United conflicted as best and worst of Van Gaal holds Leicester
The first half of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Leicester saw Louis van Gaal’s side play some of their best football of the season, with Anthony Martial running Danny Simpson ragged down the left flank and Wayne Rooney once again dictating play from the centre of midfield.
But the second half reflected the majority of United’s season – and indeed their style throughout Van Gaal’s tenure – as a lacklustre, blunted display left them exposed to Leicester’s die-hard attitude. The Foxes could – and should – have won the match, but United’s defence just about kept them at bay, putting their title celebrations on ice for at least 24 hours.
The display summed up Van Gaal’s reign at United. When the players actually go about trying to unleash some creativity and prowess, they look rather appealing to watch. The problem is that these displays come once in a blue moon, and it’s the second-half display that Van Gaal will be judged upon given United have underperformed too often this season.
Some Arsenal fans appear to have incredibly short memories
Arsenal were made to work for their 1-0 victory over Norwich City, a result which almost guarantees the Gunners a top-four finish and leaves the Canaries exposed in the relegation zone. Twice Petr Cech had to save well from Nathan Redmond, while Olivier Giroud’s barren run without a goal stretched to 15 matches, much to the ire of the Emirates crowd that didn’t know whether to boos or cheer Arsene Wenger.
The fan protest – if you can call it a protest – saw small sections of the home crowd display banners reading “Time For Change”, the name of the group that is trying to oust Wenger. The belief is that Wenger has not spent enough on the squad and has not won enough to justify his untouchable position at the club. Yes, he can and should be criticised for not reinforcing the squad beyond Cech last summer, but this is a man who stands tall as Arsenal’s most successful manager, has delivered two double-winning seasons, went an entire campaign unbeaten and, more recently, won back to back FA Cups.
If Arsenal fans want more success, maybe they should take a look around. Only Manchester City have won more silverware over the last three seasons, and two of their three trophies were League Cup triumphs. Perhaps a spell attending Blackpool or Leeds matches would help those “protestors” gain a sense of reality.
Martinez earns stay of execution – but it won’t last
A 2-1 win over Bournemouth is nothing to write home about, but at least for Roberto Martinez it should mean he sees the week out. The Spaniard is under enormous pressure at Everton and, if the reports are anything to go by, his fate is already sealed with a summer exit on the horizon. However, defeat against the Cherries could well have seen Martinez given his marching orders this week, but it still feels like the inevitable is just around the corner.
Everton’s failures this season – beyond an FA Cup semi-final appearance – are too much to let Martinez off the hook. A bottom half finish is likely to see Romelu Lukaku and John Stones leave the club, and possibly Ross Barkley too. Take the trio away from this current Everton side, and they could well find themselves in a relegation scrap next season. That’s how much the last nine months under Martinez may ultimately cost them.
Klopp and Pellegrini pay price for European success
Both Liverpool and Manchester City managers chose to rotate their sides with important European semi-final second-legs coming up, and both felt the wrath of the competition posed in the Premier League these days. Not only were Liverpool beaten by Swansea 3-1, they were roundly played off the park, and the disappointment was clear to see in Jurgen Klopp’s eyes that his young fringe players simply weren’t good enough. Perhaps the most alarming concern for Klopp was the performance of striker Daniel Sturridge who, after being left out of the first-leg loss to Villarreal, looked like he would prefer to be anywhere else but the Liberty Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
For Manuel Pellegrini, his so-called fringe players are of a much higher calibre, yet they were completely outplayed by a Sadio Mane-inspired Southampton, and never has City’s defence looked so fragile under the Chilean’s reign. The loss looks far more costly for City, who could now find rivals Manchester United just a point behind with two games to play.
That said, if City defeat Real Madrid on Wednesday and Liverpool overturn the 1-0 deficit against Villarreal a day later, you’d have to argue that the decision to rest key players was worth it.
Could this be the most intense final-day relegation battle ever?
You can’t help but feel for fans of Newcastle, Sunderland and Norwich. Three clubs, two relegation places and just one safety berth, not to mention just two points between them, this could well be the most nail-biting final day we’ve seen if it goes down to the wire.
West Bromwich Albion’s miraculous survival in 2004/05 is the one that stands out in the memory bank, having been destined for relegation as late as 16:41 on the final day of the season. But while that demonstrated a remarkable resurgence from being bottom at Christmas to 17th on the final day, this season’s battle could prove to be the most exciting single-day when it comes to the drop.
Fourth place up for grabs – and West Ham haven’t given up yet
City’s loss is United’s gain, but the problem for the Citizens is that the united in question is two-fold – Manchester and West Ham. A comfortable 3-0 victory over West Brom keeps the Hammers in touching distance of fourth-place City, with five points between them and the Londoners holding a game in hand.
While United have an appealing match against Norwich next week and West Ham face Swansea, City host third-placed Arsenal – who even if they lose should now have enough to finish in the top four. But if Arsenal can see off City, the fixture between West Ham and United on 10 May suddenly becomes a top-four shootout. Rule the Hammers out at your peril.
Finally – the football world gets one right
No-one predicted Leicester to challenge for the Premier League title, let alone be 90 minutes away from winning it. No-one predicted Jamie Vardy to win the FWA Footballer of the Year nor Riyad Mahrez the PFA award. No-one expected Chelsea to sit tenth after the worst Premier League title defence ever seen.
So to see United hold Leicester to a draw and prevent them from winning the title at Old Trafford finally saw journalists and pundits the length of the country get one right. The talk ahead of the game was of United’s resilient home record, Leicester nerves and the absence of Jamie Vardy, leading to many believing that Leicester wouldn’t win the title at the first time of asking. Finally, something goes according to plan this season.