One can’t have too much sympathy with teams that face difficult run-ins. The fixture computer may throw up quirks, but every team plays every other team twice between August and May – that seems fair.
Even so, Sunderland supporters must be cursing their inability to pick up points earlier in the season. Their last four opponents (Everton, Leicester, Arsenal, Chelsea) are 5th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st respectively in the Premier League’s form table over the last eight games. Fans would be forgiven for gulping slightly at their side’s task.
It’s that wonderful time of year again. Conor Wickham scored goals against Crystal Palace and Stoke City in April, but that was surely the prelude to the main course? Wickham has saved himself for these matches.
Let’s hope so, anyway, for Wickham now has 11 goals in his 81 league matches since arriving at Sunderland for £8m. It would be nice to see some development in his game.
Given Jermain Defoe’s continued struggles for service (six shots on target in his last 733 Premier League minutes), Dick Advocaat needs his strikers to start working as a partnership. Fail to do so, and Sunderland could be consigned to the drop. There’s a reason why they are the short-priced favourites for the third relegation spot.
Given their last two fixtures (Tottenham (a) and Manchester United (h)), Hull’s home game against Burnley feels like the last game of the season. Win and they could be safe, lose and you’d consider them likely to be doomed.
It raises the bizarre possibility of Steve Bruce’s side being level with Burnley in the last minute, and yet being unsure of whether to pile forward in search of an equaliser. Do they go for broke and risk losing, or back themselves to take points from their last two league assignments. Can you tell that I’m desperately trying to engineer excitement over Hull vs Burnley?
I can’t pretend to have heard of Senegal striker Dame N’Doye before his arrival in the East Riding. His signing flew under the radar, a £3m move on January 30. I’ve heard of him now.
N’Doye’s five goals have earned Hull five points. He is the club’s second top league scorer despite only playing 12 league matches and starting ten. Score another winner against Burnley on Saturday, and Steve Bruce will consider him the bargain of the season. Just forget about the other £37m he spent this season.
“What we have seen here over the last couple of years is that we are definitely on the right path,” said Brendan Rodgers on Wednesday. It’s fair to say that the ‘path’ has headed downhill since last April, Brendan.
“We are in fifth position, having got to two cup semi-finals in which we were disappointed not to have reached the finals in but, hopefully, we can use that and those disappointments to make us manage better in the future,” Rodgers concluded. Could anyone but him use regression and disappointment as a reason for optimism?
Lose to Chelsea on Sunday, and Liverpool’s top four race will be run. Rodgers’ optimism about potential transfers is unsurprising, but this week has already provided a stark reminder of Liverpool’s competition.
“Now it’s time to set my goals again on winning trophies with Manchester United,” said Memphis Depay whilst announcing his move to Old Trafford. The combination of no Champions League football and no trophies leaves Rodgers’ side as hopefuls, rather than contenders. There is a crucial difference.
Win at Stamford Bridge, however, and suddenly Rodgers receives the shot in the arm he so hugely needs. It’s a tall order.
Louis van Gaal
The signing of Memphis Depay provides a wonderful boost before the end of the season, but Manchester United supporters are unlikely to forget the club’s dismal recent form easily. United have failed to score in three successive league games for the first time since August 2007. Extend that run at Selhurst Park, and it would be the first time since May 1989 United have suffered so badly in front of goal.
United’s defeat against West Brom gave Liverpool slight hope in the race for the top four. ‘Our rivals ahead keep adding points, and also the teams behind are getting closer,’ wrote Juan Mata on his blog on Monday. He’s right too, and Manchester United must use Liverpool’s fixture at Stamford Bridge to slam the door shut once more. For good, this time.
Part of that depends on the performance of United’s attackers. The top two teams in the league are also (in order) the two teams with the best chance conversion. It’s an incredibly obvious statement, but making the most of your opportunities really does matter.
United are third on that particular list, with a conversion rate of 16.91%. But in their last three matches, Untied have had 31 shots without scoring. Their average has taken a beating.
A decent start might be for Van Gaal to play Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie as a partnership in attack rather than midfield.
“I still feel I am the best coach in the Premier League,” said John Carver in his pre-match press conference. God we’ve missed him, and it’s only been three days.
Quick reminder, John. You have now lost eight consecutive league games, only the second time Newcastle have done so in their history. Your tactics and team selection are insipid, and you call out players in public before refusing to take any blame yourself. You are statistically the 12th worst manager in Premier League history, having taken 0.56 points per game. There is no way you are in the top 15 coaches in the division, never mind the best.
Carver followed up his inadvertent joke with a piece of visual comedy, producing the handwritten note from Fabricio Coloccini. The Newcastle captain’s open letter became the subject of a thousand jokes this week. Waving it around in front of the media like it’s your first ever Valentine’s card doesn’t scream professional.
Forget all the PR bulls**t, John. Newcastle are sinking like a stone thrown off Tyne Bridge. They needed you to win one game, three measly points in your last 11 matches of the season. It would be nice if you would at least manage that. Supporters will then gladly wave you farewell as you walk into the sunset, never to see you at St James’ Park again.
Say it very quietly (mainly because he’s done an excellent job), but is the varnish starting to wear off Pardew’s Crystal Palace half-season?
On Saturday, Pardew’s side face Manchester United at Selhurst Park. After defeats to West Brom, Hull City and Chelsea, Palace could lose three home games without scoring for the first time in almost six years. They could also go four Premier League matches without scoring for the first time since February 1998.
The talk about Palace finishing in the top half (or even as high as eighth) has died down. They’re now closer to the relegation zone than to Swansea. and will most likely to finish 12th. Chunky will want to reverse the recent trend before the end of the season.