Sunday December 13th, 2015

Newcastle’s problems and potential were illustrated at White Hart Lane on Sunday in a performance that was as starkly contrasting as black and white.

History repeated itself as Newcastle won 2–1, just as it did in October of last year. As in that match, the Magpies were outplayed in the first half and trailed by a goal at halftime.

For the first 45 minutes on Sunday, Newcastle was second to everything. Its defense struggled to contain Spurs. It was lucky not to be further behind. Newcastle looked a nervous team facing a tough battle to avoid relegation.

In the second half, Newcastle found resolve, energy and organization. It gradually took control. Like last year, it fought back, though this time it left the scoring until later. Aleksandar Mitrovic leveled with a scruffy goal after a free kick in the 74th minute. Like last year, Newcastle won with a goal Ayoze Pérez who smashed a shot through Hugo Lloris from a narrow angle in the third minute of added time.

The victory catapulted Newcastle out of the relegation zone and three places up the table.

Last year, Tottenham outshot Newcastle 18–8 and lost. This year Spurs had a 20–8 edge in shots. In the first half, Newcastle completed just 61% of its passes, a horrible percentage.

Steve McClaren made clear after the match that what mattered most was the victory.

“Not just the performance, especially second half, but the result,” he told Sky Sports.

McClaren pointed out that the victory ended two unwanted streaks.

“Back-to-back wins, which we haven’t had for about a year, and a comeback win, over a year,” he said.

The team’s second half display showed, he said, “what we are and that’s what we want to be.”

Newcastle has talent. If it can find consistency, the other teams in the bottom six, and that includes Chelsea, should worry.

Spurs look up and fall down 

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Spurs this weekend was that Manchester United lost on Saturday. Victory over Newcastle would have lifted Tottenham into fourth in the table.

On a 14-match unbeaten run in the league, Tottenham suddenly wobbled in the second half to blow the chance, once again, of climbing into a Champions League place.

“The first half was fantastic but the second half was a lack of competing,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino told Sky after the game.

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For the last decade, a Champions League spot has been the Holy Grail that has eluded Tottenham time and time again. In 10 seasons, Spurs have finished fourth twice, but fifth five times and sixth once.

Tottenham has found ever more imaginative ways to finish behind Arsenal and blow a Champions League spot.

In 2012, the Spurs finished fourth, but Chelsea usurped the final Champions League berth. The Blues finished fifth but scored an unlikely Champions League victory over Bayern. UEFA has since altered its rules. Tottenham is the only club to have missed the Champions League that way.

That season, Tottenham was in third and 13 points ahead of Arsenal entering February, but it finished a point behind the Gunners

In 2006, a Spurs team ravaged by food poisoning lost at West Ham on the final day to allow Arsenal to sneak into fourth. In 2013, Tottenham was four points clear of Arsenal entering April. Again Arsenal held its nerve better and finished a point ahead of Spurs.

Spurs have developed such a strong phobia to fourth, that the mere sight of it makes them go weak at the knees, as they did in the second half on Sunday.

Arsenal on top 

It was another bad weekend for the teams in the top half of the Premier League and the biggest beneficiaries were Arsenal and Manchester City.

Leicester, which started the weekend in first, does not play until Monday night. Of the other seven teams that were in the top eight places, only two won.

Spurs and Manchester United lost. West Ham, Liverpool and Everton all drew.

City was distinctly lucky as it scored with a deflected goal in the 92nd minute to win, 2–1, at home against crumbling Swansea. That victory put City briefly back on top of the table. On Sunday, Arsenal got an early Christmas present: a match against Aston Villa.

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The Gunners could start celebrating in the eighth minute as Alan Hutton wrestled over Theo Walcott to gift Arsenal a penalty. Olivier Giroud converted. After 38 minutes, the Villa defenders stopped running, allowing Arsenal to turn a four-on-four break into three-on-one by the time the ball reached the penalty area. Mesut Ozil passed to Aaron Ramsey, who scored.

Typically, Arsenal relaxed. Villa showed some fight in the second half. Arsène Wenger blamed the trip to Greece for a Champions League game against Olympiacos on Wednesday.

"First half we were completely in control and I was a bit anxious about the second half because we gave a lot on Wednesday night,” Wenger told Sky.

It hardly mattered. Villa isn’t very good at this game. The home team managed 18 shots, but only two were on target.

Despite a horrible November and some embarrassing results in Europe, Arsenal is in the knockout rounds of the Champions League and top of the Premier League. This weekend it looked like a potential English champion largely because no one else did.

Afraid of heights

At the end of Liverpool’s home game against West Brom on Sunday, Jürgen Klopp punched the air. It was a gesture of relief rather than triumph.

Liverpool had only salvaged a 2–2 draw when Divock Origi’s hopeful long-range drive in the 96th minute took a deflection off Gareth McAuley and flew into the far corner of the West Brom net.

Even though Liverpool had 70% of possession and outshot West Brom 28–4, it was a fortunate victory in several ways.

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Against a team that is notoriously strong in the air, Klopp started his battering-ram center forward, Christian Benteke. The Belgian was again ineffective. He had six shots during the game, none on target. He was no more than a decoy when Liverpool took the aerial route to take the lead. Philippe Coutinho crossed. Adam Lallana, who is 5'8'', won the header. Jordan Henderson, making his first league start since injuring a heel in August, smacked the ball home.

After that, West Brom dominated the aerial battles.

The Baggies leveled after 30 minutes when Simon Mignolet came for a corner and missed the ball. Craig Dawson stuck the ball into the unguarded net. At the end of the half, Mignolet opted not to come for a free kick. Jonas Olsson volleyed the ball home, but the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside that only delayed the aerial inevitability. In the 73rd minute, Olsson was allowed a free header from a near-post corner and thumped the ball past Mignolet, again standing on his line.

Liverpool lost Dejan Lovren, who was carried off on a stretcher with a gashed knee. But the long delay led to eight minutes of added time. Origi struck, with a little help, in the sixth of them.

Liverpool climbed to ninth, and Klopp was happy, but his team still looks a distinctly mid-table side.

The kids aren’t all right

Louis van Gaal’s determination to do things his own way and irk Manchester United fans is almost admirable in its perversity.

Van Gaal has injury problems. In defense, Chris Smalling, perhaps the best center back in the Premier League, and Matteo Darmian have joined Luke Shaw among the casualties. On Saturday at Bournemouth, van Gaal opted to move Daley Blind, nobody’s idea of a natural center half, into the middle of defense alongside Paddy McNair, a 20-year-old Northern Irishman who has made 21 appearances. Both full backs, Guillermo Varela, a 22-year-old Uruguayan, and 18-year-old Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, were making their first United starts.

Van Gaal left Phil Jones, an England center back, and Ashley Young, another international who has played fullback, on the bench.

United lost, 2–1, just four days after being eliminated from the Champions League after losing at Wolfsburg.

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As United has shown in the past, you can win with kids. But not if they play this way.

On Saturday, none of the defenders could be blamed for the opening goal. David de Gea misjudged an in-swinging corner form Junior Stanislas and only tipped it over Anthony Martial, guarding the far post, and into the top corner of the net for the Olimpico.

Varela struggled horribly against the pace of the Bournemouth wide players. In the center, United could not plug all the holes. Josh King was allowed yards of space in front of goal to score Bournemouth’s winner from a corner. It could have been worse if Glenn Murray had connected properly when twice allowed similar opportunities in front of goal.

Van Gaal only brought on Jones when McNair joined United’s casualty list. By then the Manchester Evening News, usually a United cheerleader, was preparing a headline asking if the club would be “justified in sacking van Gaal”.

Van Gaal is undaunted. Looking ahead to the game against Norwich next Saturday, he told the United web site: “We have to prepare for this match in the same way as we always do.”

That is hardly a thought that will cheer United fans.

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