March 13, 2018

FREE KICKS: The league belongs to Manchester

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We’ve been so preoccupied with Manchester City running away at the top of the table, that we haven’t really been noticed how well its neighbour is faring in second place.

With a nice win over Liverpool this weekend in an age-old rivalry game, United has now opened up a four-point lead for second place.

Sure, it certainly doesn’t mean that the race is over, but when you consider that Spurs just lost Harry Kane to an ankle injury – reportedly for up to six weeks – and United just beat fourth-place Liverpool, and you can start to believe that maybe there isn’t much of a race to be had here.

And with United’s loss to Sevilla snuffing out its Champions League ambitions, the focus for Jose Mourinho should be squarely on finishing in that second spot and earning the money that comes along with it. Then, maybe, he’ll be able to convince the board to bring on even more players to fit his style this summer.

Sure, nothing has been settled yet, but we’re not betting against the Manchester teams taking the top two spots in the Premier League. Shades of 2011-12, but without any of the drama.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

We don’t often get sentimental here, but when a milestone like this is reached, it should be recognized: Petr Cech picked up his 200th Premier League clean sheet on Sunday.

In what has been a tumultuous season for Arsenal and its fans, this is something that should surely lift some spirits.

Cech had gone 11 games without a clean sheet, but has 10 on the season. He had to do some work for this one, too, stopping Troy Deeney on a penalty.

It’s not often that you’ll see a Gunner in this space often, but this one is well deserved for a player that isn’t as appreciated as he should be anymore.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

After beating AC Milan, Arsenal now has more European away wins (4) than domestic (3) … After going winless in its past four PL games and falling ever closer to the relegation zone, Southampton has sacked Mauricio Pellegrino. After years of selling off its top players – mainly to Liverpool – that practice has caught up to the Saints on the pitch. And with Mark Hughes the lead candidate to take over, we’re not sure how well this will go for the southern coast side … Even Kane limping off, Spurs were able to see off Bournemouth. The Cherries scored the opener, but Tottenham stormed back with a nice 4-1 win. And the man stepping up for the second game in a row: Heung-min Son … Props to Swansea for keeping a clean sheet despite playing with 10 men from the 11th minute on. How can you not be rooting for this club?

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Mourinho isn’t even subtlety going at his detractors anymore. Check out this quote:

“The worst manager in history of PL, Frank de Boer, says it is no good for Marcus Rashford to have manager like me. Maybe with him he could learn how to lose.”

No that is straight-up flame emojis.

THE LAST WORD

Things are getting heated in east London, with West Ham United supporters storming the pitch this weekend.

They’re pissed, and understandably, about the direction of the club and decided to show the bosses how much.

After chants of “Sack the board,” and “you destroyed our club,” several fans ran onto the pitch after the Irons had conceded to Burnley. One even stole a corner flag while others berated players.

Classy bunch, this sounds like.

Marches against the board have been planned and this situation doesn’t look like it will die down anytime soon.

And with the results not going in the Irons’ favour and the club getting closer to the relegation zone by the week, this could get even worse.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

March 8, 2018

FREE KICKS: Which EPL contender is actually doing the best?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We can examine the table all we want, but that’s not a fun exercise week in, week out.

Instead, let’s look at where the teams in the top six should be, relative to the strength of their squad.

First, let’s just get Manchester City out of the way and say that its huge lead in the league is well-deserved. City has a world-class manager guiding a group stocked with world-class players. Anything less than a Premier League title would surely be a disappointment for this side and now Pep Guardiola’s big challenge is in Champions League.

City’s neighbours, Manchester United, have a class manager and a big, deep squad with a ton of talent in it, but should probably be a bit better off. The addition of Alexis Sanchez hasn’t done much and we’ve seen just how bad Paul Pogba can be at times. If this team was humming and had some consistency at CB, it would likely be a bit closer than 16 points off the lead.

Liverpool sits third and you could argue that it has the fewest world-class players of any team in the top six. When you get past the strike force of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, there aren’t a lot of players that are likely to be lighting it up at the World Cup this summer. Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil Van Dijk are all good players, but will likely never be including in any season-ending best XI lists. It really shows you how that amazing attack is keeping the Reds near the top of the league.

A big question I’ve been wondering lately is if Tottenham is overrated or underrated?

This is a side with world-class talent all over the pitch from the attacking trio Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to the centreback duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, to Hugo Lloris between the sticks, Spurs can put out a starting XI to compete with anyone in the Premier League. So shouldn’t it be higher than fourth place? It’s something to think about.

Then there’s the defending champs, Chelsea. With basically the same side as last season, more was expected of the Blues. Eden Hazard has been good, but not transcendent, and the defence has taken a step back. This is a squad that clearly couldn’t deal with the championship hangover

As for Arsenal, well, we have another category for the Gunners lower down.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

It’s kind of odd that a man that was player of the month twice last season is only the fourth player you think of when talking about Tottenham’s attack.

But behind the likes of Kane, Alli and Eriksen, Son Heung-min is capable of putting on a great show.

The South Korean bagged a brace this weekend to bring his total for the season to double digits with 10. That’s actually better than Alli and Eriksen and fourth among all midfielders.

Never count out Son because you never know when he’s going to crop up and bag a goal or two.

ARSENE’S CORNER OF SHAME

How low can Arsenal go?

This week, it was another pathetic effort in a loss to Brighton & Hove Albion. The Seagulls potted two goals in 26 minutes and Arsene Wenger’s boys looked more like the squad in the bottom half of the table.

The calls of “Wenger out” are getting louder once again, though who knows if the board at the Emirates will actually heed it.

Rio Ferdinand, an English footballing legend who is now a pundit, says this is the worst Gunners team he has ever seen. I’m sure there’s a little bit of hyperbole in that statement, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove him wrong.

Arsenal is now closer to seventh place (five points) than fifth (eight). It’s looking more and more likely that the Gunners will need to win Europa League to get back into Champions League next season. But even that will be tough with a set against AC Milan looming.

So will this be the end of Wenger? Will the fans finally get their wish? Stay tuned.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

How insane is it that only six of 20 teams have a positive goal differential? The only other of the top five leagues in Europe to have that few teams is France. Spain and Italy both have 10 teams in the positive and Germany has eight … Good catch by the ref on Ashley Williams’ red card. It would’ve been very easy for the ref to miss that high elbow in the box on a free kick … Manchester City set a record with 902 successful passes against Chelsea. That’s the most ever in a Premier League match and more than 10 per minute. City had 10 more shots than Chelsea and 71% possession. It also completed the sweep of the defending champs for the season … Ilkay Gundogan also set a passing record, completing 174 in the game. He’s just another piece of Pep’s outstanding squad that could easily start anywhere else in the league … Saed Kolasinac should see a retroactive suspension for his shoulder to the head of a Brighton player that didn’t even get a whistle. What’s the point of looking at games again if we don’t call out dangerous play? … Riyad Mahrez played the hero for Leicester after being the villain during the transfer window. They don’t come much later than the 97th-minute game-tying goal he scored … The Swans got back to their winning ways with a demolition of Irons … In our weekly update on West Bromwich Albion’s hopes for survival, it’s still looking doomed. Another week, another loss … The Saints and Potters got a point each in their 0-0 draw, so neither get help in relegation battle … It wasn’t such a nice return to Anfield for Rafa Benitez. There are still some fond memories for the ex-Liverpool manager, but the Reds didn’t take it easy on him … Minutes after texting a United fan “Mourinho out,” United began its thrilling comeback. Of course, this is a team that shouldn’t need to come back from two goals down against lowly Crystal Palace, but at least we got to see one of the few times that Mourinho’s United side was actually exciting to watch.

THE LAST WORD

Antonio Conte fired back at pundits for criticizing his 1-0 loss to City, and he’s totally right to do so.

While you can criticize his players for their lackadaisical “pressing” of City, Conte’s side played to defend and only lost 1-0. Compare that to Arsenal playing more open an loose – and losing two 3-0 games in a few days – and it’s a better result for the Chelsea.

Conte knew that his side isn’t made to play that type of wide-open football so he parked the bus. It didn’t work, but it was a sound strategy.

He gave his side its best chance to win and that’s what matters. Nowhere in the rulebook does it say you have to play attractive football. If Conte had stolen a point, the praise would be pouring in. Instead, he’s heckled and without good reason.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

February 27, 2018

FREE KICKS: Guardiola’s first of many pieces of silverware?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Manchester City didn’t have too hard of a time dealing with Arsenal to win the Carabao League Cup on Sunday. The Gunners looked like amateurs against a truly great side.

This marks the first silverware for Pep Guardiola at City after failing to capture any titles last season – a rare shutout for one of the world’s best managers.

Now the questions will begin in earnest: Can this City side capture a treble?

With such a big lead in the Premier League table, sitting on a 13-point with a game in hand on Manchester United. Oh, and that game in hand is on Thursday against the same Arsenal side that City just destroyed.

We’d be remiss to point out that the Sky Blues just suffered a huge upset last weekend, losing their bid for a quadruple by falling to League One side Wigan Atheltic. So that means a domestic treble is out of the question and City will now have to focus on winning Champions League to get that prestigious claim to fame.

Of course, the previous time an English side won the tournament was in 2012, when Chelsea bested Bayern Munich on penalties. No EPL side has even made the final since.

So, with the league nearly wrapped up, will Guardiola focus more on Europe? Will his top players get more rest than usual in the run-up to key games? He’d be smart to make sure of it.

It’s one thing to dominate the Premier League or win the League Cup. It’s something else entirely to be the best team in Europe – and we’re sure the Sheikhs in City’s ownership will feel that way as well.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Romelu Lukaku finally did it: He produced against a top four side.

The knock against the Belgian striker for his entire career was that he couldn’t produce against top opponents, that he was racking up his big goal totals against the lesser teams of the Premier League. Well, for one week at least, Lukaku came through.

He first scored the equalizer against Chelsea and later setting up Jesse Lingard’s winner.

While the Red Devils have lowly Crystal Palace next, we’ll see if Lukaku can come through against Liverpool in a massive match with second place likely on the line.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Harry Kane sure left it late to score the winner against Crystal Palace, but credit to the Eagles for holding the fort against their London rival … Palace is now winless in five games and the absence of Wilfried Zaha is hurting more than ever. His injury may have sunk their season … With another goal this weekend, Mohamed Salah has now equalled Luis Suarez’s best season at Liverpool – and it’s still February … Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have also been in fine form since the sale of Philippe Coutinho. Perhaps the wantaway Brazilian wasn’t as influential as we figured he was … The pain continues for West Brom, which looks more relegation-bound by the week. This week it was fellow relegation-battlers Huddersfield that did the honours and, to make matters worse, the Baggies lost at home, too … Swansea’s solid run of form came to an abrupt end. How does a team that has looked so good in recent weeks lose 4-1 in Brighton? And the Swans only goal was an own goal by Lewis Dunk.

THE LAST WORD

Maybe Jose Mourinho should start a feud with every manager in the Premier League.

The Special One once again got the better of a fellow gaffer he has been firing shots at in the media, Antonio Conte.

We’ve seen time and again how Mourinho has put away Arsene Wenger whenever possible and those two have perhaps the frostiest relationship in football.

So, if it has proven to work against his nemeses, why wouldn’t Mourinho crank this racket up against more of his foes?

Could he not attack Jurgen Klopp before the key clash between United and Liverpool in a few weeks? How about criticizing Spurs’ lack of budget to get under Mauricio Pocchetino’s skin?

The only manager who isn’t phased seems to be Guardiola. Perhaps this is just another aspect of Pep’s style that other managers should look to adapt.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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