No More Slip-Ups
It has been a time of great relief for Manchester United fans. Given their early FA Cup exit and lack of UEFA Champions League assignment until next week, supporters have been able to sit back and watch as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have all lost since United last took to the field.
It is only a temporary respite for United, however. Painful memories of the Fulham debacle of a fortnight ago are still etched indelibly into the mind of supporters, as is the dreariness of the trip to the Emirates three days later. The break has not actually resolved any issues or answered any concerns - it is still just three victories in ten matches during 2014 (one of those ending in penalty shootout misery), and United are still 11 points from the top four.
Juan Mata hasn't given up hope of Champions League qualification, but he is amongst the final few. "This is Manchester United. When this club wins two, three or four matches in a row, it has a winner's mentality," said the January recruit. United have won just four league games in a row on one occasion this season, and that was sandwiched by three home defeats to Everton, Newcastle and Spurs.
What is certain is that United cannot afford any more slip-ups. Even a record of ten victories and two draws (four points dropped) in their final 12 fixtures would only see them equal the total that Arsenal achieved to pip Spurs by a point on the final day last season. In the corresponding fixtures against those 12 teams earlier in the season, United dropped 17 points.
After a break in Dubai, United's squad resume their Premier League campaign against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Eighteen months ago, Palace were bottom of the Championship but they have now taken more points from their last eight games than United. With 16 points in their last seven games (again, six more than United have collected) this does not represent the 'gimme' away victory that it would have done in previous seasons. David Moyes must hope that the warm weather training has breathed new life into his squad.
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Back to his Best
Events at White Hart Lane are confusing at the best of times. Now Tim Sherwood has really got people thinking. Maybe football management is not that complicated. It turns out that you do just have to win your own individual battles, give it 110 per cent and make certain - absolute certain - you want it more than them. Heads on and remember to just go out there and express yourself.
Actually, that last one rings a bell. "I'm giving him license to go on the pitch and express himself," said Sherwood when asked to explain the recent form of Spurs striker Emmanuel Adebayor. Whatever the motivational tools behind it, the head coach's words of wisdom are certainly having the desired effect - the turnaround in fortunes has been remarkable.
It would be impossible to find managers further apart on the managerial spectrum than Martin Jol and Felix Magath, both epitomes of their lazy national stereotype. Whilst Jol was horizontally laid back whilst in charge at Craven Cottage, even when nearing the sack ("I have no fear. In the past they used to say 'have no fear, Martin is here'"), Fulham's ageing and seemingly unmotivated squad is in for a rude awakening with disciplinarian Magath in charge. The first German in charge of a Premier League club, Bild ran with the headline 'The English are already trembling'.
In many ways, this might be exactly what Fulham need. For too long they have appeared to be a side coasting towards relegation to the Championship, a period of discipline and focus over a shortened period of 12 matches may possibly be enough to initiate the improvement needed. Despite a run of 14 defeats in 18 league games, Fulham are still just eight points from the top half.
This is a manager that excels in the short-term project, exactly what Fulham require. The underlying concern with both Jol and Rene Meulensteen was that they felt like temporary options - with Magath, that may well have been the biggest attraction.
Chance to Impress
Arsenal's Champions League defeat by Bayern (and almost certain elimination) is not catastrophic. Their opponents have been the best team in Europe for close to two years, and are likely to follow in the likes of Real Madrid, AC Milan and Nottingham Forest in retaining the European Cup.
Arsenal's league form, however, is concerning. Five points from four matches against Southampton, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Manchester United is not pitiful but the manner of the Anfield defeat and grim 0-0 against United within a four-day period has seen Arsenal drift out to fourth favourites for the title, longer odds than Liverpool despite sitting three points ahead . That says much about the presumed confidence levels within both camps.
It would not be a surprise if Arsene Wenger chose to freshen things up against Sunderland on Saturday. This is evidently a 'should win' fixture, and the manager may choose to alleviate the frustrations of Wednesday evening by providing inexperience with the chance to impress.
So why not recall Olivier Giroud, and play him ahead of an attacking midfield trio of Serge Gnabry, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Chamberlain performed admirably during the early stage against Bayern, whilst Gnabry has showed flashed of brilliance during his initial outings.
Whilst there is little cause for panic at Chelsea, a limp FA Cup defeat by Manchester City and draw away at West Brom is not a pattern that Jose Mourinho will be particularly keen on extending.
Chelsea's league displays this season have actually been a little odd. After taking 14 points from their six biggest games so far (United twice, City twice, Arsenal and Liverpool), one would be forgiven for assuming that Mourinho's side would be clear at the top (City have taken just nine points from the equivalent five matches).
Instead, and rather alien to the Portuguese's typical performance during his first spell at Chelsea, points have been squandered against the Premier League's lesser lights. Dropping 12 points in five games against Newcastle, West Bromwich Albion, West Ham United and Stoke City indicates a sloppiness that must be eliminated if a Premier League title is to be won.
Jose can use all of the distraction tactics in the book, but if his side fail to beat Everton at home on Saturday lunchtime, Chelsea will have firmly handed the impetus back to Manchester City.
The Pulis Effect
When newly-promoted Crystal Palace opened up with nine defeats in their first 10 games, it's fair to conclude that a swift return to the Championship looked likely. Even wallowing Derby County supporters might have been tempted to believe their bad name could be extinguished from the record books. Extrapolate that start over 38 matches and the Eagles were on course to match the Rams' 2007/08 tally of 11 points. Finally, the ignominy might at least be shared.
The odds against Palace taking their place among the 20 Premier League teams to contest the 2014/15 season stood at 8/1 following a 2-0 defeat to West Brom in early November. Hand £20 over to Sky Bet in wagering they'd go down and the bookies would have kindly reimbursed you with the princely sum of £21 the following May. In other words, they were doomed. But things changed. Or rather, one thing changed. Tony Pulis was appointed as manager of Crystal Palace.
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