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Slippery slopes

Ball don't lie.

George Washington don't lie.

Table don't lie.

Forty-two percent of the 2010-11 Premier League season is in the books and we're still at the stage where one win is enough to rocket teams up from sweating out relegation to thinking about a Europa League spot. It's a fluid, amoebae-like blob of 20 teams that ebbs and flows every weekend. Fortunately it's an agreeable blob, which doesn't consume and absorb everything in its path as those nefarious devils in Hollywood have lead you to believe.

Eventually, or at least conventional wisdom would have you believe, sooner or later the cream will rise to the top, the dregs will sink to the bottom and our blob with be stretched out to a nice, normal straight rod as the forces of sporting gravity take hold. Again, that's if we assume Warren G. Harding approved normalcy sets in at some point this season, and considering the name Harding draws about as much water in England as Jeff Lebowski in the City of Malibu, it might never occur.

What if, however, this weird season continues all the way to May.

More than that, what if the blob of teams never breaks up. On any given weekend we've seen that no team has much distinguished itself, even the top three clubs of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, who've already combined for eight losses and 12 draws, compared to 22 losses and 15 draws all of last season. It's entirely possible too, this year's winner barely cracks the 80-point plateau.

Are the top teams worse than year's past? Probably. Or at least certainly in the cases of United and Chlesea.

The mediocrity is probably due to the increasingly decent middle rung teams. Unlike last season there aren't five or six teams that truly stink. West Ham and Wolves appear to be stuck to the bottom and the bottom of the league, yet if either club were to string together consecutive wins, they're right back in the mix.

And as we know Wigan flirts with relegation every year but remains as steadfast, as my oft repeated George Costanza line in his waning days at Play Now Sports, "I'm like a weed in Hitler's bunker, Jerry." Every year we assume Wigan is done and dusted, yet be it Paul Jewell, Steve Bruce or now Roberto Martinez the Latics shine on.

Guess, considering Mike Ashley's sub-Hank Steinbrenner insolence, Newcastle United is squarely in the relegation talk with the totally uninspiring, multi-time lost Alan Pardew taking over. At least it gives me an excuse to link to this memorable moment.

Further up the table, Stoke City, Sunderland and Bolton seemed vastly improved teams, who aren't rolling over for three points any more. Birmingham City aren't half bad, if it ever figures out a consistent offense it'll challenge for the top half. West Brom and Blackpool have thrown caution into the wind, if they go down it'll be with a fight.

Allow that to serve as my long-winded introduction to a big what if -- what if one of these three clubs that hold significance to American soccer fans gets, sucked down into the League Championship. These three clubs: Everton, Aston Villa and Fulham sit 15-17 in the table, featuring prominent U.S. internationals like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, or in Villa's case an American owner in Randy Lerner.

Are these clubs too big to fail? Is it too soon to start worrying about this? Let's check it out.

Everton

Record: (3-8-5 W/D/L) 15th place.
Major malfunction: Home form/goal scoring. Everton has taken only eight points from 24 in eight home matches. Team still struggles to score outside of Tim Cahill's weekly Aussie Superman routine.
Relegation Probablity: four percent.
Bottom line: Faith in David Moyes and quality players should be enough for Everton avoid sweating it out in April/May, especially if that certain guy with the initials "LD" shows up at Goodison in January. It would be nice, too, if Steven Pienaar -- the club's player of the year last season-- decided to start playing now instead of fretting over his next contract. Working in Everton's favor is the club has the second-longest streak of consecutive years in the top flight after Arsenal, last being relegated right around the end of World War II. Unless a massive injury crisis hits Goodison, Moyes will get them safely around the 8-12 range.

Aston Villa

Record: (4-5-7) 16th place.
Major malfunction: Where to start? A goal difference of -10, leaps out at you in light of last year's defensive sturdiness. Being stuck between the Martin O'Neill/Gerard Houllier regime, while trying to shed cash-rich vets like John Carew for young, cheaper options on the fly is a recipe for trouble.
Relegation Probablity: 13 percent.
Bottom line: If, and when, Villa get Stylian Petrov back it'll be a boost to stabilize the midfield. The kiddie core, led by Marc Albrighton does show potential. If Gabby Agbonlahor returns to form, Villa won't go hours between goals like it did earlier this year. The biggest worry is who enters and exits in January. Houllier turning to Robert Pires might not inspire much confidence for what's coming up. If you want to look at it from a different perspective, the club peaked under O'Neill at sixth placce last year, so the club is starting with a new approach sooner as opposed to later before major stagnation sets in. Unfortunately for Villa, it's ceiling with a new-look lineup might be ... yep ... sixth place.

Fulham

Record: (2-9-5) 17th place.
Major malfunction: Simply, a failure to win games. Oh, scoring goals, too in the wake of Bobby Zamora's injury.
Relegation Probablity: 19 percent.
Bottom line: Fulham, remarkably, went in the span of three years from a Clint Dempsey goal away from relegation to the Europa League final. The common element there, Roy Hodgson, who's now up at Liverpool. During last campaign's memorable run, Fulham got "plus" performances from guys like Danny Murphy, Damien Duff, Simon Davies and Zamora. This season the only guy playing better than expected is Dempsey. He can't do it alone, every week, considering how much he lays his body on the line every match. On an encouraging note for Fulham, if it can turn around some of its draws, it'll be right back in the warm bosom of midtable safety. Couple boring 1-0 wins and Fulham should be okay.

This isn't meant to be an alarmist, chicken little sky-is-falling approach that seems to befall every team in the League on Monday morning. It just seems that with this season breaking away from convention, anything could be possible.

Table don't lie.

Round 17 Picks:

Once again, can't figure out the Premier League scheduling. The best game of the weekend is Manchester United hosting Arsenal, and it falls on Monday afternoon in America. Doesn't Richard Scudamore care about the American television audience? C'mon man. (Allow that to serve as my hope it doesn't turn into as big a dud as Pats/Jets on "Monday Night Football" this week.)

Saturday:


* Aston Villa v. West Brom -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Mini-Midlands derby alert! Figured we've talked about Villa's current malaise enough already. If there's a cure, it's certainly Emile Heskey. You generally think of a guy like Heskey or John Carew being huge physically, at least for a soccer player. Heksey is 6-foot-2. West Brom's string-puller -- Chris Brunt is a lanky 6-foot-1. Not to belabor a point, but nobody can figure out West Brom. Witness: Losses to Blackpool, Manchester City, Wigan and Stoke City, with a draw to West Ham thrown in, followed by beating Everton and Newcastle by a combined 7-2, now level on points with Liverpool. Roberto di Matteo you glorious bastard. ... Aston Villa 1, West Brom 1

* Stoke City v. Blackpool -- The more the season progresses, the more Stoke reminds me of Blackburn under Mark Hughes a couple seasons ago. A strong, physical backbone with some sound wing play -- Matthew Etherington/Jermaine Pennant in the Gamst/David Bentley roles. Hand it to Tony Pulis, too. A season ago he had nobody up top. Now he could go four or five deep with Kenwyne Jones (underrated signing of the season), Ricardo Fuller, Jon Walters, Tuncay and even the pale Icelandic corpse of Eidur Gudjohnsen. Put it this way, Blackpool's work on set pieces isn't going to trip up Stoke at home. ... Stoke City 2, Blackpool 0

* Fulham v. Sunderland -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Now wait just one second Fulham! Guille Ochoa is training at Craven Cottage? Are you turning your back on America as your go-to CONCACAF nation for cheap, under-priced talent? Say it isn't so. Don't blame us for Eddie Johnson. Honest. Fulham are 15th in the EPL on home form. Sunderland has won any away game, but Steve Bruce's team doesn't seem like one that deals with prosperity too well. ... Fulham 2, Sunderland 1

* West Ham United v. Manchester City -- (Live, ESPN2, 10 a.m.) Silver lining for West Ham, while it rots in 20th place? The Irons do have two fewer losses than 19th place Wolves. That should bring a smile to Avram Grant's face. Let's have this match serve as a litmus test for the Great Jonathan Spector Midfield Experiment 2010. If he survives with each of his femurs and tibias intact after 90 minutes vs. Nigel de Jong. City do have to play this match without Carlos Tevez, suspended through card accumulation. It's been a while since we've heard from James Milner and Adam Johnson, eh? Perhaps David Silva takes a bigger role. Nah. You know Roberto Mancini is going to start either Jo or Emmanuel Adebayor isolated alone up top. That should be fun. ... West Ham 0, City 1

* Everton v. Wigan Athletic -- Not to turn this entire post into Toffees Panic 101, but Everton has been out-scored by two goals at Goodison Park this year. Not good. Not good at all. Wigan is precisely the type of club Everton has struggled with this season, needing to fight tooth and nail to simply get a point. ... Everton 2, Wigan 0

* Newcastle United v. Liverpool -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) Newcastle? I'll leave it at that. Writing "WTF" is simply too undignified, even if scientists at the Internet Future Society predict that 92 percent of online writing by the year 2019 will consist of three character or less acronyms. U No?

Liverpool, without Steven Gerrard, "Papa" Torres and Jamie Carragher, creamed Aston Villa on Monday. Not sure if that was a result of Villa's collective funk or not. Two goals in two minutes for Anfield stalwarts David Ngog and Ryan Babel do have that effect on most people. Babel now has 14 goals in nearly three years with Liverpool. Only a couple more and he's at a goal-per-million on his $18 transfer fee from Ajax.

Less wasteful, Liverpool are seemingly finding a winning form with the midfield pairing of Lucas and Raul Meireles. Hold your breath when a certain No. 8 returns. Certainly Roy Hodgson can figure out a way to play non 4-4-2 effectively. Oh, and if Liverpool don't go for the throat in this match, even on the road, well, everyone on Anfield might want to ask John Henry if some of that $150-ish million the Red Sox spent on Carl Crawford could be used to buy Hodgson a "pair." ... Newcastle 0, Liverpool 1

Sunday:

* Bolton v. Blackburn -- Blah blah blah Sam Allardyce used to coach Bolton. Blah Blah Blah. ... Bolton 2, Blackburn 0

* Wolves v. Birmingham City -- (Live, FSC+, 8:30 a.m.) Theoretically, it would be time to start gathering the pallbearers and hammering the coffin shut for Wolves. There's just nothing to get excited about this club. But in this season, who knows? Birmingham still don't seem like a team that's figured out its best XI, meaning a season of meh-ness. ... Wolves 1, Birmingham City 1

* Tottenham v. Chelsea -- (Live, FSC, 11 a.m.) For probably as long as I've been doing this, Tottenham being Tottenham means a lot of ups-and-downs, some thrills, but ultimately being let down in the end -- kind of like life, or at least the comic's view of it. Meanwhile, Chelsea being Chelsea was a sense of eventual, muscled, destined victory.

Throw those old paradigms out the window.

Tottenham is now the team that expects to win, even down 2-0 in the 75th minute. Chelsea is now the team can't figure out how to win.

It's like that season finale episode of "Seinfeld," when George is hired by the Yankees and Elaine is fired by Pendent Publishing, left to lament, "I've become George" as her life stands in tatters.

Chelsea are clearly in a material-feeling, trashcan-eating, fake latex-selling Costanzian funk, only with less sweatpants. Nobody knows why. Everyone just expects them to pull out of it. The more you see, the less this seems likely. We're all waiting for Didier Drogba to become Didier Drogba again, but even in the Champions League -- granted a meaningless match -- Chelsea couldn't get anything done vs. Olympique Marseille, suffering more defensive injuries in the process (Jose Bosingwa.)

Perhaps the under-reported aspect of Chelsea's malaise is the loss of Yossi Benayoun, who would present Carlo Ancelotti a different look in the midfield. His standard 4-3-3 isn't creating chances. Perhaps dropping Nicolas Anelka, bring on a Daniel Sturridge to pair next to Drogba, move Flourent Malouda and Yuri Zhirov to the outside mids in a more standard 4-4-2 configuration. Drop ever present John Mikel Obi, yeah it's nice to have a defensive shield when you're scoring five goals a game, but when you're struggling maybe you need more offensive, granted Chelsea's thinning squad doesn't have a ready made replacement for him. Or Ancelotti can just ride it out and hope the return of Frank Lampard ties it all together.

On the other side, no matter what Tottenham seems to do, works, be it the Premier League or Champions League -- and I'll get into this later, but why exactly can't Spurs win the Champions League aside from a lack of history in the competition?

Is team belief and a sense you're going to win, with a dash of Gareth Bale Welsh pixie dust enough to offset history? ... Tottenham 2, Chelsea 1 (know full well picking this, Chelsea wakes up and lays the smackdown ... the Empire Striking Back as it were.)

Monday:

* Manchester United v. Arsenal -- (Live, ESPN2, 2:45 p.m.) Doesn't, at least on paper, this match seem to be setting up a lot like Real Madrid and Barcelona's match a couple Mondays ago? Granted, it's difficult to see this ending 5-0 in either direction. And even as good as Arsenal can be, at times, passing it's not going to be a series of flowing, evolving concentric triangles 200 times over 90 minutes at Old Trafford.

For United, the big question here is if Dimitar Berbatov's recent surge can continue, if indeed its been fueled by the return of Wayne Rooney. From a dramatic, storyline standpoint, this would be the ideal game for Rooney to announce his return to the top, if that's even possible at this time. He's not going to find a softer defense to get things going than the possible Sebastian Squillacci led Gunners defense.

Arsenal are rolling along. Samir Nasri is getting all the platitudes, despite massive worries on the defensive front. (Counterargument, no teams are perfect, but the criticism of Wenger's long-term failures to assemble a championship-winning backline are well-founded. Hey even Patrice Evra chimed in with an awesome tweak, calling the club under Wenger, "a training center.")

This seems like a game decided, not by the collective, but rather a few moments of solo efforts from the key players. Since both managers probably, gun to their heads, would sign for a draw, there doesn't figure to be a lot of flow to the match. It could, too, be another chance for Wenger to use Robin van Persie, since his tactical nous and unpredictability might do more to trouble the blunt physicality of Nemanja Vidic than Maroune Chamakh. Or he could start both and bring on Theo Walcott later.

We'll also see if Nani or Nasri is ready to enter the conversation of Top 25 players in the world. Not a lot to separate the teams. Expect late drama. ... Manchester United 2, Arsenal 2

Last round: 6-3
Season: 71-88

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1 Responses to “Slippery slopes”

  1. # Blogger 30f

    Your Fulham analysis sounds about right - but that doesn't mean I am happy about it. The last two seasons (08/09 in the EPL and 09/10 in Europe) Fulham always seemed to find a way to get what they needed - just barely scraping into 7th place that turned into a Fair Play ticket to the Europa League that turned into me wanting to punch Diego Forlan. They were the perpetual 'punching above their weight' team.

    Without Hodgson's disciplined approach, which is NOT going over so well in Liverpool, the Cottagers seem to be holding on and trying to not lose - which is why they are the Draw-leaders. Injuries have certainly played a part, but the lack of cohesion on defense has made Hangeland and Shwarzer look less like players headed off to Top Four sides and more like guys just baaaarely making it by each week. The talk around the Fulham-flavored interwebz is that Martin Jol so wants to come to Fulham that he left Ajax. Not sure I buy that, but Sparky seems to be aiming for 17th-and-a-half place which doesn't leave the team much margin of error.

    I think the top sides in England are weaker than in the past. Look at the attacking talent that is no longer at United and see how old Chelsea seems to be getting. Essien (a player I love) is a great piece to have on a team where everything is clicking, but his powers are less relevant when Chelsea is desperate to get a goal. SatNav and high performance tires are an extravagance when the engine won't reliably start.

    The mid-level teams are better, but even more important is that they seem to be willing and eager to go after the big boys and not hope for a draw. Man City and Tottenham are obviously much better than in the past - so them challenging Arsenal and ManUnited is hardly a shock. But to see Bolton and others act like they think they can win away at top tier teams is exciting. And that willingness to TRY and win is a big part of the reason the 'minnows' are taking more points off the big boys. For years, the big teams only got tested six times a year, home and away against the other members of the top four. Now, there are more tough fights and that drains the big teams more and more. This is way more exciting, IMO.  

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