An excess of returning stars illuminates this week’s Premier League action.
Daniel ‘sturr’s the pot
Liverpool maintain their tremendous form with a 2-0 home defeat of West Ham United on Saturday. Coming on as a second-half substitute, Daniel Sturridge set Anfield ablaze with a 80th minute strike to add to Raheem Sterling’s in the first-half. It was Sturridge’s first goal since August 17th, after being sidelined for five months with a thigh injury.
That makes it five wins and two draws in the last seven league matches for Liverpool, leaving them in eighth place (four points out of the top-four).
Daniel Sturridge has been the talk on Merseyside this week, as the England striker’s long awaited return to action was exclamated with a trademark goal. His comeback has brought with it some trepidation, however. Liverpool continue to thrive with Raheem Sterling playing up front, which could somewhat complicate things in the immediate future. Although the tandem seemed to work together well on Saturday, Brendan Rodgers’ task of managing the striking unit will dictate whether or not Liverpool make a late play for the top-four. What Rodgers will be hoping against is a similar toil that Louis van Gaal goes through every week when deciding which of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Radamel Falcao to play up-front for Manchester United.
Governing egos and personalities, in addition to simply figuring out what tactically fits on a given matchday, remains a monumental challenge for any manager. It’s up to Rodgers to discover if and how his two chief striking threats will coexist. One would certainly think that Sturridge, with his history of consistent PL goalscoring, currently holds the ultimate trump card over Sterling. The 19-year-old will play, that’s for certain; but where exactly, is the question.
The other end of the stick, however, is the hope that Sterling and Sturridge will mesh as the strike force Liverpool’s been missing since Luis Suarez left. The new SAS, possibly? If so, then Champions League will surely beckon for the Reds. This could get exciting.
To draw like Champions
The Premier League’s top-two battled to a sluggish stalemate on Saturday, as Chelsea and Manchester City drew 1-1 at Stamford Bridge. Deputizing for the suspended Diego Costa, Loic Remy opened the scoring in the 41st minute, though the visitors almost immediately drew level through a David Silva strike. The result means Chelsea maintain a five point lead on the defending champions.
When the PL fixture list was released in June, this was the match — a potential classic in waiting. It didn’t turn out to be a classic, although it was watched by people — lot of people. In fact, The Guardian cited it as the most viewed game in Premier League history.
Sadly, while it should’ve been the kind of exemplary event made for England to flaunt their esteemed domestic league, it instead pounded itself into a dull affair unable to build any sense of suspense or narrative allure. Instead of a tale between the country’s two best footballing sides — which they arguably are — viewers were privy to a slugfest, where creativity and nuance were stifled by hell and fire. It didn’t help that both Cesc Fabregas (injury) and Yaya Toure (international duty) — two of the more productive players in the PL — were missing from the sides. In the end, anticlimax was the order of the day. Both teams left with a point meaning not too much changed from minute 1 to minute 90.
But saying it was an exercise in tedium is just another way of saying it was exactly what Jose Mourinho wanted. Bored crowds and frustrated opponents equals nirvana in the Special playbook of the Portuguese. One could argue that it’s this embarking that has resulted in an overall weary 14/15 Premier League campaign. When the league leaders make light of their closest competitors through dogged displays that prioritize protecting points over winning matches, many are left dreading the title-deciders rather than honoring them. Mourinho’s decision to substitute Gary Cahill on for Remy late in the game was surely met with jeers from many Blues supporters, though reason may be on the manager’s side. Of course, the objective is still winning. And if Chelsea can stave-off City for a few more months, Mourinho will have brought a PL trophy back to Stamford Bridge within two seasons of his return. Therefore, it’s not wrong or unbecoming of Mourinho or Chelsea to compete in this manner, but it’s not that much fun either.
Arsenal flaunt “New Signings”
Arsenal thumped Aston Villa at the Emirates on Sunday by a score of 5-0. Goals from Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, and Hector Bellerin capped off one of the Gunners’ most impressive results of the season.
There’s an overused expression in the European soccer media world regarding players returning from injury: “It’s like a new signing.” It’s one of the more eye-roll-worthy adages regularly orated by pundits, but only on its basic dodging of reality. In truth, when the players in question are of the caliber of Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott, the saying does hold up.
Speaking of the transfer market, Arsenal have been quite subdued this January, although so has every other club due to the universally restrictive Financial Fair Play rules (though regrettably, these rules also enable the larger clubs able to remain stagnant during transfer periods without fear of lesser competition passing them by). Nevertheless, the Gunners have managed to strengthen their defensive options by signing Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal with Joel Campbell being loaned the other way. The transfer’s a veritable win-win, bolstering Arsenal’s chronically weak defensive unit, while also getting rid of surplus attackers. Dare I say, they’ve actually handled the January window quite well.
But back to Ozil and Walcott.
Ozil’s return was understandably met with some consternation as the oft-criticized German playmaker experienced a massive dip in form prior to his knee injury in October. But on Sunday, he was back to his inventive self, serving a delectable sidekicked assist for Giroud’s goal, as well as grabbing a goal of his own.
Walcott, on the other hand, was returning to league action for the first time in over a year. Unlike Ozil, who could take a Rip Van Winkle nap until he was an old grey-haired man and still play a perfect through ball, Walcott’s game is built around speed and explosion: things that disappear over time and wear. You never know how such athletes will respond to extensive lay-offs. Luckily, perhaps, Walcott’s checkered health past has uniquely qualified him to deal with the repercussions of such an absence. Against Villa he was swift, eventually catching a vintage burst of feet that led to Arsenal’s third goal, his first since January 1st, 2014. Though Ozil and Walcott have long been on the books at Arsenal, their returns have strengthened morale in North London. The next three months are the championship months of the EPL campaign. And during these months, there’s nothing like fresh feet — not even a new signing.