28 February 2022

Rivals' Roundup #27: bit of a mixed bag there...

Ok, so the week brought us some nice news aside from the fact that Leeds had to sack Bielsa. Nice guy. Good coach. However, apparently, losing to the side that lost to Burnley is a bridge too far. Elsewhere, other clubs are running scared, hiding behind the "EFL Cup" or other imaginary reasons, leaving us with a weekend free from dramatic results over other clubs. As such, we'll have to wait until next weekend for a full set of results to regale ourselves. Fortunately, there are a few nifty nuggets to nibble on, so let's dive right in, shall we?

 Before we go too far, I'm going to act on the advice of a few of you who clearly have my health and sanity near and dear to your hearts. To that end, we'll leave Man City and Liverpool out of this week's roundup. If one or both start dropping points, well, we'll invite them back in. Let's put our focus on the clubs that matter.

3. Chelsea (25 played, 14W 8D 3L: 50 pts.).
Chelsea were supposed to face Leicester this weekend but instead went off to Wembley to play the latest round of their game, "how much can we waste on strikers who don't score?". Lukaku did find the back of the net in extra time, but the EFL Cup ultimately went to Liverpool. It's too bad they managed to dodge the Foxes, who, despite failing to win in their last five outings, have actually looked, well, feisty. The bigger news, perhaps, is the announcement that Abramovich has handed over to Chelsea's charitable foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC" due to the tragic and unconscionable invasion of Ukraine by Russia (for those not in the know, Abramovich has very close ties to Putin. Whether his motives are sincere or cynical are for others to assess. For myself, I'll set aside the snark and hope he's sincere. 

4. Man U (27 played, 13W 8D 6L: 47 pts.).
"Draw FC" continue their drawing ways, fighting to a well-earned draw in a Champions League visit to Atletico Madrid before then stumbling to a draw at home to relegation stragglers Watford. It really is remarkable to hear that a club that still has Ronaldo, Rashford, Cavani, and Sancho, supported by the likes of Fernandes and Pogba, struggles as much as it does. It's almost as if throwing money at problems isn't quite enough to solve said problems. That said, Man U did their best to reprise the role of Tantalus (please tell me you grasp this allusion to Greek myth) as Ronaldo had a goal disallowed because he was offside, hit the post, and hit teammate Elanga while Fernandes fluffed two golden opportunities of his own. Maybe Portuguese players just aren't meant to score? Perhaps. Most shockingly, though, was that Ronaldo had one penalty shout denied and spurned a chance to go down to attract Kevin Friend's attention, but to no avail. It's almost enough to insinuate that Man U are not quite the club that they used to be—or, failing that, Ronaldo isn't quite the player he used to be. 

5. West Ham (27 played, 13W 6D 8L: 45 pts.).
It may be that defeating Wolves isn't all that it used to be. There was a time, in the days of yore, that besting the West Midlands side was an occasion to brag about. Just a few days later, sadly, a colder, harder truth prevails. It now seems that any Johnny-come-lately can just waltz right past Wolves without so much as a by-your-leave. Indeed, the Hammers sauntered past their visitors, helped in no small part by Bruno Lage's decision to rest Jimenez, Podence, Neto, and Moutinho—at least initially. It seemed a strange concession ahead of a crucial, winnable match for Wolves and one that West Ham were just barely capable of capitalising on. Elswwhere, David Moyes deserves credit for offering Ukrainian striker Andriy Yarmolenko some time off in the wake of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine—no small feat given the thinness of the West Ham squad and the fact that they're still "fighting" on three fronts (Prem, FA Cup, and Europa League). I'll again set aside the snark and this time go so far as to say that I'd like to see any squad with a Ukrainian in it succeed on at least one of those fronts.

6. Arsenal (24 played, 14W 3D 7L: 45 pts.).
Oh, how I yearn for the days when defeating Wolves meant something. These days, it's almost de rigueur to defeat Wolves; it's what all the cool kids are doing. All the same, it's not often one gets a chance at defeating one's rival twice in a fortnight; that's just what the Arsenal did. This time—believe it or not—the Gunners did so while staying at full strength, no mean feat when Xhaka and Martinelli start and the referee is British, even more so when that British referee is one Martin Atkinson. In all seriousness, though, this one had all the hallmarks of an epic Arsenal collapse: an early. calamitous concession against an inferior opponent. Gabriel's back-pass to Ramsdale was soft, and White was slow to detect Hwang's run to intercept. In the before days, this would have ended up an 0-3 loss. Under Arteta (with apologies to the Arteta out crowd), the overhauled squad rallied, dug deep, and found new reserves of resolve. Late goals from Pépé and Lacazette (yeah, it's officially an own-goal...) earned us a vital and dramatic win. If we were to win our games in hand (a big if), we'd be on 54 points, enough for...third. Don't go ordering custom-decorated cakes or DVDs or anything just yet, though. That would be embarrassing.

7. Tottenham (25 played, 13W 3D 9L: 42 pts.).
It was the best of times; it was the blurst of times. Stupid monkey. Tottenham somehow found a way to lose to Burnley, they of the three wins from 24 outings, and then oh-so-bravely battered Leeds, they of the 20 goals conceded from five outings. There are few clubs that can go into the Etihad and win only to lose to relegation fodder just a few days later. Still, we've gone down that road already, so maybe it's a relief that Tottenham went to Elland Road. The result led to Bielsa being sacked, and those two factors may distract from Conte's imminent departure (it's not as if Levy will somehow break the bank between now and the end of the season. On the other hand, nothing quite propels a club towards victory or at least something resembling the versimiltude of relevance than battering a squad that is in free-fall. Good on you, Tottenham. Sincerely. Long may you prosper on the remains of those in the bottom half (unless they're Burnley, of course).

8. Wolves, (26 played, 12W 4D 10L: 40 pts.).
Despite their whingeing after losing to us, I've come around to liking Wolves enough to hope that I can't really summon enough to taunt them anymore. Let's hope they overtake Tottenham and leave it at that. Lage has had to make some difficult decisions with the squad, as shown by making five changes from the squad we faced Thursday last week. Having now lost three of their last five, Wolves risk losing the plot. Then again, they've come through a very difficult stretch and now can look ahead to a softer run of fixtures. The return to fitness of Pedro Neto should at least give Lage options if not an actual boost in attack, something they've sorely needed. I couldn't believe this when I saw it—Wolves have only scored 24 goals in 26 matches. Only Norwich and Burnley have scored fewer. They have conceded the fourth-fewest goals, though, so any boost to that attack could go a long way. In other words, we can't write them off yet, literally or figuratively.

So there we have it. Another round of results in the books. It's hard not to feel optimistic about our chances, not just because we're getting results and none of our rivals look all that mpressive, but also because there does seem to be a new feeling in the air. It used to be that going down a man or conceding a cheap goal would cause a catastrophic implosion. As I mentioned above, we seem to rally in the face of difficulty rather than shrink from it. That suggests that this young squad is buying whatever Arteta is selling, and it's starting to pay off [pats self on back for the extended metaphor]. There are a few Champions League and Europa League fixtures coming up for Liverpool, Man City, and West Ham, so we'll have to see what effect if any that has on their energy for the weekend.