Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
Email Jon to talk about soccer.
Dana Wessel produces the K-TWIN Morning Show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. The show is hosted by Cane Peterson and Eric Perkins/Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11. He stops by most Fridays to tell us all about the Premier League weekend. Dana?
Back for more, aye? I knew you would be. Welcome to the latest edition of Nuclear Wessel, the only soccer blog that is read weekly by a baseball writer at NBC’s Hardball Talk. Seventeen matches remain in the 2013-14 Premier League season, so it might be time to start looking at the run-in for the title contenders. Take a look at this handy-dandy table put together by @Behnisch on Twitter!
Much easier than reading words in paragraph form, right? Tough to really give anybody a clear advantage. All three teams have six matches remaining against the top seven, and eleven matches against the rest of the league. City have to play five of their remaining six against top sides on the road, which hasn’t exactly been their strength this year despite some recent wins. Arsenal have four straight matches that could derail anybody: at Spurs, at Chelsea, home vs City, and at Everton - all coming directly after a two-legged affair with the current European Champions Bayern Munich. Chelsea play six of their last seven against the bottom eleven teams in the league, but four of those matches are away from the security blanket they call Stamford Bridge.
Translation: Anything can happen. I don't think Liverpool is out of this either; they're just six points back heading into the weekend. It is going to be heck of a final three months. We fans deserve this, after Manchester United wrapped up the league in mid-October last year. Enjoy it. Because after this ends all we have to look forward to is...oh yeah, the World Cup. It is a great time to be obsessed with soccer.
No. 3: Arsenal vs Fulham at Emirates Stadium
When: Saturday at 9:00AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Fulham rallied from an early two goal deficit to earn a 3-3 draw in this London derby a year ago at Emirates. Berbatov had a brace (one was from the spot), as did Olivier Giroud for the Gunners.
This Arsenal team just keeps chugging along, despite a revolving door of injuries. It's scary to think of what this team could do if everyone was healthy at the same time. They lose Theo Walcott for the year two weeks ago in 2-0 FA Cup win over Tottenham (he had an epic troll of the jeering Tottenham fans while being carted off), but they regain Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil Monday in a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa.
It is hard for a guy like myself who bleeds Blue to compliment Arsenal (Ed. note: Whatever do you mean, Dana?) but you have to give credit where credit is due. This team went into this season with the general consensus that, at best, they could squeak out a top four finish, with many including myself thinking Tottenham could finally overtake and get the best of their North London rival.
They appeared to be in trouble after a stretch where they drew Everton, lost to Napoli in Champions League, got walloped at City 6-3, and drew at home against Chelsea. But since then, they have won five straight in all competitions and remain top of the table, where they have been the majority of the season.
They’ll need to extend that winning streak and get as many points out of the next three league matches before the next latest-greatest difficult stretch comes. After Fulham at home this week, they go to Southampton, then host Crystal Palace. After that, eight of their next 11 matches look like this: at Liverpool, home vs Manchester United, home vs Bayern Munich (CL), at Bayern Munich (CL), at Tottenham, at Chelsea, home vs Manchester City, and at Everton.
Woof. That is rough. But they have made it past every hurdle this far and made the people who keep trying to write them off look stupid, including me. At the very least, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. That is an awfully tough stretch of matches upcoming, but this team has proved pundits and arm-chair center backs wrong all year.
No. 2: Liverpool vs Aston Villa at Anfield
When: Saturday at 11:30 on Big Boy NBC
Last year: Villa knocked Liverpool in the mouth at Anfield last December to the tune of 3-1. It wasn’t even that close, either. Steven Gerrard netted one in the 87th to make the scoreline look a bit better for Star Tribune blogs a year later.
Liverpool are scary. And don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. The only difference between them being in fourth and first are the two 2-1 losses at Chelsea and Manchester United within four days of each other. Also, it doesn’t mean a lot, but it is definitely worth noting that they led 1-0 in both of those matches. They also played that stretch without Daniel Sturridge, who had been out since November, but is now healthy and scoring goals again.
Yes, that is a lot of the ‘What if?’ game, but it is just another example of how tight things are at the top, and how you shouldn’t rule Liverpool out of the title race - especially since they get Chelsea, City and Arsenal all at Anfield in the final 13 matches of the season.
Their odds of lifting their first-ever Premier League trophy are long. Leapfrogging three top sides is a gargantuan task. But they are a team on the rise, and the favorites to grab that fourth and final Champions League spot. Liverpool fans should view that as their trophy. Getting back into Europe’s highest competition for the first time since 2009 would be a massive achievement, and will prove they are returning to their former glory.
Development-wise, they are probably a year or two away from realistically contending for the title. But they are most definitely a top four-worthy side, and have locked league-leading scorer Luis Suarez down long-term. Things are looking bright for Liverpool, after fumbling with mediocrity the last few seasons.
This match should be nothing more than a formality, if they are the Champions League contenders that Suarez says they are, and the Premier League title contenders Brendan Rodgers says they are. Villa have won just one of their past six in a stretch that has four losses. Should be easy pickings for the lads from Anfield.
No. 1: Chelsea vs Manchester United at Stamford Bridge
When: Sunday at 10AM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Manchester United got the best of Chelsea in their own backyard last October 3-2. Chelsea found themselves down 2-0 inside of 13 minutes thanks to David Luiz putting one in their own net and Robin van Persie finding some glory of his own. Mata and Ramires each found the back of the net to make things level but Chicharito found the winner in the 75th.
Easily the biggest match of the weekend, and one that supporters of both clubs have had circled for quite some time. This match doesn’t quite have the same shine as it has in previous years, when both teams were vying for a title, but don’t understate just how massive this game is for both clubs.
The scoreless draw between these two teams earlier this season at Old Trafford left a lot to be desired, but that surely won’t be the case this Sunday at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have won five straight matches and seem to finally be rolling under Jose Mourinho after a sluggish start to the season. Chelsea want to keep the pressure on Arsenal, and City and would love nothing more than for those three points to come from their down-and-almost-out rival.
At United, David Moyes’ bunch has reached a critical juncture in their season. They managed to get three points and their first win of the calendar year last week against Swansea, but that hardly alleviated any of the mounting pressure at Old Trafford. As they sit right now, they are five points out of the fourth and final Champions League spot ,and have two teams (Everton and Spurs) ahead of them in the race to catch Liverpool. A loss at Chelsea combined with a (very likely) Liverpool win at home against Villa puts them eight points back.
Desperate times, indeed. If there was ever anything that could jump-start things, it would be to hand Jose Mourinho his first ever league loss at Stamford Bridge. However, the odds are stacked quite heavily against them. Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Patrice Evra have been ruled out of the match, and a whole host of other United players will have their status determined later today.
Chelsea, on the other hand, are quite fit right now. Branislav Ivanovic and Frank Lampard are injured, but the Blues certainly have the depth to overcome the loss of those two.
All signs point to Chelsea winning this match handily, but when you wake up Sunday morning you can go ahead and pour every rivalry cliche in a blender, chug it with your shirt off, and slam it the empty blender down when you’re done, because this is a strange game sometimes, and this is definitely a bitter rivalry.
The Chelsea fans of the Twin Cities will all be at Brit's Pub Sunday morning for this match. Doors open at 9:30AM, and the parking ramp behind Brits should be open for free parking. Come and enjoy the match. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of these clubs or the sport in general, just view it as a nice appetizer before Championship Sunday begins.
Until next time, let’s all grab a fresh glass of orange juice and toast to the weekend!
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