Quick Six: Newcastle-City ‘controversy’, Chelsea’s second half strength; Fulham’s plight top PL’s weekend headlines

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1. ‘Controversy’ leaves Manchester City top after win at Newcastle

After Saturday’s games, Chelsea were lauded for going first. Same for City on Sunday. It’s this space’s dead horse, but with Arsenal favorites to re-claim the Premier League’s pole position tomorrow, this seems a perfect time to note the ridiculous adulation teams receive for taking temporary control of a place in the standings – be it first, fourth, 17th, what have you. While it’s true that Chelsea did sit first for a day after beating Hull on Saturday, any sensible person knows it was no cause for celebration. Maybe wait to see what Manchester City and Arsenal do?

On Sunday, lauding Chelsea proved ill-advised after Manchester City took their own temporary Premier League lead, though instead of headlines focusing on the Citizens’ potentially short-lived place at the top, the post-match story dwelt on a disallowed goal. With a Newcastle player (Yoan Gouffran) seemingly benignly ‘offside’, Cheick Tioté’s 34th minute goal was waved off, leaving the score 1-0, City. The visitors went on to claim a 2-0 win at St. James’ Park, with Álvaro Negredo’s insurance tally deep into stoppage time building on Edin Dzeko’s eighth minute opener.

[MORE: Newcastle 0-2 Manchester City: Controversial decision leaves Magpies empty-handed as City go top]

No doubt the ruling was controversial, but playing up its effect relative to the final score implies  Newcastle were deprived of a result. Certainly the Magpies would have been more likely to get points had the goal counted, but there were also 56 minutes left to play. Against the best attack in England, Newcastle were unlikely to keep their opposition off the scoresheet through the rest of the match. And in failing to score through the day’s 90 minutes, Newcastle failed to show themselves likely to build on Tioté’s eventually disallowed goal.

The season’s overall numbers back this up. Manchester City came into the game scoring 2.85 goals per game, and they scored twice at Newcastle. Their +34 goal difference dwarfed the Toon’s +4, hinting they were always the more likely team to outscore their opposition.

[MORE: Analysis: White, Le Saux on City’s new road resilience, Newcastle’s harshly disallowed goal (video)]

Just like overstating the value of a team going first after the weekend’s first match, implying Newcastle were somehow deprived of a result is more sensational than fair. Sure, there’s some grain of truth in the words, but they end up being more misleading than informative. Chelsea did go first but were always likely to finish the weekend third, just like Newcastle were always likely to lose to Manchester City. As a result, City sit first pending Arsenal’s trip to Villa Park (Monday) while the Magpies sit eighth.

2. Second half again key for surging Chelsea

Three games in a row, Chelsea have gone to half-time drawn 0-0. Three games in a row, Chelsea have finished with a multi-goal victory, their 2-0 win at Hull on Saturday leaving them second ahead of the round’s finale at Villa Park. With second half goals from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres, Chelsea marked the seventh time this season they’ve trailed or been tied going into the second half only to come back and win, victories which account for half of their seasons’ total.

[MORE: Hull 0-2 Chelsea: Blues go top after grinding out another win (video)]

Is there something specific about Chelsea that’s led to these results? Or is this a manifestation of chance? Perhaps José Mourinho’s trains and sets up his team to stay patient and take advantage of mistakes fatigue can induce from their opponents. Then again, Chelsea’s goals may be coming in the second half through little more than chance. Over the season’s final 17 games, the Blues may prove as capable in their first halves as they’ve been in their seconds.

Still, the phenomena is feeding into the perception that Chelsea’s play is still falling short of expectations, a perception we may want to reconsider. At the season’s onset, we expected Chelsea to be a dominant team, but dominant teams tend to look more like Manchester City then Mourinho’s lot. They tend to dominate from minute 1 to minute 90, something the Blues have struggled to do this season.

But goals in the second half count just as much as ones scored shortly after the opening whistle, and while we tend to associate them with an attritional quality that doesn’t fit normal notions of dominance, perhaps those goals signify dominance of a different sort. To many’s eyes (including my own), Chelsea seem more steady than great, but they’re still within reach of the top, having produced a consistent way of getting points. That consistency may just be chance spread over a relatively small numbers of games, but as that number of games grows, we have to consider whether there’s some skill behind the results. Chelsea have now won four-in-a-row.

3. Dempsey’s PL return overshadowed by Sunderland romp

Clint Dempsey’s Premier League return to Craven Cottage should have been a joyous occasion. He is, after all, Fulham’s all-time leading scorer in Premier League action. Instead, the game was arguably the Cottagers’ most-disappointing of the season – a staggering possibility given the team’s already lost 6-0 at Hull earlier this year.

Behind three goals from Adam Johnson, Sunderland posted a 4-1 win over the Whites, displaying the poor state of René Meulensteen’s team for the Craven Cottage faithful. Against a team that was averaging 0.75 goals-per-game ahead of Saturday’s action, Fulham conceded four times . At home. Against the Premier League’s former bottom dwellers.

[MORE: Fulham 1-4 Sunderland: Much needed victory gives Black Cats hope (video)]

The Black Cats deserve some credit, though. The performance was the latest in the steady improvement Gus Poyet’s side has seen since the Uruguayan’s appointment, with Adam Johnson having caught fire over the last five days. Mid-week against Manchester United, the winger turned the Cats’ League Cup semifinal in his teams’ favor. His three-goal haul in London will surely, perhaps prematurely, spark discussion about his worthiness for Brazil.

But for every column inch devoted to Johnson’s resurgence, one should be given to Fulham’s plight. The form table has them 12th in the Premier League, hinting the Cottagers are actually trending upward. Their actual play, however, won’t alleviate any of their supporters’ worries. If Fulham can’t even compete with the likes of Hull and Sunderland, how do they expect to survive their relegation battle?

4. West Ham ends slide as Carroll returns

Andy Carroll’s first appearance of the season ended up being more coincidental than causal, West Ham already up 1-0 by the time the England international came off the bench in Wales. When he assisted on the game’s final goal, however, the impact of Carroll’s absences came back into focus. Though the Hammers would have likely ended their seven-match Premier League slide even without Carroll, their strikers’ 2013-14 debut may carry some symbolic value. Carroll’s return could be the turning point of the season, and, oh yeah, they won a game, too.

[MORE: Cardiff City 0-2 West Ham: Victory lifts Irons out of the drop zone (video)]

That win will surely relieve the mounting pressure on Sam Allardyce (who declined to speak with the media after the game) while casting more doubt on what’s going on at Cardiff. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s hire has been lauded by the same people who constantly cast him in frame for so many Premier League jobs, yet any momentum garnered by the Bluebirds’ FA Cup win at Newcastle was squandered this weekend. By Solskjær’s own admission, Cardiff came out inexplicably flat against a team that’d lost their last two games by a combined 11-0. If your team can’t win at home against a struggling West Ham United, perhaps the problems are bigger than originally thought.

5. Obligatory, uncertain conclusions about Manchester United

Win, lose or draw, Manchester United will be in the headlines, mostly because each result fuels a narrative. If the Red Devils win, they’re steadying the ship following what should have been an expectedly uncertain time after Alex Ferguson’s departure. If they lose or draw, David Moyes’s ill-fit at Old Trafford continues, perpetuating the notion the Red Devils made a mistake with their blind trust in Ferguson’s judgment.

Saturday’s performance gave us six of one half, a half-dozen of the other. The first half was terribly boring, all the criticisms of United’s new-found one-dimensional, dull attack bolstered by an effort that lacked energy and nuance. In the second half, however, an enlivened United took an early lead on their way to a 2-0 result – exactly the type of outcome we would have expected at kickoff.

[MORE: Manchester United 2-0 Swansea: Red Devils revenge (video)]

All the while, United were performing against a Swansea team that make any broad conclusions about their opposition impossible. Competent but impotent, acceptable without actually being good, Swansea are there for the taking against any quality opposition, something that makes United’s FA Cup loss to Michael Laudrup’s side even more galling. On Saturday, however, United had just enough to topple the Swans, something that should breed more questions of Swansea than answers about United.

Their performance wasn’t indicative of a team that could compete for Champions League, yet alone emulate a title contender. After winning the league by 11 points last season, that’s where United should be. But after Saturday’s win, more immediate and modest evaluations need to be made. The Red Devils snapped a three-game losing streak, and in a season of uncertainty and doubt, that’s good enough. For now.

6. Defense a non-issue as Reds post five on Stoke

Daniel Agger’s injury left Brendan Rodgers’ with a depleted defense, Kolo Touré forced into a back-four that was also missing Mamadou Sahko, José Enrique, and Agger. One paper, the likes of Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, and Aly Cissohko helped round out a decent-enough unit. In practice, it was a flawed line quartet likely to get sporadic protection from an often permeable midfield.

This is where Rodgers’ approach helps. The Liverpool boss is not afraid to trade goals, mostly because he sets his team up to make the most of the matches were his opposition is willing to swap changes. On Sunday, the Reds not only lured Stoke City into a shootout but got help from a Ryan Shawcross own goal and a penalty converted by Steven Gerrard. Though they needed an 87th minute goal from Daniel Sturridge to make the final look comfortable, the Reds took a 5-3 result out of the Brittania, giving Rodgers’ side 51 goals in 21 games.

[MORE: Stoke City 3-5 Liverpool: Wild match sees Stoke comeback and Reds brilliance as Liverpool take spoils]

Just like West Ham’s win, Liverpool’s result was full of potential omens. Not only were they back to their high-scoring ways (scoring three for the first time in five games), but they got two goals from Luis Suárez, who is up to 22 league tallies for the season. And with Daniel Sturridge returning early from his ankle injury, Reds’ supporters have reason to believe there are even more goals to come, with their fourth-place team ready to consolidate their Champions League spot.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.