Liverpool slips up; Man City takes advantage; more EPL thoughts

Sunday April 27th, 2014

Edin Dzeko opened the scoring early for Manchester City, who never let up in a win over Crystal Palace.
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Liverpool crash into the bus -- José Mourinho "parked the bus" against Liverpool on Saturday, but it turns out he actually tried to bring two buses to Anfield on Sunday.

According to the club's official Twitter feed, Mourinho, who is suffering with an unspecified bug traveled separately to Liverpool "due to feeling unwell & not wanting to pass it on to players." Sky TV reported that he asked Liverpool if he could arrive at the ground in a separate vehicle. Liverpool said no. It didn't matter. One bus was all Mourinho needed. Chelsea won, 2-0, to add yet another twist to the title race.

However, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was not convinced Chelsea had not somehow sneaked a second vehicle into the ground.

"I think there were two buses parked today, never mind one," Rodgers told Sky TV.

"It was like a back six with three midfield players in front of that. That's 10, with the goalkeeper, for 90 minutes consistently behind the ball.

"It's the nature of how Chelsea play. They've got some wonderful players but they play a defensive game and hope to hit you on the counter-attack or with a mistake."

"Anyone can ask a team to just sit back and defend on the edge of the box."

That's not entirely fair. Other teams have tried to defend in numbers against Liverpool this season and failed.

A bus is an unwieldy vehicle. Parking it well is a tricky business. Ask any coach driver, or any soccer coach.

Chelsea might have been weakened by injury and Mourinho's desire to protect Gary Cahill and others for the Champions League game against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. Yet, even with Premier League debutant Tomas Kalas and Branislav Ivanovic paired at the heart of its defense, Chelsea again showed its mastery of the parking drill.

It was not simply the way Chelsea held the highest scorers in the Premier League at arms length. It was also the way it was able to accelerate out of a deep lying massed defense alignment to punish lapses and counter-attack.

Just before half time, Demba Ba pounced on a slip by Steven Gerrard to score Chelsea's first. Just before the end, Fernando Torres broke free. With a chance to score at his old club, he drew Simon Mignolet and rolled the ball to Willian for an easy score in an empty net. That was not quite the limit of Chelsea's ambition. Only Mignolet's fingertips prevented Andre Schürrle settling the game earlier.

Statistically, Liverpool dominated. It had almost 75 percent of possession. It completed nearly three times as many passes as Chelsea. Liverpool managed 26 shots, but it was a measure of the impenetrability of the visiting defense that only eight were on target and all of those were from outside the penalty area.

The victory means Chelsea has taken 16 points from its six games against the other top four teams. The only blip was a 0-0 draw at Arsenal in December. The victory did not make Chelsea the Premier League favorite. With only two games left, it is two points behind Liverpool and only one ahead of City, which has a game in hand, with an inferior goal difference to both. It needs both its rivals to lose once, or draw twice, while it beats Norwich and Cardiff.

Even if Chelsea misses the title, Mourinho has shown, once again, that when it comes to driving potent opponents into a dead end, he is a master.

The captain's slip -- Rodgers also accused Chelsea of coming to Anfield intent on avoiding defeat.

"It was clear that they'd come certainly not wanting to win the game, with the time-wasting and whatnot," he said.

If it were true, it would be bizarre. Chelsea needed to win. Liverpool did not. A draw against Chelsea would have kept Liverpool in control of the Premier League race.

The defeat ended an unbeaten run of 16 matches. Liverpool failed to score for the first time since it drew, 0-0, at Arsenal in November.

The pivotal moment was an error by, of all people, Gerrard. The captain let a pass run under his foot and then slipped and fell as he turned to chase. That allowed Ba to burst onto the ball. One reason Ba was then able to run almost half the length of the field unchallenged was tactical.

Liverpool thinks attack even when it is deep in its own half. The center backs split wide and Gerrard drops between them to seek the aggressive long-range passes that are so important to Liverpool's play. But that breaks a golden rule. The midfielder with the ball has no defenders behind him in a position to cover. He is operating without a net. On Sunday, Liverpool paid the price.

"We were disappointed with the goal, it's just one of those things," Rodger said. "There's no blame for Stevie. I said to him he's been a wonderful player for this club and he's a massive part of why we are where we are."

Indeed, Gerrard has for a long time been the biggest part of the Liverpool team. Perhaps what followed was Gerrard taking responsibility and daring to be a hero. Maybe it was an acknowledgement that Liverpool could not create space in the box. Or perhaps it was a desperate attempt to atone for his error. Half of Liverpool's long-range shots on target were by Gerrard. In all he took nine shots, more than a third of Liverpool's total; few were dangerous, some were awful. It was a bad day for Liverpool's massive man.

Rodgers tried to remain upbeat as he aimed some more barbs at his former mentor, Mourinho.

'The bigger picture is that we're still two points ahead of a team that has spent an absolute fortune. If we win our two games we'll finish above them and then we'll see what happens with Manchester City."

"We just go on to our next game against Crystal Palace. Today's game will probably prepare us for that because of the nature of how Crystal Palace play."

City rises again -- Timing is everything. The TV networks, who shape the Premier League schedule, had decided to put Manchester City's tricky match at Crystal Palace after the Liverpool-Chelsea game.

City's reserves watched the earlier game in the bowels of Selhurst Park. When Wilian scored the final goal, they raced into the locker room to report that Liverpool had lost. What was the reaction, Yaya Touré was asked by Sky TV after the game? "Amazing," he mumbled.

Did the news inspire City's fast start?

"To be honest, a little bit," Touré replied.

After just four minutes, Touré swerved a perfect cross onto Edin Dzeko's forehead. The Bosnian nodded it in.

Against a team built to counter-attack at all times, the lead was crucial. After 43 minutes, Touré was too fast, too strong, too skillful and too lucky for the home defense. He danced in from right, turning defenders into slalom poles. Even though he stepped on the ball as he entered the box, he reacted first, turning the sudden change in direction to advantage and curling the ball into the top corner.

The rest of the game was a practice match. City was now in total control of the Palace and the title race.

Two years ago, City was five points behind Manchester United with four games to go. It won those four games, which included a Manchester derby, to take the title on goal difference.

"We are by definition the team in the league that cannot really ever give up especially after the year we won it," Vincent Kompany, the City captain told Sky on Sunday. "We seem to pick up at the right time."

Trying not to smile, Kompany insisted on sounding a note of caution.

"It's difficult to predict the outcome of this league -- you would be crazy to predict that it's over."

Of the seven games the top three teams have left, by far the toughest would appear to be City's visit to Everton next week. But Everton looked like a team running on fumes as it scored two own goals and lost 2-0 at Southampton on Saturday.

"In football there are no favorites," Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager insisted after the game.

Except that in this soccer competition, City is the now the favorite.

Once a part of a vaunted class of youth players, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes are now running the show.
Matthew Peters/Getty Images

Are the kids alright? -- Back in 1995, early in his career as a BBC pundit, Alan Hansen, one of the greatest center backs of modern British soccer, famously and wrongly wrote off Manchester United's title challenge with the phrase "you can't win anything with kids."

On Saturday, four of those "kids," Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes were on the United bench coaching the team in the first match since the firing of David Moyes.

Giggs, sharp-featured and stony, looked the part of manager in his club blazer.

If those members of "Class of 92" could have picked a first opponent, it would have been punchless Norwich, the worst road team in the league, at Old Trafford. At the end of a dire first half, United took the lead with a penalty. After that, with Norwich clearly incapable of scoring, United pulled the Canaries apart and won, 4-0, before a delirious Old Trafford.

After the game, Hansen, now about to retire as a BBC pundit, said that if Giggs kept winning he would build "a tidal wave of support" from fans. Hansen urged the club to pick Giggs as its permanent manager.

Yet his original point still applies. Experience matters on the bench as well as on the field. It's hard to win with kids. With almost no management experience between them Giggs, Butt, Scholes and Neville are very much youngsters as coaches. We have no idea what they can do or how they will cope when things go wrong.

It could be that they will learn to be very good. But to find that out, the club might have to show patience and, judging from the events of the past week, United is not in the patience business. The usual unnamed "senior sources" at Old Trafford told the Sunday Telegraph that the new manager would be expected to win the Premier League in his first season.

Judging from reports, based on even more anonymous sources, in pretty much every British media outlet, the club has agreed a deal with Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal. Some reports say van Gaal would have to keep Giggs (and some of the other kids) as apprentices.

That suggests that van Gaal, who is 63, would be, at best, a caretaker and, at worst, a sacrificial lamb. Winning the title next season, given how much work the United squad needs and how good the opposition is, will be a tough ask.

Van Gaal is good. Giggs and the kids might be the long-term answer. But United runs the risk of slipping into the same cycle of impatience that did so much damage after another Scottish icon, Matt Busby, retired after 24 years in charge in 1969. The club went through four managers (including a brief return by Busby) in the next three-and-half years. It went through three more in the 14 years before Ferguson arrived. Of those, only Busby, as an emergency solution, managed a win percentage above 50 percent. The club went not 24 months but 25 years between titles before Ferguson (benefiting from some uncharacteristic patience) was able to build a team around kids.

You never win anything with chaos. That's the risk created by the impatience the success of Ferguson, and his kids, as well as the Glazers' debts, have bred at United.

Let's hear it for the referees -- No round of fixtures goes by in the Premier League without some managers complaining about the referees.

This weekend produced two curious incidents.

In the relegation showdown at the Stadium of Light on Sunday, Sunderland led by one precious goal as halftime approached when Cala, the Cardiff centerback, dithered just outside his own area and gave the ball away to Connor Wickham.

As Wickham accelerated toward goal, Cala grabbed the attacker's arm and yanked. Wickham did not go down. Goalie David Marshall raced out to block Wickham's initial effort. Wickham reached the loose ball but his shot missed.

At that point, Phil Dowd, the referee whistled. He pointed to the penalty spot, harshly since Cala had pulled Wickham back outside the box, and then showed the defender a red card.

It was the card that seemed to upset Cala and his teammates. Wickham had ignored the golden rule of modern soccer and stayed on his feet when he could have tumbled artistically. That did not mean the foul had not deprived him of a better scoring opportunity than the one he spurned. Cala held Wickham back. If Wickham had been a step quicker, he would have beaten Marshall to the ball.

While referees are eager to punish simulation, they often penalize players who stay on their feet by using that as an excuse to take the easy option and ignore fouls in the box.

Dowd's decision may have drained any tension out of the game. Sunderland cruised to a 4-0 victory that lifted it out of the bottom three. But if the red card ruined the game, blame Cala. What Dowd did, in front of a live television audience that will have included many players and coaches from other clubs, may well serve to improve a lot of other matches as spectacles.

"It was the best decision by a referee I ever see in my life," Gus Poyet, the happy Sunderland manager, told Sky.

On Saturday at Stoke, referee Andre Marriner was subject to a particularly sly attack by Stoke boss Mark Hughes, who was on the losing end. Marriner did not get any decisions totally wrong, but every marginal call he made ended up favoring Tottenham, which gained an entirely undeserved 1-0 victory.

There was the suspicion of an elbow from Tottenham's Emmanuel Adebayor to the chin of Ryan Shawcross. Marriner ignored that. There was the ill-tempered two-armed push by Danny Rose, Tottenham's goal scorer, on Geoff Cameron after a nasty foul by the American. Marriner showed Rose only a yellow. He had already sent a Stoke player off, showing a second yellow to Shawcross, also for a foul on Rose. (Could it be that Stoke was trying to provoke the combative defender?)

The replays suggested that none of Marriner's judgment was clearly wrong. But collectively they cost Stoke the game. Struggling, even with 11 men against 10, Tottenham was able to cling on.

Marriner is the referee who sent off the wrong Arsenal player at Stamford Bridge in March. Hughes, probably trying to find a way to criticize the referee while dodging a fine, suggested that incident was to blame.

"I've been involved in games with Andre Marriner for many years and he's a top referee. I thought his performance today was really poor and whether or not his confidence is a little bit shot because he's been involved in games where his decisions have been highlighted in the past, maybe his confidence is a little bit low and it's affecting his performance." Hughes said, highlighting Marriner's decisions and therefore, running the risk of eroding his confidence even further.

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