AHEAD of the final international break of the season, it’s another busy weekend of club football. PREMIER LEAGUE WEEKLY focuses on whether Arsenal’s fixed place in the top four is set to end, if England’s sole remaining side in the Champions League can sort out their away form and the key man in Chelsea’s dominance at the top.
Is Wenger about to lose his top four touch?
THERE have been three truisms about Arsenal since they last won the Premier League in 2004. They will always let you down in the biggest matches – usually away from home. But they always finish in the top four. Oh, and they always finish above Tottenham.
There is no doubt the first one still rings very true this season. Witness the 10-2 aggregate humiliation by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and recent defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger’s position as Arsenal manager is now in more jeopardy than at any other time in his 20-plus years in North London. In that period, they have never finished outside the top four, always finding a way to squeeze in there by the time the curtain comes down in May.
This year, with 12 matches remaining, Arsenal lie in fifth and at the moment, it is hard to see that long run of Champions League football continuing. The team has lost its way, the fans are in revolt, the commitment of star players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil is being questioned and there is a general air of unhappiness around the Gunners.
Now is the time for Arsenal’s players to stand up and be counted. Wenger must show that the fires still burn strongly in him to turn things around. No one wants to see the Frenchman leave ‘his’ club under a cloud. That would be a sad way for his spell in charge to come to an end. But to do that, his players need to show passion and commitment to get results, and that has not been seen since Christmas.
In each of the last seven seasons, Arsenal have now exited the Champions League at the last-16 stage in March, so this is not new territory. However, on the previous six occasions, Arsenal have never lost their first league game after that setback. On this occasion, they simply cannot afford not to win at West Brom tomorrow. Yet Wenger has only ever had one win away to a team managed by Tony Pulis in seven attempts. The Gunners will know what to expect from a Pulis team, but it’s the age-old question about whether they can cope with it.
Player of the Day: N’Golo Kante
N’GOLO KANTE could well be the smallest player on the field when Chelsea travel to Stoke tomorrow. But for Kante, it’s very much a case of short in size, big in influence as the little midfielder is putting forward a persuasive case to be the next Footballer of the Year.
If anything, it would be reward for a two-year body of work after his brilliance in Leicester’s title success 12 months ago. Look at how they have struggled to fill the gap without him. Claudio Ranieri always joked that playing with Kante was like playing with 12, but he was right. It has been the same for Chelsea this season. His effectiveness in midfield has allowed Antonio Conte to construct the three-man defence he wanted and it gives Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses the licence to burst forward from their full back positions.
Kante has such high energy that he seems to be everywhere. He was even watching his old club on Tuesday night in the Champions League! He certainly was everywhere against Manchester United in the FA Cup on Monday night. He was nicking the ball off opponents, getting forward, and he even found time to score the winning goal, even though he is supposed to leave that sort of things to others. In the process, he totally upstaged his French international colleague and world record transfer, Paul Pogba, with most observers recognising that Chelsea had the right Frenchman in their side.
The awards and the glamour in football normally go to those who score or make the goals. But if and when Chelsea become Champions, rather than Eden Hazard or Diego Costa, it might well be Kante who will be receiving the accolades.
Can Shakespeare’s success extend outside of Leicester?
WITH a little over two months of the season remaining, Leicester City are still on course for an unlikely treble. They could win the Champions League. They could get relegated as Champions. And they could go an entire season without winning a league match away from home. It’s hard not to shake your head and wonder what is going to happen next in their crazy season.
Claudio Ranieri’s departure last month, which prompted such outrage in many quarters, including in this blog, has brought about Leicester’s best run of the season. His assistant, Craig Shakespeare, has taken over and steered the Foxes to an uplifting win over Liverpool, a relegation success over Hull and most memorably of all, the victory which knocked Sevilla out of the Champions League. Suddenly the mood in Leicester is brighter and there is the last-eight tie against Atletico Madrid to look forward to next month. But before then, there are four Premier League games to concentrate the mind.
They start with tomorrow’s trip to West Ham. It’s just three points out of a possible 39 on the road this season and it would be an extremely timely boost if that winless run ended in East London. Although currently 15th, they are still only three points above the relegation zone and cannot afford to relax. But if Shakespeare can keep their momentum going, Leicester could be as good as safe by the time they face Atletico. And as we all know by now, if Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and the rest have a free shot at something, they are very dangerous indeed.
Stat of the Day:
12 – The number of times Leicester have been relegated in their history.
10 – The combined number of times the other seven Champions League quarter-finalists have been relegated.
Adam’s Saturday Scores Predictions:
West Brom 1 Arsenal 1
Crystal Palace 2 Watford 0
Everton 3 Hull 1
Stoke 0 Chelsea 2
Sunderland 1 Burnley 0
West Ham 1 Leicester 2
Bournemouth 2 Swansea 2