Five thoughts from Sunday's Premier League action:
1. It's all about Chelsea. This was a lively weekend in the Premier League. Manchester United came from behind to win again, beating Queens Park Rangers, 3-1, to regain first place. In another entertaining game, West Brom won 4-2 at Sunderland to climb to the oxygen-deprived heights of third. Arsenal followed emphatic victories over Tottenham and Montpellier with an utterly insipid performance at Aston Villa. The Gunners managed just one shot on target in a 0-0 draw. On Sunday, Clint Dempsey finally began to look comfortable with his new teammates, helping to set up two goals as Spurs rediscovered their mojo with a 3-1 home victory over a woeful West Ham. But none of these matches can alter the fact that this week has been all about one club: Chelsea.
2. Follow the money, Pep. If you wasted your Sunday afternoon in a pub in New York watching Chelsea and Manchester City play out an idea-free goalless, draw, then perhaps that familiar-looking fellow man in the corner was Pep Guardiola. The former Barcelona manager is spending his retirement living on the Upper West Side. He has been linked with both clubs. Wherever he watched them on Sunday, he could have concluded that he could hardly make either team worse.
Chelsea clearly signaled that it will be in the market for a manager in the summer last week as it replaced one interim manager with another whose contract runs only until May.
From a soccer point of view, everything about Chelski seems to run counter the way Guardiola has been brought up.
Guardiola joined Barcelona's academy at 13. The core of his great Barcelona team, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi as well as Victor Valdés and the prodigals Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Cesc Fàbregas were at La Masia, the Barcelona training ground, before they were teenagers. Sergio Busquets joined Barça even younger, at the age of seven. Guardiola's experience tells him that it takes patience to build a team that plays like Barcelona.
Abramovich doesn't do patience. His splurge in the last year on tricky young midfielders (Eden Hazard, Oscar, Kevin de Bruyne and Marko Marin) suggests he believes he can buy Barcelona soccer over a couple of transfer windows. It's up to his coaches to make it happen. If Guardiola takes over at the end of the season, he will be Chelsea's fifth manager in two years.
Worse, Abramovich seems to have let the players take over the asylum. The coach cannot afford to upset the veterans.
Guardiola is keeping quiet but an awful lot of anonymous sources that are apparently close to him have been very chatty this week. One British tabloid reported that Guardiola has already said "no" to Chelsea and called Abramovich "trigger-happy."
Yet it is precisely that willingness to fire coaches that should make Chelsea so alluring to Guardiola and his agent.
When Chelsea fired José Mourinho he received a reported payoff of £18 million ($28.5 million at current exchange rates), Avram Grant received a reported £5.5 million and Felipe Scolari £12.6 million. The numbers for Andres Villas Boas are more confused, showing just how much guesswork is often involved when the tabloids throw about these numbers. Some say he received £5 million, some £10 million and some that he collected his £100,000 a week salary until he started at Spurs (although why he would take a pay cut to stop sitting in his garden and go back to work is a little puzzling). AVB was on £5 million a year. Chelsea has reportedly offered Guardiola three times that amount. If he plays his cards right he could make out like a bandit.
Guardiola should take the job, insult and drop John Terry and refuse to pick Fernando Torres. Guardiola wouldn't need to try to lose; he's probably incapable of that. With the unbalanced and turbulent squad he would inherit, he will inevitably suffer some embarrassing early defeats. Abramovich would lose patience. Guardiola could be back in Manhattan by Christmas. His reputation would be untarnished; everyone in soccer knows that Abramovich doesn't know soccer. His bank balance would be swelled by tens of millions of pounds.
Pep, follow my plan! I will take 2 per cent.
3. What Rafa adds. "Why Rafa?" disgruntled Chelsea fans asked when Abramovich booted out Roberto Di Matteo and appointed another, Rafa Benítez. On Sunday, at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea fans started by chanting Di Matteo's name, then sunk into a sulky silence as Rafa's team plodded through 90 minutes.
The blog can offer several possible reasons why Roman chose Rafa. Benítez is a recognizable name. At Liverpool he specialized in beating Chelsea. He has also won the Champions League, which is seems to be the second most important thing to Abramovich, but then so did Di Matteo and that didn't quite scratch the owner's itch.
Most of all, as every soccer watcher in England pointed out this week, once upon a time, Benítez got the best out of Torres. If reports that Di Matteo was finally fired for dropping Torres from the starting lineup at Juventus on Tuesday then proving he was right to spend £50 million on Torres seems to be the thing that Abramovich cares about most. Before Sunday, Torres had scored 56 goals in 79 Premier League games under Benítez. Since Rafa left Liverpool, Torres has scored just 20 in 81.
The reunion did not provide instant dividends. Torres huffed and puffed. He even managed one of the very few genuinely dangerous strikes on goal in the game, walloping a shot just over with his weaker left foot. But at just 28 he may not be the athlete he was. The ease with which Vincent Kompany, playing on one good leg, ran him down in the first half was further evidence that Torres has lost a step.
The current Chelsea team may not suit Torres. If Abramovich genuinely wants Chelsea to play like Barcelona, he should take note of the decision of Vicente Del Bosque, the manager of Barça Lite, aka the Spanish national team, not to start Torres as Spain won the Euros this summer.
Benítez brings another quality, one that does not necessarily endear him to fans. He can organize a defense. After just a day in charge, it's probably too early to give him much credit for Chelsea's display. But the 0-0 draw was the club's first clean sheet in 11 games.
4.The men in black and the boys in blue. The furor over Chelsea's managers last week rather eclipsed the news that the English Football Association had thrown out the club's allegation that referee Mark Clattenburg had used a racial epithet on the field when talking to Jon Obi Mikel. The FA, like the police before it, concluded there was no evidence to support Chelsea's allegation. It then hit Mikel with a misconduct charge.
Chelsea's accusations after it lost to Manchester United, smacked of petulance. It was also a sulky reaction to the FA punishing Terry for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. It was also an attempt to up the stakes in the endless game of intimidating referees.
There is a widespread belief that Manchester United receives favorable treatment from referees because of the way its manager, its players and its fans work on referees. In truth, Ferguson seems to have mellowed. But like a spitball pitcher, he is happy to let opponents believe what they like. Going back to the Mourinho era, Chelsea has often acted as if it too is entitled to the preferential treatment they it believes United gets.
There has been talk of coimpensation or, at the least, an apology from Chelsea for Clattenburg. He said this week that the lingering aroma from the accusations could end his chances of refereeing a World Cup. He had not been allowed to officiate at a match since Chelsea made their accusations. Chelsea has given no indication that it accepts it did anything wrong. Meanwhile, Clattenburg resurfaced Sunday as the fourth official at White Hart Lane. There he completed his penance forcing a terrified smile as big Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, draped an avuncular arm over his shoulder.
5. Staying on his feet. As luck would have it, Ashley Williams' diary of his first season in the Premier League was published Wednesday just before his club, Swansea, was due to play Liverpool in the Premier League. Williams reserves his greatest bile for Luis Suárez, whom he clearly dislikes and whom he called a serial diver. "It was so bad, I was shocked," he wrote.
Suárez is a man who likes to nurse a grudge. Yet he happily shook the Swansea captain's hand before the kickoff. Then, midway through the second half of an entertaining 0-0 draw, something remarkable happened. In midfield, Suárez turned Chico Flores, Swansea's other center back. Flores grabbed the Uruguayan's shirt and tugged. Suárez kept moving. Flores tugged again. Suárez kept going. Flores reached out the other hand and yanked. Suárez still kept going. Finally, Flores pulled with both hands and also slammed his body into Suárez's back. Finally, Suárez went down. Finally, the referee, Jon Moss, who had presumably been watching in disbelief, blew his whistle.
Maybe Suárez, who didn't, as far as the blog could judge, dive once in the match, had been reading Williams' book.