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.

It’s another Zlatan day, as Galaxy star rips Vela, talks Area 51

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a shot at his rivals and his league in one fell swoop.

Perhaps Major League Soccer’s hit is down to proximity and not intent, but the LA Galaxy star certainly didn’t disguise his feelings when asked whether LAFC star Carlos Vela is the best player in the league.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Vela, 30, has lit MLS on fire to the tune of 19 goals and eight assists in 19 matches, driving the second-year squad to the top of the Western Conference.

Zlatan and the Galaxy’s seasons have trailed behind, relatively speaking. The third-place Galaxy are 12 points behind LAFC, with Ibrahimovic contributing 13 goals and three assists in three fewer games.

“29, he’s playing in MLS and he’s in his prime. When I was 29, where was I?”

Herculez Gomez replies that Ibrahimovic was in Europe (Vela turned 30 in March. At 29, Ibrahimovic scored 21 goals in 41 appearances for AC Milan, on loan from Barcelona. At 30, he scored 35 in 44 for Milan).

“Big difference, exactly.”

Vela, for what it’s worth, spent 2005-17 in Europe. Anyway, here is the exchange.

But wait, there’s more.

Zlatan was also quizzed on Area 51 while in a scrum. For those who may not know, Area 51 is a classified United States military facility in Nevada which has long been speculated as the home of extraterrestrial testing and scientific experimentation.

He doesn’t need to worry about going there, because he has his own Area 51 and there is only one Zlatan.

Who will make Ballon d’Or final three?

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When Luka Modric won the Ballon d’Or last summer, marking the first victor neither named Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007, it threatened to signal a new era for the trophy in more ways than one.

Ronaldo didn’t win the honors, finishing second, but Messi was inexplicably left off the final ballot altogether.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Could this be the year that neither makes the top three? Probably not, but it could be the first time Ronaldo fails to make the list since Barca swept the honors Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi in 2010.

So while most of us are not thinking of the award right now, Ronaldo has it on his brain. It’s no surprise that Marca, known for its backing of Real Madrid royalty, has thrown his name in the mix as a “favorite” given his scudetto with Juventus. That it mentions his performance in the UEFA Nations League is a little goofy — it was a two-match summer — but such is life.

Ronaldo and Messi are deadlocked on five Ballons d’Or, the most ever, and Messi’s year was superior to his longtime rival. Both won their leagues and Messi did not claim domestic honors at the Copa America — in fact he was not his phenomenal self — but Messi scored 12 goals in 10 Champions League appearances before Liverpool stunned Barcelona prior to the final (Ronaldo’s Juve lost to Ajax).

Marca proffers this “I don’t care but obviously I very much care” from CR7:

“I don’t live with an obsession about awards,” Ronaldo explained. “My numbers don’t lie, this year I’ve won three titles and I’ve been good in the Nations League. What else can I do?”

Ronaldo, it should be noted, was still incredible last season. He scored all three goals as Juventus erased a 2-0 first leg deficit in the UCL Round of 16 versus old rivals Atletico Madrid, then scored in both legs of the side’s exit via Ajax. And he likely would’ve won the top scorer’s prize in Italy had he not missed six matches through injury and rest.

Messi again breached the half-century mark in goals, scoring 51 times in all competitions for Barcelona. He chipped in 22 assists and also missed six matches between the UCL and La Liga.

Are there three players who could surpass both to make a new final three?

It would be stunning if Liverpool and Netherlands center back Virgil Van Dijk was kept off the top three, while Sadio Mane may have a Champions League crown and Africa Cup of Nations victory. And you can follow the Luka Modric logic to a land where treble- and Nations League-winning Bernardo Silva is in the discussion (Raheem Sterling was also great).

Kylian Mbappe had probably the best-looking season on Earth, scoring 39 times with 17 assists in 43 matches and navigating the attention that came with Neymar’s long-term absence by shouldering the burden to great success. We made the argument that his 19 goals and six assists in 23 Neymar-free matches is one of the prime reasons he’s be worth almost any transfer fee.

Also remember that the odds of the captains of international teams having enough ballots without Ronaldo and/or Messi named is very difficult to imagine.

Still, Messi, Mbappe, and Van Dijk seems like the final three to us. What do you think?

LIVE — UEL second legs will determine possible Wolves opponents

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Wolverhampton Wanderers will find out its first Europa League opponent on Friday, and the field will be winnowed with a bevy of second qualifying round second legs on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Malmo, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Rangers, Legia Warsaw, and Hajduk Split are the biggest names in play on Thursday, with only the Polish side failing to hold an advantage after the first leg.

American forward Romain Gall is in the mix for Malmo, though he’s been an unused sub of late for the Swedish powers. That could change today, with Malmo in Northern Ireland with a 7-0 advantage over Ballymena United.

You can follow the dozens of ties by clicking the link above.

Klopp: Liverpool has all answers it needs even without transfers

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Claiming Liverpool has “solutions for all the situations” that could arise over the course of a season, manager Jurgen Klopp insists that the UEFA Champions League winners need not buy anyone this transfer window.

Of course, Klopp could still spend and admits that he has at least one position he’d like to strengthen by the end of the window.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

He also continues to play down the idea that Liverpool will spend big annually, naming Manchester City as one of four sides which can continue down that path on the day Juventus sealed the addition of reported Reds target Matthijs de Ligt.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“People talk about it like, ‘Now another £300m or £200m’. There are maybe only two clubs in the world – it looks in the moment like Barcelona and [Real] Madrid can do the same – City and PSG that can do it every year. I’m happy with the team, we are really happy.”

Klopp has claimed that injuries and youth progression make Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster transfer-like additions to the squad. Perhaps he’s been told that there’s not a lot in the budget this summer.

However, he’s also said that Liverpool has to “splash the cash” to compete with its rivals, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was all more Cheshire Cat talk ahead of a purchase.