s win over Wigan did; if anything, it resurrects questions about Szczesny’s performance when Reading’s pole made more saves than did our Pole. That said, we’ve won nine in a row across all competitions. Can we make the trip to Old Trafford irrelevant?
● Next match: 26 April vs. Chelsea
● Remaining fixtures: Chelsea (h), Hull (a), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (h), West Brom (h), Aston Villa(h—FA Cup final).

Manchester United
● Position: 3rd
● Record: 19-8-6
● Points: 65 (65.7%)
● Form: WWWWL
● Last match: Chelsea 1-0 Man U
One might have expected something better after Man U’s dominance of Man City last weekend. Perhaps more surprising than the statistical domination that Man U showed against Chelsea—70% possession, 665 passes to 284—is the tactical inflexibility on display. Despite Chelsea setting up to deny Fellaini and Rooney, Van Gaal never seemed to alter his approach despite how futile it was. As alluded to above, that’s how Chelsea play, and they’re all but impregnable when they decide to be. The loss keeps them a point behind Arsenal, who now have a game in hand. Having coasted through a season free of Champions League play, and having splurged as much as they did in the summer, it must come as a bit of a disappointment to have only risen to third—a position that might owe more to Liverpool’s fade than to Man U’s rise. With the Prem race all but settled and nothing else to vie for,  will Man U’s squad have the tenacity to fight for a second-place finish anyway? The core of Rooney, van Persie, Falcao, and di Maria has underperformed all season, but the potential is still there for a late-season surge…
● Next match: 26 April at Everton
● Remaining fixtures: Everton (a), West Brom (h), Crystal Palace (a), Arsenal (h), Hull (h).

Manchester City
● Position: 4th
● Record: 19-7-7
● Points: 64 (64.6%)
● Form: WLWLLW
● Last match: Man City 2-0 West Ham
Even when Man City wins, there’s an asterisk. Their win over West Ham came courtesy of a bizarre own-goal from James Collins, who dinked his own keeper from 20 yards out. To then fault Stewart Downing for an error that led to Man City’s second goal seems a bit harsh, but it is in keeping with the narrative: Man City are still at far less than their best. However, the win keeps them right in the thick of the hunt for the second-place position, proving that it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. This win might be enough to hold at arm’s length the hounds baying for Pellegrini to be sacked and the squad cleared out, but its serendipitous nature might not be enough to propel City any higher than fourth. This still looks like a jaded, disinterested squad, comfortable enough to stay in the top four to not climb any higher. Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton pose no real threat to them. This is not to say that we can write off Man City, but maybe we can pencil them in for fourth and leave it at that?
● Next match: 25 April vs. Aston Villa
● Remaining fixtures: Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), QPR (h), Swansea (a), Southampton (h)

And there it stands. Liverpool might still have an outside chance at sneaking into the top four; they have a game in hand, after all, and trail Man City by “just” seven points. That fight for positions two, three, could shape up to be epic. Arsenal, of course, have to host Chelsea and visit Man U, each of those a knife that can cut both ways. Each of the top four faces a mixed bag of clubs either comfortably ensconced mid-table or squabbling to stave off relegation.   Still, we at Arsenal have to feel pretty good about defending a position rather than scrambling for it. Even if we lose or draw against Chelsea, we’re still in second place. While it’s a bit too early to talk of a magic number for finishing in second, it’s not too early to let those thoughts start to creep in. Savor them, but don’t bank on them just yet.