Premier League Winners And Losers: Arsenal Are Still The Favourites, Liverpool And Everton On The Rise
Hello and welcome to this week’s winners and losers column. Because of the mid-week action, this piece focuses on game week 14 & 15 looking at the players and managers who are feeling confident as the new year approaches and those whose bad performances have left them praying for Christmas miracles.
As usual, this column is in the spirit of good fun and as usual, your comments and opinions are welcomed.
Winners and Losers for Game Week 14 & 15
If this column gave a weekly award to the club that won the most during each round of games [new column idea?], Arsenal will be the undisputed champion for this week. Not only did they see off a determined Everton side [ask Moyes if you doubt their ability] but their major challengers lost vital points. Their draw against Everton means they now 5 games without a loss. Their last loss [2nd of the season] came at the head [or rather shoulder] of former captain Robin Van Persie. With back to back games against Manchester City and Chelsea coming up, Wenger and his team find themselves in a position of strength where a draw against both title contenders or a win and a loss to the other will ensure they remain on course to end this year on top. Their nearest rivals, Liverpool have pressing issues of their own and it will take a brave man to bet against Wenger ending 2013 on top of the EPL table.
One of the many worries this column raised when discussing the Gunners title credentials was the lack of competent cover for Giroud, their overworked French forward. Up stepped the Danish samurai, Niklas Bendtner to makes us all look foolish with a headed goal against Hull in the 2nd minute. The obligatory goal and assist came from Özil and Ramsey to make it a routine 2-0 win. To appreciate just how much this title is Arsenal’s to lose, Wenger now has Walcott back after a long injury spell. Flamini and Rosicky are back as well with the OX and Podolski expected to feature for the first team in the New Year. Yes, it is premature to crown them title contenders and let’s be honest, based on these last couple of seasons, most pundits will probably back Chelsea or Manchester City until it becomes mathematically impossible for Arsenal to NOT win the title because of how they implode during the final run-in. BUT, this team is playing with a resolve not seen at the Emirates and Wenger’s status as the longest tenured manager is suddenly giving him and his team an air of invisibility that Manchester United fans remember feeling but not sure if it was a figment of their imagination.
It takes a big person to admit when he is wrong, and this column though not quite ready to call Arsenal title favorites, will humbly concede that Wenger knows best.
No Sturridge, no problem for Liverpool it would seem as Suarez is proving more than competent to do the work of two talented and in-form strikers. Like Arsenal, Liverpool face off with Manchester City and Chelsea and this will be a test of their championship credentials. News of Gerald’s injury is bad timing but a test of the strength of this team as they are without their captain fantastic and Sturridge for the next 6weeks.
Raheem Sterling is back in the squad and has shown flashes of brilliance but continues to choose the wrong option whenever he has the ball. He has amazing pace but cannot rely on that to justify his selection for every game. Lest no one forget, he forced Liverpool to give him a huge contract based off a half-season of consistent performance. A level he is yet to attain this season. Whiles Arsenal can boast of quality players on the bench, Rogers’ questionable transfers have left the proud reds more than a little short on talent. By all indications, Iago Aspas is supposed to be a mini version of Suarez, his 7 appearances of which 3 were as substitutes have not convinced his coach, and indeed anyone else that this is the case. Joe Allen just doesn’t strike you as someone to rely on for a team of Liverpool’s stature and Victor Moses is proving to be a streaky player. Not really sure which will show up any given game. The unpleasant truth is this, they form Suarez is in right now, he could very well drag Liverpool through their difficult set of fixtures until his strike partner comes back and Gerald returns. Much like Rooney has been doing for Manchester United all season. The worry is that an injury to Suarez, loss of form or burn out will expose Liverpool’s lack of squad depth. With the World Cup 180+days away, even Suarez will not want to risk a burn-out before playing in the penultimate football competition in the world.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Liverpool though. Coutinho has proved to be a revelation as playmaker, Mignolet has been more than capable in front of goal and Henderson was having a decent run of games. Another injury to any of the current starting 11 will start a downward spiral and in their upcoming games against Chelsea and Manchester City [both away], they will have to dig deep to earn a point or more. The Suarez show continues to light up Anfield and entertain the Kop faithful and maybe that is all that matters.
The above should read ‘Roberto Martinez’ but as he is quick to point out in press interviews, the team’s success is due to all the players and coaching staff. I am sure he will approve of attributing Everton’s success this week to Everton.
No other team in the EPL has made Arsenal look as ordinary as the Toffees did during the 1st half and indeed some of the 2nd half in their Sunday showdown. In fact, the only other team that have done so this season was Dortmund. Not a bad company to be associated with. Ross Barkely was unplayable behind Lukaku who himself, despite having a quite came did enough to unsettle the Arsenal central defense. Oviedo has filled in for Baines so much so that he has not been missed. Without his side’s best player, Martinez orchestrated an historic win at Old Trafford and took the game to the current league leaders. Finishing in the top 4 might not be possible for Everton this season and Europa might be their best bet. With Lukaku and Deulofeu due to return to their parent clubs next season [Chelsea and Barcelona], you wonder if Martinez can re-create this magic again. The answer to that is yes. Despite inheriting his predecessor’s team, he has been able to re-shape them from the defensive dour that characterized their play to the quick, forward passing attack that the Toffees now play. Not bad.
Still not impressed? This team has gone 8 games without a loss. The current longest unbeaten run despite facing the free-scoring Suarez, Arsenal and Manchester United [Manchester’s game against Everton was a must-win for Moyes and despite their league position, Everton worked hard for all 3 points] It is their league position that does them justice though, 5th after 15 games played. Who else is giddy for the next major transfer window to see the players Martinez manages to sign as he continues to mold this team into his image? I know I am.
Say what you will about new coach, Tony Pulis but facts are facts and he has never led a team into relegation. Cue up two improbable wins over the week. A 1-0 win at home to West Ham and a shock 2-0 home win against Cardiff see them with 2 vital wins as they climb up from the bottom of the league. They are finding the formula to winning, have both their forwards Charmakh and Jerome Thomas scoring and keeping clean sheets. The early season whipping boys will not be going down without a fight. There really are no easy games and it’s the determination of smaller teams such as Crystal Palace to compete against the big boys that’s making this season by far the most exciting.
This column is tempted to start a bet as to how many seasons it takes before Crystal Palace fans start demanding Pulis plays attractive football. Now, there are 2 major assumptions being made here. First that Tony Pulis will keep Crystal Palace in the EPL. The second assumption is that the long-ball technique is all Pulis knows. If this season has confirmed anything about football is that you never know as much as you do and even in the rare chance that is true, Football plays by its own rules. Simply, watch this space as anything could happen but Crystal Palace avoiding relegation is looking possible with each goal scored and clean sheet kept.
The last team in this week’s round of games to win both games [the other 2 being Liverpool and Crystal Palace]. It is looking like AVBs solution to the Soldado problem is to start Defoe. His midfielders are showing signing of understanding each other’s game and ensure he has quality on the bench to change a game. His team is comfortably 6th in the league table and their next 5 fixtures see them play Liverpool, Southampton, West Brom, Stoke and the return leg at United in January. That return match at Old Trafford will show just how much of his team AVB has sorted out. He seems to have too many midfielders whose position and playing times he is uncertain about. It doesn’t help that Lloris is looking increasingly suspect in goal and that despite giving Defoe a run of games, it is difficult to view him as the team’s first option up front. Will Adebayor’s re-introduction into the first team yield a premier league start and will AVB revert to a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formation? These are intriguing questions. AVB is proving this season that he is a coach that is not afraid to speak his mind [him calling out Spurs fans for not supporting the team when they play at home] and making enemies [launching attacks at the press]. You could call it stress or a young manager failing to handle his fans and the press. For this author, it is an indication that AVB is resolute and has a definite way he wants his team to play [his favored 4-2-3-1] and no amount of bad performances will likely dissuade him.
Spurs will most likely, as the season progresses become this season’s dark horses. Not many people giving them a fighting chance to finish in the top 4 and AVB’s comment will not endear him to most members of the press [this column is a fan of manager’s outbursts in all forms] but there is the perfect storm brewing at white hart lane and teams are well advised to prepare when facing them.
Because this week had 2 games, there were some standout performers that deserve to be mentioned even if this column can’t give them their own paragraphs.
Manchester City – They used this week to banish their bad away form. Whiles the 3-2 win at West Brom and a 1-1 draw with Southampton were hardly mouth-watering displays, these were far better than the losses that have come to define their away form this season. With David Silva returning soon, maybe this was the moment that caused a 4-0 score line to become a common occurrence at venues not called the Etihad stadium when City play.
Wayne Rooney—Absence makes the Old Trafford’s heart grow fonder. He could very well leave this summer but at this point, it is his solo effort that is keeping Moyes’ inaugural season from being a more complete disaster.
Alan Pardew—Not many saw the 3-0 loss away at Swansea coming. Then again, not many saw the 1-0 win at Old Trafford happening. Nested in 7th in the table, it is hard to believe that after 6 games into the season, it was hard to see Pardew ending the season as the magpie’s manager. Not if his assembled French squad has anything to do with it. Viva la revolucion!
Rene Mulensteen—He got his midfield with an average age of 32 to run rings around a young Aston Villa squad. Are his Jedi mind tricks are taking hold at Craven cottage? Your guess is as good as mine.