Quick Six: Top stories from the Premier League weekend

2 Comments

1. ARSENAL GOES FIVE POINTS CLEAR AT THE TOP

Arsenal’s stars came through. Santi Carzola opened the scoring early, Mesut Özil had an assist, and Aaron Ramsey’s back to his September form.  As much as Arsenal’s 2013-14 has started as a story of redemption, it’s also about the difference a few special players can make. Özil’s addition, Ramsey’s improvement, Olivier Giroud’s contributions – they’ve all played vital parts in Arsenal’s rise.

It wasn’t a bad loss for Liverpool, but their 2-0 defeat at the Emirates showed the small but important gap between themselves and the title contenders. Like last year’s Arsenal, they’re probably three or four improvements away from competing at the top.

But consider the fact that Arsenal, a team generally thought the fourth or fifth best in England before round one, has already established itself as a title contender. Just over a quarter of the way through the season, Arsène Wenger’s team has convinced us has already proved us wrong. For the first time since Cesc Fábregas left London, Arsenal can reasonably be thought of as a title contender. Saturday’s performance was a reminder.

Thanks to Chelsea’s loss at Newcastle, the Gunners are five points clear at the top of the Premier League. That’s bigger than Bayern’s lead in Germany (one), Barcelona’s in Spain (one), Roma’s in Italy (three), and PSG’s in France (two). Expected to struggle to retain their Champions League spot, Arsenal now has the biggest lead among Europe’s top five leagues, a testament to how quickly things have come together.

2. NO DEFENSE FOR LETTING LLORIS PLAY-ON

If Hugo Lloris wasn’t out cold, he’d at least lost his sense of place and time after colliding with Romelu Lukaku. Late in Tottenham’s trip to Everton, the Spurs goalkeeper looked destined to be subbed out after his head made contact with the Belgian’s lower thigh, the Toffees forward’s speed nearly knocking Lloris out cold.

Shockingly, Lloris was allowed to play on. PST’s Kyle Bonn:

In allowing his player to run back onto the field, [Tottenham manager André Villas Boas] failed his players and proved that when it comes to head injuries, the Barclays Premier League lacks greatly in both the knowledge of head injuries and how to properly and safely deal with them.

I suppose I want to wait until we know a little bit more about Lloris’s state and the advice Villas-Boas was given, but I suspect I’ll be on Kyle’s side before too long. It’s hard to reconcile the decisions of Lloris, Villa-Boas, and potentially Spurs’ medical staff with common sense. Head injuries should be a proceed with caution scenario. It’s a shame this needs to be reiterated.

3. CHELSEA FLOPS, HAS MOURINHO FRUSTRATED

Before we start talking about the manager we can’t ignore, Alan Pardew deserves some credit. The Newcastle boss has seen his job speculated about since round one, and not without good reason. The Magpies’ blowout loss at Manchester City on the season’s opening Monday wasn’t their only disappointing performance of the season. On Saturday, however, the mildly embattled manager took three from one the league’s big boys, a 2-0 win over Chelsea seeing Newcastle put eight shots on goal to the Blues’ two.

His back line’s been thinned out by injury, and he still doesn’t have room for his most-skilled player (Hatem Ben Arfa), but after their upset victory, Newcastle’s in ninth place. Pardew’s recent tweaks deserve a lot of credit. On Saturday, his tactics played a big part in his team’s surprise result.

Coming out of the other technical area, José Mourinho was left lamenting the “”11 mistakes” he started at St. James Park. They’re strong words from a man still trying to get his squad to play to his vision, but after three months of performancse that’ve seen Chelsea fail to reach their title-threatening potential, perhaps it was time for a wake-up call. While losing at Newcastle isn’t the end of the world, being decidedly second best is unacceptable.

But we can overstate blips. What we should look for is a pattern. Absent a larger tendency toward these performances, there’s no good case to be made that Chelsea aren’t a very good team. They came into the match unbeaten in eight games. That doesn’t suddenly become irrelevant after one loss.

But this was their worst performance of the season. If there’s any time to ask what’s wrong, this is it.

4. WHAT NOW FOR JOE HART?

Manuel Pellegrini’s already confirmed Costel Pantilimon will start mid-week against CSKA Moscow. In fact, the Manchester City boss was practically fatalistic about his goalkeeping controversy after yesterday’s 7-0 win over visiting Norwich City. Asked about promoting Pantilimon past Joe Hart (and, implicitly, the possibility of Hart regaining the job), Pellegrini said, “It’s done and I am sure [Pantilimon] will do very well.”

So that’s that. Joe Hart’s now Manchester City’s No. 2, a move that was was long overdue. Yet while Manchester City pushes on (only six points back of Arsenal, despite an uneven start), the England national team’s left to wonder: What’s to come of their number one?

We’re a week away from another international break. Hart should get some time then, but come 2014, there’s only one break between January and the end of the European season.

If he sits on the bench for the better part of seven months, is Joe Hart starting in Brazil? Perhaps. It might come down to how convincing Fraser Forster is during the few truly high-level games Celtic plays each season.

5. ASMIR BEGOVIC: GOAL SCORER

Some things need neither analysis nor explanation:

The Stoke keeper’s score held up for 41 minutes before Jay Rodriguez equalized for Southampton. Come full time, the Bosnian international’s goal had given the Potters a valuable point over the sixth-place Saints.

It took wind, timing, the right bounces and some help from Artur Boruc, but what 100-yard goal doesn’t need a little luck? Every couple of years the planets align and we get a moment like this. Previously, it was Tim Howard. This weekend, it was Asmir Begovic.

6. CARDIFF THE KINGS OF WALES

Perhaps the action didn’t match the hype, but there’s so way it could. The occasion of the first Premier League South Wales Derby’s was always destined to overshadow what happened in the match, though defender Steven Caulker will always be remembered for having delivered the Bluebirds a historical three points.

PST’s Joseph Prince-Wright:

Of course the game winning-goal came had to come courtesy of a former Swansea player, as Caulker came back to haunt his former team who he played for in their debut Premier League season. But there were no over-zealous celebrations from the man Cardiff bought to the Welsh capital for $12 million this summer, as bedlam ensued around him.

Afterwards Caulker explained why.

“It was a different experience playing against them today,” Cardiff’s 21-year-old captain said. “I always enjoyed my time there, but now I’m a Bluebird and I’m focused on the win for us and even more buzzing to get the goal. I always respect the other teams that I played for and they [Swansea] took me in a couple of years ago. So there’s no hard feelings on my behalf at all.”

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

Associated Press
Leave a comment

Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

Getty Images
Leave a comment

England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

Associated Press
Leave a comment

Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.