Monday, 24 March 2014

Premier League Power Rankings March 24th

20: Fulham

Ask any Premier League fan which sides will be relegated this season and most will give you two without pausing. Fulham are the first ones. The club has had such a turbulent season off the pitch with multiple managerial and backroom changes. History tells us that off the field problems usually carry over onto the pitch and so it has proved this season.

Fulham have the look of a beaten side this season

They weren't that bad against Manchester City, certainly not as bad as the 0-5 scoreline suggests. They came with a gameplan to sit deep and frustrate the hosts, about all they could do against such a strong side and it was going well until they gave away a spot kick before half time. Then another one after. A 'parking the bus' job against a top side requires perfect discipline and penalties are a cheap way to go down. They are only four points adrift but it's difficult to see them picking up the points necessary to survive now.

19: Cardiff

Cardiff are the second name that most avid followers of the league would tip to go down. They've lost 8 from 11 since Solskjaer took over in January and for all the money Vincent Tan has poured into the club since they achieved promotion last May, Cardiff don't seem to have the look of a Premier League side right now. Granted they've have some tough fixtures recently but they've also been beaten at home by the likes of West Ham and Hull in the past month, not something you can keep doing if you want to survive. Home points are vital to any survival hopes they may have.

One thing in Cardiff's favour is that they do have a run of winnable games coming up. Four of the next six are against teams in the bottom half with the other two against Southampton and Newcastle, neither of whom have anything left to play for. Ten points from the four games would give Cardiff a huge chance of survival. Six or less means they are doomed. Crunch time.

18: West Brom

West Brom made two strange decisions over the winter which have condemned them to a relegation battle rather than the comfort of mid-table currently being enjoyed by Midlands rivals Aston Villa. First they sacked Steve Clarke who had brought a degree of stability to the biggest yo-yo club in recent times. Clarke was replaced with Pepe Mel whom had just been sacked by Real Betis with the side bottom of La Liga. I don't see how they expected that to be an improvement. Mel has won once since his appointment and picked up just six points from eight games.

Pepe Mel has not had the desired Pochettino effect

Second they sold Shane Long to Hull City. Long came back to haunt them on Saturday, winning a penalty and scoring the second goal as Hull won 2-0. Long has been excellent since he joined Hull having been left out more often than not at The Hawthorns. He's scored three goals already for Hull since joining in January. No West Brom player has more than four in the league this season. With their strikers struggling for any sort of form recently, it's hard to see where they are going to get the goals to stay up.

17: Sunderland

Sunderland's cup exploits seem to have had a seriously negative effect on their league form. They haven't won a game or even scored a goal since the League Cup final defeat to Man City and since the win at St. James's Park on February 1st, they have managed just one solitary Premier League point from four games.

The mid-season revival seems to be over. As does Adam Johnson's push for a place in the England squad. Sunderland were pretty hopeless against Norwich on Saturday and the defeat was made worse by yet another red card, seven now for the season, which highlights the obvious lack of discipline at the club. In all the games in which they've had red cards this season, six of them, they've managed just one point in total.

16: Norwich

Saturday was a great day for Norwich. The club made a real effort to generate a monster atmosphere inside Carrow Road and it paid off as they beat Sunderland easily, helped by an absolute thunderbastard of a strike from Alexander Tettey, his first ever Premier League goal. The importance of picking up points at home in a relegation fight cannot be underestimated and Norwich, as a club, recognised this and obviously did something about it. The only thing Saturday was missing was a goal for Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, who still hasn't scored since the opening day of the season.

15: Swansea

Swansea are a lot better than the teams around them. They were very unlucky not to get a point from the game at Goodison Park having played very well and created multiple chances. They've had a lot of bad luck recently. Shouldn't have dropped points against Crystal Palace and were unlucky not to get anything from either of their two trips to Merseyside recently having given a good account of themselves both times. Their current league position is not a true reflection of the quality of this side.

Michu's return should be good news for the Swans

The bottom line however is that they have not won since the memorable victory over Cardiff at the beginning of February, Gary Monk's only victory as Swansea manager. I think they'll be alright however thanks to two things. Firstly, Michu is back and once he rediscovers his form and fitness, the goalscoring burden on Bony will be eased. Secondly they are now out of the Europa League which was really more of a distraction than it was worth.

14: Crystal Palace

The honeymoon period is well and truly over for Tony Pulis and Palace have now failed to win in any of their last five games, none of which have been against top six sides. Their impressive run of results over December and January has propelled them away from the foot of the table and out of the drop zone but they remain in trouble. They are three points clear of Sunderland in 18th but have played two games more. On Saturday there were outclassed by a Newcastle side which couldn't score for love nor money and yet Palace couldn't hold on for what would have been a valuable point. They haven't been as bad as the other teams at the bottom recently and have been losing most games by a single goal, but they need to start winning again and soon.

13: West Ham

They didn't play too badly on Saturday against Man United yet still clocked up their third defeat in a row. Sam Allardyce has been brought back down to earth in March after a storming February which brought him the Manager of the Month award. Despite their perfect February, they are still only six points clear of the drop and will need to get some wins from somewhere soon. Hull at home next week to stop the rot is the perfect place to start.

12: Stoke

Stoke are staying up. 3-1 winners against West Ham last week, this week they went to Villa Park were Chelsea came unstuck last week and hammered the home side 4-1. The Brittania Stadium was somewhat of a fortress in Stoke's early Premier League seasons and that looks to be the case again. Mark Hughes's men have lost only once (3-5 to Liverpool) in their last twelve home league games and have beat the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United on this run. They are currently 6th in the Premier League home table, with the top five sides being the divisions top five sides. Stoke are awesome at home once again and on course for 10th place, their best ever Premier League finish.

11: Aston Villa

What are Aston Villa? Last week they produced a fantastic performance to shut out Chelsea and earn a deserved 1-0 win, this week they lost 1-4 at home to Stoke. They are safe from any threat of relegation, 11 points clear, and all they have left to play for now is the novelty of finishing in the top half, the 10th place spot currently occupied by their conquerors on Sunday, Stoke City. Christian Benteke's second season syndrome seems to have worn off and he's been back amongst the goals in 2014. Fabian Delph has impressed all year round, unnoticed by many he actually been fantastic but unlikely to have his form rewarded with a national call up any time before the World Cup. Other than that, not a lot of excitement at Villa, which is better than a relegation fight.

10: Hull City

Hull claimed two big victories this week. One in the courthouses to keep their name and avoid being re-branded as the Hull Tigers. Secondly, they comfortably beat West Brom on Saturday to move one step closer to Premier League survival. It would now take a pretty seismic collapse for Hull to fall back into the Championship next season. Hull are in a unique situation in that they've been on a cup run and now have at least one, perhaps two, Wembly dates to look forward to and yet their league form hasn't suffered at all. Part of the reason behind this is the fact that both Shane Long and Nikita Jelavic are cup tied, leaving them fresh and ready to score every week in the league. With their league status for next season all but secured, Hull can look forward to their semi-final date with third tier Sheffield United in a few weeks with real relish.

9: Newcastle

The storm of controversy surrounding that moronic Alan Pardew incident in recent weeks has covered up the fact that Newcastle returned to somewhat decent form having seemingly given up on life in January. They knocked and knocked on the door for the whole game against Palace on Sunday and finally scored in the fourth of three additional minutes at the end of the game. Papiss Cisse and Vernon Anita's goals recently mean Newcaslte now have 4 goals from non-Frenchmen this season. Compared to 34 from their French imports. Ridiculous.

8: Southampton

Such is the way that the Premier League table has developed this season, Southampton are one of a number of sides with virtually nothing left to play for in these final two months of the campaign. Their season, having started so well, took a major nosedive around December time when they won once and lost six in nine games. Since the New Year however they've looked back to their old self and have won more games than they've lost. They'll look back on Sunday's game with Spurs as three points thrown away but in the grand scheme of things it won't matter too much to them. They are going to finish 8th/9th anyway.

Pochettino may leave at the end of the season, Southampton will need to find a suitable replacement to continue his fine work. Hanging onto Shaw and Lallana too would be a massive boost.

7: Spurs

'Tactics Tim' has endured a rough couple of weeks that have seen Spurs knocked out of Europe, lose two London derbies and have their slim Champions League hopes totally obliterated. They recovered somewhat against Southampton, coming from 2-0 down to secure a remarkable 3-2 win on Sunday but still find themselves six points off fourth spot with a game more played than Arsenal.

With all of their tough games (bar Liverpool at home) Spurs now have the opportunity to finish the season very strongly and lay down a marker for next season. They are probably destined to be in the Europa League again so they may as well try and finish 5th. It would put them in good stead for next season. If Louis van Gaal takes over as is rumored and Spurs invest well in the summer, they can push once again for Champions League football next year.

6: Manchester United

David Moyes has a tendency to rotate players at random with no real logic or reasoning behind it. He did it on Wednesday to great effect against Olympiacos and again on Saturday against West Ham. It worked again. I can't think of a reason he picked Ashley Young ahead of Welbeck or Januzaj on Saturday but the winger had a fine game as part of what was probably, in the first half anyway, United's best performance of the season.

The game will be remembered for Rooney's long range strike

With van Persie injured, Rooney was deployed as the main striker with Mata playing off him in the advanced playmaker role. Rooney is much better as a central striker and he showed this on Saturday with an excellent performance, capped with a memorable goal from near halfway. Injury to Robin van Persie may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise.

The direct style of both Kagawa and especially Young in the side meant that United were able to play on the counter attack quite often, a strategy which is absolutely deadly when a fast attack meets a slow defence (see Liverpool v Arsenal, Chelsea v Arsenal). Fellaini and Fletcher both got stuck-in well to ensure United were not so lightweight in midfield this time around. Next up is the Manchester derby which United face with only one fit centre back in Phil Jones.

5: Everton

Everton secured a good win over a battling Swansea side on Saturday with Ross Bakley playing reasonably well, which, given the fact that he's young and English, will grab most of the attention in the media. Barkley is a fine player on his day but Gareth Barry is the most important player in that team. He's the linchpin, the one that keeps them ticking over. Reading the game and making key interceptions to break up opposition attacks, then turning defence into attack with forward passes. Signing him permanently must be high on Roberto Martinez's summer to-do list.

Perhaps Everton's player of the season isn't even their own player

Everton are a very solid steady outfit lately. All their dropped points bar two since the turn of the year have come against fellow top six sides against whom their 2014 record reads: P3 W0 D0 L3. Obviously this will have to change if they are to make the step up to the next level but one positive they can take is that they have won six and drawn one of their other seven games against the weaker sides in 2014.

4: Arsenal

Arsene Wenger's momentous 1000th game in charge at Arsenal will go down in the history books as one of the worst of his entire reign in North London. I thought they had learned their lessons from recent chastening experiences at the hands of their rivals. Game 980 was a 6-3 mauling at Manchester City and in game 991 they found themselves 4-0 down in twenty minutes to Liverpool. Saturday at Chelsea must have felt like deja vu from their experience at Anfield, even the goals were remarkably similar. Press forward, give the ball away, exposed against lightning-quick attackers on the counter, concede, repeat.

Game 1000 was one to forget for Arsene Wenger

Even the shambles of the referee sending off the wrong player doesn't offer any sort of an excuse. Arsenal were dreadful. Just dreadful. The time at the start of the season were they were runaway leaders seems a long time ago. Now it looks as though they were merely taking advantage of a power vacuum, an interim period between United's sharp decline and City, Chelsea and Liverpool finding their feet.

The one saving grace is that this season should see them land their first trophy in nine years but they look resigned to fourth place yet again I'm afraid.

3: Manchester City

Teams who come to play football at Eastlands often get torn apart. But once you park the bus and just aim to defend for 90 mins, City aren't that great at picking a way through and I think that's a glaring weakness. We've seen it a couple of times now. Stoke and Crystal Palace have both escaped with narrow defeats. It won't be long before one of the lesser sides nick a valuable point, a result that would seriously derail City's title charge.

Against Fulham, despite winning 5-0, they failed to unlock the Fulham defence for a considerable amount of time. The first goal came from the spot. The foul for the second penalty which left Fulham two down and a man down killed the game off. Goals three, four and five all came indirectly from set-pieces, none from open play.

Yaya's hat-trick goal was perfectly placed

The derby at Old Trafford is a good chance for them to secure a big win and some much needed momentum in the title race. United will come at them rather than parking the bus and City have more than enough about them to exploit a defence that may contain Michael Carrick at centre half.

Interestingly they are the only side of the three realistic title challengers with the destiny of the crown in their own hands. They can lose at Anfield, win all the other games and still win the league.

2: Liverpool

I don't think there's a more exciting team to watch in the Premier League than Liverpool at the moment. Fast, fluid, relentless and excellently efficient going forward and so diabolically bad defensively, it always makes for entertaining viewing.

They are title contenders, no question about that now. Games against Manchester City and Chelsea will be make or break. They've only got three away matches left at Norwich, Crystal Palace and West Ham. Maximum points from them and there's absolutely no reason they won't win the title. Fans are starting to, quite justifiably, believe that this might just be the year they've waited so long for. Right now they look irresistible, led by the majestic Luis Suarez.

Luis Suarez at it again with yet another hat-trick

This weekend Luis Suarez equalled Robbie Fowler's eighteen year old club record for 28 Premier League goals in a season. He's done this with eight games to spare. And he missed the first five. He's also got eleven assists. He's quite good this lad.

In fact Daniel Sturridge, now on 19 league goals, may yet reach Fowler's tally too before the season is over. And the team need 2.5 per game for the rest of the year to better Chelsea's 2009/10 tally of 103. On their current six match winning streak, they have averaged 4 goals per game.

1: Chelsea

Saturday afternoon's clash at Stamford Bridge saw the world's best counter attacking team at their very best. They blitzed Arsenal over and over again in the first half, creating two on two situations and exploiting the Gunners defence for a huge win. Pacey attackers against slow defenders only ends one way. Andre Schurrle, Oscar, Eden Hazard were all magnificent. They didn't even miss the suspended duo of Willian and Ramires. Fernando Torres ran a lot and tried very hard but a Falcao or a Cavani in this team would make a huge difference. Nemanja Matic might just be the signing of the season. Gary Cahill needs to be in the PFA team of the season.

Oscar was back in the line-up and back among the goals

Chelsea don't quite have the firepower of Liverpool or Manchester City (ironically that said after they put six past another top side), but they've the best defence in the league by a country mile and that may be where the title is won and lost.

So at the moment it looks like its coming down to the irresistible force of Liverpool's attack meeting the immovable object in Chelsea's defence at Anfield on April 27th in a game that may well decide the destiny of the Premier League title.

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