Welcome to world football's Monday Morning Hangover, an homage to the NFL section's own Monday Morning Hangover, in which we round up the key stories and important points from the last weekend in world football.
With an inevitable focus on the Premier League, let's get started.
Gunners Make Biggest Step as European Race Freshens Up
Sometimes, the least notable weekends (on paper) can be the most decisive. Arsenal's 2-1 away victory against Crystal Palace was forgettable fare, a generally expected win duly—if slightly nervously, especially at the end—secured.
It was nothing to write home about on its own, but as those teams around the Gunners floundered over the remainder of the weekend, the three points suddenly made a huge difference to the state of the current standings. Victory at Selhurst Park was another small step, but in the wider context, it looks like a significant jump.
With Manchester United losing to Swansea City, Arsenal moved into third in the table, with Southampton's loss to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur's draw with West Ham United further stratifying what is a complex and tight race for the Champions League places.
The Gunners, however, now look clear favourites to secure one of them—they are the only team with more home games left than away ones (seven to five; everyone else has six of each), while they also have only one truly difficult away trip to contend with—against Manchester United at Old Trafford—before the end of the season.
That is a far kinder run-in than any of their rivals; indeed, it is kind enough that you can almost see them ending up finishing closer to Manchester City in second than the team that ends up clinching fourth. That is perhaps the big question now: Who will steal that final qualification place, with Manchester United the longtime front-runners but others now quickly applying the pressure?
"I'm pleased to have won three points in a place like this," Arsene Wenger said, per Arsenal's official site. "We know now that we have played two more away games [than home games] and it will be down to how strong we are at home. I feel quite strong and let's just continue to fight and be tight until the end."
United's run-in is less than friendly (five of their 12 remaining games are against other members of the top seven). That, coupled with the fact they lost to Swansea for the second time this season, makes you wonder if the growing pains of Louis van Gaal's approach we have seen all season will eventually catch up with them.
Certainly, they will be watching Liverpool with a certain fear; Brendan Rodgers' team started the year eight points adrift of United, yet, seven games later, they are now just two behind. If they can keep that form going, they will finish about 10 points ahead of Van Gaal's men, something that would surely see them comfortably inside the top four.
After a stuttering start, Liverpool have slowly emerged as a very impressive all-round team, displaying the combination of defensive steel and attacking fluency that has so frustratingly eluded Van Gaal. Raheem Sterling has shouldered huge responsibility, but with Jordon Ibe, Daniel Sturridge, Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno now starting to thrive around him, it is not hard to see why Liverpool are becoming a vibrant, pacy attacking threat that few teams will know how to handle.
Next season, it will be very interesting to see how they fare, but for now, they would appear to have hit upon a recipe for a strong finish to the season.
As Rodgers said, per Eurosport:
The first period of this season was nothing like what we've been during my time at the club. We had to find a solution to that, but we restructured the team and organised the team in a different way to get that solidity back and get the balance back, both offensively and defensively.
The players' response has been absolutely magnificent. We've been playing two or three times a week for the last four months.
[Sunday] was a huge win. To come here and win at any time is always a good victory, but to come here on the back of a tough European game in the week, not concede and score two goals really shows the level that the players are working at.
This is arguably as good a, if not an even better, result than our win here last year, when we played very, very well.
The Reds are perhaps now the favourites to clinch that other Champions League spot, although there will be plenty of twists and turns along the way. Southampton are far from out of it despite suffering another unfortunate loss against a team around them, while we were giving the same sort of praise to Spurs—who were perhaps fortunate to steal a point against West Ham—just a few weeks ago.
Spurs will come again, just as Manchester United will have their moments and Liverpool will probably miss a step or two—Europa League involvement could end up having an influence too.
Arsenal's schedule makes them strong favourites to join Chelsea and Manchester City in the Champions League once again, but there are sure to be many more twists and turns along the way.
Jose Leaves Nothing Open to Interpretation
We may never know the full reasons why Jose Mourinho opted to go on Sky Sports' Goals on Sunday, a show that usually reserves its guest spots for ex-pros and lesser-name players with a reliable trade in harmless banter, on, er, Sunday. Although it is safe to assume BT Sport, for whom the Portuguese is an ambassador, would have been less than impressed at him taking viewers away from its competing coverage of Tottenham vs. West Ham.
It seems unlikely Mourinho went on the show out of a genuine desire to be there—he looked miserable for much of the show—and it was a lot of effort to simply make a point about the refereeing in Saturday's home draw with Burnley. Whatever the reason, the outcome was memorable; Mourinho raged against officiating standards in a manner that will perhaps be seen as his Kevin Keegan or Rafael Benitez moment if Chelsea somehow throw away the title this year.
On one hand, perhaps the sight of Mourinho taking Sky Sports, referees and almost everything else to task on Sunday morning will have galvanised his players, a group looking increasingly jaded after two slightly subpar performances over the past week.
After pinpointing four incidents—Barnes' two fouls and Chelsea's two rejected penalty claims—that he believes cost his side the game in his post-match press conference on Saturday, Mourinho added on Sunday, per the Guardian:
[That tackle could have] ended a career. Matic is a very lucky guy.
I can't find the word to describe what [Barnes] did. I can clearly understand that football is about emotions and sometimes you lose emotions. Clearly Matic had a reason to lose his emotions. What could be the consequence of his push for the other player? Nothing. The consequence for Matic could be end of career.
I can't imagine that the four incidents of this game are open to interpretation.
Barnes was certainly fortunate to avoid serious punishment for both his first challenge on Branislav Ivanovic, which saw him drive his foot into the Serbian as both went to challenge in the air for the ball, and his second on Matic.
There was an element of misfortune about the latter—the striker got the ball before continuing his challenge up Matic's leg—but it was undoubtedly extremely dangerous and seemed eminently avoidable. Matic's reaction can perhaps be forgiven in this instance, as he could so easily have sustained a serious injury.
Nevertheless, Matic will now be missing for three games, a huge blow that Mourinho will undoubtedly be cursing. With just a five-point cushion over Manchester City, things are starting to tighten up again at the top, and just as the Blues are beginning to look a touch fallible.
Mourinho claimed on TV that if not for refereeing standards, Chelsea would be 12 points clear at the top instead of five. This seems a stretch, although perhaps he has a point when he suggests his side, and Diego Costa in particular, have been harshly dealt with at times this season.
Putting himself front and centre of the story is a classic Mourinho tactic, however; it will be interesting to see what reaction it inspires. As it is, no one is currently talking about the club's 1-1 draw at home to Burnley—an achievement in and of itself.
Goal of the Weekend
How Manchester United could do with the sort of inspiration their out-on-loan winger Nani came up with at the weekend.
Goal of the Weekend: Runner-Up Edition
Which includes one goal that was unfortunately ruled out but remains a thing of beauty.
- Chelsea's lead was cut by two points over the weekend, but it should perhaps be noted that the Blues had a big Champions League game in midweek, whereas Manchester City were given a full week to prepare for their match against Newcastle United. They now have the European game—at home to Barcelona—and it will be interesting to see if they can still win away at Anfield on Sunday. If they do, closing the gap to the Blues to just two points (the Blues have the Capital One Cup final to worry about), then perhaps we can really start talking about a renewed race.
- He put home the rebound, but with Adrian's initial save on Sunday, Harry Kane has now missed three of his last five penalties for Spurs. He may be the man of the moment and hero of the hour, but perhaps in the long term, he is not the man Mauricio Pochettino should be relying on from 12 yards out.
- A second 2-2 draw against Leicester City of the season leaves Everton with 28 points from 26 games, closer to the relegation zone than they are to Stoke City in 10th. This looks certain to end up being a disappointing season for Roberto Martinez's side (the only question is exactly how disappointing), but it is perhaps worth noting that the Spaniard's predecessor, David Moyes, had a similarly poor second full season in charge. Perhaps the Toffees just need to get through this campaign and focus on the marginal improvements needed to rediscover their verve.
- How the worm can turn in football. Back in December, when the Champions League draw was made, Manchester City were the form side and Barcelona were struggling for fluency. Since the turn of the year, however, City have often looked woeful (failing to win against the likes of Burnley and Middlesbrough), while Barcelona flew into top gear, reasserting themselves as one of the best teams on the planet. Then on Saturday, Barca lost at home to Malaga as City demolished Newcastle, with David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero all in exquisite form. It should be a brilliant European tie—made even better by the fact it is impossible to predict what sort of performance we will get from either side.
- Beyond Kane, Sunday's draw with West Ham also inadvertently underlined the reliance Spurs have on their striker and his main creative partner, Christian Eriksen. Left on the bench for the start of the game (a case of trying to give the Dane a sorely needed rest), Pochettino had no choice but to introduce his star No. 10 early in the second half due to Mousa Dembele's flailing performance. Spurs have a strong first XI, but perhaps no team in that battle for Champions League spaces is so reliant on a couple of names.
- An opening defeat is no disaster for Tim Sherwood, although Aston Villa may take some time to recover from the way they threw away three points against Stoke City. The new boss started Scott Sinclair, Carlos Gil, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke in the game at Villa Park—such attacking intent is both commendable and bold, but perhaps events at the other end of the pitch will make Sherwood realise the calibre of player he is working with is not the same as he had at Spurs and that a little more defensive stability might go a long way over the remaining 12 games.
Good Week, Bad Week
Sean Dyche: Controversy should not detract from another big away result at Stamford Bridge.
David Silva: Silky and sublime—the midfielder is in excellent form ahead of a huge tie with Barcelona.
Crystal Palace fans: An important message made with real punch.
Garry Monk: Doing the double over Manchester United—a very impressive achievement for him and Swansea.
Dame N'Doye: His second Premier League goal could prove absolutely vital in the final reckoning.
Jordon Ibe: Continues to grow his reputation with disciplined, tactical displays that belie his youth and inexperience.
Referees: Almost all had very poor games this week. Is this the lowest standard of officiating in years?
Ashley Barnes: Expertly turned into a villain by Jose Mourinho, although much of that was of his own making.
Joey Barton: He should know better. Although we are perhaps not that surprised that he apparently doesn't.
Pape Souare: Palace's new boy has hardly hit the ground running. Still, the only way is up.
Alex Song: Should be smarter than that in the closing stages of big games. But that perhaps sums up Song's underachievement.
Tim Howard: Surely approaching the point at which he loses his job to Joel Robles on a permanent basis.
Other Points of Note
Arsenal Giving Pragmatism a Go?
It was interesting to see Arsenal finish their away game against Crystal Palace with less possession than their hosts yet end up 2-1 winners. It seems the Gunners have ceded ambition for discipline in recent away games (indeed, almost every one since the win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium), a move that has seen them control less of the ball but perhaps do more with it when they have it.
"It was a very demanding game on a very difficult pitch," Wenger said, per the Guardian. He continued:
It was hard underneath, and it took us a while to adapt to it. We did some good things technically on this pitch but overall I was impressed by Crystal Palace's fighting spirit, their desire to play, to fight, to close us down—they did very well.
What is important for me is to win today because we fought like mad to come back in a strong position in the league, and not to win today would have been disastrous.
It will be interesting to see if the Gunners continue such a pattern away from the Emirates Stadium, even against the lesser sides of the division. They may have more home games than most from now to the end of the season, but it could be their new away approach that makes the big difference in the race for the top four.
Regardless, such willingness on Wenger's part to be more pragmatic in certain games perhaps augurs well for the future—starting with the Champions League tie with Monaco.
Leicester Victim of Fine Margins
It is slightly difficult to reconcile Leicester City's current league position with the overall quality of their performances this season. The Foxes remain bottom of the table, four points adrift of safety, following Sunday's 2-2 draw with Everton that again saw them play well without getting the full rewards.
After a solid start to the season (including that 5-3 win against Manchester United), many observers anticipated that Nigel Pearson's side would be the best of the newly promoted trio over the course of the campaign.
However, that has not been the case—Queens Park Rangers have changed managers (and failed to pick up a point away from home until February) and sit above them, as do a Burnley side who seem to lack the same quality as Leicester but appear better equipped to grind out results. Leicester have perhaps played as well, or better, than both sides over the course of the season without the tangible rewards to show for it.
On Sunday, it was a mix of luck and poor finishing that combined to frustrate Pearson again, with Jeffrey Schlupp missing a couple of gilt-edged chances, but then an unfortunate deflection off Matthew Upson allowing Everton to escape with something.
With 12 games still to go, it is tempting to suggest that Leicester will soon get the rewards for their competent displays and pick up the results they need to at least thrust them back toward the pack. With every unsatisfying result, however, it is harder for the players to keep believing that, and Pearson faces an unenviable task in trying to keep morale up long enough for decent form to be rewarded again.
"It feels a bit like a defeat, but I suppose we have to take the positives out of it," Pearson told Sky Sports. "It's another one of those scratch-your-head days but we go again because we need to. At some point we will change our fortunes, but we will only do that if we apply ourselves as we did today."