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

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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.

De Gea remarks on that save after Man Utd draws Sevilla

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It was probably the save of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16’s first legs, as David De Gea slapped away Luis Muriel’s bid to give Sevilla a halftime lead over Manchester United on Wednesday in Spain.

[ MORE: Recap | Mourinho reacts ]

Playing in his home country, De Gea had a massive outing in the scoreless draw.

The defiance of Muriel was De Gea’s second big save of the first half’s closing moments, and one of eight in the match.

“It was a good moment, a good save of course, especially because of the moment in the game. It was the last minute of the first half, it was important to not concede a goal. We defended well. They had control of the game, but it remains open.”

Watch the save below, and then catch De Gea against Chelsea on Sunday as two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs duke it out for Top Four positioning at Old Trafford (Watch live Sunday at 9:05 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

New York City FC adds Stuttgart mid with option to buy

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New York City FC might’ve found its dynamic box-to-box midfielder.

Ebenezer Ofori, 22, is bringing his relentless motor and eight Ghanaian caps to the Bronx from Stuttgart on a one year loan deal with an option to buy.

[ MORE: Mourinho on Pogba performance ]

Ofori joined Stuttgart from Swedish side AIK Solna in the January 2017 transfer window, and played a role in the club’s promotion to the Bundesliga. He was a signficant part of Solna’s three-round run in Europa League qualification.

But he found very little time on the pitch once Stuttgart rejoined Germany’s top flight, and is taking his talents to MLS.

Here’s NYCFC boss Patrick Vieira:

“I’m really excited to bring in Ebenezer – he’s a young player who is looking to improve, he is really dynamic and can cover ground. He’s really aggressive but he’s good with the ball too. I’m really pleased that we managed to bring him to the football club.

“He’s a competitor, he’s a guy who likes to win, he’s a strong character. He’s coming to this club to compete with the midfielders we have and, like I always say, that will bring the best out of all of the players we have at this football club.”

Ofori joins a midfield with Alexander Ring, Maxi Moralez, and Yangel Herrera. It’s a promising signing, and a name with the potential to take big steps on the club and international scene.

And moves like this are going to continue to happen for NYCFC, because players will feel the allure of being under the eye of Manchester City and the pull of becoming City property. It’s a different dynamic than Chelsea’s loanees in that young players can make their name and be a star in a gigantic world city while attempting to ingratiate themselves with one of the world’s biggest clubs.

Mourinho: “Paul made a big effort”

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho had fine words for Paul Pogba, but was tickled by the performance of 21-year-old Scott McTominay in the Red Devils scoreless draw with Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Sevilla 0-0 Man Utd ]

The visitors emerged unscathed, though without an away goal, and Mourinho raised eyebrows when he kept Pogba on the bench to start the match. The young McTominay started the match, and was paired with Pogba once Ander Herrera left the match with injury.

When a reporter asked Mourinho about McTominay after the match, the boss asked if he could give the reporter a hug before elaborating (via the BBC):

“In the press conference, the questions were about Paul [Pogba] but the question should be about the kid. He was fantastic. He did everything well. He put pressure on Ever Banega and stopped him playing, he’s their playmaker. I think Scott was brilliant.

“I think Paul made a big effort to try to give the team what I asked of him. Paul replaced Ander, he tried to bring to the game the same kind of qualities. He lost a couple of possessions but he also gave us stability because we had a good percentage of possession for the way we played.”

Mourinho was sure to include Nemanja Matic as a big part of the midfield trio.

The Pogba-Mourinho questions aren’t going to go away any time soon, though it should be noted — perhaps strongly — that the player was ill this weekend and United has to face Chelsea in Premier League play this weekend.

Still, he couldn’t help but mention how much he believes “Old Trafford has missed a big European night,” and how he’s looking forward to a potentially big win come March 13.

Nil-nil in Seville as De Gea stars

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  • English sides unbeaten vs. La Liga in UCL season (2-6)
  • Pogba subs into match for Herrera, 17′
  • De Gea with seven saves for United

David De Gea was the star as Manchester United escaped Sevilla with a scoreless draw in the first leg of the two sides’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sevilla won a corner kick within 90 seconds, but the ball made its way through the 18 without finding a receiver.

Ander Herrera sprung Alexis Sanchez down the middle, but Jesus Navas cut across to catch the Chilean and thwart the United chance.

Navas then dragged a shot across goal and past a diving David De Gea but inches wide of the far post.

A Herrera injury — yes, another injury United supporters — meant Paul Pogba would join the fray after just 17 minutes with the key position in the 4-3-3.

Lukaku botched a terrific diagonal cross from Sanchez with a blast over the goal in the 25th minute.

The 38th minute saw Scott McTominay pump a ball right at Sergio Rico for the Sevilla backstop’s first save, and Angl Correa’s low shot was collected by De Gea for a third Red Devils save.

De Gea then made a leaping save on Steven N’Zonzi’s redirection of a bicycle kick just before halftime, and then slapped Luis Muriel’s header over the bar before the whistle.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

De Gea nabbed another save, his sixth in the contest, when Clement Lenglet got his head on an Ever Banega free kick in the 64th minute.

A Sanchez giveaway provided Sevilla the chance to counter, and Muriel couldn’t get the step back needed to power a header past De Gea.

United had a goal pulled back in the 83rd minute as the ball struck Lukaku’s arm in the build-up.