While Chelsea’s ability to throw away a golden opportunity to establish an eight-point lead over their likeliest title rivals was rendered a subplot by the haunting return of a familiar face at the Etihad, the last thing on Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal’s mind as he cast a wearied glance at the other scores from Sunday’s sideshow offerings was the growing prospect of Europa League football next season.
Members of the British media have reeled out the term Gaalacticos this past week clearly having developed a sense of the exotic from exhausting the term ‘La Décima’ last season. But it was only the Manchester United defence that gave off the impression of being something else on Sunday, as the Foxes ripped them open like plastic bin liners in a second-half feast at the King Power Stadium. The surprise home defeats to Tottenham and Everton may have helped offset the state of shock at Carrington this morning after seeing a 3-1 lead slip away against Nigel Pearson’s side, but those small crumbs of comfort may come laced with poison should van Gaal’s side miss out on a Champions League berth in the Spring.
West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace deserve credit for capitalizing on their foes foibles (while Jamie Vardy was helping himself to a discarded KFC bucket at Leicester) as Alan Irvine and Neil Warnock recorded their first league wins of the season at the most unlikeliest of junctures, but with West Ham providing encouragement in defeating a Liverpool side struggling to juggle both domestic and European competition the night before, the two sides previously holding the bottom two league places have now provided an even greater source of inspiration to those wishing to break down the so-called ‘big seven’ across the coming months.
Spurs called upon an entirely different outfield team from the side that drew 0-0 away to Partizan Belgrade on Thursday, and head coach Mauricio Pochettino outwardly lamented UEFA’s secondary competition as one that can ‘kill’ teams during his time with Southampton. Conversely, Blues boss Roberto Martinez would appear to take a different stance having named an unchanged side to the one that defeated the Baggies against Wolfsburg. The Spaniard would have known the need to rotate three days later against Palace owing to the exertions of Thursday night, but in not tinkering with a winning formula against the Germans, it revealed where his priorities lie for the coming season.
Of course, had Leon Osman converted a gilt-edged opening at 1-0, we may well be once again hailing Martinez for his tactical astuteness, but in coupling Seamus Coleman’s enforced absence due to the new rules on head injuries with the excellent form of Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith being overlooked, Warnock would have used all his managerial experience to identify the degree to which his opponent’s supply line had been heavily hampered by a saturated schedule.
If the media spotlight hasn’t been on whether van Gaal can drag his new-look United side back into the Champions league by the end of this campaign, it’s been on the state of Newcastle United, Arsenal’s team selection policy or on how many goals Diego Costa can ‘chew’. Yet little has been made of Everton’s uncharacteristic defensive woes, and after the distraction of a Capital One Cup trip to face Swansea, the Toffees like Spurs will travel to their local rivals next weekend desperate to halt an alarming record of 13 goals conceded in five matches.
The Merseysiders, like United, have relied heavily on their attacking prowess in the opening weeks of the season, but with Samuel Eto’o, Chistian Atsu and Osman all playing for the first time together, there was an obvious lack of fluidity to the host’s laboured build-up play which made the side’s erratic defending all the more galling for the Goodison Park residents on Sunday. John Stones, so dependable for his age as a centre back, struggled at full back to contain either of Jason Puncheon or Yannick Bolasie, who vindicated their selection over Wilfried Zaha by exploiting the natural demise of the home side’s lethargic defence.
Both Aston Villa and West Ham targeted the deep-lying Steven Gerrard in defeating Liverpool earlier this month, and Martinez may call upon Naismith to emulate Gabby Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing’s stifling tactics in bringing a 15-year wait for an Everton win at Anfield to an end on Saturday. In the same way teams appear to have found a way to score at Goodison – Everton have conceded 11 goals in three league games – Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers will be expected to find the answer to how best to utilize his skipper in a fixture he has always relished.
Tottenham will hope the virus that swept through the Aston Villa ranks prior to Arsenal’s comfortable 3-0 victory in the Midlands carried itself onto the Gunners coach on Saturday as retribution for the lasagne affair of 2006, but it is their own ailing season that is in most need of the impetus a Derby day victory can bring. Both Pochettino and Martinez are facing the first period of unwanted scrutiny at their respective clubs, and given the increased levels of expectancy generated in no small part by the defensive failings of rivals, this could well be a season-defining week both in North London and on Merseyside.