Friday, November 4, 2011
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: a mini-crisis for Chelsea, Robin van Persie carrying Arsenal, 'triffic' Tottenham, European food for thought for Stoke, and alarm bells ringing at Wigan.
Chelsea: Feeling Blue
Back-to-back Premier League defeats coupled with a draw against European minnows Genk spells out a mini-crisis at Stamford Bridge. Granted, the slump against QPR was something of a freak result, but five goals conceded at home to Arsenal left Blue eyes watering, the porous nature of their defence disturbing. They then drew 1-1 at Genk, infamously becoming the first team to concede a Champions League goal against the Belgian club.
Off the field matters have been troubling, too. Head coach Andre Villas-Boas has put on a brave face, although he has conceded his team have endured a "disastrous week". Their chance for a return to winning ways comes at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.
Unlike his backline, Villas-Boas has been resolute since the Arsenal defeat, stressing he will not alter his philosophy, with his tactics of a high line questioned as the Gunners galloped clear on numerous occasions, with the likes of the sluggish John Terry seemingly running the wrong way up an escalator, and, at one point, tripping at the first step. It is in part admirable that the Portuguese remains true to his principles, which worked so well at Porto. But Chelsea are a different beast, and one will watch with intrigue to see if the stubbornness proves the making or breaking of the 34-year-old's reign in West London.
As an aside, an acknowledgement that Villas-Boas, who was criticised in this column last week for his lambasting of referees, abstained from commenting on Andre Marriner's decision not to send off Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny for his challenge on Ashley Cole last weekend. AVB would have been well within his rights to question the call, as Szczesny was arguably guilty of two red card offences: denying Cole a clear goalscoring opportunity and the Pole delivering a reckless tackle. Szczesny, though, escaped with just a yellow, at a crucial time in the game.
Robin van Persie: The ammunition
Arsenal: a one-man team? This indeed may be the case. Certainly the Gunners are a decent outfit without the Dutchman, but not a great one. Not one capable of finishing in the top four, you'd imagine. Superlatives for Van Persie's form this calendar year are running dry, but needless to say he has been carrying the team on piggyback at times. Prior to the midweek match against Marseille, the Dutchman had scored 28 times in 27 matches. Such a record takes the Michael, frankly. Arsene Wenger opted to rest his star man against l'OM, but admitted the "gamble" backfired as the Gunners fired blanks, despite bringing the forward on for the ineffectual Park Chu-Young in the 62nd minute.
That's the issue underlying Arsene Wenger's side's revival: beyond Van Persie, the options are scant. Marouane Chamakh has not just gone off the boil but rather evaporated altogether, while summer signing Park, who will be an Arsenal player for two years before embarking on military service for South Korea, is still adapting to English football. Time is hardly on the latter's side. When/if Van Persie does get crocked, Arsenal's guard could be down, the remaining players left to scrap bare-knuckle, a characteristic they have previously lacked. Now is the time to enjoy while it lasts, the team rightly still giddy off their Chelsea scalp, but that high has been tempered by a midweek dose of what could be to come.
Tottenham: Great Scott
Spurs are looking good. Very good, in fact. They appear the favourites for fourth (with all due respect to Newcastle) ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal. From their last seven Premier League matches, Harry Redknapp's charges have managed a return of 19 points from a possible 21: hell, that's the form of title contenders, let alone Champions League berth seekers. Tottenham may be fifth, but the club are level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea, also boasting a game in hand that, if won, could see them trail Manchester United by just a point.
Credit where credit is due, Redknapp's addition of the tenacious Scott Parker continues to look a masterstroke, the midfielder's qualities proving the ideal foil for those of a more creative nature around him. A case in point: Rafael van der Vaart has scored six goals in his last five league games, while the team's current streak started when Parker made his debut for the club. With Redknapp, who underwent heart surgery this week, saving his regulars from a lengthy trip to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League - they are without the burden of Europe like last season, so to speak - it is becoming increasingly difficult to support an argument against Tottenham not returning to the Champions League stage next season.
Stoke: European exploits
Stoke were very un-Stoke-like on Monday night against Newcastle. While the Magpies headed to the Britannia Stadium in fine form, the resistance put up by the Potters proved unusually brittle, the Magpies like a bull in a china shop. Kudos to the visitors for the manner in which they nullified their opponents, certainly, but a third loss in four league matches for Stoke raised the question mark over whether the exploits of Europe are already taking their toll. Indeed, only one domestic victory has followed a Europa League outing, and this week's lengthy trip to Maccabi Tel Aviv and back threatens to drain the players once more before they head to struggling Bolton Wanderers.
Wigan: Latic acid test
When studying a league table that also details form, it is hard to overlook seven red dots strung together in a row, each representing a loss and screaming panic stations for the Latics, who are bottom of the table and three points from safety. After five points from their opening three matches, Wigan have plummeted in dramatic fashion, and while last season's final day drama is still just few months ago in the memory, it is of debate whether Roberto Martinez and his players can once again summon the spirit to rally in such fashion. Ten games played, one win managed, seven losses suffered, 17 goals against and six goals scored. The alarm bells are ringing, and ringing loudly too.
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