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.

A burning question for each Premier League team (and the relegated)

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We continue our postseason review of the Premier League with the big questions bearing down on 22 (soon to be 23) teams.

Twenty Premier League sides (and two already-promoted Championship clubs) have work to do in order to achieve their aims.

Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, and Man City want to a UEFA Champions League title. Manchester United, too, but the Red Devils join Arsenal as sides aiming to compete for titles.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Others, like West Ham, Everton, and Southampton, are prepared to grow toward top-end competitions, while Stoke City and Leicester City hope to take the next step after relatively disappointing campaigns.

What’s the top question for each team? Read on…

Arsenal  – This one’s easy: Forget will Arsene Wenger stay on (He will) — Will the Gunners name a sporting director and spend, spend, spend to rejoin the elite?

Bournemouth – Manager Eddie Howe and chairman Jeff Mostyn have steadily built the South coast team into a stylish threat that it isn’t afraid to spend, but can they build on their Top Half finish. More importantly, can they hang onto 16-goal man Joshua King, who scored more goals than anyone not on a European-qualifying team?

Brighton and Hove Albion – Chris Hughton is now thrice the Championship manager of the season, now can he identify which players can help him stay in the Premier League?

Burnley – Sean Dyche and the Clarets dug deep into their pocket books to stay in the Premier League for another season, now can the tiny club make the astute moves to do it again?

Chelsea – How will Antonio Conte organize his squad for his first season in the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea is a good one, but what will he do with older stars Diego Costa, Willian, and Cesc Fabregas?

Crystal Palace – Sam Allardyce may want to leave, which is fine, so who’s the right man to keep a very talented XI from underachieving? And will they be able to hang onto Wilfried Zaha?

Everton – This is less about squad than schedule: Assuming the Toffees dust their summer qualifier, how will Ronald Koeman negotiate both the Europa League and the Premier League?

Hull City – With Marco Silva reportedly off to Porto, there are two main questions for Hull: Can they find a new boss capable of keeping them near the top of the Championship, and able to convince ownership to keep spending?

Leicester City – Will Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy still be there come August?

Liverpool – Can Jurgen Klopp straighten out his defending and motivate a squad even when big names aren’t on the other side of the field?

Manchester City – Will another year of additions allow Pep Guardiola to assert his genius in a third major European league?

Manchester United – Is there a good replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the top of Jose Mourinho’s XI?

Middlesbrough – If the major pieces stick around, Boro has the tools to compete for the Championship title… but will the major pieces stick around?

Newcastle United – Rafa Benitez will again flip the roster at St. James Park, but can he bring the new boys together fast enough to avoid a relegation race?

Southampton – Is Claude Puel going to be the manager? If that one’s too easy, then will Virgil Van Dijk remain at St. Mary’s?

Stoke City – At what point does administration demand the Potters take the next step, or bounce Mark Hughes?

Sunderland – Will Ellis Short and company actually spend, or will Sunderland’s absence from the top flight be a long one?

Swansea City – Assuming Gylfi Sigurdsson leaves, how will Paul Clement address his attack while also fixing his back line and finding a metronome?

Tottenham Hotspur – Can Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Mauricio Pochettino punch through the glass ceiling to claim a Premier League title or sustained Champions Leagur run?

Watford – How many managers will the Hornets employ in 2017-18?

West Bromwich Albion – Tony Pulis is asking to spend. If the Baggies back him, can he break free from his defensive shell and build a team that aims for more than 40 points and another season in the Premier League?

West Ham United – Both chairman David Gold and manager Slaven Bilic want to make West Ham a big, big club. Can they find the next Dimitri Payet and finally find the elite striker they’ve been chasing for years?

Palace and West Brom: Knowing when to cut ties

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This one’s for two chairmen, Steve Parish of Crystal Palace and John Williams of West Bromwich Albion, if anyone’s passing along advice from a writer with exactly zero Premier League experience.

There’s a temptation to leave well enough alone with managers, an allure made only more seductive by the fact that coaching stability is almost contrarian in the high-turnover world of the Premier League.

And if you’re goal is to just survive every year, then by all means, read no further. You have your men in Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce.

Before we go any further, let’s admit to some prejudices. Pulis’ management preference to often bunker down and strip attacking talents of freedom, at least on the surface, is far from alluring and doesn’t quite fit the expectations of West Brom. And Allardyce is Allardyce, a blustery, credit-claiming boss who’s prime claim  is “I keep ’em up.”

But even beyond that, there’s a question whether either can change aims with so many years of the same anthems.

Pulis’ stingy teams have done relatively well, no doubt, and in no way is he a bad hire for a team with a vacant manager’s chair. But what happened for a second-straight season at the Hawthorns should be unacceptable, especially considering that this season saw a ship chartered toward high success.

When the Baggies clinched safety in 2015-16 only to fall flatter than Saido Berahino‘s West Brom career, it was forgivable. The Baggies hit the 39-point mark with a memorable win over Manchester United, then managed just four points over their last nine matches. That included home losses to Norwich City and Watford.

But critics — myself included — were eating their words when Pulis had West Brom dancing in the Top Ten deep into the 2016-17 season. These weren’t 1-0 counterattacking snoozefests, either, as Pulis was producing goals. Yet what happened when the Baggies hit their vaunted 40-point mark, this time on Feb. 25? One more win the rest of the way, to go with nine losses and two draws.

Here’s what Pulis said after a couple losses, “Complacency is the most annoying word in the dictionary. It is human nature to switch off a bit sometime.”

Sure, but how can it surprise when your mantra from August on is seemingly, “Get 40 points.” Staying switched on when you’ve targeted 40 like it’s the Champions League group stage is tough.

Still, that’s nothing compared to Allardyce, and Parish would be wise to leap at Big Sam’s latest big threats of quitting Palace. Forget that he was hired anywhere after his embarrassing ouster from the England job for a second, and focus on this:

Allardyce took over from Alan Pardew, and Palace slipped into the drop zone. Palace had done a woeful job of recruitment in the summer and Pardew overly complicated his problems by refusing to consistently plug service machines Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha into the mix with Christian Benteke.

Allardyce did fix that, but if he deserves anything it’s for striking it rich on three terrific transfer buys in Luka Milivojevic, Mamadou Sakho, and Patrick Van Aanholt. Spending in January is as important as it’s ever been, and Allardyce had more tools in his shed than Pardew or even Pulis beforehand.

Which is to say that if Palace likes Allardyce, fine, but to credit him for this turnaround is only partially worthwhile. To expect him to suddenly become or surprass the man who thrived at Bolton between 1999-2007 is foolish. Almost all of his career nods that don’t involve “avoided relegation” come at levels outside the Premier League, and Palace wants to keep growing.

Back to Pulis, he’s again highlighting the need for West Brom to spend, and perhaps that would allow him to adjust his mentality in the run-up to next season (You’d like to think he’d at least target a Cup run).

What’s worth saying is not that Palace and West Brom should fire their bosses. In Pulis’ case, let’s see if spending can change his stripes a bit (although it should be noted they’ve purchased Nacer Chadli, Matty Phillips, and Salomon Rondon). In Allardyce’s case, it’s a matter of employing a man who’s only out for his reputation and is either going to succeed and claim it was all his genius, or fail and put it on the players or board.

Aren’t there better options?

Football leaks: French police raid PSG HQ, 3 players’ homes

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PARIS (AP) A French official says police investigating suspected tax fraud linked to the soccer industry have raided the headquarters of Paris Saint-Germain and the homes of three Argentine players in France.

The official said anti-corruption police units searched the homes of PSG players Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore, and that of Nantes forward Emiliano Sala on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Real Madrid signs $50m teen ]

Police also raided the head offices of PSG at Parc des Princes and other offices in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside the French capital, the official said.

The official, familiar with the case, declined to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.

The national financial prosecutor’s office opened an investigation in December after so-called “football leaks” reports allegedly detailed tax arrangements by top players, coaches and clubs.

Real Madrid signs most expensive Brazilian since Neymar

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Real Madrid didn’t wait long after learning Vinicius Junior was healthy.

The 16-year-old Flamengo star is committed to the Bernabeu after passing a physical, and Real Madrid announced Tuesday that they’ll have their new player no later than July 2019.

The reported fee is $50 million, which would be the most money spent on a Brazilian player since Barcelona landed Neymar for about $64 million in 2013.

[ VOTE: Premier League Goal of the Season ]

The forward has made two appearances for Flamengo, and turns 17 on July 12. He has 19 goals in 22 appearances for Brazil’s U-17 side.

Here’s Real’s announcement:

Real Madrid C. F. and Clube de Regatas do Flamengo have reached an agreement regarding the transfer of the federative rights of the player Vinicius Junior from July 2018. The player will remain at his current club until July 2019, although he will be able to play for Real Madrid before then if both clubs agree to it.