Saturday September 12th, 2015

This is why live sports command huge contracts from broadcasters. If a movie is boring and second-rate for 84 minutes, it’s going to stay that way. In sports, you can never be sure. The last six minutes of Manchester United’s 3-1 home victory over Liverpool on Saturday evening were well worth sticking around for.

The game barely managed to be either tedious or mediocre. The one bright moment was the well-rehearsed free kick after 49 minutes from which Daley Blind put United ahead. Ander Herrera’s 70th minute penalty was only United’s second shot on target. Yet United deserved its two-goal lead. Liverpool could not even live up to Harry Redknapp’s pre-game comment that it was “bang average.” Then Liverpool finally fed Christian Benteke.

Liverpool wants to play a passing game. Benteke wants to show he is an all-round striker. On Saturday, Blind and Chris Smalling, the United center backs, controlled Benteke and Danny Ings with ease until the 84th minute. Then a deflected cross ballooned into the air and dropped behind Benteke. He catapulted upward and smashed the ball back over his shoulder into the far corner of the net. Suddenly the game was interesting.

As so often happens, one sudden flash of brilliance in the grey was quickly followed by another. When Anthony Martial arrived on transfer deadline day from Monaco for an initial £36 million ($55.5 million), a record fee for a teenager, the deal smacked of desperation. Muttered comparisons to another former Monaco phenom, Thierry Henry, also smacked of desperation. Martial came on for his debut after 65 minutes. He announced his arrival after 87 minutes with a goal that certainly smacked of Henry.

Martial danced past Martin Skrtel, Lucas, Nathaniel Clyne and Dejan Lovren. Then he glanced up and paused for a second – “freezing the keeper,” said Henry, working as a pundit for Sky Sport. Martial then coolly managed the hardest and easiest part, passing the ball inside the far post for his first United goal.

“Not a bad goal, I think,” Louis van Gaal told Sky.

There have been bright teenage debuts for United in recent memory. Federico Macheda scored on his debut as a 17-year-old. Adnan Januzaj scored twice in his first start at 18. Macheda is long gone. Januzaj has been loaned out. One great goal does not make Martial into Henry. But it helped give a dull match a glorious ending.

THE HAPPY DICTATOR—​In the week leading up to the game, Van Gaal could have been forgiven for thinking that life fans and the media aren’t fair.

Brought in to replicate the disciplinary iron hand and control-freak attention to detail of Sir Alex Ferguson, he found himself criticized as a dictator and ridiculed for the number of meetings he schedules. Nobody likes meetings. “Senior players” were, reportedly, unhappy.

Gary Neville, who played 400 Premier League games under Ferguson, may have been speaking for senior former teammates when he wrote in one British newspaper on Saturday that the difference between the two managers was Fergie “blended the hairdryer with compassion.”

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 After the game, Van Gaal could smile when he faced the camera. His team had beaten its greatest rival and climbed to second in the table. It had done so playing the grim, controlled soccer Van Gaal prefers. But Blind’s opening goal, the manager argued, settled the match and justified the approach.

“That is a consequence of our meetings and are technical assessments in set plays that have paid off now,” Van Gaal said. “That is what we have practiced already in many training sessions. The first goal is of course the goal that decides the match.”

That goal helped ensure the United fans went home happy – for the moment.

PERFECTLY AVERAGE—​After Chelsea lost, 3-1, at Everton on Saturday, José Mourinho told the BBC that his pre-match tactical meeting had been torpedoed by a broken computer. That’s tough, but it’s hard to believe that the discussion would have focused on a journeyman who started on the Everton bench.

The fact that Steven Naismith killed Chelsea tells you an awful lot about the awful state of the Chelsea defense. Naismith is not big enough, quick enough, strong enough or skillful enough to be a standout striker or attacking midfielder. But he’s brave, industrious, smart and experienced.

Last season, Chelsea’s defense was more tightly knit than chain mail. This season it is as resilient as a crochet doily. There are holes. After coming in the ninth minute, it took Naismith eight minutes to start finding them.

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 He scored the first with a close range header without a defender near him. For the second, he had the time to pick his spot with a low left foot shot. Then he was allowed space in the area to turn and hit a left-foot shot inside the post from a narrow angle to complete a “perfect” hat-trick.

Perhaps the defining moment came near the end. With Everton cruising, Naismith spotted that neither John Terry nor Kurt Zouma was prepared to take responsibility for a dropping ball. Naismith charged after it. He ended up taking a boot in the head when goalie Asmir Begovic belatedly came to grab the ball, but Naismith had shown decisiveness and courage, while Chelsea’s defense looked scared and unsure.

PRECIOUS STONES—​With Everton a goal up and cruising, John Stones seemed unable to resist the temptation to show Chelsea what they had missed when the transfer window shut.

In the 74th minute, he slalomed elegantly out of defense before setting up an attack with a crisp pass. It is the sort of foray his manager, Roberto Martínez, encourages.

Two minutes later, as the last man in front of his own goal, Stones had the nerve to throw a dummy as the ball came in. That might have given Falcao a clear shot on goal, instead the Chelsea striker practically fell over. Tim Howard gathered the ball untroubled.

Everton and Chelsea may not have been able to agree a price for Stones, but the saga seems to have helped him believe in his value as a player.

SKELETONS IN THE WAREHOUSEOne indication of how bad things are for Chelsea was the cheery interview Mourinho gave to the BBC after the loss at Everton. Mourinho insists he has to grin at the worst run of his coaching career.

“I face this situation smiling inside,” he said. “It’s a good challenge.”

His players are not to blame, he said. They “are not getting what they deserve. In every game they deserved a better result than they got.”

He must know that this is total rubbish. Chelsea has got what it deserves from every match this season. Mourinho sounds like the captain of a foundering ship with water slopping over the sides. He doesn’t want to move suddenly, in case it tips the boat over or to shout loudly, in case it starts a panicked rush for the lifeboats.

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On Saturday, Chelsea barely functioned as a team. A whole series of individuals (Terry, Nemanja Matic, John Obi Mikel and Diego Costa) seemed hopelessly off the pace. Cesc Fàbregas was barely present at all, a shadow of a great talent hovering behind the action.

Chelsea has been criticized for “warehousing” talent. Mourinho doesn’t like young players, which makes Chelsea’s bloated youth policy even more illogical. Yet the manager has had no choice but to turn to the 20-year-old Zouma to give Chelsea’s central defense some pace.

Surely, among the 33 players Chelsea is loaning out, there must be one or two who could add some fire to midfield or a little spark to the attack. For now, Chelsea has neither spark nor fire, even if Mourinho has not lost his sunny smile.

NEVER IS A SHORT TIME IN SOCCERLess than two weeks David de Gea was a Manchester United outcast watching in Madrid as his dream move to Real mysteriously collapsed. At the same time, somewhere in the English Midlands, Saido Berahino was tweeting that he would never play for the West Brom chairman again after a move to Spurs failed to gel.

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Neither player had played in the opening weeks of the season. Now their relationships with their clubs seemed smashed. Yet, within 10 days, De Gea had agreed a new contract with United. He returned as a starter on Saturday. All had been forgiven at Old Trafford.

Berahino did not start against Southampton, but he came on to a warm reception after 55 minutes. He could do nothing to change a match that ended, 0-0. He is reportedly discussing a new contract.

They are all living happily ever after – until the transfer window opens again.

TAKING THEIR CHANCES—​Manchester City started without David Silva and Raheem Sterling at Crystal Palace on Saturday. Then, after Scott Dann, the Palace captain, whacked Sergio Agüero across the knees and the star striker limped off, City seemed to be facing disaster. It turned into an opportunity.

Kevin de Bruyne, presumably being eased in gently on the bench, replaced Agüero after 25 minutes and shone. De Bruyne’s passing was crisp and progressive, accurate and imaginative. His precise lofted pass, gave Jesús Navas a glorious chance. Navas swerved round the goalie, but he has not scored in the Premier League since January 2014. It showed. Navas failed to take his chance, slicing his shot wide of the empty goal.

Yet the injury to Agüero and the miss by Navas, meant that, with the match tied, Manuel Pellegrini had no choice but to use the only remaining striker on his bench. In the 89th minute, the coach sent on Kelechi Iheanacho. The 18-year-old Nigerian had time to touch the ball only once. He pounced on a rebound and rammed the ball into the roof of the net.

One touch, one winning goal. He was perfect. So too are City. They have won all five matches, conceded no goals and lead the standings by four points. Even when things go wrong, they turn out right. But then City’s owners have spent a fortune to try to ensure that happens. For now, the club is turning gold into gold.


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