Monday, 13 January 2014

Chelsea hitting top form, helping the refs, Atletico vs Barca and Qatar shambles

It was a big weekend for both the pre-season title favourites, Chelsea and Manchester City. With Arsenal not playing until Monday, both sides faced tricky away games with a chance to make their title intentions clear and each spend a little bit of time on top of the table. Both sides obliged with wins.

Chelsea beat Hull on Saturday afternoon. Two players in particular stood out for me. The first was the excellent Eden Hazard. The Belgian had a tough first year in London following his protracted Lebron James-style transfer from Lille. A year probably most memorable for his kicking a ball-boy at Swansea rather than his on-pitch exploits. Now the Belgian is emerging as one of the finest players in the division. Hazard is an inside out winger, a right-footer playing on the left wing who likes to cut inside and shoots on his stronger foot. He reminds me of Franck Ribery, although not quite at that level yet, he will surely get there.

Hazard is red-hot right now

Hazard was brilliant again against Hull on Saturday, scoring a sublime goal to give Chelsea the lead. It's talismanic player like this who decide titles. Ronaldo and Henry did it so often for United and Arsenal throughout their era's. Hazard has the opportunity now to be Chelsea's go-to guy when the chips are down.  The guy that will produce a moment of magic in tight away games such as this to turn one point into three.

The other standout player on Saturday, who did not get nearly as much credit was David Luiz. Mourinho, for only the second time I can remember, used Luiz in a holding midfield role rather than his traditional centre back spot. This was a strategy first used by Rafael Benitez last year and part of me thinks Mourinho was reluctant to try this idea based purely on where it came from.

Chelsea's midfield on Saturday

Luiz started in centre midfield in place of John Obi Mikel on Saturday. He was excellent. Chasing down and mopping up everything that got as far as the Chelsea third of the field. Not only that but when he won possession, he was particularly effective at bringing the ball forward and picking out a pass trying to create an opening. As a defender he was often percieved to be a bit wild, marauding out of defence at times and getting caught out. This role encourages him to do that and at the same time retains his defensive muscle, with the added benefit of having two centre backs to cover him. For the big games in particular, I think Mourinho should use Luiz in this role much more often.

Man City had a huge slice of luck in beating Newcastle on Sunday with the home side having a perfectly good goal chalked out for a contentious offside call. It was not the best day for ref Mike Jones who should have sent Newcastle's Yanga-Mbwia off for a nasty hack on Samir Nasri, who might be seriously injured. It is utterly ridiculous that in such an important sport money-wise for clubs that games and even championships can hinge on the split second judgement of one ordinary man who may be forty yards away from the incident. Extra officials would be helpful and a video referee is an absolute necessity. One replay is all it takes more often than not to show viewers what the correct decision should have been. We're talking about a maximum 10 second delay in the game to ensure that justice is done. Too much to ask? Far too often it is the case that the main focus after a match is on the officials rather than the players which is just plain wrong.

City got the win however and a valuable one at that. The league looks to be settling down at long last. There's an upper tier of Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal, whom the champions will likely come from. Following these is a selection of teams: Liverpool, Everton, Spurs and Man United who are all fighting it out for that coveted 4th Champions League spot. All of the aforementioned seven teams, with the exception of Arsenal who play Monday night, won their games at the weekend. 

The relegation battle was probably more exciting this weekend with two interesting clashes: Cardiff hosted West Ham and Sunderland went to Fulham. Both produced away wins which, given how close things are down there, have changed the look of the table drastically. Andy Carroll returned for West Ham, ahead of schedule and provided and assist for the clinching goal in stoppage time. It was just what Sam Allardyce needed following 5-0 and 6-0 thrashings in both cups this week. Surprisingly he did not give a post match interview so was unable to take all the credit for this piece of genius, as I'm sure he would have liked to.

Sunderland also picked up a massive win, thanks in no small part to Adam Johnson. He made a scoring return against Carlisle in the FA Cup last weekend, won the winning penalty in the League Cup semi-final on Tuesday and hit a hat-trick against Fulham on Saturday which has lifted Sunderland off the bottom of the table. Outside the top 9, there are only six points separating Hull in 10th from Crystal Palace in 20th place.

11 teams seperated by just 6 points

Looking at the table, I think the teams from Fulham downwards are the real relegation candidates and the three teams going down will come from them. I can't honestly see the likes of Swansea or Hull being dragged into a relegation scrap, their sides are just too strong. Of these bottom five, Cardiff look best equipped to survive. Other than that it's too close to call.

In Spain, Barcelona visited Madrid to play a potential title decided. This time however the team they were facing were Atletico Madrid and not their more illustrious rivals. Both sides went into the game on identical records. P18, W16, D1, L1. Hyped up to the max in the media, the game failed to deliver in a big way, fizzling out into a 0-0 draw. Lionel Messi started on the bench as he continues his recovery from injury. The match was an interesting clash of styles. Barca's fluid, super slick, passing and movement met Atletico's smash-mouth tackling and high pressure. In the end they cancelled each other out and a draw was a fair result.

Diego Costa has fired Atletico into title contention

It's the halfway mark in La Liga now. Barca and Atletico remain tied at the top on 50 points from a possible 57 with Madrid's 'other' team just 3 points back. Atletico have established themselves as genuine contenders this year and are showing no signs of faltering or fading away as the season draws on. After years of Clasico dominance, it would be great for the league to see a new face in the title shake-up at the tail end of the season for the first time since 2004.

Finally, this past week it was also announced to no-one's surprise that the '2022 Qatar World Cup' will take place in winter instead of summer. While this is an inconvenience for pretty much everyone, it baffles me that moving the time of the competition is the solution rather than moving the location. Qatar is by far and away the worst choice of a host nation ever. Even by FIFA's standards. A tiny country with a population of only two million people, with no stadiums, no footballing tradition, an appalling human rights record with a very unsuitable climate. The World Cup simply can't happen in Qatar and hopefully someone stands up in the name of common sense, sooner rather than later. Give it to Australia.

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