EPL Midweek Round Round Will Clear Up Champions League Chase
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – What a thoroughly entertaining weekend of soccer we were treated to across Europe. In Italy, Juventus took a firm grip in the race for the Serie A title as they smashed city rivals, Torino 4-1 and then the closest challengers, Lazio, slipped up against AC Milan.
In Spain, the master of the footballing dark arts, Sergio Ramos slotted home from the penalty spot to secure a 1-0 victory for Real Madrid against Athletic Bilbao.
Elsewhere, in Germany as the league season was well and truly over, they played the DFB Cup Final between Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen. Munich were mostly in control as they ran out 4-2 winners and in the process, Die Roten #9 Robert Lewandoski broke the 50 goal barrier for the season.
We saw some great games in the English Premier League. Leicester got back to winning ways after some sloppiness from Crystal Palace. Jamie Vardy scored his 100th EPL career goal and took control of the golden boot race in the process. His double put him on 21 for the season.
Manchester United were ruthless against Bournemouth and the youngster, Mason Greenwood got himself a brace. As I mentioned in last week’s article, this kid is special and has all the makings of a perfect 9 1/2. Dare I say the comparisons with former United, and Arsenal forward Robin Van Persie will get stronger. I still haven’t figured out which foot Greenwood is most comfortable with. Such is his ease at striking with both feet.
On to this midweek round we go.
Arsenal v. Leicester City
This might be the matchup of the midweek round for me, on Tuesday, 1:15 p.m. on NBCSN.
Three EPL (four in all comps) wins on the bounce see Arsenal starting to show some greatly received form, it’s not been pretty, but at times they are starting to show a lot more fight and determination. The younger players that are getting opportunities are certainly grasping the opportunity. Off and on the pitch, it’s been a good week for them, with good results and youngster Bukayo Saka signing an extension and netting his first EPL goal.
This, along with rumors that captain and top goalscorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will also follow suit with a contract extension. The result against Wolves was huge, the goals, but most importantly the defensive shape and clean sheet were the most impressive and welcome sight.
Arsenal’s defensive issues are well documented and still need addressing over the next transfer window, but the commitment and shape showed that Arteta is getting his ideas across. They are in for another test this match as well.
Leicester didn’t take to the restart very well, but a good showing against Palace saw them fire back into life and get back in the battle for top four and Champions League places race. What I’m expecting is a seesaw game as both look to soak up pressure and hit each other on pacey counter-attacks. I’m genuinely excited about this one, as we can see two brilliant goal scorers in Vardy and Aubameyang but also some bright prospects in the likes of Saka and Eddie Nketiah. And not quite as young as the Arsenal youngsters, but 22-year-old Harvey Barnes is another player I enjoy watching. The left-sided attacker has six goals and eight assists on the season and has been a solid outlet.
As we look to next season a little bit, teams are looking to tighten the gap with the top four, I think this is a marker of where teams are and how it can all quickly change. I’m excited by the attacking talent, and whilst Leicester are probably a much more sound defensive unit, it’s the Gunners that will have a slight edge for me.
Prediction: 2-1, Arsenal
Sheffield United v. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wednesday’s 11:00 a.m. kickoff on NBC Sports Gold has the makings of a cracking affair. The two teams that adopt the three center backs, although they both use this attack slightly differently, both are fun to watch. Sheffield has missed a couple of vital players since the restart and some of the wind has been taken out of their sails, but a victory over Spurs last week and a late equalizer against Burnley over the weekend got them moving. Fun fact of that late equalizer from wingback John Egan is that he’s now scored in all four professional divisions of English soccer.
United continue that blue-collar approach of high work rate and look to grind opponents down. They’re not particularly quick and not the most technical team, but they are well drilled in every aspect of their game. The midfield is the engine room of most teams, but theirs is the one that sets the tone and is helped on by willing runners from the wingback roles.
Upfront they have more traditional #9 types to be the point man. Hold the ball up with their back to goal, allowing the midfield to join the attack, and then being a menace aerially. Wolves are a little more polished and a little easier on the eye, just as well drilled, but a little more fluid through the midfield. Their huge difference is the explosiveness on the counter-attack, and by explosiveness, I mean Adama Traore. Of course, he is not the only option or reason of why they are so good, but to be clear, he is probably one of the most unplayable wingers in the league, at times demanding the opposition must double up on him to stem his explosiveness and space in behind, something that Arsenal did well against this last weekend. As he continues to develop and finish more confidently, I think you’ll see him become one of the more sought after players in European soccer.
This match will be a thumping advertisement of everything we love about the EPL – fast-paced and frantic – and I think the Blades will edge this one as their momentum continues, but these two teams have had great seasons, whatever the ultimate results look like.
Prediction: 1-0, United
Aston Villa v. Manchester United
Thursday’s last midweek matchup is the NBCSN 1:15 p.m. kick-off at Villa Park. Aston Villa desperate for points and off the back of a decent showing against Champions Liverpool on Sunday, but eventually going down with 2-0, leaving them a point from safety still.
Once again Jack Grealish will be the main man for anything good that happens with Villa. Sadly they looked toothless up front and that will be the issue moving forward and the defense has been an issue all season, however, they kept better shape in the last game as I mentioned. The effort was there and the midfield was busy with Douglas Luiz particularly impressive protecting the back four.
United are in form, and really a joy to watch. Getting Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes into the same midfield was always the goal and now that they are, you’re seeing a much more potent United, one that is solid in possession and swift in the attack. It will certainly be interesting next season in how they adapt over a 38 game schedule.
Still looking far from assured at the back, their main weakness, but if addressed they can certainly close the gap. Against Bournemouth, they were full value for the win but were caught on the counter a few times. Those things are easily fixed and will be worked on at Carrington over the coming weeks and pre-season.
United going forward is the main focus of this preview, with Pogba and Fernandes pulling the strings and dictating the tempo. The main beneficiaries of this partnership are the front three, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and youngster Mason Greenwood. There is so much to look at watching them. All of them are able to interchange. Comfortable at the point men or drifting out wide, their movement will once again cause havoc for a team that has had issues defensively.
This is one for us to sit back and enjoy. Villa scrapping and trying to build on the stubborn performance at Anfield, and United trying to hop into the top four places as the race for Champions League football heats up. You want Villa to get something out of this to make the relegation fight exciting, but I don’t hold much hope. United have been brilliant since the restart and are getting the plaudits they deserve.