Daniel Storey has questions for the top six
Pep Guardiola could soon be about to experience the problem of success: it quickly becomes normalised.
Manchester City have been so dominant in the Premier League that we have not witnessed a title race.
We have become so used to them winning matches that anything other than a win is now inevitably sold as comparative failure.
And so to the Champions League. City’s owners are impressed by domestic dominance, but European glory is their principal desire.
Should Guardiola’s team be eliminated at the quarter-final stage by Liverpool, a magnificent campaign will end with a tinge of disappointment, and questions will be asked about Guardiola’s ability to blend Premier League and Champions League success.
Sound unfair? Welcome to elite club management. Those who claim that managing Manchester City is easier than managing Bristol City fail to appreciate the extraordinary pressure and expectation under which Guardiola is working.
The compliments will only keep coming while the trophies do.
The FA Cup might be the only competition in which Mourinho can salvage some goodwill from an unsuccessful season, but Manchester United’s manager has work to do on and off the field that may dictate the club’s plans for the summer.
Paul Pogba is out of sorts, Alexis Sanchez is searching for a good news story, Anthony Martial must prove — or have proven to him — that he has a long-term future at Old Trafford, Juan Mata will want to dissuade suspicions that he might be part of the summer cull and Marcus Rashford is desperate for Premier League starts ahead of the World Cup. Any suspicions that United have little to play for in the league soon evaporate when you dig down into the individuals battling for relevance ahead of another significant summer spend.
Mohamed Salah has seven Premier League games remaining this season.
Should he score four more goals, Salah will break the Premier League record for goals scored in a 38-game season.
That would put him above the greatest goalscorer in the history of this competition, Alan Shearer, plus Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez.
But Salah’s biggest target is to score seven more, a distinct possibility given that Liverpool still have home games against Bournemouth, Stoke and Brighton to come.
That would take him to 35 league goals, the highest total for any English top-flight season since Ron Davies for Southampton in 1966/67. There is a realistic chance that Liverpool signed a winger and immediately turned him into the greatest single-season goalscorer in English football’s last 50 years. Remarkable.
The assumption is that Tottenham will miss Harry Kane, and it’s hardly a bold take. Kane has scored 99 Premier League goals since the beginning of 2014/15. Which team wouldn’t be worse without that prolificacy?
Yet there is reason too to believe that Spurs can cope. Kane’s success lies in the volume of shots he takes, rather than his efficient conversion of chances. He has taken 272 since the start of last season, 40 more than any other player. The role of the attacking midfielders behind him is a selfless one: give Kane the ball and watch him score.
Without Kane, that goalscoring becomes a collective effort. Heung-Min Son will play as a nominal centre-forward, but drift wide and drop deep to drag defenders out of their comfort zone and create space for Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Lucas Moura. Rather than purely looking for Kane, they will look for goal and each other.
Chelsea might be stranded in fifth place, but Conte will plead that there is plenty of reason to believe that a top-four finish is not beyond them. Liverpool and Tottenham must both still travel to Stamford Bridge, and victories in those two fixtures would put Chelsea back in the driving seat for Champions League qualification.
Chelsea’s problem is that their current form requires significant improvement. Tottenham and Liverpool have taken 24 and 22 points from their last 10 league games respectively; Chelsea have taken 14. Can we really trust Conte, who will surely leave this summer, to motivate his players?
Conte’s biggest dilemma is who to trust as his centre-forward for this final stretch. The Italian has surely given up on the experiment of Eden Hazard as a false nine, but has Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata both expecting to play the pivotal striker role in April and May.
Keeping Morata on the bench could leave Chelsea searching for another new first-choice centre-forward this summer. It might not be Conte’s problem.
Arsenal will not finish in the top four this season.
The gap is too great, those above them too strong and their own form too weak for them to finish any higher than fifth, and sixth spot is virtually secured.
After all the talk last summer from within the club about responding to such a disappointing season, Arsenal will drop one place.
In terms of logic, then, there is no doubt left. The Europa League is Arsenal’s only route back into the Champions League, and therefore resting players for their league assignments is the sensible option. Jose Mourinho and Manchester United gave Wenger his blueprint last season. A repeat would enable Wenger to postpone the most serious accusations of all-out crisis.
And yet there are still doubts about Wenger fully committing to the sacrifice of Premier League matches. While Mourinho is the arch-pragmatist, prepared to switch focus to ensure his season can be sold as a success, does Wenger have the ruthlessness to toss a competition which has long been his lifeblood to one side?
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