The Premier League in Review: Don’t Stop Being You, You
With fifty-odd minutes played at White Hart Lane in yesterday’s Most Important North London Derby Of All Time™, most Tottenham Hotspur would have gnawed through their own arms for a point against the devils in red and white shirts. Aron Ramsey’s deft backheel had given Arsenal a half-time advantage that looked fairly for secure for all that Spurs had peppered the Arsenal goal with shots. A familiar sinking feeling was settling in. In the space of twenty minutes, however, the balance of North London power swung back and forth like a pendulum before coming to rest somewhere in the East Midlands. If truth be told, Leicester City were the winners of this season’s second North London Derby.
For around fifteen minutes following the dismissal of Francis Coquelin, though, Spurs recovered psychologically, first with a low driven shot from Toby Alderweireld from a corner and then with a Nelinho-esque curler from Harry Kane. As the home side pushed for a third goal, however, gaps were starting to appear at the back and an equalising goal from Alexis Sanchez led to the curious sight of Spurs hanging on against ten men for the final fifteen minutes. A draw, which did neither team too many favours in terms of any ambitions that they may have had towards winning this year’s Premier League title, was probably a fair result in the end, but my word did both teams put their supporters through the mill in order to reach this inconclusion.
It remains, of course, too early for champagne corks to start popping in Leicester just yet, but as long as they keep grinding out results such as that which they achieved at Watford on Saturday tea-time it starts to feel inevitable that they will in the end. Pressure comes in many forms, to the extent that having the pressure taken off you becomes a form of it in itself, but a goal eleven minutes into the second half at Vicarage Road was enough to earn another three points for Claudio Ranieri and open up a five point gap at the top of the table with just nine games of the season now left. Ranieri’s protestations that his team isn’t capable of winning the league long passed through that looking glass at which they start to seem unbelievable, and one suspects that not only is the Leicester City manager aware of this, but also that he’s rather enjoying it. Let Spurs and Arsenal huff and puff their way through their matches as if they’re Shakespearian dramas, he may well rationalise, we’ll just keep on grinding out results. And they do.
Manchester City recovered a little of their recently departed poise by cruising to a four goal win against The Ghost of Aston Villa. Four goals in eighteen minutes, including two from Sergio Agüero, were enough to see off what passed for their opposition, and like somebody playing video game on its easiest level it’s difficult to say that we learned too much about City from such a result, but we certainly learned something about Aston Villa. We learned that the players seems to have given up any last remaining vestiges of giving a toss whether the club stays in the Premier League this season. We learned that Remi Garde – and this isn’t meant as a criticism, no matter how much it may sound like one – isn’t an alchemist. And we already know that it would be considerably cheaper to dress eleven scarecrows in Aston Villa shirts and plant them on whichever pitch they’re scheduled to be performing on shortly before kick-off.
Whilst some might point to the story of the weekend being the increasing pressure building on the Newcastle United manager Steve McClaren, we should, perhaps, be paying rather more attention to the achievements of the club which banged another nailed nail into its coffin on Saturday, AFC Bournemouth. Their three-one win at St James Park on Saturday afternoon took their points total for the season to thirty-five, eleven clear of Norwich City, who sit just below the dotted line near the foot of the table. In any other season, perhaps this story would be making all the headlines, but this is plainly not “any other season” in the Premier League. Ironically, though, the fact that attention has largely been lavished elsewhere may well been very much to the benefit of manager Eddie Howe, who has overcome significant injury problems to quietly take his team to a position in which relegation now seems to be virtually impossible.
How Steve McClaren must wish to be in Howe’s position right now. And how important now is the Tyne-Wear derby match against Sunderland at St James Park in two weeks time? Sunderland are now a point above Newcastle following a one-all draw at Southampton, a decent return on a week that hasn’t exactly covered that club in glory, and it is now now starting to seem clear that this year’s Premier League relegation places will be made up of Aston Villa plus two from Norwich City – who were beaten in a relegation six-pointer of their own at Swansea City – Newcastle United and Sunderland, who are separated by a single point either side of the aforementioned dotted line.
Meanwhile, back at the other end of the table, another relatively unheralded team is starting to look as if it could push for a place in next year’s Champions League. West Ham United won at Goodison Park against Everton on Saturday afternoon, a third win in a row which leaves Slaven Bilic’s team just a point behind Manchester City in fourth place in the table, although they have played a game more. They certainly seem more likely to grab a place than either Manchester United or Chelsea. Chelsea were pegged back by a late Stoke City goal at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon. They’re ten points from fourth place, which is probably now slightly too big a gap to be able to make up.
And then there’s Manchester United. Two steps forward, one step back, Manchester United. The warning signs for this afternoon’s match at The Hawthorns were clear and present when Louis Van Gaal’s team stumbled to a narrow home win against Watford during the week. West Bromwich Albion had held something of a curse over Manchester United during the late 1970s and early 1980s but hadn’t beaten them in thirty-two years. Until today, that is. A second half goal from Salomón Rondón was enough to win this game for West Bromwich Albion, but as many column inches will doubtlessly be afforded to the two yellow cards that Juan Mata accumulated in the space of narrowly over two and a half minutes to get his team reduced by a player – where “a player” equals “him” – as they will by another fine performance from West Bromwich Albion. The irony of this performance coming at the end of a week at during which a club representative was meeting to discuss how to further cut the European football pie in order to best benefit their own interests couldn’t be more striking, and the idea that this Manchester United team is equally or more deserving of Champions League football than this Leicester City is, frankly, laughable.
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