English Football Roundup – United’s Struggles Continue and the League Cup Final

Distraught United players in Greece…and Robin Van Persie
Distraught United players in Greece…and Robin Van Persie

After last weekend’s 2-0 Premiership victory away at Crystal Palace, there was a feeling that Manchester United may be able to get themselves back on track if they could go to Olympiakos in the Champions League and gain a good result.  However, the trip to Greece only added to David Moyes’ woes this season, as they not only lost 2-0 – putting them on the brink of elimination from the competition – but the manner of the defeat left little optimism for United’s fans.  This was not a smash and grab performance by Olympiakos, they fully deserved the victory and it could well have been worse, as the reigning Premiership champions did not register a shot on target until the 88th minute, the only one they managed during the whole match.  Having failed to find the net in Athens, United will need four goals to stay in the competition if the Greek side score once at Old Trafford, something that looks very likely given the fragility of the Red Devils back line on Tuesday night.  Elimination would all but guarantee that Manchester United, who have not missed a Champions League campaign since the 1995/6 season (back when you still had to win your domestic league in order to qualify) would not be playing in Europe’s top club competition next year, since they are 11 points behind Liverpool in fourth place.

The board at Manchester United have been making all the right noises that Moyes would want to hear surrounding his job security – apparently they are impressed with a new scouting system he has introduced to the club – and they have said they expect that the team will not only be back in the top four next season, but able to challenge for the title once again.  However, what may just have saved the Scotsman’s job from coming into severe scrutiny this weekend is a penalty shootout back in January – one that United lost to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final.  Had they won, the Red Devils would be heading to Wembley on Sunday to face Manchester City in the final of the competition and, given that Sergio Aguero will be back for Manuel Pelligrini’s side, a potential thrashing to their biggest rival on the back of the loss in Greece could have been too much for the board to accept.  Instead, United will get a 10 day rest this weekend – their scheduled Premiership fixture was the Manchester derby this weekend – while Sunderland will face Manchester City in the League Cup final.  The Black Cats, who have not won a trophy since lifting the FA Cup in 1973, have a relatively good record against City, having beaten them 1-0 the last four times the two teams have met at the Stadium of Light, but of course this fixture will be played on a neutral pitch.  The Citizens have struggled to find the net recently – YaYa Toure’s match-winning goal against Stoke on Saturday was only the third they have scored in their last five games – but the return of Aguero to the strike force should give them confidence that they can avoid losing another final they are expected to win, as they did against relegation-bound Wigan in the FA Cup final last May.

Alongside City, the rest of the top four in the Premiership all won their matches last weekend, with Chelsea maintaining their single point lead over Arsenal with a late goal against Everton, as Tim Howard – who was being challenged by John Terry – failed to keep out Frank Lampard’s whipped in injury-time free-kick.  The Gunners – who rested Mesut Özil, as he was apparently disheartened by his failure to convert a penalty against Bayern Munich – beat Sunderland 4-1 at the Emirates, with Olivier Giroud scoring twice on his return to the Arsenal starting eleven.  For the second match in succession, Liverpool were involved in a high-scoring affair but, just as they had done against Fulham, they found a way to win as they edged Swansea 4-3 at Anfield, with Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson both netting twice.  With Luis Suarez not on the scoresheet in that match, it is now eight games in row that the Uruguayan has failed to get a goal, but it is not as though his overall form has dipped as he now ranks top of both the Premiership scoring and assists charts.  Those results, combined with Tottenham’s 1-0 loss at Norwich – my reaction to which is covered here – mean that there is now a six point gap between the top four and the rest of the league, so the chances are that Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool will make up the Champions League qualifiers in some order, with this season’s title still up for grabs.

The relegation battle is starting to slim down from the 11 potential candidates for the drop that existed a few weeks ago, as both West Ham and Hull appear to have lifted themselves out of danger.  The Hammers won for the fourth time in a row last Saturday, beating Southampton 3-1 at Upton Park, while Hull put four past Cardiff without reply, leaving the Welsh side 19th in the table and three points from safety.  There are still 9 clubs who appear to be in danger of relegation, starting with Swansea in 12th place – just four points above the bottom three – down to Fulham, who remained rooted to the bottom of the table despite a 1-1 draw away at West Brom last Saturday.  It does not look likely to get any better for the Cottagers this weekend as they face the league-leaders Chelsea at home, while the Baggies – who are in 17th – will not be in action this weekend as they were due to face the side just below them in the table, Sunderland, who are instead playing in the League Cup final.   While Cardiff face a trip to White Hart Lane to take on Spurs and Stoke host Arsenal, the other four clubs involved in the tussle to avoid the drop face each other this weekend: Aston Villa and Norwich – who no longer communicate with each other in the wake of Paul Lambert’s defection from Norfolk to Birmingham – meet at Villa Park; while Swansea entertain Crystal Palace.  Elsewhere this weekend, Newcastle – who scored their first goal at home in 2014 in the 1-0 win against Villa last Saturday – travel to Hull; Southampton take on Liverpool; and Everton face a resurgent West Ham at Goodison Park.

BhkHKn-IAAAK10dFinally – and from my own perspective, I am saving the best until last – there were three other English clubs involved in European action this week.  Chelsea came away from Turkey with a 1-1 draw against Galatasaray, making them the only Premiership side who does not face a two-nil deficit going into the second leg of their last 16 ties in the Champions League.  In the Europa League, Swansea were beaten 3-1 by Napoli in Italy; while ahead of their second-legs Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United might draw some hope from Tottenham, who put in a stirring second-half performance to come from behind to beat Dnipro 3-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate to progress to the next round, where they will face Benfica. There was some controversy in the match as Roberto Soldado should have been sent off for elbowing an opponent in the first half, while Jan Vertonghen clearly made the most of a headbutt to get Roman Zozulya dismissed, but one of the views of the incident did make it look like the Belgian’s cheek was caught relatively hard.  Hopefully what Tim Sherwood will have taken away from the match is the necessity to play Christian Eriksen every game, as the Dane started the comeback with a beautifully curled free-kick, then setup the second for Emmanuel Adebayor and the Togolese striker rounded off the comeback with a beautifully taken goal to take his tally to 11 in 14 matches since the new manager took over.

There is something about an English club making a comeback in European competition that can be very compelling to watch – though obviously I enjoy it even more when it involves the team I support – and Thursday’s match reminded me of other such turnarounds.  The obvious examples are Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, with both of their goals coming in stoppage time at the end of the match; and Liverpool overturning a 3-0 half-time deficit against Milan in the 2005 final of the same competition, ultimately winning on penalties.  Less famous comebacks by English clubs also came to mind: Middlesbrough had two in consecutive rounds against Basel and Steaua Bucharest during their 2005/6 UEFA Cup run; and, in 1992, Leeds United lost the first leg of their European Cup tie 3-0 to Stuttgart in Germany, then appeared to come up just short in the home match as they won 4-1, which meant they were eliminated on the away goals rule.  However, Stuttgart had fielded an ineligible player during the game and UEFA ordered a replay to be contested in a neutral stadium, a fixture that Leeds won 2-1 to progress to the next round…where they were then knocked out by Glasgow Rangers in the “Battle of Britain”.

Weekend Predictions

Last week, 6-4; Season, 138-130

Home teams listed first

Everton vs West Ham – Home win

Fulham vs Chelsea – Away win

Hull vs Newcastle – Home win

Stoke vs Arsenal – Away win

Southampton vs Liverpool – Draw

Aston Villa vs Norwich – Draw

Swansea vs Crystal Palace – Away win

Tottenham vs Cardiff – Home win

 

 

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