Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel blamed “rustiness” for his side’s uncharacteristically sloppy showing in their 5-2 defeat to relegation-threatened West Brom at Stamford Bridge on Saturday lunchtime – the first since the German took charge of the Blues. But it will be how his players now respond to that surprise setback that really matters.
The west London club face Porto in Seville in the first leg of their Champions League last-eight clash on Wednesday night in what looks a tricky tie.
After that comes the Premier League run-in as Chelsea try to hold off their many challengers in the race for the fourth and final berth for qualification for Europe’s premier club competition next season.
Chelsea have eight league games remaining to seal that top-four spot and Tuchel was right when he said in his post-match press conference: “We cannot lose our heads now and take away the trust we have in these players.”
However, slip up in the London derby against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park next Saturday – in a game you can see live on Sky Sports Premier League – and the pressure really will be on Tuchel for the first time in his nascent Chelsea managerial career.
No wonder Big Sam was smiling from head to toe in his post-match press conference at Stamford Bridge on Saturday after the West Brom manager had guided his struggling side to one of the shock victories of the season.
If you had suggested heading into the clash that the second-from-bottom Baggies would win in west London, then you would have got some very strange looks indeed.
If you had then said the visitors would do so after scoring five times against a Chelsea team who had yet to concede at home under new boss Thomas Tuchel, then you would almost certainly have been asked to take a long lie down in a dark room.
But that is exactly what happened as two goals apiece from Matheus Pereira, before half-time, and Callum Robinson after the break, helped Allardyce to one of his most memorable triumphs in his long managerial career as his team “demolished Chelsea with an undefeated team since the new manager arrived,” according to the man himself!
And now the former England boss can claim to be the first manager to win at the Bridge in the Premier League with three different clubs, Bolton Wanderers, Crystal Palace and West Brom.
You only really remember the end of a film, a book, a show, apparently. That’s the peak-end theory of psychology.
Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, this season is lodged in our consciousness and won’t be budged. It will only take a seventh Champions League crown to spin this as a positive campaign given the champions’ slump.
Man City’s 2-0 win over Leicester meant it was mathematically impossible for Liverpool to retain the title. Hardly a surprise, but it does represent the possibility of a psychological clean slate for Klopp as Liverpool enter what he described as a mini-season, their eight remaining Premier League games and the latter stages of the Champions League.
It felt like a fresh start at the Emirates, even if Arsenal rolled out the red carpet. Liverpool and their manager had bounce on Saturday Night Football, dominating from the first minute to start their assault on the top four after Chelsea’s timely defeat by West Brom hours earlier.
In this most intense of seasons, the international fortnight represented a nice break for Klopp and Liverpool, in particular for Trent Alexander-Arnold. Snubbed by Gareth Southgate, Klopp noted how he was able to get proper training sessions under his belt – this season has mainly been a game every three-and-a-half days, bookended by recovery sessions – and he looked the better for it with a fine display.
Klopp was also keen to stress after the game how many of his players now have a clean bill of health, bar Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Jordan Henderson, of course. The situation is improving, and for a team that seems to fly high on waves of feeling and positivity, a bright end is essential if Liverpool are to challenge next season.
“I don’t think it’s as big a game for Arsenal,” said former Gunner Paul Merson before the game against Liverpool. “They play Slavia Prague next week in the Europa League and it’s hard to see them having much interest in the game against Liverpool at all. I’d expect at least five of the players who are going to be playing next Thursday to not play in this game.
He added: “All Arsenal’s eggs are in one basket now. There is no point in them beating Liverpool and then getting beat by Slavia Prague. That’s no value to them at all. Top four is out of the window in the league. There are too many teams above them, even if they went on a bit of a run. But after the quarter-final draw, they have a fantastic chance of doing something in the Europa League.”
The Magic Man’s pre-match thoughts became a stark reality for Arsenal fans after their side’s 3-0 humbling at the hands of Liverpool on Saturday evening.
Watching the performance put in, it’s hard to see how Arsenal had any interest in the game. They surrendered feebly. Every player, without exception, struggled and they were second best in every department. The manner of the defeat has left Mikel Arteta scratching his head, and in his own words, in “shock.”
There’s been plenty of talk about progress at the Emirates Stadium since Christmas, but there were signs in that defeat that pointed to a horrible regression, one that would have sent shudders through the Arsenal fan base.
However, there is an opportunity to bounce back in what is now a huge game, a Europa League quarter-final against Slavia Prague at the Emirates on Thursday. As Merson pondered earlier this week, maybe the focus has been on it all along, but the pressure is now firmly cranked up on Arteta and his side after that lacklustre showing against Jurgen Klopp’s side.
It’s still very early in Arteta’s managerial career and his tenure at Arsenal, but he now faces a huge test, the biggest of his reign and his career so far, to pick the players up before that huge European showdown on Thursday.
Arsenal’s chances of Champions League qualification by getting into the top four were slim to none before the Liverpool defeat, but now they are firmly over. The eggs are definitely now all in one basket and Arteta needs to pick his side up, and quickly.
There’s no time to dwell. It’s crunch time for Arsenal and the Arteta project.
“We know this league is wrapped up for them. But we’re now in the run-in to see if City can do something that’s never been done before and make it a truly remarkable season,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher in the final moments of Manchester City’s convincing 2-0 win at Leicester.
While Chelsea had shown at lunchtime how difficult it can be for teams to click back into gear after an international break, there was little wrong with Man City’s dominant display. With three more points added to their total, they took another step towards reclaiming the Premier League title – but also demonstrated they are ready for what could be an historic run-in.
With two months of the season to go, the unprecedented quadruple is still on. Defining games will come thick and fast, and City can hardly afford an off day throughout April and May if they’re to pull it off.
Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals is the next hurdle, with the first leg on Tuesday. An FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley is booked in for April 17, before City return to the national stadium eight days later to face Tottenham in the Carabao Cup final.
Pass those tests and the debate around whether City will claim all four major trophies on offer to them this season will be at fever pitch come the end of April. History will be beckoning for Pep Guardiola’s side. Simply managing that buzz around what they could achieve will be a battle as tough as the matches.
And to do it in this most difficult and unusual of seasons, without fans and with restrictions aplenty, really would lock in their legend.
It will be far from easy but City’s quality, as we saw on Saturday, is too much for most opponents and this team look motivated to try to achieve what many think would be impossible. Tighten your belts, City fans. It’s going to be an edge-of-your-seat run-in…
There’s no shame in losing to this incredible Manchester City side – especially win Kevin De Bruyne is on song like he was at the King Power Stadium on Saturday. And there should be no need for alarm bells to sound after just a third defeat in their last 17 Premier League games.
But Leicester’s fall out of the top four last season makes the narrative around their run-in unavoidable. And the pressure is on Brendan Rodgers and his side to show they’ve overcome the scars of that costly slide.
Wins for Tottenham, West Ham, and Everton later this weekend would leave five teams within seven points of them. Indeed, a win over Wolves on Monday night would move the Hammers just four points behind Leicester, ahead of their intriguing clash next Sunday.
After that, Leicester face West Brom, Crystal Palace, Southampton, and Newcastle in the league. All games they should win – although that kind of statement carries little weight in this most unpredictable of seasons. You only have to look at what happened at Stamford Bridge to be reminded of that.
But Leicester will have to capitalise on that schedule because they finish with Manchester United away, Chelsea away, Tottenham at home. It’s a brutal finale – and could be even trickier if they get past Southampton in their FA Cup semi-final and have a showpiece Wembley trip on their minds.
Everyone at Leicester will be tired of hearing about what happened at the end of 2019/20 – but the only way to move on from that chapter is to finish strongly this time around. And an immediate response at West Ham next weekend would set them on course to do just that.
A top-half finish is looking a real possibility for Leeds, who went 10th with a 2-1 win over Sheffield United but could end the weekend pushed back down the table by Aston Villa.
More pleasingly for Marcelo Bielsa, back-to-back wins in a season dogged by inconsistency all round is that a place in Europe next season, Leeds’ first in nearly two decades, is firmly on the agenda too.
Even though the good-humoured enigmatic manager publicly thinks Leeds are not safe from relegation with a 16-point cushion over the bottom three, a late run for a Europa League spot must be in his mind somewhere.
“I keep hearing about the effect of 40 points… I’m still not convinced it’s enough,” he told Amazon Prime after their latest win. The gap to the bottom three is a gaping chasm, to seventh it sits at just four points and eight matches to go, not accounting for games in hand.
With Raphinha again in sparkling form and Tyler Roberts, Jack Harrison and Stuart Dallas also shining in attack, Leeds can certainly believe they have it in them to score the goals to get themselves in contention.
The Lilywhites’ next three games are Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United – three real tests of anyone’s credentials for success.
But Leeds aren’t just anyone, are they? If they can navigate their way to at least something positive from those three, especially against Liverpool who currently occupy that seventh spot, there’s certainly belief to be had.