Weekend review: Gunners gone?
Our football team answer the latest questions, including can Arsenal bounce back and what's the goal of the season.
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Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger celebrated his 1000th game in charge of the Gunners with a 6-0 defeat at Chelsea. Is there any way back for his side in the title race?
Matt Brocklebank: The game in hand over Chelsea could see Arsenal close the gap on their weekend conquerors to just four points but, with Liverpool and Man City also above them, the Gunners are obviously going to struggle to emerge on top in the race for Premier League honours. Saturday's shambolic effort at the Bridge wasn't the first time they've crumbled under pressure in a big game this season and, unlike the years of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira, Arsene Wenger doesn't seem to have anyone on the pitch who will grab a game by the scruff of the neck when the going starts to get tough. It's a magnificent achievement to have reached the 1000 milestone given the way most clubs are run these days but I wouldn't be surprise to see Wenger move on after collecting the FA Cup later this season.
Chris Hammer: Mathematically there's still obviously an outside chance considering they have a game in hand to potentially move within four points of Chelsea and, as we saw last weekend at Villa Park, the Blues are certainly not immune from suffering shock results. However, with third-placed Manchester City looking as though they've re-discovered their goal-scoring spark and second-placed Liverpool maintaining their stunning momentum, I'm going to call time on Arsenal's title bid. It's over. The way they capitulated at Liverpool back in February and on Saturday against Chelsea underlined just how much this current crop of Gunners lack the mental character to go the distance in a title race so, given the physiological damage of this latest setback, I very much doubt they'll be able to win all their remaining games. The primary focus is now ending their long trophy drought in the FA Cup and if they don't get past Wigan and most probably Hull in the final, you'd have to say the 'specialist in failure' tag will be hard for even Wenger's biggest supporters to dispute.
Nick Hext: No. It's impossible to see the Gunners overhauling all three of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City before the season ends. They'll keep hold of their place in the Champions League qualification places with Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United all struggling for consistency. That is a notable achievement to make it 17 consecutive years in the Champions League group stage but you can't help but feel they've let the chance of title glory slip by. Injuries have taken their toll but there was a chance in January to add to the squad and even a short-term option in attack like Miroslav Klose would have been a massive help. FA Cup glory is within their grasp and ending the long, long wait for a trophy would make it a season worth smiling about at the Emirates Stadium. If they fall to Wigan, Hull or Sheffield United though expect the pressure to be turned up on Wenger and a real clamouring for a summer spending spree.
Tom McDermott: No. It's not the first time Arsenal have collapsed at this stage of the season and many of the club's supporters shouldn't be surprised. Fair enough, Wenger spent big on bringing Mesut Ozil to North London last summer but his inability to strengthen other key areas will cost his side again. In time, Ozil will probably prove to be a great signing but a world class finisher and a commanding defender with more pace should surely have been on his list as well. It's not all doom and gloom though. Wenger SHOULD win the FA Cup in May but don't expect a serious assault on the title until other key areas are addressed.
Wayne Rooney netted from over 50 yards for Manchester United in the 2-0 win at West Ham. Does that strike get the vote for your goal of the season?
"Rooney's outstanding strike was the goal of the weekend, the month and probably 2014 so far. It doesn't get my vote for goal of the season though. Pajtim Kasami's volley against Crystal Palace in October is up there with the finest goals since the Premier League started in 1992-93."
MB: Yes, yes it does. Not many goals leave me open-mouthed like Rooney's Saturday Night Football stunner and there's just something about scoring a goal from that far out that marks it down as a magical moment. We all recall Nayim's against Arsenal in '95, Beckham the following year, while Ronaldinho looping the ball over Seaman at the 2002 World Cup will live long in the memory for many reasons. Rooney's weekend volley was pure class and instinct. I chuckle at those who reel off the lines 'it was just a hit and hope fluke' or 'I could probably do that with enough attempts'. Rooney had one attempt, under match conditions, and delivered with aplomb. You can't buy natural ability like that - just ask Chelsea.
NH: Not quite as Pajtim Kasami of Fulham gets the nod for me. That isn't to take anything away from Rooney but Kasami's sensational volley in Fulham's 4-1 win at Crystal Palace back in October deserves the prize. He took control of a floated pass on his chest and unleashed a powerful effort home from what looked to be an impossible angle on the right hand side of the penalty box. It's well worth going back and watching again.
TM: Rooney's outstanding strike was the goal of the weekend, the month and probably the Premier League goal of 2014 so far. It doesn't get my vote for goal of the season though. Pajtim Kasami's volley against Crystal Palace in October in my opinion is not only this season's best but up there with the finest goals since the Premier League started in 1992-93. Few would dare attempt Rooney's strike so it takes something special to beat it. Kasami's volley, which he controlled on his chest before dispatching into the far top corner from what appeared to be an impossible angle, is the stand out goal of this campaign and many before in my eyes.
CH: Not taking anything away from Wayne Rooney - because I completely appreciate the technique and power needed to even strike a ball from that distance in such an instinctive manner on target - but no goal can be considered a great when the goalkeeper messes up. Adrian's positioning and clumsy movement when frantically rushing back towards his line in the wrong direction immediately reminded me of a computer game goalkeeper experiencing a glitch. Had he not panicked then he'd probably have got back in time so for that reason Rooney's effort is not my goal of the season. To be quite honest it was my third best goal of the weekend behind preferred Yaya Toure's third against Fulham and Alexander Tettey's stunning volley because both strikes were perfectly placed in the corners of the net, giving no keeper a chance of saving. As far as the goal of the season goes, I'm not surprised my fellow panellists have mentioned Pajtim Kasami's volley at Selhurst Park earlier in the season but personally I've always preferred team goals rather than bolts from the blue because they obviously require several players to do something special in succession to outdo opposition players and then the goalkeeper. So for that reason I'm opting for Jack Wilshere during Arsenal's 4-1 win over Norwich in which the England midfielder capped off a delightful move involving lots of clever flicks and intricate passing between Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and the scorer himself.
Liverpool and Manchester City posted big wins over Cardiff and Fulham respectively on Saturday. Is the gap too big between the top and bottom of the Premier League?
MB: The gulf in quality between the leading sides and the league's strugglers is huge and squad depth plays a massive part at this stage of the season due to injuries and suspensions. However, I can't imagine the gap between top and bottom come the end of the season will be as big as in some recent seasons, while the title race and relegation battle both look like going deep into the run-in, which can only be a positive thing for the neutral fan.
CH: Rather than dwelling on what some would deem a worrying gulf in class and money between the top teams and those fighting a relegation battle, we should at least be grateful there's been a gripping four-horse title race to enjoy this season which has seen no end of twists, turns and shock results to keep everyone guessing throughout. If I could choose to go back in time to an era when a team could get promoted and then challenge for the title the very next season, I would, but that's never going to happen in today's era unless a multi billionaire gets involved, and even then it needs a few years of building like what happened at Manchester City. If we can have four or five teams (surely Manchester United will return to the highest table in the not too distant future) exchanging the title between each other, then we're in a good state, regardless of the scrap taking place many points below them.
NH: It is what it is. The gap between the haves and have nots in Europe's top leagues will keep getting bigger with the difference in spending power. You just won't get a Nottingham Forest or Ipswich rising up in the present day. Spain, Germany and France all show a similar problem with the top clubs pulling away so it isn't an issue that only England has to think about. Despite this the Premier League can still provide surprises. We have seen Cardiff and Sunderland beat Manchester City this season, March has included Stoke defeating Arsenal and Aston Villa knocking off Chelsea plus the previously unthinkable fall down the table of Manchester United has occurred. Upsets happen but money talks and over the course of the season it will be the big guns on top at football's top table.
TM: The gap between the top and bottom of the league is probably too big but I think you could say the same about most of the top leagues in Europe. Teams at the top of the division are involved in European competition and usually have larger stadiums so automatically will receive more money. It's not a new debate but it is a gap that shows no signs of getting smaller. With sponsorship and the possibility of lucrative tours in the Far East during pre-season it's a gap that is only likely to get bigger.
We have the Manchester derby to look forward to on Tuesday night. Who do you think will win and what's your best bet?
MB: United will be on a relative high following wins against Olympiacos and over West Ham but they'll be well aware a sterner test awaits against their big city rivals. You would normally worry a little for City, with someone of Aguero's ability out injured and Negredo starting to look a bit leggy, but the team is packed full of goals and I'd like to see Jesus Navas get the nod to start on the wing as his raw speed could cause all sorts of mayhem against Patrice Evra. I expect City to take the three points but it might not be until the second period before they assert their superiority and draw/Man City on the half-time/full-time market looks a reasonable bet around the 9/2 mark.
.CH: As I mentioned earlier, Manchester City are on their way back to top form and I fully expect them to end United's very short-lived revival, which I feel has been exaggerated in some quarters. I'm sure there's plenty of United fans who realise the victories over Olympiacos and West Ham have done nothing more than cover up the cracks with crate paper and on Tuesday night that will be ruthlessly ripped off once again. Clearly the Red Devils won't want the title heading to the blue half of the city but you could have said the same thing prior to their home clash with old rivals Liverpool last weekend but that didn't end up being much of a motivation whatsoever as the visitors eased to a one-sided 3-0 victory. In terms of a best bet, I'm going to go for Man City to be winning at half-time and full-time, which is 9/4, simply because I think Manuel Pellegrini's men will go for the jugular early on and not look back. If you want a bigger priced suggestion then how about the in-form midfield duo of Yaya Toure and David Silva both scoring at 18/1.
NH: This is one of Manchester City's three famous games in hand on Premier League leaders Chelsea so they need the win. Cutting the deficit to Jose Mourinho's men down to three points would be a real psychological boost but I don't think it will happen. Manchester United simply can't perform as badly as they did in the atrocious 3-0 defeat at home to Liverpool and the two wins since that match have come courtesy of good performances. Expect it to be tight in the early stages but I reckon the hosts will just about come away with the victory at Old Trafford, especially if Wayne Rooney maintains his recent superlative form. Backing the draw at half-time would be my best bet..
TM: Manchester United haven't turned up in the big games this season and I think their current league position highlights this. City on the other hand are chasing the title and will fancy scoring a couple at the Theatre of Dreams. Whilst at Everton, David Moyes' teams used to grab the opening goal and then look to hold on for the reminder of the game. This has not happened yet, so Tuesday could be that night. Unfortunately for United, I fear that even without Kun Aguero, City will have too much in midfield and up front to lose. I'm backing 2-1 or 3-1 to City..