Friday, March 30, 2012
Expecting the unexpected
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: unfulfilled expectations on Anfield, a smarting Tottenham look to bounce back, the title race hotting up, Fulham's recent limpness, and the battle at the bottom.
Liverpool: Beauty and the Beast
Losing to Wigan Athletic at Anfield was a new low. Yet the verdict on Liverpool's season thus far remains difficult to define. Successful, sure, if you count cup competitions in isolation: they have already lifted the Carling variety, while another trip to Wembley beckons in the FA Cup against Merseyside rivals Everton, with Kenny Dalglish eyeing a second final of the campaign. But in the Premier League, the club's bread and butter, they are failing, the team falling short of what was expected. The blame must lie at someone's door.
With the team having endured a fifth league defeat in six, the spiky Dalglish has shown little sign of being able to help steady the ship amid choppy waters. Indeed, the Scot has offered a string of bewildering sound bites during 2011-12 that have whispered in the ear of the outrageous. To talk of a squad that needs strengthening after last summer's huge outlay last summer only serves to irk, and it is a gripe compounded as this weekend's opponents Newcastle United demonstrate how to go about reinvesting cash received from a big sale. The Magpies are currently eight points above Liverpool in the table.
"You play on Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday, and it is going to take its toll. We've not had enough players at our disposal to give them adequate rest. That's the problem put on the club by the television schedule," Dalglish grumbled. Yet just one of their last three matches has been televised. This talk of fatigue, coupled with the obvious priority that is now triumphing over Everton in the FA Cup, points to the chance to experiment with youth in the league, with the likes of Raheem Sterling yearning for more game time. In fairness, Sterling did make his first-team debut against the Latics. But their manager is wary: "We are not going to throw kids in and destroy them."
Taunters-in-chief Newcastle host Liverpool (a full eight days after the Reds' last match) with the £35 million Andy Carroll to return to St James' Park, a player all but forgotten about by the black-and-white army as Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse now fill his boots, the pair having cost a reported £9 million combined. The latter already has the same number of Premier League goals as Andy Carroll does for Liverpool. All things considered, certainly a defining summer awaits for Liverpool, when the right signings must be made for the right money. Dalglish, too, a man whose reputation previously looked indestructible, must take stock, for the din of grumbles at Anfield last Saturday spoke volumes.
Tottenham: Road to redemption
A chance, then, to return to winning ways in the Premier League, after a quite dramatic slump in form. Having conquered almost all who had the cheek to challenge their blistering football in the first half of the season, Spurs have relinquished their grip on third spot. And, to make matters worse, the usurpers are their North London rivals Arsenal. There have, though, been indications that Harry Redknapp's men are close to turning a corner, the juggernaut getting back on track.
It has been five league matches since Spurs last triumphed - the 5-0 hammering of Newcastle - and that drought has been juxtaposed with the Gunners' seven-game winning streak. Tottenham arguably should, however, have pinched the spoils at Chelsea, while their disposing of Bolton in the FA Cup quarter-finals this week was a welcome reminder of what it takes to beat a top-flight team. Swansea, the neutral's favourite team, are Tottenham's next opponents, with Brendan Rodgers' passing boys heading to White Hart Lane on Sunday. Despite Swansea slipping to a loss in their last outing, this match-up will be no foregone conclusion for Spurs, who could begin the game facing a six-point gap to third place given that Arsenal play 24 hours earlier.
The title race: Give the people what they want
With three points separating Manchesters United and City at the top of the table and eight matches left of the campaign to play, the title race is beginning to feel it is entering its final grunting pushes. Ergo, there has been media talk of mind games between the two clubs, with Sir Alex Ferguson considered the Jedi master of such psychological blitzkrieg. Patrick Vieira, misquoted or not, has dabbled, while Roberto Mancini's latest offering was put on hold after he refused to speak to the press in the aftermath of his side's 1-1 draw at Stoke. City should return to first with another home win over Sunderland, while United make the short journey to fighting-for-their-lives Blackburn.
Fulham: Footballing Viagra
Only recently this column gave Fulham the word version of a sensual massage, after the club strung together three straight successes, all of which oozed seduction. But they've since gone floppy, succumbing to three defeats on the spin, without flippin' scoring. One possible explanation for the Cottagers' inconsistency is their style itself. This team play without defensive shackles, which, on a good day, sees them titillate their opponents into submission. But on a bad day they are left too exposed. There is an argument for a balance to be found, but the Premier League Spotlight wouldn't be an advocate of curbing such vigour. Martin Jol's troops have a chance for redemption at home to Norwich.
The strugglers: Dogfight cliché
Common belief is that relegation will befall three of the bottom five, but one shouldn't discount Aston Villa, a team turned into the neutral's least favourite by their manager Alex McLeish's tactics. Villa were without ambition at Emirates Stadium last time out, seemingly convinced that there was all but no chance of even a point to be had. Their task of a second win in eight attempts comes against Chelsea, who might actually be there for the taking considering their fixture schedule and the Premier League probably their lowest priority as things stand. Elsewhere, a 'proper' six-pointer takes place between Wolves and Bolton, when surely a loss for the former is curtains, game over, etc. QPR, meanwhile, host Arsenal seeking to keep 11 men on the field. Lastly, it is safe to say Blackburn are given little chance at home to United.
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