SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – As the English Premier League title race starts to take shape, the rest of the league is scrapping for next season’s European places; and at the bottom, teams are trying everything they can to close the gap and they fight to see off relegation.
Newcastle United are hovering above relegation spots and Fulham in the bottom three are starting to get the results some of their play has warranted.
Manchester City’s dominance is shining through, and they look well set to be named eventual champions. There might be the odd twist or tune before the season is out, but such is their dominance and ability to manage games that the gap might just be a little too much for the chasing pack, led by City rivals Manchester United and Leicester City. West Ham continue to impress and punch well above their weight, and London rivals Chelsea, even though it’s early days under German coach Thomas Tuchel, look to be immediately a different team.
A treat over last weekend was the Merseyside derby, with Everton getting a well deserved 2-0 win at Anfield (their first in almost 22 years), as Liverpool continued to struggle, receiving another serious injury to boot, with captain Jordan Henderson going down with an apparent hamstring/groin issue. Diagnosis is 12 weeks out and his place at the Euro’s with England is now under threat.
This week’s previews are all Sunday matchups.
Leicester City v. Arsenal
Sunday’s early kick-off at 5:00 a.m. on NBCSN is one that should be worth getting up early for. Leicester are flying right now, and third only by goal difference. They are playing some lovely soccer as well. But they come into the game missing one of their top attacking performers in James Maddison who picked up a hip injury against Aston Villa last weekend.
In truth though, whilst the Englishman has been in fine form, the Foxes have so many threats around the park that it will allow someone else to step up. They are possession-based at times, but if that isn’t happening then they are an awesome counter-attacking outlet, using the likes of Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes as speedy outlets. In truth, Brendan Rodgers has transformed this club since his arrival, but he’s also grown and adapted as a coach. He’s a lot more pragmatic in his approach. His core values, including to play attractive soccer, are still deeply rooted in this Leicester team, but he is defensively much more organized and less gung-ho.
As the Foxes look to solidify their quest for Champions League soccer for next season, they’re coming up against an Arsenal team that has finally found its backbone, through strengthening their creative attacking ranks.
It’s still very early days, and sitting 11th in the table maybe you’ll be rolling your eyes at me (yes, they need to improve the squad still) but the arrival of Martin Ødegaard on loan from Real Madrid might help unleash the stuttering attack.
The Gunners have scored just 31 goals in the EPL this season, and that isn’t going to get you up the table, let alone into European places. They were given the runaround by City last weekend but only ended up losing 1-0. And I think that a combination of Captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ødegaard and Saka could finally make the Gunners more formidable, let alone more consistent. I’m extremely intrigued by this prospect, however, they need one more to help.
With Pepe, I’m still not seeing a player live up to his price tag, and Willian has looked well short of the version we saw at Chelsea. The quality is there, there is on occasion a well organized defensive unit, but consistency is the name of the game in this league, and Arteta still hasn’t figured that out.
The younger core are the future, but while they develop the inconsistencies are going to be there. Sadly, the experienced players aren’t on this team, in my opinion, who you want your youngsters around. There is excitement when the younger lads get on the ball, they are quick and technical, but Arteta has to address the senior pro’s if he wants to make Arsenal a powerhouse again, and summer can’t come soon enough to all this team to take advantage of the open transfer window.
Prediction: I think a thoroughly entertaining game will happen. With Leicester potentially missing a few players, I can see them tightening things up and trying to hit the Gunners on the break. Arsenal, for all their struggles, will make this a close one, and I think both teams will take a share of the spoils.
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Game of the weekend for me, live on NBCSN at 9:30 a.m. has all the makings of an EPL classic.
United, although looking up the table are still in a title race, and their ability to churn out results all season long has been hugely impressive. Once again they’ll look to Bruno Fernandes to influence the outcome on Sunday. United travel to Chelsea in okay form.
Unbeaten in their last 5 games (2 wins, 3 draws) they will look to strengthen their position in the Champions League places, but also dent old foe’s Chelsea’s desire to chase those above them down.
United are a solid unit, defensively okay, and move the ball swiftly forward, particularly to the feet of Portuguese maestro, Fernandes. I think United can still improve their style of soccer, but mostly; save another piece or two, they really are a good side and I think they will be a solid presence in the top four places over the next couple of seasons. They will look to set up well with a back four and then two defensive midfielders to add protection, and allowing the lads further forward to break Chelsea down, at speed.
As for Chelsea, and particularly under Tuchel the difference in their play is tangible. Most teams always have that new manager bump on their arrival, but Chelsea have not only had that bump, but they look a more technical team, a team full of ideas.
Tuchel, for me, is tactically light years ahead of Lampard, and it made sense for the Blues to hire him. He’ already stamped his authority on the squad and players given “free” minutes in my opinion are now forced to scrap for a place on the bench.
This is a massive game, one that will test both teams to the fullest. Are United legit? In a league season that has been below par and strange? Have they been overly tested? And are Chelsea, with the new manager bump going to dent those teams around them as the players take to the new manager’s ideas? Both teams will go for it in my opinion. The only downside is that fans won’t be in the stadium to watch.
Prediction: Fernandes will have the focus on him, but Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté, if he starts, could be the match winner for me. If Kanté gets to grip with the central midfield areas, he could dominate and give Chelsea a platform to peg United back. I think Chelsea might get all 3 points, but I just can’t write United off as their relentless and stubborn mindset is what has them flying over the last 12-15 months….Which just so happens to coincide with Bruno Fernandes’ arrival.
Until next week, keep an eye on other European leagues. The Bundesliga is close, Serie A in Italy is exciting and La Liga in Spain is enthralling. Throw in Dutch Giants PSV Eindhoven Vs Ajax on Sunday (ESPN +), it’s an action-packed weekend in Europe.