The big shock at the weekend was Chelsea being beaten by a resurgent Crystal Palace at home, in a game that they somehow contrived to lose despite taking an early lead through Fabregas. Two goals in five minutes put Palace 2-1 ahead before the game even reached the quarter of an hour mark, a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish despite Chelsea pretty much laying siege to their goal for the remainder of the match. After the match Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said the result ‘makes this more interesting in the championship’ and with Spurs winning at Burnley and narrowing the gap to seven points, he certainly had a point, at the time at least.
However Wednesday evening saw the league leaders reinforce the belief that most people held, that their performance against Palace was a one-off, an inevitable blip that they just needed to weather. Their 2-1 victory over Manchester City, not only extinguished City’s admittedly faint hopes of a final push towards the title, but set Chelsea up in a position where they now need six wins out of their remaining eight games to ensure that the title returns to Stamford Bridge. While Spurs continue to pick up the points as the only credible challenger, it is beginning to feel that the Blues have a sufficient cushion and it would be a major shock if they failed to close out the campaign effectively.
While it will understandably garner little sympathy, it has been a highly disappointing season for Manchester City; it felt very much heading into this double round of fixtures that Pep Guardiola’s side really needed to pick up six points from their two visits to the capital to face top six rivals to entertain even the faintest hope of going anywhere near challenging for the title. As it stands, the draw at the Emirates and the defeat at Stamford Bridge have left City 14 points adrift of leaders Chelsea and seemingly more in a battle for a place in the top four with Liverpool, Arsenal and cross-city rivals United. Given the fanfare that greeted the Catalan’s agreement to join Manchester City, it all feels a little bit underwhelming how the season has developed. The expectation fuelled by performances in the early weeks of Guardiola’s reign was that he and his team were going to tear up the Premier League and sweep all before them with a futuristic cerebral style of football, the likes of which fans on these shores would have never witnessed before. Instead it feels like the much-touted managerial genius has failed to understand or get to grips with the specific challenges posed by football in England.
Having seen City in the flesh against my own beleaguered Arsenal side last Sunday, I have to say what struck me was how open they were, seemingly not overly concerned about staying solid at the back or indeed particularly adept at it. It would seem highly probable that Guardiola will, in the words of Gary Neville on Sky Sports, ‘drive a bus through that back five’ in the summer, bringing in a number of new defenders and replacing some other members of the squad. It seemed to be a given that Guardiola would replicate the success he had at Barcelona and Bayern here in England, for now the jury remains well and truly out.
The game at the Emirates on Sunday was a strange one, played in front of the backdrop of a crowd that was neither sure if it was angry and fed-up with the stale nature of things at the club or wanting to get behind its team in what was still, in theory at least, a big game. Arsenal bereft of confidence, understandably so having lost 4 of their previous 5 matches, will not have benefited from going a goal down after only 5 minutes, but somehow managed to shape themselves enough to get a draw. It certainly wasn’t a match to be remembered for tactical discipline and defensive organisation, but as a spectacle of open, end-to-end football it was certainly entertaining.
While a draw wasn’t ideal for either side, at least for Arsenal it stopped the rot to an extent and the fact that they then managed to follow it up three days later with victory over an admittedly poor West Ham side, has to a degree given the under-fire Wenger something to build upon. Although it is nice to feel slightly more positive about the team than we Gooners have for a number of weeks, it would be delusional to suggest that everything is rosy in the Arsenal garden. Lurking amongst the remaining fixtures is a run of games that the Gunners routinely drop points in, specifically trips to the Lane and Stoke bookending a visit by Wenger’s managerial nemesis Jose Mourinho. If the Premier League’s elder statesman is to maintain his proud record of perennial Champions League qualification his team is going to have to buck its recent history and get results from all of those games.
Meanwhile over in Holland, Feyenoord were defeated by bitter rivals Ajax last Sunday, thanks to a rasping Lasse Schöne free kick in the opening minute and a debut goal for Brazilian forward David Neres. In all honesty the majority of Feyenoord fans, myself included, would have seen the trip to the Amsterdam Arena as a potential stumbling block. Being caught cold by such an early goal and knowing that they would still have a 3-point cushion, even if they were defeated, perhaps worked against them, and they simply couldn’t raise their game sufficiently to match the considerable Ajax challenge. To compound matters, seeing Eredivisie top scorer Nicolai Jørgensen limp off with an injury, that probably should have prevented him from starting, after just 10 minutes gave the Feyenoord faithful even more concern looking towards the run in.
Gio van Bronckhorst’s team however seems to have been bolstered by the tough times in recent seasons and bounced back in some style on Wednesday with an 8-0 demolition of lowly Go Ahead Eagles, back home at De Kuip, thanks to a hat-trick from the ever more-important Jens Toornstra, the 150th Eredivisie goal from talisman Dirk Kuyt and even a goal for the much-maligned Jørgensen replacement Michiel Kramer. With just 5 games to go Feyenoord still have a 3 point lead and a goal difference advantage of 15, so the dream of the first title this century lives on.