WHAT WE LEARNED IN SOCCER – FEB 5th: THERE ARE THREE TEAMS THAT CAN WIN IT ALL

WHAT WE LEARNED IN SOCCER – FEB 5th: THERE ARE THREE TEAMS THAT CAN WIN IT ALL

The Three Teams that can Win the Premier League Are…

With a double dose of Premier League fixtures to dig into this week, we have plenty to catch up on across all the major storylines at both ends of the table. The Title chase has taken a new twist that could see a true three-horse race to the finish. The competition for a coveted spot in Europe next season has been turned up a notch with some favorites trending in the wrong direction. Finally, we have a reshuffle at the bottom of the table with the relegation battle going from “forgone conclusion” to “forlorn confusion” in just a week’s time. 

The Current State of the Premier League

Rather than pick a place at either end of the table to start, we’ll open with the team that had the most impressive week: Manchester United. The club has struggled to put together a run of strong performances all season long but has somehow managed to stay afloat in the quest for a spot in Europe next season. For an idea of just how perplexing United’s season has been look no further than their current spot in 6th despite a negative goal differential on the season.

This week provided a new glimmer of hope as their longstanding issue with goal-scoring seemed to dissipate overnight. An astounding 7 goals over the course of their two matches this week represents nearly a quarter of their goals scored for the entire season! The skeptics among us might point to the fact that they needed all 4 of their goals against Wolverhampton midweek to salvage the win in stoppage time but given their follow-up 3-0 beat down of West Ham just a few days later, we can give the Red Devils top billing for the week. 

While United were busy securing 6 points, the rest of the European hopefuls banded together to churn out a giant mixed bag of results. Newcastle dropped Aston Villa 3-1 before conceding 4 goals to Luton Town at home and having to fight tooth and nail for a shared point. Tottenham managed an impressive win over a refreshed Brentford before coughing up points in the dying minutes against Everton. Aston Villa rallied the troops following their defeat to Newcastle and trounced basement dweller Sheffield United 5-0. The only team with any consistency last week was Chelsea who consistently conceded 4 goals to Liverpool (fair) and then Wolverhampton (ouch).

There is some clarity that can be drawn from the murkiness of the last week. Aston Villa and Tottenham seemed most poised to slide into the last remaining Champions League slot(s?). From there, United seem to have an inside track to Europa despite their meager goal differential. It seems like they are closer to figuring things out than anyone else in the mix. The last remaining Europa and Conference league slots are still up for grabs. Newcastle will need to circle the wagons quickly if they want to be able to secure the European slot and the money it comes with if they want to continue their aggressive overhaul of the club without FFP oversights interfering. Brighton and West Ham have certainly lost some steam of late but you’d have to be comfortable betting your bottom dollar that at least one of them will make the cut. Chelsea might be in some serious trouble with much of their rabid squad investment depending on European competition funds coming in. I’ll save their eulogy for later in the season but with recent news of FFP violations circling other clubs, the writing might be on the wall for the Blues if things don’t magically turn around very soon.

Speaking of FFP, look no further than the scrap at the bottom of the table as to why clubs might need to be a little more conscientious in balancing their books over the next few transfer windows. For most of the season, it looked like the 3 newcomers to the Premier League would be here on a temporary basis. Then news of a 10-point deduction for Everton for financial breaches shook that up a bit, but Everton rallied and built themselves a little cushion while Sheffield, Burnley, and Luton failed to find any footing. That has now changed in a material way with Luton Town looking more and more like a genuine Premier League club by the week. They’ve found some offensive firepower this week with back-to-back 4-goal performances over Brighton and Newcastle and Elijah Adebayo has emerged as a potential top striker in the league for seasons to come. 

This has all transpired as Everton’s form has hit a significant rough patch. They haven’t won a match in the Premier League since their December 16th matchup against fellow relegation candidate Burnley. They managed two draws this weekend to Fulham and Tottenham which may not seem so bad at first glance, but considering their upcoming schedule contains away matches against both Manchester clubs and Brighton along with home games against West Ham, Crystal Palace, and cross-town rival Liverpool and you have a recipe for disaster. The Toffees now sit 1 point behind Luton Town despite having played one match more and given Luton Town’s recent showings, might be better suited looking at 16th-place Nottingham Forest as their main competitor for safety. 

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Manchester City, Arsenal, and Liverpool are all pushing for the top spot – Who will finish kings as of England?

We’ll close out this week’s rundown with a pulse check on the Title chase. It very much appears like it will be a three-horse race for the crown this year, even more so following Arsenal’s home win over Liverpool on the weekend. Liverpool looked lost for the first time all year at the Emirates. It may be the missing pieces finally catching up to Klopp’s men. Salah, Szobozslai, and Endo were unavailable while Nunez, Alexander-Arnold, and Robertson were only healthy enough for a half of football each. However, this match really felt like it just came down to Arsenal wanting it more, and for good reason. A loss at home to the first-place team would effectively have ended Arsenal’s hope of finishing atop the league table this season. They would be 8 points back with 15 matches remaining and a loss at home by their A lineup against Liverpool’s B lineup would have been even more damaging.

At the same time, Manchester City is quietly taking care of business. They are stacking up wins and the points that come with them and have found themselves with the inside track to the title once again. Assuming they can pick up the win later today at Brentford, they will be just 2 points behind Liverpool but with a game in hand (also against Brentford). Kevin de Bruyne has returned to the starting lineup and Erling Haaland shouldn’t be much further behind.

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If you have a pencil handy, I would recommend taking it out and circling “March 9th” in your calendar. On that day, we will get to watch the match that may very likely end up being the title deciding result for the season. Liverpool will host City needing a win to regain the front foot in the battle for first. Arsenal are still lurking, sure. But they still have trips to both Manchester clubs, cross town rivals Tottenham as well as visits from Newcastle, Chelsea and West Ham still to go which is a far tougher task than the remaining schedules for Liverpool and Manchester City. I’ve said it before in this column and I’ll say it again: the Title race this season will once again come down to a showdown between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. It’s just the nature of the beast that is the English Premier League. 

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