City Stutter Throws Title Race Open
Pep Guardiola's men are now winless in their last 3 matches after a 1-1 home draw against Everton overnight. Despite dominating the encounter, Manchester City were made to pay for two missed penalties by stars Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Augero proving crucial. Despite taking the lead from a wonderful individual goal from Romelu Lukaku, Everton were on the back foot throughout a game which was dominated by the hosts. City got their reward courtesy of a 72nd minute goal from Nolito. Despite relentless pressure and pegging Everton in their own penalty box for a frantic final 15 minutes, the visitors grimly held on to preserve their point. After a thrilling 3-3 draw at Park Head against Celtic in the Champions League, City were comprehensively outplayed in losing at Spurs 2-0 before last night's stalemate.
City started the year in swashbuckling style racking up 10 straight victories in all competitions to start the campaign, hammering in 30 goals while conceding just 6. It led to many pundits and bookmakers declaring them as morals to run away with the title with Guardiola's methods having an immediate impact. However it must be noted City won their first 5 games under Pellegrini last season before falling into a deep hole which saw them limp into 4th place by season's end. While their performance at Spurs was concerning, City were back to their dominant selves last night despite not picking up the 3 points. After opening an early 5 point lead at the top after just 6 matches, City have now seen Arsenal join them at the top of the table, while Liverpool can take outright lead at the top if they can beat rivals Manchester United at Anfield on Monday.
Arsenal Winning Ugly
Arsenal went joint top of the Premier League with a thrilling 3-2 win at the Emirates over Swansea in Bob Bradley's first game in charge of the the Swans. Swansea came into this clash with a remarkable record at the Emirates having been undefeated in their last 5 trips to the capital including victories in their previous 2 games. Arsenal looked to be in cruise control thanks to a first half brace from a rejuvenated Theo Walcott, however were pegged back before the interval. After a brilliant individual goal from Mesut Ozil just before the hour, Swansea hit back once more and when Grenit Zhaka was given his marching orders the Gunners had to survive a frenetic final 20 minutes to preserve the win.
In securing the win, the Gunners remain unbeaten since the opening day of the season and have now achieved 6 straight Premier League victories. It's probably too early to tell whether this Arsenal side are any different to the previous versions which have fallen short of a serious title challenge over the past decade. However winning ugly is one trait the Gunners have often struggled with, and with narrow 1 goal wins over Southampton, Burnley and Swansea the side has shown perhaps a more steely resolve. Title winners of the past, including recent winners Leicester City and Chelsea, were renowned for those gritty, backs-to-the-wall victories where they secured the 3 points when being outplayed or being far below their best. The Gunners at their best are as good as anyone and they demonstrated that with thumping wins away at Hull and at home to Chelsea. Beating Chelsea was a significant breakthrough for this squad that had failed to beat the Blues since 2011 in the Premier League. It seems one of the first of quite a few mental hurdles this team will have to overcome if they want to achieve that long overdue Title their fans crave.
Spurs Going Under the Radar Once More
Tottenham suffered a frustrating afternoon when they were held at home by their nemesis West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. It was the 3rd straight 1-1 draw between the teams, with last year's draw late in the season at the same venue ending Spurs title dream. It was a case of the late show for both sides with former Spurs player Nacer Chadli putting the visitors ahead in the 82nd minute. Spurs had laid siege to the visitor's goal for much of the afternoon, however it took a last gasp 89th minute reply from Dele Alli to earn them a point. Despite remaining the only unbeaten team left in the Premier League, Spurs missed the chance to go outright first with the draw and instead have to settle with being a point behind joint leaders Manchester City and Arsenal after 8 rounds. Spurs have shown character this year in coming from behind late with previous draws against Liverpool and Everton showing the team are never beaten.
With Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United appointing big game managers in the off-season, and Liverpool enjoying a revival under Jurgen Klopp, Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino have flown somewhat under the radar again this year. After being in 2nd place for much of last season before falling to 3rd on the final day Spurs were in with their best chance of winning a Title since the 1960's after a largely fabulous and unexpected campaign last season. However their final 3 results against Chelsea, West Brom and a calamitous final day 5-1 loss to Newcastle reopened old mental scars that saw them fall behind bitter rivals Arsenal. However, Spurs have bounced back impressively this season with their mixture of high energy football and gritty defending. At their best they have the balanced style of football to win the title as, despite them playing attractive and attacking football, Spurs have been resolute and organised at the back conceding just 4 goals in their opening 8 games. Their 2-0 win against Manchester City was without doubt the best display by any side this season, with their all pressing game swarming and ultimately swamping a previous swashbuckling City side. After a summer without any big name signings, many were a bit underwhelmed about Spurs coming into this season, however they are using their continuity under Pochettino as an advantage. Whilst it remains to be seen whether Spurs can hack it when the pressure is really on, there is no doubt this team are on the rise.
Conte Starting to Implement his Methods at Chelsea
Antonio Conte would have gained plenty of satisfaction from Chelsea's comprehensive 3-0 victory over Leicester City in the early kick-off at Stamford Bridge. After a truly bizarre week when Conte was insanely forced to deny speculation he was about to be sacked by Chelsea, his team picked apart Leicester City to create momentary calm around a club that is known for its instability. While the Foxes are a very pale imitation of the team that took all before them in winning the title this year, it was an encouraging display from a Chelsea side that has looked neither here nor there to start the year. Conte made the biggest tactical change at Chelsea in over a decade by implementing a 3-4-3 system that was employed impressively here. With new signing Marcos Alonso and a rejuvenated Victor Moses acting as wing-backs, Chelsea dominated the opening 45 minutes and thoroughly deserved their 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. The visitors barely got a kick in the first half, and, with Ranieri's half time address seemingly ringing in their ears, the Foxes were far better after the break pressuring Chelsea for the first 25 minutes. However Chelsea sealed the deal after some wonderful interplay from England Under-21s international Nathaniel Chalobah and Victor Moses resulting in a well deserved goal for Moses. Chelsea fans have long called for some of their youth products to be given more opportunities, and in Chalobah and Loftus-Cheek perhaps they have two capable of mixing it with the big boys.
It would have been relief for Conte after watching his side put in limp performances in back-to-back back defeats to rivals Liverpool and Arsenal in the Premier League, which saw Chelsea's promising start to the season blown out of the water. Against Arsenal in particular, Chelsea were blown off the park and the final score of 3-0 could have been double with Chelsea looking like a side in need of a total rebuild with several players putting in awful performances. While back-to-back Premier League victories against struggling Hull and Leicester hardly puts them back in people's minds as title contenders, the change in formation to Conte's preferred 3 centre backs shows he is starting to make his imprint at the club. Encouragingly the players seemed to take to it fluently with the system allowing Eden Hazard more free reign in the middle of the paddock rather than being stuck out on one flank. Chelsea face a powder-keg reunion with former manager Jose Mourinho when Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge next Monday. Mourinho relished coming to Stamford Bridge as Inter manager and being instrumental in knocking Chelsea out of the Champions League. After being sacked a 2nd time at Chelsea, there is no doubt he will relish trying to do the same as Conte's new formation will face a much sterner examination against United.
Liverpool v United a Must Watch at Anfield
In pre-season I tipped Liverpool to be the big surprise packets this year and they have started the season in impressive fashion, claiming 5 wins from 7 games, to sit 4th with a game in hand on their rivals. Victory over bitter rivals Manchester United at Anfield on Monday would send them alone to the top of the table after 8 rounds and get their rabid fans dreaming of what might be in 2016/17. Liverpool under Klopp have been the entertainers this year, scoring 18 goals in 7 matches, playing a freewheeling and enterprising brand of football. However they have also conceded 10 goals and their defensive frailties have been on show in most games this season with Liverpool failing to keep a clean sheet. The fact Liverpool secured 7 points from 3 trips to the Capital, against Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea, has left this team in a formidable position with a fair chunk of their tough away games having already been negotiated. However last season Liverpool were also capable of thrilling on the road winning at Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City with the "bread and butter" games providing far more of an obstacle. However their most recent win, a come from behind 2-1 win at Swansea, was full of character and, in their second year under Klopp, the Reds appear ready to mount a serious title challenge.
Waiting for them on Monday is a Manchester United team that have been less impressive under new boss Jose Mourinho. After 3 straight Premier League wins to start the season, Mourinho's men have just 1 in in their last 4, including damaging defeats to Manchester City and Watford where they were comprehensively outplayed. Mourinho has appeared a chastised figure at times in the past few weeks, railing against the usual suspects of referees, press and even his own players. While United have slipped to 7th, a win here would see them just 3 points off the pace and gather much needed confidence in a new squad that is struggling to gel. Despite spending over $100 million in the Off season, Mourinho's side has been underwhelming with both Paul Pogba and Henrik Mikitarian having failed to hit the heights expected of them. A loss here would be a disaster for Mourinho, coming so soon off his melt down at Chelsea last season Back to back disastrous campaigns would have to be unthinkable for a man that once made winning look easy. Mourinho has enjoyed a bitter and twisted rivalry with the Anfield crowd over the years enjoying some of his finest victories and suffering some of his most agonising defeats at the venue. Indeed it was Mourinho. back in 2013/14 with little to play for that denied Liverpool their first title in 25 years with a patched up Chelsea side. So whilst all the momentum and the hype appears to be with Klopp and Liverpool, Mourinho at Anfield is dangerous and should be treated like a wounded animal looking for that signature win to really kick start his United career. The match is likely to see a fascinating tactical battle with Klopp's full throttle, high octane football being countered by Mourinho's United that has an advantage in height and physicality.