Liverpool wins, continues to entertain on its title quest; more EPL

Sunday April 20th, 2014

Liverpoool manager Brendan Rodgers calls 19-year-old Raheem Sterling (right) the "best young player in European football."
Michael Regan/Getty Images

The entertainers -- There are all sorts of reasons why Liverpool would be popular champions across much of England, except Manchester.

There is the emotion of the Hillsborough anniversary. There is the residual good will for the way Liverpool showed that English clubs can compete consistently in Europe. There is the feeling that, unlike Chelsea and Manchester City, Liverpool would not have had the title bought for them by its owners.

But the 3-2 victory at Norwich on Sunday that took Liverpool five points clear with three matches to play displayed yet another aspect of its appeal: Liverpool games are so darn entertaining.

In 35 games, Liverpool has scored 96 goals, eight more than Manchester City and 29 more than the third-most potent team, Chelsea. Just how thrillingly dangerous that attack is was shown in the first 11 minutes as Raheem Sterling and Luis Suárez fired Liverpool to another quick lead.

19-year-old Sterling "is the best young player in European football," Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, told Sky TV after the game. He might be right.

For the second straight week, Liverpool almost threw away a game it had under control -- it allowed hapless Norwich to fight back to 2-1 and then, after Sterling's second deflected goal, 3-2. If the luckless Ricky van Wolfswinkel had directed his close-range header anywhere but straight at Simon Mignolet, Norwich would have tied it. It was another roller-coaster ride, but Liverpool hung on.

While Liverpool's attack is viciously sharp, its defense often lives on a knife-edge. Part of the reason is that Rodgers puts attack first. Even Lucas, notionally the holding midfielder, keeps popping up in the opposing area looking for a goal. There seem to be no orders to stay behind the ball at Liverpool. It doesn't help that the back four isn't nearly as good as the front four.

Martin Skrtel was a towering presence with 16 clearances, including 11 headed clearances, most from deep in his own area. But that's an awful lot of pressure to soak up. Norwich, which had totaled just 15 goals in its 17 previous home games, managed 13 shots.

Inevitably, Liverpool cracked.

"We didn't defend a couple of crosses well enough to day," Rodgers told the BBC.

Still, for all the drama, Liverpool again found a way to win.

"Yet again the players showed their courage and the bravery to get the three points," Rodgers said.

Liverpool has conceded 44 goals. The only other team in the top seven to have leaked more is Tottenham but that's only because, unlike Liverpool's defense, it has had to face Liverpool's attack twice.

Liverpool's 35 matches have produced 140 goals, which works out at exactly four goals a game. City is a respectable second with 122 total goals in two fewer matches for an average of 3.7. No other club's fans are seeing even three goals a game.

Rodgers is a thoroughly modern coach who has learnt the language of the MBA and talks of "performance goals," although one of those goals is gloriously old-fashioned -- to score 100 of them in a season.

Rodgers pointed out that in 2011-12, the season before he arrived, Liverpool scored just 47.

He also pointed out that on Sunday, his team had achieved another target.

"Our objective at the start of the season was to qualify for the Champions we now cannot finish any lower than third," he said.

Maybe Rodgers is also superstitious or maybe he's a little deaf. Somehow, as he faced one microphone after another, he avoided mentioning the destiny of the league title, which is now in Liverpool's control.

"We now go into the next three games looking to perform well," was all he would say.

It should be an exciting ride.

That's gratitude for you -- Before becoming the new manager of Manchester United, David Moyes restored the self-respect at Everton. He led it to a series of league finishes above Liverpool and even to one brief Champions League campaign.

You would think the fans at Goodison would be grateful. But when the Manchester United bus arrives, they gathered to boo Moyes.

Moyes plucked Leighton Baines from Wigan and helped turn him into a fullback who will start for his country at the World Cup. You'd think Baines would be grateful. When Everton won a penalty in the first half, Baines buried it to put Everton ahead. Cold.

Moyes rescued Kevin Mirallas from a Greek soccer economy in meltdown. Mirallas will go to the World Cup with Belgium. Is he grateful? No, he scored the second goal, to remove all doubt from the result as Everton won, 2-0.

Everton beat Manchester United not with the pretty soccer Roberto Martinez has introduced this season, but with the old Moyes formula. The home team had only 38 percent of possession but it grinded out a victory to sweep United in the EPL for the first time in 44 years.

The result puts Everton's pursuit of finishing in fourth and earning a Champions League bid back on track following its midweek home loss to Crystal Palace. It trails Arsenal by one point.

The defeat means that United cannot finish in the top four, so its run of 17 straight Champions League appearances will come to an end. Indeed, it is in danger of missing European soccer altogether for the first time since 1989.

Moyes has been giving Baines and, it seems, Ross Barkley, come hither looks from Old Trafford. But would they step down to a team that cannot offer European competition?

Quality Counts -- After 30 minutes at Hull on Sunday, Arsenal had completed less than 70 percent of its passes. That is an awful number for any Premier League team. It's embarrassing for a team that is the English embodiment of the culture of the pass. Arsenal was completing three passes and then giving the ball away.

Yet after 30 minutes of clinging on, Arsenal rediscovered its touch. Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla carved Hull open. Aaron Ramsey finished sweetly. Just before half time, after another slick attack, Ramsey set up Lukas Podolski who finished. Podolski added another in the second half. Arsenal won the FA Cup final rehearsal, 3-0, and made sure it would stay in fourth place for another week.

The first goal proved that while systems are important, the quality of the players in the system is crucial.

The poor passing at the start showed that Arsenal was beset by doubt after its recent struggles. Yet Ozil and Ramsey, both starting after spells out injured, provided the injection of class that calmed Arsenal's nerves.

Ozil is an established star. He can make everything look easy, like the little pass to Cazorla that preceded the goal. Sometimes he seems unwilling to do hard work, but he brings the element of the unexpected to Arsenal's sometimes robotic passing.

At 23, Ramsey is one of this season's breakout stars. He is Arsenal's second top scorer with 14 goals, a huge number for a midfielder who doesn't take penalties or free kicks and who has only started 27 games of Arsenal's 52 this season.

Ozil has scored six goals in 33 starts. He also leads the team with eight Premier League assists. Ramsey is second with seven.

Those numbers are a statistical measure of the difference quality makes.

Sore losers -- Many great managers have a pathological hatred of losing. The need to do everything possible to avoid the pain of defeat is one reason they are great managers.

But an inability to cope calmly with defeat can lead to unsavory incidents. In their early days at Manchester United and Arsenal, Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger were guilty of some embarrassing antics in the fury of defeat. Both learnt to do a passable imitation of grown-ups.

It seemed this season that José Mourinho had, as he himself boasted, grown up too. His recent behavior rather suggests the opposite.

Last week, sources at Chelsea told the British press that Mourinho planned to contest the £8,000 fine from the English Football Association for running on the field to confront referee Chris Foy in a defeat at Aston Villa last month. The sum is peanuts. Mourinho's basic salary is £8.37 million a year. Mourinho hated losing to Aston Villa and he hated losing to the FA.

He, and his staff, didn't do his cause any good on Saturday as Chelsea lost again, this time 2-1 at home to last-place Sunderland. It was the first time, in either of his spells at Chelsea, that Mourinho's team had lost a league match at Stamford Bridge. After 77 unbeaten games, the defeat clearly rankled him.

After the game, Mourinho, deploying sarcasm in an attempt to avoid yet another FA charge, "congratulated" the referee, Mike Dean, for an "unbelievable" performance and Mike Riley, the director of referees. "What they are doing through the whole season is fantastic, especially in the last couple of months, and in teams involved in the title race."

The first implication is that there is a conspiracy against Mourinho and his club. Well, if there isn't, the FA might now be inclined to think seriously about starting one.

The second implication is that the defeat was entirely the fault of the match officials and had nothing to do with Mourinho's team selection, his tactics, or the wastefulness of his high-priced squad in attack and its sloppiness in defense.

Sunderland won the game the 82nd minute after César Azpilicueta slipped and presented the ball to Jozy Altidore. As Altidore lumbered toward goal, Azpilicueta caught up and slid in to make the tackle. The Spaniard did not touch the ball. Altidore, his legs going in random directions like a moose on ice, stepped on Azpilicueta's foot and went down. Dean, aided by one of his assistants, gave a penalty. Fabio Borini converted. Sunderland held on to win.

Rui Faria, an assistant coach throughout Mourinho's management career, had to be restrained from assaulting Dean. He looked like a petulant 11-year old.

It was a marginal penalty, but no more so than the penalty that saved Chelsea against West Brom in November. That decision was so poor that Riley apologized to West Brom. Even if he thinks Dean made a mistake on Saturday, he's unlikely to do the same with Mourinho.

Indeed, it could get worse for Chelsea. Dean had missed Ramires punching the admittedly irritating Seb Larsson. Since the referee didn't punish Ramires, the FA can look at the incident and give Ramires the red card and the ban he deserves.

But never mind the penalty -- the real question is how was Chelsea was tied at home with the worst team in the league after 82 minutes? Some of their recent lackluster play suggests that the players believed what Mourinho when he said his team was not yet equipped to win the league.

Maybe that's why Mourinho insisted on Saturday that his players had given "everything they could." He needs to build them up because Chelsea faces a very big eight days. Indeed, perhaps he, and his players, were distracted on Saturday by the thought of their next three matches.

Chelsea plays Atletico Madrid, the least frightening of the four remaining teams, in the semi-final of the Champions League on Tuesday and then the following Wednesday. In between, it visits Anfield in the Premier League next Sunday.

This season, Mourinho has once again shown himself to be a great manager on the big occasions. Chelsea's 1-0 victory at Manchester City at the start of February was probably the single most impressive Premier League performance of the season. But he has tripped several times against lesser obstacles. On Saturday, after losing to the lowest team on the totem pole, he sounded not like a great man but a small boy.

On the spot -- Borini's penalty was one of six awarded in seven Premier League games on Saturday. The blatant penalty United's Phil Jones conceded at Everton on Sunday took the total to seven.

Of the 13 goals Saturday, five came from the spot. Maybe it's a reflection of the timidity that infects so many teams at the high-pressure end of the season. Every game on Saturday involved at least one club in danger of relegation.

Yet there were two curious elements to the plethora of penalties.

The first is how little angry remonstrating there was from the players, even at Cardiff where both the penalties in the 1-1 draw with Stoke were marginal. At Chelsea, the only player to approach Dean was John Terry, who remonstrated mildly.

Maybe that's a sign that the officials have finally convinced players, if not Rui Feria, that threatening mob scenes do no good.

Secondly, of the seven penalties, five were hit at the middle of the goal. That included the Steve Sidwell effort that Hugo Lloris of Tottenham reached back to save as Fulham lost, 3-1, at White Hart Lane.

That could be a coincidence, but it could also be a consequence of the statistical analysis of spot kicks. Goalkeepers do their homework, guess which side the kicker will go and dive that way. It's a tactic which can be beaten by smashing an unreachably shot high into the corner of the net as Wilfried Bony did to give Swansea a 2-1 victory at Newcastle. But it can be beaten much more easily. If the penalty taker knows a goalie will dive, he doesn't himself need to guess right or left. He can hit it in the one place he knows the goalie won't be: where he was standing.

There is a slight risk. When Leighton Baines, who is quite capable of striking a penalty an inch inside the post, opted to go straight down the middle against United, he almost hit David de Gea's boot.

In the statistical chess game of penalty kicks, the next-move, or non-move, is the goalie's. The ball is in their court, or rather in the middle of their net.

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