Friday, February 4, 2022

Premier League European Chase - Beyond The Big Three

Manchester City has the title chase well in hand pending a late charge from most likely challenger Liverpool. Chelsea completes a “big three” which appears a cut above other clubs chasing European places. Below those three, the field is congested with clubs seeking the fourth Champions League spot in the table, the two Europa League places, and the less coveted Europa Conference league berth.

At the winter break, five teams were within four points of that final Champions League spot. Manchester United jumped over Arsenal and West Ham into fourth position by winning its past two contests while the other two clubs dropped points as they stumbled into the break. Despite self-damaging dysfunction and drama, the Red Devils have the strongest roster of those clubs below the big three but need overcome their own internal dysfunction and drama. The arrest of young forward Mason Greenwood for alleged sexual assault is the latest and most disturbing controversy to shake Old Trafford. From a football perspective, Manchester United has the roster depth to manage through Greenwood’s absence which follows on the exile of Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek on loan as part of the club’s recent transfer window business. Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford can absorb more minutes. Jesse Lingard is more than ready to jump into the fray, having been thwarted in his desire for a transfer to seek playing time elsewhere. Already increasing minutes for young academy product Anthony Elanga had already reduced reliance on Greenwood.

West Ham has no such plethora of roster options. The fifth place Hammers have lost two straight and four of their last six league contests and Champions League qualification probably required a more active January window to supplement their striking capability and perhaps their center back depth. The oft injured Michail Antoinio continues to carry too much of the scoring burden for the Hammers. Forward Jarrod Bowen could be employed in an unaccustomed central striking role given the lack of options for the Hammers.

Arsenal, currently positioned for Europa League, also has questions in attack. Their star striker and manager could not get along and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a Gunner no more. Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah do not inspire confidence. Gabriel Martinelli could be the X-factor for the north London club. As with Bowen, Martinelli may move inside from his more comfortable wide position. A more likely outcome than Martinelli saving the day, however, is that Arsenal will struggle to score and maintain its Europa League ticket. Champions League certainly seems too long a putt for the sputtering Gunner attack.

Tottenham Hotspur is in the same seventh position as the club finished last season. Harry Kane has been terrible, and Son Heung-min has been hurt. If the former ignites and the latter is healed, Spurs could have a large say in who goes to which European competition next year. Tottenham Hotspur management did its best to appease unhappy manager Antonio Conte by picking up two players late in the window from Italian giant Juventus and shipping out several players that Conte had no use for. Spurs should pose a serious threat to West Ham and Arsenal, though wresting Champions League from Manchester United is unlikely.

A wild card for Europe is Wolverhampton. Wolves has enormously difficulty putting the ball in the net but manages to keep winning by conceding the second fewest goals in the league. Portuguese manager Bruno Lage is doing an outstanding job in his first year in the West Midlands.

It seems inevitable, though, that Wolves will falter in challenging for European places due to their lack of scoring bite. 

FA Cup

The FA Cup 4th Round will be played this weekend with 14 Premier League clubs in action. Three matches pair Premier League teams as Wolves host Norwich, Brentford travels to Everton and Brighton comes to London to face Tottenham Hotspur. West Ham plays Goliath as it goes on the road to face sixth tier club Kidderminster. Manchester United plays its first match since the shocking Mason Greenwood sexual assault allegations when the Red Devils begin 4th Round play Friday against Middlesbrough, currently seventh in the Championship division under former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder.

Burnley v. Watford

Turf Moor is the site of the only Premier League match this weekend, an important relegation scrap as Burnley hosts its new relegation zone neighbor, Watford. The Hornets have dropped into the relegation zone after losing 11 of their last 14 league matches. Friday will mark Watford’s first match under new manager Roy Hodgson, who replaces Claudio Ranieri on the touchline. Burnley are bottom of the table but trail currently safe Norwich by only four points with the Clarets having played four fewer matches than the Canaries.


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