With only 12 games to go, the English Premier League is moving through the gears smoother than Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes Formula One car. Thirteen of the 20 teams are kicking their heels over the latest FA Cup weekend, so the unexpected break is the perfect time to assess the state of play.
In terms of drama, EPL Gameweek 26 was happy to keep serving up the narratives and headlines that have been the bedrock of an exciting campaign so far. The Big Six are almost assured of finishing as the Big Six, while the trapdoor is opening up for Huddersfield and Fulham.
And while there are numerous twists and turns ahead, it is a fair bet that numerous clubs can’t wait for teatime on May 12th.
Wins for Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal merely widened the gap between the elite and the others, while the relegation battle could ensnare as many as eight or nine teams. With 12 games left, the magical 42 points is yet to be achieved by any team that isn’t in the top six, although Wolves and Watford will expect to cross this mythical safety threshold sooner rather than later.
Now that we have set the stage, lets take a quick spin through the talking points of EPL Gameweek 26.
Manchester City increase the pace
The big game of last weekend was City’s home game against Chelsea. After beating Everton in the previous two-gameweek (for them at least), City knew that they had to beat the Londoners to both return to the top of the table and increase the pressure on Liverpool.
For their part, Chelsea needed a good result to alleviate the toxic atmosphere that has attached itself to head coach Maurizio Sarri, with the media suggesting that the Roman Empire may be looking to pull the trigger on its latest manager. Chelsea have had a split personality all season, either putting teams to the sword or looking like a bunch of blokes introduced to each other in the locker room. For the City game, the latter was the route they chose to take.
City beat Chelsea 6-0, and that result did not flatter them. Chelsea’s biggest league defeat had come in the 4-0 humbling by Bournemouth, but this was way, way worse. They were four goals down in the first 25 minutes and were lucky that City decided to ease up. For the neutral, this was a vulgar display of power and a serious message to Liverpool that the title race has a long way to run.
The consensus is that every Premier League team can beat another on their day, but this was men versus boys. The fact that a Big Six team humiliated one of its rivals is neither here nor there, rather City’s performance made you think that they have a lot of gas left in the tank. And that doesn’t bode well for everybody else.
Three team title race … sort of.
Prior to the latest round of games kicking off, there was a general acknowledgement that three teams could – in theory – be crowned champions at the end of the season.
Media favorites Liverpool have been at the top for most of the season, and most pundits want them to take home their first title since the millennium. Factor into the mix that their players are likely to feature in most Fantasy League teams, and you can understand why they are challenging City.
On the flip side, manager Jurgen Klopp has come up with a never-ending stream of reasons as to why his team are not being treated fairly by match officials, irrespective of the fact that his players have benefited from some extremely dodgy decisions in recent weeks.
Spurs, on the other hand, have been quietly going about their business in the top four and manager Mauricio Pochettino believes that “people underestimate us.” The team has been in the slipstream of City and Liverpool for a number of weeks and there is an impression in the media that the club is flying under the radar. If that is the case, then this would constitute the worst and most inefficient detection system available.
Away from their N17 home for almost two seasons, Spurs are, according to the BBC’s Phil McNulty, the team “that won’t go away.”
“When all this is bolted on to the fact that Spurs made no signings in the summer transfer window or in January, it simply underlines what a superb job Pochettino is doing,” McNulty wrote. “Indeed, it is a tough task to think of any manager at a high-profile club currently making better use of, or getting more out of, the resources available to him.”
A recent dismantling of Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League provided more proof that the Londoners are serious contenders. With no draws to date, their current league position is even more impressive when you consider that the talismanic Harry Kane hasn’t played since January 15, albeit that he was fit enough to go and hang out with Tom Brady in Atlanta the other week.
“We have a lot of talented players,” Pochettino said, in an interview with the BBC. “We have an unbelievable squad. I am happy with all the players. The only problem is that we can only play 11 players and not 22.”
One element that is helping Spurs is the form of Son Heung-min.
The South Korean has been a superstar since his return from the Asia Cup, and he is scoring goals for fun. The 3-1 defeat of Leicester was notable for his tireless contributions and he is fast becoming a legend at the club. However, Spurs are also riding their luck at times with the latest victory coming after Leicester’s Jamie Vardy missed a penalty … with his first kick of the game.
Time will tell if Spurs and Liverpool can give City a run for their money, but both clubs have already shown that the title is going to go down to the wire.
Manchester United are back. Definitely.
In recent weeks, I have mused about the Solskjaer revolution that is happening at Old Trafford.
When Jose Mourinho packed his bags and left his Manchester hotel for the last time, the club was a mess. Mourinho had stated publicly that the top six was his immediate goal, a comment that made most people clean out their ears in disbelief. Manchester United are a global brand, their fans (most of whom were weaned on the New England Patriots-like success of the Sir Alex Ferguson years) expect to challenge at the top every year, so finishing sixth is the equivalent of a soggy piece of lettuce in an otherwise reasonable salad.
Times have changed. United have moved into the top four with a minimum of fuss, displacing Chelsea and ensuring that Arsenal remain a work-in-progress in their own bid for Champions League football next season. A routine 3-0 win over relegation-threatened Fulham was inspired by anti-Mourinho agitator Paul Pogba, who has proved under Solskjaer that what he really needs is soothing words and possibly a warm blanket.
Solskjaer is certainly making the most of his interim appointment, and there is a increased consensus in the media that United could do a lot worse than to give him the job on a permanent basis. The feel good factor has returned to the club, helped by a run of matches against teams that the Manchester United of old would have swatted aside with ease. The interim manager is, first and foremost, a United fan, and that makes it easier for the players to adapt to his style of play.
It would be churlish to suggest that United might decide to stick with Solskjaer just because he is a club legend, but the so-called baby-faced assassin played under Sir Alex and he knows what makes the club tick. With that in mind, a top four finish (and possibly the FA Cup) could be reason enough to tempt him away from the footballing backwaters of the Norwegian Eliteserien for good.
Glory comes in many forms
Away from the rarified atmosphere of the top six, the rest of the EPL teams are playing for their own brand of glory. For some, simply staying up will be a cause for celebration, while others will want to cement a top-ten finish.
Eleven points separate Chelsea in 6th from Wolves in 7th, and the latter will be hoping that one of the big boys wins a cup. European qualification is normally confined to the top five finishers, but that can filter down to seventh if a top-placed team wins either the League or FA Cups – both of which come with automatic entry into the Europa League.
At time of writing, both of the Manchesters were still in the FA Cup, as are Chelsea. City also have a League Cup final against Chelsea to come, which means that Europa League qualification will go as far down as sixth. And if any of those three clubs win the FA Cup, then the seventh placed team will be playing in Europe next season.
That battle for seventh spot is basically down to six teams – Wolves, Watford, Everton, West Ham, Bournemouth and Leicester City. Seven points separate the six, with Leicester sitting comfortably in 12th place and five points clear of Crystal Palace. All of these teams could, with a string of decent results, play in the Europa League in the 2019/20 campaign, although the smart money is on either Wolves or Watford.
Everton, for example, have been fairly dreadful in recent weeks and there is a (very small) chance that they could get sucked into a relegation fight. Their 1-0 defeat at Watford in Gameweek 26 was another tame performance, and it is fair to say that the $400 million spent on players since February 2016 has not brought them any closer to breaking through the glass ceiling at the top of the EPL.
In fact the highlight of the season for Everton fans is probably the recent pitch invasion by a black cat, with the animal enjoying the freedom of Goodison Park for at least seven minutes in Gameweek 25.
The same can be said for West Ham, Bournemouth and Leicester, all of whom can beat anybody on their day but are more likely to settle for the comfort of mid-table obscurity if at all possible.
West Ham have spent a lot of money in their attempt to square up to the Big Six, while Leicester’s season is more likely to be remembered for the death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in October than for an echo of footballing glory. Bournemouth, on the other hand, are just happy to be in the Premier League, and will see another season in the top flight as reward for a prudent transfer strategy on a small (by EPL standards) budget.
Fight to survive
Henry Ford reportedly said that failure is the opportunity to begin again, just more intelligently. For Huddersfield and Fulham, that opportunity is fast approaching.
Rooted at the bottom of the table with 12 games to save themselves, both teams are expected to have their demotion confirmed sooner rather than later. Huddersfield have won two games all season and scored 14 goals in total – their loss to Arsenal was the 10th defeat in 11 games – and if the fat lady has not started to sing, then she is certainly warming up her vocal chords.
Fulham are also taking the definition of struggling to new levels. Another defeat – 3-0 to Manchester United – meant that the Cottagers have conceded 58 goals in 26 games, which is 10 more than bottom-placed Huddersfield. On the plus side, Fulham have won four games this season … the sort of silver lining that makes absolutely no difference to the fact that the club spent over $190 million in the two transfer windows to “improve” their squad.
All to play for
As two out of the three relegation places are seemingly filled, the teams above Huddersfield and Fulham will be approaching the rest of the season with a certain level of dread. Three points separate Southampton in 18th place from Crystal Palace in 13th, and there is an expectation that the next few weeks will see a number of six-point games (a reference to games played between relegation-threatened teams, naturally).
With six clubs in the relegation dogfight – Cardiff, Newcastle, Burnley and Brighton join Palace and Southampton – every game becomes a cup final of sorts. Cardiff and Burnley were the only teams to win in Gameweek 26, securing victories at Southampton and Brighton, respectively.
If I was a betting man (and I am not), then I would back Southampton to succumb to the gravitational pull of the Championship. The Saints have not played well for most of the season (W5, D9, L12), and while all the teams above them have more defeats on their record, Southampton seem incapable of turning draws into wins.
The caveat to the situation that Southampton find themselves in is that Cardiff have a far worse goal difference – -23, compared to -16, respective – and that could prove to be a pivotal factor when the final whistle blows at grounds across the country on May 12.
12 games to go, everything to play for. All I know is that EPL Gameweek 27 (when it arrives) will be another round of goals and talking points … just more reasons to love the Beautiful Game.