After Man City slip up, is it Chelsea’s title to lose?
After hammering Swansea City 5-0 away from home on Saturday in an imperious display, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea piled all of the pressure on title rivals Manchester City who faced Arsenal on Sunday.
[ RELATED: Three things we learned from City’s defeat ]
The reigning champions crumbled as they lost 2-0 to Arsenal, handing Chelsea a five-point lead at the summit and on January 31, the next PL fixture for both teams, the Blues can go eight points clear at the top by beating City.
A certain man from Portugal will be feeling pretty smug right now, as a pivotal weekend played out in the PL title race.
“It was very good, we were solid, we were recovering the ball in good positions, we were dangerous in counter-attacks, the decisions made in front of the ball were always the best decisions,” Mourinho said after Chelsea’s 5-0 victory. “We hit the post twice, we could have finished with even more. I am happy with the points and the quality of our football.”
Chelsea now have the chance to regain their lengthy lead which they held before the festive period, but then frittered it away as City drew level on Jan. 1. Chelsea looked confident and ruthless as Diego Costa and Oscar both scored twice. Swansea didn’t do much wrong. Chelsea were just that good.
[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]
As for City, they looked sluggish against Arsenal as the returning Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero looked to have been rushed back from injury far too soon. Manager Manuel Pellegrini admitted as much afterwards, as Kompany gave away the penalty for the first and Aguero was a shadow of his usual self with his acceleration and sharpness in tight situations missing. Without Yaya Toure in midfield, (away on Africa Cup of Nations duty with the Ivory Coast) City’s cautious passing from Fernando and Fernandinho was easily contained by Arsenal and the excellent Francis Coquelin, more on him shortly. City, unsurprisingly, have lost three and drawn one of the four games Toure has missed this season and Pellegrini spoke highly of his importance on the team. He was badly missed.
[ TIMELINE: Sanchez vs. Aguero ]
More worrying for Pellegrini is that his side have now been outrun in 19 of their last 22 games and the last five goals they have conceded have all come from set pieces. The reigning champs are not doing the basics well and after Chelsea blew a big lead at the top of the table last month, it is highly unlikely they will let City off the hook again.
In his post match press conference, Pellegrini looked annoyed as he let the assembled press know exactly what he thought about the magnitude about City’s next game against Chelsea.
“The game we play at Stamford Bridge is a very important game. We must close the gap to two points,” Pellegrini said. “It’s very important to win the next game against Chelsea. I hope we are going to recover and play the way we have been playing so far.”
Understatement alert. City’s trip to Chelsea will define their season and barring a monumental collapse from Chelsea, a win against their nearest rivals for the title would all but seal the Premier League trophy for Mourinho’s men. But this is the PL. Nothing is ever that straightforward.
SEE, ARSENAL CAN DEFEND…
Arsenal put in a defensive masterclass at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, as 23-year-old French midfielder Francis Coquelin excelled in the holding role in just his 13th career appearance in the Premier League.
[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]
After the game I asked Gunners boss Arsene Wenger — who had just seen his side complete their first victory in 13 attempts against a team from the previous season’s top four — what Coquelin has added since he returned to the Gunners from a loan spell in the Championship earlier this campaign.
“I took him at the age of 16 from France and today he is 23. He has gone through some difficult periods but for me, he is a learner from his experiences,” Wenger said. “I always kept faith in him. I told him three months ago that he needed to play somewhere and he accepted to go down to Charlton [on loan] and had convincing performances. Now he has come back, I play him, and he does very well.”
Coquelin, with a little help from Aaron Ramsey, locked down a subdued David Silva and Santi Cazorla ran the show from a central role. The diminutive Spaniard scored the opening goal from with a penalty kick and the set up the second with his pinpoint free kick onto Olivier Giroud’s head.
Despite Cazorla’s sublime display of poise, panache and desire against his former manager at Villarreal and Malaga, Pellegrini, the discipline of Coquelin was impressive. Sitting in the holding role in Arsenal’s rigid 4-1-4-1 formation, the Frenchman won 88 percent of his aerial duels, eight of his nine tackles, made 11 clearances and screened the center of Arsenal’s center of defense superbly. Silva didn’t have a sniff, as Coquelin kept City’s main attacking threat quiet at the home of the defending champions.
[ RELATED: Wenger hails Cazorla, Coquelin ]
It was a coming of age performance and may give Wenger a second thought as to whether or not he really needs to spend his cash on a top class holding midfielder this summer. On this showing, he has a star in the making if nurtured and used correctly.
After going ahead early on the Gunners then sat back and soaked up pressure from a City side lacking their usual ingenuity. Without Toure seamlessly linking midfield and attack, the Citizens failed to penetrate Arsenal in the final third as Aguero was cut adrift up top as the Argentine striker did not look fully fit as he started for the first time in over a month. Cazorla and Coquelin were sublime Wenger’s men exalted their hoodoo against teams who finished in the top four in the previous season. With the confidence of this win and five victories in their last seven, the Gunners are on track for a eighteenth successive top four finish.
But it will be one heck of a battle with this lot…
BEST TOP FOUR RACE IN RECENT TIMES?
Southampton. Manchester United. Arsenal. Tottenham Hotspur. West Ham. Liverpool. These six teams are all in the hunt to finish in the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League by finishing in third or fourth place. Let’s face it, Chelsea and City seem to have the top two spots sealed but Southampton are on 42 points in third, United are in fourth on 40 points, while Arsenal are on 39, then come Tottenham on 37, West Ham on 36 and Liverpool on 35 points. Tight.
[ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]
After inconsistent starts, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal are nestling in behind the front runners with the final bend in sight before the home-stretch. Southampton are defying logic with their incredible season, as they dispatched Newcastle for a third-straight win and fifth victory in sixth despite Ronald Koeman having half of his team missing through injury. The Saints are currently winning the race for third place, but the teams breathing down their neck are powerhouses who have been here before. West Ham are sticking with the pace against the odds too, but surely Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal and United will fancy their chances to finish above the Saints and Hammers?
ERIKSEN “BALE’S” OUT SPURS AGAIN
Since Gareth Bale left for Real Madrid, Spurs have been without a go-to man to “Bale them out”… now Tottenham Hotspur has a new savior. Christian Eriksen. He may not be near the level of Bale quite yet, but this season the Danish playmaker has won more points for his team than any other player in the PL, as his goals have now secured Spurs 14 points.
Four of Eriksen’s last five goals have been the winners in 2-1 victories, as the 23-year-old Dane continues his incredible season. Like all goo central midfielders he has a knack of when to arrive in the box to finish off chances. It is Frank Lampard-esque, as the little man has now popped up late in games against Hull City, Swansea City, Leicester City and Sunderland to deliver the winner with a cool finish.
Spurs aren’t ripping teams apart. But they are in sixth place, three points off the top four and as long as they have Eriksen, they have a chance.
USMNT UPDATE: FAREWELL, JOZY
Adios, Jozy Altidore. Last week we lost a U.S. national team player in the Premier League as Altidore switched places with Jermain Defoe as he moved from Sunderland and back to Major League Soccer to sign with the ever-ambitious Toronto FC. As we all know, Altidore scored just two PL goals in 68 appearances throughout his career in England. For a striker, those stats plus his dwindling confidence levels meant it was best for everyone if he moved on. So, what about Defoe? The veteran England international will be Sunderland’s main goalscoring threat if they’re going to beat the drop. Our analysts break down the Altidore-Defoe swap in the video above. But here’s a question worth debating: did Altidore’s struggles impact the image of USMNT players in the PL?
[ RELATED: Cameron’s latest blog for PST ]
Elsewhere, the only American Abroad to taste victory this weekend was Geoff Cameron as his Stoke side beat Leicester 1-0. Geoff has been struggling to recover from a knee injury against Arsenal last weekend but did make it onto the field for the last few minutes to help the Potters seal the win as they sit pretty in the top 10. Tim Howard is still out injured as his Everton squad were held to a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to West Brom, while Brad Guzan’s Aston Villa are slumping, big time, as the Villains lost to Liverpool 2-0 and it’s now seven games without a win.
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.