ARSENAL, LIVERPOOL SHOWCASE FRAILTIES
At Anfield on Sunday two teams lacking in confidence gave the public plenty of reasons to doubt their top four credentials. Liverpool and Arsenal drew 2-2, with the Gunners’ usual silky panache missing and Liverpool looking ragged and devoid of composure in the final third.
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Both managers looked a little dazed and confused after a game which exhibited plenty of weaknesses for their teams. Liverpool’s boss Brendan Rodgers is confident his team can go on a surging run after rescuing a late point, and insisted that a top four finish is still possible.
“Can we now challenge for the top four? Yes. Absolutely. The most important thing is that we are moving in the right direction again,” Rodgers said.”This a group of players with the talent to win games, as we did when we won 11 in succession last season, and that can quickly move you up the league.”
As for Arsenal, they recorded their lowest possession numbers (36.5 percent) since August 2003 in the 2-2 draw. The Gunners average over 60 percent of possession per game but looked scared stiff at Anfield as Liverpool used pace and passion to push Arsene Wenger’s men back and, in truth, Arsenal were lucky to leave Merseyside with a point.
[ RELATED: Wenger admits Gunners not good enough ]
Liverpool equalized in injury time thanks to Martin Skrtel’s bullet header and the points were shared as neither team deserved to win and both sets of players looked a little bashful as the sauntered off the pitch at full time. Arsenal’s sheer lack of creativity was a little concerning for Arsenal’s boss as he, like Rodgers, tried to come up with a reason for his teams lackluster display. Apparently, a few skeletons in Arsenal’s closet from last seasons 5-1 defeat was to blame.
“Maybe bad memories played a part,” Wenger said. “Some players weren’t at their best. We played with the handbrake on a little bit in the first half especially.”
The Gunners made the most of Liverpool’s three-man defense, which looked ragged throughout, plus moments of class from Santi Cazorla and two clinical finishes from Matheiu Debuchy and Olivier Giroud bailed them out. The Gunners are now in sixth place and are just four points off the top four with a UEFA Champions League last 16 place to look forward to in the February.
Liverpool do not have that luxury. They are scrambling and you could tell as their awful finishing continued. Following their wastefulness against Manchester United last weekend they had 27 efforts at goal on Sunday, their highest in a single game this season, but often the ball dropped to the nervous looking Philippe Coutinho, (who did scored a tidy opener) Lucas Leiva and even Steven Gerrard in and around the box as the pressures of a poor seeped into the Reds’ play.
Despite Rodgers’ optimism, Liverpool are now on 22 points from 17 games this season. No club in PL history has finished higher than sixth place with that record in their first 17 matches of a campaign. Liverpool will have to re-write the record books if they’re going to seal a top four finish.
EVERTON’S INCONSISTENCY CONTINUES, SAINTS DIP INTO ACADEMY
Roberto Martinez cut a frustrated figure down at St Mary’s on Saturday. His Everton side defended poorly all afternoon, as the Toffees were swept aside by an under-strength Southampton 3-0. Everton’s inconsistent start to the 2014-15 PL season continues.
[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]
Martinez’s men have only strung together back-to-back league wins once this season, and following their comfortable win over QPR on Monday you got the feeling that the old Everton was back and Ross Barkley was ready to inspire another push towards the top four of the PL. However on Saturday Martinez decided to deploy Barkley on the left wing, despite him flourishing in a deeper central role against QPR, and the young Englishman looked lost. The Spanish manager did not make any subs as Samuel Eto’o and Romelu Lukaku labored up top but were stifled by Saints’ three-man defense.
Martinez spoke afterwards about his disappointment but believes the Toffees must clean up simple mistakes in defense to hit the heights of last season which saw them finish fifth.
“Very disappointing. A game with nothing between the two sides apart from ourselves not being able to defend the six-yard box better,” Martinez said. “It is about how we defended the six-yard box, the other two goals were the same. They didn’t have to do much to score three goals. It was not a case of them being superior to us, it is just we were very soft. I do feel we need to find a good run of performances. I don’t think the performance was too far away from what you need to get good results.”
[ RELATED: Martinez disappointed after defeat ]
A word must also go to Southampton and their incredible academy. On Saturday they have five teenagers on the bench and started another two academy products as diminutive ginger midfield Harrison Reed made his first start in the Premier League at the age of 19. Another 19-year-old came off the bench, Matt Targett, and a baby-faced Dominic Gape, 18, came on for the final stages of the game as injuries and suspensions has meant that Ronald Koeman dipped into the clubs plethora of talented youngsters to fill out his squad.
After five-straight defeats, including an embarrassing League Cup exit at the quarterfinal stage to League One Sheffield United, the Saints are back on track and sit in fifth place on Christmas Day. With a busy schedule coming up, expect to see plenty more talented teenagers from the same mold as Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers being given the chance to flourish. As the Saints always prove: their kids are alright.
RED-HOT AUSTIN MUST GET ENGLAND CALL
In September 2009 Charlie Austin was playing for Poole Town in the Wessex League, the tenth tier of English soccer in southern England. Just over five years later he became the first QPR player to score a Premier League hat trick since Clive Allen in 1993, as the predatory forward was key to the R’s’ incredible comeback from 2-0 down at win 3-2 at home against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
Austin, 25, is now the highest scoring Englishman in the Premier League with 11 goals and is now being touted as a potential England international. The question should be when, rather than if, Austin’s remarkable rise to stardom is worthy of international recognition.
65 percent of QPR’s goals have either been scored or created by Austin this season and there’s no surprise that the R’s have opened talks over a new contract hot on the heels of his hat trick heroics. The man himself was showing off the signed matchball after his treble, as he handed Rangers fans an early Christmas present as their battle against relegation continues.
If Roy Hodgson fancies a pop on a striker who has razor-sharp instincts inside the box and has handled the step up from League One to the Championship and now the Championship to the Premier League with ease, then Austin is your man. In his first-ever season in the PL, Austin is fast becoming the hottest marksman in the land. Not bad for a man who was laying bricks five years ago…
BOXING DAY: THE GREATEST TRADITION IN ENGLISH SOCCER
The day after Christmas Day may often feel like the end of the world to most, especially in the United States of America. No more presents. Another 364 days until Santa comes back and a large dose of normality returns after a month-long build up to Christmas. But after growing up in England, December 26 is yet another wondrous day for me. In the homeland of the PL, it is another huge celebration with massive banquets and all the razzmatazz of Christmas but without any presents. Small details. But, most importantly, a full day of soccer across the leagues in Great Britain is one of the finest traditions which remains on the modern sporting calendar.
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Personally I have fond memories of being allowed (if I asked nicely enough) to switch on the radio, quietly, at the dinner table on Boxing Day to hear how all the games were going down and which teams were digesting their Christmas dinners the best. The games themselves are special and are played in front of packed stadiums of mostly hungover fans, there is something special about Boxing Day matches as the grueling schedule is both appreciated and enjoyed by fans and players alike. For players, there is a warm atmosphere on Boxing Day between opponents and each other. Seasons greetings as you enter the locker room and a jovial spirit throughout. On the terraces, new jumpers, gloves and hats are worn by fans as tales of Christmas Day joy or woe are retold by one and all. There is a buzz and excitement in the stadiums and a warmth between opposition fans that the cold weather cannot impact.
[ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]
I’ll admit it, I am a romantic when it comes to English soccer and the traditions. As so many things change in the modern game, one of the things that remains true is Boxing Day, which is the most sacred day on the soccer calendar for fans in England. Players have to go through the long slog of four matches in 10 days around Christmas and New Year, every year. Deep down, aside from the deep burn they will feel in their thighs and calves as they chase a loose ball on January 1 after already playing three games in the previous week, the players also love it.
Full stadiums. Entertaining games. History. Excitement. Boxing Day is a day like no other in the Premier League calendar. If you watch the video above, I’m sure you agree that it should be preserved and treasured, forever.
Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Editor and Lead Writer takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.