Sunday February 22nd, 2015

The hottest team in the Premier League looked anything but sizzling in the Southampton rain on Sunday.

Liverpool managed only 40 percent of possession, completed just 73 percent of its passes, and was outshot 13-6. Yet Brendan Rodgers' side won 2-0.

Liverpool has picked up 16 points in its last six games, one more than Arsenal, two more than Chelsea and six more than anyone else. This is partially due to the team rediscovering the trick of scoring early. One of its goals was a third-minute thunderbolt by Philippe Coutinho that effectively settled things.

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“That gave them the patience in the game,” Southampton manager Ronald Koeman told the press.

The clean sheet at St. Mary’s is Liverpool’s fifth straight in away league games, its best run since a six-game streak in February and March 1985. To illustrate how long that is in soccer, that season Liverpool finished second to Everton in the old First Division. Its defense during that run included Phil Neal, Mark Lawrenson, Alan Hansen and Steve Nicol, among others.

By contrast, Liverpool's defensive personnel on Sunday consisted of Dejan Lovren, Emre Can and Martin Skrtel -- a group nowhere near the quality of the record-setting unit.

“We were really organized,” Liverpool's manager Rodgers said. “I thought we controlled the game as it went on.”

“Our passing could have been better,” he conceded, as if anyone watching might not have noticed. “As the game wore on we restricted them to very few opportunities.”

Rodgers pointed out that his team had an excuse for sluggishness: it played in Europe on Thursday. On Sunday, Liverpool was the only one of the trio of English teams in European action to win.

Short corners

Random elements -- If an attacker has no idea where his shot or header is going, what chance does the goalie have of stopping it?

Sunday provided three impressive examples of the power of the miss-hit.

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The most spectacular came in the early game at White Hart Lane. With Spurs down by two goals and nine minutes to play, a corner was cleared to Danny Rose who swung a mighty boot at the ball. He made a horrible contact, driving his shot into the ground. The ball bounced and looped toward goal. The weird flight-path short-circuited Adrian’s radar. The West Ham goalie leapt to catch the ball long before it arrived. The shot drifted over him and into the net. Spurs were fighting back.

At Goodison Park, Everton's Steven Naismith cut inside against Leicester but hooked his shot. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, no doubt anticipating that the ball would go where Naismith seemed to be aiming, could not reach it as it curled inside the near post.

Thirty-three minutes later, Everton salvaged a 2-2 draw thanks to another miss-timed contact. Christian Atsu clipped a ball into the goal mouth. Romelu Lukaku dived but only brushed the ball with his head. Behind him, Matthew Upson, for some inexplicable reason also diving and no doubt unsighted and unable to react to the deflection, made a meatier contact. He buried the ball in his own net.

Once again, a miss-hit had unhinged the defense.

It does not always work that way. The header was Lukaku’s ninth goal attempt of the game. The other eight had also been off target and had troubled no one except the increasingly incredulous home fans. Better to hit the ball sweetly, even if it’s what the goalie expects.

Yaya makes an impact -- No sooner does Yaya Touré return to Manchester clutching his African Cup of Nations winner’s medal, than Manchester City records its biggest victory of the season and begins again to gain ground on Chelsea with a 5-0 demolishing of Newcastle United. 

Touré often gives the impression that he would prefer others to do the dirty midfield work and that he is reluctant to operate at 100 per cent except in a severe crisis. Yet City’s league record this season is now won 15-2-2 with Touré, and 1-5-1 without.

On Saturday, Newcastle gave City a penalty after less than 30 seconds, and were so limp that interim manager John Carver apologized to fans after the game. Touré could have set up a deckchair in the center circle and sat in it.

Yet Touré is clearly a totem for City. His team-mates give him the ball in preference to anyone else. Touré received 112 passes, that’s 40 more than the next most popular target, Fernandinho. When they have a choice, players pass to teammates they like and trust. It’s clear City’s players want Yaya in the team and on the ball.

Ugly ducklings -- For Swansea City, the 2-1 victory over Manchester United on Saturday was a moment to cherish. It marks the first time that the Swans have ever completed the league double over United. Both victories were deserved. Doubtless it leaves a warm proud glow.

Well done you Swans, but we have bigger turkeys to fry.

Here’s Louis van Gaal.

“Of course you can say we dominated the game,” he told the BBC after the loss. “We were the unlucky team today…”

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“We played good,” he concluded. “Only we forget to score.”

It was such a good script that his old adversary, Koeman, stole it the next day. Was it true?

United had almost twice as much possession as Swansea, a team that specializes in dominating the ball. Yet that translated into an edge in shots of only 18-11. While only three of United’s shots were on target, six of Swansea’s were. Swansea, as Van Gaal noticed, managed to score more goals.

Van Gaal seems to have squeezed everything he can from some of the club’s big-money stars. Radamel Falcao sat on the bench all afternoon. Ángel di María seems to be fading and was yanked off. Wayne Rooney did manage a shot on target, but he looks out of position wherever he plays these days.

United was third on December 26 apparently poised for a typical spring surge. Instead, United is in danger of being trampled. Arsenal charged past into third on Saturday. Liverpool, which was 10 points back of the Red Devils, closed to within two on Sunday.

Palm reading -- Soccer’s law-makers have gradually come to terms with the fact that referees cannot read minds. There is only one law that still requires the officials to determine intent. Handball must be done “deliberately.” That law could, and should, be rewritten.

Handball has been a talking point every weekend this season. This week’s prime examples came from the 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Burnley on Saturday.

British officials have tried to solve the problem by saying that the arm must be in an “unnatural” position. Since we can’t actually tell if you’re guilty, we will punish you for looking guilty. The two examples at Stamford Bridge suggest that doesn’t solve the problem.

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After 33 minutes (according to José Mourinho’s watch), Branislav Ivanovic hammered in a shot. Michael Kightly turned his back (the wimp!). In so doing he stuck his arm out as far as he could. The shot hit Kightly’s hand. Martin Atkinson, the referee, called nothing.

In the second half, as the ball dropped in the Chelsea box, Filipe Luís gently stuck out a hand, like a man catching a feather, and deflected the ball away from a striker. Again, Atkinson judged that the defender could not possibly intended to handle in front of his own goal. Indeed, who in their right mind would risk a penalty and a red card?

There is another, more natural, rule of thumb that almost anyone who has refereed in the muddy lower depths of soccer applies. It eliminates intent. Did the handball give the defending team an advantage?

Kightly’s arm prevented a shot on target. Who knows what, if anything, he was thinking or what are the natural positions for his weirdly flapping arms. It should have been a penalty. Filipe Luís might have deprived Burnley of another shooting opportunity. Penalty. Simple. You don’t need to be a mind reader to see that.

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