Momentum with Martinez's Everton
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Will Everton's momentum be enough against Arsenal?
"I'll get you in the Champions League," Roberto Martinez told Bill Kenwright at his interview for the Everton job last summer. Considering that statement, and also his eloquent address to the media over the years, the perception of Martinez's persona is one of confidence backed up by an unwavering belief in his own methods. Having on several occasions dealt with the stresses of the relegation battle with Wigan Athletic, Martinez has no time, regardless of being only 40, for looking back.
His Everton side's win at Fulham last Sunday was of the hard-fought variety, showing a different string to their bow, to make it five successive Premier League victories, bringing them to within four points of Arsenal, while boasting a game in hand. Having trailed the Gunners by 14 points in February, this has been quite the swing in form for both sides, who meet each another at Goodison Park on Sunday. If there is such a thing as momentum in football then certainly it is currently with the Toffees, while a confidence-stricken and injury-hit Arsenal are in need of a jump-start.
Arsene Wenger's side demonstrated mettle in the second half of their 1-1 draw at Manchester City after a draining week recalibrated their aims, yet there remains a fragility about them, in particular on the road versus the higher-placed sides. Hence, Everton, remembering their impressive display that merited at least the 1-1 draw they achieved at Arsenal in December and forgetting March's 4-1 loss in the FA Cup, can be optimistic about their prospects of beating their North London opponents for the first time since 2007.
That Everton are three points short of last season's total tally overseen by former boss David Moyes with seven fixtures to play indicates that the ambitious Martinez is ahead of schedule with his project on Merseyside. Champions League qualification would represent an outstanding achievement and also swell the finances such that loan deals would not have to be relied upon so heavily, thus allowing their Spanish coach to build longer term. While falling short would not amount to failure, a lingering sense of "what might have been," bearing in mind Arsenal's wobble and potential for switching focus to the FA Cup, would rankle long into the summer.
Can Liverpool turn their title dream into reality?
Across Stanley Park, there are even more reasons to be giddy after Liverpool's comprehensive 4-0 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur put them top of the table. The route to a first league title since 1990 is simple: win their remaining six matches and the Reds are champions. Of course, it is easier said than done, but the probability is that extending their current eight-game streak to 14 won't be necessary, as their rivals are unlikely to demand such perfection -- points will fall from all.
The country's most enthralling team to watch are next in action Sunday at Upton Park, when West Ham will provide a different and surely sterner test of their silverware credentials, after Spurs -- the spitting image of training cones -- hardly demanded the best from Brendan Rodgers' men. Andy Carroll et al might fancy their chances against a Liverpool defence that can be got at -- but out-scoring the Reds is a wholly different issue. Part of Rodgers' job, meanwhile, will be focusing his players on the task in hand given the distraction of next weekend's home match against Manchester City.
Who is left for Jose Mourinho to blame?
For all the back-slapping Jose Mourinho has received for Chelsea's approach in the blockbuster matches, the Portuguese coach is facing up to the reality that the failure to regularly replicate such ruthlessness against the so-called smaller teams could be their undoing. Recently, a 4-0 win over Tottenham was followed by a 1-0 loss at Aston Villa, before a 6-0 win over Arsenal was followed by a 1-0 loss at Crystal Palace.
You'd struggle to find a person who has believed Jose's protestations his team have not been title contenders all season long, nor his latest tedious remark their hopes are over after the loss at Selhurst Park. Is it possible that Mourinho's mind games have gotten to his own players? At his disposal is an excellent squad, made even better by the signing of Nemanja Matic in January, and it's one arguably stronger than 18 others in the division -- but the players are not consistently performing to the standard required, which is Mourinho's minimum demand.
The Blues' boss has regularly bemoaned his lack of striking talent -- despite boasting two more senior forwards at his disposal than his counterpart Arsene Wenger at Arsenal -- and on Wednesday he again said he was "not happy" with those who lead the line. It was the defence that cost Chelsea at Paris Saint-Germain, though, an area in which Mourinho teams gone by have tended to be formidable. Regardless of whether it is misplaced ire or another intentional diversion tactic from Jose, this cocktail of an occasionally blunt front line and a wobbly defence will not win them the title.
Norwich vs. West Brom -- which side will hold their nerve?
On paper, this fixture lacks glamour, but be assured the amount riding on it means we're looking at one of the games of the weekend (the ultimate quality of which cannot be blamed on this column). Three points separate 15th-placed Norwich and 17th-placed West Brom -- the latter have a game in hand on the former. Norwich have been consistently inconsistent, following up their win over Sunderland with a feeble 3-0 loss at Swansea, meaning six straight away defeats.
Fortunately, the Canaries' meeting with West Brom is at Carrow Road and six points currently separate them from the bottom three but, lest we forget, Norwich's run-in is horrible, with games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. As for West Brom, while the two points dropped at the death against Cardiff proved utterly enthralling for the neutral, the lapse could prove fatal come the season's close.
Are Fulham already goners?
Although not mathematically bound for the Championship, Fulham seem doomed. Currently bottom of the standings, five points away from safety and with only 18 left to play for, Felix Magath, the club's third manager of the term, needs a dramatic upturn in form. Indeed, the Great Escape of the 2007-08 campaign seems a long time ago. Magath has insisted he is not yet planning for playing in the second tier, although he might well as do if they fall against Aston Villa this weekend.
Can Poyet stop the rot at Sunderland?
With one point mustered from their last six matches, Gus Poyet's Sunderland also look like a side hurtling toward England's second tier. Indeed, the Black Cats have not won in the league since the Tyne-Wear derby on Feb. 1. They do boast two matches in hand on their relegation rivals but, considering their next run of fixtures sees them take on Tottenham, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea, it appears they've left themselves with too much to do.