Premier League Review: Forward March
Perhaps, it has rather come to feel lately, there is something about the Premier League that is ultimately destructive. The list of players and managers that have washed up on these shores and have been subsequently cast aside is a lengthy one, and perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to those who manage to make a go of it for anything like a lengthy period of time. The most extreme example of this is probably Wayne Rooney. Introduced to the pressure cooker at a tender age, Rooney is still with us a decade and a half on. He’s won every domestic trophy of significance that there is to win. He’s captained both his club team and his national team, and as of around a quarter to five on Saturday afternoon he’s the record goalscorer for both.
Yet the football world only seems to want to greet these achievements with derision. It’s true to say that Wayne Rooney hasn’t quite delivered as part of an England team has been successful, and its equally true to say that the club team at which he has spent the majority of his career is very unpopular. On the other hand, though, England have been in steady decline for a decade, and it’s doubtful that even the presence of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, say, would have brought shiny trinkets on account of their presence alone. And Manchester United are primarily unpopular because they were so successful for so long, success that was continued . On Saturday, Rooney’s intervention was at least a significant one for his own team, digging them from a hole of their own creation as a result of their own sluggish response to the early own goal from Juan Mata that gave Stoke City the lead. But this was two dropped points for Manchester United on a weekend when dropped points were very much the order of the day at the top of the Premier League.
At least Manchester United only dropped the two points. The recent form of Liverpool and Swansea City had been such that their match above most others will have been that upon which a large number of accumulator bets were based at the weekend. Liverpool had been misfiring long before Fernando Llorente’s two goals put the visitors into such an unlikely lead. The manner in which Liverpool clawed their way back into the match indicated that the players had at least recognised the scale of the pickle in which they’d found themselves, but Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late winning goal, which combined ridiculous and sublime in one smooth movement, blew another hole in Liverpool’s hopes of a first league title in twenty-seven years. This was exactly the sort of match that Liverpool needed to be a home banker, for that to be likely.
The gap between expectation and reality was on display in a more subtle way at The City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday evening. Going into the match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, much had been made of City’s previous thrashing at Everton and Spurs’ stylish recent run of wins. Received wisdom talked enthusiastically of the extent to which an ebullient Spurs team may be able to pick off Manchester City, but once the teams got under way, the plot of the match failed to follow the script. The home side raced to a comfortable lead with two goals in six early second half minutes, but both of these came about due to uncharacteristic mistakes from the generally outstanding Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. When Spurs fought their way back into the match, it came with two goals that made it six consecutive shots on goal – when coupled with City’s previous trip to Goodison Park – to have beaten the Manchester City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, which led to criticism of him, even though he could have done little about either. A denied penalty kick for a clear shove on Raheem Sterling by Kyle Walker and a disallowed goal from debutant Jesus – about whom the well lol original jokes has already run dry, such is the nature of social media – only added to the obfuscation emanating from a chaotically entertaining match, but afterwards, even Mauricio Pochettino had to concede that the home side had been the better team.
There was also late drama in spades at The Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon, as two late penalty kicks overshadowed the previous eighty-nine minutes of Arsenal’s win against Burnley. Three minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the match, a Burnley penalty allowed Andre Gray to rescue something from the match for the visitors. Or so they thought. In the resulting kerfuffle, Arsene Wenger was sent to the bowels of the stadium, where he missed Arsenal getting a penalty of their own eight minutes into the same period of stoppage-time. Perhaps Wenger was left feeling a little foolish over this, perhaps he wasn’t. Another late win will have been most welcome, though, not least because the stumbles of others allowed Arsenal a route back to second place in the table.
Peering over their shoulders at the scramble below them, meanwhile, Chelsea rumble on with a lead now extended to eight points, following a ground out win against Hull City on Sunday afternoon. Hull did provide enough backbone to make Chelsea work for their three points, and perhaps the most significant news of the afternoon to come from Stamford Bridge was the fractured skull suffered by Hull’s Ryan Mason, who is, at the time of writing, in a stable condition in hospital. We wish him, of course, all the best. Otherwise, it was a routine, if workmanlike day at the office for Antonio Conte, whose team is proving week after week to be a thin sliver better than everybody else. It is one of the peculiarities of football that an accumulation of slender margins can prove so decisive in building up a commanding cumulative lead at the top of the table.
Such narrow margins were also on display, albeit at the other end of the table, at Selhurst Park, where a late Seamus Coleman goal was enough to win the match between Crystal Palace and Everton and drop Palace into the bottom three for the first time this season. Sam Allardyce, therefore, remains without a win since taking charge of the club, and the extent to which his team is now engulfed in a relegation firefight is now clearly evident. Everton, on the other hand, remain the Premier League’s prime example of The Peter Principle in action. Coleman’s goal may have narrowed the gap by two points, but they continue to smack their head against the glass ceiling above them.
Sunderland’s glass ceiling has been perilously lowly positioned for several seasons now, and there was little to be taken from their defeat at West Bromwich Albion at the weekend to disavow supporters of the recent, strangely fatalistic proclamations of David Moyes. Still, at least their topple from grace this season hasn’t been from as lofty a perch as that of Leicester City, for whom the possibility of a league title followed by relegation remains a distinct possibility following a lukewarm performance in losing by three goals to nil at Southampton. Inevitably, the hashtag “#ranieriout” was doing brisker business than before, yesterday afternoon.
Completing the set of clubs at the bottom of the table who are looking nervously over their shoulders are Middlesbrough, who were comfortably beaten at home by West Ham United on Saturday and continue a downward drift towards the relegation places so glacial that few seem to have even noticed that it is even occurring just yet. West Ham United, meanwhile, continue their upward ascent. The panic that settled over the Olympic Stadium in the autumn following their stuttering start to the season seem like long distant memories now, as can be evinced from the team’s reaction to the recent go slow imposed upon them by Dimitri Payet. They join Bournemouth and Watford, who played out a perky draw that was probably a disappointment to both managers. Full of flaws and strengths, both teams demonstrated precisely why they seem destined to see out the season in the middle of the Premier League table.
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