Quick Six: Top Premier League story lines from weekend no. 3

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1. RESOURCEFUL REDS CLAIM FIRST PLACE

Around the three, one-goal wins is a silver lining, as if a perfect start needed one. If Liverpool supporters are inclined to look at the underlying indicators and question the team’s quality despite a nine-point start, they’s also be justified in sitting back, marveling at their side’s zealous defense of their three leads, and wonder how good their team will be when really start playing well.

Given the level of competition, though, Sunday’s performance may have been the Reds’ best yet, their 1-0, North West Derby victory over Manchester United giving them nine points through three games. Who would have thought September would come with Liverpool sitting top of the league, looking down on Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal?

Sunday’s win was a strange one, though. In a lot of ways, it looked like an underdog applying a time-tested formula to take a surprise result. An early goal off a set piece held up, with the visitors, despite maintaining a meek control, never breaking through. Had Daniel Sturridge not converted that fourth minute corner, Liverpool may have employed their usual, possession-sensitive approach. And instead a game that looked like Monday’s meeting between the Red Devils and Chelsea, the match could have played out like Manchester United’s opener: A 4-1 win at Swansea.

But Sunday’s wasn’t merely a win of fortunate. There was more to it then the timing of Sturridge’s goal. Outshooting their guests (both in overall shots and shots on goal), Liverpool thrived in the part. That it’s a role Brendan Rodgers’ teams typically avoid is more a curiosity than point of concern.

That curiosity leave us wondering: How good is Liverpool? At the beginning of the season, they were supposed to be the Europa League-quality team that could take advantage, should a couple of Champions League teams slip. And while we’ve yet to see any real reason to redress those expectations, a perfect start and a win over their North West rivals could embolden Rodgers’ squad. A little confidence and a different self-image may be all Liverpool need to compete for fourth place.

2. HUGE WIN, BUT ARSENAL STILL NEED HUGE BUYS

That’s four in a row for Arsenal, who’ve seen wins over Fenerbahçe, Fulham, Fenerbahçe (again) and Tottenham cast their opening day loss to Aston Villa as a distant memory. After dominating performances against the Turks and Cottagers, crisis as a reflex seems even more absurd, while a North London Derby win over the team they’ll fight for fourth obliges us to doubt whether they’ll lose their Champions League spot.

Let’s keep some perspective, though. Just as Liverpool’s performance over United was more effective than convincing, Arsenal’s was an obligatory, 1-0, home win over a rival. Anything less would have been a disappointment. Though they were the better side on Sunday, Arsenal’s performance wasn’t strong enough to rebuke the notion that Spurs might still be a better side. Neutral site (or, at White Hart Lane), with Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen fully available, or with merely improved performances by today’s starters, Tottenham may well prove the better teams. There’s only so convincing a 1-0 can be.

That’s why Arsenal needs to buy tomorrow. Their fans know it. They manager knows it. Arsenal not only needs to buy, but they need a couple of significant purchases to regain an advantage on Spurs. They need a Mesut Özil-type player.

Unfortunately, they probably need him at another position. It’s hard to turn down a talent like Özil, but Arsenal would be better served putting that money into defense, or deep midfield, or goal. Özil may be a £40 million player, but he’s not a £40 million improvement.

Come Monday, look at what else Arsène Wenger does in the transfer market. The Gunners could use Özil, as the signing would go a long way to restoring confidence in the club, but the team needs more than one arrival to fully address doubts.

source: Getty Images

3. SPURS, UNITED CAN’T BRUSH OFF DEFEAT

Just because Liverpool and Arsenal’s wins weren’t decisive doesn’t give their opponents a pass. If anything, we should wonder by things were so easy for the home sides. For both Tottenham and Manchester United, the season’s first three weeks have revealed some concerning qualities – deficiencies that need to be addressed if they’re to meet expectations.

Spurs’ problem is obvious. They haven’t scored an open play goal all season. Both of their goals have been from the spot, and the one game they failed to draw a penalty kick, they lost. The addition of Lamela should help, giving André Villas-Boas a player who can score even when the plan’s not working, but eventually, that plan has to start producing chances. Right now, they’re looking like last year’s Liverpool. Sans Luis Suárez.

For United, losing at Anfield shouldn’t sound any alarms, but the team’s lack of urgency over their last two games is confusing. Why didn’t we see the typical Red Devil intensity when they were chasing a winner against Chelsea? Where was that renown resolve in the face of an early deficit at Anfield? What’s happening to Manchester United?

You could put those concerns other ways, talk about them in tactical terms, and question why David Moyes isn’t making the necessary adjustments to prevent these clean sheets. Regardless, something is missing, and although the team is clearly good, they’re not playing like a team that’s carried over almost their full squad from a title campaign.

4. EVERTON NEED TO, WILL SCORE GOALS

Don’t worry about Everton. Feel bad for them. Through three games, the Toffees have three draws, and after being shutout at Cardiff on Saturday, Roberto Martínez’s new team has gone 205 minutes without scoring a goal. It’s not the most accurate reflection of their quality.

If that streak was merely opponents defending out of their minds, you could write it off, but Everton’s held decisive possession advantages in each game: 67, 62, 63 percent. Those are types of numbers that should yield more goals, yet through three rounds, Everton’s been unable to convert control into chances.

Arouna Koné might be the answer, the former Wigan man brought in this summer as an alternative to Nikola Jelavic up top. Getting Marouane Fellaini closer to goal could help, too, with the big Belgian providing a direct route. Regardless, Everton’s share of the ball and their 17 shots on goal hint they’ll eventually pick it up. How many points they drop before doing so remained to be seen.

5. HUGHESY OFF TO STRONG START AT STOKE

Last week’s home win over Crystal Palace was mandatory. Saturday’s game at Upton Park was a litmus test. For a Potter team conscious of playing a more attractive brand of soccer, going up against the Premier League’s resident pragmatist, Sam Allardyce, provide an interesting contrast. Can Mark Hughes get Stoke to out-football West Ham?

He did. The Potters held 55 percent of the ball, generated more shots and shots on goal, and completed 440 passes to West Ham’s 359. The one place where West Ham did hold a passing edge? Long balls: 59 to 56. Even if Stoke aren’t exactly Barcelona north, they’re not exactly West Ham, either. They’re moving on

It should be noted: Stoke won the game. These things are important, too. It took 82 minutes, and it took a free kick, but thanks to Jermaine Pennant — a player who was eventually phased out by Tony Pulis after being brought in to change Stoke’s approach — Hughes snagged his second win of the season, leaving Stoke fifth after three rounds.

source: AP

6. COMMENCE CONCERN WEST BROM, SUNDERLAND

Speaking of litmus tests …

Sunderland has to be concerned, perhaps gravely so after losing 3-1 at Crystal Palace. The Eagles were generally picked to finish last this season, and while preseason prognostications are often wrong, nobody wants their team playing a part in dispelling them. With John O’Shea getting sent off and Palace’s deciding goals coming with Sunderland down a man, there are excuses to be had after Saturday’s result, but between that dismissal, Fulham’s smash-and-grab on opening day, and Jose Fonte’s late equalizer at St. Marys, the Black Cats have shown a talent for dropping points.

West Brom also have their excuses, with Nikola Anelka having just rejoined a team that still hasn’t replaced Romelu Lukaku. Still, every team has their hardships, yet only one’s have put them at the bottom of the league.

It’s a spot the Baggies should have avoided on Saturday against Swansea, Michael Laudrup’s team 0-0-2 entering the match. Instead, Swans posted a dominant 2-0 result. West Brom appear to be worse than most expected.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
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Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.

Premier League Power Rankings: In tiers

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Liverpool has knocked Manchester City from the Champions League, but sits 19 points behind the leaders and City has a match-in-hand.

Manchester United beat City just weeks ago, but was bounced from the UCL even earlier. The Red Devils also took four of six points from Liverpool.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Spurs are fourth in the table but also took four of six from Liverpool and could be level on points with the Reds by winning its match-in-hand.

So the question remains, who’s the best team in the Premier League right now? That’s why we’re revisiting our Premier League Power Rankings for the first time in a while, since City was the unquestioned No. 1 for months.

Will it change anything? Spoiler alert: Probably not.

Spots 20-14: Not safe yet

20. West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies are going down, but Darren Moore has at least instilled some life into a moribund bunch which was saddled with the dour and unsuccessful tactics of Tony Pulis before moving onto the peppy and hard-to-understand tactics of Alan Pardew.

19. Stoke City — The Paul Lambert jump has faded, and the Potters’ inferior goal differential and one more match played than both Southampton and Swansea City feel like a death knell.

18. Southampton — Yes, the Bottom Three is the same as the table, but Saints are a New South Coast Derby win away from sitting three points back of pulling Palace and perhaps Huddersfield Town and West Ham United back into the picture.

17. Huddersfield Town — If David Wagner cannot lead the Terriers past Everton this weekend, his side finishes at Man City, at Chelsea, and home to Arsenal. That’s a recipe for watching a six-point advantage on the drop zone melt away.

16. Swansea City — Still four points clear of the drop zone, Swans have the cup half-full of facing Saints and Stoke City. The two sides aren’t very good, but also the only teams to worry about when it comes to their Premier League lives.

15. Crystal Palace — Given their turnaround from the beginning of the season, it feels dirty to have them so low. But of the three clubs sitting six points clear of 18th, the Eagles are the one to have three matches left and not four.

14. West Ham United — A brutal schedule featuring two of David Moyes‘ old sides — Everton and Manchester United — means the Irons cannot breathe safely yet (especially with Swans, Saints, and Stoke set to take points off each other).


Spots 13-11: Foot off the gas (and is there any gas in the tank?)

13. Watford — Javi Gracia may have Watford safe, and that was his charge, but the Hornets look like the same team they did under previous bosses. The Hornets have two points from their last six, and would be much further down the table if they weren’t essentially safe.

12. Bournemouth — Eddie Howe is probably wondering how that Arsenal chair would feel right about now, as the Cherries have probably reached a glass ceiling. Now a derby against Saints can define the run-in to the season.

11. Brighton and Hove Albion — Perhaps satiated by a five-match unbeaten run that featured a win over Arsenal and beat downs of Swansea and West Ham, Chris Hughton‘s Gulls have two points in five matches including a derby loss to Palace.

10. Everton — Sam Allardyce‘s men nicked a win off of Newcastle last weekend, and it was about as satisfying as moribund draws against Liverpool’s B Team and Swansea City. There’s a lot of unrest at Goodison Park, and Sam Allardyce has to go. Because of the relative positive vibes at lower table sides Leicester and Newcastle, Everton sinks beneath them.

9. Leicester City — A fun team which has had infuriating lapses at the back. Jamie Vardy‘s as reliable as ever, and there’s a real question what they’ll do without Riyad Mahrez (allegedly) in the future. Wilfred Ndidi, Demarai Gray, and Fousseni Diabate look a big part of said future, but it’s a bit alarming that the Foxes haven’t been able to take advantage of the relatively open door to seventh since Claude Puel righted Craig Shakespeare‘s sinking ship.

8. Newcastle United — The Magpies saw their win streak snapped by Everton, but Rafa Benitez is playing with house money after coaxed a midtable season out of a Championship squad. A healthy Islam Slimani has moved Dwight Gayle to his rightful role as a spark plug off the bench, but don’t sleep on the wonders Benitez has worked in turning Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, and Paul Dummett into serviceable Premier League players. The future is bright if Mike Ashley sells the team or at least opens his purse strings to make one of the longest road trips in the PL even harder for visitors to St. James’ Park.


Spot 7: One of the best stories in Premier League history

7. Burnley — A loss to Chelsea and draw with Stoke has sunk Sean Dyche‘s excitement, we’re sure, but Southampton’s departure from the FA Cup means seventh place means Europa League. It’s Burnley in Europe: Yes, for real!


Spots 6-4: The bargaining stage of grief

6. Chelsea — The Blues have won two-straight in the league and reached an FA Cup Final against old pal Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but there’s as much uncertainty at Stamford Bridge as there is at the Emirates. The difference? We know Roman Abramovich will spend more to try to fix it.

5. Arsenal — The danger of slipping behind Burnley and into seventh on the table has passed, but the Arsene Wenger goodbye tour is focused firmly on the Gunners’ fate versus Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Europa League and the quite decent form of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as a resurgent and healthy Aaron Ramsey. Defenders need improving in a big way and there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding Wenger’s replacement. Don’t know what you’ve got til its gone?

4. Spurs — No trophy again this season, and there’s a very good chance Tottenham will miss out on third place by virtue of goal difference when all is said and done; When all’s said and done, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will have drawn 1-1 or 0-0 against West Brom, Swansea, Watford, West Ham, Saints, and Brighton. That’ll render a decent record against top foes less impressive.


Spots 3-1: Power trio

3. Manchester United — The Red Devils are better than almost everyone thinks despite precious few standout seasons from its players (David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard are among the pardoned). When it comes to talking progress, however, second place won’t cut it: Mourinho needs that FA Cup win over Chelsea, a trophy United hasn’t won since (checks his notes) oh, two seasons ago.

2. Liverpool — The Reds looked incredible in dicing up Roma for 80 minutes, but allowed Roma a sliver of hope. Moreover, the last four goals Liverpool has allowed have come in the 79th, 88th, 81st, and 85th minutes. Why won’t we put them ahead of City? Well, let me clarify: it’s not PST, it’s me. I’ll own this: As brilliant as Liverpool was against City, they were out-chanced 31-14 over two legs. Give me that scenario 100 times, and I’m betting on the 31 about 85-90 times. The Reds are almost there, and Naby Keita over Jordan Henderson would be a huge upgrade (especially if this success convinces Emre Can to stick around). Next year, yeah. This year, just no.

  1. Manchester City — The records continue to fall, and it’s funny to consider that should City had lost the first Manchester Derby and been knocked out of the UCL a round earlier — yes, even by Liverpool in the same manner — no one would be arguing for anyone other than City at No. 1.

WATCH: Giovinco levels CONCACAF Champions League Final

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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A trademark Sebastian Giovinco goal snapped a 1-1 first half tie and put Toronto FC in the driver’s seat for Major League Soccer’s first title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

Jozy Altidore scored the first goal after Orbelin Pineda put Chivas Guadalajara ahead early in Mexico, and the tie is level at 3-3 after 135 minutes.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Toronto needs to score once more and stay ahead by one, or win in penalty kicks.

The winner goes to the Club World Cup in December.

Look at this quick work from Giovinco after Marky Delgado slipped him into his office.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

AP Photo/Julia Chestnova
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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.