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.

Serie A: AC Milan on winning streak, Fiorentina woes deepen

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AC Milan secured its first winning streak since mid-September as Krzysztof Piatek and Theo Hernandez led the way to a 3-2 road win over Bologna.

Piatek was the first on the scoresheet, opening the scoring from the spot after the Polish striker was bundled over on the break by Mattia Bani. He utilized a heavy stutter in his run-up, but wrong-footed Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski for the conversion. Hernandez was next up, latching onto a perfect through-ball from Suso that sprung the former at the far post.

Bologna pulled one back before halftime on a Hernandez own-goal, but Giacomo Bonaventura restored the two-goal lead just seconds after the restart. Nicola Sansone’s late penalty made no difference in the result and Milan sits 10th in the league table, level on points with Torino.

Fiorentina slumped to its fourth straight loss as they fell at Torino 2-1. The visitors were soundly beaten on goals by Simone Zaza and Cristian Ansaldi, only able to grab a consolation strike from Martin Caceres in stoppage time. They put just four of their 17 shots on net and had very few true chances until Caceres’s late goal. With the loss, Fiorentina drops to 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Vincenze Montella’s job is on the line, having just returned to the club in April for a second stint in charge after the departure of Stefano Pioli.

Cagliari failed to pull away from Roma with a 2-2 draw on the road at 14th placed Sassuolo. A comeback was required after falling down 2-0 before halftime. João Pedro brought the visitors one back just six minutes after the break, and Daniele Ragatzu rescued the point as he snuck one in at the near post a minute into added time. They also survived what could have been the game-winning goal as Domenico Berardi clattered the crossbar from the penalty stop on a chance that would have put the home side 3-1. Instead, Cagliari moves level with Roma on 29 points, clinging to the fourth Champions League spot on goal differential.

Genoa survived the final 13 minutes with just nine men, securing a 2-2 draw with Lecce that keeps them in the hunt for Serie A safety. Goran Pandev and Domenico Criscito had put Genoa 2-0 up before halftime, but they had coughed up the lead by the 70th minute. Still, things could have been worse as Kevin Agudelo was sent off with 20 minutes to go after conceding a penalty, while Pandev was given his marching orders in the 77th minute. The goals in this game were spectacular, with Pandev’s opener coming from nearly 40 yards out as he chipped Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel who was off his line, while Filippo Falco scored a fine curler to mark Lecce’s first on the hour mark.

Brescia topped SPAL 1-0 to leave the latter at the bottom of the Serie A table, with the lone goal coming via Mario Balotelli in the 54th minute as he collected a bobbling ball on the break and fired it in at the far post. The win was critical, moving 19th-placed Brescia to 10 points on the year, two from safety.

Parma defeated Sampdoria 1-0 on a 21st minute goal from Juraj Kucka that left Claudio Ranieri‘s squad just a point off the relegation zone.

Nuno expresses pride in Wolves achievements after Brighton draw

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Nuno Espirito Santo has expressed his pride in what Wolves has achieved so far this season after the 2-2 road draw at Brighton & Hove Albion.

The team reclaimed sixth place in the Premier League table with the point from the Amex, and while Nuno knows there were moments to improve on, he still believes the team is headed forward and looks back fondly on where they’ve come from.

[ RECAP: Wolves, Seagulls draw ]

“We are very proud of what we are achieving day by day but we want to keep on going,” Nuno said after the match. “We need to compete and prepare ourselves for the last game in the Europa League.”

He pointed to mistakes that led to Brighton goals, ones he believes a little tactical instruction should snuff out. “I am proud of how we stayed organized. We did not do well when he had to restart the game after the 1-1, we should not have played a horizontal pass that was intercepted.”

The head man was frustrated by one key thing, as his winger Adama Traore was fouled four times, all coming in the second half. “He’s a strong boy,” Nuno said. “Everybody can see that. No matter how strong you are, if you are being kicked it’s impossible.” He was seen having an animated conversation with the fourth official during the later stages of the game, with two of the four fouls drawn in the final 10 minutes as the visitors pushed for a winner.

The draw against Brighton was no anomaly – Wolves has achieved its impressive table position despite just five wins on the season. The key for them has been avoiding losses, with just two defeats on the year. They have drawn a shocking nine games, with the previous eight all either 0-0 or 1-1 before Sunday’s 2-2 finish. That leaves Wolves with an 11-game unbeaten streak, with the last loss coming in mid-September.

Nevertheless, Nuno knows the toughest part of the season is on the horizon. “The hardest part of the fixtures is going to start now. It will be tough for everybody.” Wolves has a match against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next weekend before a festive season that sees the club play Norwich, Man City, Liverpool, and Watford between an eleven-day span.

Brendan Rodgers has Leicester City whirring

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Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Say it again with me. We’re doing this Good Will Hunting style, until you truly believe the words you are repeating.

Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Four years after winning the title against astronomical odds in one of the most historic seasons in sports history, Brendan Rodgers has cemented Leicester City as anything but a fluke. This club is for real.

[ MORE: Leicester City tops Aston Villa ]

After three mid-table finished that allowed the club to institute a sustainable model of player acquisition, talent development, and asset maximization, the Foxes are back near the top of the table and look a club that has the ability to secure itself as a leading force in the English top flight.

This summer, the club put the finishing touches on two critical components of the plan, two moments that may prove defining decisions in the club’s history. The first was selling Harry Maguire and replacing him with young Caglar Soyuncu, a move which not only netted the club a massive sum of money, but also cemented Leicester City as a talent development hub capable of producing talent, offloading for a huge profit, and not losing a step on the pitch.

The second was replacing Claude Puel with Brendan Rodgers. Puel, in charge of Leicester City for two years, was caught in between instituting his preferred possessional style of play and changing the culture of the squad, a hesitation which cost the Frenchman his job. Last season, Leicester City was seventh in the league in passes per game but fifth in accurate long-balls per game, a testament to his inability to decide the squad’s identity. This season, Leicester City is fourth in passes per game behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and fourth in total shots per game, all while sitting ninth in accurate long-balls (for what it’s worth, Liverpool is 1st in that category while Man City is third, largely down to their exorbitant possessional advantages). This team has completed the transformation Puel wanted but never achieved – they are a dominant Premier League side that wants to dominate its opponents.

Even deeper, the numbers agree. Jamie Vardy is scoring at otherworldly levels, especially for a player at 32 years old. His 16 goals lead the league by six, and even with his outrageous finishing ability (he has a +5.47 differential between actual goals scored and expected goals scored, nearly double anyone else – Harry Kane and Teemu Pukki are second at +2.92), he is still second in the league in total xG behind Marcus Rashford.

James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, and Wilfried Ndidi are all among the top 5 in WhoScored player rating this season, while Vardy sits seventh. Soyuncu ranks sixth by in the league by WhoScored among central defenders in his first full Premier League season at just 23 years old, while his center-back partner Jonny Evans is eighth in his 13th campaign in the English top flight. Pereira is a tackling machine who gets far less screen time than new Manchester United signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka, owner of a reputation for that exact skill which earned him a big-money move. Ndidi, meanwhile, continues to rise in prominence as he leads the Premier League in tackles and ranks third in interceptions.

Sure, Rodgers inherited a fantastic squad, but the list of players falls well short of screaming “second in the table” and the former Liverpool manager has metamorphosed them from budding talents to world-class players. He has mixed young talent with veteran experience flawlessly, making sure to keep title veterans Wes Morgan, Cristian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton involved despite their declining roles.

The club has also found itself the beneficiary of a few unique circumstances. Most notably, they have avoided significant injury to this point in the season. A large part of that has been Vardy’s international retirement which (at least, for the time being) has kept him fresher than most, whereas double duty has weighed down other top goalscorers in the league. Only Matthew James is currently sidelined for the Foxes who remain one of the healthiest teams in the league. They also don’t have European play to worry about, a proven ingredient for domestic success.

Still, Rodgers is the source of much of their continued improvement. The Foxes have conceded just nine total goals all year, the least of any English top flight side, and are the only team in the league not to have conceded from a set-piece this Premier League season, a testament to their rigid and well-drilled discipline. And they have scored gobs of late goals under the current boss – they scored 10 goals inside the final 15 minutes of his first eight games in charge of the club, and this season they lead the league with five goals inside the final five minutes (even with Manchester City). Against Aston Villa he managed to pair Vardy with Kelechi Iheanacho up front, a prospect that left Puel utterly baffled.

It’s a shame this team isn’t among those competing in Europe this campaign, as they could surely challenge the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, but they will almost certainly get the chance next season. They get a chance to play with the Premier League big boys soon during the holiday season, with back-to-back matches against Liverpool and Man City just after Christmas Day.

Claude Puel just couldn’t get it right. Vardy said earlier this season that Puel’s training sessions were “too slow” to the point where it was consequently “difficult for us to be fast and aggressive in matches.” That’s not a problem any longer. Brendan Rodgers has this team absolutely soaring at breakneck speeds towards a long-term place among the Premier League’s elite. The Foxes’ transformation from one-hit wonder to sustainable elite-level success should be a case study for other clubs looking to is still in progress, but has reached the final phase.

Eight games in a row they have won now, the most in team history. Brendan Rodgers called Sunday’s win “a historic day for the club,” but the picture is much bigger than that.

“Leicester City is a top Premier League club.” Say it again until you believe the words you are reciting. Know that they are true.

Manchester City is panicking

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Manchester City fell to Manchester United 2-1 in Saturday’s derby, and one thing was blatantly obvious above all others.

Pep Guardiola‘s side has begun to panic, and there may not be a way back from that headspace this season.

Down 2-0 to the Red Devils at home, Guardiola grabbed the big red metaphoric button, opened the plastic cover, and set off all the alarm bells at The Etihad. At the end of the 90 minutes, Manchester City delivered 47 crosses, completing just seven of them. They forced Manchester United to make 40 clearances in the penalty area, and the Red Devils were up to the task, only conceding on a corner that resulted in a bullet header by Nicolas Otamendi, who was afforded the chance at an attacking move thanks to the dead ball set-piece.

This isn’t a terribly new thing for Man City, but it has reached troubling levels. City – a squad with spectacular dribblers like Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling, plus world-class passers like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – leads the English top flight with 29 crosses per game, six more than any other team. Some of that is down to their gargantuan possessional advantage that lends itself to more deliveries of all kinds into the box, but that number is beyond reasonable explanation.

The trend has cropped up in big games over the past month or two, and it has not been helpful. Against Liverpool, Man City delivered 32 crosses, of which just five found its mark. In the Champions League disappointment against Shakhtar Donetsk, they delivered 29 crosses officially, but the strategy was far beyond that, forcing Shakhtar into 34 clearances. Against Wolves in the 2-0 defeat, they blasted 36 crosses into the area in a game that was scoreless until the final 10 minutes.  Panic.

A deeper dive is even more troubling. Even with all those crosses flying into the opposition box – again, attempting 26% per game more than any other Premier League side – they have just one player among the top 20 in accurate crosses. Kevin de Bruyne leads the Premier League with 45 total completed crosses this season, but even he has done so at just a 28% clip, which is nothing more than bang-on average. The rest of the list is completely devoid of any Man City players, forced to drop all the way to 40th in the league where Angelino, Olkesandr Zinchenko, and Ilkay Gundogan all sit with eight at a combined 29% success rate.

Clearly, strategy does not fit Man City’s strengths – the squad, as mentioned previously, is full of passers, dribblers, and general movers of the ball. They are not a crossing team. They are a spectacular passing team, with de Bruyne leading the league in key passes plus Sterling, Silva and Mahrez all in the Premier League top 20. Man City has six players in the top 10 in accurate final third passes. Yet here they are, blasting crosses into the box.

Pep Guardiola has talked repeatedly about how Manchester City is “still not ready” to win the Champions League, and yet it feels like instead the window may have closed. The team that won back-to-back Premier League titles in record-setting fashion may be in decline.

Injuries have no doubt had an effect. Leroy Sane’s knee injury has proven a much bigger absence than expected, while goal machine Sergio Aguero now finds himself on the sideline. As a result, Guardiola has leaned heavily on de Bruyne, a dangerous prospect given the Belgian’s own recent injury history.

Determining a fix is more complex than asking City to “go back to what they do best,” but any remedy certainly starts there. The problems are also not deep-rooted, as Manchester City still leads the league with 44 goals scored through 16 games, and a 45.89 xG proves that number is not a fluke. Still, the baffling tweak up front has left the team begging for goals when it needs them the most, unable to provide the killer instinct that flowed through the veins of the recent title teams.