"Sex Masochism" and Delayed Gratification: The Premier League Review
Leicester's gratification may be delayed but it's surely not far off, while Newcastle are dancing to Rafa's beat and Arsenal fans are upset at another top-four finish. It's the Premier League Review
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
The Premier League campaign is nearing its inevitable conclusion. We are soon to wander through a three-week football desert before reaching the promised land of Euro 2016, not an oasis in sight as we stumble over the rough sands of season reviews and Harry Redknapp columns demanding Wes Morgan be called up to the England squad. So let's enjoy what's left, savour every sip of 2015-16, before the most unlikely Premier League champions of all time are crowned. And let's do it here – in the Premier League Review.
"SEX MASOCHISM" AND DELAYED GRATIFICATION AT OLD TRAFFORD
After a thousand TV and radio spots, plus several very earnest thinkpieces about Claudio Ranieri's place in the universe, Leicester City did not win the league on Sunday. Did anyone really believe that they were going to beat a Louis van Gaal side at Old Trafford? The game had draw written all over it, just as Spurs will inevitably fail to beat Chelsea tonight to ensure Leicester their rightful crown. Football: it's bloody predictable.
With the champagne on ice and Jamie Vardy not around to shout abuse at the ref, the main talking point from the game was an odd one: Robert Huth tugging on Marouane Fellaini's ample supply of hair. While there is something alluring about the Belgian's bouffant, yanking it unannounced is clearly not on – Huth should have asked him to stroke it in the tunnel at half-time. Fellaini swung an elbow in retaliation, though both men avoided punishment on the pitch.
When asked about the incident, an angry Van Gaal asserted that hair pulling is only allowed "in sex masochism." "IS THIS VAN GAAL'S MOST OUTRAGEOUS QUOTE YET?" asked a hysterical BBC headline. And obviously yes it is, because he said "sex masochism", and that's a rude thing that adults do isn't it?
Van Gaal was clearly disappointed at his side's missed opportunity to close the gap to the Champions League places, but after Manchester City's defeat later in the day they remain firmly in the fight. If he's to get his happy ending, the Dutchman will need two more wins and a slip up from United's local rivals.
Ultimately, how Louis or indeed anyone gets their kicks is a private matter. For Leicester it's now a case of delayed gratification – whenever they get their moment of ecstasy, it's surely going to be very satisfying.
NEWCASTLE ARE DANCING TO THE BENITEZ BEAT
Rafa Benitez is a man who dances to his own beat – one that seems to exists solely inside his own head. No follower of convention, the Spaniard insists on writing formations with the goalkeeper included – it's 1-4-4-2, idiots – and cuts the appearance of a maths teacher attending a disciplinary hearing.
And yet this confirmed eccentric is leading Newcastle on a merry dance towards an escape from relegation that looked barely conceivable only a few weeks ago. If nothing else Rafa's arrival has seen the Magpies fight for their Premier League future, a notable improvement from the dead-eyed march over the precipice they were undertaking with Steve McClaren. The former England boss probably heard noises in his head, too, but lacked the conviction to dance to them.
On Saturday, Newcastle secured a vital three points with a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace's band of semi-retired footballers. A brilliant Andros Townsend freekick shortly before the hour and a penalty save by third-choice keeper Karl Darlow secured them the points, but the victory was also built on a solid defensive structure – something Benitez must take credit for.
Yes, Palace's league form in 2016 has been fucking heinous; and yes, Newcastle should be mid-table given their squad, but have been mismanaged to within an inch of relegation. Regardless, the reality is that they're in a tense battle for survival. Somehow, Rafa is dancing his way out of the bottom three and into the hearts of the St James Park faithful.
ARSENAL'S FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS
Arsenal's annus horribilis continued on Saturday, when a 1-0 win over Norwich moved them to within two points of second-place Spurs. With results elsewhere proving favourable, the Gunners are now near certs for Champions League football, and they could yet nip ahead of their North London rivals for runner-up spot in the league.
All of which is fucking dreadful, frankly, and warrants fan unrest – Arsenal style.
It's been well documented that some fans chose to protest their club's run of occasional FA Cup wins and unbroken Champions League qualification, which is the equivalent of citizens from a wealthy first-world nation taking to the streets to object to the fact that they don't all live in mansions and drive Lamborghinis. As former England international Steve Stone put it, Arsenal fans "should try supporting Newcastle".
Obviously the supporters have a right to free speech, as proven by the seemingly unending barrage of "opinions" released into the ether by Arsenal Fan TV. It's fair to say that the Norwich game was not their finest performance, and the season as a whole must be judged a failure. Still, those who were at the Emirates got to see Mesut Ozil ping the sweetest ball through the middle of the park, and watching Danny Welbeck chase defenders like a very earnest sheepdog is a sight worth showing up for alone.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the "protests" is that they rapidly descend into farce. With this being 2016, and Arsenal fans being Arsenal fans, there were probably more piss takers than genuinely aggrieved punters: banners requesting that your mum records Holby City, or quoting the Father Ted classic "down with this sort of thing", just result in more of the general population laughing at you.
And ultimately, is turning up to the game and paying £50 for a ticket really a protest? They've got your money, guys – holding up a sheet of A4 paper is going to make sod all difference to the business decisions of Stan Kroenke.
DON'T EVER CHANGE
"A change is as good as a rest" says the old proverb, though whoever coined it had clearly never watched Premier League football. Over the weekend two of the country's biggest sides made sweeping changes to their lineups, and the results were catastrophic.
Both facing crucial European fixtures later this week, you can't blame either Manchester City or Liverpool for choosing to rest key players on Sunday. City faced Southampton, while Liverpool took on Swansea, and both were humbled by comparatively meek opposition.
With a trip to Madrid for their Champions League semi-final second leg on the horizon, City kept several players off the pitch, including Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and skipper Vincent Kompany.
That still saw them field a hugely expensive side filled with internationals, but it wasn't enough to deal with Ronald Koeman's Southampton (side note: they're having a quietly excellent season down at Saint Marys). An opener from Shane Long and a Sadio Mane hat-trick saw the Saints stuff City 4-2, with the worthy-of-praise-even-in-defeat Kelechi Iheanacho getting both of the visitors' goals.
Afterwards Manuel Pellegrini said he "would do exactly the same again", which means another weakened side if City reach the Champions League Final. Worryingly for his successor Pep Guardiola, they are just four points clear of Manchester United – who have a game in hand – in the battle for fourth.
At least Liverpool don't have that pesky distraction, eh? With their game against Swansea falling between Europa League semi-final fixtures, Jurgen Klopp made eight changes and named a handful of players you'd be forgiven for never having heard of (Pedro Chirivella, anyone?)
Like City, they had a shitty afternoon, Swansea comfortably dispatching the Reds by three goals to one. But, unlike Pellegrini's side, Liverpool were facing a team who have been genuinely horrible for most of the season; they were stuffed by Newcastle two weeks ago and had already reached the 40-point mark. Losing to the South Wales club is worrying, even if your squad is much changed.
As ever, the wisdom of these decisions will be decided by each club's European results. If they both book a spot in their respective finals, Klopp and Pellegrini will be lauded for their nous; fall short, and they'll simply be the mugs who lost to Southampton and Swansea.
SAVOUR SOME POINTLESS JOY
It's a bank holiday today, so you're probably not reading this and instead doing something pointless yet joyful: sitting in a beer garden all day talking about Van Gaal and sex masochism, convincing yourself it's warm enough for a barbecue, or watching all of the Bond films in a static caravan.
In the Premier League, such pointless joy is rare – and yet it does exist.
On Saturday a thoroughly relegated Aston Villa played a Watford side with a lame duck manager and the heartache of missing the FA Cup Final still fresh in their minds. If the Premier League were a horror film – and in many ways it often is – this would have been two zombies blindly pawing at each other in the graveyard, their reanimated corpses locked in godless pugilism.
And yet, when the two teams met at Vicarage Road, it produced a five-goal thriller capped by a stoppage time winner. Which, if you're into football purely for the spectacle, is bloody good value.
For much of the game Villa looked like getting their first win since the dawn of human existence. But, 2-1 up with less than 20 minutes to play, Aly Cissokho was sent off for a professional foul (please make up your own jokes about this being the first act of professionalism performed by a Villa player all season). They held on until the 90th minute, only for a late Troy Deeney brace to condemn them to an 11th successive defeat.
Villa did at least look somewhat up for this one. Without juddering hippie-crack poster boy Gabby Agbonlahor and doughy American goal-tender Brad Guzan, they showed some fight and nearly ended their horrible run. That many Villa fans actually travelled to the match and were in good voice is to their massive credit. If it's Premier League masochists you're after, look no further than this lot.
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