Chelsea races past Spurs; United looks to future; EPL thoughts

Saturday March 8th, 2014

Nemanja Matic (right), Ramires (left) and Chelsea outclassed Tottenham to remain atop the EPL.
Sang Tan/AP

Mourinho parks the racing car -- In September 2004, after Tottenham had come to Stamford Bridge, defended in depth and earned a 0-0 draw, José Mourinho introduced a new phrase to English soccer's rich collection of clichés: He said Tottenham "brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal."

Before Chelsea met Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Jamie Redknapp, who was on that Tottenham team and is now an analyst for Sky TV, joked "we parked two buses."

Yet for much of the first half on Saturday, Chelsea played like the away team.

Unlike many other modern coaches, Mourinho does not see his fullbacks as auxiliary wingers. They defend. Last season, César Azpilicueta was a swashbuckling attacking right back. This season, he is a left back who rarely leaves his half. With Nemanja Matic rarely budging from his post in front of the defense, it's Mourinho who is parking his vehicle. But it's not a bus. It's more of an SUV, something Mourinho has engineered that can move very fast when it has to.

Chelsea set out first to defend and still accelerated away in the second half to win, 4-0. It's seven points ahead of second-place Liverpool and nine ahead of Manchester City, which is in third but has three games in hand.

Mourinho has kept pointing to City's extra games and insisting his "little horse" is not the favorite for the title. The bookies disagree; after Saturday's rout, the betting sites made Chelsea the odds-on favorite.

After the game, Mourinho only wanted to talk about Chelsea's 13-point lead over fifth-place Tottenham.

"This match was fundamental," Mourinho told Sky. "They were our biggest challengers for fourth. Our first objective is in our pocket. Now our next objective is third place and automatic qualification for the Champions League."

He again implied that City should be viewed as the favorite.

"If Manchester City wins those there games, we are second, not first," Mourinho said.

In the first 56 minutes on Saturday, Tottenham enjoyed more possession, completed more passes and had more attempts at goal. But Mourinho's Chelsea has conceded fewer goals than any other team in the Premier League. The next best defense is Manchester City's, which has let in five more goals in fewer games.

Mourinho knows that his defense rarely makes mistakes. He can wait until the pressure his team exerts when it doesn't have the ball forces an error. That's what happened in the 56th minute when Jan Vertonghen, pressed by Andre Schürrle, turned to pass back, slipped and scuffed the ball into the path of Samuel Eto'o, who burst in on goal and shot through the legs of both Michael Dawson and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

That would have been enough to win the game, but Tottenham cracked under the weight of the opening salvo. Eto'o went down in front of goal. Younes Kaboul was sent off. Eden Hazard converted the penalty.

Against 10 men, Chelsea seemed happy to nurse the victory. The only way Chelsea will erode City's advantage in goal difference is if City loses a lot of games, in which case goal difference won't matter.

But Tottenham kept giving Chelsea gifts. Demba Ba, desperate to make his mark, pounced to score two late goals to complete the rout.

The Chelsea machine is purring, even when it's parked.

Without the Beatles -- Before it lost to Norwich two weeks ago, Tottenham had not been defeated by a team in the bottom half of the Premier League this season. On the other hand, in six league games against the four clubs above it Spurs has now picked up just one point and been outscored 22-2. It has also lost, 2-0, at Arsenal in the FA Cup.

Against Chelsea on Saturday, as with matches against both Manchester City and Liverpool at White Hart Lane, the game only really got out of hand after Tottenham had a player sent off. But that's not a good pattern.

Mourinho was quite clear that Tottenham's problem is that "they don't hurt you."

One person Tottenham's players clearly hurt was their manager, Tim Sherwood. He came on TV immediately after the match and accused his players of "capitulation" and a "lack of character."

The frustration is beginning to boil over, as it did with André Villas-Boas in his last days at the club.

It might be true that, as Sherwood said, his players are too nice. It might also be that they are also not quite good enough.

Over the summer, Tottenham spent the money it received for Gareth Bale on seven new players. It also recalled two young talents from loans to other Premier League clubs. That's almost an entire team.

Garth Crooks, a former Tottenham striker and now a BBC analyst, said that Spurs had "sold Elvis and bought the Beatles." Certainly the signings went some way to assuage the pain of losing Bale.

Yet on Saturday, not one of those nine players started.

Some of the recruits are injured. It takes time to integrate new players. Even so, at Chelsea on Saturday, Tottenham had nothing to show for the world record transfer fee it received.

Elvis has left the building.

An old man's pride -- Mourinho was recently ambushed in France where an off-camera conversation in which he addressed one of his favored topics, Chelsea's lack of goal-scorers, was quoted in the press.

'The problem with Chelsea is I lack a scorer," he reportedly said. "I have Eto'o but he is 32 years old, maybe 35, who knows?''

Shortly afterwards, an ex-girlfriend reported that, in fact, Eto'o was 38.

Sources close to Eto'o reported that he was not happy. But playing for Chelsea he knows the chances will come to answer in the penalty area.

However old he is, Eto'o will get a year older on Monday. He received an early birthday present when Fernando Torres was hurt in the warm-up. Eto'o came off the bench before the game even started.

After he had received a further birthday present from Vertonghen, Eto'o ran to the corner to celebrate. He grabbed the flag as if it were a walking stick, clasped his back and bent over as he mimed an old man.

Asked about the celebration, Mourinho said "I loved it." He probably loved the goal even more. After pressing all the wrong buttons in his time at Madrid, it seems that this season, even when Mourinho says something he regrets, it works in his favor.

A United future -- Finally, Manchester United looked like Manchester United is supposed to look as it beat West Brom, 3-0, at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

But then again West Brom is in the habit of making opponents look good. The defeat means it has not won in 19 games in all competitions, a run that stretches back to a home victory over Crystal Palace at the start of November.

Phil Jones, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck scored the sort of effortlessly inevitable goals, created by smart movement and precise passes, that have been United's hallmark in recent years.

As spring came to the English Midlands, United enjoyed a rare sunny afternoon on what has been a gloomy, storm-tossed season.

"It looked promising at times but it hasn't been often enough really, " Michael Carrick told BT Sport, which broadcast the game.

United is the reigning champion. It finished with 89 points the last two seasons under Alex Ferguson. In its first season under David Moyes, United lies sixth, 18 points behind Chelsea, the leader. Even if United wins all its remaining games it can only reach 78 points.

Other clubs might have already lost patience with the new manager. Yet United fans might still have occasional nightmares that the club did actually fire Ferguson in 1990. But United just beat Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final, kept patience with Fergie and was rewarded.

Moyes' team selection on Saturday suggests he believes he will be around next year. Nemanja Vidic is leaving for Inter Milan at the end of the season. He remains United's club captain and its best central defender. Yet, even with points on the line, Moyes followed through on his promise to give games to the young central defenders who are competing to replace Vidic or Rio Ferdinand.

Moyes shares with Fergie a reputation as a developer of young talent. But he could have inherited a problem. There were already signs last season that Fergie's last crop of kids was not growing into their perceived potential. The two men who were given their chance to shine at the heart of the defense on Saturday are good examples.

Chris Smalling started for England on Wednesday but looked shaky. At 24, he's not yet developed into a dominant center back. Phil Jones, who Fergie said, more than once, could become one of the United greats, gave a characteristic display on Saturday. He scored a good goal, made some clever passes and crunching tackles, but he also seemed to fall asleep on more than one occasion. At 22, he should be growing out of the mental lapses.

Victor Anichebe, hardly the most terrifying striker in the Premier League, caused both center backs problems in the first half, but West Brom lacked the attacking punch to truly test the United defense.

If Moyes is to find out if either of them can fill United's defensive holes, he will need to give both Smalling and Jones more starts. The good news is that in this lost season, it won't matter much if they are found wanting.

Cardiff find a way out of a corner -- When you have scored just 19 goals in 28 games, as Cardiff had before it beat Fulham, 3-1, the few goals you can eke out from set pieces become a lifeline.

In a nervous game between two scared teams trapped in the bottom three, neither side's attackers were capable of scoring from open play. The difference was that Fulham, which has now let in 15 more goals than any other team in the Premier League, defended worse.

Cardiff's first goal came from a "second phase" after a set piece. Fulham cleared, but not very far. When the ball came back, Steven Caulker, a center back, was still lurking. He is 6-foot-2 and was standing right in front of goal, yet the Fulham defense seemed not to have seen him and he poked the ball in.

Fulham leveled from a corner. This one was scored by Lewis Holtby, who was given the freedom of the six-yard box by the Cardiff defense.

The pattern repeated itself when the only challenge Caulker had to worry about as he headed a corner into the net came from teammate Frazier Campbell. Again the Fulham defense had managed to miss the biggest opponent in front of their own goal.

Cardiff's final goal came from open play, but the scorer was Sasha Riether, a Fulham defender, who was lying in the ground when the ball hit him.

The result left Fulham anchored at the foot of the table, four points from the last safe club, West Brom. Cardiff drew level with the Baggies, but is still below on goal difference.

None of the goals was pretty. Cardiff probably doesn't care, but it should remember: it won't play Fulham again this season.

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