Quick Six: Top stories from the Premier League weekend

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1. PREMIER LEAGUE’S BEST ROUT LEAGUE LEADERS

Arsène Wenger can complain about the officiating all he wants, but there was no way Arsenal was winning yesterday’s game. Nobody in England can beat City when Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, and David Silva play like that. Even on a day when Yaya Touré was flawed and an injured Sergio Agüero had to be pulled shortly after half time, City’s star power dwarfed that of the Premier League leaders’.

[MORE: Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal: Pulsating clash swings City’s way as offense explodes (video)]

Not that Arsenal shouldn’t have been better. Beyond mistakes from Laurent Koscielny and Mesut Özil, as well as the wall they seemed to hit halfway through the second half, the Gunners’ game plan could have been better. Wenger will understandably be criticized for selecting an attacking team, but deploying his midfield such that Aaron Ramsey played high, ostensibly to help with Touré and Fernandinho, needed to be coupled with some kind of pressure through the middle. The times Silva dropped to tip the balance in the middle, Mathieu Flamini was abandoned in front of the defense, the time given City’s midfield allowing Pablo Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy to push forward early, stretching the defense. You often see teams have trouble deal with opponents’ width, but on Saturday, Arsenal played into City’s lack of traditional width and were exploited.

Four days after beating the world’s best team, Saturday left no question: City is England’s best team, even if the standings don’t reflect it. Their road ailments cured while their home swagger has been preserved, City’s flipped the script. Instead of this winter’s story being their chase of Arsenal, the next few months will be defined by the field’s ability to find City’s kryptonite before they fly away from the pack.

2. LIVERPOOL SHREDS TOTTENHAM: BALANCING CREDIT AND BLAME

Let’s revisit last week’s thoughts on Spurs and Liverpool. Before Liverpool’s 5-0 rout today at White Hart Lane, the general feeling was Tottenham were back on track. Where they that convincing? No, but they appeared to have moved on from their embarrassment at the Etihad. In as much as they were headed in the right direction, they were technically back on track (as much as you can be technical about an idiom).

[MORE: Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool: Reds pummel erratic Tottenham defense to go second.]

As for Liverpool? They were still putting up huge wins, but they were doing so in the same way they’ve always done under Brendan Rodgers. The manager’s approach leaves the Reds winning by three, foul-goal margins where other (sometimes, better) teams either let up or don’t have the attacking prowess to pile on. That same style, however, might lead the Reds to be out-gunned against better teams.

That was all before Sunday, when Luis Suárez’s two goals, two assists lifted Liverpool that five-goal in in North London. Not only did the attack persist against a higher-ranked opponent, but the defense held up, conceding no shots on goal. This clearly dispels both of last week’s notions, right?

To a certain extent yes, but against a Spurs team that looked every bit as bad as the one that lost at Manchester City, it may be too assumptive to separate them from the Norwich and West Hams of the world. On talent, yes, Spurs are in a different class. In performance? They’re still better, but not so much that we should throw out every assumption we made about Liverpool.

But that imperfect, still-building Liverpool team, one that was without Daniel Sturridge and Steve Gerrard today at White Hart Lane? They’re clearly a Champions League threat, one whose greatest credential is their ability to get three points against the league’s weaker teams. Where other teams night be lured into a draw (or, as we say with Chelsea last week at Stoke, a loss), Liverpool’s more likely to take care of business. Their performance at Arsenal hinted they may not be title contenders, but they’re certainly a team whose strengths can carry them into the top four. They are, after all, in second place.

3. LOSS TO CARDIFF COSTS STEVE CLARKE HIS JOB

Steve Clarke is a very good coach, one who was crucial on staffs for José Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish. Yet this season, his second at West Brom, we saw a coach undone by his higher ups.

Last year, with a team mostly assembled by his superiors, Clarke pushed the Baggies to eighth, their best finish in 22 years. This year, forced into the transfer market to strengthen his squad and replace Romelu Lukaku (17 goals in 2012-13), Clarke’s support failed. The likes of Nicolas Anelka, Stephane Sességnon, Scott Sinclair, Markus Rosenberg, Victor Anichebe and Diego Lugano – all acquired since Clarke took over – have been busts. For a team like West Brom, these were significant investments, yet none of them are paying off on the field.

Yet when you watched West Brom play, you saw the coach’s virtues. Well organized, willing, almost always executing a clear plan in attack, the Baggies carried all the indicators of a well-run team. Unfortunately, after Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Cardiff City, that team will be run by somebody else.

[MORE: Cardiff City 1-0 West Bromwich Albion: Whittingham’s header the difference (video)]

After four losses in a row, West Brom had dropped to 16th, only two points above the drop. Their last win was a 2-0 victory on Nov. 2 over visiting Palace. Their last win over a team out of the league’s relegation spots? Their Sept. 28 win at Old Trafford.

Although West Brom had only lost twice by more than one goal, they had all the hallmarks of a team ready to change course. They were plummeting, there was no obvious, transient cause for the slide, and there was no indication it would turn around. Management could justify thinking another man would do more.

They would have also been justified sticking it out. They could have tried to address the problem (Clarke’s transfers) in the January window while keeping a clearly good coach. They could have built on their manager’s strengths while providing him help with his weaknesses. Or course, while doing so, they may have flirted with relegation. For a team that finished eighth last year, that’s unacceptable.

Perhaps in his next job, Clarke will build on these lessons. And hopefully, he will get another job. For now, West Brom are moving on.

4, VILLA THE PERFECT TONIC FOR UNITED

United were coming off a mid-week win in Champions League, so the Red Devils had already began moving beyond last week’s disappointments to Everton and Newcastle, but after today’s visit to Villa Park, David Moyes’s team can actually try to consolidate some momentum. Whereas their Champions League match with Shakhtar Donetsk could have gone either way, Villa were never going to beat Manchester United, permitting the Red Devils their most-lopsided league win since August.

And that certainty – the contrast between Villa’s Sunday performance and the teams that won at Arsenal and Southampton – has become their paradox. When they’re playing well, a strong midfield and swift attack is capable to protecting a subpar defense, taking advantage of their opponent’s possession to generate goals. It’s a method which, when employed correctly, can beat anybody.

When Villa aren’t on top of their game, though? You get results like today’s. Danny Welback had a brace and Tom Cleverley added a third to give United their first league win in over a month. There worst of their duel personalities emerging, Paul Lambert’s team made the Red Devils look good.

Perhaps this was the type of opponent United needed – somebody that would remind them they are, in fact, good. With the win, they jump a spot in the league, passing Sotuhampton for eighth place. Villa, in the meantime, stay where Jekyll balances Hyde: 11th place.

5. RUNNING OUT OF EXCUSES TO DOUBT EVERTON

At the beginning of the year, Everton’s two problems were an inability to convert possession into goals and (related) being left with one point in games where they should have claimed three. It’s why, despite losing only once (every other team’s lost at least three times), the Toffess sit fifth, though as Saturday at Goodison showed, those early season problems may be in the past.

Despite not playing up to the same standards they showed at Old Trafford and the Emirates, three late goals allowed Everton to cruise past Fulham, 4-1. The Cottagers may have made a mistake trying to play with their hosts, but under a new manager, that was understandable. Rene Meulensteen may have been willing to sacrifice one game’s chances to reinforce his team’s new approach.

[MORE: Everton 4-1 Fulham: Coleman and Barry ensure normality at Goodison Park over Fulham (video)]

But that approach led to four goals for Everton, the third time in five games Roberto Martínez’s side has scored at least three times. Those games gave Everton 11 points, including results against Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal.

Along the way, the Toffees are starting to eliminate excuses for excluding them from top-four conversation. They can’t score enough? They can’t win enough? Or they can’t do so against the best teams? None of that is true. And against Fulham, Everton also showed they can avoid a let down. This is a team that will stick around.

6. THE LINE BETWEEN FANDOM AND NUISANCE

At the point where players have to apologize to fans for not clapping their acknowledgments, support becomes a burden. The tedium of protocol and kissing the rings of the entitled become nuisances, and people ostensibly there to embolden their team become weight on an anchor.

You’ll never hear a club say that about their fans, who they do truly value. And as Mesut Özil’s apologies to Arsenal fans showed, players will often do whatever necessary to avoid the issue. But at the point when kowtowing to the extremes becomes part of the job — when just wanting to leave the field becomes cause for strife between teammates — the costs of the charade begin to surface. When applauding traveling fans becomes obligatory instead of spontaneous, what should be earnest gesture becomes farcical and contrived, serving nobody.

[MORE: Per Mertesacker incensed with Mesut Ozil after refusing to clap away fans]

Fans are an integral part of sport, but when the (perhaps only perceived) obligations to them spark divisions between teammates, it’s worthe revisiting their role. Supporters are there to support, not define. They’re compelling, necessary, but also ancillary. They shouldn’t be the issue moments after 6-3 loss.

And it’s unclear Arsenal’s fans never intended to be. Maybe this is Per Mertesacker buying myth more than the reality. Regardless, Mesut Özil was shamed for wanting to get off the field after a three-goal loss. Is that something Arsenal fans really wanted?

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+