Quick six headlines from the PL’s New Year’s Day: Man United’s woes; Solskjær overshadows Arsenal; City, Chelsea impress

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1. Spurs continue Manchester United’s up-and-down season

From our Sunday Quick Six, on David Moyes pushing United to within three points of the top four:

The last time we speculated Manchester United’s transition phase was over, the team hit another patch that put David Moyes‘ job status back in the headlines … Moyes now appears to have some things figured out.

Three days later, everything we knew is wrong, with today’s 2-1 loss to visiting Tottenham leaving United five points back of fourth place Liverpool. Perhaps more importantly, the Red Devils let a decent but highly flawed Spurs team take three points from Old Trafford, handing United their fourth home loss of the season.

[MORE: Manchester United 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Eriksen inspires more Old Trafford blues]

The way it happened should rekindle misgivings about Moyes’ fit in Stretford. An inherently conservative tactician, Moyes instilled an approach that saw his team control possession (61-39) without generating enough chances. Before a late match barrage gave them a 6-3 edge in shots on target, the Red Devils had given up more chances than they’d generated, allowing a 34th minute header from Emmanuel Adebayor and Christian Eriksen’s 66th minute winner to take full points for Spurs.

No doubt, Spurs deserve credit for Wednesday’s result, with Tim Sherwood bringing his team within two points of a Champions League spot. A season that looked destined to disappoint under André Villas-Boas has been revitalized by his replacement. Like Pulis with Crystal Palace, Sherwood has seen early success with a ‘back to basics’ approach, one that’s rekindled the team’s preseason hopes.

Still, the headline to take out of Wednesday’s result is the two steps forward, two steps back quagmire that is United’s season. Is this team making any progress under Moyes? On Saturday, the answer seemed yes, but in hindsight, perhaps we were buying into the final results while overlooking the less convincing details..

Today, the answer is no, part of the reason the defending champions are 11 points off the lead at the 20-game mark.

2. Arsenal break through, Solskjær steals the news

On a day where Cardiff City needed that extra idea that could steal three points at the Emirates, the man set to provide that leadership going forward made a surprise cameo in the stands, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appearance alongside Bluebirds owner Vincent Tan dispelling the notion he was no longer a candidate for Malky Mackay’s old job. What the soon-to-be boss saw was a heartfelt but mostly impotent effort, with late goals by Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott delivering a 2-0 win to Arsenal.

[MORE: Arsenal 2-0 Cardiff City: Dominant Gunners break through late (video)]

Everywhere but the scoresheet, it was a one-sided affair. Arsenal kept 68 percent of the ball and outshot their guests 28-8, but stalwart defending helped limit the Gunners to six shots on target. For 88 minutes, that effort looked good enough to give Cardiff an unlikely point. Ultimately, however, Arsenal left with a deserved result.

[MORE: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seen with Vincent Tan at the Emirates Stadium, appointment imminent]

With it, Arsène Wenger’s side stay top of the league, and without Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey, the result serves as a testament to Arsenal’s depth as well as their consistency. Still, the big news at the Emirates didn’t transpire on the pitch but off, with Solskjær’s surprise appearance quelling the notion Cardiff had lost out on their prime candidate for Mackay’s job.

source: Getty Images3. HIGH-FLYING CITY RESURFACES IN WALES

On Sunday we tried to hype up the job Tony Pulis did in Crystal Palace’s near-upset at the Etihad Stadium. The most remarkable part: His Eagles held a Manchester City side on pace to set a league record for goals to only one score, something no other team had done in five matches. Granted, Manuel Pellegrini had made wholesale changes to compensate for the quick Boxing Day turnaround, but against a team with the resources of Manchester City, Crystal Palace still pulled off a minor feat.

Swansea City, however, had to face Álvaro Negredo, Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri. Their only reprieves were the absences of the injured Sergio Agüero and the rested David Silva, small consolations when the Swans found themselves down 3-1 by the 66th minute. Scoring his first of two just before halftime, Wilfried Bony gave Swansea temporary hope, but an early goal by Fernandinho followed by second half scores from Touré and Aleksandar Kolarov sent the hosts to a 3-2 loss.

[MORE: Swansea 2-3 Manchester City: Goals galore keeps City rolling]

Having given up two goals, City will hear more criticism of their defense, even though the team has allowed fewer goals than Tottenham, Manchester United, or Newcastle. And after winning another game on the road, Pellegrini’s side has dispelled the notion they morph into a different team away from the Etihad.

The one thing that’s indisputable: City can score goals. With 57 through 20 rounds, the Citizens are on pace to finish the season with 108 goals, a mark that would edge their names into the Premier League record books.

4. Chelsea performance provides more perspective on Southampton

Mauricio Pochettino is a very impressive man, part of the reason why everybody thought there may be something more to Southampton’s early season success than merely a hot team, a small sample size, and a set of early results transcending their more modest underlying factors. With our David Moyes’ narratives also proving unreliable, you’d think we’d learn some lessons about drawing early conclusions. Check back this time next year to see if any of us have softened our tones.

In the interim, Chelsea’s convincing 3-0 win at St. Mary’s is another reminder of the state of affairs at Southampton, where a decent team that’s made some smart moves since rejoining the Premier League has established itself as safely mid-table side. They’re not as good as their early season top-four form implied, nor are they as bad as a three-goal loss at home to an inconsistent (if talent) team hints. Sitting ninth on the Premier League, Pochettino’s team is right where it should be: behind the European aspirants; ahead of the teams with more obvious flaws.

[MORE: Southampton 0-3 Chelsea: Blues cruise to victory after classy display]

You could say the same about Chelsea, who are only two points off the lead after their fourth win in five. At the beginning of the campaign, most saw José Mouirnho’s team as Manchester City’s one true threat, and although Arsenal is emerging as a surprise contender for this year’s crown, Chelsea is only one point off City as we enter the season’s second half.

After their three-goal win at Southampton, however, it’s worth considering if they’re ready for more, yet this may also be a place where we can learn refraining from undo conclusions. One on hand, Chelsea just posted one of their most convincing performances of the year, with a strong showing from Fernando Torres providing another hint the Blues can still salvage something from their overpriced Spaniard. On the other hand, it wasn’t so long ago Chelsea was losing at places like Basel and Stoke and reverting into Mourinho’s favorite parry-and-pop policy to get a result at the Emirates.

So maybe we should just hold off. Manchester United visits Stamford Bridge in two-and-a-half weeks. Let’s see how the Blues perform against a good team when they’ll be expected to take full points. It’s a game they should win. Let’s give them a chance to impress us.

5. Cottagers rebound, climb out of drop

Fulham were playing one of the worst teams in the Premier League. They were at home, had their best attacker (Dimitar Berbatov) back, and saw their opponents lose a man just before half time. Come May, when we look back on the Premier League season, this may be the easiest game on the Cottager schedule, and in that sense, Wednesday’s 2-1 win over West Ham United was little more than holding serve.

[MORE: Fulham 2-1 West Ham: Kevin Nolan red card allows Fulham to ease by]

But given what happened this weekend, holding serve is enough. It was progress, even. Coming off a 6-0 loss at the KC Stadium, Fulham needed to prove the Hull result didn’t portend a collapse. They needed to prove it to themselves, to their fans, and perhaps to Shahid Khan, whose team just hired Alan Curbishley as technical director. If René Meulensteen couldn’t rebound from Saturday’s debacle, a successor was already on the payroll.

Instead, Fulham have climbed of the drop, passing Crystal Palace and Cardiff City to sit 16th. While it’s still difficult to see the Whites as a team that’s going to transcend a relegation battle, Cottagers fans don’t have to see last weekend’s drubbing as more than one bad result.

source: AP6. Liverpool, Everton swap leaves Reds in top four

Jan. 28’s Merseyside Derby at Anfield may turn out to be club’s most important game of the season, and not merely because of the rivalry between Liverpool and Everton. Sitting fourth and fifth in the Premier League, the blue and red halves of Liverpool may end up fighting it out for England’s last Champions League spot, and while the four-plus months after their late January meeting will provide a series of challenges that could undermine their final derby’s result, the 28th will be the final time either side can take points off the other. Whoever’s behind after that game will be at the other’s mercy.

After Wednesday’s results, Liverpool’s back on top, vaulting over the Toffees by virtue of their 2-0 win over Hull. Though the scoreline looks superficially mundane, Reds’ manager Brendan Rodgers called it his team’s best win of the season, Daniel Agger and Luis Suárez getting on the scoresheet as the Reds held Steve Bruce’s team without a shot on target. Coming off back-to-back loses to City and Chelsea, this was exactly the type of response Rodgers needed to see.

[MORE: Liverpool 2-0 Hull City: Agger and Suarez tame the Tigers]

Everton, on the other hand, dropped points for the second time in three games, a late penalty converted by Leighton Baines at Stoke City the only thing keeping Roberto Martínez’s team from their third loss of the season. Eventually cancelling out Oussama Assaidi’s early second half opener, Everton gave an effort Martínez lauded post-match, even if the 1-1 final also left the Toffees’ boss regretting missed opportunities.

[MORE: Stoke City 1-1 Everton: Late Baines PK rescues point for Toffees]

Half-way to the finish line, Everton can start shedding their upstarts’ mystique and begin thinking about European soccer. To do so, though, they need to avoid the type of pitfalls that held them back early in the campaign – pitfalls that led to the series of draws that leave them fifth after 20 rounds. Wednesday gave doubters another reason to think Everton will come up short.

Liverpool, on the other hand, showed they’re ready for a top four push, with Jan. 28’s derby at Anfield potentially key in their quest to return to Champions League.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —