Critical time for Premier League clubs
In the most competitive of leagues, titles are decided by tipping points. The outcome of the slog of 10 months or so is, by and large, dictated not by the outcome of single games — but by short bursts of momentum and a critical mass swaying in a favorable direction.
The Barclays Premier League has reached just such a point. And Wednesday’s almost-full slate of games — Crystal Palace defeated West Ham 1-0 on Tuesday — could go some way in continuing the ascent of the early contenders while others will merely hope to stem the tide.
Most critically endangered are the hopes of Tottenham Hotspur. Second-year Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas, who flamed out spectacularly at Chelsea in his previous coaching stint, is plainly fighting for his job. The club has made no noises about seeking to replace its manager, but Spurs haven’t won in four league games and have claimed victory in just two of their last eight, going 2-3-3. Following Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United, Villas-Boas took an unprovoked swipe at the media and its perceived lack of respect and attacks on his integrity, perhaps signaling his growing insecurity.
His nervousness is justified, because Spurs — and its perpetual ambitions to become Champions League perennials — are out of the running right now in ninth place. That just won’t do for a club that got to spend some $170 million on a fresh batch of world beaters last summer, even if it did coincide with the departure of star winger Gareth Bale. The point of that one-for-seven transaction, which brought Christian Eriksen, Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela to the club, among others, was to make Spurs less of a one-man team.
But they are now worse off than that, having scored just 11 goals in 13 games, fewer than any other team in the top-13. They travel to struggling crosstown rivals Fulham, who hope to enjoy the placebo effect a new manager can have when Rene Meulensteen succeeds the fired Martin Jol.
Most recently, Spurs dropped two points in their 2-2 draw at home against Manchester United. It was a result neither team really had much use for. The Red Devils may now be out of the crisis that had enveloped the early days after David Moyes took over for the endlessly laurelled Sir Alex Ferguson — three losses in four league games in September proved rock bottom — but they nevertheless find themselves at pains to pick up points on a regular basis. They have tied three out of their last six games, leaving the defending champions lingering in eighth place. The prospect of facing Everton, Moyes’ old club, as they will at home on Wednesday, will offer no solace.
Liverpool, eternal rivals to both of those sides, shot out of the blocks to start the season, winning five of their first seven games. But they have gone 2-2-2 since, as a spate of injuries — most recently and painfully to Daniel Sturridge, one half of the Reds’ prolific strike partnership — deflated them to fourth place. A home game with Norwich City might help manifest a turn-about, but as manager Brendan Rodgers bemoaned, the squad isn’t terribly deep, and therefore ill-equipped to absorb many injuries.
Lately, Southampton, the early-season sensations, have been somewhat found out with losses at Arsenal and Chelsea and have summarily sagged to seventh place. They’ll hope to prove that they do indeed belong among the title-chasing pack in a home game with Aston Villa, their co-most-improved team as compared to last season.
Traveling in the other direction are Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle. City has been in the most spectacular form, stomping Norwich 7-0, demolishing Spurs 6-0 and Swansea City 3-0 (The lone blemish was a peculiar 1-0 loss to Sunderland). As such, their rise up the standings has been swift, taking them to third place. They travel to West Bromwich Albion two points adrift of Chelsea.
The Blues transsformed a 1-0 deficit after just 13 seconds against Southampton into a 3-1 win and have steadily amassed results this year, outlasting their peers. They should be able to do the same at Sunderland.
Newcastle, meanwhile, is finally getting a return on all that money it spent buying equity in the entire nation of France and whatever soccer players it happens to produce. With ten Frenchman now on their active first-team roster, they have earned successive wins over Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich and West Brom. They have a sixth place to show for it and will travel to Swansea in hopes of improving their standing.
Which brings us to Arsenal, which still has the rest of the league in pursuit of their four-point lead at the top. The Gunners, like Liverpool, might eventually run into depth problems once fatigue conspires with the congested spring schedule to thin out the herd. But save for that blip at United on Oct. 11, things continue to go gangbusters over in north London, with 10 of 13 games won. Surely, a win over Hull City, which beat Liverpool last weekend, is in the offing.
Unless it isn’t — and this proves to be the week when everything changes.