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 on Fridays to educate us about the Premier League, and make fun of Arsenal. Dana?
Here's the deal. I got a couple hundred words into the usual weekend preview, and it just wasn’t working. I was having flashbacks to college, when I'd try to grind out my word count without having anything of much substance to say. You know, like when you toy with the margins a bit, to create the illusion the paper is longer than it is, in the hope that your mailing-it-in professor won’t notice?
That was me - because the matchups this weekend are pretty lame. Stoke City hosting Arsenal? Okay. Chelsea heading to Craven Cottage to play in one of the more lopsided derbies? All right. Don’t get me wrong, both matches are of crucial importance, as the visitors attempt to win the league and the hosts fight for the privilege of playing in this league next year. But the matchups themselves just lack intrigue.
We were supposed to have a Manchester derby this weekend, but City had to ruin that for everyone by going ahead and making the League Cup final, where they’ll play the mighty Sunderland. The rescheduled derby will be on Tuesday, March 25. Cool. Real cool. A Tuesday game. Thanks a lot, City.
From there...Villa/Norwich? Spurs/Cardiff City? I’d rather be locked in a room with nothing but a Luna Bar and a warm Tahitian Treat, and not be allowed to leave until I watched all 264 episodes of Murder, She Wrote on VHS, than spend two hours of my Saturday watching either of those matches.
So rather than waste everyone’s time, let's do something more important. There are only ten matches left after this weekend. TEN!! We are officially in the home stretch. That can only mean one thing...
THE RETURN OF THE NUCLEAR WESSEL HOT SPORTS TAKES ATOMIC EPL POWER RANKINGS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BUFFALO WINGS*
*Not the popular company with a similar name that sells boneless wings, but just buffalo wings in general. The real ones. The ones with bones in them. A boneless wing isn’t a wing. It is a chicken nugget.
1. Manchester City: I really wanted to go with a 1-2 tie at the top between Manchester City and Chelsea, but that is a wishy-washy take, and if there is one thing that THE NUCLEAR WESSEL HOT SPORTS TAKES ATOMIC EPL POWER RANKINGS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BUFFALO WINGS isn’t, it’s wishy-washy. So I will swallow my Chelsea-obsessed pride and admit: I still think in my gut that City have the best chance to take the league this year.
They are three points back of the Blues with a game in hand, plus they have a massive lead in goal differential. Unless they start putting some MTV Rock-n-Jock 25-point hot spots out on the field, nobody is catching the Citizens in goal differential. That means you can basically add an extra point to City’s total from here on out, since they'll always win the tiebreaker; being tied with City atop the table wouldn’t do Chelsea or Arsenal any good.
I'm guessing Man City puts out a soft team Sunday against a Sunderland side that has a much more invested interest in the League Cup than City. This match, plus their quarterfinal FA Cup tie with Wigan next Sunday, mean City won’t have another league match until March 15 (and will by then have another game in hand). The fixtures are going to start piling up for them. It will be interesting to see how they handle it.
2. Chelsea: The league leaders' biggest flaw was on full display in their midweek Champions League match at Galatasaray: their inability to kill off a match. It bit them two weeks ago when they conceded late and had to settle for a 1-1 draw at West Brom, and it happened again Tuesday in Turkey with the same scoreline. Their inability to deliver a Scorpion-esque Fatality against lesser opponents could be what keeps the trophy out of their hands this season. I guess that is what happens when you don’t have a striker on your team. But they’ve made it this far, hopefully can keep finding ways until May.
After Fulham on Saturday, they are home vs Tottenham and away to Villa before the big match against Arsenal on March 22 at Stamford Bridge. That’ll be a big one. Shame it is at 6:45AM, but that is a problem for Future Us to deal with.
3. Liverpool: I have been touting them for weeks so I can’t stop now! Just three points behind second-place Arsenal and with no other pesky cups to play for, the lads from Anfield are in solid position right now to make a run at this thing, if they are up for it.
Check out this run of matches they have in their serving bowl: at Southampton, at Manchester United, and at Cardiff City. Not the easiest matches, being on the road and all, but definitely three matches where a championship caliber team should be able to grab at least seven of nine points. After that, they welcome both Manchester City and Chelsea into Anfield where they are unbeaten in their last eleven games. It is still very much an uphill climb that will require the top three sides to slip, but Liverpool can still very much win this thing.
4. Arsenal: The 4-1 result against Sunderland last week erased any worries there may be some lingering effects from the Bayern Munich debacle a few days earlier. That said, I feel like I do this every week, but you have to keep pointing out who they have left in this devastating stretch.
That list is exactly why I can’t rank Arsenal above Liverpool right now. Points will be dropped. It is inevitable. That’s why a relatively easy task of away to Stoke City is so important this week. They need all three points, because their schedule certainly isn’t getting any easier.
5. Everton: I have been impressed by Everton all year and wish like heck they had won a few more matches so they’d have a shot at catching Liverpool. But unfortunately, they faltered in some big matches, and are now in a fight with Spurs and Manchester United for fifth place -- the kids table at Thanksgiving of the Premier League.
They get West Ham at home this weekend, before that FA Cup match next weekend at the Emirates. It would be really cool to see this side win and get to Wembley for the FA Cup semifinals. Imagine if they won the FA Cup AND finished ahead of former manager David Moyes and his crumbling Man U side? That would be fantastic. Although I am sure any Everton supporter would be happy with just one or the other.
6. Tottenham: Credit to Spurs for not folding after the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas. They’ve managed to string together enough good results to be sitting all alone in fifth right now, six points behind Liverpool.
They still have a shot at fourth, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. A fresh start next season with some games under their belt will do them good. This season was always going to be difficult, after the big Gareth Bale $hopping $pree they went on this summer. It isn’t easy to take a bunch of new players and get them running as a cohesive unit. It is even tougher when AVB is your manager. But he is gone next year and Spurs will be back next year threatening for a Champions League spot.
7. Newcastle: No, I have not forgotten a team, and no, this is not trolling. I have Newcastle above Manchester United. Rather than waste time talking about Newcastle, let's get to the Red Devils.
8. Manchester United: The term "crisis" gets thrown around a lot in English soccer. Anytime there is a bad result, or even the slightest hint of a changing room disagreement, the tweets and headlines fly. “IS [insert club] A CLUB IN CRISIS?!” It happens so much that the word "crisis" is thrown around as a punchline now more than anything.
But hear me when I say this: Manchester United is a club in crisis if there ever was one.
I'll watch any form and level of soccer. Men's, women's, World Cup, high school, whatever. That United/Olympiakos match Tuesday was one of the more unwatchable 90 minutes I have ever seen, and I watched all 120 minutes of the Fulham/Sheffield United FA Cup match last month.
United could barely be bothered to run, and it was evident that nobody gave a crap. Rob (I refuse to call a man Robin) van Persie calls out Moyes. Supporters want Moyes gone. Supporters of other teams want Moyes given a lifetime contract. It is a mess at United, and the thing is, it is going to get worse before it gets better. There only route back to Champions League was to go on a run and win the whole thing. But the players can’t even be bothered to get up for a match against a Greek side that recently sold one of their top players to Fulham. Fulham!
That kind of effort shows you one thing and one thing only. The players have quit on David Moyes, and already have it in their minds that they will find a way out this summer. They might not even bother to grab their stuff from Old Trafford after the last match. Things are dire for United. They have until mid-March to summon the courage and motivation to beat Olympiakos at home and advance in Champions League, the only thing they have left to play for, or things are going to get awfully shouty over at the Theater of Dreams.
9. Southampton: The darlings of the first two months of the season continue to overachieve, and will finish top half of the table. Also, they will be a team nobody who needs three points will want to play down the stretch.
10. Hull City: This sounds about right.
11. West Ham: I bought a West Ham fan a beer when they were a few weeks away from getting relegated in 2011. Great guy. He has to be happy about the Hammers this year and that makes me happy.
12. Swansea City: Ahead of Aston Villa and Norwich on goal differential. Good for them.
13. Aston Villa: See above.
14. Norwich: See above. And them move your eyes just one more spot above.
15. Crystal Palace: Palace will be in a dogfight these last eleven matches to survive their first year back up in the Premier League.
16. Stoke City: Tough one this week against Arsenal with matches against Norwich, Villa and Hull looming.
17. Fulham: I WANT TO BELIEVE! SIT THE CURRENT PLAYERS DOWN IN A ROOM AND MAKE THEM WATCH THE GREAT ESCAPE VIDEOS ON REPEAT. DO IT FOR BRIAN MCBRIDE!
18. West Brom: Absolutely no margin for error right now, just one point above the drop zone.
19. Sunderland: My hopes this season for Sunderland were to avoid relegation and for Jozy Altidore to bag a bunch of goals and be in great form heading into the World Cup. Yeah...about that...anybody have a beer...or nine?
20. Cardiff City: Sorry lads, somebody has to be last. And in this edition of THE NUCLEAR WESSEL HOT SPORTS TAKES ATOMIC EPL POWER RANKINGS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BUFFALO WINGS it is you Cardiff City!
Alright, that’ll do it for this week. Hope you enjoyed THE RETURN OF THE NUCLEAR WESSEL HOT SPORTS TAKES ATOMIC EPL POWER RANKINGS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BUFFALO WINGS.
Before you stop reading poorly written soccer blogs and go back to work, one last shout-out. Congratulations to Brian McBride, Kristine Lilly and Bob Bradley for their much-deserved election to the United States Soccer Hall of Fame.
Bradley, our fearless manager through two Gold Cups and a World Cup, always deserved much better than the criticism he constantly drew on Twitter (even from myself, I admit it), and he is getting that now.
Lilly is the all-time soccer (either gender) leader in caps with 352. 352. Only 10 other women reached 200. No others reached 300. That is insane. Cobi Jones is the leader of the USMNT with 162.
McBride, well, I could start writing about McBride but 4,000 words, 84 viewed YouTube videos, 6 hours and countless nostalgia later I would probably still be writing. I will just say this: Legend.
Alright, that’s it for me. Have a great weekend and make sure to tip your servers and barkeeps at your local soccer pubs this weekend.
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