SOCCER

The Wait Is Over, English Premier League Is Back In Full Force

Apr 2, 2021, 2:53 PM
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 27: James Maddison and Youri Tielemans of Leicester look on during the...
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 27: James Maddison and Youri Tielemans of Leicester look on during the Premier League match between Everton and Leicester City at Goodison Park on January 27, 2021 in Liverpool, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The long agonizing wait is over, as teams get their full complement of players back from international duties; and we head into the weekend in anticipation of players returning healthy, and the players who didn’t play in the international games will return refreshed.

We now head into the last eight or nine fixtures for the rest of the 2020/21 season. If managers had a choice they would have been training frantically on the pitch, especially those in the relegation mire, hoping to get every ounce out of their players to ensure survival.

Leicester City v. Manchester City

Saturday has an intriguing matchup. Coming live from the King Power Stadium at 10:30 a.m. there is just the slimmest of hopes for chasing down runaway leader, City.

After 29 games, Leicester is in the third position, just a point behind Manchester United and they are there on merit, some of the football under Brendan Rodgers has been eye-catching and they have earned this placement. Defensively they look like a better unit, and some of the younger players in the squad have fully settled into their roles, not only as players but also as leaders.

The aim for the Foxes is to secure their Champions League qualification ASAP. We’ve seen Leicester has faded badly during the final quarter of previous campaigns, but they are in a better position than in seasons past. Yes, they’ve missed a few key players during the season, with the likes of Harvey Barnes being the latest to go down with a lengthy injury. However, the return of James Maddison is a timely reminder of how stacked the Foxes are. His ability to pull the strings from midfield potentially adds to the impressive tandem of Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho, who have had to carry the load as the ranks were stretched thin.

The Foxes walloped City 5-2 back in September, but the leaders had a shortened preseason, and as we’ve seen since they got into their stride they have been ruthless. That doesn’t mean we can write Leicester off, they have managed games better than in seasons past. I do expect them to try and be organized defensively and close the gaps between the backline and the midfield, and use the full-backs to support the midfield allowing the likes of Maddison and Youri Tielemans to spring counter-attacks, with the likes of Vardy and Iheanacho looking to beat the offside trap and stretch in behind. Easier said than done of course as City’s defense is vastly improved from last year.

When we talk about Man City and their defense, I didn’t think any of us could have imagined just how stingy it was going to be at the start of the season. Just 21 goals conceded through 30 games (five of those in the reverse fixture). The arrival of Ruben Dias from Benfica was the best business Pep Guardiola has done over the last couple of years. Not only did he settle in, but he initiated a battle to partner him at the heart of the defense. John Stones won the race and it left Aymeric Laporte fighting for minutes.

The standard is incredibly high now, and it’s why they’re fighting for trophies on all fronts. Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling continue to be the focal point in the attack, and then there is İlkay Gündoğan who has been a revelation in midfield with regards to goals. He might be the hottest player in the EPL right now and will be vital come season’s end to win everything available.

The slight tweak in Pep Guardiola’s approach had made City a little more pragmatic, and with the continued relentless approach it’s a frightening prospect to challengers.

Prediction: Two teams that play attractive soccer, but two coaches that have had to change their own mindsets to reach their individual goals. Both are fantastic, but Man City might just have too much for the Foxes to handle come full time. Citizens take one step closer to the inevitable title win.

Arsenal v. Liverpool

This match-up kicks off at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, NBCSN. In all honesty, it’s two teams fighting for relevancy before seasons end. Arsenal has improved massively at the back, but on the flip side of that, they haven’t been as consistent going forward. Some of that is due to the youthful prospects that have been given valuable minutes, but also the fact that the veterans on the team haven’t performed at their peak, leaving Mikel Arteta with decisions to make come summertime.

On occasion, they look great, and on others, they look a shadow of what they can be. Is it Arteta’s fault, or the players? In truth, it’s both. Arteta is still learning his trade. Just because he worked under Arsene Wenger as a player and as a coach under Pep Guardiola, doesn’t automatically make him a successful manager. But, he has looked to improve the mentality of the defensive work and with some additions, I think they’ll improve again. As I’ve said many times, I really like the development of the young players at the Gunners.

The loan addition of Martin Odegaard was a good one, the likes of Buyako Saka who looks to be a regular, and Emile Smith Rowe is right there as well. Plus they have a few others gaining useful experience. This team has the makings to break back into the “Big Six” again. They need to be more consistent in the transfer market and need to move players on. But there is promise, and the soccer can definitely jump up another level.

Liverpool has struggled mightily, and whilst the injuries are a valid concern, the reintroduction of Fabinho to midfield has allowed, in my opinion, Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak to flourish. He provides the protection that had been missing since he was moved to central defense to cope with the loss of the core of the Reds backline. The knock-on effect proves my point as they sit seventh, just five points behind Chelsea in fourth.

It is far from certain that Liverpool can muster a challenge to drag themselves into the top four. The return from injury of Portuguese hotshot, Diogo Jota might also give them a jolt in the arm, with Sadio Mane And Roberto Firmino struggling as well in attack. His ability to link up with all the attackers and talent to play in all three of the front positions means there is competition once again, and more importantly, they look less predictable. It’s a timely return, which if anything, might help them be competitive in the league and in this season’s Champions League.

You’ll see two teams that will look to move the ball quickly, with the visitors looking to have more of the ball. And Arteta won’t mind that, as he looks to spring his forwards on a slower than usual defense.

Prediction: We might see another glimpse of Arsenal’s bright future, but we also might see a glimpse of what made Liverpool so ruthless during the last three seasons. This looks to be a thoroughly entertaining encounter in the making, but at the end of 90 minutes, I think it will be all square.

Until next week, enjoy all the soccer on offer as the whole of Europe heads towards the business end of the season.

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The Wait Is Over, English Premier League Is Back In Full Force