Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday Morning Keeper - EPL Week 22

Courtesy of Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Depending on who you listen to on the web and twitter, this weekend in the EPL was the most important match of the season for some teams. 4 of the top 5 teams were playing each other with Man City hosting Tottenham and Man United traveling to Arsenal. Chelsea also had to go on the road to Norwich which has been a tough place to play this season. For the Manchester squads the weekend was like any other for the top 2, the chance to draw even in points or slightly further apart, but by no means elimination from the title run. However, if the results fell the wrong way, Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal could all be written off from the title race and this could truly become a 2 horse race. Those were the stakes coming into the weekend, and if you like a Manchester team you were not disappointed.

The marquee match-up of the weekend was City hosting Tottenham; the league leaders versus the team with the best record since September 1st. The Citizens were the only team in league football in England coming into the weekend with a perfect home record, 10 matches and 10 wins. After City laid the hurt on the Hotspurs at White Hart Lane in August, the boys from North London were out for revenge and potentially pull within 2 points of the league lead. With all the build-up and drama surrounding the re-match (thanks Fox Soccer for the great pre-production pieces), those who chose to sleep in and miss the first half were the ones rewarded. Both teams came out "testing the waters" with mostly midfield play and few attempts to push the ball forward into the box. Sergio Aguero had the only shot on goal for either team in the first half, the rest of the shots were sprayed wide or blocked. You had a feeling that both Roberto Mancini and Harry Redknapp read the riot act to their players at the half, because they came out firing on all cylinders. In the span of 10 minutes Nasri and Lescott scored to put City up 2-0 only for Defoe and Bale to return the favor and draw the match even at 2-2. And while Mario Balotelli had started warming up, sat after the 2-0 lead, then warmed up again after the tie; everyone of the City fans at the sold-out Etihad Stadium took a deep breath when they saw him enter the match in 65th minute Edin Dzeko. You get this feeling that Balotelli plays by his own rules, rules which usually include picking up a quick yellow card, sometimes red, and making a spectacle of everything. After the teams pushed into 4 minutes of stoppage time it was Tottenham who appeared to have the late game heroics with Defoe missing wide by inches. With a minute to play Balotelli drive hard down the middle of the pitch and was taken down by Ledley King in a clear penalty that would decide the match. Mario stepped up and with his typical stutter step bravado he drilled the ball to the left of Brad Fiedel and sealed the victory for City. Tottenham are not truly out of the title race, they sit 8 points back of City in 3rd with their toughest stretch of matches over all top 6 clubs over the next 9 weeks. Although City gained the victory and 3 points they could have lost much more. Both Lescott and Balotelli committed fouls during the match which may be reviewed by the FA and suspensions could be handed out. With the Toure brothers at the African Nations Cup and Kompany still serving his 4 game suspension, the back line is looking awfully weak for City.

Meanwhile down in London town, the Gunners looked to avenge their 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford earlier in the season as Man U came to Emirates Stadium. Although Arsenal have had their problems throughout their season Robin Van Persie is having a break out year, leading the league in goals and being the sole scoring option for the team. You might think that is a bit harsh, but coming into the weekend RVP had 18 of the team's 37 goals on the season; his closest teammate in scoring is Gervinho with 4 goals. More than just a re-match, Sunday's game between Arsenal and Man U was the first live broadcast of an EPL match on network television, as FOX decided to give it a go. Fox gets the nod for bring Rob Stone over from ESPN but loses all the accolades by having talking-head and bed-wetting Arsenal fan Piers Morgan on the other end of the desk with Eric Wynalda in between. The production was great, but how couldn't it be, Fox had been waiting for this opportunity for 6 years, it was time to move EPL onto the big network. As for the match, the pace of play was fantastic, so much so that I was curious whether the teams would need a nap at halftime. Both teams were even on shot attempts and shots on goal leading into halftime until 97-year-old Ryan Giggs lofted a beautiful cross into the 6 yard box for Antonio Valencia to put United up 1-0 at the half. As Piers was so eloquently put it during the halftime show, Arsenal had no chance to win unless RVP did the scoring; and that he did. The Gunners came back on the pitch firing at will with 9 shots in the second half, but it was RVP's goal crossing in front of the keeper to draw the match even in the 71st minute. When it seemed like everything was going Arsenal's way, Arsen Wenger decided to replace Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 2 minutes after he setup RVP's goal, to put in Andrei Arshavin. I'll admit, Wenger was looking for the win with the move by putting in a more attack-minded midfielder, but boy did it backfire. In the 81st minute Arshavin reacted slowly on defense to Valencia's drive which left the space he need to cross a ball into Danny Welbeck he headed it home to give United the 2-1 lead, and that's where it ended. The boo birds flew wild through the Emirates Stadium as Wenger walked off following the match knowing that a draw or perhaps a win was lost on a poor substitution choice. For the Gunners their title hopes are done, they are done being 18 points out of first. Man U was able to complete the double against their North London rivals and keep pace with Man City just 3 points ahead.

Things didn't bode well with the rest of the top 6 squads either with Chelsea being the only ones to pick up any points with a 0-0 draw at Norwich. Liverpool went out to the Reebok Stadium to face the 2nd worst team in the league, Bolton, but was embarrassed by the Wanderers 3-1 as they refuse to go quietly into relegation. Clint Dempsey scored the first hat trick ever by an American in EPL and help lift Fulham past Newcastle 5-2 at Craven Cottage. Big props to Dempsey, he is having his best season ever in the EPL with 9 goals in the league and 15 across all competitions. After these matches the only team outside of Manchester that has a chance of winning the title still is Tottenham, and that may be a stretch still.

With only two draws on the weekend, 3 point moves happened at the top and bottom of the table. The biggest recipient of a victory was Bolton who moved from 19th to 17th and out of the relegation zone for the time being. Here is a look at the top and bottom of the table after Week 22.

1. Man City - 54 pts, +42 GD (17-3-2)
2. Man United - 51 pts, +33 GD (16-3-3)
3. Tottenham - 46 pts, +17 GD (14-4-4)
4. Chelsea - 41 pts, +15 GD (12-5-5)
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17. Bolton - 19 pts, -19 GD (6-1-15)
18. Blackburn - 18 pts, -12 GD (4-6-12)
19. Wolverhampton - 18 pts, -25 GD (4-6-12)
20. Wigan - 15 pts, -26 GD (3-6-13)


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