28 September 2014

Rivals' Wrap-up III: Where do we stand in the Prem?

After a near-perfect weekend a week ago, I suppose it only makes sense that things come crashing back down at our feet. Let's hope this isn't a reversion to means. Instead of result after result breaking to our advantage, we've had to watch as most of our rivals made the most of their weekends while we, unfortunately, seem to have botched things just a bit. We could have and should have done better (I've lost track of whether it's us or Liverpool speaking at the moment), especially when we consider how we played and what was at stake. Most of our rivals left such dithering by the wayside, in part because they faced inferior opposition, in part because they made the most of their chances. To the results (!).

● Position; First.
● Record:  5W, 1D, 0L
● Form: WWWWDW
● Key matches:  Everton 3-6 Chelsea; Man City 1-1 Chelsea.
The juggernaut resumes its assault on all things good and holy with a resounding 3-0 win over Aston Villa, not that this comes as any surprise. Chelsea have now scored 19 goals in six matches, with only a draw at the Etihad to indicate any lull in their momentum. They're humming along, it seems, with one of the softest early-season fixture-lists to date. At a risk of making too much (or is it too little?) of their opponents, I might suggest that they've padded their stats just a bit with wins over Burnley, Leicester, Swansea, and Aston Villa. Yes, they demolished Everton, but this may say as much about Everton's early-season foibles as it does about Chelsea's early season formidables. (sorry if the alliteration stretches things a bit). We have little choice but to see last week's draw at the Etihad as classic, Mourinho-esque cynicism, augmented by flat-track bullying of lesser opponents.

Manchester City
● Position; Second.
● Record:  3W, 2D, 1L
● Form: WWLDDW
● Key matches: City 3-1 Liverpool; Arsenal 2-2 City; City 1-1 Chelsea.
As with Chelsea, it's hard to know just what to make of Citeh. They've bullied squads likely to finish in the bottom half of the table, but they've struggled or settled for draws against more-ambitious rivals. This weekend saw them batter Hull 2-4, scoring twice inside the first eleven minutes. It's not quite the waltz in the park one might expect from the reigning Prem champion over a promoted side, but after sleep-walking or stumbling through the previous three weeks, it only makes sense for them to right things a bit with a confident victory. Despite my suggestions that they might be getting a bit jaded after their orgy of recent success, their shellacking of Hull, much like Chelsea's beat-down of Villa, indicates that both clubs could continue to lord it over the rest of the Prem if only by dint of sheer manpower. If individual players are looking a bit diffident, hungrier players wait in the wings. If only Arsenal had the same problem...

● Position; Fourth.
● Record:  2W, 4D, 0L
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-2 Man City; Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham.
Our attempt at repeating the Invincibles season of 2003-04 continues uninterrupted, but drawing with rivals hardly feels as inspiring or as historic as battering them. Still, here we are after a tetchy early stretch of fixtures, undefeated in the Prem. There's something in that. Whether that's enough is a matter of conscience. What a difference chronologies make, eh? Had we scored first on Saturday, we would feel deeply aggrieved to settle for a draw. Having conceded first, even against the run of play, we have to feel, well, miffed. Tottenham can celebrate the draw as an early season high-light while we mutter and grumble about chances spurned, such is the gap in ambitions between us. Given the stakes of the North London Derby, form and table mean little, but we are fortunate indeed to have salvaged a point after having dominated possession to little purpose. Still, we emerge none the worse for wear. Our indifferent, uneven form is still enough to keep us in third position behind two clubs who, on the surface, look to be running away from the rest of the pack. In other words, we might be staggering, but we're keeping pace with rivals who are humming along. For now, I'll take it. For now...

Manchester United
● Position; Fifth
● Record:  2W, 2D, 2L
● Form: LDDWLW
● Key matches: None to date.
Didn't I tell you? I warned you, didn't I? It was only a matter of time before Man U found some kind of rhythm, purpose and identity under Van Gaal. Here, finally, is incontrovertible proof of his mission, served up under no less a result than a stunning, definitive 2-1 victory over West Ham. Oh. Wait. Even if the Hammers, um, hammered Liverpool a week ago, it's hard to anoint them as legitimate contenders. While one might look at Man U's win as a test of their mettle (Rooney was sent off! We were down to ten men!), it's still hard to get a grip on just who this squad is. Are they the woebegone lot who squandered a two goal on their way to losing 5-3? Or are they the more-confident, if still brittle, battlers who seized and defended an early lead? Against the Hammers, van Persie scored, assisted by Falcao, and Rooney netted as well. Does this bespeak a squad that is starting to click? They don't have distractions such as the league cup or Europa League to contend with, so maybe there's something in the result to suggest that Man U is on the up-and-up...

● Position; Sixth.
● Record:  2W, 2D, 2L
● Form: WWLDLD
● Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool; Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham.
Despite one of the softer schedules to date, Tottentham have thus far failed to impress. Even as last season's excuse (we had to bed in so many players...) fades away, similar problems persist. Frailty at home. A paucity of goals. And so on. However, these Spuds came into the Emirates and very nearly pulled off a smash-and-grab, scoring one goal against the run of play and defending in the final third with a tenacity to make us blush. That they came away with only the one point is a testament to what they can pull off when they put their minds to it. Whether the point taken in the North London Derby gives them any kind of momentum is now the issue. To date, they've staggered and tripped along, but, as with Man U, it's probably only a matter of time before they find any kind of rhyhtm under a new manager.

● Position; Twelfth.
● Record:  2W, 1D, 3L
● Form: WLWLLD
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool; Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool; Liverpool 1-1 Everton.
Usually, hangovers only come after successes. Liverpool seem to be suffering the former without the latter. After banging in goal after goal a season ago, the Liverputians have struggled mightily to manufacture goals. There's just no bite to their attack at the moment. Were it not for a Gerrard spot-kick (which accounts for 17 of his last 18 goals scored...), Everton could have come away with the win. As it stands, Jagielka's goal-of-the-season wonder-strike leaves the Merseyside derby as a draw. By contrast with ours, Liverpool have no choice but to feel gutted, having dropped two points at home in the waning moments. Whether this is a temporary dilemma as they adjust to that raft of new signings, or whether they'll continue to flounder (with new European commitments looming) is the question of the hour. The Sturridge-Sterling-Balotelli axis is yet to find any rhythm, unless by 'rhythm' we mean "Sterling does something potentially dangerous while Sturridge watches and Balotelli falls down for no apparent reason."

● Position; Thirteenth.
● Record:  1W, 3D, 2L
● Form: DDLWLD
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal; Everton 3-6 Chelsea; Liverpool 1-1 Everton.
Salvaging the draw at Anfield might just be enough to give the Toffees some confidence and momentum going forward, but the ugly fact remains that they're off to a sluggish start. Worse, the cloud behind the silver lining of Saturday's result is that the bloom seems to be off Martinez's rose. Sorry to mix metaphors, especially this late in the post. Why did Lukaku, clearly floundering and ineffective, spend his entire spell on the wing? This might have worked wonders against, oh, I don't know, Arsenal a few months ago, but it imploded as the Belgian blunderbuss misfired again and again. Yes, Everton came away with an invigorating draw, but it may have come through luck rather than strategy—hardly Martinez's calling-card. As I suggested last week, the pressure of living up to expectations, rather than defying them, might be taking its toll on the Toffees. Whether they can find some kind of rhythm or purpose is a now a very pertinent question, all the more so as they contend with the rigors of the Europa League (cough) with a trip to Russia to face FC Krasnodar.

All in all, this one was not a great weekend, and that statement stands regardless of how our rivals fared. Instead of flattening our rival, we struggled to finish them off, paying the price to the tune of two points dropped. Chelsea and Man City, like forces of nature, rolled on while rolling over their opponents, as is their wont. The rest of us seem likely to squabble over the crumbs that fall from the top to the table. If there's a silver lining to be clutched at, it's that we are yet to find any kind of momentum but are still striking distance of two rivals who have settled into early grooves. How much there is in that remains to be seen, perhaps as early as a week from now as we go into Stamford Bridge for our sternest test to date...

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