Liverpool routs Spurs, Howard saves Everton; more EPL thoughts

Sunday March 30th, 2014

Tim Howard's saves were crucial in Everton's win over Fulham on Sunday.
Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

Can we play you every week? -- Tottenham lies sixth in the Premier League. It has given Liverpool fits in recent seasons. It spent £100 million on players in the summer. So, on the face of it, the 4-0 victory at Anfield on Sunday that took Liverpool to the top of the Premier League is an impressive result. It isn't.

Tottenham is utterly unequipped to take on the league's best teams. Its attack did not trouble Liverpool's fragile defense until the result was already certain. Tottenham's midfield could not keep up with Liverpool's incisive and rapid passing and movement. The Spurs defense capitulated as early as the second minute when one center back, Jan Vertonghen whiffed on Glen Johnson's cross and the other, Younes Kaboul, helpfully poked it into the Spurs net.

Liverpool won, 5-0, at White Hart Lane in December. Tottenham's attitude from the start seemed to be "please don't hurt us so badly this time." Liverpool didn't. It stopped at four. That leaves its goal difference three worse than Manchester City's. But there's time to correct that.

Tottenham may be Liverpool's perfect victim, but it is not the only better-than-average team the Reds have dismantled in their current eight-game winning streak. They have also enjoyed emphatic victories over Southampton, Manchester United and Arsenal. In all those games, Liverpool was able to take its foot off the gas long before the end. Against the Saints the game was over after an hour. Against United it was over by the first minute of the second half. Both the North London teams were well beaten long before half time.

They say that winning when you're not playing well (which Liverpool did on Wednesday against Sunderland and also against Fulham and Swansea) is the sign of a champion. But pulverizing one good opponent after another is an even better indication of a great team.

There were suggestions the 2-1 victory over Sunderland showed that Liverpool was feeling the pressure. That wasn't the case on Sunday. But then Tottenham is not a team capable of applying pressure to Liverpool.

Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, is understandably not entertaining the notion that his players might be under pressure.

"We don't feel it,'' he told Sky TV. "You see the confidence in how the players pass the ball, you see the movement, you see the intensity and the aggression and the pressure to know that they are very calm and focused."

The next two home games, against Manchester City and Chelsea, will show if he's right. If Liverpool can cope with that pressure, it will win the league. It will also have proved it is a great team.

Howard saves the day -- In the end, Everton was able to accept the gifts offered by the worst defense in the Premier league as it won, 3-1, at Craven Cottage on Sunday.

The victory was Everton's fifth straight in the league and allowed to close within four points of Arsenal with a game in hand and a showdown at Goodison next week.

Yet there was a spell in the second half when Fulham threatened to overwhelm Everton. That's when Tim Howard displayed his importance to his team.

Everton had taken the lead after 50 minutes when Fulham's goalie, David Stockdale, had sliced the ball into his net for an own goal. When Everton's defense creaked after Ashkan Dejagah leveled with a searing shot in the 71st minute, its goalie did not crack.

Over the course of the game, Fulham had 23 strikes at goal. A lot were desperate long-range attempts by a team in last place and running out of time and hope. But shortly after Dejagah's goal, Johnny Heitinga was left unmarked at the far post. Only Howard stood between Fulham and the lead. He blocked Heitinga's powerful downward header with his knee. Less than a minute later Pajtim Kasami got free in the middle of the penalty area. This time, Howard blocked with his foot.

With Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny recently showing his shaky side and giving another occasionally wobbly display on Saturday, Howard could be a difference maker in the race for fourth place.

Chelsea get in their hangover early -- Much is made of the problems teams playing midweek games in Europe have recovering for Premier League at the weekend. Yet Chelsea's season is showing a different pattern, one that was repeated on Saturday as it lost 1-0 away to a Crystal Palace team that sat 17th in the table and had not won any of its last five games.

Chelsea allowed itself to be outworked and harried into errors by an opponent long on energy and courage and short on talent. The only goal was headed into his own net by John Terry. Despite late Chelsea pressure, Palace had chances to win by two or three goals.

Chelsea has lost five league games this season. Apart from the defeats at Everton in September, all the others have been at teams it would be expected to beat: Stoke, Newcastle, Aston Villa and, now, Palace. That sequence confirms the suspicions that manager José Mourinho focuses more on the big opponents and that his system works less well away from home.

But there is something else going on here. Yes, two of those losses followed midweek games. But one of those was in the Premier League and the other in the League Cup and its conquerors, first Stoke and then Newcastle, had also played in those competitions in midweek. More significantly, all five defeats preceded midweek Champions League games.

Chelsea struggles before European games. The problem then is probably mental rather than physical.

The sequence also suggests which competition is the priority for Mourinho, for Roman Abramovic and for the Chelsea players.

One of the bizarre elements of this Chelsea campaign is the way the "Special One," never before known for understatement, has consistently insisted his team is an underdog in the title race.

He was at it again after the loss on Saturday. "Now it's impossible to win the title,'' he said, ignoring the fact that his team was, at the time, still top of the standings.

He seems to be giving his players an excuse to fail. Although winning the title immediately might not be his plan. It might make Abramovic less inclined to spend tens of millions in the summer buying Mourinho an even bigger and better squad. When asked what his team had lacked at the press conference, Mourinho wrote the word "balls" on a piece of paper and held it up. The message was for Abramovic as much as for the media and the players.

Strangely, Mourinho has also given his players an excuse for losing on Wednesday night away to Paris Saint-Germain. He has complained that PSG played its league game against Nice on Friday night, giving its players almost a day more to recover.

However, this ignores the fact that this was at the behest of one of Ligue 1's broadcasters, which has a Friday night slot. Mourinho suggested that it showed the French soccer authorities give more support for teams competing in Europe than the Premier League does. Yet if he really thinks the other Premier League clubs will want to make things easier for those teams who play year after year in the Champions League, he has to be dreaming.

When Chelsea won the Champions League it made £47.3 million in prize money alone. That is £47.3 million, not counting extra home gate receipts and the massively enhanced sponsorship revenue, that it doesn't have to share with its rivals. That only widens the financial edge that has allowed it to compete in the Champions League for 10 straight seasons (and collect the money). For Chelsea it is a virtuous circle.

Newcastle, meanwhile, appeared in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League in the first of those seasons, 2003. Everton made a similarly brief and financially unrewarding cameo in 2005. Stoke, Aston Villa (a former European champion) and Palace have not even come close in that time. Why should they want to make it easier for Chelsea to widen the money gap even further? Instead, they can make things as difficult as possible for and hope to profit with three points they otherwise probably wouldn't have won.

City wins with a draw -- One wonders what effect the news of Chelsea's defeat had on the Manchester City locker room at the Emirates as it came through just before its evening game with Arsenal.

David Silva gave City the lead after only 18 minutes. City had chances to increase its lead, which given the probably fragile state of Arsenal's morale, might have started a rout that would finally have ended the Gunner's slim title hopes. City failed to take those chances.

Instead, Arsenal gradually came back into the game. Mathieu Flamini leveled the score after 53 minutes. Although City finished with a slight edge in possession and a significant advantage in shots, it seemed content with a draw that would, unexpectedly, allow it to gain ground on Chelsea.

That certainly seemed to be Manuel Pellegrini's attitude.

"We all want to win all our games but Arsenal are a very good team here and they are also fighting for the title," he told the BBC.

The result left City in third. It is four points behind Liverpool and two behind Chelsea, but has two games in hand on both and plays at Anfield on April 13, by which time it might have Sergio Agüero back.

For Arsenal, the draw stopped the bleeding ahead of its visit to Everton.

"It was an important game for us with what has happened in the last week," Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager told the BBC. "Last Saturday was a nightmare and after the Swansea game we were really flat."

But despite Pellegrini's kind words, Wenger did not talk like a man whose team was a title challenger.

"We are not as bad as people say we are," he said.

A flyby in the ointment -- Those who march behind the red flag have always been prone to faction fighting.

When the plutocratic Glazer's took over at Old Trafford, the most extreme supporters of a dictatorship of the proletarian fans broke away and formed Manchester FC.

Now the leadership of David Moyes, handpicked successor to the Stalin of the Premier League, Alex Ferguson, seems to be provoking another schism. On Saturday, dissident fans, with much fanfare, hired a plane to fly over Old Trafford just before kickoff trailing a banner saying "the wrong one -- Moyes out."

Forewarned, Moyes walked out alone ahead of the team. He must have been gratified by the reaction. The prank, rather than acting as a rallying cry for regime change, instead provoked the Red Army to rally behind the Moyes junta. They applauded the manager and booed as the plane flew over.

The fact that the team then rallied from a sticky start to beat Aston Villa, 4-1, with Wayne Rooney scoring another two goals, hardly mattered. This was a largely meaningless game between two mid-table clubs. That unfamiliar mediocrity is the main cause of dissent. At the moment, the only significant matches United has on its calendar are the two legs of its Champions League quarterfinal against all-conquering Bayern Munich. If Moyes masterminds an upset, he can expect the opposition to fall silent.

The protest is really about what happens in the summer and next season. There are other interesting managerial candidates on the horizon -- Louis van Gaal and Roberto Martínez, for example. But what the fans made clear is that if the Glazers decide Moyes is the man to keep the red flag flying, they will still march behind the club.

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