Couples around the world
The true test of many a relationship will come on Sunday. Three televised games scheduled from midday until the evening, two of which involve the current top four facing one another. Good luck to those who celebrate Valentine’s Day.
“[Beating Bournemouth] is very good for the future as we now have a very big game at home against Leicester who are now the favourites for the Premier League.”
Speaking on Monday, Arsene Wenger offered perhaps the biggest compliment Leicester had received all season. They had been anointed Premier League favourites by players, managers, pundits and fans in the aftermath of their excellent 3-1 victory over Manchester City. But for a title rival to label them as such? Wenger has kicked off the mind games. Welcome to the title race.
Arsenal welcome Leicester to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday knowing that defeat is not an option. The gap to the Premier League leaders is already five points with 13 games remaining. The Foxes have no other competitions to battle, while Arsenal are fighting on three fronts. The next fortnight will be pivotal to their season. After facing Leicester, the Gunners host Hull in the FA Cup fifth round, face Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, and visit Manchester United to close February. Momentum will be significant in preventing the usual mid-season collapse, and so defeat to their league rivals at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday would be critical. A draw would not be a considerable improvement.
Not only that, but it would represent defeat on a personal level for Wenger. Before the victory over Bournemouth last weekend, the Frenchman said: “Leicester are a fantastic example that football is not only about just spending the money.”
Powered by the goals of £1million striker Jamie Vardy and £450,000 magician Riyad Mahrez, the Foxes are indeed a remedy to the modern-day domination of an elite which can afford to spend £32million on Nicolas Otamendi. But for Wenger to present them as the template to his ideal method of success borders on insulting to Arsenal fans. The Gunners are five points behind a club who were promoted two seasons ago, who this time last year were bottom of the Premier League and consigned to relegation. To use them as evidence that expenditure is unnecessary merely contextualises how massive a failure it would be for Arsenal not to win the league themselves.
This season had promised to be something of the perfect storm for Arsenal. Manchester City have stuttered, as have Manchester United and Chelsea. Leicester and Tottenham have enjoyed incredible campaigns, but Wenger could have regained the initiative with a statement signing in January. His unerring belief in his current squad could cost him. Defeat on Sunday would not only represent a win for Leicester over Arsenal, it would represent Leicester beating Wenger at his own game.
The most incredible title challenge in recent memory continues. The 3-1 scoreline in the win over Manchester City last Saturday was impressive, but the performance was remarkable. Leicester hassled and harried their hosts, and, if anything, the result flattered Manuel Pellegrini’s side. One of the enduring memories of this season had been created, and Leicester opened up a five-point gap at the summit of the Premier League.
With their new label of title favourites – although they are second to Arsenal in the eyes of the bookmakers – comes an added scrutiny. The consensus is that Leicester will struggle with the pressure of a title challenge, that the experience of Manchester City and Arsenal will pay dividends in the coming months. But these are the same players who coped so admirably with the pressures of a relegation battle last season. This side has already faced adversity and overcame it with consummate ease. That should be worrying for the contenders.
On Sunday, the Foxes travel to Arsenal. Just three sides have accrued more points at home this season than the Gunners, and only Tottenham have conceded fewer goals throughout the campaign. They will greet the joint-highest league goalscorers, as well as the side with the strongest away record. Since April, Leicester have lost just three times, including to Arsenal in September. Claudio Ranieri’s side have failed to beat just three of the 22 teams they’ve faced in that time – Bournemouth, Manchester United and the Gunners. They will not wilt under the expectation of improving that record; they will relish it.
In any other season, Tottenham would be the headline story. Spurs sit second after 25 games, boast the best defensive record and have lost just three times. Mauricio Pochettino has transformed them in the space of little over 18 months. They are the title race’s other fairytale.
You will struggle to find a more dominant 1-0 victory than the one Tottenham enjoyed over Watford on Saturday. Spurs had 66% of the possession, had 25 shots to Watford’s three, eight attempts on target to Watford’s zero, and 15 corners to Watford’s one. Kieran Trippier’s first goal for the club means that 13 different players have now scored Tottenham’s 45 goals. Only Manchester City can boast as varied an attack. Manuel Pellegrini would not have selected a side described by Quique Flores as “animals” as his next opponent after being subjected to an assault by Leicester.
Champions League qualification remains the priority at White Hart Lane, but it would be remiss of players, staff and fans not to dream. Five points separate them from league leaders Leicester, and at least one challenger will drop points when the Foxes face Arsenal on Sunday. They also enjoy a seven-point cushion to fifth-placed Manchester United.
The reintegration of the Europa League into their fixture calendar this month will test a relatively small but tight-knit squad, but Pochettino will maintain focus on the Premier League. The club has not finished third or higher for 26 years. This is their best chance to change that.
An embarrassing performance in a deflating defeat. Manchester City’s first home game since the announcement that Manuel Pellegrini would be leaving the club in the summer did not exactly go to plan. They were out-thought, out-fought and deserved nought at the Etihad Stadium. As irresistible as Leicester were, Manchester City looked shell-shocked.
Perhaps the imminent arrival of Pep Guardiola has distracted the players. It would be foolish to think it has had no effect. The Spaniard’s appointment was announced months in advance to prevent speculation, but it has merely turned the rest of the season into a sideshow, a preamble to the coming of Pep. Every interview conducted with a Manchester City player begins with questions on Guardiola, and the expected transfer targets of the Bayern Munich coach are discussed daily. Pellegrini must refocus his players for the final three months of his reign.
The Chilean is not blameless. He made four changes against Leicester. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov struggled at full-back, Fabian Delph was ineffective, and Raheem Sterling fell victim to Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. Pellegrini also adapted his system, switching from a 4-4-2 to start with a 4-2-3-1. Of the numerous tactical calls the manager made, each failed. But there is no longer room for error. Starting with Tottenham on Sunday, Manchester City face four fixtures until the end of February, a schedule comprising games in the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Capital One Cup. It is up to Pellegrini and his players to ensure the manager’s send-off is a trophy-laden one.
Defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup was never part of the plan for Liverpool, but it could be a blessing in disguise. With the Europa League returning later this month, and a Capital One Cup final to end February, Jurgen Klopp’s side were struggling to maintain form across four competitions. But the positives to draw from dramatic defeat in midweek were obvious.
The performance of the returning Philippe Coutinho will have delighted Klopp. The Brazilian had been sidelined for just over a month after injury against Stoke in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg but, as Liverpool’s busy schedule dictates, the Reds had played nine games in his absence. They won two.
Replacing Coutinho on the hour mark was Daniel Sturridge. The 26-year-old’s performance at Upton Park was one of verve and quality. As frustrating as the England international’s injury problems are, his propensity to return in excellent form is remarkable, and evidence of the mental strength which he is perceived to lack.
Along with Sturridge came the welcome introduction of Divock Origi. The 20-year-old Belgian was afforded 30 minutes upon his return from injury, and he too impressed. This was his first game of the calendar year, providing a timely boost for a Liverpool side with three wins in their last 12 matches. All three returnees could feature against Aston Villa on Sunday.
Amid such positivity, it is difficult not to cast your mind to Christian Benteke. The £32.5million summer purchase started against West Ham, but toiled for 120 minutes. He is without a goal since December 30, and without a Premier League start since January 2. Having failed to take the initiative in the absence of his fellow strikers, the 25-year-old may have to grow accustomed to the substitute’s bench once more. The ignominy of such a role when the Reds travel to his former side on Sunday will not be lost on him.
“You can always avoid a goal. Goals come from mistakes. It’s a sh*t moment for me because I was reading the pass,” was Daley Blind’s frank assessment of his late mistake against Chelsea, one which provided Diego Costa with the opportunity to equalise. The striker duly took it, and Manchester United snatched a draw from the clutches of victory. The gap to Manchester City in fourth place could have been four points. Instead, it is six.
Blind is in an unenviable position. Louis van Gaal’s refusal to invest in a diminished defence has forced his compatriot into a role as centre-half. At 5ft 11ins and not blessed with requisite pace, it is not a role for which Blind is built. The Dutchman has performed admirably at times alongside Chris Smalling, but he has also understandably struggled at times.
Although Blind is no central defender by trade, there remains no excuse for his error at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. In his more natural roles as left-back and defensive midfielder, the 25-year-old must boast innate defensive ability. Or, at the very least, the ability to note that John Terry is less of a threat than Costa. His eagerness to identify a problem merely created a far bigger one, providing Cesc Fabregas with the space to find his countryman.
Blind has been forced into this role by his manager’s gross neglect. That much is undoubted. The Dutchman has performed well under difficult circumstances. But individual errors continue to pervade his game. He must not let that continue.
What better way to respond to (justified) criticism than to lead your club to back-to-back-to-back 3-0 victories? Roberto Martinez deserves the utmost credit for Everton’s upturn in fortunes of late. The Toffees are now eighth in the Premier League, one place above Liverpool, and in the FA Cup fifth round.
More worrying for Martinez will be the form of Romelu Lukaku. Of the nine goals the club has scored in their last three games, Lukaku has one – a penalty against Stoke. Martinez will be delighted that his squad are sharing the goalscoring burden, but he would surely like more than one goal in his last six Premier League games from his record signing.
Lukaku was provided the mercy of a rest in the FA Cup a fortnight ago. Only Harry Kane (2,208) and Jamie Vardy (2,184) have featured for more Premier League minutes than the Belgian this season (2,157) among the division’s strikers. Is it form or fatigue that is so affecting Lukaku?
Hosting former club West Brom could inspire a return of his goalscoring touch. The 22-year-old scored 17 goals in his breakthrough Premier League season in 2012/13; he has 16 goals in 25 games this campaign. Lukaku’s progress continues to surprise and impress, but a return to goalscoring form to coincide with his club’s upsurge would be welcomed.
A reputation is on the line. Tony Pulis has become the safety net for struggling Premier League clubs, a guaranteed survival expert. But relations inevitably sour. West Brom fans have not quenched their disapproval of the club’s style of play under the Welshman, and nor should they. Poor performances are easier to swallow when combined with positive results.
The problem for Pulis lies in the fact that West Brom have not won in the Premier League since beating Stoke on January 2. They sat 12th after that game, nine points above the relegation zone, and level on points with Everton. Five games on, they are two places lower, Everton are six places above them, and that gap to relegation is reduced to six. Pulis is generally employed to arrest existing slumps. Can he halt one created by his own doing?
Having been handed the opportunity to condemn Aston Villa to certain relegation, Norwich slipped into the relegation zone themselves after a 2-0 defeat. Alex Neil must arrest a losing streak of five games – the second longest of any side this season – before it is too late. Fortunately, a game against sixth-placed West Ham awaits.
The search for a first Premier League win of 2016 continues, with Crystal Palace hosting Watford next. The Hornets themselves are struggling, having beaten only Newcastle in their last eight league fixtures. Something must give. Or they’ll draw. Yeah, they’ll draw.
32 conclusions please, Daniel.