Friday, March 25, 2022

Five Burning Questions

As the Premier League schedule pauses for international break before the season’s furious run -in, what are the league’s most burning questions?

Can Liverpool Catch Manchester City?

A stumble at Selhurst has heightened the drama surrounding the title race. A goalless draw by Manchester City at Crystal Palace, coupled with Liverpool’s victory at Arsenal, reduces the difference between the Premier League table’ top two teams to a single point. Liverpool has gained seven points in the last seven matches played by each club to create a true title race between the league’s past two champions. Expertly managed by Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, Manchester City and Liverpool provide an entertaining contrast between Guardiola’s intricate possession scheme and the high pressing energy of Klopp’s counterattacking style. Liverpool’s bid for a second title in three years has been bolstered by the addition of Colombian forward Luis Diaz in the January transfer window. Diaz joins Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Diogo Jota in Liverpool’s glittering array of attacking talent which has delivered a league leading 75 goals to date this season. Defensively, Liverpool has conceded only two more goals than Manchester City which, in turn, has allowed the fewest in the league. Liverpool is more than capable of overtaking Manchester City now that the Reds are within striking distance of the leaders. Manchester City, however, will not cede their title easily and remain the bookmaker’s favorite. The clubs meet at the Etihad on April 10th in a match which could decide the season.

What Is Chelsea’s Future?

Manager Thomas Tuchel and his players should be applauded for maintaining focus amid the swirling ownership crisis at Chelsea. Roman Abramovich’s highly successful run as owner of the club is ending due to his association with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chelsea has won 21 trophies, more than any other Premier League club, during Abramovich’s 19 years of ownership. The Russian oligarch’s lavish player spending and demands for excellence from often short tenured managers now ends and what comes next is unclear. New York merchant bank Raine is sifting through offers to purchase the club from numerous high-profile parties, including groups with current or past connections to other sports franchises in England and the United States. Even the most well financed of bids, however, cannot be expected to take the blank check approach with which Abramovich endeared himself to Chelsea supporters. A golden era on the field for Chelsea could be ending because of the carnage being inflicted on Ukraine. Tuchel and the players have Champions League and FA Cup matches still ahead of them this season in addition to the remining league schedule. They could certainly be forgiven, however, for keeping one eye on the identity of their future employer and what it means for their career.

Can Arsenal Finish Top Four?

Arsenal hasn’t played Champions League football since the 2016/17 season, Arsene Wenger’s penultimate year in charge. Arsenal is not competing in any European competition this season for the first time since 1994/95. The failure to score a goal in three consecutive losses to open this Premier League season had Gunner fans fearing a second consecutive absence from the continent. Manager Mikel Arteta, however, has impressed his authority on the club and progressed a project which has re-energized the Emirates. Arteta is not afraid to make tough personnel decisions and bravely banished club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after recurring disciplinary issues. Aubameyang’s exit continued a multi-year cleansing of the club’s roster engineered by Arteta. The Pep Guardiola protégé now has the youngest squad in the Premier League fully bought in and executing upon their manager’s possession based positional play. Academy graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have joined with other young talent such as Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli to fuel a Gunner surge which has seen the club win 10 of its past 13 matches. Fourth place Arsenal is three points ahead of rival Tottenham Hotspur and four points ahead of Manchester United with a match in hand versus both clubs. Winners in six of their past seven matches, Arsenal has shown more consistency than the other contenders for the fourth spot. While the remaining fixture schedule is not onerous for the Gunners, their Champions League aspirations could be settled by a three-match stretch where they face Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham in succession. Arsenal is poised to validate the strong hand exhibited by their bright young manager.     

Where Will Manchester United Finish?

Manchester United is currently sixth in the table. The Red Devils will need to overtake the two north London clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, to secure Champions League qualification. Even the final Europa League spot which Manchester United currently possesses is at risk with a feisty West Ham under Manager David Moyes currently two points back of the Red Devils. Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick carried Manchester United to a crucial victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the Red Devils’ last league match. Unfortunately, the club is overly dependent on Ronaldo’s heroics. Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes are having sub-par years. Mason Greenwood is sidelined with legal troubles. Anthony Martial is on loan at Sevilla. Jadon Sancho has not made the impact anticipated by his transfer price. Edinson Cavani has lost minutes to both injury and Manager Ralph Rangnick’s selection choices. Rangnick, a lame duck manager, has had difficulty enticing his players to employ his tactics. One factor in Manchester United’s favor is that the club is eliminated from every other competition and can thus focus on its Premier League run-in. A second factor is that five of the club’s remaining nine fixtures are against clubs in the bottom half of the table. While it will be difficult to catch Arsenal for the final Champions League slot, Europa League qualification appears more probable under a scenario whereby either Spurs or West Ham fails to finish in the top six. European competition is particularly important for Manchester United to attract players next transfer window to play under a new manager. 

Who Will Be Relegated With Norwich?

After five consecutive losses the Canaries are eight points from safety with little hope on the horizon. For a club which has scored a paltry 18 goals in their 29 matches to date, the future is dark. The question is who will join the Canaries in their flight to the Championship. Two consecutive wins by Leeds has given that improving club some breathing room. Everton, current occupant of the last safe position in the table, is not improving but has at least two matches in hand versus all the bottom six clubs except Burnley. Burnley, however, has failed to score in losing three consecutive matches and trails Everton by four points after 27 matches played by each side. Watford, after a surprising win before the break over Southampton, is only a point below Everton but has played two more matches than the Toffees. London bookmakers favor Burnley and Watford to join Norwich in the Championship. Everton is next likely to suffer the drop should  any of the three relegation favorites go on a surprising run. 

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