The Weekend In Review: Affluenza Marks The Ides of March
Won’t somebody please think of the extremely wealthy? A serious bout of affluenza has struck the clubs that would like an even greater slice of the European football pie, and this weekend none of those who took part in their meeting with the American businessman who would like to see them achieve this could manage to win a game between them. Admittedly, Liverpool didn’t play, but this was only because they’d already been knocked out of this year’s FA Cup. Across both the Cup and the Premier League, however, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea could muster only one drawn match between them over the course of the weekend.
With twenty-seven minutes left to play of their FA Cup quarter-final against Watford at The Emirates Stadium this afternoon, Arsenal supporters might well have been wondering how it was that their team had stabbed them in the back again. That your club has won the trophy for the previous couple of seasons counts for very little when you’re watching them scoop the ball from the back of the net for the second time in just over twenty minutes and defeat is staring you in the face, after all. Odion Ighalo had given Watford the lead five minutes into the second half, a goal of such spectacular ease that one was minded to ask the question of whether Arsene Wenger might have replaced the Arsenal central defence with dustbins wearing replica shirts at half-time.
A second goal, driven into the roof of the goal by Adlene Guedioura thirteen minutes later, seemed to confirm Arsenal’s fate, but even this wasn’t sufficient torture for the club to pile upon its supporters. With three minutes left to play, Danny Welbeck pulled a goal back and then, less than a minute later, Welbeck missed an open goal from six yards out when it might have seemed easier to score and take the match to a replay. In other seasons, we might well have wondered whether a replay was actually what Arsenal needed at this stage in a busy season, but this time around we can only consider that Arsenal really needed this win following a clutch of underwhelming performances of late.
And so it is that pencils are sharpened for the annual obituaries for Arsenal’s season. It’s not all over yet, of course. Whether the next few weeks play out positively or negatively for the club, Arsenal will either be playing to either challenge for the Premier League Trophy or to hang on to a Champions League place, unless they can pull of the biggest surprise result of the season at the Camp Nou this week. For Watford, meanwhile, a trip to Wembley for at least an FA Cup semi-final feels like thoroughly deserved reward for a season well negotiated. Quique Sánchez Flores’ team was well set up, coping comfortably with Arsenal’s pushes towards their own penalty area, whilst Ighalo and Troy Deeney were at the muscular best when Watford did spy the opportunity to break. They fully merit their place in the last four of the competition.
On Saturday evening, meanwhile, it looked for all the world as if the match between Everton and Chelsea was going to become The Diego Costa Show, such was the paucity of entertainment on display and the Chelsea striker’s penchant for starting fights in an empty room, but in the second half of that match Romelo Lukaku gave Chelsea supporters even further cause to question of the wisdom of their club’s decision to sell Lukaku two years ago. Lukaku is a striker who makes scoring goals look like climbing Mount Everest and makes climbing Mount Everest look easy. His two second half goals at Goodison Park meant that even Costa’s late cameo showing for a red card – somewhat extraordinarily the first that he’s acquired for Chelsea – had a hint of the desultory about it. Eliminated from the Champions League and from the FA Cup in a matter of five days and eleven points from fourth place in the table, Chelsea’s season is surely now effectively over.
At least Manchester United managed to scramble a goal, at home against West Ham United. Anthony Martial scored with seven minutes left to play to rescue a last ever FA Cup match at The Boleyn Ground this afternoon. It was their first shot on target of the afternoon. Up to that point, Louis Van Gaal’s team had looked as stodgy as ever. Dimitri Payet’s outstanding curling free-kick midway through the second half – only a couple of minutes after he might have been sent off for a second card after a little bout of that other Premier League virus, simulation – had given West Ham United the lead, and Manchester United had seldom seriously looked like finding a way back into the match. Still, there’s a faint scent of Wembley in the air for a club that hasn’t won the competition in eleven years, and Van Gaal will hang on in his position for another few weeks, at least.
The weekend had begun with Crystal Palace ending the Football League’s interest in the competition for this year with a comfortable win at Reading on Friday night. It’s been a little over twenty years since Palace last reached this stage of the competition, and their run to this stage of the competition has, of course, coincided with a catastrophic run of form in the league which sees the club holding the unwanted record of being the only Premier League club without a league win in 2016. Palace are eight points above the Premier League’s relegation places – a gap that is probably too great for the clubs below them to bridge, but it does seem unusual that Alan Pardew’s team seems to be almost almost pathologically averse to taking anything psychologically positive from their cup run.
Back in the Premier League, meanwhile, Manchester City found themselves the width of a crossbar from losing at Norwich City in a match that ended in a goalless draw and saw their chances of winning the league title this season disappear a little further into the horizon. This was, arguably, a match from which Manchester City needed a win more than anything else, and a failure to do so will only further embolden those of the opinion that City’s players might already have stopped playing for Manuel Pellegrini. Norwich City, meanwhile, are now only behind from bottom Sunderland on goal difference. The only team near the top of the table to actually have a positive weekend turned out to be Tottenham Hotspur. Their two-nil win at Aston Villa – courtesy of two goals in four minutes either from Harry Kane – might have been completely expected result, but after their supine capitulation in Dortmund on Thursday night this might just turn out to be a very important result for Spurs’ season. Aston Villa, on the other hand, don’t look as if they’re going to struggling with affluenza at any point in the foreseeable future.
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