Pressure does strange things to a man, especially a man who might already be a bit strange. Perhaps that was the case for Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson this week, as he courted headlines for all the wrong reasons.
With matters at the top of the Premier League effectively already decided (the title and indeed the top four teams are formalities now), much of the attention and scrutiny has switched to events at the bottom of the table, where plenty is still to be decided.
On Wednesday night, Leicester City had the chance to win their fifth game in a row and greatly enhance their chances of staying in the Premier League for a second successive season. But a second-half collapse saw the Foxes lose 3-1 to Chelsea and remain in the same precarious position they were at the start of the night.
The disappointment, and frustration, seemed to adversely affect Pearson, who afterwards took umbrage at a reporter who questioned him about his repeated statements that Leicester had been unfairly criticised at times this season—suggesting the reporter was an "ostrich" in a distinctly unpleasant and bullying manner.
The disagreement caused an immediate furore (and social media fun and games), with Pearson hardly helped by the fact that this season alone he has sworn at a Leicester City fan and, a few weeks later, grabbed an opposition player around the throat during a break in play.
He also seemed to have been fired and then immediately rehired not long after that altercation, a period where he was roundly criticised in the media—and perhaps it was this coverage that the boss was really referring to when he talked of the criticism the club had faced.
It would be unfair to be too critical of Pearson in this specific instance, not least because he apologised the next day for his actions (in an admittedly stilted fashion). It is worth remembering that the pact between media and football is, in essence, an unnatural one—both vital to the ongoing success of the sport as entertainment (which it essentially is) and completely alien to any other industry.
Imagine being marched into a press conference moments after losing that big office contract, one that perhaps puts your long-term employment in some jeopardy, and then being asked a series of questions about what you have just experienced that oscillate from aggressively invasive to maddeningly inane. As with Pearson, you might not necessarily respond in the most favourable fashion.
It is also worth noting that, without exception, every current and former Pearson player has given their full backing to the manager—even those who would seemingly have no obvious incentive to do so. Clearly, while he comes across poorly when dealing with most journalists, he appears to have an amenable manner where it counts: in the dressing room and on the training pitch.
It should not be discounted, of course, that Pearson's tirade was merely a clumsy attempt to draw the pressure and focus away from his players and onto his own shoulders. If that is the case, it worked (after a fashion), and may end up fostering the closer team spirit the manager was after all along.
Leicester may only be out of the relegation zone by a point, but the four wins in a row they enjoyed before the Chelsea loss made them one of the form sides in the division—and another win against Newcastle United (whom they beat in the FA Cup earlier in 2015) this weekend would surely put them halfway to an escape that few would have predicted a month ago.
Pearson's opposite number this weekend, John Carver, has difficulties of his own. Last weekend he was accused of taking a page out of the Pearson playbook and getting involved in a verbal altercation with a couple of home fans, something he addressed this week by inviting the fans in question to meet him at the club's training ground.
With the relationship between Newcastle as a club (its owner, manager and players) and its fans at something approaching an all-time low, Carver's offer perhaps makes a certain amount of sense. With four games to secure the club's top-flight status, now is perhaps not the time for everyone to be pulling in different directions.
According to BBC Sport, Carver said:
It's important I explain some of my actions. I don't have to, but I think it's important. I'm one of them—and I want them to see I can relate to them and give them a bit of time. It'll be interesting to see what they say, it won't all be me me me, it will be a two-way conversation.
It's not to get them in to have a roll around the office. I'm happy to answer their questions and have a really good conversation and say "this is what we do". I'm not one looking for sympathy but it's about getting them to understand better.
It has been a tough week for Carver, who also ran into Derby manager Steve McClaren—the man widely expected to replace him at the end of the season—at a reserve fixture on Tuesday. Carver's long-term prospects of keeping the Newcastle job have surely long since passed, but he still needs a result or two to ensure he leaves his post with the Magpies still a top-flight club.
Pearson's own future remains less clear-cut. What is certain, however, is that if Leicester survive, his run-ins with the media will mean nothing to those for whom the club means everything—which, in the end, is far more important.
Week 35 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
- Leicester City vs. Newcastle United (12:45 p.m.)
- Aston Villa vs. Everton
- Liverpool vs. QPR
- Sunderland vs. Southampton
- Swansea City vs. Stoke City
- West Ham vs. Burnley
- Manchester United vs. West Brom (5:30 p.m.)
- Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace (1:30 p.m.)
- Tottenham vs. Manchester City (4 p.m.)
- Hull City vs. Arsenal (8 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Chelsea coronation finally arrives
Crystal Palace may have helped crush Chelsea's title ambitions last season when they won 1-0 at Selhurst Park during the run-in, but this time the meeting with their fellow Londoners arrives too late for them to have a decisive say on the race.
Chelsea are champions, whether it is confirmed this weekend or next, and after back-to-back defeats to West Brom and Hull City (at home) it would seem highly unlikely that Alan Pardew's side will throw a spanner in the works of Sunday's planned coronation.
Leading the league from start to finish, as Chelsea will end up doing, is an incredible feat—especially considering they have never really looked like being usurped at any point (bar a couple of fallow periods either side of the New Year).
They have the best defence (both in terms of proficiency in their primary role and attacking threat at the other end), the most efficient midfielders and, in Eden Hazard, the best attacking player in the league. That is a formidable equation whichever way you spin it.
Nevertheless, you have to say it has been a disappointing challenge from the chasing pack, with Manchester City a spineless shadow of last season's title-winning squad, Arsenal taking their time to come to the boil and Manchester United still in transition.
Chelsea's dominance is both a credit to their professionalism and an indictment of the quality of the other heavy hitters; next season, much more should be expected from those who have been left floundering this time around.
Finishing above United might save Pellegrini (for now)
Perhaps Manuel Pellegrini has played it perfectly after all. After worrying City fans (and owners) with the prospect of failing even to qualify for the top four, when they finally finish above archrivals Manchester United it will feel almost like a successful season.
Perhaps it will be enough to save the Chilean his job; although, more cynically, perhaps the lack of alternative obvious candidates to replace him this summer (Jurgen Klopp excepted) has played a more decisive role.
After the fearmongering of a few weeks ago, a victory over Tottenham this weekend will go a long way to ensuring City do end up finishing ahead of United (and possibly ahead of Arsenal, too). That seems increasingly likely to earn Pellegrini a 12-month stay of execution, taking him on to a 2016 summer where it is believed the likes of Pep Guardiola might be looking for a new challenge.
That could end up posing further challenges: What if Pellegrini wins the league next season, and then Guardiola does come available? The sense is that City would make the switch in a heartbeat, and not just because of Guardiola's reputation.
Pellegrini might survive the season, but it has perhaps already decided his long-term fate at the Etihad Stadium. Once the club can find a better candidate, he will be gone.
Home comforts vital for strugglers
The recent resurgence of Leicester has only heightened the pressure on Aston Villa and Sunderland, the two teams most likely to inherit the Foxes' place inside the bottom three. At the moment it is the latter team that has slipped into the relegation zone, albeit with a game in hand (unfortunately against Arsenal) in which to extricate themselves.
Every team in the bottom seven desperately needs points, with home games always the best opportunity to acquire them. With Sunderland, Aston Villa and Hull all at home this weekend, they surely have to make the most of the opportunity, if only to knock Burnley and QPR (already adrift and both away from home this weekend) out of the reckoning—leaving one remaining spot between four or five teams.
2. Video of the week
3. Player to watch
With Spurs' season winding to a familiar conclusion—once again, a Champions League spot is going to prove marginally out of reach—the narrative is now turning in another familiar direction, as speculation rises about which key player will leave for greener pastures in the summer.
This week it has been goalkeeper Hugo Lloris who has been regularly featured in the gossip columns and back pages of newspapers, with Manchester United among the clubs believed to be looking at the France captain as they look at their options between the posts for the next campaign, per Mark Ogden of The Telegraph:
Lloris has proved himself as one of the very best goalkeepers in the Premier League during his three seasons in England, even if the current campaign has been little more than average by his standards.
Speaking last week, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino insisted Lloris wanted to stay at the club, although in the process he only seemed to underline the exact reasons why he might also depart. As noted by Hannah Duncan of Metro, Pochettino said:
There is no change, nothing from four, five or six months ago when we spoke about the rumour [before].
Hugo wants to play the Champions League here for Tottenham and these are rumours. Nothing is true. Nothing has changed the situation. He is happy here and wants to reach the Champions League with Tottenham—that is his dream.
It has been the dream for many other Spurs players, of course, many of whom left to realise it elsewhere. Lloris figures to be a busy man when Spurs host Manchester City this weekend—a game they need to win to maintain any lingering top-four hope—but an eye-catching individual performance may only underline the fact that he is very much in the shop window.
4. Game of the weekend
West Ham United vs. Burnley
The meeting between two of British Prime Minister David Cameron's favourite teams at Upton Park may not be the most exciting game on the slate for the weekend, but it could be the most decisive. The Hammers have nothing to play for—and have had nothing to play for for a while—but for Burnley it is a huge encounter, one that could effectively send them back to the Championship.
Already five points from safety at the foot of the table, Sean Dyche's side could be a further point away from survival, depending on the result of Leicester's early kick-off against Newcastle. Lose at Upton Park, perhaps, and the Clarets could feasibly end the weekend eight points from safety with just nine points to play for.
Their remaining three games are winnable (Hull City, Stoke and Aston Villa), but that would be an almost impossible deficit to overcome. With the title sewn up and the top-four essentially decided, this weekend could be when we finally start to see the relegation battle calcify into a final state.
Win, however, and Dyche's side could get the boost they need right at the 11th hour. We have already seen the benefit Leicester derived from four wins on the spin—now Burnley must find a similar vein of form if they are to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
"It's not a situation where you can just rely on one player," Dyche said, as reported by PA Sport on ESPN.com. "Of course [striker Danny Ings] has scored goals this season and we know he has got goals in him.
"But that has to be reinforced with the team and how the team have the clarity to take chances well. It can't just be on one person."