In the North East of old England, bad defenses make good neighbors.
Sunderland’s 1-0 victory over Newcastle on Sunday means that the Black Cats have beaten their local rival in five consecutive league matches, equaling the best run by either team in the 117-year history of the fixture.
In 2012-13, Sunderland picked up four points from Newcastle and avoided relegation by three points. Last season, Sunderland collected six derby points and ended five points clear.
Sunday’s victory lifted Sunderland to 15th, three positions and three points above the relegation places. If it survives this season by six or fewer points, it will be the third consecutive season that the points it has collected in the North East derby have made the difference. Newcastle has been keeping Sunderland up. What more can a neighbor do?
In contrast to a couple of ugly 3-0 home defeats in that run, Newcastle generally defended quite well against a largely punchless home attack. The goal was a sudden laser beam of brilliance cutting through the ill-tempered chaos of much of the match.
The goal, in the last second before half time, was the 154th English League goal of Jermain Defoe’s 15-year career. The ferocious dipping left-foot volley from outside the penalty area provided a reminder of Defoe’s qualities. He’s too small. He does not have breakaway speed. He is neither a great dribbler nor a good passer. Earlier on Sunday, he had squandered a one-on-one chance with poor control. But he is single-minded in his desire to score and he has a hammer in both feet.
Defoe still shoots on sight but he has been able to unleash the lightning far less frequently in recent seasons, although perhaps his productive spell with Toronto helped he rediscover his touch. Perhaps that’s why the goal brought tears to his eyes as he walked off at the break.
“As soon as it leaves you foot you know it’s a goal. An unbelievable feeling,” Defoe told Sky TV after the game. “I was quite emotional for some reason.”
So were the home fans and the new Sunderland manager, Dick Advocaat. The Dutchman has started at Sunderland exactly as his two predecessors, Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet, did, losing his first league game and then beating Newcastle in the second. Perhaps Sunderland should replace its manager just before the derby every season.
• The sound of one hand clapping -- The fans at Turf Moor are old school, as is appropriate to a small-town team that was a founder member of the English league and plays in the oldest ground in the Premier League. They don’t generate the raucous hostility of Crystal Palace supporters, yet in their more polite way, they are also doing everything they can to encourage their team to stay up.
On Sunday, against Tottenham, they clapped every time their team attacked, every time one of their players pressured an opponent, and, on one occasion, they even clapped when their striker Sam Vokes gave away a throw. They did not waste a chance to show their support for the endeavor of their players.
On the other hand, in a goalless draw so poor that that both teams were lucky to finish with 0, it could be that an opposing throw in was one of the most interesting events. Maybe the Burnley fans were clapping just to stay awake. As they watched as their team settle for a home draw in the last 10 minutes, they could cheer themselves with the thought that it was moving a point closer to Aston Villa and Hull, which both lost on Saturday. That’s worth a round of gentle applause.
• Adam's family values -- If you want to know why so many fans at so many other clubs so detest Charlie Adam, he provided a handy demonstration early in Stoke’s match at Chelsea on Saturday. As he and Cesc Fàbregas closed in on a bouncing ball, Adam whacked a forearm into the Chelsea midfielder’s face. It might only have been self-defense, but Adam’s history of nastiness suggests he shouldn’t receive the benefit of the doubt and even if he was only trying to protect himself he displayed a cowardly and careless willingness to injure an opponent.
Adam is a jerk. He is also slow, which doesn’t help. But he’s still in the Premier League because he has talent. He showed that on Saturday, in spectacular fashion. After 44 minutes, Adams received the ball in his own half. He smashed it at the Chelsea goal.
This was not a lob, which is how David Beckham beat Neil Sullivan of Wimbledon in 1996 and how Wayne Rooney beat Adrián of West Ham last season. This was a vicious, swerving shot from much further out. On its 66-yard flight the ball hardly rose higher than the crossbar. Thibaut Courtois, who was outside his penalty area when Adam hit the ball, touched the ball as it zoomed over him. He couldn’t stop it. Adam knew that Courtois plays as an aggressive sweeper keeper and said after the game that he had been waiting for the chance to catch the goalie far off his line.
There was still time for Adam to collect his inevitable yellow card – for dissent. He isn’t out of place in Mark Hughes’ team. In the loss to Chelsea, Stoke collected six yellow cards, the most by any team in any match in the Premier League this season.
• Counting down -- With the win over Stoke, Chelsea stretched its lead at the top of the EPL to seven points ahead of Manchester City’s game on Monday. That seemed to prepare José Mourinho to tempt the soccer fates and play magic numbers.
“In this moment, it is five victories and one draw,” the Chelsea manager told the BBC. “Every victory and a draw is one step ahead. The others know they have to win every game.”
It was another unimpressive and slightly lucky victory, but it kept Chelsea firmly in the driving seat. It travels to QPR next Sunday and then faces Arsenal and Manchester United. Mourinho’s emphasis of the value of draws suggests he might be contemplating some bus parking.
• Managers love scorers -- Being kissed by Louis van Gaal is probably as scary as having a shoe thrown at your head by Alex Ferguson, although, presumably, the intent is different.
On Saturday at half time, van Gaal kissed Ander Herrera after the midfielder had scored the goal that put Manchester United ahead against visiting Aston Villa. Van Gaal explained that in training the day before he had told Herrera to take a touch before shooting, and that’s what the Spanish midfielder had done.
Herrera did it his way as he sealed a 3-1 victory with a first-time shot in added time.
"I came after the second half to him and he said 'Without control I can do it also!’ ”Van Gaal told MUTV.
The other United goal was a spectacular effort by Rooney. Van Gaal didn’t kiss him.
With Robin Van Persie fading even when fit and Falcao failing to fire, Van Gaal knows United cannot rely only on Rooney for goals.
Herrera has now scored five times this season with just five shots on target. He’s scoring the goals that earn a manager’s love.
• The joy of success -- Mesut Ozil may not enjoy working hard in a struggling team, but he is clearly an asset for a side that is playing well. Surrounded by good players, Ozil can be great.
On Saturday, Ozil, Alexis Sánchez, Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and even the teenage right back, Héctor Bellerín, all dazzled as Arsenal humiliated Liverpool, 4-1.
There were still moments when Arsenal’s defense had bigger holes than the ozone layer. In attack, after some early misses, Arsenal was unstoppable. Bellerín, Ozil, Sánchez and Giroud all scored great goals.
“The pace and the passing was great,” Wenger told the BBC. “We can score goals against anybody.”
Chelsea at home and Manchester United away will test that boast and provide a sterner examination of how tough Ozil and Arsenal are when the going is tough. On Saturday, Arsenal was breathtaking.
Liverpool, which signaled its fear by starting with Daniel Sturridge on the bench, is back where it has been for most of the last decade: battling Tottenham for fifth place.