Quick Six, Premier League weekend: Eto’o shines, top three thrives, and 11 teams cram relegation picture

2 Comments

1. Eto’o hat trick completes ‘Mourinho double,’ HIGHLIGHTS  Manchester United’s woes

Samuel Eto’o came into the weekend with three Premier League goals. Brought in from Anzhi Makhachkala just before the season started, the former Barcelona and Inter Milan star has failed to rise about his time-sharing arrangement with Chelsea’s incumbent strikers, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba. After two years in Dagestan’s soccer wilderness, the 32-year-old has looked years beyond his former, elite self.

On Sunday, however, Eto’o turned back the clock, if only for 50 minutes. Scoring in the 17th, 45th, and 49th minutes, the Cameroon international single-handedly reversed Chelsea’s recent slow starter status. Against Manchester United, the Blues were up three within four minutes of halftime, with only Javier Hernández’s late consolation pulling giving the Red Devils a goal come full time. Suffering their fourth loss in five games, United fell at Stamford Bridge, 3-1.

[MORE: Chelsea 3-1 Manchester United: Eto’o hat trick extends Moyes misery]

On the back of their early season 0-0 in Manchester, the Blues completed what we could call a Mourinho double, a nod the Blues’ boss’s want to play conservatively on the road against top-tier opponents. We saw it in August at Old Trafford. We saw it in December at the Emirates. Just as during his first spell in London, José Mourinho is willing to play for a draw on the road, mitigating a rival’s best change to claim full points, knowing a win at home will give his side the edge in the standings.

In that way, we should have seen this result coming. This is Mourinho’s modus operandi. The second the final whistle blew in Manchester on Aug. 26, we should have known Chelsea were going to take the teams’ battle at Stamford Bridge. We’ve seen it too many times before.

What we couldn’t have predicted, however, was how easy it would be. Chelsea are clearly title contenders, but compared to how a team like Liverpool have performed at Stamford Bridge (losing 2-1), United seem at least two tiers below the Blues. Expected to be title contenders, the Red Devils aren’t even Europe-worthy, right now. That’s far beyond the drop most predicted for Moyes’ first year at Old Trafford.

The same explanations we’ve heard over the last five months will be rolled out in Monday’s analysis, but don’t let anybody tell you United’s talent is this bad. They didn’t have Wayne Rooney, and they didn’t have Robin van Persie, but Manchester United were still able to start a quality team on Sunday. Go player-for-player and compare the two teams and you’ll find comparable talent across the back fives, two usually flawed midfields, Chelsea with a more talented attacking midfield but United with the in-form striker (until Eto’o went off). It wasn’t a side that should have been down three after 49 minutes.

Right now, however, they’re playing like an average team, at best. United has no confidence, no drive – nothing to inspire them beyond their current quagmire. Sunday merely confirmed what we already knew.

2. Easy days for Arsenal, Manchester City help leave top three unchanged

In the face of recent embarrassments against Hull and Sunderland, Saturday may be progress for Fulham. Visiting an Arsenal team the Cottagers were never expected to beat, Fulham managed to take the game to halftime scoreless despite being out-shot 8-2. Arsenal turned their control into goals early in the second half, Santi Cazorla scoring in the 57th and 62nd minutes, but in similar circumstances earlier this season, we’ve seen Fulham’s floodgates open. With Brede Hangeland and Maarten Stekelenburg back in the team, René Meulensteen’s side was able to ‘hold’ the Gunners to a 2-0 win. Perhaps it’s little more than a moral victory, but given the quality of Fulham’s opposition, that’s all they were ever likely get.

[MORE: Arsenal 2-0 Fulham: Cazorla double keeps Gunners top (video)]

The victory helped keep Arsenal ahead of a Manchester City team that continues to pour in goals. Within 15 minutes on Saturday against visiting Cardiff, the league’s most potent attack was on the board, Edin Dzeko scoring his sixth goal in four games. Craig Noone would pull the Bluebirds even just before the half-hour mark, but goals by Jesús Navas, Yaya Touré, and substitute Sergio Agüero had the home team up three in the 79th minute. City went on to win, 4-2, leaving the Citizens on pace for a record 108 Premier League goals.

[MORE: Manchester City 4-2 Cardiff City: Goals galore, once again, for the Citizens (video)]

Combined with Chelsea’s win and Liverpool’s draw, the big three have eliminated any doubt as to who will compete for this season’s title. After 22 games, Arsenal has 51 points, City has 50, and Chelsea is up to 49. After that, there’s six-point gap back for fourth, where Liverpool, Tottenham, and Everton look set to compete for the league’s last Champions League spot.

3. Liverpool remains a work in progress

Last week against Stoke, Liverpool overcame the mass injuries it’s suffering in defense, their five-goal win over the Potters validating Brendan Rodgers’ approach. This week, however, that same approach could be seen as a culprit, with the Liverpool boss failing to do enough to protect his patchwork back four against Aston Villa. Down two after Christian Benteke’s 36th minute goal, Liverpool had to fight back, eventually securing a 2-2 result at Anfield.

[MOVE: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Reds stage comeback, but Villa leave Anfield with a draw (video)]

Had Rodgers not started Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling wide, Gabriel Agbonlahor may not have created two goals down the flanks. And a two-man midfield of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson doesn’t exactly endorse Liverpool’s Champions League credentials. As entertaining as Liverpool has been throughout the season, this is still a thin, slightly flawed team that’s looking to take the next step. They’re just looking to get back into Champions League.

That type of team isn’t immune to dropping points against the world’s Aston Villas, particularly when Agbonlahor and Benteke have good days. It doesn’t mean they can’t finish top four, but contrary to what I’ve claimed for most of the season, it does mean they have issues to address before contending for a title.

4. Tony wins Pulis Derby

Given the early success Tony Pulis has experienced at Crystal Palace, it was strange to see the Eagles in the bottom three going into this weekend’s action. Against his former club, however, Pulis had the perfect stage to highlight the influence he can have on a club, with an increasingly aimless Stoke falling 1-0 at Selhurst Park.

[MORE: Crystal Palace 1-0 Stoke City: Palace out of the relegation zone (video)]

It wasn’t glamorous or decisive. Pulis’s teams never are. Instead, it was conservative but opportunistic, Palace holding the Potters to two shots on goal while leveraging Oussama Assaidi’s mistake for the game’s only goal. When the Liverpool loanee mistakenly assisted on Jason Puncheon’s redemptive score, Palace had all they’d need to hold off a punch-less Stoke.

With 20 points, Pulis’s new team sits 16th, albeit only two points above from the cellar. With seven points in six games, however, the Eagles give every indication they’ll be able to claw their way to safety, just as Pulis promised.

5. The 11-team relegation battle

Aston Villa’s draw at Anfield leaves Paul Lambert’s team in 10th place, and while that speaks to the resurgence the Claret and Blue have undergone over the last three weeks, it also makes for a deceptive description of the Premier League. While yes, Villa is technically in the league’s top half, a more accurate way to describe the team’s quality notes they’re only six points off the drop. This year, being 10th isn’t worth much.

Twenty-two rounds into the season, 11 teams still have to worry about relegation. West Ham, Sunderland, and Cardiff, each with 18 points, all have the biggest worries, but a bad stretch could find Villa (24), Hull (23), Norwich (23), or Stoke (22) facing their Championship fears. All of West Brom (21), Swansea (21), Crystal Palace (20) and Fulham (19) are within three points of the drop.

Should this persist, the Premiership will have its deepest relegation battle in history, and judging by this weekend’s performances, nobody’s ready to break clear. Hull went without a shot on goal. Stoke was only slightly less inept at Palace. On form, Swansea and West Ham would be the division’s worst teams if it wasn’t for Cardiff, while Fulham’s bipolarity would be debilitating, if the rest of the league got its act together.

[MORE: Norwich City 1-0 Hull City: Vital win for the Canaries (video)]

[MORE: Sunderland 2-2 Southampton: Black Cats fight back to grab draw (video)]

Sunderland and Crystal Palace are showing enough improvement, it’s difficult to imagine either finishing in the bottom three. But their lack of quality also makes it hard to see them separating themselves from the pack. In mid-January, we have an 11-team relegation battle, and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.

6. Adebayor, Cabaye leading European pushes

If Manchester United want a quick fix, they need only look north. Yohan Cabaye would be a perfect partner for Michael Carrick, providing the Red Devils with some of the final third influence we don’t get from David Moyes’ other midfield options. While United fans may still dream of Athletic’s Ander Herrera, a more accessible option may already be in the Premier League, with Cabaye still eligible to play in this year’s Champions League.

On Saturday, Cabaye again proved his value, leading Newcastle to a 3-1 win at West Ham. Scoring his team’s first and third goals, the French international was the game’s best player, his “new” role behind Loic Remy allowing him to be more influential going forward. Where Newcastle’s biggest concern has been finding somebody to share Remy’s goal-scoring load, the solution may be obvious: Put your most creative player in a position to be more dangerous. In the six games he’s been used as an attacking midfielder, Cabaye has four goals. In a deeper role, the former Lille star has scored three times in 13 appearances.

[MORE: West Ham 1-3 Newcastle: Newcastle snap losing streak, cause more pain for Irons (video)]

Emmanuel Adebayor is providing a similarly obvious solution for Tottenham. Under André Villas-Boas, Spurs were undone by their inability to finish, the former boss persisting with Roberto Soldado while Adebayor languished in exile. When Tim Sherwood took over, the 29-year-old Togo international was brought back into the team, proving an immediate success. On Sunday, Adebayor scored his fourth and fifth goals in six starts, leading Tottenham to a 3-1 win at Swansea.

[MORE: Swansea City 1-3 Tottenham: Spurs incisive counter too much for sorry Swans (video)]

The win pushed Spurs to 43 points, even with fourth place Liverpool. While some see their standing as a sign Villas-Boas was fired too soon, the Portuguese boss was probably fired at just the right time. Tottenham has been much better under Sherwood, in large part because of the tweaks the new manager has made to the team’s approach. Had Daniel Levy persisted with “AVB,” Tottenham may have drifted too far off the pace to wage a Champions League challenge.

As for Newcastle, Saturday’s win ended a four-game slide, leaving them one point back of seventh place Manchester United. It also ended a scoreless run in league that extended back to Boxing Day, when the Magpies scored five times against Stoke.

Given the depths West Ham has sunk to, we can’t overlook the Irons’ part in the result, but we also can’t overlook the value of a well-utilized star. Like Adebayor, Cabaye lifted his team this weekend, helping their quest to reclaim a spot in Europe.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
Leave a comment

Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.

Premier League Power Rankings: In tiers

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Liverpool has knocked Manchester City from the Champions League, but sits 19 points behind the leaders and City has a match-in-hand.

Manchester United beat City just weeks ago, but was bounced from the UCL even earlier. The Red Devils also took four of six points from Liverpool.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Spurs are fourth in the table but also took four of six from Liverpool and could be level on points with the Reds by winning its match-in-hand.

So the question remains, who’s the best team in the Premier League right now? That’s why we’re revisiting our Premier League Power Rankings for the first time in a while, since City was the unquestioned No. 1 for months.

Will it change anything? Spoiler alert: Probably not.

Spots 20-14: Not safe yet

20. West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies are going down, but Darren Moore has at least instilled some life into a moribund bunch which was saddled with the dour and unsuccessful tactics of Tony Pulis before moving onto the peppy and hard-to-understand tactics of Alan Pardew.

19. Stoke City — The Paul Lambert jump has faded, and the Potters’ inferior goal differential and one more match played than both Southampton and Swansea City feel like a death knell.

18. Southampton — Yes, the Bottom Three is the same as the table, but Saints are a New South Coast Derby win away from sitting three points back of pulling Palace and perhaps Huddersfield Town and West Ham United back into the picture.

17. Huddersfield Town — If David Wagner cannot lead the Terriers past Everton this weekend, his side finishes at Man City, at Chelsea, and home to Arsenal. That’s a recipe for watching a six-point advantage on the drop zone melt away.

16. Swansea City — Still four points clear of the drop zone, Swans have the cup half-full of facing Saints and Stoke City. The two sides aren’t very good, but also the only teams to worry about when it comes to their Premier League lives.

15. Crystal Palace — Given their turnaround from the beginning of the season, it feels dirty to have them so low. But of the three clubs sitting six points clear of 18th, the Eagles are the one to have three matches left and not four.

14. West Ham United — A brutal schedule featuring two of David Moyes‘ old sides — Everton and Manchester United — means the Irons cannot breathe safely yet (especially with Swans, Saints, and Stoke set to take points off each other).


Spots 13-11: Foot off the gas (and is there any gas in the tank?)

13. Watford — Javi Gracia may have Watford safe, and that was his charge, but the Hornets look like the same team they did under previous bosses. The Hornets have two points from their last six, and would be much further down the table if they weren’t essentially safe.

12. Bournemouth — Eddie Howe is probably wondering how that Arsenal chair would feel right about now, as the Cherries have probably reached a glass ceiling. Now a derby against Saints can define the run-in to the season.

11. Brighton and Hove Albion — Perhaps satiated by a five-match unbeaten run that featured a win over Arsenal and beat downs of Swansea and West Ham, Chris Hughton‘s Gulls have two points in five matches including a derby loss to Palace.

10. Everton — Sam Allardyce‘s men nicked a win off of Newcastle last weekend, and it was about as satisfying as moribund draws against Liverpool’s B Team and Swansea City. There’s a lot of unrest at Goodison Park, and Sam Allardyce has to go. Because of the relative positive vibes at lower table sides Leicester and Newcastle, Everton sinks beneath them.

9. Leicester City — A fun team which has had infuriating lapses at the back. Jamie Vardy‘s as reliable as ever, and there’s a real question what they’ll do without Riyad Mahrez (allegedly) in the future. Wilfred Ndidi, Demarai Gray, and Fousseni Diabate look a big part of said future, but it’s a bit alarming that the Foxes haven’t been able to take advantage of the relatively open door to seventh since Claude Puel righted Craig Shakespeare‘s sinking ship.

8. Newcastle United — The Magpies saw their win streak snapped by Everton, but Rafa Benitez is playing with house money after coaxed a midtable season out of a Championship squad. A healthy Islam Slimani has moved Dwight Gayle to his rightful role as a spark plug off the bench, but don’t sleep on the wonders Benitez has worked in turning Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, and Paul Dummett into serviceable Premier League players. The future is bright if Mike Ashley sells the team or at least opens his purse strings to make one of the longest road trips in the PL even harder for visitors to St. James’ Park.


Spot 7: One of the best stories in Premier League history

7. Burnley — A loss to Chelsea and draw with Stoke has sunk Sean Dyche‘s excitement, we’re sure, but Southampton’s departure from the FA Cup means seventh place means Europa League. It’s Burnley in Europe: Yes, for real!


Spots 6-4: The bargaining stage of grief

6. Chelsea — The Blues have won two-straight in the league and reached an FA Cup Final against old pal Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, but there’s as much uncertainty at Stamford Bridge as there is at the Emirates. The difference? We know Roman Abramovich will spend more to try to fix it.

5. Arsenal — The danger of slipping behind Burnley and into seventh on the table has passed, but the Arsene Wenger goodbye tour is focused firmly on the Gunners’ fate versus Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Europa League and the quite decent form of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as a resurgent and healthy Aaron Ramsey. Defenders need improving in a big way and there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding Wenger’s replacement. Don’t know what you’ve got til its gone?

4. Spurs — No trophy again this season, and there’s a very good chance Tottenham will miss out on third place by virtue of goal difference when all is said and done; When all’s said and done, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will have drawn 1-1 or 0-0 against West Brom, Swansea, Watford, West Ham, Saints, and Brighton. That’ll render a decent record against top foes less impressive.


Spots 3-1: Power trio

3. Manchester United — The Red Devils are better than almost everyone thinks despite precious few standout seasons from its players (David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard are among the pardoned). When it comes to talking progress, however, second place won’t cut it: Mourinho needs that FA Cup win over Chelsea, a trophy United hasn’t won since (checks his notes) oh, two seasons ago.

2. Liverpool — The Reds looked incredible in dicing up Roma for 80 minutes, but allowed Roma a sliver of hope. Moreover, the last four goals Liverpool has allowed have come in the 79th, 88th, 81st, and 85th minutes. Why won’t we put them ahead of City? Well, let me clarify: it’s not PST, it’s me. I’ll own this: As brilliant as Liverpool was against City, they were out-chanced 31-14 over two legs. Give me that scenario 100 times, and I’m betting on the 31 about 85-90 times. The Reds are almost there, and Naby Keita over Jordan Henderson would be a huge upgrade (especially if this success convinces Emre Can to stick around). Next year, yeah. This year, just no.

  1. Manchester City — The records continue to fall, and it’s funny to consider that should City had lost the first Manchester Derby and been knocked out of the UCL a round earlier — yes, even by Liverpool in the same manner — no one would be arguing for anyone other than City at No. 1.

WATCH: Giovinco levels CONCACAF Champions League Final

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

A trademark Sebastian Giovinco goal snapped a 1-1 first half tie and put Toronto FC in the driver’s seat for Major League Soccer’s first title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

Jozy Altidore scored the first goal after Orbelin Pineda put Chivas Guadalajara ahead early in Mexico, and the tie is level at 3-3 after 135 minutes.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Toronto needs to score once more and stay ahead by one, or win in penalty kicks.

The winner goes to the Club World Cup in December.

Look at this quick work from Giovinco after Marky Delgado slipped him into his office.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

AP Photo/Julia Chestnova
Leave a comment

MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.