Quick Six: Chelsea stays top, Liverpool’s onslaught, and the rest of the headlines from the PL weekend

Leave a comment

1. Chelsea wears down Everton, stays top of Premier League

There came a point in Saturday’s match where Everton seemed to hit a wall, where the oppression Chelsea began to inflict with the halftime insertion of Ramires at Oscar’s expense began to pay off. Though the Premier League’s leaders had been the better team for most of the day, it wasn’t until the match’s end that their control seemed worth two extra points. By the time John Terry got his foot in front of Tim Howard on Frank Lampard’s stoppage time restart, the Blues were deserved winners.

[MORE: Chelsea 1-0 Everton: Late goal seals crucial win to keep Blues top (video)]

The 1-0 result may overshadow the strong performance Everton gave through much of the match, but it also highlights the resiliency José Mourinho has forged. Whereas the Toffees looked the slightly better team through the first 45 minutes, Chelsea’s halftime adjustment produced a team capable of grinding out a game in typical Mourinho-ian style. With Hazard controlling the attack and Ramires, Lampard, and Nemanja Matic congesting the midfield, the Blues showed the improvement they’ve made since the teams’ first meeting at Goodison Park. Whereas that result went 1-0 to the Toffees, Saturday’s allowed Chelsea to remain atop the league.

Manchester City’s game in hand means the Blues’ lead is a tenuous one, but against a quality (if receding) opponent, Chelsea’s progression was evidence once again. Whereas earlier in the season the team’s attack may not have found a game-winning goal, Saturday saw Samuel Eto’o, Willian, and Fernando Torres help Hazard wear Everton down, something that produced a series of late fouls and corners. And whereas the team’s defense had been suspect during the middle of the campaign, Terry and Gary Cahill were rarely bothered on at Stamford Bridge.

Perhaps the absences of Lacina Touré (injured in warm ups) and Romelu Lukaku (injured, but also loaned from Chelsea) help explain that. Regardless, Mourinho’s side continues to show itself capable of holding off City at the top.

2. Manchester City back in wins, goals businesses

At one time, Manchester City seemed destined to break Chelsea’s four-year-old record for most goals in a season, yet ahead of Saturday’s visit from Stoke City, Manuel Pellegrini’s team had been shut out in their last two league games, a run that persisted until the 70th minute against the Potters. Able to get a cross from Aleksandr Kolarov out of his feet before Stoke’s defense could close him down, Yaya Touré beat Asmir Begovic from the middle of the Potters’ area, giving City a 1-0 reprieve.

Given how City performed against Barcelona before Martín Demichelis’s mid-week sending off, their scoreless run seems like an outlier, not the start of a new pattern. But the run does highlight how difficult it is for a Premier League team to break the century mark for goals in a season. Whereas two weeks ago City was on pace for 108 goals, their now on track to score over 100 times (100.8), a pace that will leave them three goals short of Chelsea’s record.

Given the effortless way players like David Silva, Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo have been able to create goals this season, it’s difficult to image a squad having a more commanding run through the Premier League. Yet here we are, 11 rounds from the finish line, and City’s pace has regressed. For as much talent as Pellegrini’s able to pack into a starting XI, his team may still come up short of the Premier League’s all-time mark.

That mark, however interesting it may be, is nothing compared to the possibility of a second Premier League title. Thanks to Touré’s 13th goal of the year, City stayed within three points of league-leading Chelsea, with a match in hand against Sunderland giving them a slight edge heading into the season’s final three months.

3. Giroud returns, Arsenal rolls over Sunderland

A week of controversy that’s included rumors of personal problems, Twitter apologies, and being dropped from the starting XI for Arsenal’s Champions League match against Bayern Munich culminated in a small piece of redemption for Gunners’ striker Olivier Giroud. With two goals on Saturday, the French international helped Arsenal to a 4-1 win over Sunderland in his return to the starting lineup, keeping the Gunners within one point of the first place Blues.

Although summer signing Yaya Sonogo put in two decent, somewhat reassuring shifts during Giroud’s sabbatical, the Gunners’ lack of depth at striker was still evident, giving the lingering critics of Arsenal’s transfer policies a convenient Nelson Muntz moment. With Arsène Wneger forced to start the 21-year-old French attacker against Liverpool and Bayern, detractors’ ha-has have been evident through social media. They told Wenger to get a striker. Why didn’t he listen?

In reality, the striker position has been less of a problem than another of the Gunners’ transfer storylines, that of Mesut Özil. Having missed a penalty kick during a disappionting performance on Wednesday, the German international was left out on Saturday, giving him a much-needed rest. Cruising to a three-goal win (one which included some of the team’s most beautiful goals of the season), Arsenal never missed their marque summer purchase.

It would be mistake to judge Özil on one bad week, yet his team’s performance without him was a reminder: The importance of any single player is often overstated. While Giroud’s return may say otherwise, his inclusion probably would not have changed either the  against Liverpool (a win) or Bayern (loss) results. And while Özil has been lauded as the Gunners’ pièce de résistance, Arsenal proved quite capable without their record purchase.

4. Four-goal Sunday gives Liverpool room in race for fourth

Amid growing discussion Liverpool’s title prospects, the race for the Premier League’s final Champions League spot had become overlooked. After this weekend, though, a waning discussion may be more appropriate for the league’s fourth place spot. After the  Reds won another shootout, defeating Swansea City 4-3 at Anfield, Liverpool have a six-point cushion on fifth place, with Tottenham and Everton giving grown to Brendan Rodgers’ surging squad.

The Toffees can’t be faulted for their one-goal loss at Stamford Bridge, particularly given the quality they showed throughout most of the match. But the loss still leaves them 11 points behind their Merseyside rivals. Whereas at one time Roberto Martínez had his team in contention for a top-four finish, a now seventh place Everton sit one place lower than they finished the 2012-13 season. Manchester United’s victory over Crystal Place pushed the Red Devils into sixth.

The more inexplicable loss was Tottenham’s, with the team’s 1-0 defeat at Norwich City leaving them six points behind the Reds. While the 11 games remaining in the season give Tim Sherwood’s team plenty of time to make up that ground, the difference in quality between its Sunday showing and Liverpool’s hints there’s something more than six points that separates the sides. Whereas Spurs were once rising under their new boss, the team has now lost momentum.

Liverpool, however, are playing their best soccer of the season. Two goals from Daniel Sturridge complemented by a double from Jordan Henderson helped the Reds overcome another lackluster defensive effort, marking the third time in 2014 they’ve won despite giving up multiple goals.

Defense wins championships is supposed to be the cliché, but outscoring your opponents works all the same. Liverpool’s not competing for the title, but finishing fourth has a prestige of its own. If they claim the league’s last Champions League spot, it will the goals, not defending, they carried the Reds back into the top four.

5. West Ham in top half after win over Southampton

One month ago, we were debating Sam Allardyce’s worthiness for the West Ham job. His Irons, stuck in 18th, looked out of ideas, waiting for Andy Carroll’s impending return to rekindle their hopes of Premier League survival. Given the former Newcastle and Liverpool striker’s injury history, those hopes seemed thin, given how the Hammers had played without him.

Fast forward one month and Allardyce has his team in the top half, with Saturday’s 3-1 win over visiting Southampton the latest in a four-match winning streak. After giving up an early opener to Maya Yoshida, West Ham got goals Matt Jarvis, Carlton Cole, and Kevin Nolan, with the veteran midfielder’s 71st minute bicycle kick sealing one of the Hammers’ best performances of the season.

All of which makes people like me look pretty foolish. Again. Four weeks ago, there was no shortage of head scratching about how Allardyce had managing to survive in East London. Now, thanks to a February surge and a packed bottom half of the standings, West Ham’s looking down on 10 teams, highlighting how quickly January prognoses can be made to look foolish.

Give it another month, and West Ham might be back near the bottom. Look at Aston Villa’s recent plunge (having lost at Newcastle on Sunday). In the interim, the Hammers have left their January woes behind them, making the previously embattled Allardyce look awfully smart.

6. Magath debut can’t push Fulham out of cellar

After Saturday’s 4-0 loss at home to Hull City, Cardiff City look like the worst team in the Premier League, even if the standings tell a different story. After giving up a late goal to West Brom, Fulham remain at the bottom of the table, with Saturday’s 1-1 at The Hawthorns leaving the Cottagers five points from safety.

In the short-term, however, Fulham’s first performance under Magath looks like an encouraging one. While the team still exhibited some of the conservative tendencies that characterized the final games under René Meulensteen, the bottom line was better. Whereas the Cottagers had given up nine goals in their four games before their new coach’s arrival, Fulham held West Brom to one on Saturday. Sure, the Baggies’ attack may have had something to do with that, but last place teams can’t be too picky about the type of progress they make.

Given the miserable season Fulham has endured, the potential for a more solid, capable defense represents a light at the end of the tunnel. Between Cardiff City, Sunderland, West Brom … Crystal Palace, Stoke, Norwich, and Aston Villa, there aren’t enough teams volunteering to avoid relegation to write off Fulham. One good run may be enough.

Particularly given the type of chances Fulham created early in the West Midlands, Magath’s presence is reason for renewed hope. And hope is more than Fulham had a week ago.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.

Klopp “angry, surprised” by Liverpool defeat to Swansea

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Liverpool fans might disagree — Jurgen Klopp certainly does, tonight, at least — but the beauty of the Premier League is that you can end the runaway leaders’ bid for an unbeaten season, then lose to the last-place team in the league, in back-to-back games.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

This, of course, leaves Klopp, Liverpool’s fiery, combustible manager, more than a little hot under the collar. Following Monday’s 1-0 loss away to bottom-of-the-league Swansea City, Klopp pulled no punches in describing the emotions he feels after such a result.

“Frustrated,” “angry” and “surprised” quickly came to mind after seeing his side’s 14-game PL unbeaten run come to an end. Despite creating 21 chances on the night, the likes of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to put just four on target, which was undoubtedly the genesis of his frustration, anger and surprise — quotes from the BBC:

“I’m frustrated and I’m angry because it was not a good game. We lost the game in the first half. We didn’t do what we wanted to do. It hasn’t happened too often so I didn’t expect that, I was quite surprised. Because of the first half we weren’t flying and they were.

“We made pressure at the end but not enough to score. The last situation was unlucky but if we got a point it would still have been a bad game for us, and it was the opposite of what we wanted. That happens from time to time and it’s never the right moment and like it should be.

“It’s not that we threw it away. Swansea are fighting for their life and we’ve no problem with that, we had a problem with our offensive motions. It’s not what we came here for tonight. We have nothing, and that’s our fault.”

Swansea 1-0 Liverpool: Last-place Swans shock Reds

Leave a comment
  • Swansea shock Liverpool in game of few chances
  • Mawson sweeps home the winner — 40′
  • Reds’ 14-game PL unbeaten run ends
  • Swans now 2W-1D-1L under Carvalhal

From the high of snapping Manchester City’s unbeaten run (30 games dating back to last season) and bid for an unbeaten 2017-18 Premier League season, to being beaten by last-place Swansea City… in back-to-back games… all in the span of eight days.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

On Monday, Swansea topped Liverpool, 1-0 at the Liberty Stadium, to claim just their fifth PL victory all season; two of the five have come in the first three weeks of new manager Carlos Carvalhal’s tenure (four games).

Virgil Van Dijk cost Liverpool $100 million, but he’s yet to arrest the Reds’ woeful set-piece defending. It was the big Dutchman who failed to head the ball clear from the Swans’ 40th-minute corner kick. After an unfortunate bounce in the box, the ball fell to Mawson just 10 yards out. The young Welshman swept his right foot through the ball and Loris Karius could do nothing about it.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Liverpool’s first surefire chance of the second half came in the 60th minute, when Mohamed Salah delicately lifted just over the wall a free kick from 22 yards out. The ball quickly fell as it neared goal, but Lukasz Fabianski reacted quicker and pushed it over the crossbar at full-stretch to preserve the lead at 1-0.

Right on 94 minutes, with the referee staring at his watch, Roberto Firmino headed off Fabianski’s right-hand post and Adam Lallana missed an open-net follow-up, somehow booting the ball well over the bar from three yards out.

Despite holding over 70 percent of possession on the night, Liverpool put on target just four of their 21 total shots.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

With the defeat, Liverpool (47 points) fail to capitalize on Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday. Having ultimately gained a point in Round 24, Tottenham now trail Liverpool by just two points in the race for fourth. The two sides meet in two weeks’ time, on Sunday, Feb. 4, at Anfield.

Swansea (20 points), meanwhile, have done nearly enough to climb out of the PL cellar, but remain 20th out of 20 teams on goal differential. Three points stand between them and safety.