After Arsenal beat Watford last weekend, those of us armed with Arsene Wenger bingo cards and dobbers rejoiced as we heard Wenger praise his side’s mental strength.
“I believe this team has the right mentality,” Wenger said. “They have gone through a bad period, but when they play like that it shows that, mentally, they are pure.”
No it doesn’t, Arsene. It shows firstly that the pressure was off now you are eight points behind in the title race, and secondly that Watford are coasting towards the end of the season, with the FA Cup as their firm priority.
Mental fortitude is not proven at home to Watford, but victory at West Ham would certainly be more persuasive evidence. There is no breathing room for Arsenal c*ck-up. ‘Success is the only motherf**king option, failure’s not,’ as Eminem once warbled.
One win is all they need. But one win is all they’ve need since December 19, and everyone’s still waiting.
This weekend, Alan Pardew must hope that the time has finally come. Palace have lost their last six home games, but their opponents have been pretty tough: Chelsea, Tottenham, Bournemouth, Watford, Liverpool, Leicester. Norwich are at least six points below all those sides.
Until this weekend, Palace’s potential relegation has felt like a distant possibility, worrying for Pardew but not the club’s Premier League hopes. Lose to Norwich on Saturday – and go level on points with them in the process – and things really do get sticky.
It was Leicester we were expecting to wobble first, but there is enough evidence to suggest that it is Mauricio Pochettino’s side who are struggling to cope with the unexpected prize at stake. Having dropped five league points between December 14 and the beginning of March, Tottenham have promptly dropped seven in five matches since.
A loss to West Ham and draws against Arsenal and Liverpool would hardly be catastrophic in any any other season, but it’s hardly title-winning form. There is no question that this Spurs season will be filed under ‘magnificent’ whatever happens between now and May but, having come so close that they can smell the Silvo, finishing second always has a slight tinge of being the first loser.
Tottenham must get back on the horse as quickly as possible before Leicester waltz off over the horizon, and must do so against a team they haven’t beaten at home in any competition since May 2001. That’s 14 games and counting.
Having arrived with a fanfare, the problem with Benitez’s appointment at Newcastle is that you suspected he was simply arranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship. Benitez may have ended Newcastle’s terrible run in the Tyne-Wear derby, but one point from three games was not the intended return. The suspicion that an amalgam of Pep Guardiola, Alex Ferguson and Bill Shankly could not save this Newcastle side is proving completely correct.
Fail to beat Southampton at St Mary’s on Saturday, and you can start organising the service sheet for Newcastle’s Premier League funeral. You can’t argue that they don’t deserve it.
While Liverpool No. 9 Christian Benteke’s Liverpool future is ebbing away limply, Sturridge might just be playing for his. A reminder that he’s only scored two of Liverpool’s 38 league goals under Jurgen Klopp.
Everton are now 13 points off the top six. For Martinez to keep his job, they must surely win at least five of their remaining matches. Even if that does happen, the damage has been done. Everton supporters will worry that their new investment will not stop the club’s stars forming a queue to move on to pastures new.
Defoe’s five-goal blitz in consecutive games against Aston Villa and Swansea in January convinced Sunderland supporters that the former (I think we can safely say that now) England striker would ensure their Premier League survival. Defoe has indeed scored important goals since, but not enough of them. Three in his last ten, to be precise.
It’s not just the goals that have dried up, but Defoe’s sharpness. Since the hat-trick against Swansea, Defoe has started nine league games but managed only nine shots on target. Against West Brom last weekend, only two of his eight shots were on target. Sam Allardyce has little right to ask for much more out of a 33-year-old free transfer, but he needs more.
Saturday provides a stiff test of Defoe’s ability to drag Sunderland out of danger. Troy Deeney gave a superb insight into how difficult it is to turn Leicester’s central defenders or drag them out of position, but that is exactly what Defoe must achieve at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland’s survival might depend on it.
There is no secret to the reason for Leicester’s goals drying up: Vardy hasn’t scored in his last six league games. Rather than the reliable source of goals from earlier in the season, Leicester have instead turned towards less likely outcomes to win matches. Shinji Okazaki’s overhead kick and Wes Morgan’s first goal of the season are just two.
While Leicester continue to grind out results, Vardy’s comparative lack of goals will not worry Claudio Ranieri. League champions must identify and utilise at least two or three ways of winning. Opposition teams soon get wise to a threat.
That said, Ranieri would like his striker (or “fantastic horse”, as he called him in midweek) to be a little more involved in front of goal. There is no faulting Vardy’s determination or stamina, but he has had only three shots in total in his last three league games. He’s managed that total in 20 of his 32 league matches individually this season.
Every defender has bad days, but there is no doubt that Sakho stands out like a sore thumb when he is in a clumsy mood. The battle to partner Joel Matip next season is between Sakho and Dejan Lovren. Now is not the time to let your manager down.
We’ve got our fingers crossed, but Pato could actually start a Premier League game this weekend. And we thought the day would never come.
“I just don’t feel as though the chemistry is quite there with the team on the pitch at the moment, and it hasn’t been for a while,” Baines said this week. “We are maybe leaning too heavily on individuals to come up with something. Results have an impact on that because chemistry and confidence go hand in hand. Look at the teams who are having success this year and you’d say they have chemistry.”
Nothing that Baines said in that quote was untrue, so it was phenomenal to hear Roberto Martinez both saying that his left-back’s quotes had been misinterpreted and also that he had made Baines apologise for his comments. Because if there is one thing that breeds greater chemistry, it’s being told to keep your mouth shut by your manager.
It only adds to the feeling that Baines must wish he’d left Everton with Marouane Fellaini in summer 2013, his club refusing to countenance Manchester United’s bid (which they were perfectly entitled to do). He must look at Fellaini, and his waste of such a wonderful opportunity, and curse his fortune.
Had he moved (and avoided injury), Baines would surely now be England’s first-choice left-back. Instead, his career is meandering along. Now 31, his international hopes may be over and his club life less than happy. Sad, really.
Being a defender under Martinez’s devil-may-care optimism is no easy task, but being an ageing senior player enduring your club’s worst season in 12 years makes it even less palatable. In a battle between Everton’s left-back and their manager, there are far more supporters fighting Baines’ corner.
Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey
You have to feel for Newcastle’s two biggest January signings. Both knew the situation at St James’ Park was dire, but have found their teammates largely unfit for purpose in the battle to avoid the drop.
Since the end of the transfer window, Newcastle have created 73 chances. Shelvey and Townsend account for 28 of those between them. Townsend has created 15 of those in just 378 minutes, a better rate than Mesut Ozil and Philippe Coutinho over the same period. The problem is having Papiss Cisse on the end of those chances. Even Aleksandar Mitrovic, fiery and firing, is regularly guilty of profligacy.
Between all of Newcastle’s squad over that same time period, Shelvey and Townsend rank first and second for chances created, second and third for shots on target, first and seventh for tackles won and first and second for assists made. Townsend has only started four of those seven games, for goodness sake.