Sunday December 14th, 2014

Manchester United crushed its traditional rival Liverpool, 3-0, ran its win streak to six games and tightened its grip on third place in the table. Should we cue the theme from Jaws for the two teams bobbing along at the top of the Premier League, Chelsea and Manchester City?

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Maybe not. Yet again, United’s man of the match was goalkeeper David de Gea, which is never a good sign. Last Monday at Southampton, United was outshot, 15-3, but de Gea stopped almost everything. United scored with its only two attempts on target and won.

On Sunday, Liverpool outshot United, 19-11, yet United won again.

Raheem Sterling and Mario Balotelli spent much of the afternoon one-on-one against de Gea. The goalie stayed on his feet, looked the strikers in the eye and won every duel.

“I’m proud that we have a clean sheet but that was because David de Gea has fantastic reactions,” United boss Louis van Gaal told Sky Sports.

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If Van Gaal is trying to instill a Dutch ball control style it isn’t working yet. United repeatedly tried to pass intricately out of defense only to get into trouble.

“We give unnecessary balls away and that’s not good,” Van Gaal said. “I will ask the players why.”

At the other end, Brad Jones, taking the place of struggling Simon Mignolet, hardly seized his chance, diving early and in the wrong direction for United’s first goal. Of course, Jones was facing Wayne Rooney, who finished ruthlessly for that first goal, and Robin van Persie, who coolly collected the third. United, again, took its chances.

“That’s the quality of the strikers,” said van Gaal.

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Liverpool still cannot defend reliably and has now lost the ability to score regularly.

“It tells you everything that the goalkeeper was man of the match but we just gave away poor goals,” lamented Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. “We’re not prolific enough in goal scoring.”

Meanwhile, United, like the malfunctioning special effects shark of Steven Spielberg’s original Jaws, is a scary set of sharp teeth with not much working behind them -- except for de Gea.

Yet, that ability to score goals is what is separating United from most of the rest of the Premier League, including Liverpool. United doesn’t look good but it has the top spot within striking distance.

“Not bad, eh?” said Van Gaal, grinning.

SHORT CORNERS

ROBBERY IN THE RAIN

If it was smart, Tottenham would have raced out of Swansea on Sunday before the local police noticed the three points were missing.

Wilfried Bony of Swansea City scored his Premier League-leading 20th goal of 2014 on Sunday, but, as the Spurs defense repeatedly stood politely aside and ushered him toward goal, he inexplicably missed half-a-dozen more chances, some of which were excellent.

Outplayed, Tottenham somehow clung on and for the third time in its last four away games scored after the 89th minute to win, 2-1.

BLAME THE REF

It was another weekend of lively debate, on and off the field, over refereeing decisions. Players congregate around referees to discuss any important calls. Managers, keen to pass on the blame for a bad result, weigh in after the game.

Yet maybe, sometimes, referees should encourage that eagerness to talk.

When Juan Mata met a long cross by Ashley Young and put United two goals up against Liverpool on Sunday, he was yards behind the visiting defense. The ball had come a long way, but Van Persie appeared to have flicked a head at the ball around the penalty spot. If Van Persie touched it, Mata was offside.

There is a large grayish area here, and that is whether Van Persie made contact with the ball. It was close, but he appeared to have altered the ball's path ever so slightly. The linesman on the near side saw it differently.

Van Persie weighed in rather bluntly after the game to Sky TV: “I have to be honest, I got a touch. So you can put it down as assist.”

GO ON, BLAME THE REF

After Hull City lost 2-0 at Chelsea on Saturday, the losing manager, Steve Bruce, told the media that he would not say how he "genuinely” felt about referee Chris Foy because “then I am going to be hauled up in front of the FA.”

Then Bruce said “he's had an absolutely shocking day from the moment he started to the last minute.”

An “absolutely shocking day”? It’s lucky Bruce was holding back.

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Bruce exaggerated. Foy was not consistently shocking and that was the problem. Bruce accepted that Tom Huddlestone deserved a red for a nasty challenge on Felipe Luis.

But earlier, Gary Cahill had lunged at Sone Aluko. Unlike Huddlestone, Cahill’s studs missed, but he still wiped out the Hull striker. Cahill had been reckless and he might also have been the last man. Foy just showed a yellow, and Bruce suggested he was intimidated by the home crowd.

Bruce also thought Foy was right to show Willian and Diego Costa of Chelsea for diving. But when Cahill, in the Hull penalty area, leapt like a salmon clearing an imaginary waterfall, Foy declined to show him a second yellow card.

Chelsea looked like a tired team trying to win short cuts to goal through free kicks or penalties. José Mourinho, who knows that diving pushes emotional buttons in British soccer, unenthusiastically denied that his players were diving.

The trio of flops brought to mind a line from Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

It’s a pity that Foy, who has license to pull the red card from his pocket, did not dare pull the trigger.

SWAN FAKE

Chelsea’s dives were “like something out of Swan Lake,” said Bruce, enjoying his rant. Perhaps Bruce doesn’t go to the ballet very often. Swans dive. Dancers are paid to stay on their feet. 

For potential dancers, you need to look elsewhere. Last week, Eliaquim Mangala and Fernandinho of Manchester City seemed to be auditioning for a cancan line with their high kicking against Everton.

On Saturday at the Emirates, Cheik Tioté of Newcastle had a chance to audition for Arsenal, a team he has suggested he would like to join. Maybe he thinks the Gunners are a dance company. After five minutes he lifted his leg impressively high. Then, after an artistic pause for dramatic effect, and with referee Lee Mason unsighted, rammed it, chest-high, into Alexis Sánchez.

This week, Arsenal was happy to dance and waltzed away with the game, 4-1.

WHY NOT BLAME THE REF

Just because a player dives, it does not mean he wasn’t fouled. After 22 minutes at Sunderland, Adam Johnson was going nowhere in the West Ham penalty area. He slowed slightly and waited. James Tomkins obliged, barging into Johnson who instantly lost his balance and went flying. Phil Dowd gave a penalty.

Suddenly Sunderland had the best of chances. It scored, and led. After the game, which ended 1-1, Sam Allardyce called Dowd “rubbish”, though, unlike Bruce, Allardyce wasn’t holding back. He prefaced the word rubbish with a vigorous obscenity.

Allardyce was right. Johnson dived, but Allardyce ignored the fact that Tomkins fouled the winger. And Allardyce, naturally, also ignored the fact that Dowd had not given a penalty after Winston Reid handled.

Gus Poyet, the Sunderland manager, summed it up when he looked back at the Dowd's decisions.

“We got one, maybe the wrong one,” he told the BBC. “But we got one. Over the season you compensate you get a few for and a few against. That's football and that's what we like. We can talk tomorrow and Monday about the decision of the referee.”

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