When one team is sipping champagne with the Premier League trophy in one hand on May 15, we may well look back at the past weekend as a pivotal factor in deciding who became champions.
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With the top four all playing each other on the same day for just the sixth time in PL history on Sunday it produced two tense and epic encounters with fitting finales to fast-paced clashes between title rivals.
Arsenal edged 10-man Leicester City in stoppage-time thanks to Danny Welbeck’s heroics, while Tottenham went to Manchester City and birthday boy Christian Eriksen scored the winner late on to hand Spurs a huge boost in their title push. Both Arsenal and Spurs sit just two points behind Leicester with 12 games to go. City are six points off the top of the table Foxes and reeling.
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Aside from the title tussles there was plenty of other big moments in the PL during Week 26. Here’s a look at five takeaways as the league goes on a hiatus until Feb. 27 due to FA Cup action.
1. North London rises
This is happening. Arsenal and Tottenham are locked at 51 points, just two behind Leicester, and both have a huge chance to win the title. In PL history only bitter rivals Manchester United and Manchester City have gone head-to-head for the crown and that’s only been on a few occasions over the past five years. Now, Arsenal and Spurs — their two stadiums separated by just four miles in north London as the crow flies — will go toe-to-toe and the huge North London Derby at White Hart Lane on March 5 has taken on a bigger significance than any other NLD since the PL began.
Mauricio Pochettino think it is important “that our supporters can dream.” But he also refused to get too far ahead of himself with the title race so close at the top. Looking at the scenes above, Spurs know their win at Man City on Sunday was a huge one. Yes, they got a huge slice of luck as Raheem Sterling was adjudged to have handled in the box by ref Mark Clattenburg when the ball clearly hit his ribs but overall Spurs deserved to win with a solid defensive unit being driven forward by Mousa Dembele in midfield and the class of Eriksen shining through at a crucial moment. Spurs arguably have not only had the most consistent form throughout the season but they also possess the best “team” compared to Arsenal, Leicester and Man City. Sure, Leicester has incredible spirit plus Arsenal and City is loaded with superstar attacking talents but overall, Spurs look as solid as a rock. If injuries are kind to Pochettino’s key players then Spurs may be the best set to go the distance. Juggling the FA Cup and UEFA Europa League will now be their biggest challenge but with a top four finish and UEFA Champions League qualification for next season all but secured, surely Spurs will chuck all of their eggs in one basket and prioritize winning a first league title since 1961. They have to.
As for Arsenal, the way they dug in against high-flying Leicester was impressive. Especially after going down 1-0 after Jamie Vardy bought a penalty kick off Nacho Monreal as he clattered into the outstretched leg of the Arsenal defender and knew exactly what he was doing. A pivotal moment arrived at the start of the second half when Danny Simpson was shown two yellows for innocous fouls in the space of a few minutes. They were fouls but perhaps referee Martin Atkinson was aiming to make up for his mistake to award Vardy a PK.
Regardless, the fact that Arsenal didn’t have a shot on target until the 70th minute when they equalized tells us plenty. The Foxes defended superbly and only Arsene Wenger‘s two subs, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, outfoxed them. Walcott latched onto a Olivier Giroud knockdown (Ahem… see the Tweet above) to slot home the equalizer and then Welbeck struck in the 95th minute to win the game on his return to the pitch after nine months out injured. It was a fairytale ending for the Gunners who, combined with Spurs’ win at City, blew the title race wide-open. This title could still head to Leicester or Man City but I’d have a very large bet now that it will end up in one half of north London.
Which half is anybody’s guess as this hugely unpredictable season took another remarkable twist on Sunday. The two battles between title contenders didn’t disappoint.
2. Leicester’s two small mistakes costly
So, let’s not forget that after everything the Foxes are still top. With 12 games to go they have a two-point lead and have a much easier schedule than their title rivals. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Claudio Ranieri‘s side now have almost two weeks to stew over failing to clear one last Arsenal set piece which lead to just their third defeat of the season. That, combined with two costly mistakes, could curtail their long-term title hopes as Ranieri returns to Rome with plenty to think about during the break while plenty of his players will jet off to Dubai et al. to soak up some rays. While they sun themselves, two players in particular will be beating themselves up.
Simpson was shown a red card for two needless fouls in wide areas where he didn’t need to dive into tackles. The Foxes were reduced to 10-men for the final 36 minutes of the encounter on Sunday and defended admirably but kept dropping deeper and deeper.
Quite why Simpson felt he had to haul down Giroud when he was already on a yellow card is hard to understand. Some of this naivety may come down to Leicester’s players not being in these kind of situations before. The end of February and start of March is crunch time in the PL. This is when the top four places are clinched, the experienced players kick it up a few gears and don’t get influenced by the fiery cauldron of a title battle.
[ MORE: Player ratings – Arsenal 2-1 Leicester ]
First Simpson lost his concentration which ultimately led to Leicester dropping back and Arsenal inevitably equalizing. Then a moment of madness from sub Marcin Wasilewski arrived. He clattered into Monreal 30-yards out and gave away a cheap free kick with less than a minute left. Ozil swung it in and Welbeck glanced home. If Leicester held on for a point — something Ranieri would have snatched your hand off for before the game — it would have been lauded as a mature gritty display worthy of champions. Now, due to two small mistakes, their remarkable challenge for the title remains intact but seems less likely. It’s hard to tell if they lose any momentum, long-term, from this defeat because they play every week like they have nothing to lose. The preseason relegation candidates are highly-likely to finish in the top four barring a monumental collapse yet the mental impact that late loss at Arsenal could have is huge. You only had to look at the players screaming at each other and throwing their arms in the air as Welbeck wheeled away to see how much it hurt them. Now, can Leicester recover in their next game on Feb. 27 against Norwich City and then against West Brom three days later? Forget about the previous 26 games, those two encounters will shape their seriousness of their title challenge.
3. Man United giving up on top four
Louis Van Gaal has just about hit rock bottom as Manchester United manager. On Saturday his team lost 2-1 at Sunderland and didn’t deserve anything more after an awful display from front to back. Sunderland deserved the three points and LVG admitted afterwards that United’s best hope of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League next season was not by whittling down the seven-point gap between themselves and Man City in fourth but by winning the UEFA Europa League. No seriously.
“I have to do my work and I do my work to my utmost best. I cannot do more and I shall prepare my players against Midtjylland 100 percent and I shall do that always… I think after this match it is the best route but it is also not so easy because some very good teams are participating in this event.”
It is bad for LVG, very bad. Sure, he has injuries but the severe lack of leadership at the Stadium of Light will have upset him most. So will the admission that Sunderland’s players wanted it more than his team. That is perhaps the most damning comment in the last 18 months from Van Gaal as his lackluster tenure in charge of the Red Devils now has a new low-point.
“The top four will be very difficult now,” Van Gaal said. “You cannot close your eyes to that. Everybody’s very sad. We couldn’t cope with Sunderland’s aggression and set pieces. We didn’t deliver and we feel disappointed and we feel sad. You cannot close your eyes from the top four being a minimum requirement.”
4. Valentine’s Day massacre: Liverpool thrash Villa
Aston Villa may be the worst team the Premier League has ever seen. Sure, Derby County and Sunderland have been relegated with very few points in the past but most of the time those teams had grit but lacked quality. It’s easy to say Villa lack both. Especially after their embarrassing collapse at home to Liverpool on Sunday as Remi Garde’s side appeared to give up in the second half. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool won 6-0 and four of their goals were scored in a mad 13 minute spell where Moses appeared to be conducting the frequent parting of Villa’s defense. It was unacceptable and Villa Park was all but empty of home fans at the final whistle.
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Liverpool were good as Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge returned and the duo linked up for the opener after 16 minutes and the Reds never looked back. That said, it’s hard to judge Klopp’s men when they were playing a team this poor. Villa are eight points off safety with 12 games left. American owner Randy Lerner has been wanting to sell them for years and now a sleeping giant of English soccer appears to be resigned to relegation for the first time in the PL era. It’s a sad state of affairs.
5. Saints may never concede again; Sunderland alive; Chelsea back?
Five wins in their last six and failing to concede in that run, Southampton is in the top six and Ronald Koeman is talking about sneaking into the top four. Hang on RoKo, hold your horses. That said, with the way Saints are defending with the 3-5-2 formation — it becomes a five-man defense when they defend — they look impenetrable. Swansea City never looked close to scoring on Saturday and Shane Long pounced 20 minutes from time to finish off the Swans. With Fraser Forster returning for the last six games after nine months out injured, the towering English goalkeeper has breathed new life into a defense which had looked very shaky all season. With Forster and their three-man central defense, Saints look a good bet to better their seventh-place finish from last season. Next up, they have Chelsea at home and the Blues look more like themselves heading into a big week.
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Guus Hiddink’s side are unbeaten since Jose Mourinho was fired in December, failing to lose in 12 games since the “Special One” was sacked. They struck early and often against Newcastle on Saturday, leading 3-0 after 17 minutes and eventually securing a 5-1 win. That is exactly what Hiddink would’ve wanted ahead of their UCL last 16 first leg clash at Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, but what he didn’t want to see was John Terry hobble off with a hamstring injury. A defensive reshuffle will see them cope with JT’s absence but in a pivotal week when a trip to Paris then a FA Cup last 16 clash at home to Man City is on the slate, it’s far from ideal. Even though Pedro and Diego Costa impressed against Newcastle, the Magpies were extremely poor and the crushing defeat sent them back into the drop zone, just one point ahead of their rising north east rivals: Sunderland.
As mentioned, Sunderland were good value for their win against Man United. Sam Allardyce is old school and many lambast his direct tactics but you can’t argue that every single one of his teams doesn’t fight for him. The Black Cats did good business in January with new center back Lamine Kone towering home a header late on to seal the win, plus new playmaker Wahbi Khazri grabbing his first goal for the club to start the scoring. Just five points now separates Sunderland in 19th and Bournemouth in 14th. With Villa seemingly gone, it seems like two from Sunderland, Newcastle, Norwich, Swansea and Bournemouth will join them. Right now the Black Cats have momentum and the relegation battle is in well and truly on.
Good news for USMNT fans, DeAndre Yedlin played against United — despite Allardyce questioning his experience just 24 hours before kick off — and although he seemed to lose Anthony Martial on United’s goal, he did make light of another very embarrassing situation. Just before United’s equalizer Yedlin drove forward and looked for a foul as he hit the floor with an obvious dive. He was booked and after the game the former Seattle Sounders right back sent out the apologetic Tweet above. Let’s see if he can keep his place ahead of Billy Jones who was injured this weekend, at least for his impressive honesty and definitely not for his shambolic diving. Tut, tut, DeAndre…
Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.