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.
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.