As the football season rolls on towards spring, teams inevitably begin to look ahead to the end of the season and beyond. Chelsea have already secured the Capital One Cup and hold a comfortable lead in the Premier League, but behind them, the race for the remaining Champions League spots is as hot as ever. Manchester City look safe in second place, but behind them, five teams are in the hunt for the coveted third and fourth spots. Three will fall short and spend 2015/16 playing on Thursday nights in the Europa League, but for two, the pinnacle of European football awaits. Here is how these teams are shaping up for the run in:
Position: 3rd Pts: 51
Once again, Arsenal’s season seems to be following a familiar pattern. Their final eleven games in the Premier League will be spent securing Champions League football for yet another season, just as their challenge in Europe seems to be spluttering to its perennial halt in the round of 16.
Arsenal are one of the form teams in the division, having lost just twice in the league since the turn of the year, suffering defeats at the hand of Southampton and local rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Other than these blips, Arsenal have been brilliant in 2015, typified in their surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, whilst swatting aside teams from the lower reaches of the Premier League.
The Gunners’ improvement in form is no surprise when considering that some of their best players have returned from injury over the last few weeks. Record signing Mesut Özil has looked rejuvenated since his return to the side and Olivier Giroud has been in fantastic form since recovering from a broken ankle in December. Furthermore, Theo Walcott should be returning to full fitness soon following a serious knee injury, which will add another dimension to Arsenal’s attack for the final few games of the season.
The absence of these players earlier in the season may actually prove to help Arsenal in the run in. Santi Carzorla now looks to be one of the league’s best central midfielders, whilst the addition of Francis Coquelin to the side has given Arsenal more steel and bite in midfield. Furthermore, the addition of Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal looks to have helped sort out some of Arsenal’s problems in central defence, which has too often been undone Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace. All in all, they look a much better side than they did earlier in the season.
Their run in is also favourable, having faced many of the teams around them since the turn of the year. They still have Liverpool and Chelsea to face at the Emirates, and face a crunch match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend of the season, but they should win the majority of their other fixtures, especially when they have players of the quality of Alexis Sanchez. The defeat to Monaco in the Champions League raises concerns about their vulnerability, but they look favourites to take third spot and secure Champions League football for an eighteenth successive year.
Position: 4th Pts: 50
Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge at Old Trafford has been a strange one. After a good run in the Autumn, the Red Devils have spent most of the season in the top 4 of the league, despite struggling to impress most onlookers. Some abject performances and strange tactical decisions have left United just five points better off than they were under the tragic regime of David Moyes, yet they still harbour strong hopes of returning to Europe’s top table.
Manchester United’s strong league position has been built on the back of their ability to overcome some of the league’s weaker clubs at home. Comfortable wins over teams such as QPR, Burnley and Hull City has seen them accumulate a large number of points despite their obvious shortcomings. Their stand out results of the season are a 3-0 home win against an out of form Liverpool, where the scoreline flattered them dramatically, and an impressive 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium.
It is possible to argue that United’s lofty league position has been as a result of having great players, rather than a great team. Too often they have benefited from the outstanding goalkeeping of David de Gea, who is probably the best in the world right now in his position, and has kept Manchester United in countless games with some brilliant saves, allowing United to do the bare minimum up top to win games, even resorting to lumping the ball up to Marouane Fellaini.
The struggles that face Manchester United for the rest of the season seem to be their fixture list, and their manager. In their remaining eleven games, the Red Devils face six of the top seven, all of whom they look like they will struggle against. Furthermore, with van Gaal seemingly not knowing his best team, and stubbornly persisting to play players out of position, such as Rooney in central midfield and record signing Angel di Maria, who is starting to look a shadow of the man at Real Madrid last season, up front, United seem to lack cohesion all over the pitch. They are impossible to count out due to the quality of the individuals in their line-up, but overall, they look a poor outfit. With tough fixtures to come, they may have to settle for the Europa League next season.
Position: 6th Pts:48
When Liverpool fell to a crushing 3-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester United in December, it looked the end of any hope of European football for next season for the Merseyside giants. Out of the Champions League just a few days before and languishing in mid-table, it seemed the fire had gone out and last year’s runners up were set for a torrid season.
Fast forward 10 weeks and Liverpool are suddenly on the brink of the top 4 after an eleven game unbeaten run. Whilst the defeat at Old Trafford looked to be disastrous on paper, it actually heralded in the start of a fresh new team that is now tearing up the Premier League. The switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation by Brendan Rodgers allowed Liverpool to integrate all of their pacey, young, attacking players, whilst offering more support for a creaking defence. The system pushed Raheem Sterling up front, finally adding the speed to get behind defences that Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert failed to provide, allowing space for Liverpool’s attacking midfielders Adam Lallana and the astoundingly talented Philippe Coutinho.
Furthermore, Liverpool’s signings seemed to have started to bed in; Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno add width and pace to the Reds’ formation, whereas Emre Can has been a revelation on the right of a much more solid back three. In the absence of Steven Gerrard and Lucas, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen also seemed to have formed a solid but forward thinking base to attack from, allowing Liverpool to pour forward whilst still feeling secure at the back. In addition, Can, Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, who whilst gangly and awkward, is probably the best out and out defender at the club, have stopped leaking so many goals as Liverpool now look confident at the back.
Liverpool are the form team in the league, much like they were at this stage last season, and wins against Spurs, Southampton and Manchester City in the last few weeks has shown they can beat anyone right now. They still have to travel to the Emirates and Stamford Bridge, as well as facing Manchester United at Anfield, but right now, they will not be scared of any of them. Their season has turned around, and they look a solid bet to return to the Champions League for a second season.
Position: 5th Pts: 49
At the start of the season, it looked highly improbable that Southampton would be discussed for a European spot come March, but after a blistering start under new manager Ronald Koeman, that is exactly what everyone is doing.
Their summer clear out meant that many predicted relegation for the Saints, but new signings Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadic looked to have added a freshness to Southampton’s attack, whilst their incredibly stingy defence stopped teams from scoring against them, making them a frightening prospect.
However, the results, and the goals have dried up recently for Southampton, casting doubt over their European credentials. Pellè is struggling in front of goal, and they are sometimes far too laboured when it comes to creating opportunities. In order to improve and get back towards the top 4, they need to start using the pace of players like Eljero Elia and Sadio Mané to get in behind teams and cause them problems.
With just one goal in their last 5 matches, it is clear where Southampton’s problems lie, but should they sort that out, the strong spine of their team should allow them to start winning games again. They possess the meanest defence in the league, and have perhaps the best central midfield pairing of any Premier League team in the shape of the excellent Schneiderlin and Wanyama. They will not lose may games over the rest of the season, but whether their challenge continues depends on how whether they can significantly add to the 38 goals they have mustered this season. It would be a monumental achievement for the Saints to make the top 4, and one they will probably miss out on.
Position: 7th Pts: 44 (after 26 games)
It has been a strange season for Spurs. Early on they looked weak and lightweight, and suffered a rather poor start under Mauricio Pochettino. However, Tottenham started to repeatedly snatch late winners from games, allowing them to move up the table. Whilst many would put this down to luck, the manner of their victories were as a result of Pochettino’s training methods, turning Tottenham into a much stronger, fitter team, allowing them to climb the league table as well as reach the Capital One Cup final.
The discovery of Harry Kane has also contributed massively to Tottenham’s rise. Emmanuel Adebayor is far too lazy to fit into a Pochettino team, and Roberto Soldado has never really settled in England. Kane on the other hand is made for the Premier League. Strong, quick and lethal in front of goal, he is almost certain to win his first England cap come the end of the month, after 24 goals in a stellar breakthrough season.
Kane is not the only player impressing, as Christian Eriksen has continued to shine after an impressive début season in 2013/14. Pochettino has managed to stamp his style on Spurs, and looks to have found a preferred line up. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, whilst limited players, work perfectly for Pochettino, breaking up play and recycling the ball for the attacking players Townsend, Chadli and Eriksen. The former Southampton manager has found the players to fit his system and Tottenham are thriving because of it.
However, after a Europa League campaign and a run to the League Cup final, Tottenham have already played more games than any other team in the Premier League this season. They do have a deep squad to deal with this, but there are questions over the quality of some of the fringe players should Eriksen or Kane sustain an injury or loss of form. They look a much stronger outfit now than under Villas-Boas or Sherwood, but all in all, with their long season, Spurs will probably fall just short of the Champions League, yet again.
Tottenham Hotspur fans react to Danny Welbeck dive
Tottenham Hotspur fans were not pleased with Danny Welbeck’s dive v AC Milan.
Arsenal successfully knocked AC Milan out of the Europa League last night with a 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium. The hero of the night was England forward Danny Welbeck. The striker scored two goals as Arsenal completed a deserved 5-1 aggregate victory over the Rossoneri.
But Milan had taken an early lead through Hakan Calhanoglu’s bamboozling long-range strike. Arsenal, at that stage, were looking on the ropes. Welbeck though won and then dispatched a penalty to level the scoring. The word ‘won’ being the optimum word.
Welbeck dived for the penalty, there is no doubt about that. Ricardo Rodriguez barely breathed on the Arsenal man, who tumbled to the ground hopefully. When the penalty was given, he looked in disbelief.
For Tottenham Hotspur fans it was a moment they did not appreciate.
Spurs have seen Dele Alli victimised throughout the season, and some would say rightly so, for his diving. There is no doubt that the England midfielder has dived this season and not many Tottenham fans would suggest not.
But the anger here lies with what Tottenham fans believe is hypocrisy. There is also a certain level or irony given a thinly veiled dig by Arsene Wenger against Spurs’ players this season.
After the highly controversial 2-2 draw at Anfield, where Harry Kane was accused of diving v Liverpool, Wenger had this to say, as reported by the BBC:
“I remember there were tremendous cases here when foreign players did it.
“But English players have learned very quickly and might be the masters now.”
“Sometimes players play a little bit with the rules. How far can you go? That is down to the referees.”
With Arsenal their next Premier League opponents, Arsene Wenger’s barb was not hard to see.
When that statement came out Tottenham fans quickly pointed out occasions when Arsenal’s English stars had been caught diving. Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott were prominent examples. Now, in Welbeck, Tottenham have seen another.
Arsenal fans will be happy that their team have booked a place in the next round of the Europa League. On balance it was more than a fair result as over two legs Arsenal outplayed the Italian giants.
But the Welbeck moment certainly put an asterix on the game for Spurs fans.
Here is some of the best reaction from Twitter…
Özil against Watford was falling down when a gust of wind went past him. It was appalling. Welbeck yesterday was one of the worst dives
— Joe B ??????? (@JblincoTHFC) March 16, 2018
Only just seen the Welbeck dive, he must be embarrassed even appealing for that.
— Joshhh (@JJonesTHFC) March 16, 2018
— Harry Hotspur (@HarryHotspurWHL) March 15, 2018
If you had any doubt about how this country treats Dele Alli (one of its brightest prospects in years) look at the difference in how the media and in particular fans, are talking about the #Welbeck dive. ? #COYS #THFC
— Gary Ford (@Spursfordie) March 15, 2018
Imagine if this was @dele_official who did this and the media onslaught! Danny Welbeck you diving cheat! Hope the likes of @talkSPORT @GaryLineker @alanshearer to name a few subject Danny to the same treatment they have subjected Dele too this season! https://t.co/MXFMAkOGcN
— H (@LittleMissTHFC) March 15, 2018
— Lucas (@MoughtTHFC) March 15, 2018
Welbeck is a cheat end of. Ruined a good game.
— THFC (@RaoullyT69) March 15, 2018
Look how everyone destroys Dele over diving. No one will comment on Welbeck’s dive. Shocking! #THFC
— Harry Hotspur (@HarryHotspurWHL) March 15, 2018
— Steve Williams (@spurssteve69) March 15, 2018
Welbeck dives. Dele will be in trouble in the morning. #THFC
— Stephen Vincent (@StevieV14) March 15, 2018
If Dele Alli did what Welbeck just did?
— Billy Adams (@ThfcAdams) March 15, 2018
Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?
Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.
Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.
They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.
These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.
Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.
In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.
The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.
Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.
Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.
Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.
The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.
Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.
It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.
When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.
If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.
There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.
Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.
It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.
It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.
Brighton 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Amex
Arsenal lost for a fourth successive game as Brighton & Hove Albion bullied their opponents into submission.
Arsenal suffered their fourth consecutive defeat in all competitions as Brighton & Hove Albion took a giant leap towards Premier League survival.
The pressure on Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, which has intensified since the turn of the year, looks set to reach new heights after another dismal day at the office for his charges.
Goals from Lewis Dunk and Glenn Murray put the Seagulls in control before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulled one back for the visitors on the stroke of half-time.
Despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession, Arsenal were unable to muster an equaliser.
For Brighton, this was a huge result that lifted them seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Here are three talking points…
Is beleaguered Wenger’s position now untenable?
It lurches from one disaster to another for Wenger.
He probably thought the nadir had been reached after last weekend’s limp performance in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, when his future became the main topic of debate.
The Frenchman would have hoped for a reaction from his players in the subsequent fixtures.
Instead, his side were brushed aside against City in the Premier League before producing another sub-standard display here against Brighton.
Added to their shock Europa League reversal at home to minnows Ostersunds, it is the first time Arsenal have lost four successive matches since 2002.
After last season’s FA Cup triumph, Wenger penned a new contract that takes him through to the summer of 2019.
Now, however, it’s difficult to see how he can last beyond the end of the current campaign.
Perhaps only by lifting the Europa League, which would automatically qualify Arsenal for the Champions League, could Wenger realistically remain in situ.
Even then, it may not be enough. His players look devoid of any confidence and need an injection of new ideas.
Brighton take a massive step towards safety
The focus will understandably be on Arsenal, but Brighton’s display should not be overlooked.
This victory extended their unbeaten run in the Premier League to four games and has all but banished thoughts that they might be dragged into a relegation scrap.
Yes, it was a good time to face Arsenal, but Chris Hughton’s side made a fast start with two early goals that went a long way to recording their first win over the Gunners since 1982.
Brighton’s performance bore all the hallmarks of their season so far.
Despite being one of the lowest scorers in the division, they took their chances when they came, exploiting Arsenal’s weakness from set pieces and aerial balls.
In the second half, the home side remained very organised defensively, which was key when the Gunners upped the tempo.
Modest and unassuming, Hughton has done a terrific job on the south coast.
Defensive shortcomings continue to haunt Arsenal
Wenger has regularly spoken of his belief that Arsenal cannot compete on a level playing field with the likes of Manchester City.
And while his side’s record against fellow ‘Big Six’ clubs is regularly scrutinised, the Gunners’ results against the lesser lights have not been good enough for a club with Champions League aspirations.
In 2018 alone, Arsenal have been beaten by Swansea City, Bournemouth and now Brighton in the Premier League, while losing to Nottingham Forest and Ostersunds in cups.
A lack of leadership has long been an issue on the pitch and it’s an area Wenger has consistently ignored.
Defensively, the Gunners are too easy to bully.
Take Shkodran Mustafi’s defending for the first goal in the Carabao Cup final last weekend, for example.
Particularly away from home, Arsenal are prone to imploding.
Despite the attacking talent Wenger has at his disposal, his failure to invest in proven defenders at the top level looks set to cost him dearly.
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