Upbeat Arsenal have Momentum in Exciting Top Four Race
The last time Wolverhampton Wanderers went to Stamford Bridge, the recently-relegated side had a third round Capital One Cup duty with the European champions. Led by Stale Solbakken, Wolves lost 6-0 at SW6, in a season that ended with a consecutive demotion. Led by the likes of Kevin Foley, Roger Johnson, and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, Wolves lost all of the good qualities they had in their top-flight years, and even the departure of Solbakken – in January – and the appointment of Dean Saunders didn’t prevent a 23rd-place finish and relegation to League One.
Over six years on, the only survivor from that side is Matt Doherty, who was by no means a regular then. Wolves’ look has changed since, four managerial changes, Chinese owners, one super-agent, and more importantly, a formidable team with a commendable identity. Since the Midlands club gained promotion at the end of last season, Wolves had been tipped by many to make room for themselves in the Premier League, and from their opening-day showing at home to Everton in August, they haven’t let up.
On Sunday, they went to Stamford Bridge again, with their formidable and growing reputation, and didn’t disappoint. Nuno Esprito Santo’s side were disciplined and organised, despite what opposition manager Maurizio Sarri said, another display that showed that they play with minimum fear and aren’t overawed by the opposition. Of the top six sides, they’ve beaten Tottenham, Liverpool (in the cup) and Chelsea (plus, draws against Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal), and they very nearly completed a double over them, save for a late Eden Hazard equaliser here.
But enough, for today, about the side in seventh; for Chelsea this stoppage-time rescue act was still two dropped points. For Maurizio Sarri’s side, this was a setback – minor, but a setback – after a strong run of games of late. Two successive league wins meant they were very much the side with the baton in the top four race, particularly with a game in hand, but an uninventive display in this stalemate leaves them in sixth, albeit having played a game less.
It was a missed opportunity particularly given that third-placed Tottenham lost at Southampton the day before. Despite going ahead on the South Coast, Spurs conceded twice in the final 20 minutes to lose at St. Mary’s, a display manager Mauricio Pochettino displayed as arrogant. In the space of three weeks, Spurs have gone from title dark horses to challenging to stay in the top four, no thanks to three league defeats in four. But they’re still in charge of third spot after Chelsea’s failure to beat Wolves.
Which means this weekend belonged to, among the top four chasers, Arsenal. The Gunners saw off fellow Champions League hunters Manchester United, ending the Red Devils’ unbeaten league run under Ole Gunnar Solskajer, to climb back into the top four. That result means Unai Emery’s side have picked up seven league wins from 10 games since the turn of the year, and reduced what was, three weeks ago, a nine-point deficit to Spurs to just one.
Not that the performance was plain-sailing. The Gunners had three shots on target, two of which were their goals, one of which was a debatable penalty, and had Bernd Leno to thank for not conceding to the Red Devils. But they could consider that the rub of the green, as they were the better side in last weekend’s North London derby stalemate against Spurs, and should have won that game.
The most important here is the momentum this garners for them. They may have suffered a surprise 3-1 defeat to the Rennes in the Europa League last 16 first leg, but on the domestic front they’ve won four of their last five, and overturning that Rennes deficit isn’t out of reach, imagine what that would also do for their campaign.
And Emery’s men are entering the final stretch of the season in good stead, in terms of results, morale and the fixture list as well. Between now and the end of the league season, fellow top four chasers Spurs visit Liverpool and Manchester City, Manchester United host City, Chelsea visit Liverpool, and Chelsea and United play each other, while the Gunners have no other fixture against the top six to come. The cliché is there are no easy games, and potentially going further in Europe may be a factor, but their fixture list looks more favourable, and none of the other challengers are out of Europe either.
There will be more twists and turns, as there are eight games left, and slips are almost inevitably going to arrive. It’s all about who has the parcel when the music stops, but right now, while Arsenal aren’t in charge of this race, they have every right to feel in charge in it.
There’s also a title race ongoing, and Manchester City stayed top courtesy of Raheem Sterling’s hat-trick in the win over Watford, his 14th, 15th, and 16th league goals of the season.
Liverpool didn’t slouch either, overcoming an early setback against Burnley – and some more wind – as Sadio Mane’s double helped take them past the Clarets. With City not playing next weekend, Liverpool have the chance to go top when they visit Fulham.
After no wins in five, Bournemouth stopped their rut against the most predictable side with which they could do so, Huddersfield. The Terriers are 16 points from safety, and can now only mathematically finish in 14th place.
Fulham are just as doomed, as Scott Parker’s second game in charge was a defeat to Leicester, in what was also Brendan Rodgers’ second game in charge. The Clarets are 13 points behind, and still have to play the top two.
A typical Everton cock-up at Newcastle, who probably should have been told that the Magpies were Scousers looking to win the league. That comeback win for Newcastle takes them to 34 points, three behind the Toffees.
Derby delight for Brighton at Crystal Palace, thanks in no small part to Anthony Knockaert’s left foot. Chris Hughton’s side are now level on points with the Eagles, after two wins on the bounce, following none previously in the league in 2019.
Manchester City 3-1 Watford
Huddersfield 0-2 Bournemouth
Crystal Palace 1-2 Brighton
Newcastle 3-2 Everton
Chelsea 1-1 Wolves
Southampton 2-1 Tottenham
Leicester 3-1 Fulham
Cardiff 2-0 West Ham
Liverpool 4-2 Burnley
Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United