Jose Mourinho gets best of Pellegrini, City; More EPL thoughts

Monday February 3rd, 2014

Branislav Ivanovic, left, celebrates his goal that gave Chelsea a 1-0 win at Manchester United on Monday.
Lindsey Parnaby/EPA

Masterful Mourinho -- José Mourinho probably did not cause the mystery muscular problem that forced Fernandinho out of Manchester City lineup just before Monday's showdown at the Ettihad. Yet so uncanny is the Chelsea manager's touch at the moment that it is not out of the question that he might be up to a little black magic with a voodoo doll in the boot room.

Not only did the Chelsea men Mourinho sent out halt a Manchester City machine that had won all 11 home league games, scoring 42 and conceding just eight, they disassembled it and then juggled with the parts. The final score was only 1-0. Yet this was a beating every bit as emphatic as City's 7-0 rout of Norwich and the six-goal slaughters it inflicted on Tottenham and Arsenal.

"This is where he comes into his own," John Terry, the Chelsea captain said of Mourinho after the game. "We spent a good couple of days working on their strengths and weaknesses. Long sessions for us."

Of course Mourinho has more and better players than any other coach in the Premier League except, perhaps, Manuel Pellegrini. But even so, every coach in the Premier League except, perhaps, Pellegrini, has tried to work out how to stop City at the Etihad. None of them has succeeded.

Chelsea remained third in the Premier League behind City on goal difference. But it caught up the ground it lost with its draw at home to West Ham last week. Arsenal, which did just enough to beat stubborn Crystal Palace, 2-0, at home on Sunday, is still top with a two-point lead. But now the Gunners will be looking nervously over their shoulders not only at City, but also at Chelsea. Arsenal plays City and Chelsea on consecutive weekends at the end of March.

Mourinho again showed his ability to beat the key opponents. This season, Chelsea has taken 10 points from four games against the other top-four teams, including all six points off City. Chelsea was the first team to stop City scoring at home in 61 games. That run dates from Nov. 13, 2010, when City was held, 0-0, by a Birmingham team managed by that most determined bus parker, Alex McLeish, though that match was the last in a run of three home games in which City failed to score.

On Monday, Yaya Touré and David Silva had good early chances after pleasing City moves. Yet the omens were deceptive. City was almost to eager to go for Chelsea's throat. Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta bombed forward, as is their wont. Even Vincent Kompany charged upfield in open play. Chelsea was prepared to defend, but it hadn't traveled to Manchester simply to park the bus.

When City fumbled after Chelsea had cleared a corner after 30 minutes, Chelsea broke like starving hyenas scenting meat. Suddenly, on the edge of the City box, Chelsea was 4-on-1. The ball reached Ramires, completely free 10 yards from goal. Ramires was starting in a more attacking role in place of Oscar while the reacquired Nemanja Matic filled a defensive midfield role. Ramires is a wonderful player whose energy helped Chelsea overpower City. But he is not a consistent finisher. He hit his shot too close to Joe Hart.

The reprieve was brief. One minute later, Chelsea again caught City stretched in defense. Again the chance fell to Ramires. Again he wasn't crisp enough, allowing Kompany to block. But the clearance fell to Branislav Ivanovic, who, without a City player near him, smashed a low shot into the bottom corner of the net.

For a while, City looked about to collapse. Samuel Eto'o, Matic and Gary Cahill all hit the frame of the goal. City has scored 115 goals in all competitions this season and even Mourinho could not expect to keep that attack quiet for the whole second half. Edin Dzeko wasted a good chance. Petr Cech saved well from Silva and, in the dying seconds, from Stevan Jovetic.

Even though City had almost twice as much possession, it had only three shots on target to six by Chelsea, and that doesn't include the three shots against the woodwork.

Chelsea had crushed the title favorite and is within striking range of Arsenal. Yet when Mourinho spoke to Sky after the game, he insisted "we are not favorites." He repeated, again and again, that winning the league "is not our objective."

"Our objective is to build a team for next season," he said.

On the other hand, during the brief interview, Mourinho used the word "fantastic" nine times. He also threw in two "amazings" as well as an "unbelievable" and a "great." He wants to win. He wants to win now. It's what he does.

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Hazard Warning -- City was without several regular starters, including Sergio Agüero and Samir Nasri, but the key absentee was Fernandinho. The sight of Martín Dimichelis lining in central midfield must have sent a shiver of dread through City fans.

Dimichelis played as a defensive midfielder for a while at Bayern Munich, but at 33 he has looked worryingly ponderous in central defense. Midfield promised to be scary. Things started well. The pacy Willian tried running at Dimichelis a couple of times. The Argentine was simply to canny, judging his angle perfectly and bodying the Brazilian off the ball. Then Eden Hazard got at him.

From a standing start, Hazard was able to go past Dimichelis as if the Argentine wasn't there. Chelsea's goal was created by Hazard first out-muscling Dimichelis and then dribbling past him like a training ground pylon.

Dimichelis was not alone. Over the course of the game, Hazard attempted 20 take-ons, according to Opta stats. He beat his defender 16 times. That's a jaw-dropping success rate for a dribbler in the modern Premier League.

Mesut Ozil and Juan Mata are pretty good, but over the last two seasons the best creative midfielder in the league has been Silva. Hazard left the Spaniard in the shade on Monday. Silva is not a dribbler. Even so the fact that he did not beat a single Chelsea player, meant he could only hurt them with his passing, which he did not.

Hazard can pass too. He also has more power in his shot. He has more attacking weapons. He also works harder and tackles better in defense. That might not matter to Silva. But it matters to Mourinho.

Let's leave the creativity to the Belgian, he's so good at it, and simply say that Hazard is very dangerous.

Losing Touch -- There have been a lot of good weekends this season for Liverpool. Not this past one, though. On Sunday, Liverpool might have expected to close the four-point gap on Chelsea. By Monday night, the gap was six points. City or Arsenal might collapse, but it is more likely that the Reds will spend the rest of the season looking down, not up. They are battling the teams behind them for fourth place.

In the first half at West Brom on Sunday, Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe look capable of dismembering the Baggies. They didn't. West Brom worked out how to stop them and fought back to draw, 1-1. Liverpool had dropped two points in a match it should have won.

On Saturday, Everton started against Aston Villa as if still hung over from its drubbing at Anfield. It recovered to win, 2-1. But that four-goal thrashing by its biggest rival put Everton's qualifications in context.

The same applies to Tottenham in fifth. It limped to a 1-1 draw at Hull, its recently rising confidence clearly severely damaged by another humiliating defeat against one of the clubs it imagines it is chasing, this time at home to Manchester City last Wednesday.

David Moyes could plead bad luck after Manchester United lost, 2-1, in the rain and wind at Stoke. But, with 14 games left United has already lost eight league games, more than in any previous season in the Premier League era.

Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are going to adore playing with Juan Mata, who set up the Dutchman for United's goal. At the other end though, United's problems are piling up.

One center back, Jonny Evans, limped off with a calf injury after 11 minutes. The other, Phil Jones, was carried off concussed before half time. Although both Stoke goals came from long-range shots by Charlie Adam, any Stoke ball into the penalty area in the second half caused chaos. Nemanja Vidic is about to return from suspension, but Rio Ferdinand is still injured. It could be a long 14 games for the United defense.

For Newcastle, it is goodbye Yohan Cabaye, goodbye happiness. The depressing reality of modern soccer is that clubs, even historically big clubs, just below the Champions League elite cannot keep their best players.

The Magpies looked lifeless as they lost, 3-0, at home, to their revived rivals Sunderland. In his 200th Premier League appearance, Adam Johnson scored his seventh goal in seven games. He seems, at last, to have worked out what to do with the talent so long admired by so many, including three England managers.

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Striking Terror Into Friend And Foe -- Andy Carroll made only his second league start of the season for West Ham on Saturday against Swansea. He lasted less than 60 minutes.

For 58 of those minutes, Carroll showed why, if he is healthy at the end of the season, Roy Hodgson, the England manager will be tempted to take the striker to Brazil. For the last few seconds he was on the field, Carroll showed why Hodgson might think twice.

Carroll won 10 headed duels in his hour on the field. Six were in the Swansea penalty area. Of course West Ham responded to his return by hoicking high balls into the goalmouth, but Carroll still had to reach them. He did not just reach them; he used his head when he headed them. He set up his mate Kevin Nolan for two goals with superbly controlled headers. That was enough to set West Ham on course for a 2-0 victory.

Swansea's defenders are no mugs. They have a couple of robust center backs, Ashley Williams and Chico Flores, whose job includes repelling the aerial bombardment which remains more common in British soccer than in most countries. They knew what was coming. They couldn't cope.

Carroll offers West Ham a security blanket. He could do the same for England. It might be a rather tactically threadbare blanket, but it works. He could also offer England something very different from the other strikers available for Brazil. Carroll is a more muscular, more macho, version of Peter Crouch. Crouch, who is almost three inches taller but a few pounds lighter, is the most successful England striker of the last two decades.

Crouch has scored 22 goals in 42 England appearances. Since many of those were as a substitute, Crouch's England strike rate is 0.91 goals per 90 minutes played, way ahead of Rooney or Gary Lineker (Jermaine Defoe is, in fact, second). Critics object that Crouch scored many of his goals against teams such as Andorra, Jamaica and Belarus -- but the same can be said of most international strikers.

At halftime, Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, might have told Carroll that he was terrifying Swansea and to keep it up. Unfortunately, Carroll, who has a history of violence off the field, can sometimes be a little too macho.

Flores won a headed battle with Carroll by using the ancient trick of jumping onto his opponents back and holding him down. Carroll reacted by trying to throw Flores. As the two landed Carroll swung an arm, perhaps to regain balance. Flores fell to the floor and performed a few high-speed rolls -- a reaction to pain that, among all life form on this planet, is displayed only by professional soccer players.

It was not in Howard Webb's power to nominate Flores for an Oscar. He played his role in a melodramatic situation by showing Carroll a red card. It was, incredibly, Carroll's first Premier League red card. It was harsh. Allardyce said West Ham would appeal. But Webb, who has already been selected for the World Cup, was only doing what the vast majority of referees in Brazil will do, and sending a player off for a flailing arm.

It was a moment that might terrify Hodgson.

Hire Me Get My Friends For Free -- In the days when people still kept their business contacts on file cards, it was often said that an executive was hired for his (or her) Rolodex. When Cardiff's executives hired Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they might have congratulated themselves on acquiring a bright young manager. It seems they also acquired the smart young manger's extremely well-stocked smartphone contact list.

Last week, Solskjaer, picked up the much-coveted Wilfried Zaha, on loan, and Fabio, for an undisclosed (i.e. likely embarrassingly low) fee, from Manchester United. That would be the same United where Solskjaer played for 11 seasons, and which still owes him big time for winning the 1999 Champions League final and might well have an eye on him as a possible long-term replacement for Moyes.

Solskjaer also exchanged Peter Odemwingie for Kenwyne Jones with Mark Hughes at Stoke. They were swopping problems, as mates do. Hughes, another United old boy, is the man Solkskjaer effectively replaced at Old Trafford.

On Saturday, against Norwich, David Marshall, the goalie, might have been Cardiff's best player. Yet, at the other end, Zaha set up one goal and Jones scored the other to give Cardiff a precious 2-1 victory.

Perhaps Solskjaer texted his thanks to numbers in Stoke and Manchester. That sort of thing strengthens connections.

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