Premier League Review: In The Rear View Mirror
The gap between first and second place in the Premier League take remains at nine points following this weekend’s round of matches, but it already feels as though the events of the previous couple of days have largely been an exercise in continuing to count the corpses of loftier ambitions from earlier in the season. This time around it’s Arsene Wenger and Juergen Klopp who are feeling the heat following defeats that felt as much about their nature as about points standings in the actual Premier League table itself.
The weekend began with Chelsea putting Arsenal to the sword on Saturday lunchtime in a manner befitting of the praise they’ve been receiving over the last two or three months or so. A combination of Arsenal defensive calamity and sublime finishing was enough to scramble the Arsene Wenger obituary writers, but the true story of Saturday lunchtime’s comfortable win for the home side is the ongoing question of how Chelsea are a team so transformed from last season’s mess. The arrival of N’golo Kante – who was imperious again in a holding midfield position – an increased dedication to drilling the team and the return to form of players such as Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard, who both scored on Saturday, are all reasonable shouts by way of an explanation. A combination of all of the above and the lack of distraction brought about by the team having no European football seems most likely.
Few of the remaining pack particularly covered themselves in glory over the course of the remainder of the weekend, though. After Tottenham Hotspur’s one-nil win against Middlesbrough in the last match of the weekend, a win that left Spurs in second place in the table, Mauricio Pochettino seemed in a particularly chipper mood, belying the distinct possibility that the Spurs manager believes that his team can still catch Chelsea at the top of the table. Having dropped two points at Sunderland last week, Spurs needed a win to regain their poise and they got it thanks to a second half Harry Kane penalty, and Spurs supporters may be happy enough to be grinding out wins when the pressure is on (which which is just about every game at the moment), but it still feels as though Spurs are just the last remaining team that hasn’t had the wobble that will cast them terminally adrift of the leaders, yet.
Manchester City jump back up to third place, following a win and performance against Swansea City yesterday afternoon that felt little more convincing than Spurs had been the night before. It took two goals from headline writers’ wet dream Fernando Gabriel Jesus to hand City a win against a doughty Swansea side, the second of which came two minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the match. Swansea may well be justified in feeling a little aggrieved after a spirited second half performance resulted in an equaliser from Gylfi Sigurdsson with nine minutes left to play, but it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the ability to pluck last minute winners from nowhere is one of the advantages conferred by being richer than Croesus. Manchester City remain, however, ten points behind Chelsea with fourteen games of the season left to play.
If Arsene Wenger’s remaining supporters at Arsenal have been a little on the defensive after recent results, the Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp is now experiencing something approaching open season following Saturday’s two-nil loss at Hull City, who continue to display extraordinary signs of life following the recent appointment of Marco Silva. Alfred N’Diaye and Oumar Niasse scored the Hull goals and continued the recent trend of mocking the Proper Football Men of Sky Sports who mocked his arrival at the club, but for Klopp 2017 has been little short of a catastrophe so far, with one win in ten matches, an empty January in the transfer window, and elimination from the two domestic cup competitions in the space of a few days of each other amounting to little more than a disastrous new year, so far. And while even this doesn’t quite constitute a CRISIS for Liverpool – who have now dropped to fifth place in the table, but are only a point shy of fifth-placed Arsenal – just yet, the last month or so has emphatically not been the “Klopp revolution” that Liverpool supporters had been promised this season.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, there seems to be a dividing line between the clubs that have been around the bottom of the table but are starting to get their acts together and those who had looked okay but are now starting to ominously plummet towards the bottom three places. At the foot of the former list is Leicester City. whose supine three-nil home reverse at the hand of Manchester United only seemed to confirm the worst fears of those who felt that Leicester may even struggle this season. Knives are slowly being drawn for Claudio Ranieri around The King Power Stadium, a state of affairs that asks the question of whether last season’s feelgood story of the year may yet have an unhappy ending. Manchester United stay in sixth place in the table, but are now just one point adrift of Liverpool.
There is an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart, when playing back a video recording of Ralph Wiggum being romantically declined by Lisa, pauses the video and says, “If you look closely you can actually pinpoint the exact moment his heart breaks in two”. It was difficult not to think of that quotation as half-time approached at Selhurst Park yesterday afternoon, as Sunderland – Sunderland! – scored three goals in four minutes to turn what was already a vomit sandwich of an afternoon for Sam Allardyce into a full-blown gala luncheon of bodily excretions. By the time of his post-match interview Allardyce was carrying the thousand yard stare of a Vietnam veteran, and Palace are now separated from the very foot of the table by goal difference. Rumours that David Moyes may even have cracked a smile after the match remain unconfirmed.
It now looks as though it will be three from six at the foot of the table, with Watford beating Burnley and West Bromwich Albion beating Stoke City, although Bournemouth have now gone five matches without a win, have the worst defensive record in the division, and shipped six goals at Goodison Park against Everton on Saturday afternoon, and may be looking over their shoulders at those just between them. At least, we may console ourselves, if the title race is to become a procession leading to an inevitable Chelsea win, the undignified clamour to avoid the drop at the other end of the table might be enough to keep us all entertained until the whole circus grinds to a halt in just over three months’ time.
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