The Premier League In Review: Back To The Future
Another weekend passes, and with it Leicester City take another step closer to a most unlikely Premier League title. This afternoon at The King Power Stadium, a thirty-eighth minute goal from Wes Morgan – his first goal of the season – coupled with a little luck on the part of refereeing decisions which might easily have cost the team at least two of the three points that they picked up was enough to edge them a step closer to the finishing line. For all of the increasingly excitable attitude of Leicester’s supporters, who now surely are at least starting to believe that they’re going to win the league, the team itself didn’t appear particularly nervy, grinding out a functional win against a solid Southampton team which retains its interest in playing European football next season. It wasn’t pretty, but at this stage of the season and with the end in sight, no-one in the Premier League gets anything for artistic merit.
If Leicester’s win earlier this afternoon was a good performance given an added layer of significance by the team’s position in the league, then the same could be said for Tottenham Hotspur at Liverpool the evening before, only with near opposite results. On any other occasion, a draw and a decent performance at Anfield would have been considered a job well done for Spurs, but this, as we are all aware, is about as far from “any other occasion” as could reasonably be imagined. Regardless of what the result might have been at The King Power Stadium the following day, Spurs needed a win from this match and the overwhelming feeling coming from Spurs supporters since the full-time whistle blew at Anfield last night has been that this is most likely the beginning of the end of their title ambitions. Leicester City can afford a small stumble over the course of the next five weeks or so. Spurs cannot, and Mauricio Pochettino’s team is starting to looking increasingly frazzled with each passing match.
With all of this tension between the top two in the Premier League at the moment, it can be easy to forget that this state of affairs is so far from the norm in this division. Just how far that might be considered may be best summed up by the fact that three of the clubs who would have been expected to be challenging for the title at the very start of the season – Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea – each won by four goals to nil on Saturday. There are mitigating circumstances concerning this in the case of Chelsea, whose win at Aston Villa was against a team that reacted to the departure of Remi Garde in the only way that it knew show and is presumably already winding down in preparation for a long summer trying to find contracts at other clubs after their relegation release clauses kick in next month.
The players of Watford and AFC Bournemouth, on the other hand, have few mitigating circumstances for the poverty of their performances against Arsenal and Manchester City respectively on Saturday afternoon. Watford were barely recognisable from the team that won so impressively at The Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup three weeks earlier, whilst AFC Bournemouth seem to have juddered quite quickly to a halt after having picked up the thirty-eight points that many believe will be more or less enough to ensure that the club stays in the Premier League for a second successive season. Seven goals conceded without reply in their last two matches would seem to indicate that manager Eddie Howe may well be dusting off his copy of The Riot Act before training starts on Monday morning.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, it was a bad weekend for the north-east of England, and if that counts as one of the most overused sentences of the season so far, then, well, this was a really bad weekend. There was little specifically wrong with Sunderland’s performance in their goalless draw against West Bromwich Albion, and had the West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster not had one of his better Saturdays of the season, perhaps Sam Allardyce would have enjoyed a win. At this point of the season, however, the margins between victory and otherwise are as greatly magnified as they’re capable of being, and his team’s failure to find a way past Foster was even more greatly exaggerated by events at Carrow Road.
Timm Klose’s first half header was a reasonable return for a Norwich City performance which up to that point had been mediocre and no more while their opponents had been abject. In the second half, though, Newcastle’s players finally started to act as though they recognised each other, and with nineteen minutes to play Aleksandar Mitrovic brought the visitors level, it was no less than Rafael Benitez deserved for his apparent half-time shakedown. This, however, was only just the beginning of the afternoon’s festivities. Newcastle’s parity lasted just three minutes before Dieumerci Mbokani’s superb goal brought Norwich level, but with four minutes to play a penalty from Mitrovic – let’s not pretend that the football Gods were somehow acting against them – before a late, late winner from Marton Olsson took Norwich City six points clear of Newcastle and four clear of Sunderland at the foot of the table. There is still time for the situation at the foot of the table to change, of course, but if Sunderland and Newcastle can’t beat West Bromwich Albion and Norwich at this stage of the season, well… it’s difficult to see how they’re going to make that gap up.
Elsewhere, the chase for that still enigmatic fourth Champions League place continues apace. Manchester United ground Everton down by a goal to nil this afternoon, so this weekend turned out to not be a great one for West Ham United, who may have been a little dazzled by Dimitri Payet’s wonderful free-kick against Crystal Palace but who may well be ruing not having taken all three points from a team that may just have arrested their precipitous decline throughout the second half of this season just enough to save themselves for another season. The same goes for Swansea City, whose two-all draw at Stoke City is probably enough to keep them secure for another season. Nothing’s been finally just decided yet, but this Premier League season might just be starting to come into focus.
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