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Close calls have big impact on title race; more EPL thoughts

Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Newcastle felt aggrieved that Chieck Tiote's long-range goal was disallowed against Manchester City on Sunday.

Standing in a gray area -- Anyone who has refereed has probably experienced the electric shock of terror when a team scores a sudden goal. It's bad enough standing in a muddy park surrounded by the burly members of some rec league team screaming that the goal should be disallowed. They always scream, but what if they are right and you missed something? Goals are big deal. They change games. It's always tempting to seek a reason to disallow them.

So it must be far worse in professional soccer. The incident has been captured on a host of cameras. It can potentially be worth millions or tens of millions.

The laws of soccer don't help. There are so many rules that require the officials to use their judgment. Sunday's two games provided examples of three of them. The decisions allowed Manchester City and Liverpool to keep pace in the title race. They also knocked Newcastle out of the title race and pushed Stoke toward the relegation zone.

When Cheick Tiote blasted a long-range shot into Manchester City net just before half time at Newcastle, three teammates were offside. The ball whizzed just past one of them, Yoan Gouffran, on its way into the net. Before 2005, the fact that Gouffran was offside would have been enough to disallow the strike. On the other hand, the fact that City defender Martín Demichelis deflected the shot, would have put Gouffran onside.

Gouffran did not impede City goalkeeper Joe Hart, nor had he blocked his view of the ball. City complained. Mike Jones, the referee, consulted an assistant and then erred on the side of caution and gave offside.

"It was probably easier to give the goal, and I don't understand why he did it," Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager told Sky.

Instead of going to the locker room at half time level, Newcastle went in nursing a sense of injustice.

Jones made some allowances for Newcastle's rage in the second half by declining to show red cards to Yohan Cabaye for persistent fouling and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa for a tackle that put Samir Nasri on a stretcher. But Newcastle could not score and Alvaro Negredo struck on the break in the dying seconds to give City a barely-merited 2-0 victory that took it top of the standings.

Later at Stoke, the home team had fought back from two goals behind to draw level against Liverpool. Marc Wilson hit a clearance straight at Raheem Sterling. It struck the Liverpool winger's arm and flew toward goal. Sterling set off in pursuit of the ball. Wilson set of in pursuit of Sterling. The three came together in a harmless area on the edge of the box. Wilson stuck out a leg. Sterling tumbled. Anthony Taylor gave a penalty. Steven Gerrard, playing his 650th Liverpool game, converted. Liverpool was on the way to a 5-3 victory.

The first question for Taylor was whether Sterling had committed a handball. One problem is the question of intent. Players know the laws. They rarely handle the ball deliberately. Sterling probably didn't. But his arm was away from his body and he gained a clear advantage. Liverpool scored a goal because of the way the ball bounced off one of its player's arm.

The second question was the penalty.

Even Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, thought it was harsh.

"It was what I call a Spanish penalty," he told Sky Sports. "Where the attacker goes into the defender."

Yet Wilson's challenge was dumb and referees are inclined to punish stupidity.

As it happened, Taylor, like Jones, also punished the underdog. But that's a can of unpleasantness for another day.

A pattern emerges -- As recently as late November, the Premier League looked unusually close and competitive.

After two seasons dominated by the Manchester clubs, the Premier League was wide open. United and City seemed vulnerable. Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were contenders again. Tottenham, Everton, Newcastle and even Southampton were in the mix. The Premier League field seemed to have leveled.

After 12 rounds, only Arsenal was averaging better than two points a game. Liverpool, in second, was at the head of a pack of eight teams separated by just four points. Clubs from the lower half of the table were regularly rising up and popping the big boys on the jaw.

For the first few months of a season, the smaller clubs have an advantage. They are not playing midweek games in Europe. But over Christmas and New Year, when the Premier League crams in two games a week, the cracks appear in thinner squads. Very quickly, a familiar pattern has begun to emerge from the apparent chaos.

So far this weekend, six of the top seven teams have won. The exception is Arsenal and they don't play until Monday night, at Aston Villa.

Since 1997-98, every Premier League champion has averaged better than two points a game. In that period, no team has averaged that many and finished lower than third. Two points a game may not guarantee the title, but it will earn a place in the Champions League. Let's call it the Platini line. In those 16 seasons, Manchester United has beaten the average 13 times. Manchester City has done it in the last two seasons; Chelsea has done it five times; Arsenal seven times; Liverpool three times.

Now, Chelsea and Manchester City have joined Arsenal in averaging comfortably more than two points a game. If Arsenal wins at Aston Villa, Liverpool, which is bang on the Platini line, will be four points adrift of third.

Liverpool has flaws, as its exhilarating 5-3 victory at Stoke on Sunday showed. It will probably battle for the final Champions League spot with the Premier Leagues two masters of the fifth-place finish -- Everton and Tottenham -- and the wounded giant United, limping along three points behind Spurs.

Undermined by injury, Newcastle and Southampton are losing touch but at least they are unlikely to be sucked into the growing scrum at the bottom of the standings.

The lower orders -- While there is breathing room at top, the garbage at the bottom has become compacted. Only six points separate Hull in 10th, and therefore in the top half of the table, from Crystal Palace in last place.

From Hull down, only the pair who started the weekend in the last two places, West Ham and Sunderland, won.

West Ham, having conceded 11 goals in two humiliating cup defeats in the previous week, somehow won 2-0 at Cardiff despite finishing with 10 men after James Tomkins was sent off.

Assistant manager Neil McDonald, who talked to the media after the game, said the team " showed tremendous character." Translated, that means the Hammers somehow clung on, in part because Cardiff couldn't have hit a barn door.

Not all of the strugglers are equal -- some have players of quality, but they are often too old, too young, or rejected by bigger clubs because they are inconsistent. Even so, most of these clubs have little depth.

West Ham has played some games this season without a striker. It finally welcomed back its $25 million man, Andy Carroll, on Saturday -- even though reports suggest he might not be fit. If he could score half a dozen goals in the last 18 games it could make the difference. On the other hand, the club lost two more defenders: Tomkins, who will be suspended, and Guy Demel, who was taken to hospital after a blow to the head.

Sunderland's 4-1 victory at Fulham was proof of two things. First, that it's worth gambling on rejects from elite clubs because that is one of the few ways to sign quality. Second, the Premier League is no country for old men.

Adam Johnson showed why Manchester City picked him 73 times before giving up and sending him to Sunderland, as he destroyed Fulham at Craven Cottage, scoring a hat trick in a 4-1 victory. Now, if he can do that a few more times this season, Sunderland could be on to something.

Fulham, meanwhile, has put out a squad with an average age of over 30 in every game since René Meulensteen took over. Adel Taraabt was the only starter under 28 on Saturday. The re-signing of Clint Dempsey, who is 30, doesn't make the team any younger, although he looked much less jaded than some of his veteran teammates on Saturday. Its not clear Fulham will have the legs to climb away from trouble.

Defense first -- One of soccer's basic aphorisms is that it's easier to coach a great defense than a great attack. Defense is about organization. Attack is about disrupting organization. The best attacking weapon is surprise, and that is hard to coach.

Given time and patience, a club can instill a playing style in its youth program. But the great peripatetic coaches, like José Mourinho, cater to owners who aren't prepared to be patient.

Not all coaches are as defensive as Mourinho. He is a control freak who focuses on building teams that maximize his control. That means teams that defend first.

Barely six months into his second stint at Chelsea his thumbprint is already clearly visible.

After Chelsea won 2-0 at Hull on Saturday to go briefly to the top of the Premier League, BBC analyst Alan Hansen pointed out that Chelsea never had more than four players in front of the ball in attack. It was up to Fernando Torres, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian to break down the home defense. If Ramires joined the attack, one of the other players immediately dropped back. This is what Mourinho drills into his players on the training ground. If you don't want to do it, you can go and sit next to Juan Mata on the bench.

As long as it's not trailing, Chelsea is happy to play four against nine in attack. Its opponents face similar odds when they go forward unless they risk pushing more players forward, then Chelsea can kill them on the counter attack.

Mourinho calculates that his attackers are more talented than those of almost any other team Chelsea will face. They are more likely to produce a moment of magic that even nine defenders cannot stop.

That's what happened at Hull. After 56 minutes, Hazard danced in from the left, slid past a couple of defenders and from the edge of the penalty area arrowed an unstoppable shot into the corner of the net. It wasn't an isolated flash of unpredictable, uncoachable genius. It was Hazard's 10th league goal of the season.

Liverpool's ugly tradition -- In a world shaped by Twitter and Facebook the crucial distinction between fame and notoriety often seems to disappear.

If only Liverpool's second and third-choice strips this season could also disappear.

When the new shirts were unveiled in the summer, Liverpool talked of the shirts celebrating the club's history. It's true: the club has a tradition of ugly.

Liverpool's history has been written in red. It has struggled for an alternative identity. There have been several variations on nasty green. Gray was a mistake the first time in the late 80s, but the club still went back to it. It's the one club that has repeatedly made white look tacky -- the great teams of the 1980s often wore a shirt that bore the name of a paint manufacturer but looked like hospital wallpaper.

Earlier this season, The Independent newspaper conducted a reader poll to find the ugliest strip in European soccer. It reported, incredulously, that Liverpool's second strip was edged by Fernerbahce's blue and yellow stripes -- although the suspicion has to be that Galatasaray and Besiktas fans rigged the vote.

Liverpool's second-choice strip, basically white with strange little rows of black and red icons (are those meant to be chili peppers?) across the lower half, is cheaply, cheesily ugly.

Fans, struggling for words, have compared it to a "1980s space invaders game" or "a screen shot of a smashed up Nokia 3210."

But there is an even more unpleasant strip in the Premier League. It's the third-choice shirt Liverpool wore at Stoke on Sunday. It is black with random geometrical blocks of white and the very fashionable purple. It looks as if was designed using Lego bricks. One fan asked "Did they run out of fabric in 1 color and just start sewing together different colored pieces of fabric?"

There is nothing in soccer that looks anything like either shirt. Indeed, they look nothing like each other. That is, of course, a blessing. It's also the whole point. The fuss may be negative, but it's a fuss.

In 2012, Warrior Sport, a Michigan-based company, paid an English record £25 million per season for the privilege of making Liverpool's kit. That outstripped the £23.3 million Nike was paying Manchester United. It almost doubled what Adidas, which had clothed Liverpool in some horrible shirts over the years, had been paying.

Warrior, a company with its roots in lacrosse, only sponsors one other major European club, Sevilla. It needs to attract attention with its designs.

It's just a pity that it seems to have chosen to take a short cut through ugly - and if it didn't do it on purpose, what was it thinking?

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