The Premier League season is heading swiftly to its conclusion with most teams only playing 7 more games before we’ll know who our 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League champions are. The 31st round of fixtures saw some great matches, with league leaders Chelsea maintaining their incisive title charge.
The Blues hosted Stoke at Stamford Bridge; looking for a win that would put them 7 points ahead of their nearest rivals with a game in hand. Stoke are the quintessential Premier League team, boasting quick physical players and an experienced manager in Mark Hughes. Eden Hazard opened the scoring for the hosts with a penalty, which was cancelled out right before the break by a 59-yard drive from Charlie Adam that beat Courtois from inside Stoke City’s half.
Courtois was spared any embarrassment at being that far off his line in the 62nd minute when Loic Remy scored a tap in after a poor throw from the Stoke keeper. Chelsea grabbed a necessary 3 points from a tough game, showing again that 4-0 thrashings aren’t what make a team champions – but rather grinding out wins from what may otherwise have been frustrating draws.
The high profile game of the weekend was the match between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates. Liverpool were looking to reassert themselves in the hunt for a Champions League spot after their recent defeat to Manchester United. Unfortunately for the Reds Arsenal were in ruthless form and opened the game with several chances that could have seen Liverpool 3-0 behind within the first quarter.
A few smart saves and some last ditch tackles maintained the stalemate, but the deadlock was broken after 37 minutes. The young fullback Bellerin made his way in the box, shimmying past Moreno too easily and finishing with a low, bent effort at Mignolet’s far post. The Spaniard’s opener was improved on only three minutes later when Ozil swept a curling free kick into the net despite the ‘keeper’s good attempt to reach it. A smashed half-volley from Sanchez right on half time sent the gunners into the break 3-0 up, cruising to 3 points.
The second half wasn’t as exciting, Sterling won a penalty that Henderson converted before Giroud added to his tally with a neat finish in stoppage time. This result leaves Liverpool 7 points away from a top 4 place while Arsenal continue to cement their Champions League place in 2nd. Defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal in quick succession have put more pressure on Brendan Rodgers, adding to the worrying murmurs that Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling are reluctant to commit their futures to the club.
Elsewhere in the top 4 Manchester United managed a fairly convincing 3-1 victory over struggling Aston Villa. Ander Herrera opened the scoring just before the end of the first half with a low half volley from inside the box, sending the hosts into the break 1-0 up. It would take until the 79th minute before another goal was scored, but Rooney made sure it was worth the wait. After some decent wing-work by Di Maria an awkward cross was brought down by Rooney’s left foot, followed by a swiveling half volley into the roof of the net.
United’s celebrations were cut short a minute later when Benteke finished coolly from a low Villa corner that United’s defense and ‘keeper couldn’t deal with. Ander Herrera struck again at the death to calm the Old Trafford crowd down after a quick build up from United and a timely laid-off pass from his compatriot Mata.
At the foot of the table both Leicester City and QPR notched rare wins to offer themselves glimmers of hope of remaining in the Premier League. Leicester managed to beat an out of form West Ham right at the end while QPR comprehensively beat a poor West Brom side 4-1. These results still leave both clubs in the drop zone, but QPR is now only 3 points away from safety.
Top 4 hopefuls Southampton and Tottenham also suffered setbacks in their concerted aspirations for Champions League football. Southampton lost away 1-0 at Everton from an early Jagielka goal while Tottenham played out a dreary 0-0 draw against a determined Burnley side.
The shock of the weekend is the fixture between Manchester City and Crystal Palace’s Monday night game. Alan Pardew is known for being able to trouble the top teams and a defensively resolute Palace side did just that. A possibly offside goal was allowed to stand after a ball was played into the City box and scrappily converted on 34 minutes. City’s troubles were compounded when a brilliant Puncheon free kick put the hosts 2-0 three minutes into the second half. Going 2-0 down seemed to kick City up a gear, but despite intense pressure and a fantastic Toure strike from the edge of the area City couldn’t manage to get anything from the game. City will feel hard done by as they were denied a clear penalty at 2-0 after Palace’s Murray handled in the 18-yard box, but their appeals were quickly dismissed by the referee.
Next weekend features the Manchester Derby as the headline fixture, where United will look to further solidify their top 4 position while City will try and end their period of indifferent form. Old Trafford will be the venue, a happy hunting ground for the Citizens in recent times. Chelsea play away at QPR and Arsenal away to Burnley while Liverpool will host the struggling Newcastle United. All eyes will be on Manchester, while Chelsea and Arsenal will see their respective fixtures as good opportunities to put more distance between themselves and the Manchester clubs.