Monday, January 19, 2009

Bolton v Manchester United and Chelsea v Stoke, January 17, Premier League

Stoke, Sunderland, Middlesborough, Wigan and Bolton. These are 5 games which Manchester United have won one-nil since December and three of them have been through injury time winners (one of them was a first minute winner – Wigan and the fifth was a seventieth minute winner – Boro). Also they have made a mockery of my assertion that games in hand would not translate to points on board and they now sit on top of the table and I sit facing cheap thrill smirks from Man U fans from FC NGV.

So am I now willing to concede that Man U are the favorites for the title? I will say yes. But only just. Their game is still miles away from where it was last year and if they are to win playing at the same level, they will have to depend big time on everyone else continuing to suck as well. Also, if one (or more) of the big four get eliminated early in the CL this year, it could actually help them in the title race by allowing them to be more focused and less stretched and could tilt the balance in their favor. Fact is that the lead is still not big for the top two and unless teams drop nine points or more below the pace come April, I will still be saying that they could win the league. Even if it is just to keep my options open for a ‘told-you-so’ moment in case the improbable becomes real – i.e. Villa or Arsenal nick it at the post.

Having said that, you have to be impressed by their ability to get those injury-time goals. This week against Bolton, it was a lucky roll of the ball that let Tevez keep possession, run with it to the by-line and cross it low for Berbatov to head in. But you can’t credit luck for this happening over and over again and you can’t credit luck for every Man U player having the composure to score when they know it’s the last opportunity even though they may have been shit for the rest of the game).

Chelsea also had a happy ending to their weekend but even though their come-from-behind last-gasp victory may make you think that they are getting back to their best, if you saw the game, you would not be so convinced. From win-machines of a few seasons ago, Chelsea have now turned into slick midfield passers. Though there is always a chance that the two can co-exist as we saw in the beginning of the season, too many stars in the same positions and a complete lack of confidence up front and at the back have meant that Chelsea rarely look like scoring and always look like conceding.

While Man U’s ability to conjure up winners in struggling games inspires awe for their determination and resilience, Chelsea’s comeback against Stoke felt more like a drug that would keep a dying man alive for a few moments more. Yes, for a change they showed some fight which was strangely lacking from their 3-0 capitulation against the Red Devils, but the confidence seems so drained from Chelsea that any long ball played into their area means wet underpants for their defenders and any chance to score for their forwards makes them as shiver like a school kid facing a stern class teacher without his homework done. For evidence, see how easily Beattie was allowed to chest the ball into Delap’s path for Stoke’s goal with none other than Ricky Carvalho standing and watching three feet behind. See also the header that Ballack glanced wide when he should have scored saying hello to a Japanese tourist.

While Man U as I said earlier, can still harbor hopes of retaining the title by continuing with their current form, Chelsea will need to improve dramatically to stay in the hunt. For starters, they will have to last a few matches without conceding silly goals to any ball played in the air and that needs to be addressed in training. Secondly, they will have to make some tough decisions and one of these may mean playing only one of Ballack, Lampard and Deco in the starting eleven and pairing Drogba (after some good motivation sessions) and Anelka up front. If they intend to stick to a lone striker formation, they will need better players out wide. Whatever it is, they need to address it over the next couple of games and get a run of six to seven games going where they pick up all the points or else….

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