Two into one – Chase for the Champions League

With both Arsenal and Manchester City both winning their games in hand, the chase for the final two Champions League spots looks like going from three into two to two into one. As it currently stands, Manchester City have all but  sealed their Champions League in third with on 78 points and a goal difference of plus 36, fourth place sees Liverpool on 73 and plus 33 together with Arsenal on 72 points and plus 31 goal difference.

After a roller coaster season for the three sides, City look odds on to finish third. Only Liverpool can overtake the Manchester club should City lose to away to Watford. Say a 1-0 defeat for Man City and a Liverpool win of 3-0 and its City drop down into fourth. It wouldn’t matter on the Arsenal result unless the Gunners give the home fans some joy and spank the toffees 4-0, which would then Arsenal would go into the Champions League and Man City finish fifth. How interesting would that be to see.

Realistically Manchester City should finish the game Sunday knowing that they can put their feet up with regards to Champions League football. The only thing they need to worry about is if they say for example 4-4 and Liverpool win 4-1. In these set of circumstances you would see a playoff match at a neutral ground.  The likelihood of that though is very slim. I imagine though should that happen, come Sunday evening there would be a large number of nervous Liverpool and City fans.

For Liverpool, it is Champions League playoff if they win. Should they draw or lose to Middlesbrough, not only will it be typical of the season, but all eyes will be on the Emirates hoping that their neighbours Everton can do them a favour. Should Liverpool lose and Arsenal draw, then that is when it becomes interesting. Should Liverpool lose 2-1 and Arsenal win 2-1 then both teams would have a record of 76-44 and plus 32. Under the Premier League rules, this would require a play off to distinguish who would finish in 4th and 5th place. Im sure neither team would want to go through a play off given their post season activities. As a Liverpool fan like others, I doubt there will be much hunger for 90 minutes at a neutral ground. I guess the same for Arsenal fans.

Not since 1989 when Arsenal won at Anfield to take the title, have either Liverpool or Arsenal gone to the wire in deciding league placings. Personally I dont want to relive that moment any time soon.

February -Premier League review

When I left for Australia, the Premier League looked quite reasonable, Chelsea were strolling, the chasing pack were still chasing and the teams at the bottom were still battling although some more than others. During the time away however, it seemed to all go a bit mad.

Chelsea’s charge to the title continued with seven from nine, only a draw at Burnley denied the league leaders a 100% February record, that also included a 3-1 home in against Arsenal. Come the end of the month they were able to maintain a lead at the top of 11 points. It was Burnley’s first dropped points in four games and first goal conceded at home in the same four games as they look to cement their Premier League status.

Manchester City, having put that wobble against Everton in January firmly behind them, were back on the chase in February with three wins from three. The blue half of Manchester will know having over come a similar points difference to steal the title in 2011-12 with six games to go, they can take some comfort that they have a few more to try and pull off another storming late run to victory. They will need a confident looking Chelsea to have a bit of a melt down, but as we all know watching football anything can happen.

Having dropped four points in January, February looked like being much kinder with their three games, although their title aspirations were dented a little further with a 2-0 defeat at Anfield, that said Stoke were made to pay as they were thrashed 4-0. The only thing that can derail their top four place are injuries and the FA Cup run albeit with two games that can affect them given that the FA Cup final is back in its right place as the end of season fixture. Given the FA Cup and international fixtures, the coming month will not make it easier for Tottenham.

Given the spending at Old Trafford, you would think they could be doing a tad better than what they are. This season, whilst on a long unbeaten run, they have failed to kill off games when needed or nabbed a draw to rescue a point. February looked to be a 3 from three, but Hull denied them at the start by holding them to a scoreless draw. They could though get back on the winning run with victories over Leicester and Watford. With games to rearrange and two cup runs, it will be interesting to see if this unbeaten run continues, or whether the wind in the sails changes direction as they chase a top four spot.

Liverpool, oh Liverpool. Having sped a long nicely, 2017 seems to have thrown a curveball. Out of both domestic cups, the league was the main focus although that seemed to be a mare for them. A home game against Spurs finally snapped the winless run. The joy was shortlived, managerless Leicester City seemingly annoyed some of their own fans as they scored a 3-1 win against Liverpool. Liverpool’s top four chase is going to be tricky especially if they drop points, even more with some of the clubs around with games in hand, but of course a game in hand is only worth the final result and if the club doesnt win, that all counts for nothing.

 For Arsenal, well I think they have had enough over the last few weeks but never rule anything out with the Gunners even if they have had a bit of a mare.

Of course it’s not all about the top, there is the crucial battle for survival and in February that realisation of relegation can become all too real.

Crystal Palace fans thought seeing the back of Pardew might bring a better future, then of course that future was with Sam Allardyce. February hasnt been kind to the Eagles. A 4-0 pasting at home to fellow strugglers Sunderland was followed up by a narrow defeat at Stoke. The final game of the month saw them net a 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Middlesbrough. Things can only get better said a certain music group just over 20 years ago…

Sunderland’s hopes for the great escape seem all but dead, having take two points in January with draws against Liverpool and Spurs, February had promise. Well it did on February 4th but that’s where it ended. Having stuffed Crystal Palace 4-0 in London, Southampton did exactly to them as they had given out. A trip to Everton was never going to end well as the home side extended their winning run with a 2-0 victory. They have a testing March, which if they can get a run together they might just have a chance on the final game of the season to survive.

Premier League -Week Nine

Another week in the Premier League is done and things are looking very close indeed so far. A single point separates teams from 1st to fifth and five more between leaders Man City and Everton. Not for a while have we seen teams so close after nine games.

Spurs went to Bournemouth looking to win and put themselves top after the lunch time kickoff, but they were held to a goalless draw by a home side looking difficult to beat at the Vitality stadium. Both sides had chances as well as testing the opposing goalkeepers. Lloris had to lively as he did well to keep out Charlie Daniels opportunity. Spurs themselve were unlucky not to break the deadlock as they tried and tried. Spurs  were also considered fortunate to not end up finishing with ten men after Sissoko’s elbow to Harry Arter’s face was missed by the referee.

As the game ended, Spurs would now hope that teams around them would drop points so they wouldnt drop away.

Arsenal found themselves cursing the inability to break through a difficult Middlesbrough who claimed a rare clean sheet in London. I guess Arsenal fans may have gone into the game with a healthy confidence following their European escapades, but it seemed a typical opposite.  They seem to barely test Victor Valdes in the Boro goal, but the home fans could be grateful for an alert Petr Cech. His saves kept the game level and a slightly better birthday for Arsene Wenger had they lost. Thanks to Cech, the only thing lost was a six game winning streak.

Everton found to their cost that having all the possession doesn’t bring the points if you dont convert the chances. They looked like securing a point at Turf Moor but with only eight shots out of twenty on target, it wasnt too be as Bolasie’s equaliser was too be for nothing as Scott Arfield bagged a 90th minute winner. It was the home sides third win of the season and second over Merseyside opposition.

When Liverpool kicked off on the Saturday tea time, they looked to get three points and secure top spot by scoring two goals or more goals against West Brom. The Baggies were never going to a rollover having previously come close to ending Tottenham’s unbeaten run. For the home side, the reds were graced with Coutinho,Firminho and Mane in the mix. It was a Firminho with a sweet cross that saw Mane on the end of it to give the Reds a deserved lead. The home side then went 2-0 up ten minutes before half time when Brazilian wonderkid Coutinho netted home. This scoreline would have sent Liverpool top, but a poorly defended corner allowed McAuley to pull one back. Visions of last seasons 2-2 draw may have caught the minds of Liverpool fans, but they were able to breathe a sigh of relief as the Reds held out to win 2-1 and take their unbeaten run to nine games.

Having taken a point at Anfield, Mourinho was now taking his first visit to Stamford Bridge since his time with Inter Milan. A victory for either side would keep them within touch of the top four. A big enough win for Chelsea could see them overtake Spurs, whilst a victory for Mourinho’s men would see them leapfrog Chelsea and move to within three points of City, Arsenal and Liverpool. A good start was needed by either side and it was the hosts who struck first. Defensive errors allowed Pedro to get through the back line and send the ball home. The game would get no better for United as a poorly cleared set piece saw Gary Cahill strike home.

Chelsea did ride some luck when a high tackle by David Luiz was only met with a yellow card. With them being 2-0 up it may have not affected the overall result, but it may have kept a lower scoreline. Arsenal fans watching the game may have felt a tad peeved at the card considering Granit Xhaka was given his marching orders against Swansea City for a lesser offence. Alas for United there were still goals to come. Eden Hazard struck from fifteen yards and Kante finished the rout eight minutes later. Having started so brightly, it is puzzling to see how United have had a little wobble.

At the other end of the table it’s looking bleak for Sunderland. A measly two points from twenty seven is not what any Mackem wants to see and especially not David Moyes.  I wonder if he regrets ever leaving Everton for Manchester United. The North West club who find themselves one point worse off than this time last season, travelled to West Ham who themselves also had a poor start to the season. It looked like it would finish with teams taking a point each, but a winner deep into second half stoppage time condemned the visitors to another defeat. They escaped last season but sadly for them it appears that time has run out.

It doesnt fair any better for Swansea who are one place above. The opening day win seems a distant memory and relegation looks certain to rear its ugly head for the Welsh club. Five points behind on what they were last season where they recovered to finish 12th doesnt look like happening any time soon. Close results against Liverpool and Arsenal could show promise but they may have a chance to take a step forward on Monday night when they play Stoke City. If they dont take a chance then it will definitely be good night Swansea.

Premier League review – Moaning and Mane

The Premier League was back this weekend just gone and it seems that some things just never change. Mourinho was moaning about incorrect decisions and missed cards after his first Manchester derby ended in a 2-1 home defeat. A handball decision and a challenge by Bravo on Rooney. Whilst Bravo touched the ball, some will look at his initial feet being both off the ground when he went charging. On the other hand some could say if United had started better and not allowed City the space, the result again could have been different. It was probably not something United fans might have expected under Mourinho that being tactically out done by the opposition at Old Trafford, but there we were.

Tottenham maintained their unbeaten start to the Premier League with a 4-0 pasting against Stoke City. The North London club seem to enjoy their trips to Stoke and made easy work of Mark Hughes team. They have only conceded two goals which is one of the tightest defences in the Premier League.

Arsenal left it late to grab a win against Southampton. WInless Saints had gone ahead after an unfortunate own goal from Cech, but with Koscielny equalising the Saints looked to take a third point of the season. Southampton hearts were broken deep into injury time with a Santi Corzola penalty winner.

Watford came back from 2-0 to win 4-2 and open their win account. Having gone 2-0 down after 33 minutes, it seemed that Watford might be in for a beating but two goals in four minutes brought the visitors level. Second half seemed no better for the home side as a Watford side now with a buzz, grabbed two in ten to secure the three points and hand another defeat for the struggling Hammers.

Another team knocking four in the back of the net were Liverpool. The Reds were finally getting to play at Anfield for the first time since last season. With the main stand now expanded, Anfield was now at a capacity of 54,000. Anfield was a sellout as Liverpool hosted the defending Champions Leicester. It was a strong attacking performance from the home side although the defence still had a few iffy moments, such as Lucas giving the ball away for Leicester to pull on back. That as as good as it got for the visitors as Mane and Firmino did the damage.

Bournemouth and Palace secured wins in their matches to win their first league games of the season.

Premier League clubs – Change for success

After England’s disappointly embarrassing exit to Iceland at Euro 2016,there was much debate as to what should happen next. Whilst appointing Sam Allardyce definitely wasn’t one of them, many looked towards the Premier League itself and what could be done club wise in order to boost England’s chances.

One of the common lines is that Premier League teams more games (cue the well they get paid enough comments). Domestically a Premier League club will play 38 games, six games in the FA Cup minimum not including replays, which could add three extra games. Something to note though is this seasons FA Cup quarter finals will be decided on the day instead of the usual replay. This apparently a mixture of keeping the interest and helping to reduce the fixture list for clubs, especially when games have often been squeezed into some busy schedules. Of course there is then the league cup. For teams not in Europe there is one less game, that could add a possible seven games. Recently though some clubs have rested first team players in the earlier ties. On the subject of clubs in Europe depending on where you qualify, take Manchester City for example, that could add another fifteen ties. An English club could end up playing over sixty games.

Naturally if you expect a team and/or player to feature in over sixty games a season and before a major tournament, something is going to have to give. This of course is not the whole excuse for England’s poor performance, but fitness and the likelihood of burnout is likely to have a key affect.

So how do we deal with the issue. There are a couple that are obvious ones that will reduce the amount of games a team/player will compete in. Reduce the Premier League to eighteen clubs. Whilst the league would only lose two games per team, it would go a way to reduce the fixture pile up for the latter part of the season. This would especially be the case when the FA Cup third round springs into place and the likelihood of replays enter the fray and the frantic rearranging of fixtures.

Reducing the Premier League fixtures would enable the Premier League clubs and players to have the Christmas period off. Just because they earn mega millions, doesnt mean that they cant have the festive period off, they should be entitled just as much as everyone else. This could appeal to the non football lovers who wouldnt have to put up with football through the Christmas period. It might though not appeal greatly to the fans who like the traditional festive football programme. For me the idea of no footy over the Christmas period would be a hard one especially with no Boxing Day Match of The Day to look forward to. It will be one that no doubt splits opinion. The season wouldn’t be shortened either as two of the midweek rounds of Premier League fixtures would be moved to the weekend. This again would also reduce the fixture list pile up as the season heads towards the final weeks.

It isnt just the league of course. There are the Cup competitions, the FA and League Cup. The FA Cup doesnt see the top flight clubs enter until round three, this takes off one lot of pressure to a point. Some might say that the FA should abolish the idea of replays full stop. Seeing that the competition has seen the reduction to one replay, what difference would it make if all games were to be completed on the day. It might help the fixtures even further. For me though that would take away a lot from the FA Cup. There is nothing more exciting than seeing an FA Cup replay and a Cup upset and not only that, the smaller clubs would lose out on possible extra revenue. As mentioned earlier, the 2016-17 FA Cup would see no replays in the Quarter Finals.

Then of course there is the League Cup which has seen it drop way down the list of the leading Premier League clubs priority list. Many would rather not enter it if they didnt have to and to an extent would rather field mixtures of reserves and youth. Sometimes though that can still see the club progress far in the competition if you have a good combination of youth talent and reserves.

There are many ways that the Premier League could deal with this, first off would be for Premier League clubs to withdraw from the competition, that though may not be a straight forward way. A vote would possibly be split with the majority of clubs voting to remain in the competition as another opportunity to win a piece of silverware. Of course though there could be a compromise of teams that dont want to take part being able to withdraw. If though the Premier League clubs voted to leave, this would leave twenty club spaces to fill. The League could either restructure the competition or even elect to invite twenty National League clubs into the competition. There could also be the option of every season Premier League clubs invited to take part or not.

If Premier League clubs were to withdraw, what would happen to the Europa League spot that the League Cup has? Would UEFA withdraw that spot or as more recently with many of the League Cup winners coming from the top eight, would it just remain with the Premier League. It will be certainly interesting to see.

Whether these plans would work is something that would be interesting to see, but introducing the National League teams to the competition couldn’t do any real harm to its future.

Mignolet at the last chance saloon?

Last season was a season that the Belgian international Simon Mignolet would like to forget, the error prone keeper cost Liverpool 15 points that would have seen them in the top four and even second spot. The problem for Liverpool was that there was no real competition for Mignolet although when Ward came back from loan, he showed that he could do well to put pressure on the Belgian. The indifferent form didnt stop manager Jurgen Klopp from offering him a new five year deal. This brought some mixed reaction from the fans, mostly concerned reaction as it seemed strange to reward a keeper who more than likely cost them a top four finish and a place in the Champions League.

The decision to offer the Belgian a new deal would either be one questionable decision by Klopp, or some long term thinking in seeing im have value in a possible future transfer. It could very well be the latter as German youngster Lorius Karius was signed towards the end of May. He gave a relatively decent performance during pre season as Mignolet was given extra time off from playing in Euro 2016. Karius had been convinced by Klopp not to go to the Olympics, which signalled that the former Mainz keeper would start the season between the sticks. Whilst the Reds only faced the likes of Fleetwood Town, Wigan and Huddersfield, he had kept clean sheets until the Chelsea game. The game against the Blues would be his last for a while as he would break his hand.

Mignolet will be hoping his appearance in the opening games of the season will be error free and preferably clean sheets.  Visits to Arsenal, Burnley, Tottenham and Chelsea in amongst an opening run of fixtures that also sees a home time against defending champions Leicester. The pressure and focus is on Mignolet and any unforced errors will certain be tallied up by Reds fans up and down the country. With no European football for the club, there are plenty advantages for Liverpool and Mignolet will hope to be helping to spearhead that venture.

If come Christmas and the New Year we see Mignolet’s errors are mounting once more then the bell surely has to toll. Should the second half of the season be a nightmare of proportions for the keeper I can only imagine that Klopp will be opting to cash in on the Belgian international.

The Ins and Outs – Transfer news

The domestic action may have a break, but it doesn’t stop the transfer comings and goings. Barely had the domestic season finished and clubs were lining up players to sign. Some clubs splashing the cash and others being careful and wise. Whilst transfers wouldn’t be official until 1st July, clubs were lining up players as soon as the domestic season was over.

Liverpool kicked off the transfers as they signed Joel Matip on a Bosman free transfer. The central defender joined from Shalke 04. Klopp had been quiet in the January window but the coming months would allow him to shape his line up for the coming season. Across Stanley Park, Everton were saying goodbye to one of their finest servants as Tim Howard departed to his home nation and to Colorado Rapids. West Ham brought a Norwegian back to London. Harvard Nordveit had previously joined Arsenal in 2007 but had not made a first team appearance.

Crystal Palace were doing a Chas and Dave and heading to Margate for one of their signings. They brought Freddie Ladapo for an undisclosed fee. Having done well in the lower leagues it will be interesting to see if they can get the youngster continuing the goalscoring in London albeit likely through the development squad.

German clubs seemed to be the flavour for English Premier clubs during the months May and June Klopp was back in the transfer hunt and was back in Germany to sign Loris Karius for just under £5 million. The German youngster will provide ample competition for Simon Mignolet. Talented youngster Danny Ward would be on his way on loan to get more experience having signed a new contract. Also in Germany were Man City who signed Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund. Arsenal were snapping up German club talent themselves. They nabbed Granit Xhaka from Borussia Moenchengladbach. Wenger though was shelling out on this signing, he was splashing the cash with a fee of around £34 million. It will be interesting to see how he fairs in the Premier League. Champions Leicester City were on the Germany transfer bandwagon as they signed keeper Ron – Robert Zieler from Hannover 96. Manchester United fans may have remembered Zieler from his brief time at the club. He’ll provide back up for Kasper Schmeichel.

Manchester United made three signings so far an notably the Swedish legend that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Having ended his time at PSG on a high, less could be said about the end of his international career. Fans at Old Trafford will be hoping that he continues the goalscoring at United. Whilst he maybe on a free, some fans may wonder why sign a 34 year old striker. They had previously signed Eric Bailly for around £30 million. The Ivory Coast international joined from Villareal and had left a number of fans puzzled with the signing. Many hadnt heard of him previously, so to gamble on a big money deal would be interesting. United joined the German club raiding as they snapped up Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund for a fee of around £26 million.

Southampton fans might be left what to wonder for the coming season. Having seen Koeman leave to manage Everton, they were beginning to see some of the players depart too. Victor Wanyama headed to Spurs for £11 milion, Sadio Mane continued the Southampton to Liverpool movement with a £34 million deal. He bagged 11 goals last as did Grazio Pelle, who moved to China. There was  little good news as heading to St Marys were Nathan Redmond from Norwich City for £11 milion and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. It wil be interesting to see if they sell or add as well as how they wil fair in the Premier League in the coming season.

Chelsea have made a couple of signings but more noticeably, they seem to be upto the usual habits of sending players out on loan. As of today (29th July) Chelsea have sent 13 players out on loan. The majority of whom will probably never see first team football at the Bridge. I have no objections to teams sending players out on loan to get game time and experience, if they are going to have a future at the original club. Sadly it doesnt seem that way with Chelsea.

With all the transfers so far, it wonder how things will go on Transfer Deadline Day. It could certainly be interesting.