This is a great week for soccer in DC. DC United host LA Galaxy in their second home game, and Messi and Co. play El Salvador in a friendly at RFK. While the international break means that we (unfortunately) have no Premier League action this weekend, we can still go back to last weekend and take a look at yet another fantastic set of matches.
- Chelsea Take A Step Closer to the Title
Some people say that the hallmark of a good team is the ability to win despite playing poorly. If that’s true (and I think it is), then Chelsea have been a really good team in recent weeks. While they haven’t suffered a League loss since New Years, their performances of late have been less than inspiring. The Blues were rather lucky that Manchester City were largely unable to take advantage of Chelsea’s dropped points at Burnley and Southampton, while they have not played great football in their recent wins. This weekend, they travelled to Hull City in what most would have expected to be an easy win. After 10 minutes, Chelsea looked like they had wrapped up the three points already with two goals from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. But the Chelsea players looked visibly fatigued. Abel Hernandez had a one-on-one denied by Thibaut Courtois, and Chelsea’s lead did not look secure. After 25 minutes, Andrew Robertson burned down the left flank and fizzled a low cross to the far post for Ahmed Elmohamady to turn in, before Hernandez made amends for his earlier miss by taking advantage of a rare Courtois mistake and slotting home a couple minutes after Elmohamady’s goal. With the teams level, Hull put Chelsea on the back foot, and were much the better side. The Tigers forced some excellent saves out of Courtois. But, unfortunately for Steve Bruce’s men, it just wasn’t meant to be. Despite fatigue, poor play, and Diego Costa’s injury, Chelsea managed to find a winner, with Loic Remy’s shot deflecting into the goal at 77 minutes. In the beginning of the year, I wrote about why Chelsea were going to be champions at the end of the season. What separates the Blues apart from the other title contenders wasn’t quality or tactics: it’s depth. Jose Mourinho has the luxury to pull out or bench some of the League’s best players, and sub in or start other top quality players. While Chelsea haven’t played well recently, their depth has been and what eventually will push them to the title (probably). Chelsea are six points above City with a game in hand against bottom of the table Leicester City, and despite their form, their overall depth forces me to still say that they will be the season’s champions.
- Space Opens At the Bottom of the Table
The battle to avoid the drop is always an exciting one to watch at the end of the season. Earlier, I predicted who would survive the drop and who would manage to avoid it. While there are still eight matches left in the season, space is finally starting to open up at the bottom of the table. A chasm has opened up between the bottom six and the rest of those who have been potential candidates for relegation. Crystal Palace’s improvement under Alan Pardew has pushed them 11 points above the drop zone, and their place in the Premier League seems secure, something about which Palace fans will surely be delighted. For Everton fans, it has been an extremely disappointing season. If there is one silver lining to their campaign this year, however, it is that they have managed to become so bad that they ended up getting relegated. A scrappy Sunday win over in-trouble QPR has essentially guaranteed their survival. Additionally, West Bromwich Albion look essentially set to avoid relegation, despite their drubbing at Etihad Stadium on Saturday. All three of these teams have reached and surpassed the mythical “30 point” line, a marker that generally means that the club will not face relegation. While these clubs, along with Newcastle, have largely secured their future, they have also opened up a chasm between them and the bottom six, which include Leicester, QPR, Burnley, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Hull. Villa and Hull, at the top of the relegation pack, both have 28 points, but are only five points above the drop zone. The next few weeks will be interesting to watch as each of these teams attempts to secure their future in the Premier League. Leicester look certain candidates for the Championship, while QPR also seem destined for relegation. For Burnley and Sunderland, the battle will likely come down to the last few weeks, if not the last match. Perhaps the best part of the relegation battle is that the gaps between these teams are so small that a loss by one team and a win by another could have huge implications for the table. Watch this space.
- Manchester United vs. Liverpool: Where Do I Even Start?
One of the great sagas of this season has been Manchester United. They went from red-hot in preseason to ice-cold at the beginning of the season to lukewarm for much of the rest of the season. Somehow, despite their below average form, they have managed to stay in contention for one of the Champions League spots, although most people believed that they would eventually slip up at the end of the season and would not end up qualifying for Europe. But then, something miraculous happened at Old Trafford two weekends ago: Manchester United played very well and beat a good team. For a squad that has struggled to play above a 6.5/10, their match against Tottenham Hotspurs was around a 7.5 or an 8. Many believed that Manchester United would not win the game, as Spurs and their talismanic striker Harry Kane had been in good form. But United came quick out of the gate, taking the game to Spurs and scoring three first half goals and comfortably seeing out the rest of the game. This past weekend, they made a trip to Anfield. This match was seen as a match with huge implications. Obviously, the match was already a derby, with the Northwest rivalry of the two clubs heating up during the week. Liverpool, who were in the bottom half of the table a few months ago, had hit a hot streak, going a 13-game unbeaten streak and storming back into contention for a top-four finish by pulling within two points of fourth-place United. A Liverpool win meant that they would push Manchester United out of the top four and set themselves up excellently for a Champions League qualification spot. Once again, people doubted Manchester United. There was no way that United would be able to repeat their performance against Spurs at home, let alone at Anfield, where United had experienced some bad memories in recent years. But once again, United came out in the first half aggressively, taking the ball to Liverpool. They pushed up high on Liverpool’s line, forcing errors and breaking up their midfield play. The midfield trio of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini were dominant in the middle of the park, with Fellaini in particular showing great quality. The big Belgian, once criticized and maligned for his performances in a United jersey, was one of the best players on the park. He was second only to Juan Mata. The little Spaniard was superb up the right wing, drifting inside frequently, exploiting space behind Wayne Rooney and linking up with the midfield trio. His first goal came of an inch-perfect through ball from Ander Herrera, and his second goal, was, well, delectable. After Mata’s second goal, Liverpool proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot, with Steven Gerrard getting sent off for a ridiculous stamp on Ander Herrera, resulting in a red card just 48 seconds after he came on for Liverpool at the start of the second half. While Manchester United took the foot of the pedal in the second half and allowed Daniel Sturridge to slip in behind to pull one back, Liverpool never seriously looked like they were going to get an equalizer with 10 men.
There are a couple of things I want to mention from this game. First off, while Steven Gerrard’s stamp effectively cost Liverpool the game, I refuse to write them off for a top-four spot just yet. There are still eight matches, and the many of the top clubs still have to play each other, meaning there will be opportunities for dropped points. While Liverpool fell five points behind United, this is certainly not an insurmountable deficit for the Reds to overcome.
Second, United look like they may have finally hit their form. They played very well to start the game and essentially ran Liverpool off the pitch in the first half. As I said before, the midfield trio was supremely effective. Felllaini’s steady improvement over this season has been a welcome sight for Manchester United, and his performance on Sunday made everyone in the Premier League see why United paid top dollar for him. Fellaini fits van Gaal’s system very well, and if he can continue to play this well, he could re-establish himself as one of the best midfielders in England. Ander Herrera also really impressed me. There was a point earlier in the season when, during van Gaal’s experimentation, Herrera could not even get onto the team sheet. Herrera seems to have finally settled, and is proving to be an excellent link between attack and defense. He did well to harry Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, and his forward passes are delectable. Finally, there’s Michael Carrick.
It makes sense that United seem to be peaking at the same time Carrick returned to the squad. His patience and calm in the midfield has been needed all season, and his presence allows Feillaini and Herrera to rampage their way through the midfield. However, what impressed me most about United was their ability to hold possession. There were numerous three or four minute stretches where United managed to kill a Liverpool attack, win possession back and promptly sit on the ball for a few minutes, passing in defense and midfield to take out the momentum and pace from Liverpool’s play. For a squad that has seemed so prone to stupid mistakes, United seemed exceedingly comfortable in possession (excluding Carrick’s loss of the ball that resulted in Sturridge’s goal). While United have a tough schedule ahead, with matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and City still remaining, the Red Devils seem to be peaking at just the right time to nab a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League.
Photo Credit: Flickr user- cfcunofficial