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Soccer

Man City now needs a miracle to retain title; EPL analysis

Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Southampton had plenty of reasons to celebrate after throttling Manchester City on Saturday night.

1. Pale Blues: Those of us in punditry have been arguing all season that Manchester City is a shadow of the team that won the English Premier League last season. Yet all season the table has told a different tale. City has stayed comfortably in second place still, on the evidence of last season, in range of Manchester United.

After Saturday's 3-1 defeat at Southampton, City is still in second, four points ahead of Chelsea. It is still averaging, just, more than two points a game, the very minimum a team, historically, needs to stand a chance of finishing in the top two.

On Saturday, Sergio Agüero and Yaya Touré offered occasional reminders that they are great players, Edin Dzeko showed again that he is developing into a consistent Premier League scorer. Yet the faults that have been evident all season finally caught up with City.

The defense has been creaky. On Saturday it was awful. The attack has often struggled to score goals. On Saturday it looked punchless.

City showed last season that it can bounce back from bad results. But this was really bad. If United wins a tricky game against Everton on Sunday, City will be 12 points behind with 12 games to go. For City to challenge United again would take a very, very big bounce.

2. Shining Saints: At the start of the season Southampton looked like lambs certain to be sent to the relegation slaughterhouse at the end of the season.

Southampton clearly wanted to build survival in the Premier League on more than hustle, muscle and organization, the traditional template of the smaller clubs. It followed the increasingly popular approach, best exemplified by Swansea, of trying to pass and to create.

The problem, was that it couldn't defend. Maya Yoshido, the Japanese center back looked lost. The rest of the defense seemed out of its depth.

Curiously, just as Nigel Adkins, and four months of Premier League games, seemed to have cured the problem, the manager was axed. The move sparked incredulity. Yet if the club's ownership believed Mauricio Pochettino, who came with José Mourinho's seal of approval, really was a far better coach, then it made a certain brutal sense to grab him when they could.

Pochettino's arrival has done nothing to slow Southampton's upward swing. Now the defense isn't losing matches, the attack can win them. On Saturday Pochettino gained his first victory, against the English champion.

Southampton showed no respect. It went for City. The attack was impressive once again. In the first half it tore through Manchester City. Southampton doesn't just play pretty soccer. It plays pretty soccer with deadly intent. It is particularly good at turning attacks into penalty area threats. It was helped by errors by from the City. The first goal came from a rebound, the second after Joe Hart had dropped the ball, the third was an own goal by Gareth Barry. But when a team menaces the goal as often as the Saints did, it will force errors.

The Saints only league defeat since Dec. 22 was by one goal at Old Trafford. Victory over City followed recent draws with Arsenal and Chelsea. Southampton has shown it can go toe to toe with the big boys and it can do so by playing smart, skilful soccer. That's the formula of a team that wants to do more than simply survive.

3. Bale carries Tottenham: The learning curve is rarely, in fact, a curve. There are moments in every great player's career when something suddenly shifts, when those things he has been learning suddenly fall into place and the curve leaps upwards. In the last few weeks, Gareth Bale, who was already moving at rocket speed, seems to have accelerated.

Bale scored both goals Saturday as Tottenham beat Newcastle, 2-1. Bale has scored his team's last four goals. That burst has been well timed. The club only has two strikers. One, Jermain Defoe, is injured. The other, Emmanuel Adebayor, was away at the Africa Cup of Nations from which he returned, predictably, too late to start Saturday. Maybe their absence was the stimulus Bale needed. The way Bale has stepped up to give his team what it needed has justified the epithet "great" which has been so liberally sprinkled over him by the fawning media that covers the Premier League.

His first goal Saturday came from a free kick. Bale has adopted the fashionable knuckleball style. It is an approach that, in some ways, goes against the grain because it sacrifices control in pursuit of unpredictable movement. Bale's shot Saturday ended up exactly where he wanted, in the corner of the goal, but arrived there by a weird, dipping route that left Tim Krul, the Newcastle goalkeeper, with no chance.

The second came on a classic Bale breakaway, racing clear and finishing with a sharp low shot.

Bale could have had a third. He missed horribly in front of an open goal, an allowable miss after what had gone before. He almost made amends as he drew a full-stretch save from Krul.

Bale arrived at Tottenham as a left back. His talent was obvious but he couldn't defend. He was a revelation when he moved to left wing. Last season he started drifting inside much more to play in a central role. It seemed an obvious move for a player who is fast, strong skilful, good in the air and has a ferocious shot. Yet Bale often disappeared. Spurs fans would chant that they wanted him to stay on the wing. A touchline-hugging winger plays the game in 180 degrees. A central player must learn to operate in 360 degrees. Suddenly, Bale looks comfortable dealing with the greater complexity.

There are still questions about whether Bale has the appetite for the physical side of the game that a true center forward needs. His decision-making and final pass are still sometimes wasteful. Yet they are getting much better.

Nature abhors a vacuum. When Spurs developed a void in the center, Bale, playing like a force of nature, filled it.

4. Lucky Arsenal In the days when Arsenal won titles with stingy defense (which is to say pretty much every one of its 10 league championships between 1931 and 1991), its fans used to sing, with glee, "1-0 to the Arsenal." Opposing fans used to mutter "lucky Arsenal."

On Saturday, Arsenal won, 1-0, at Sunderland to move into fifth place in the standings and stay within four points of hated Tottenham and the Champions League place Gunners fans view as their birthright.

It was a bizarre match. For the first 45 minutes Arsenal rediscovered the mesmerizing midfield magic that has been their hallmark under Arsène Wenger. Jack Wilshere has returned from 18 months out and almost instantly been the dazzling force he had promised to become. Mikel Arteta is bringing the smooth continuity Arsenal missed when he was injured last month. Arsenal dominated. Santi Cazorla scored. If it had not been for Simon Mignolet, the Sunderland goalie, the Gunners would have been out of sight.

Sunderland started the second half better. Then Wilshere limped off. Carl Jenkinson, the Arsenal right back, was sent off. Arsenal might have scored again. Theo Walcott hit the post. But the Gunners spent the last 30 minutes essentially entrenched in their own penalty area. George Graham's Arsenal of the early 1990s, would have held off an attack like Sunderland's with one arm tied behind its back. On Saturday, Arsenal was saved by a combination of Steven Fletcher's wastefulness in front of the Arsenal goal and Wojciech Szczesny's brilliance in it. It was perhaps appropriate that the game ended with Szczesny saving a header from Mignolet, who had come up for a corner.

Lucky Arsenal. But then, as Arsenal fans have always known, lucky is good.

5. It doesn't really matter: The Twittershpere is, well, atwitter, over the respected English columnist Simon Kuper discovery that soccer "really doesn't matter." Kuper says the revelation has dawned on him in middle age. The question has to be: what took him so long?

It's a game. Furthermore, it's a game played by men is shorts, as if deliberately dressed to look like little boys at play.

Although the point is perhaps not whether soccer matters, but whether it is important in the wider scheme of things. It's clear that to a lot of people, particular the billions of fans, it matters a lot. That is as it should be. If you do it, care about it.

Kuper's epiphany comes only a few months after chronic knee problems forced him to stop playing. As someone who shared the field with Kuper, regularly for two decades, and indeed was on the field as he exited his last game still arguing about whether a free kick should have been direct or indirect, it always struck me that he always thought that a game of 5-a-side, on a team handball pitch on the edge of Paris or in a converted fruit market in the east end of London, mattered far more than it really did.

One can argue that sport is important because it shines a light on human nature and the wider society, usually not in a flattering away. The recent outbreaks of the controversies over racism and match fixing in soccer are dark examples. Society is bigoted and corrupt. So is sport. That is disillusioning, of course. Corruption could destroy sport, though the Ancient Greeks cheated and we still have the Olympics. In sport we can see those problems clearly for what they are and maybe, just maybe, start to attack them. But the fact that sport is inescapably a reflection of the wider society is a separate issue.

The lure of sport, however big a business it becomes, is that it doesn't matter. It is an escape from the problems of the daily grind. It is not just soccer that is disappointing. Most middle-aged people find life itself disappointing. Yet most of us have also discovered that it can yield joy that makes it worthwhile.

Soccer doesn't matter in the same way that chocolate doesn't matter, or the Beatles don't matter or Van Gogh doesn't matter. They don't cure cancer. We can live without them all. But life would be poorer.

The sight of Frank Lampard stroking a beautifully judged shot, like Simon Kuper at his best, into the corner of the net this afternoon, with the Wigan defense powerless to do anything but watch in admiration, was a reminder that, for all but the most jaded sport can still generate gasps of pleasure and awe. It was a thing done beautifully. The fact that soccer isn't really important, made its beauty, and the joy of the Chelsea fans, even in the putrid atmosphere of greed and fear that surrounds Stamford Bridge these days, somehow purer. Maybe that matters.

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