You can prepare all you want for a team like Manchester United, but some things are unstoppable. Sure, Queens Park Rangers may have been able to prevent some of the events that led to this shot, but when Rafael hits this kind of ball from 20 yards out, all you can do is throw your hands up and ask why.
Why do soccer gods who already create teams with United’s resources than endow them with strikes like this?
But it goes hand-in-hand, doesn’t it? If you’re Manchester United, you so many great players that even the player who’s arguably 11th out of 11 starters can beat you.
That’s what QPR was left with in the 23rd minute after a Robin van Persie shot had been blocked clear of the box by Julio Cesar. Rafael accelerates away from his man and hits his shot first time, one of those screaming tries that seem to curve in midair as they approach goal.
Unfortunately for QPR, that curve meant Rafael’s shot dove right into their goal. Courtesy FOX Soccer:
The goal put Manchester United up 1-0 at Loftus Road, a lead they’ve maintained late into the second half of what’s played out as a typical Manchester United game. Up early, the Premier League leaders have been in control. But playing to type, they’ve also been unconvincing.
It’s hard to say who’ll score the next goal, if there’ll even be one. QPR doesn’t look willing to test what’s been a leaky United defense.
For Rafael, it’s the third league goal of what’s turning into a breakthrough campaign for the 22-year-old Brazilian. Coming into this season, he’d never started more the 15 league goals. Today was the 21st start of a season that’s proved his most consistent.
Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.
So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.
Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).
Most saves in a starring role
You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.
Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman(above).
Top thief, too
Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.
The most under-appreciated of the underdogs
Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.
But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.
An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…
Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.
He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).
Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.
It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).
As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.
His new buyout clause is said to be as high as $53 million, and Carvalho hopes his commitment calms his supporters.
“Sportinguistas, I say to you that I am very happy with the deal which I signed up to 2020 and that you will have total effort on my part to be champions.”
Sporting is tied with Benfica atop the Portuguese table, second on goal differential. The club leads third-place Porto by six points, and is still alive in the Europa League. Bayer Leverkusen is up next.
Perhaps it’ll be different for the players who were a part of January camp — stars Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum chief among them — but Klinsmann says the late start of the MLS season can affect fitness for the critical qualifiers home and away to Guatemala.
That means there’s a better chance to see in-form Championship midfielder Danny Williams (above) or Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez then, say, Orlando City’s Brek Shea or Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman.
“We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements.
“Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”
We’ve already covered the obstacle that is the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying playoff occurring at the same time as the Guatemala matches, but this is still good news for players in England, Germany and other European locales seeking caps in March.
In one case, Benteke put himself in a prime spot only to lash his shot wide of the post. Instead, he’s now at 11 appearances without a goal (despite ripping nine shots against the Irons).
From the BBC:
“I don’t believe in the easy goal. He has to carry on like this. It’s not the nicest moment in his career but he has to work hard. He wants to score and we need him to score. We will work on it in the days, weeks and months.”