What a time for an international break. Despite perhaps one of the most exciting weekends in the Premier League this season, we now must endure the pomp and criticism surrounding the Three Lions as they take on Slovakia in a friendly on Saturday. More importantly, they meet Ukraine in a World Cup qualifier the following Wednesday.
Of course, this simply invites more reflection on David Beckham’s cap total, Ledley King’s knee, and the general lack of dynamism in the England camp. As interesting as it may be to ponder Fabio Capello’s selections and omissions, we’ll have to let the Premier League simmer for a bit, until it resumes on April 4th.
The domestic campaign begins anew in earnest the following day, when Manchester United host Aston Villa at Old Trafford. Both sides will be coming off of truly terrible results, although the Red Devils seemingly have much more to play for than a Villa side in turmoil.
For Aston Villa, various cup competitions meant they began their season early, and with a small squad. Martin O’Neill has used only 19 players all season, and it’s coming back to haunt him. Losing Martin Laursen to injury and having Gabriel Agbonglahor raising the fans’ ire has certainly endangered their fragile perch on the cusp of qualifying for Europe.
As good as Villa looked at times early in the season, you only have to look at Arsenal’s freefall last year for reference. Like the Gunners of 07-08, the immediate future looked bright, only to have it fall to pieces after injuries and some lackluster results. Villa’s lone point from five matches resembles Arsenal’s decline after losing Eduardo to a horrific injury last year.
That’s right; Martin Laursen, at least in this case, is Aston Villa’s Eduardo.
Villa can still pull it off, but it requires some mistakes on Arsenal’s part and a massive turnaround in terms of form. Arsenal’s remaining matches aren’t without any possible hiccups, as they still must meet Liverpool and Manchester United away and host Chelsea. Throw in the FA Cup and the Champions League, and there will be some tired legs and knocks in the Emirates dressing room at the close of the season.
Remaining Premier League matches:
Aston Villa – Manchester United (A), Everton, West Ham, Bolton (A), Hull, Fulham (A), Middlesbrough (A), Newcastle
Arsenal – Manchester City, Wigan (A), Liverpool (A), Middlesbrough, Portsmouth (A), Chelsea, Manchester United (A), Stoke
Manchester United took their eye off of the prize on Saturday with what can only be categorized as a meltdown at Craven Cottage. Maybe they’ve got their eyes on too many prizes, or perhaps they’ve played too many games. 51 matches, to be exact, significantly more than Liverpool and Chelsea, who’ve played 44 and 45, respectively.
According to Alex Ferguson, this is the best side he’s managed, and that may be true in terms of size and depth. The Red Devils started slow but surged their way to the top with some ugly wins, and with second-team players. Because of that, it’s difficult to disagree with Ferguson. While a 5-goal stunner may make the headlines and get people talking, it’s those 1-0 wins with John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans in the side that seem to sum up what Man U’s all about this year. The things you have to do on the road to the Quintuple.
While certainly teetering precariously at the top, a game in hand and a one-point lead over a revitalized Liverpool means that their destiny remains in their hands. Liverpool impressed greatly over the weekend, but against a Villa side that’s dropped off considerably. Losing Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney to suspensions increase the nervousness in the red end of Manchester (or London), and we’re all chomping at the bit to see how Ferguson’s side respond. Like all of the above, fatigue from multiple cup competition and injuries will be what keep the Red Devils lifting the trophy again.
Remaining Premier League matches:
Manchester United – Aston Villa, Sunderland (A), Portsmouth, Tottenham, Middlesbrough (A), Man City, Wigan (A), Arsenal, Hull (A)
Liverpool – Fulham (A), Blackburn, Arsenal, Hull (A), Newcastle, West Ham (A), West Brom (A), Tottenham
Can Liverpool maintain the pressure on Manchester United? More importantly, will Manchester United hand Liverpool the opportunity to lift the Premier League for the first time in it’s storied history?