Bilic prays power shift stays
LONDON — It is tempting to see this season of Premier League trading places as a freak show, a fleeting shift in power rather than the start of a trend.
Everton manager Roberto Martínez hinted as much ahead of the weekend, suggesting the gate-crashing of the top six by clubs such as Leicester and West Ham will look more substantial if it is replicated next year.
Slaven Bilic begs to differ. Having seen Dmitri Payet complete an unlikely comeback in injury time — a third in 11 minutes after headers from Michail Antonio and Diafra Sakho — the West Ham manager warned the self-proclaimed elite not to mistake his club for a novelty act. A wonderful season does not necessarily mean West Ham are a one-season wonder.
“This is a permanent shift at the top — at least I hope it is,” said Bilic. “Clubs like us with the (TV) money — Crystal Palace, West Brom, Leicester — we can still improve. Two years ago, West Brom could afford Salomon Rondon, but they would have had to sell Berahino to get him. Now they can keep Berahino. Next year with more investment you can keep those players. Crystal Palace can keep Cabaye and bring another one. So all those teams and us have bigger room to improve.
“Big teams like Man City and Chelsea — if they want to buy a striker — there is no big gap for them to improve. Say City buy Benzema, they have Agüero already, so there is no big space to get much better. Chelsea can sell Diego Costa and buy Lewandowski, yes. But they are only different, not better.”
The lingering question is whether the levelling out is a consequence of those below improving, or the deterioration of the established top six. This enthralling but flawed game demonstrated it is a combination of both. There was quality and there were deficiencies aplenty but, ultimately, it was the self-inflicted failure of the home side that enabled the visitors to steal the win.
Like others, West Ham have the class to punish the carelessness Everton have made a character trait. Whether it was Kevin Mirallas’s avoidable dismissal for two bookings in 35 minutes, Romelu Lukaku’s penalty miss or a strange substitution at 2-0 up that did little more than allow new signing Oumar Niasse to demonstrate how far away he is from acclimatising to English football, Everton had to look at their own mistakes before taking aim at referee Anthony Taylor.
Such Goodison misadventure is happening too often to be brushed off as a small detail. Yet again Everton had numerous players giving seven or eight-out-of-10 performances but finding themselves on the losing side. For Lukaku to be scoring at such a rate while his side toils in mid-table is unacceptable.
“Seven defeats at home is not good enough,” Martínez admitted. “That is where we feel so hard done by because you look at the attitude of the players, the talent of the players and the desire of wanting to please our fans at Goodison, is incredible. With the seven defeats we can analyse every one and, apart from Manchester United, in every one we performed in an incredible manner and deserved a lot more.
“Are we good enough, do we do things right enough? The away form tells us that we do. It is just that we need to make sure we find a way to change the little bit of a difference between performing well and not getting the wins at home. We are not where we should be because of the defeats at home.”
Martínez deserves credit for assembling such a talented squad but, with a new investor on board, he needs the FA Cup to support the view he can get the most from them before the inevitable summer bids for Lukaku and John Stones. Too often he is talking about players learning from their experiences. It puts one in mind of students who no sooner have finished one set of exams than are enrolled on another course. If they do not graduate at Goodison soon serious questions will be asked about whether they are receiving the right tuition.
Meanwhile, Claudio Ranieri is still refusing to countenance Leicester City as Premier League title favourites despite seeing his side extend their lead at the top of the table to five points.
Leicester’s 1-0 victory at Watford ensured they cashed in on Tottenham and Arsenal’s 2-2 draw earlier in the day and answered questions about their own ability to grind out results from difficult assignments.
Success at Vicarage Road came courtesy of Riyad Mahrez’s second-half goal and left Leicester in pole position.
Yet Ranieri maintained his poker face and played down the growing confidence among Leicester fans that the club can complete the most remarkable title triumph in Premier League history.
“I don’t dream,” said Ranieri. “I continue to work hard. For our fans it’s good. They dream and I work. It’s a good combination.
“But you can see in the Premier League that every match is a battle, not just for us but for everybody, and five points is nothing.
“But we want to continue to fight, match by match and step by step.
“Now our mind is on Newcastle, which is another tough match at home.
“We want to fight. We know we can win or we can lose but I want to see my team as they were against Watford, concentrating and with hard work.
“If I see that I am happy and the results are not important.”
Mahrez gave supporters an injury scare after his goal when he pulled up holding his hamstring, but he continued to play before being substituted and Ranieri allayed fears by confirming the Algerian was simply suffering from cramp.
Leicester now have a nine-day break before returning to action against Newcastle in the first of their nine remaining games.
“We are very happy but we know there will be another nine battles, not only for us,” said Ranieri.
“The Premier League is fantastic. Nobody now can say who will win the title.
“We aren’t nervous. Our job is done. Our job was to save the team, and doing this was an amazing achievement.
“The others must be nervous. The others spent a lot of money to win the title and we just have to build, slowly, slowly. This year is a crazy season for us and everybody but we are happy and we have to enjoy.”
The result extended Leicester’s unbeaten run to three matches since they were defeated at Arsenal and means they have still lost just three times in the league.
Watford have won just one of their last six Premier League games and had to con- tend with the late loss of Miguel Britos to a hamstring injury in the warm-up.
They were undone by Mahrez’s superb strike but manager Quique Sanchez Flores believes his side lost to genuine title contenders.
“Leicester look like a very good team,” he said. “I like them. They are no different to what we expected.
“They were really intense in the middle and got back every time.
“They were very quick in attack, a very good team. We respected them before the match and we respect them now.”
He added: “We had our chances. The ball possession was 50-50 and we were expecting this type of match. It was very tight and little details cost us the match.”
Fixtures March 12: Norwich v Man City, Stoke v Southampton, Bournemouth v Swansea, Arsenal v West Brom. March 13: Aston Villa v Tottenham. March 14: Leicester v Newcastle.
West Ham coach slaven Bilic