Monday, 10 February 2014

Talking Points From The Weekend

1. Liverpool Strangle Arsenal

The weekend got off to a fast-paced start at Anfield where a rampant  Liverpool smashed four past the league leaders in the opening twenty minutes on their way to an historic 5-1 victory.

Just last week I praised Arsenal's mental toughness and maturity in being able to break down a stubborn Crystal Palace defence at the Emirates, the kind of test they've failed time and time again during this recent barren period. Saturday provided a different scenario in which their resolve would be tested: Adversity. This time they failed.

Going a goal down in the first minute is a hammer blow but it is the sort of thing that potential champions should be able to recover from. Instead of digging in and keeping it tight for the next while, Arsenal totally capitulated. The only thing worse than making mistakes is not learning from them. They again failed to deal with Skrtel on a set piece and were caught out by Liverpool's high pressure and fast break for goals three, four and five with the lightning quickness of Sterling and Sturridge exploiting Per Mertesacker's achilles heel to great effect.

Sterling grabbed goals three and five

Liverpool won the battle in midfield, Gerrard and Henderson were both excellent while Arsenal lacked a bit of steel in Flamini and Aaron Ramsey, something which Jack Wilshire couldn't make up for. In the battle of the franchise players, Suarez had an excellent game and Ozil was shockingly anonymous.

Arsenal's potential season-defining period is off to a terrible start. They really shouldn't have any trouble beating United and have a quick chance at revenge over Liverpool next week in the cup but after that comes the dreaded tie with the awesome Bayern Munich. This defeat may prove more than just three points lost, it's a massive psychological blow ahead of the crucial period and something which has put their weakness on very public display for other teams to exploit.

Brendan Rodgers says Liverpool aren't title contenders and he's right, they aren't. Not this season anyway. Destroying your rivals at home is fantastic and Liverpool have done it twice in ten days now. But they now need to go to Fulham midweek and pick up three points. Then they need to repeat this in their next away games against Southampton and Cardiff whilst showing now let up at fortress Anfield. That is the type of ruthless consistency that is needed to win titles and that's what they're lacking at the moment as evident by their frequent draws lately.

2. Mourinho Has Pellegrini Rattled

I don't quite know what Manuel Pellegrini has done to Jose Mourinho to invoke such raw hatred from the Chelsea boss but whatever it is, Mourinho seems intent on making Pellegrini's life in England a living hell until the day he returns to Spain, defeated with his tail tucked firmly between his legs.

Looking back through the pair's history, it's hard to find a single thing Pellegrini did that Mourinho could contrive as hostile and a reason for all this animosity. It seems to be a case that Jose hatred of the Chilean stems from the mere fact that Pellegrini was Real Madrid manager before him and maybe the fact that Pellegrini got more points. He made fun of Pellegrini's move to Malaga afterwards remarking that such a huge backward step was not something he'd ever do himself.

Mourinho's vendetta has intensified since the pair both moved to England during the summer and the Special One identified Manchester City as the only genuine threat to him reclaiming his Premier League throne. With two clubs now neck and neck at the summit of the table, Mourinho has taken to throwing in digs at just about every available opportunity.

Advantage Special One

His hypocrisy is remarkable, comical to the point where onlookers are thinking 'He can't be serious'. Accusing City of buying the title, labelling Chelsea as third favourites, the underdogs, the little horse in a three horse race. Mourinho is fooling absolutely nobody with this attempt at mind games. I think he's been a little disappointed at times with his lack of a true foe this season in the mould of Guardiola or Benitez, someone to spar with verbally. His one-sided tirades against Pellegrini this season have reminded me of the scene in the Simpsons with Milhouse throwing the frisbee to himself. Nobody will play mind-games with poor Jose.

Last week their sides met at The Etihad at Mourinho came out on top in what was a wonderful tactical display by him and a gutsy performance from his players. This seemed to prove too much for Pellegrini who finally gave it to Jose's pestering and prodding and verbally responded to him, ridiculing his comments and describing Chelsea as a 'very rich little horse'. Typically, the very next day, City are held 0-0 at Norwich while Chelsea win to go top of the league. Classic Mourinho.

Who can forget Rafa's rant in 2009 while Liverpool were top. He lashed out at Ferguson after months and months of the United boss 'poking the bear'. Pellegrini's outburst, if even that, was not quite as animated but may prove to have similarly detrimental effects. Liverpool nosedived and United strolled to the title.

3. Crossgate

82 crosses. 64 failed. 18 completed. 0 chances created. Theses are the stats resulting from Manchester United's record-setting bombardment of the Fulham penalty area at Old Trafford on Sunday. Yeah that's right. Not only did they not score from any of the 82 crosses, they didn't even fashion a chance.

I noted in November after the dreary 0-0 draw in San Sebastian that United were far, far too reliant on crosses (they only put in 32 that night and it seemed outrageously excessive) and now it seems the whole world is aware of the fact. It says a lot that the worst defence in the league, a team that conceded six goals to Hull City barely a month ago could defend so trouble-free against United for the best part of eighty minutes.

Crossing isn't working? Not to worry, let's try more crossing.

Rene Meulensteen, who has been a manager for a little over two months called United's attack predictable, straightforward and easy to defend against. His 6'7 centre half Dan Burn made 22 clearances in the game, similar to Ryan Shawcross for Stoke last week, as Fulham ended a run of five straight defeats. Moyes seems to learn absolutely nothing from his continuous failures.

He's running out of excuses and he's running out of support. He can't blame the referees, the weather, bad fortune or anything but his tactics  for the latest episode of this comedy roadshow the biggest club in the world has become. More and more of United's fans are slowly abandoning faith and realising he's never going to achieve anything with these prehistoric, narrow-minded ideas he's bringing to the club. Six years. Why was he given six years?

I maintain my stance that Fulham are the worst side in this division, but the way they are currently playing, United are genuinely close to being if not the worst, then the least effective. The idea of David Moyes remaining manager much longer under these circumstances is just ridiculous.

4. The Unpredictable Relegation Battle

With the upcoming title fight, battle for fourth and plight of Manchester United (who will always get media attention simply because of who they are), this season's relegation battle is likely to be slightly overlooked in the coming months. With seven points seperating 10th place Swansea from bottom club Fulham, it looks like being one of the most unpredictable in years.

At the start of the season it looked like Crystal Palace would be cast adrift at the bottom of the table  and nailed-on for 20th place. Following the arrival of Tony Pulis, a remarkable run of form and the addition of some quality signings, Palace now look a decent bet to 'win' the bottom sub-league and finish in 10th place.

Tom Ince looks a quality signing already

Sunderland and West Ham are two other sides who've looked dead and buried at times earlier on in the season but whose fortunes have really improved lately and now look more like surviving than going down. Sunderland's recent good form ended with a defeat to Hull on Saturday and now they've a trip to Manchester City to come.

West Brom have gone off the rails recently and are struggling to find form under Pepe Mel. Cardiff have not got going under Solskjaer either. Norwich look like they are going nowhere. Swansea have taken action to try and stop being dragged into the mire. They looked impressive in their first game under new boss Gary Monk on Saturday and should be alright. Same goes for Hull and Aston Villa who can both target 9th/10th place finished as an achievable goal rather than mere survival.

At the very start of the season, I tipped Palace, Hull and Stoke to go down. Palace will stay up, Hull too, barring  a seismic collapse and Stoke look like they have enough about them to survive. My three will probably change every single week from now until the end of the season but this week it's Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich who I think will be playing Championship football next season.

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