Quick Six: Imperious Liverpool, undeniable Hazard, and the rest of the Premier League’s weekend headlines

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1. Liverpool bombard Arsenal, cast doubt on Gunners’ title hopes

Describing a performance as imperious has become a Premier League cliché – something people use to buy credibility in the conversation, whether the description is justified or not. On Saturday, however, to the extent that word can ever be applied to a soccer game, Liverpool truly were imperious. From the first moments of their visit from Arsenal, the Reds assumed an arrogant, domineering authority, seemingly without predictability or reason. While the reasons became evidence as the match went on, the match’s first 20 minutes carried a type of shock and awe that would make Donald Rumsfeld blush. Scoring four times in just over 19 minutes, Liverpool went on to win, 5-1.

After the match, Brendan Rodgers was asked about Liverpool’s title chances. With his team having just routed the league leaders, it seemed a reasonable question, even if Rodgers confessed the title’s not on his team’s mind. In reality, despite carrying title contender’s form, the Reds have no realistic chance of claiming this year’s crown. Their odds of passing third place Manchester City and second place Arsenal and first place Chelsea and maintaining their current form are probably on the order of 100-to-1.

[RECAP: Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: Rampant Reds tear leaders apart (video)]

The telling part of Saturday’s game was on the other side of the ball. Arsenal’s problems defending set pieces gave Liverpool two in the first 10 minutes, but given the nature of each goal, the Gunners can console themselves some bumper stick logic (“S— Happens”). Martin Skrtel looked offside on the first and executed a low-percentage header on the second, and while good defenses could still adjust and stop both, they’re goals you’re not going to give up that often.

The third and fourth goals, however, highlighted the problem with Arsenal. With Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere as the two in their 4-2-3-1 formation, the Gunners have no true destroyers. They don’t even have a defensively inclined player, perhaps highlighting the importance of the suspended Mathieu Flamini. When Liverpool was able to quickly transition through the middle of the park, the midfield provided no protection for a good-not-great defense that was picked apart. Arsenal just doesn’t have the kind of talent along the backline that’s going to consistently make up for mistakes like Saturday’s.

[ANALYSIS: Three things we learned in Liverpool’s battering of Arsenal]

The game was an aberration for Arsenal, so we should be careful not to be too firm in our conclusions. Still, the Gunners looked like a team that’s one transfer window away from matching Chelsea and Manchester City. Unable to weather the loss of Flamini, and without the talent at the back to make up for Mesut Ozil’s giveaways, Arsenal were outgunned at Anfield.

2. Eden Hazard vaults Chelsea top

When Chelsea visited Newcastle on Nov. 2, the Magpies appeared to have figured them out. Alan Pardew’s team was content to sit back and absorb Chelsea’s pressure, evidently wagering the Blues would be unable to break them down. Second half goals from Yoan Gouffran and Loïc Rémy allowed that bet to pay off, with Newcastle ending the Blues’ nine-game unbeaten run.

To the extent Newcastle tried the same approach Saturday, Chelsea were able to show how far they’ve come. Though it took them half an hour to break through, the Blues controlled the match from the opening kickoff, the positioning of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian behind Samuel Eto’o eventually able to exploit angles that would win them the game. On their opener, those angles presented themselves on the right ahead of Hazard’s one-timer from just inside the box. On their second, a give-and-go with a clever Eto’o backheel set up another clinical finish from Hazard.

[RECAP: Chelsea 3-0 Newcastle: Hazard’s hat trick sends Blues top (video)]

The Beligan completed his hat-trick in the second half after Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa conceded a penalty, with the subsequent conversion pushing Hazard to 12 goals on the year. Though that only ranks fourth in the Premier League, the 23-year-old has been one of the league’s two best players over the last two months (at least), with his uptick in form coinciding with Chelsea’s continued improvement. As Hazard has responded to José Mourinho’s call to greatness, the Blues have steered clear of the problems that plagued them at St. James’ Park.

As a result, Chelsea finds itself alone atop the Premier League after 25 rounds, with their Monday win over Manchester City leaving little doubt as to who’s the best team in the Premier League. Should they maintain this level, Chelsea is going to reclaim the title. The doubts won’t come unless Chelsea falls off.

[REACTION: Jose Mourinho plays down Chelsea going top, how long will he keep doing this?]

3. DRAW WITH COTTAGERS HEIGHTENS RED DEVILS CONCERNS

source:  There are few sports where such an asymmetrical approach can be rewarded, but in soccer, sometimes you can sit in your own penalty box, wait for opponents’ mistakes, and get a result. On Sunday, Fulham stubbornly offered of the most extreme examples of this approach, spending much of the game playing with a line of six 12 yards from goal. Aesthetics be damned, Fulham earned a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.

Across the penalty area, the Cottagers at times had four defenders and their 4-4-2’s wide midfielders lined up within the width of the six-yard box. As a result, Manchester United were able to exploit the flanks to pump in 81 crosses – the highest total recorded across Europe’s top-five leagues since companies started tracking such things. Unfortunately, almost none of those crosses generated even half-chances, with the Red Devils spending most of the game indulging Fulham’s predilections.

[RECAP: Manchester United 2-2 Fulham: Darren Bent denies Old Trafford comeback as United continue to falter]

Until 12 minutes from time, Fulham were being outplayed, riding their luck with a couple of great saves from Maarten Stekelenburg. But Steve Sidwell’s 19th minute goal (a result of some of the most absent-minded defending you’ll see) was still holding up. It was not only the difference between the sides, it was Fulham’s only shot on goal.

Then a ball fell for Juan Mata outside the six, who fired it far post for Robin Van Persie. In the 78th minute, United had finally broken through. When a deflection on a shot from the edge of the area got Michael Carrick on the scoresheet, the Red Devils were in front with 10 minutes to go.

But just like everything else in 2013-14, things didn’t work out for United. Four minutes into stoppage time, Carrick had a ball taken off of him at the edge of his defensive third. A save from David de Gea on Kieran Richardson couldn’t stop the ball from dropping for Darren Bent at the right post, with the Fulham sub’s header stealing a point at Old Trafford.

[REVIEW: Premier League Roundup: Chelsea go top, Liverpool hammer Arsenal, big wins at the bottom]

It was another microcosm of the Moyes era. Instead of making adjustments and asking his team to take advantage of the space in front of a receding defense, the United boss saw his team pump cross after aimless cross into the penalty box’s chaos. Eventually his team went in front, the probabilities associated with having the ball in the Fulham end for two-thirds of the match seeming to bear out. Still, the shortcomings of his approach left United within striking distance of an inferior opponent, allowing another team to steal points from the Theatre of Increasingly Unpleasant Dreams.

It was the seventh time in 13 games United dropped points at home, leaving the club in seventh place – nine back of fourth. Given that gap and the 13 games left in the season, the Red Devils’ hopes of reclaiming a Champions League spot have effectively evaporated. Moyes has pulled a Rafa on United, just without all the glory that came before Liverpool’s fall.

4. Manchester City fail to show up at Carrow Road

Ahead of kickoff on Saturday, Manchester City knew a win would leave them first in the Premier League. With Arsenal routed by Liverpool, the Citizens could reclaim the spot they lost after Monday’s defeat to Chelsea, and although they would have to do so without Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho (both injured), a Norwich City team that came in two points above the drop should have been nothing more than a speed bump.

Unfortunately, City never found first gear, leaving their 68-goal form in Manchester while they put only two shots on goal. The only saving grace was their opponent doing the same, though a ball in the back of Joe Hart’s net gave the Sky Blues a scare before the goal was waved off. Going the last 47 minutes without drawing a save from John Ruddy, City were left with a 0-0 draw and a ticket to third place.

[RECAP: Norwich City 0-0 Manchester City: Norwich hold fast to keep City to a draw (video)]

The team was without Agüero. Fernandinho missed his second straight match, and Samir Nasri’s also out. Three of the team’s first choice front six were unavailable, but with a squad that features Jesus Navas, Edin Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and James Milner in reserve, Manuel Pellegrini should have still found a way to three points. As the previous 24 matches showed, Norwich just aren’t that good.

On Saturday, however, they were good enough to take a point from City. As a result, Pellegrini needs to regroup, with one point in two games casting Manchester City’s title hopes in a new, less favorable light.

5. Monk claims South Wales Derby in Swansea debut

This is the Swansea City team we expected to see all season, one that should have built on last year’s League Cup triumph. Instead, the Swans entered Saturday’s derby one point above the drop, with interim manager Gary Monk tasked with picking up the pieces after Michael Laudrup’s mid-week dismissal. What resulted was one of Swansea’s best performances of the season, perfectly timed to compound the worries of their relegation-embattled rivals.

In every phase of the game, Swansea was better than Cardiff, who only mustered one shot on the returning Michel Vorm. In contrast, Swans’ early energy generated an opportunity for Wayne Routledge through the right of defense – a chance that was hit right at David Marshall. Scoreless in 13 months, the Swansea winger was made to wait for his breakthrough.

Less than two minutes into the second half, it happened, with Routledge burying a near-identical chance to open the scoring. Goals by Nathan Dyer and Wilfriend Bony added to the Bluebirds’ misery, with a re-inspired Swansea team earning a 3-0 win for their new boss.

[RECAP: Swansea City 3-0 Cardiff City: Swans compound Cardiff misery (video)]

In the process, Swans sent their rivals to their worst loss under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a defeat that leaves Cardiff three points adrift. Were it not for Fulham, the Baby-faced Assassin would be shooting from the bottom of the table.

6. Tottenham hands Everton Champions League blow

source: Getty ImagesFor Liverpool, the title’s a long shot because of the teams, not the points. It’s one thing to close a six-point gap. It’s another, much more difficult thing to do so as part of a four-team race – particularly when you sit last in that race.

After Sunday’s loss at White Hart Lane, Everton find themselves in a similar position, albeit in a different race. Thanks to Emmanuel Adebayor’s seventh goal of the season, Spurs were able to claim a 1-0 victory over the Toffees, reclaiming fifth in the process. Three points behind the Reds, Spurs now have a two-point edge on Everton in the race for England’s last Champions League spot.

[RECAP: Tottenham 1-0 Everton: Adebayor goal from nothing puts Spurs past Everton]

Perhaps predictably, Everton controlled large portions of the game, limiting Spurs to two shots on goal. Also predictably, the Toffees were bound to be undone by a counter or a set piece, with a quick second half leading to Sunday’s only goal. After Kyle Walker’s restart found Adebayor isolated against Seamus Coleman, the Togoan was able to beat Tim Howard for the match’s only goal.

If Everton only had to overcome a five-point gap to claim a Champions League spot, Blues’ fans could rest their hopes on a Liverpool slip, as unlikely as that is. Now, having allowed Spurs to pass them, that slip would have to be accompanied by a downturn for Tottenham (as well as a Toffees’ surge). While that’s not impossible, 13 games leaves very little time for everything to fall into place.

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

Photo credit: BBC Sport / Twitter: @BBCSport
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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.

PL Sunday preview: North London derby; clarity for the top-four?

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images & Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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There’s Super Sunday, and then there’s this Sunday, when six of the top seven sides in the Premier League will be in action…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Manchester United vs. Swansea City — 7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

Injury crisis — noun: see, also: United, Manchester

With five games to go in the PL season, and a top-four place very much within reach — as well as the Europa League trophy — Jose Mourinho is without a half-dozen players whom would have been considered automatic first-choice starters at the season’s start (see below). Fortunately for him, he’s got players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan beyond anxious for additional playing time.

Following a 0-0 draw with Manchester City on Thursday, Man United have climbed to within two points of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and control their own destiny as far as finishing in the top-four goes. Following three straight defeats to Swansea in 2014 and 2015, order has somewhat been restored with the Red Devils winning the last two meetings between the sides. As badly as United need three points to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, the Swans need them more in their bid to stave off relegation from the PL (they currently sit three points back of 17th-place Hull City, with a better goal differential).

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Paul Pogba (leg), Marcos Rojo (knee), Juan Mata (groin), Marouane Fellaini (suspension), Chris Smalling (knee), Phil Jones (toe) | Swansea — OUT: Angel Rangel (foot), Nathan Dyer (achilles), Wayne Routledge (hernia)

Everton vs. Chelsea — 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they are winless in their last two visits (PL and FA Cup), looks to be Chelsea’s toughest remaining fixture as Antonio Conte‘s side seeks to lift the club’s fifth PL trophy (sixth in all eras). After a pair of losses in four games’ time saw their lead cut from 10 points to four, the Blues reasserted themselves as the team to beat with an FA Cup semifinal victory over Tottenham Hotspur, their last remaining challenger, and a convincing 4-2 victory over Southampton in league play on Tuesday.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Seamus Coleman (leg), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), James McCarthy (hamstring), Yannick Bolasie (knee), Muhamed Besic (fitness) | Chelsea — OUT: None

[ MORE: Sunderland officially relegated to Championship ]

Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

Following that 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby, Man City remain fourth in the league table, a single point back of Liverpool (with a game in hand). Given the mathematics involved, their margin for error is greater than any of the three sides fighting for the final top Champions League places. With that said, a loss away to 19th-place Boro would be horrendous, season-defining result — one that would take their destiny out of their own hands and see them rely on results elsewhere to finish top-four in Pep Guardiola‘s first season.

INJURIES: Boro — OUT: Victor Valdes (ribs); QUESTIONABLE: Grant Leadbitter (hamstring) | Man City — OUT: John Stones (knock), Ilkay Gundogan (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Sergio Aguero (back), David Silva (ankle), Gabriel Jesus (fitness)

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

It was confirmed on Friday that Sunday’s North London derby would be the very last meeting between Tottenham and Arsenal ever played at White Hart Lane, as the 118-year-old stadium will be demolished this summer as construction on Spurs’ brand new, 61,000-seat stadium continues. As fate would have it, not only can Spurs round out the White Hart Lane era with another famous derby when at the Lane, but Sunday also offers Mauricio Pochettino‘s side the chance to do something the club has failed to do in each of the last 22 seasons: clinch a finish above Arsenal in the league table.

Everything is in Spurs’ favor, too, as they’ve won eight straight league games for just the third time in club history (the first time in the PL era), by a combined score of 23-4. Following back-to-back 4-0 wins, over Watford and Bournemouth, their title hopes were kept alive by a brilliant, late strike from Christian Eriksen on Wednesday at Selhurst Park. At the same time, Arsenal were fortunate to top Leicester City courtesy of a comical own goal scored by Robert Huth. If any of those things — stadium nostalgia, form, or current standing in the league (Spurs sit second, 14 points clear of the Gunners — mattered, we’d hand Spurs the three points now. But, this is still Spurs we’re talking about, and why would we ever skip out on the North London derby?

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Erik Lamela (hip), Harry Winks (ankle), Michel Vorm (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Danny Rose (knee)| Arsenal — OUT: Santi Cazorla (achilles), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh); QUESTIONABLE: Laurent Koscielny (knee)