Quick Six: Newcastle-City ‘controversy’, Chelsea’s second half strength; Fulham’s plight top PL’s weekend headlines

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1. ‘Controversy’ leaves Manchester City top after win at Newcastle

After Saturday’s games, Chelsea were lauded for going first. Same for City on Sunday. It’s this space’s dead horse, but with Arsenal favorites to re-claim the Premier League’s pole position tomorrow, this seems a perfect time to note the ridiculous adulation teams receive for taking temporary control of a place in the standings – be it first, fourth, 17th, what have you. While it’s true that Chelsea did sit first for a day after beating Hull on Saturday, any sensible person knows it was no cause for celebration. Maybe wait to see what Manchester City and Arsenal do?

On Sunday, lauding Chelsea proved ill-advised after Manchester City took their own temporary Premier League lead, though instead of headlines focusing on the Citizens’ potentially short-lived place at the top, the post-match story dwelt on a disallowed goal. With a Newcastle player (Yoan Gouffran) seemingly benignly ‘offside’, Cheick Tioté’s 34th minute goal was waved off, leaving the score 1-0, City. The visitors went on to claim a 2-0 win at St. James’ Park, with Álvaro Negredo’s insurance tally deep into stoppage time building on Edin Dzeko’s eighth minute opener.

[MORE: Newcastle 0-2 Manchester City: Controversial decision leaves Magpies empty-handed as City go top]

No doubt the ruling was controversial, but playing up its effect relative to the final score implies  Newcastle were deprived of a result. Certainly the Magpies would have been more likely to get points had the goal counted, but there were also 56 minutes left to play. Against the best attack in England, Newcastle were unlikely to keep their opposition off the scoresheet through the rest of the match. And in failing to score through the day’s 90 minutes, Newcastle failed to show themselves likely to build on Tioté’s eventually disallowed goal.

The season’s overall numbers back this up. Manchester City came into the game scoring 2.85 goals per game, and they scored twice at Newcastle. Their +34 goal difference dwarfed the Toon’s +4, hinting they were always the more likely team to outscore their opposition.

[MORE: Analysis: White, Le Saux on City’s new road resilience, Newcastle’s harshly disallowed goal (video)]

Just like overstating the value of a team going first after the weekend’s first match, implying Newcastle were somehow deprived of a result is more sensational than fair. Sure, there’s some grain of truth in the words, but they end up being more misleading than informative. Chelsea did go first but were always likely to finish the weekend third, just like Newcastle were always likely to lose to Manchester City. As a result, City sit first pending Arsenal’s trip to Villa Park (Monday) while the Magpies sit eighth.

2. Second half again key for surging Chelsea

Three games in a row, Chelsea have gone to half-time drawn 0-0. Three games in a row, Chelsea have finished with a multi-goal victory, their 2-0 win at Hull on Saturday leaving them second ahead of the round’s finale at Villa Park. With second half goals from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres, Chelsea marked the seventh time this season they’ve trailed or been tied going into the second half only to come back and win, victories which account for half of their seasons’ total.

[MORE: Hull 0-2 Chelsea: Blues go top after grinding out another win (video)]

Is there something specific about Chelsea that’s led to these results? Or is this a manifestation of chance? Perhaps José Mourinho’s trains and sets up his team to stay patient and take advantage of mistakes fatigue can induce from their opponents. Then again, Chelsea’s goals may be coming in the second half through little more than chance. Over the season’s final 17 games, the Blues may prove as capable in their first halves as they’ve been in their seconds.

Still, the phenomena is feeding into the perception that Chelsea’s play is still falling short of expectations, a perception we may want to reconsider. At the season’s onset, we expected Chelsea to be a dominant team, but dominant teams tend to look more like Manchester City then Mourinho’s lot. They tend to dominate from minute 1 to minute 90, something the Blues have struggled to do this season.

But goals in the second half count just as much as ones scored shortly after the opening whistle, and while we tend to associate them with an attritional quality that doesn’t fit normal notions of dominance, perhaps those goals signify dominance of a different sort. To many’s eyes (including my own), Chelsea seem more steady than great, but they’re still within reach of the top, having produced a consistent way of getting points. That consistency may just be chance spread over a relatively small numbers of games, but as that number of games grows, we have to consider whether there’s some skill behind the results. Chelsea have now won four-in-a-row.

3. Dempsey’s PL return overshadowed by Sunderland romp

Clint Dempsey’s Premier League return to Craven Cottage should have been a joyous occasion. He is, after all, Fulham’s all-time leading scorer in Premier League action. Instead, the game was arguably the Cottagers’ most-disappointing of the season – a staggering possibility given the team’s already lost 6-0 at Hull earlier this year.

Behind three goals from Adam Johnson, Sunderland posted a 4-1 win over the Whites, displaying the poor state of René Meulensteen’s team for the Craven Cottage faithful. Against a team that was averaging 0.75 goals-per-game ahead of Saturday’s action, Fulham conceded four times . At home. Against the Premier League’s former bottom dwellers.

[MORE: Fulham 1-4 Sunderland: Much needed victory gives Black Cats hope (video)]

The Black Cats deserve some credit, though. The performance was the latest in the steady improvement Gus Poyet’s side has seen since the Uruguayan’s appointment, with Adam Johnson having caught fire over the last five days. Mid-week against Manchester United, the winger turned the Cats’ League Cup semifinal in his teams’ favor. His three-goal haul in London will surely, perhaps prematurely, spark discussion about his worthiness for Brazil.

But for every column inch devoted to Johnson’s resurgence, one should be given to Fulham’s plight. The form table has them 12th in the Premier League, hinting the Cottagers are actually trending upward. Their actual play, however, won’t alleviate any of their supporters’ worries. If Fulham can’t even compete with the likes of Hull and Sunderland, how do they expect to survive their relegation battle?

4. West Ham ends slide as Carroll returns

Andy Carroll’s first appearance of the season ended up being more coincidental than causal, West Ham already up 1-0 by the time the England international came off the bench in Wales. When he assisted on the game’s final goal, however, the impact of Carroll’s absences came back into focus. Though the Hammers would have likely ended their seven-match Premier League slide even without Carroll, their strikers’ 2013-14 debut may carry some symbolic value. Carroll’s return could be the turning point of the season, and, oh yeah, they won a game, too.

[MORE: Cardiff City 0-2 West Ham: Victory lifts Irons out of the drop zone (video)]

That win will surely relieve the mounting pressure on Sam Allardyce (who declined to speak with the media after the game) while casting more doubt on what’s going on at Cardiff. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s hire has been lauded by the same people who constantly cast him in frame for so many Premier League jobs, yet any momentum garnered by the Bluebirds’ FA Cup win at Newcastle was squandered this weekend. By Solskjær’s own admission, Cardiff came out inexplicably flat against a team that’d lost their last two games by a combined 11-0. If your team can’t win at home against a struggling West Ham United, perhaps the problems are bigger than originally thought.

5. Obligatory, uncertain conclusions about Manchester United

Win, lose or draw, Manchester United will be in the headlines, mostly because each result fuels a narrative. If the Red Devils win, they’re steadying the ship following what should have been an expectedly uncertain time after Alex Ferguson’s departure. If they lose or draw, David Moyes’s ill-fit at Old Trafford continues, perpetuating the notion the Red Devils made a mistake with their blind trust in Ferguson’s judgment.

Saturday’s performance gave us six of one half, a half-dozen of the other. The first half was terribly boring, all the criticisms of United’s new-found one-dimensional, dull attack bolstered by an effort that lacked energy and nuance. In the second half, however, an enlivened United took an early lead on their way to a 2-0 result – exactly the type of outcome we would have expected at kickoff.

[MORE: Manchester United 2-0 Swansea: Red Devils revenge (video)]

All the while, United were performing against a Swansea team that make any broad conclusions about their opposition impossible. Competent but impotent, acceptable without actually being good, Swansea are there for the taking against any quality opposition, something that makes United’s FA Cup loss to Michael Laudrup’s side even more galling. On Saturday, however, United had just enough to topple the Swans, something that should breed more questions of Swansea than answers about United.

Their performance wasn’t indicative of a team that could compete for Champions League, yet alone emulate a title contender. After winning the league by 11 points last season, that’s where United should be. But after Saturday’s win, more immediate and modest evaluations need to be made. The Red Devils snapped a three-game losing streak, and in a season of uncertainty and doubt, that’s good enough. For now.

6. Defense a non-issue as Reds post five on Stoke

Daniel Agger’s injury left Brendan Rodgers’ with a depleted defense, Kolo Touré forced into a back-four that was also missing Mamadou Sahko, José Enrique, and Agger. One paper, the likes of Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, and Aly Cissohko helped round out a decent-enough unit. In practice, it was a flawed line quartet likely to get sporadic protection from an often permeable midfield.

This is where Rodgers’ approach helps. The Liverpool boss is not afraid to trade goals, mostly because he sets his team up to make the most of the matches were his opposition is willing to swap changes. On Sunday, the Reds not only lured Stoke City into a shootout but got help from a Ryan Shawcross own goal and a penalty converted by Steven Gerrard. Though they needed an 87th minute goal from Daniel Sturridge to make the final look comfortable, the Reds took a 5-3 result out of the Brittania, giving Rodgers’ side 51 goals in 21 games.

[MORE: Stoke City 3-5 Liverpool: Wild match sees Stoke comeback and Reds brilliance as Liverpool take spoils]

Just like West Ham’s win, Liverpool’s result was full of potential omens. Not only were they back to their high-scoring ways (scoring three for the first time in five games), but they got two goals from Luis Suárez, who is up to 22 league tallies for the season. And with Daniel Sturridge returning early from his ankle injury, Reds’ supporters have reason to believe there are even more goals to come, with their fourth-place team ready to consolidate their Champions League spot.

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 —