The Final Dogfight

Devastated Matty Taylor. A drop to Championship seems like a reality now.

This weekend’s biggest drama wasn’t happening in London, where Arsenal tried in vain to pierce Chelsea’s defences. It wasn’t happening in Milan, where Roma further confirmed their dip in form by losing to Inter. It wasn’t even happening in Vigo, where Luis Enrique’s former team did their best to help their previous manager only to eventually succumb to Real Madrid in a six-goal display of abysmal defending by both teams. No. The real do-or-die show of the last few days happened in Burnley, where two teams tipped for a relegation clashed in a six-pointer to decide who’s going to reap the benefits of a ludicrous £5.1 billion TV deal Premier League clubs are going to enjoy in 2016. Burnley FC vs Leicester City; a must-win game for both teams, which looked so out of depth and equally doomed for the most of this campaign. Five games before the closure of this titanic struggle, only three points would realistically prolong the chances for either of the Saturday contenders – and they all knew that. There were no calculations left to be made, no insurance policies like Mourinho has been using – only balls-to-the-wall football, as any draw between the two would suit teams like Hull, QPR or Sunderland the most. And, as it turned out: it was exactly as crazy as everyone expected.

Few weeks ago, The Foxes were literally dead and buried. The team that only won four out of 29 Premier League games between August and March was stuck with just 19 points in their pocket. Starting eleven that was built around ex-Inter Argentinian Esteban Cambiasso had only two bright moments before the spring came: winning 5-3 against messy Manchester United squad in September and knocking out Newcastle as well as Tottenham from the FA Cup. Other than that, despite not suffering any heavy defeats, Nigel Pearson’s lads were mostly second-best on the pitch. Their £6.5 million winter-break investment in Croatian striker Andrej Kramarić turned out to be a big failure, repaying itself with only two goals in 12 appearances and eventually sending the the young striker to the bench, from which he could watch former Brighton & Hove Albion goalscorer, Leonardo Ulloa, delivering a fair amount of goals against all odds. But it all seemed not enough: in March, English bookmakers would only pay £1.12 for every pound betted on Foxes’ relegation. So, what happened in April? For the first time in 49 years, they’ve won four consecutive EPL games, left the relegation zone and dragged the bets down with current ratio of 9/2 for them to return to Championship slugfest next season. Remarkable.

 

This time, the luck was on their side. After suffering several narrow defeats in games where they didn’t look worse that the bigger teams, Leicester looked rather poor at Turf Moor on Saturday – and yet, it’s them who managed to win in the end. Sean Dyche must’ve been furious when he woke up on Sunday morning. His team controlled the game quite well in the first half, had a decent spell of the standard English “route one” footballing, winning the majority of aerial duels as well as bossing the possession. Faced with a tremendous chance of digging themselves from the relegation horror, Leicester looked visibly nervous. Already their first careless pass led to a dangerous chance from Danny Ings, blocked masterfully by Marcin Wasilewski. Later in the game, Danish goalie Kasper Schmeichel helped his teammates tremendously, ending the match with a clean sheet, five saves and a 9/10 rating from SportsMole.com. In Morgan’s 5-3-2 setup, there was a distinct lack of offensive quality, as Paul Konchesky and Marc Albrighton struggled to fulfil their wing-back duties when team was on the ball. Especially right flank was exposed: right-back Kieran Trippier, easily the most consistent Burnley player of the season, had no problems spreading passes and going forward to aid his teams’ attacks. If only they could capitalize on that…

The game-changer came in the 59th minute. Jutkiewicz’s headed flick-on went to Danny Ings who created a clear-cut chance for himself. Schmeichel came out on top once again, but the deflection fell to Konchesky, who was completely oblivious to what was going on behind his back. His teammates also failed to inform him that Matty Taylor is arriving to challenge for the ball – and once Leicester left-back tried to make a touch, it was already too late. Instead of ball, Konchesky put his leg on Taylor who went down, winning a penalty. He was very quick to claim the spot kick for himself and took it with great confidence, aiming for the bottom-right corner while Schmeichel went the other way. But he hit the post! Not only that: to make bad news worse, less than 60 seconds after that, Burnley were the ones to concede! After a festival of headers, the last flick went to Albrighton, who put a cross into the box. Michael Duff and Tom Heaton would’ve easily dealt with this problem had they actually did better job communicating that Leicester did a while ago. Instead of that, Duff executed a sliding tackle that caught his goalkeeper completely off-guard, forcing him to make a last-ditch save on the goalline that wasn’t nearly enough to stop Jamie Vardy, who basically pushed the ball into the net with his right knee.

 

There was still some time remaining for Burnley to turn this game around and they had Danny Ings in play up until the end. Unfortunately for Sean Dyche, his best striker did not look like a player who’s been linked with Liverpool and Manchester United already. The service to him was poor as well, true, but he himself had only 24 touches and 2 shots through the entire game. The most he’s done was questioning referee’s decisions in 73th minute, for which he got the yellow card. Bringing Marvin Sordell as a replacement to Jutkiewicz didn’t change much: with their backs against the wall, Burnley were severely unable to equalize. The best try they’ve ever had happened when Schmeichel had to stop the unfortunate shot from… his own defender, who tried to clear Ben Mee’s cross. Thus, the home side lost: exactly as they did last season there, when the stakes were points needed for a promotion to the league they’re in today. Which pretty much means that they are going to be relegated – just like it was predicted by pretty much everyone before the start of the season. After the game, Dyche claimed his team played well enough to win, but the little details of the match went against them. I wouldn’t say so – if anything, I’d argue that in a race as close as this, it’s details, which you have to better at to survive.

But who’ll be joining The Clarets in Championship next season? That is the question. After Leicester and Hull both picked up big points this weekend, the remaining two relegation positions were taken over by Sunderland and QPR. Especially The Hoops are getting quite desperate: they are four points away from safety with all their direct rivals having one game in hand. Charlie Austin, the anomaly of the season with 17 Premier League goals is being constantly outweigh by easily the worst defence in the league – 59 goals conceded in 24 matches. Bringing Rio Ferdinand didn’t help the team, but it’s not a surprise: it could not help anyway, for the man chosen by Harry Redknapp already had two mediocre seasons at MU and declined even more in London. QPR’s yet another nail in the coffin was Redknapp’s resignation on February 3rd. Since that day, Hoops have picked up only 5 points in 8 games – and their ex-boss admitted that the reason of his departure wasn’t just his knee surgery – he actually had a serious argument with teams’ board of directors. Time proved The Wheeler-Dealer right: with no further money shown by the chairman Tony Fernandes, the club has pretty much imploded. They’ll start May by going to Liverpool and Manchester City and it will take some insane luck for them not to be already gone after those two games.

Used to play for Burnley, now frustrated in QPR: Charlie Austin.

If Sunderland’s task is a little easier, it’s because they have the ability to draw games instead of losing them. 15 draws in 33 league games; four more than Burnley, five more than Hull and Tottenham. Ridiculous. The last one point against Stoke saw them sliding towards #18 spot. During their continuous, eight-year spell in Premier League, Black Cats already had couple narrow escapes, but it was almost always connected with a brilliant finish – up to the point, when, in 2013-14 dogfight, they pulled off what Leicester did this season – four straight wins and a subsequent jump from 20th to 14th spot. This time, such remarkable run might not be necessary: The Mackems are only four points away from reaching the margin that was necessary to stay up last season. However, their fixtures are frightening: Southampton at home, Everton, Arsenal and Chelsea away and finally, on the 16th of May – a game with Leicester on Stadium of Light. The problem is that even a win over Foxes might not be enough; the team needs one or two points more than that. Where to find them? Last time around, the team lost 0-8 to Saints, 0-2 to Gunners, drew Toffees 1-1 and drew Blues 0-0. And, according to caretaker manager Dick Advocaat, they need two more victories to prolong their life in the English elite.

Mackems will be looking at their local rivals, Geordies to replace them in a relegation zone. It’s not a joke: Newcastle United, who’ve been on a six-game winning streak this season, are currently the worst team in the league, having seven straight defeats under their belts. Alan Pardew’s departure for Crystal Palace caught The Magpies completely offguard and Mike Ashley’s absurd decision to keep the assistant John Carver in charge for the remainder of the season backfired heavily. Currently, apart from the midfield workhorse Moussa Sissoko and occasionally decent goalkeeper Tim Krul, NUFC is nothing short of a joke team. Two centre-backs are useless, Frenchmen Remy Cabella and Yoan Gouffran are massively underperforming and whether the striker is Ayoze Pérez or Papiss Cissé – the goalscoring job leaves a lot to be desired. It got to the point where Geordie fans arranged the boycott of the game against Tottenham (this time, unsuccessful: only 5000 people less than usual watched Newcastle’s 1-3 defeat) and the legendary Alan Shearer spoke openly: “Why don’t the Newcastle players start taking some responsibility because right now they are an embarrassment?”. Exactly. With games against Leicester, WBA, QPR and West Ham coming up, the team must wake up and win – once. Just once. Is that really too much?

The final two candidates to drop are Aston Villa and Hull. Few weeks ago, The Villans were almost as doomed as Leicester used to be. They simply could not score to save their lives – it took them 612 minutes of football to do so! On February 14th, Tim Sherwood replaced Paul Lambert in charge and everything changed. Since that day, AV won six games, drew one and lost five, digging themselves out of trouble and advancing to FA Cup final, where they’ll meet Arsenal. Christian Benteke finally ended his long, post-injury slump by scoring 9 goals in the last 7 games and all of a sudden, his team looks safe to stay. Hull, however, aren’t. Faced with Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United in four of the final five games, The Tigers will battle it out right until the end. Steve Bruce claims his players are motivated enough: if they go down, they’ll all have to accept 50% wage cuts. They’ve just recently managed to beat Crystal Palace and regain some confidence as Tom Huddlestone and Dame N’Doye both had really good games for the first time since February. It’s quite possible that they’re going to upset Sturridge-less Liverpool in tomorrow game – but will it be enough? Unlike Leicester, their fate is not just in their own hands – they need few bigger clubs, clubs that fight for European Qualification spots, to fail.

Chelsea are champions, but how will the bottom of the table look like? See you in May…

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