1-0 scores rule Sunday; Tim Krul comes up big; more EPL thoughts
One-nil, one-nil, one-nil -- It isn't the most common final score in the Premier League. Indeed three of the teams that started the weekend in the top four spent the last part of their games on Sunday striving for the most common result, a one-one draw. In the end Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham all finished on the wrong end of the second-most frequent score, 1-0.
Their opponents and the circumstances were different. Tottenham was thwarted at home by a magnificent goalkeeping performance. Manchester City lacked its cutting edge as it lost for the fourth straight time at Sunderland. But the most significant result of the day was at Old Trafford where Arsenal's run ended. Halted by Manchester United and a first-half goal from its former star, Robin van Persie.
It's was not a result, nor a performance, that suggests Arsenal's title aspirations are going to fade, especially as they took the field without Per Mertesacker, who fell ill overnight. But it was a result that lets Manchester United back into the race. If United had lost, it would have been 11 points behind Arsenal and down in eighth place. Now it is in fifth, just five points behind.
United was largely in control for an hour. Arsenal finally began to exert concerted pressure near the end. One of the delicious Old Trafford ironies was seeing Arsène Wenger remonstrating with the fourth official, Andre Marriner (more on him later), when he held up a board showing just three minutes of added time. Another was the sight of Alex Ferguson apparently joining with the rest of the crowd and whistling through his teeth to encourage Michael Oliver, the referee, to end those three minutes a little early.
The absence of Mertesacker's height might have cost Arsenal when van Persie headed the only goal after 27 minutes. The overall play demonstrated that the Gunners aren't the dominant heavyweights they have looked against some lesser teams and that United is not yet a spent force.
After the earlier game at White Hart Lane, Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, said that Tottenham, like Chelsea on Saturday, had played below par as a hangover from a European game in midweek. That was before City and Arsenal lost and Swansea drew. Of the Premier League teams playing in Europe, only United won. The other two big winners this weekend are not playing in Europe. They are Liverpool, which crushed Fulham, 4-0, and is second, and Southampton, which outplayed Hull, 4-1.
Life is Krul -- Newcastle continued its little surge on Sunday with a classic 1-0 away victory. It grabbed an early goal and then hung on for dear life. There were plenty of brave performances in the Newcastle team, but it owed its clean sheet essentially to one man.
Tottenham managed 31 shots over the 90 minutes. Now there are shots and there are shots. Spurs have been guilty of taking a lot of bad ones. Their total on Sunday included 10 that were wide of the mark, although that includes a header against the bar by Jan Vertonghen, and seven that were blocked. But that leaves 14 on target. Some of them were very good shots indeed. Tim Krul saved them all.
No goalkeeper had made more than 11 saves in any Premier League match this season. Now, there are saves and there are saves, but Krul's 14 included spectacular stops from close range efforts by Christian Eriksen and Paulinho, a long-range effort by Andros Townsend, a back header by Roberto Soldado and a deflected free kick from Gylfi Sigurdsson.
"This was a highlight of my career," Krul told Sky television after the game. "It doesn't happen very often, this type of game."
Tottenham might put it down as one of those afternoons, but it was an afternoon that drops it down to seventh. It might also serve as a reminder to André Villas Boas, the Tottenham manager, that if he has not been listening to his critics, perhaps he shouldn't.
Tottenham fans have been noisily disgruntled by their team's lack of cutting edge. It's a problem that can be a product of AVB's preferred 4-5-1 formation. Yet formations can look quite different with different personnel. On Sunday, Tottenham sacrificed a defensive midfielder. It started the attack-minded pair of Paulinho and Mousa Dembélé in front of the back four. AVB has also taken a lot of ferocious criticism for allowing his goalie, Hugo Lloris to return to the field after a blow to the head in the final minutes at Everton last week. On Sunday, a week late, he sat Lloris down.
Tottenham paid for those changes in the 13th minute. First Dembélé and then Paulinho were beaten in tackles in midfield. Lloris is a "sweeper keeper" who generally takes a high position. At 42, Brad Friedel is both slower and more cautious. When the ball was poked into the penalty area, Loïc Remy reached it a step ahead of Friedel and then poked it into an empty net. Krul made sure that was all Newcastle needed.
No Silva Lining -- One of the drawbacks of world-class players is that, however deep your squad, and Manchester City's squad is deep, you miss them when they are injured.
Its hardly news that City is shaky without Vincent Kompany. It shook again in the 21st minute on Sunday when defenders fell out of the way as Phil Bardsley burst through to give Sunderland the lead. That said, the player City really missed was David Silva, who could be out for the next month with a calf strain.
Like Tottenham, City spent the whole second half surrounding its opponent's goal. Sunderland is a far less talented team than Newcastle, and by the end its players were massed around their goal, unable to break out, simply belting the ball anywhere. The other difference was that, unlike Tottenham, City, which scored seven goals last weekend and five in midweek, managed only four shots on target in 90 minutes.
Sergio Agüero, Samir Nasri, Álvaro Negredo, Eden Dzeko and Jesús Navas all had lots of the ball. None could use it to unlock the Sunderland defense. Silva's creative spark was badly missed.
England Has Talent -- When Ferguson was manager of Manchester United, the weekend before an international break often ended with a string of his players withdrawing from their national squads with sudden injuries. England fans often suspected that the Scot did not have the interests of their national team close to his heart. Over the last couple of years, Wenger has frequently lectured England managers about picking Jack Wilshere, while himself selecting the injury-prone midfielder for Arsenal every time he was fit.
After his Southampton team dismantled Hull, 4-1, on Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino struck a different note. Three of his players were this week called up for the England squad, which plays Chile on Friday and Gemany the following Tuesday.
"It's a positive thing," Pochettino told the BBC after the game. "It inspires them."
It certainly seemed to on Saturday. Rickie Lambert, who made his England debut at 31 earlier this season, converted his 33rd straight penalty kick. Adam Lallana was even better. Lallana had made the national squad once before, back in 2012, but did not play. This time, with two friendlies coming up, he must suspect he is about to become an England player. After years spent slogging through the lower divisions, the call up is affirmation that he really is quite good. Lallana was clearly infused with confidence as he tormented Hull. He also scored, dribbling through the defense like a player of true international class.
Like Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez, the third Southampton player called up this week, have all worked their way up in the traditional way, serving apprenticeships in the lower divisions of English (and Scottish) soccer. That route is increasingly blocked as the biggest clubs chase ready-made, mature talents who arrive as international players - then moan about the number of national team games their stars play.
When it was struggling in the lower divisions, Southampton had no choice but to trust in young (or not-so young) homegrown players. Some have turned out to be gems. Playing for England will give them added polish.
"I hope all the players that got called up to their national sides get the chance to play," Pochettino said. "Playing for their national sides will give them that confidence and chance to perform at a higher quality.
We will see if Pochettino strikes the same note when Southampton has European competition to worry about. On the strength of Saturday's display, that will happen next season.
Paying The Penalty -- Referees make mistakes. As other sports embrace video reviews, soccer authorities are gradually giving ground on their insistence that a referee's decision is final. Goal-line review has been introduced in England this season. Foul play can be reviewed, provided the referee entirely missed it, rather than half-missing it and awarding a free kick or a yellow card when a red would have been correct.
The penalty decision that gave Chelsea a last-gasp 2-2 home draw against West Brom suggests where the Football Association should ask the cameras to focus next. As added time drifted to a close, Ramires carried the ball into the Chelsea area and immediately began to lose his balance. He tumbled into Steven Reid who was racing him for the ball. Referee Marriner awarded a penalty. Eden Hazard converted. Chelsea saved a draw and José Mourinho's unbeaten league record at Stamford Bridge
After the game Mourinho insisted, straight-faced, that Marriner was right. Ramires pleaded that he never took a dive. The video told a different tale.
The FA cannot be expected to change the result, that would open a can of legal creepy crawlies, but it should start punishing players who successfully hoodwink referees with dives. A two-match ban would make Ramires think twice before he never dives again.