By Chief and Sports Editor, Rory Morrow
With winter drearily dragging itself through its closing seasonal stages, it seems an apt and appropriate time for the Premier League’s excitement, watchability and self-acclaimed “best league in the world” tagline to also, like a hibernating hedgehog curiously poking its head above snow, resurface.
Arguably, it was Southampton’s superb 1-1 result with the mighty Manchester City on the 22nd of January which wrenched the tunnel open again by a narrow, width. Only in the last week has light flooded through. Liverpool, Burnley, Newcastle, and Arsenal have all taken pleasure in shining the spotlight of breathing-down-your-necks pressure on Manchester City, the army of inconsistently wealthy top four chasers and struggling, bedazzled sides all scrapping to survive. A fortnight ago, we only really had a Champions League chase. Now we have a whole new gaggle of pulsating plotlines.
Last weekend’s brilliantly barnstorming events created talking points that weren’t even worthy of being talking points. At Elland Road, Raphinha’s benching, Scott McTominay’s reckless almost two-yellow-cards-in-two-minutes, Man United’s ghost of former player Daniel James haunting them, Victor Lindelof, of all people, breaking from deep, like a builder who secretly dances at night, boogying gloriously on the dayjob tiles. Anthony Elanga’s goal sealing victory after the disgraceful throwing of objects at United’s players by (and this should be stressed, a minority) of Leeds fans. Harry Maguire it should also be said, had a captain’s display no matter just how easy Leeds desire to make it for their opponents to score from set-pieces against them. Rainy conditions, thunder, and blood challenges in Yorkshire when Stuart Dallas mans Cristiano Ronaldo (oh, is it only now he’s being mentioned?) more than made up for the zero-atmospheric, Bielsa-tactical-novice clash, neutrally drab 0-0 last season. Yes, Ralf, THIS 6-goal madness and emotions varying as far as the prizes on the Speakeasy’s trash bingo wheel, this is real English Football.
Writing this in the early hours of Friday morning, Arsenal are also due a mention. Against Wolves, a very credible top four dark horse, in rescheduled matches, Arsenal have won both matches. Both demonstrated remarkably un-Arsenal traits. At Molinuex a fortnight ago, it was a throwback of sorts. One-nil to the Arsenal almightily cherished in the face of 58% Wolves possession, being a man down for twenty plus minutes and their four shots on target, double of Arsenal’s two. And last night, too was a second half displaying, epitomising, and oozing resilience. Were Arsenal wearing red shirts or simply exerting themselves to the point of blood emerging? Trailing to Hwang’s opening strike, Wolves led at the Emirates for the guts of seventy minutes. What really stirred the imagination was the lack of an Arsenal capitulation, the absence of a reckless Granit Xhaka red. Xhaka, who it should be noted desperate several foibles in his Arsenal career, played well. Himself and Thomas Partey were instrumental in midfield, uncharacteristically calm presences and patrolled the pitch with recently discovered positional diligence, which scuppered the effectiveness of Wolves’ second-half counterattacks.
Joao Moutinho was harassed by Alexandre Lacazette at a Wolves corner. With the free kick secured, Lacazette gestured furiously to the crowd, fists evidently curled within his black gloves, a French windmill of passion, calling for more might from an already gusty, emotionally charged Emirates crowd. This is what went wrong for Arsene Wenger during his final turbulent years and what has gone wrong since in the post-Wenger, and at Manchester United, post-Fergie chaos. More moments of ignition are needed. It seemed apt that Nicolas Pepe, himself a forgotten man this season and Lacazette should be the saviours against a cunning, snarky but increasingly penned-in Wolves. When Kieran Tierney pinged his hamstring in the 92nd minute, Nuno Tavares, another discarded toy of sorts, made himself felt. With two games in hand, West Ham only now (to their and David Moyes, utmost credit) faltering and Tottenham lurching from incredible to idiotic, Arteta’s Arsenal have their Champions League aspirations within their control. Could they, return, for the first time since 2017-18 and significantly for the first time in an un-Wenger world? That would save them from, at the least, puffy dysfunctional zipper coat humiliation.
Rewetting the appetites
That same fortnight ago, Liverpool were eleven points behind Manchester City. Tonight, City are on sixty-three points, Liverpool on sixty. Premier League, “The best league in the world”. Well, this has certainly helped its cause. Notably, for rewetting the appetites of almost all onlookers. It is not so much a case of City-gone-wrong as it is more that Liverpool simply looks lethal. Since a mini stumble in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, Liverpool have won nine games on the trot in all competitions, scoring 25 and conceding 3. So, City are not the only team capable of ridiculously impressive, mind-bending form eh. Well, that’s reassuring. The fact this wizardry as been partly achieved without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, away at AFCON, illustrates the quality of squad Jurgen Klopp has both assembled and trained in his own, inimitable raucous, rock n roll style. A style that now, in the form of trophies (and perhaps, the calming presence of Virgil van Dijk again), has substance. Salah, Mane and Jota’s individual tallies for goal involvement are all ahead of Ronaldo’s, stressing United’s sin of being in a one-man-wonder, screw-the-collective-cohesion market. Luis Diaz is a hot, hot prospect and a gamechanger. Thiago has adjusted wonderfully this year. Caoimhin Kelleher, Curtis Jones and Kostas Tsikimas represent reliably talented, youthful back-ups. Liverpool’s overdependence on Salah and van Dijk was badly exposed last season. In this, it is anything but. The title race is reinvigorated with Liverpool fighting for silverware everywhere.
The Klopp-Guardiola rivalry may also have a European chapter to it this season. The tantalising possibility of a Manchester City-Liverpool Champions League quarter final, with the legs sandwiched either side of their league encounter at the Etihad in April. An amazing script has the potential to be written, which of its actors will capitalise most? Hypothetically, Guardiola needs only what he has always yearned for at City, the Champions League. Win that and immortality surely beckons on his tenure. Liverpool, fresh from their league victory in 2020, no longer have such emotional baggage and will compete ferociously on all fronts. Against Tottenham, high lines, and fluffed chances cost City. Will, also choosing to sign Jack Grealish who has sparkled in glimpses but who ultimately remains a rough diamond in need of Pep polish, over Harry Kane haunt them? The last time these two contested a competitively combative league run-in, both held their nerve and Liverpool were pipped to the post. Neither will go full-on jittery but Liverpool’s form, now is impeccable and makes them unlikely to give City any easy outs. This time too, the chase is longer and Liverpool the steadily bouncy rabbit, can even overtake City’s winter speedy but frazzled hare if they beat them in their backyard. Enticing? Oh, most certainly and how glorious an adrenaline buzz that feels after consistent, dominantly demoralising City crushing’s were routinely inflicted. In a week of increased worldwide tensions between Russia and Ukraine and QUB strikes once more commencing, we all needed this feelgood jab in the arm, football’s very own administration of the engaging, excitable-to-watch vaccine.
And as for the relegation race. Well, for once, we have a compelling not so much race but dogged season-long competition as to who can stay three rungs above the greasiest, grainy, and most unstable bottom-of-the-ladder positions that is, of course known to us as the relegation zone. Currently it is occupied by Watford, Norwich, and Burnley. Fairly bog-standard, foreseeable you would’ve thought. Although Brentford, Leeds, Everton, and Newcastle clinging on only a few points ahead on the greasy pole was perhaps less anticipated. Norwich have salvaged at least their pride in recent weeks, Dean Smith operating shrewdly in a limited-on-quality environment. Watford, meanwhile, newly turned to Roy Hodgson who in a moronically comedic move on irony’s part, was thumped by his former club Crystal Palace, 4-1 on Wednesday night. This following the chink of light carved open by Saturday’s win at Villa Park. It really can be the hope which kills. Hodgson remains an astute, realistic, and likeable manager but perhaps Palace fans are now assured of a more positive futuristic tenure under the promising management of Patrick Viera.
Burnley meanwhile have made an important step forward, converting performances into clean sheets, goals, wins and points. Like an L driver at last mastering the gear changes from 1-5, against both Brighton and Tottenham, Burnley cut out the detrimental, morale-mincing errors and inspired by Wout Weghorst’s clinical finishing took their chances. With games in hand and hope crucially restored, they’ll fancy it. Momentum is a big thing; Newcastle, unbeaten in six under Howe’s heroics and Burnley now also have it firmly embedded in their tastebuds. Like big Sam and chewing gum, once adjusted it can be damn difficult to dislodge. Unlike those flailing above and desperately scrabbling for momentum, like a dog searching for a specific stick that’s stuck in a hedge or a honey-deprived bear irritably swatting at a bee’s nest, Brentford, Leeds, and Everton are the bottom three clubs on current league form. Brentford, you feel under Thomas Frank’s stability and with Christian Eriksen’s professionalism, class, and heart-warming magic, should survive grand. Leeds, well if they surrender as meekly as at Anfield, that will be the major disappointment, but Marcelo Bielsa regardless should not have his four-year legacy challenged. If they go down, they’ll go down swinging even if it is with half their squad injured. Everton, meanwhile, the eternally deluded August optimists are arrogant by appointing Frank Lampard. Who is not anything near to a managerial firefighter of relegation scraps. Because that is what Everton are undoubtedly in. The loss to Newcastle was a capitulation in a six-pointer. They may have games to play but will they win them? Does their squad have the grit and game-savviness to get the points they need? Arguably not. Manchester City at Goodison next. The performance may be more defining than any result.
Having had a quiet Valentine’s Day myself, I for one am grateful for the fixture romance very kindly bestowed to us. The final day itself presents two potential relegation deciders in Brentford Leeds and Burnley Newcastle. Steven Gerrard’s Villa could dent City’s title hopes in true mock undercover agent shock. Even mid-table irrelevance is teasingly poised, Leicester playing Southampton, its not like that fixture has an uneventful, 9-0 history… And this is all to be welcomed, vigorously shaken hands with and embraced joyously. The zesty Premier League festering in unpredictably, uncharted waters as choppy waves dent ambitions or relegation rivals soar off on speed steamboats of victories. Some will be drenched and left to drown. Others will survive by throwing the kitchen sink at it. The real pleasure is that we can no longer say with certainty just who will haul themselves afloat and who will be cut adrift. Lifeboats have been allocated to some at the expense of others. One’s previously secure island suddenly becomes vulnerable. We may have thought we knew where every team was but recent thrilling events ensure the dramatics of the Premier League remain. Every club and where they want to be, is currently treading water in as we move into a magnificently poised Spring conclusion.