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.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”