Quick six: Top stories from the Premier League weekend

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1. CITY AFFIRMED, SPURS EXPOSED IN ETIHAD ROUT

This is why Manchester City, despite all their inconsistencies, have never lost their status as title contenders. Though their inexplicably bad road form means they’re capable of losing to the likes of Sunderland, their peak performances say this is the best team in the Premier League. At least, occasionally.

Sunday was one of those days. A goal within 13 seconds from Jesus Navas sparked City to a 3-0 lead by halftime. They doubled that margin before the final whistle, with Navas and the league’s top marksman (Sergio Agüero) each bagging braces. After their 6-0 victory, City’s scored 10 more goals than anybody in the league. Their +22 difference is eight better than league-leading Arsenal’s.

[MORE: Manchester City 6-0 Tottenham Hotspur: 13-second goal leads to blowout at Etihad (video)]

The other side of this coin in Spurs’, a team for which there may not be enough panic buttons to push. Coming into this game, the one thing they have going for them was defense. So much for that. Now a team that can’t score also has questions in defense, and to this point, they also haven’t been able to win the big games. In matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, and City, Spurs have two points. They also have new reason to doubt André Villas-Boas can make Tottenham’s offseason makeover pay off.

2. DOSE OF REALITY FROM ARSENAL BRINGS SOUTHAMPTON BACK TO EARTH

And just like that, Southampton’s six back of first. Whereas Mauricio Pochettino’s team was within a win of the top on Saturday morning, now they’re only two points out of ninth – the thin margin between Cinderella story and level most expected them to play at three months ago.

[MORE: Arsenal 2-0 Southampton: Giroud double extends Gunners lead at the top (video)]

There’ll be some asterisks thrown around because of the nature of Arsenal’s goals, but (at the risk of sounding simplistic) better players don’t make those mistakes. True, Artur Boruc and Jose Fonte’s errors were more egregious than you’d expect, but the lesser quality players you have, to more likely you are to see random breakdowns occur. Saturday’s mistakes were an overly blunt reminder that Southampton aren’t quite at a title contender’s level.

Arsenal, on the other hand, did exactly what you’d expect when a league leader hosts an upstart. They weathered Saints’ early energy to produce two good chances before Boruc wilted. Forte’s shirt pull was an act of desperation from a team who’d been proven second best. Arsenal put their guests in a position to fail.

As a result, they’ve regained some of the cushion they lost with their defeat at Old Trafford, now up four points on the rest of the Premier League.

3. NO MERCY FOR KEEPERS IN DERBY SHOOTOUT

A lot of the ‘you throw form out the window’ homily about derbies serves as empty hype. Thankfully, Everton and Liverpool lived up to that bombast on Saturday, their Merseyside Derby serving up six goals in what became the match of the weekend. After Daniel Sturridge’s 89th minute equalizer, both teams were left with a point after the season’s first derby at Goodison Park.

[MORE: Everton 3-3 Liverpool: Plenty of drama in the Merseyside Derby (video)]

Liverpool should feel much better then their rivals about this result. Everton forced Simon Mignolet into nine saves on the day, and if it wasn’t for the Toffees two set piece breakdowns in the first 20 minutes, that onslaught would have been enough to see the hosts take three points. But their failure to track Philippe Coutinho on a fifth minute corner cost them, as did their inability to set up an effective wall on Luis Suárez’s 19th minute free kick. All three Liverpool goals came off set pieces.

For most of the day, Everton was the better side, but their inability to cover the basics meant Liverpool were just as strong on the scoresheet, one which saw three goals from the Toffees’ Belgian stars (Kevin Miralles, Romelu Lukaku (two)) pulled back at Goodison. While Everton could comfort themselves in their overall play, but already up to six draws this season, the Toffees should be concerned that form didn’t produce three points. Sometimes moral victories aren’t victories at all.

4. ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK FOR MANCHESTER UNITED

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Kim Bo-Kyung celebrates his 91st minute equalizer, giving Cardiff City a 2-2 draw with visiting Manchester United. (Source: Getty Images.)

Again, it’s not that Manchester United dropped points, this time at Cardiff City. It’s how it happened. Up 2-1 in stoppage time, the Red Devils gave up an equalizer to Kim Bo-Kyung, set piece defending costing them two points after a foul by Chris Smalling.

[MORE: Cardiff City 2-2 Manchester United: Kim header in stoppage time shares points]

In isolation, the point isn’t a bad one, but there are going to be other times this year when Manchester United will have to fight for the same result. On the road against a team they should beat, they’ll concede on a corner or have a penalty go against them. They’ll need to scrounge for their point. It happens.

When you’re ahead, though? When you have not one but two leads? Against an inferior team? Yes, that happens, too, but United also let Southampton steal late points at Old Trafford. They also gave up a late goal to Shakhtar in Champions League, and West Brom was able to take full points in Manchester with a 67th minute winner.

Before the break, Manchester United was being lauded for their progress, having just knocked off Arsenal. This week, they regressed, and while that ebb and flow is bound to happen with any team, it also shows are still very much a work in progress.

5. THE LINGERING FEAR CHELSEA WILL FIGURE THINGS OUT

Chelsea beat West Ham, 3-0. To a certain extent that was expected. Perhaps we didn’t know the Blues would roll out three-goal winners, but nobody was really surprised. Thanks to a Frank Lampard special (penalty kick, last goal of a rout), Chelsea is even with Liverpool on points, both clubs four points behind Arsenal.

[MORE: West Ham 0-3 Chelsea: Lampard leads Blues to dominant win (video)]

That’s a fearfully narrow gap for a league that’s let one of the league’s two most-talented sides dilly-dally for 12 rounds and stay on the fringe of the title race while playing below their potential. On Saturday, the Blues shifted back to a 4-3-3 (type of) formation and produced a romp, and while it clearly wasn’t the stiffest test in the world (breaking: West Ham aren’t good right now), it was a more decisive victory than we’re used to seeing from this transitioning team.

At some point, that transition will be over. Same thing with Manchester City. These are the two most-talented teams in England, and they’ve barely been made to pay for their uneven starts. If these teams start clicking, it will be difficult for Arsenal to keep up.

6. RED CARDS: LESS RHYME, LESS REASON

Debates over red cards can be somewhat tedious. Like penalties, they’re refuge for disgruntled fans whose tinged lenses make judgment calls into evidence of bias. In truth, they’re just one of the variables we should accept, if not outright expect. You have to know some calls just aren’t going to go your way. Your team has 90 minutes to make up for it.

Consider that a caveat, because this weekend was a particularly inconsistent one in the Premier League. Wes Brown was sent off without touching a man, and Kevin Mirallas stayed on despite a truly reckless play on Luis Suárez. As Rebecca Lowe, Robbie Earle, and Robbie Mustoe imply, it’s less about how these calls effected their games (though Gus Poyet is rightfully furious) than trying to figure out what’s going on here:

I don’t begrudge people their red card debates, but when it comes to player health, there should not room for compromise. Wins, losses, and anything else that happens within the competitive part of the game are secondary to maintaining an environment when players don’t have to seriously worry about their knees being blown out.

If you want to tell me Wes Brown’s challenge crosses that line, I’m more than willing to listen (I’ll agree with the logic, not the application). If he makes contact, that could have been bad. But in the same thought we need to recognize Kevin Mirallas should have been gone. The world where that’s a permissible challenge is not one we want to watch.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.