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With the Premier League returning from international break this weekend, Zac Hirschbeck joins Sean Coots to discuss all the happenings in England’s top league.
Sean and Zac discuss the title race, the battle for European qualification, the struggle to avoid relegation, and the frontrunners for the yearly Premier League awards.
Zac: Although you have done a remarkable job of covering all of the happenings within England’s Premier League to date, I couldn’t fight the urge to talk a little football with you at least once before the season is out. Therefore, first and foremost, thank you for allowing me to butt in on your monthly recaps.
With the international break drawing to a close, the Premier League will return from it’s brief absence with a full slate of games. With its return comes a lengthy list of intriguing storylines. There’s the title race, which currently see Chelsea six points clear of second place Manchester City with a game in hand. There is the race for European qualification. With only the league’s top four finishers guaranteed places in next year’s Champions League field, there are currently seven clubs (Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Southampton, and Tottenham) with a legitimate opportunity to compete amongst the continent’s best clubs. At the other end of the table, there is the race to avoid relegation. As it currently stands the three clubs who gained promotion to England’s top domestic league, being Burnley, Leicester, and QPR, look poised to return to the Championship just a season after departing it. However, Hull City, Aston Villa, and Sunderland all sit mere points away from the drop zone.
In addition to the positioning in the table, there are other notes that may be worth discussing. For one, the race for the league’s top scorer has become a fascinating one. Tottenham forward Harry Kane’s incredible form has propelled him into a tie with Chelsea’s Diego Costa atop the board. City’s ever-dangerous striker Sergio Aguero lurks just behind the aforementioned pair.
Perhaps last on my list of noteworthy taking points are England’s failings abroad. For the second time in three years, England has been left without a single club in the Champions League’s final eight teams. I’d love to get your thoughts on why you believe the Premier League’s most prestigious clubs have struggled to advance deep into European Competition in recent times. However, before we do that, let us start our discussion with the title race.
Sean, how do you see the final stretch of games playing out? Will Chelsea continue to stand atop the standings when all is said and done? Or will another club close the gap and be crowned champions?
Sean: Chelsea should win the league, and I think they will. They’ve had the most consistent campaign to the present and have enough depth to continue to get the results they need. The EPL season is a lengthy one, and the most consistent team throughout the season has tended to come out on top of the pile. Liverpool last season, for example, threatened eventual champions Manchester City, but slip-ups in the first half of the campaign and at the very last forced them to settle for second. Looking more closely at this season, Chelsea’s challengers have all gone through rough patches, and while the Blues have had a few poor performances they have always bounced back in subsequent games.
That said, Chelsea have shown signs in recent weeks of the length of the campaign and their high volume of matches. Cesc Fabregas, who was fantastic to start the season, has cooled off, and at times, the rest of midfield looks lethargic. The fact of the matter is, Chelsea have a six-point lead with a game in hand and have the most complete squad in the Premier League. The title is really Chelsea’s to lose at this point, though the matchups against Manchester United and Arsenal in April in successive weeks will be the most important matches of the season for the Blues.
Zac: I’d have to agree that Chelsea are the favorites to finish league winners. Even despite a run of form in March that is, by their standards below average, they have a healthy squad and a comfortable cushion at the top. They, like their English peers, will also benefit from a lightened schedule. After being eliminated from the FA Cup and the Champions League, by Bradford City and PSG respectively, the Blues will only have Premier League fixtures left to play. With that in mind, the Blues will have no excuses if they don’t win the league.
I think the most impressive, but also most detrimental aspect to Chelsea’s campaign thus far this year has been Jose Mourinho’s reliance on largely the same Starting XI throughout all competitions. While the club splashed the cash on Columbian winger Juan Cuadrado during the January transfer window, and they unearthed a gem in the form of French youngster Kurt Zouma, Mourinho has more often than not turned to a Starting XI of Courtois-Azpilicueta-Terry-Cahill-Ivanovic-Matic-Fabregas-Oscar-Hazard-Willian-Costa. Thankfully, all 11 have managed to avoid lengthy spells on the sidelines, and more importantly, they have all been able to string together one impressive performance after another. The lone downside in employing largely the same squad week in and week out is a lack of creativity and flexibility in maintaining a fresh approach both domestically and abroad. When Chelsea merely needed to hold on to an away goal advantage versus visiting PSG, their play became stale and uninspired. If the gap tightens between them and the rest of the pack, it’ll be interesting to see if a similar level of both mental and physical fatigue creeps into their play.
If we both agree that Chelsea looks likely to finish the season in their current place, then let us turn our attention to the battle for European qualification. As it stands now, only eight points separate 2nd place (Manchester City) and 7th place (Southampton) in the league.
Which teams do you see finishing in the top four? And will your beloved Red Devils manage to secure a spot in next year’s Champions League?
Sean: That is a much more difficult question to answer. Yes, there is a small cushion between the current top four of City, Arsenal and United, but there are a number of big games left before the end of the season. I think that City is shoo-in for a CL spot and that the drop in form that we’ve seen lately will quickly disappear from supporters’ minds. They’ll finish the league strong, hopefully even giving Chelsea a run to give the title race a little excitement.
That leaves Arsenal and United in the current top four, and both have some difficult fixtures remaining. The Gunners have been in blistering form as of late, with ladies-man Olivier Giroud leading the charge. I think that their six-match winning streak will end this weekend at home to Liverpool, who absolutely must win to stay in the hunt. Needless to say, a Liverpool win makes for a tighter race for a top four spot and puts the pressure on Arsene Wenger to deliver. As for United, I think that they will have an easier time than Arsenal at qualifying, even with a slightly tougher schedule. They have played well against other contenders in the league thus far and Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney have been playing with chips on their respective shoulders in the last few weeks. A strong performance against City in two weeks will reinforce my confidence that they can secure the spot they need. And who knows, a win against Chelsea the following week could throw them right in the middle of the title race, even with a defense as porous as a wet sponge.
That said, I feel obliged to discuss Tottenham and Southampton, who are also well within striking distance. I am a great admirer of what Ronald Koeman has done with the Saints this season. They have defied the odds and are on track for their highest finish in the Premier League since promotion in 2012 after selling (or loaning) most of their star players (Lallana, Lambert, Lovren, Osvaldo, Ramirez). They still are not quite at the level as the other contenders, however, and this minor separation in class will mean no Champion’s League next season. Spurs, on the other hand, have the talent needed to secure a top-four spot, but not the consistency. Harry Kane has been a revelation (who I’ve been hoping to see lock down a starting spot since I watched him score his first league goal against Sunderland last spring), but he has been the only real certainty for Tottenham this season. I think that they will disappoint again this year.
So who finishes where? Here is my predicted top seven: Chelsea, City, United, Arsenal, Liverpool (missing out by an agonizing point), Spurs, and Southampton. A conservative prediction? Maybe. What are your thoughts, Zac? Will Arsenal continue their scorching form? And on a related note, will we get to see a Liverpool-Arsenal FA Cup dream final? Who would come out on top in such a scenario?
Zac: I think it’s difficult to argue with your predicted top seven.
While City has had a dreadful run of form (four losses in six matches dating back to their February 24th CL Round of 16 first-leg matchup with Barcelona), they have a deeply talented squad that arguably trumps any other in the Premiership. Joe Hart, albeit in defeat, put on a dazzling display at the Camp Nou. Plus, it’s difficult to dismiss a team that boasts such a wealth of world-class talents at their respective positions. If you’re a City fan you have to wonder how different this season would look if it weren’t for the mid-season departure of Yaya Toure. The mountainous Ivorian missed out on several fixtures due to his participation in the African Nations Cup, and City hasn’t quite been able to obtain the early season form that had them closer to the top. However, with names like Toure, Aguero, Silva, Kompany, and Hart populating the backbone of your club, it’s difficult to count them out of the title race. In two of the past three seasons City utilized late season heroics to end up champions. Though it’s Chelsea’s title to lose, it wouldn’t be surprising to see City in a threatening position come the final two weeks.
As far as the remaining two spots, I think it’s safe to rule out Southampton and Tottenham as well. Despite our mutual appreciation for The Saints’ attractive style of play, and for Harry Kane becoming a national hero within a four-month span, both clubs seem destined to finish just outside of European qualification. And with just two spots remaining for three clubs, I’ll also choose to leave out Liverpool. Although the Merseysiders have performed admirably to get themselves into this position following their early season struggles, the current five-point gap, coupled with Raheem Sterling’s reported contract squabbles leave me hesitant to predict that the Reds will manage to close the gap. That leaves Manchester United and Arsenal to once again finish top four. I think the only place I’d disagree with you is the order of finish between these two storied clubs. Although the United attack has thrived in spite of Robin Van Persie’s injury absence and Falcao’s ineffectiveness, I still don’t believe in their defensive contingent. Meanwhile, Arsenal is in the midst of their traditional late-season push. They’ve recovered from their usual rash of early season injuries (EVEN DIABY MIGHT BE AVAILABLE!), and they have played consistently beautiful football (aside from the nightmare home leg against Monaco) for two months straight. Though I don’t feel comfortable banking on Giroud to continue his current goal-scoring pace, I think Arsenal continues its run of form and finishes two or three points clear of United in third. Also, am I wrong in thinking Gabriel Paulista is really good?
Lastly, an Arsenal-Liverpool FA Cup Final truly would be a dream fixture. While everybody loves rooting for an underdog in a final, particularly in an FA Cup final, two heavyweights would cap a competition that has already provided several memorable moments. If the global footballing community wrote the story… Steven Gerrard scores a late winner and finishes his Liverpool career with a final triumph and one more piece of silverware. Unfortunately, Stevie G has shown a knack lately for kicking his team firmly in the testicles in the most inopportune moments. There was this last year. He then followed that up with this in his club’s biggest game of the present campaign. As someone who holds admiration and respect for Gerrard’s abilities and longevity, I hope he doesn’t replicate the same misfortune and rash behavior that let his team down before. If the match takes place, I’ll say Liverpool wins 2-1. Gerrard gets the storybook ending so many crave, and Balotelli scores to prove relegating him to the bench alongside fat Rickie Lambert was a mistake.
What do you make of my prediction? Is my bias on behalf of Balotelli blatantly obvious? And how do you see the bottom end of the table playing out? Will the current cellar-dwellers remain in drop zone throughout the remainder of the season?
Sean: If Stevie G nets the winner, the world will show that it’s a fair and decent place to live. He really does deserve it, after the amazing career he’s had. That said, the world is not fair, and though I do expect Liverpool to take the trophy, I predict a different storyline. Liverpool will inevitably give into Sterling’s demands this summer and Sterling knows this (or the management is out of their minds), so I predict a fine performance from the youngster. Noting Arsenal’s defensive record in recent years, I think the winner comes from the unlikely Martin Skrtel on a set piece. Despite a strong performance from Mesut Ozil, Arsenal will fall 3-2 in a riveting final. To address your Balotelli bias; your unwavering support for the controversial striker is as obvious as his love of fireworks and creative haircuts.
As to the relegation battle, we could be seeing a repeat of the ‘97-98 season, where all three newly promoted clubs were relegated after a single season in the Premier League. That said, Sunderland have been abysmal (per usual) and Villa have only recently shown any desire to stay up after a dreadful patch in the middle of the season. Not to be forgotten, Hull City are hovering close to the drop zone, and West Brom’s inconsistencies have kept them from ensuring club safety. Regardless, Leicester will go down. With the exception of their gut-wrenching and highly embarrassing victory over United early in the campaign, it’s been clear that they do not have the talent to compete in the Premier League. Then in becomes difficult. My heart tells me that QPR will survive, but my head tells me they will not. Their next two games against West Brom and Villa are critical to their survival. Burnley has had some important performances to put them in the position they are in, but they are simply not very talented. The Black Cats are really in trouble, and despite the quantity of signings in the past few years have never really found a starting 11 that meshes and plays to their potential. Last season they had an exciting run to stay up, but can they hold on this season? Villa have found recent success since the arrival of Tim Sherwood, and they have too much talent to go down in truth. They may be horribly boring to watch (they’ve still only scored 19 times this season!), but I think they’re on the right track. Hull and West Brom are decent teams with managers that I respect, and I think they will both get the results they need to stay safe.
My predictions, starting from the bottom of the table: Leicester, Sunderland, Burnley, QPR (with a massive victory over Leicester on the final day of the season), Villa, Hull, and West Brom. Are my predictions in line with yours, or do you think we’ll wave goodbye to the current bottom three? And, to steer the discussion back to the industrious Harry Kane, who will be crowned the Premier League’s top-scorer? In the same vein, who are your predictions for the annual EPL awards this season: Manager, Player, Young Player, and Goalkeeper of the Year?
Zac: Leicester looks entirely destined to return to the Championship, and while I haven’t gone out of my way to watch many of their games, they seem like a club that may have deserved a bit better. They have several players (Kamaric, Cambiasso, Mahrez, Schlupp, Nugent, Morgan) that seem to possess Premier League quality. If they are relegated I’ll also miss hearing the name Danny Drinkwater on a regular basis.
Likewise, I believe Hull, Villa, and West Brom possess plenty of talent and are playing well enough of late to ensure they remain in the top flight. Villa in particular have collectively appeared to wake from their prolonged goal scoring slumber over the past two weeks.
That leaves Sunderland, QPR, and Burnley to scrap and claw their way out of the drop zone. Personally, and this is based entirely out of hope rather than logic or reason, I believe Burnley manages to avoid relegation. QPR and Sunderland have both invested heavy funds in largely crap players to stay afloat, and they also have mismanaged their managerial positions. Burnley on the other hand haven’t benefitted from increased spending or January transfer window reinforcements, but have relied upon a unified squad and quality coaching. Although they arguably possess the least talented squad in the division (due to budgetary restrictions), Burnley have battled for every single one of their 25 points. I sincerely hope Sean Dyche and Danny Ings find a way to keep The Clarets among England’s elite.
As far as the annual EPL awards go, here are my predictions for who will be adding to their trophy cases come the end of the season:
Manager of the Year — Ronald Koeman, Southampton
You’ve already briefly touched on the quality of work Koeman has done with the Saints this season, but I firmly believe he’s deserving of this award. After the club was stripped of several of its top contributors (Lallana, Lovren, Shaw, Chambers, and Lambert), few, if any, would have predicted that Southampton would sit in sixth place with just eight league games remaining. Koeman also surely played an intricate part in re-shaping the club to his liking. Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Eljero Elia, Sadio Mane, and Shane Long have all proved positive additions to the Saints’ attack. The additions of Ryan Bertrand, Fraser Forster, and Toby Alderweireld have proved influential in leading Southampton’s league-best defense (only 21 goals conceded all season).
Player of the Year — Harry Kane, Tottenham
Kane’s rise has been quite a story to follow. Since Mauricio Pochettino turned to Kane over Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado, the Spurs have been one of the more dangerous teams week in and week out. What separates Kane from the other contenders for this award is his incredible value to his own team. According to BBC Sport, Kane’s goals have been more important to his club’s success then any other goalscorer in the Premier League. In addition to the value to his own club, one also has to consider the differences in quality between Kane’s teammates and those of some his fiercest competition. While Diego Costa is tied with Kane for the league lead in goals, he undoubtedly benefits from a far greater supporting cast. The same can be said for Sergio Aguero. While I sincerely hope Kane manages to avoid the pitfalls that are generally associated with the British media anointing someone the ‘next big star,’ the 21-year-old is entirely deserving of these individual accolades.
Young Player of the Year — HARRY KANE, TOTTENHAM
Kane joins Gareth Bale (2012-13), Cristiano Ronaldo (2006-07), and Andy Gray (1976-77) as the only men to win the Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year in the same season. Despite other intriguing names (Coutinho, de Gea, Hazard, Sterling), I can’t reason choosing Kane to win Player of the Year but not Young Player of the Year.
Goalkeeper of the Year — David de Gea, Manchester United
While much continues to be made of United’s suspect backend, and rightfully so, the lanky Spaniard has solidified a place among the world’s best at his position. United have only conceded 27 goals in 30 Premier League games (third best in the league), and de Gea has been instrumental in that defensive success. Although the Real Madrid rumors will likely persist, United should remain confident anytime that de Gea is in goal.
To wrap us up here Sean, do you agree or disagree with my four selections for individual hardware? Am I crazy to believe Harry Kane’s season will cement his name among historic company?
Sean: I do agree that you have to respect what Sean Dyche has done with Burnley this season (and last, for that matter), and I would love to see them stay up as well. As to your awards predictions, I tend to agree with one exception.
Manager of the Year — Ronald Koeman, Southampton
Your evaluation of Koeman’s season is spot-on. He has to be the favorite, taking what was on paper a severely depleted Southampton side and making important, budget-friendly signings and promoting a well-organized approach to both defense and attack that has paid dividends this season. He has already garnered Manager of the Month awards for September and January and has the Saints in the hunt for a top-four finish. It will be interesting to see whether Southampton can hold onto the Dutchman, as he has been linked with big-club moves across Europe.
Player of the Year — Eden Hazard, Chelsea
I do not think Harry Kane will win this award for two reasons: (1) he has only been a regular starter for part of the season, and (2) the general trend in the Premier League has been for young players with standout seasons to first win the Young Player of the Year award and following it (if their form continues) with a Player of the Year title. Whether or not that is the way it should be, history tends to repeat itself and Hazard fits this criterion perfectly. And realistically, he has been phenomenal. It has been especially obvious in the last two or three months that Chelsea’s attack is built around Hazard and must go through Hazard to be successful. He has 11 goals and 6 assists to this point and has terrorized opposing defenses all season. Is he world class? He is on the cusp. He has strung together his most consistently positive season to date and is generally considered to be entering the plane of talent just under Ronaldo and Messi that includes the likes of Robben, Bale and Suarez.
Young Player of the Year — Harry Kane, Tottenham
I think that this is a near-sure thing, and I completely agree with your summary of his season. I have always been a fan of hard-working players – especially strikers, as it is a rare enough trait – and Harry Kane’s industry is superb. Yes, there will be enormous pressure on him to continue to perform as the season draws to a close and Tottenham fights for a Champion’s League spot, but next season will really tell us if he is really here to stay. I think that he is and that he will have a very successful career in the Premier League, regardless of the club he plays for. He is the rare type of player that makes those around him perform better and is the only reason for Tottenham’s revival this season. Who knows, next year we could see his name on the Player of the Year trophy.
Goalkeeper of the Year — David de Gea, Manchester United
I think that in any other year this award would go to Thibaut Courtois, who has been extremely impressive in his first full season in the Premier League. I mean any goalkeeper that displaces Petr Cech with such ease deserves to be considered for this award. But David de Gea has been truly immense for United this season and has largely shed the criticisms from supporters the past few years. As you’ve said, there is talk of a big money move for de Gea, but I can’t see LVG giving him up without receiving a major player in return.
Golden Boot – Diego Costa
Despite lingering injuries (and disciplinary issues) this season, Diego Costa and Harry Kane are atop the standings with nine games remaining (eight for Kane). It will come down to the wire, but the quality of Chelsea’s service to Costa will be the deciding factor. I predict a final tally of 24 goals for the Spanish (and Brazilian) striker, edging out the Englishman by two goals.
With eight games remaining and so much still up for grabs, the Premier League should keep us on our toes until May. Zac, thanks for helping mix up the periodic recap, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a Mario Balotelli special in the FA Cup Final.