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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.