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

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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.

At 0-2, Americans understand stakes in World Cup qualifying

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Michael Bradley sees no reason to keep harping on that 4-0 loss at Costa Rica four months ago.

Yes, it’s still fresh in the Americans’ minds, a night every mistake snowballed into another.

“There is zero point in continuing to look back on that at the moment,” Bradley said. “We are where we are. Now it’s about on Friday night beginning this process of moving ourselves back up the table and stepping on the field from the first minute and playing a really aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt as to who’s stepping off the field, win or lose.”

Bruce Arena’s U.S. squad gets a fresh start in World Cup qualifying Friday against Honduras, and the pressure is on following the home country’s first 0-2 start in the North and Central American and Caribbean region’s final round.

“We understand the position we’re in,” Bradley said. “There’s no need for anybody on the outside to put any more pressure on us than we’ve already put on ourselves, because we didn’t start the hex in the right way. We put ourselves behind the eight ball. We’re honest and real enough with ourselves to understand that. Friday night is the beginning of our chance to put things right and get ourselves back in a good position. … We need guys to step on the field and understand the moment, not be fazed by it, go for it in a fearless way and have a big group of guys play really well.”

Forward Jordan Morris’ status for Friday appears in question after he missed a third straight day of practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury sustained Sunday with the Seattle Sounders. Morris rehabbed in the gym, the U.S. Soccer Federation said.

“Have you followed our team at all the last month? You think that’s going to be something that’s going to bother me?” Arena said at the start of the week when asked about health concerns. “We’re fine. We’re going to have 11 good players on the field on Friday.”

For those who do play, Bradley said it is paramount everybody brings his best game. Same goes for the Americans’ next match in Panama on Tuesday.

While the man in charge has changed – Arena replaced the fired Jurgen Klinsmann in November for a second stint as U.S. coach – and more Major League Soccer players were called upon this time than in November, Bradley insists the approach remains simple: Find a way to win.

“We stepped on the field in Costa Rica wanting to win. That desire to win is obviously still there, so in terms of the basic idea of stepping on the field and trying to play well and go for it in the right way and come away with a positive result, that part’s still the same obviously,” the longtime captain said. “There’s no two ways about it, we let ourselves down in Costa Rica. We didn’t play well enough. Mistakes turned into bigger mistakes, which turned into bigger mistakes, and so it all comes together in a way that you can lose a game in a bad way.”

And, there are many faces who have been on the big stage – Bradley, included.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard started the past two World Cups. Howard, four-time World Cup participant defender DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey played for Arena leading into the coach’s last World Cup qualifying, in 2005. Jozy Altidore brings experience up front.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Howard said. “It’s helpful that we have guys who have been through the hex before, who understand what that takes and the pressures that are on us. Yeah, it’s a big game.”

Bradley isn’t getting fancy when it comes to what the U.S. group must do.

“Winning. Three points,” Bradley said. “That’s it.”

“For us the reality is simple: We let ourselves down in the first two games,” he said. “It means that our margin for error is very, very small, but nothing’s changed in that we still feel good about the team that we have, the group that we are. I think that Bruce has come in and done an excellent job in terms of re-establishing certain things, getting at a few things. The mentality, the spirit in training and around the group both in January and now this week has been excellent, so we’re getting a little excited about the chance to step on the field in a big-time qualifier.”

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”