SOCCER

English Premier League Title Still On Hold After First Full Round Of Matches

Jun 23, 2020, 11:30 AM | Updated: 11:51 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – With a full round of fixtures under our belt there were thrills and spills as the English Premier League returned from the enforced shutdown.

Hawk-Eye came under scrutiny. Video Assistant Referee was back to it’s glorious best, and with that some teams picked up where they left off. Some of those teams probably wished they had moved beyond where they left off though.

Arsenal struggled and West Ham United, AFC Bournemouth and Norwich City look far from pulling themselves out of the relegation dogfight.

Villa were lucky to get a point against Sheffield Utd due to a mistake from Hawk-Eye, missing the ball going over the line.

Brighton got a hard-fought win over Arsenal, with a last-minute injury-time winner from Neal Maupay.

Maupay was involved earlier in a clash with Gunners keeper Bernd Leno, with the German leaving the field on a stretcher. It was an innocuous nudge, but the Arsenal #1 landed awkwardly. From then on the forward was a marked man, and had some stern words for his opponents in his post-match interview, saying, “Arsenal players maybe need to learn humility sometimes. They were talking a lot. They got what they deserved.’’

The Spurs versus Manchester United game was a good watch. Even though it finished 1-1, there were flashes of brilliance, but also a lot of huffing and puffing as teams adapted to the three-month break. Paul Pogba was a welcome sight off the bench and as I said last week, everyone is looking forward to the potential partnership with Bruno Fernandes.

This week’s early-round has more to digest, as Liverpool were looking to clinch the title on Wednesday against Crystal Palace (the Reds draw on Sunday means they needed City to draw with Burnley) but City took care of Burnley with relative ease.

With the title almost wrapped up, the chase for European places is heating up along with an even more interesting fight for survival.

Tottenham Hotspur v. West Ham United

First up on Tuesday is a London derby, which you can catch 1:10 p.m. on NBCSN. As Tottenham were solid against Man Utd in their first match that ended 1-1, the Champions League places are up for grabs. The relegation battle will likely go down to the wire. The Hammers are well and truly in the middle of.

One of Spurs’ biggest issues right now is to get Harry Kane firing before the season is out. It’s hard to read too much into a player that has missed over six months of soccer. Yes, he looked off the pace at times, and that will likely ease off over the next couple of games, but the real issue is Spurs not giving him the service he thrives on. He is more than capable of dropping deep to link up play. His strength when playing off the shoulder is also a huge asset, but his main strength is finding pockets of space and deadly accuracy.

Those opportunities were few and far between on Friday. The point was a good one, don’t get me wrong. Mourinho sets his team up to be hard to break down. Think back to his first stint as Chelsea manager and his time at Inter Milan. He was known for an entertaining and attacking style that was built on a solid defensive platform. There has been a noticeable drop off in his success with this style of play as the game has evolved.

All eyes will be on Mourinho when next season starts. As noted before, part of his success involved working with established strikers and helping them reach the next level, for example, Dider Drogba, Diego Milito, and Cristiano Ronoldo. He needs to get Kane involved, and he needs to get Kane some additional support. The squad is talented, but it’s not good enough to take the next step right now.

West Ham is having a real struggle. They have some really good players but they have underperformed all season.

This last week they held on for long periods against Wolves, and there seemed to be a better defensive shape but the introduction of Wolves Spanish winger changed everything, and two quality-worked goals in under 20 minutes to go was too much for the Hammers to bounce back from.

With games running out, they need to show similar spirit as they did Saturday, and the defensive shape has to be even better. They are largely toothless and the midweek injury in training for Sébastien Haller didn’t help. At times he’s looked well short of confidence, but still the leading scorer at the club with seven goals. He also scored in the two friendlies before the restart, and there are hopes he can join the squad soon.

Robert Snodgrass’ return to training will be a boost, but they are crying out for more from Fornals, Anderson, Lanzini and Antonio. Right now they don’t look like they will be troubling Spurs. As a derby match there has to be some drama, surely? Unless you watched the Merseyside derby on Sunday that had very little drama.

It’s time for teams to take the opportunity by the scruff of the neck and reach their goals. Spurs can’t really afford to miss out on Champions League money, and the repercussions of relegation is even worse.

I do expect a scrappy and physical game that is going to be more about the will to win, and for that I think we’ll get a surprise that will do West Ham more good than Spurs.

Prediction: 1-1, tie

Liverpool v. Crystal Palace

Picked this for obvious reasons, Liverpool is on the cusp of the title and you can catch that on NBCSN on Wednesday with a 1:15 p.m. MST start. Before the Reds play again, Man City will have played Burnley and then Chelsea the day after their match with Palace. Depending on results, it could be mathematically (always the longest of shots) impossible for City to catch Liverpool before they play each other at the Etihad on July 2.

Liverpool were largely not a threat against Everton on Sunday. They had the lion’s share of possession, but it was the Toffee’s that had probably the best chances with Tom Davies hitting the post late on.

Liverpool badly missed their Scottish left-back Andy Robertson and their plight wasn’t helped when Milner (who was filling that role) went down to injury just before halftime. Thankfully Robertson is in training and should be available for this match and will provide natural width to the attack.

Mo Salah was available off the bench and we expect him to start as well.

In truth, Liverpool’s relentless approach for the title was starting to take its toll and there are still questions as to whether they can reach the levels they set in the first half of the season.

Palace on the other hand are in fine EPL form, with four wins in a row and haven’t conceded a goal in those four games. Sitting ninth in the table they will be looking to take advantage of any slip-ups from Spurs or Sheffield Utd.

Whilst they aren’t scoring a ton, Christian Benteke has continued to be a thorn in the side of his opponents, winning a lot of balls aerially and allowing the likes of Zaha and Ayew to run in behind. Roy Hodgson has his team extremely well-disciplined defensively and I expect them to be a real pain to break down. I won’t say that Hodgson has an ax to grind, but he was never accepted by the Liverpool faithful when he replaced Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2010.

Delaying the champions, and getting a point or three to chase down those above him would be the icing on the cake. Expect Liverpool to have plenty of the ball, but don’t expect it to mean victory. The low block will be in full effect with 10 men behind the ball at all times with Palace looking to hit on the swift counter-attack.

It is all on the Reds to make this happen, and with Salah likely to start, the front three might just start to fire this match.

Prediction: 2-1, Liverpool

Chelsea v. Manchester City

Last certainly doesn’t mean least for this Thursday’s encounter between fourth and second-placed teams. You can catch this match at 1:15 p.m. MST on NBCSN.

Again, this could have massive repercussions for how soon the title is decided. Chelsea has a slight grip on the fourth and final Champions League place and depending on the result between Man Utd and Sheffield Utd they could extend their five-point lead.

The result against Aston Villa was more than deserved as they looked to dominate early, but found themselves a goal down at half time. It wasn’t until the introduction of American, Christian Pulisic in the second half that they finally got the breakthrough. His smart finish leveled things up and just two minutes later the winner was deflected into the Villa net by Giroud.

Chelsea is an okay team. I expect them to be better moving forward with no transfer ban. They already have a couple of players locked in for next season. They are a bit predictable at times when in attack, and teams that are better organized defensively cause them problems. That is on Frank Lampard and his inexperience as a coach, he is, however, doing a good job, and I think he will be a good coach as he learns his trade.

Is it good enough for the Blues though? Roman Abramovich isn’t known for his patience, even with legends of the club. With big money to spend and lofty expectations don’t be surprised if the Russian owner pulls the trigger come season’s end. City is still in limbo somewhat when it comes to next season’s CL, as they go to court to challenge financial irregularities. Last Wednesday they thumped sorry Arsenal, and on Monday they mauled Burnley. City is doing all they can to secure second place so they can focus on other competitions with the FA Cup tie this weekend, and then beginning in August the Champions League tournament in Portugal.

Because both teams are fighting, I can only believe it will be a cracking spectacle at Stamford Bridge. Lampard will be desperate for his side to put in a good overall performance against a team that has set the bar so high and given them a constant target on their backs.

Pep Guardiola will have other ideas, as he looks to increase the gap between Chelsea and Leicester. Arsenal were brushed aside as Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne looked a cut above the rest and Foden and Mahrez did a similar job against Burnley on Monday. They were classy, they are classy. It’s just not been consistent enough this season, but I think they will go to London and take all three points against a Chelsea team who is trying to find its way.

Prediction: 2-0, Man City

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