Chelsea draws at home; un-neighborly Everton; more EPL thoughts

Sunday May 4th, 2014

Sergio Agüero helped Manchester City keep the pressure on Liverpool with a win at Everton.
Laurence Griffits/Getty Images/SI

A bridge too far -- After its 0-0 draw at home to Norwich on Sunday, Chelsea can still win the Premier League. It only needs to win at Cardiff next weekend and hope that Liverpool and Manchester City, which both have two games to play, pick up no more than one point each. Stanger things have happened, but not very often.

José Mourinho isn't buying it. After the game on Sunday he said his team had been flat because "we know that we have no chances to be champions."

Chelsea again struggled at home against mediocre team that massed in defense. Despite dominating possession, it managed only four shots on target.

Mourinho put a typically contrarian spin on the game. He blamed Norwich.

"We had one team that needed three points to have a chance to survive and they didn't play to win and you had a team that needs one point to finish third and in the Champions League group phase and that team played like it needed three points," Mourinho told Sky TV.

A place in the Champions League group phase is nice, but Mourinho has never finished third in a full season as a manager, a run that started in 2003 at Porto.

When Mourinho returned to Chelsea last summer, club owner Roman Abramovic was effectively admitting he was wrong to fire Mourinho in 2007.

Yet Mourinho has repeated some of the patterns that exhausted Abramovic's rather shallow reserves of patience the first time. Mourinho has focused on defense. He has disparaged the expensive squad the owner has financed. He has also, and this probably wasn't deliberate, lost another Champions League semifinal.

Mourinho has also broken with past patterns in a way that is not calculated to make his boss happy. He has started losing at Stamford Bridge.

At least Sunday's draw ended a run of two home defeats. It was those two losses, to Sunderland and Atlético Madrid, which destroyed Chelsea's season.

Hate your neighbors -- Relations between fans of the Liverpool clubs may be less overtly hostile than those between supporters of other city rivals in the world soccer. That does not mean Evertonians want to spend the summer hearing about another major Liverpool trophy.

That ambivalence might explain the strange atmosphere at Goodison on Saturday evening. Victory over Manchester City would have kept alive the slim possibility that Everton could achieve the grail of fourth place. It would also have made a 19th Liverpool league title very likely.

The tepid first-half support from the fans did not help Everton as it lost, 3-2. The team also struggled with the back three that Roberto Martinez adopted. It was a formation he used it successfully when Wigan beat City in the FA Cup final last year. On Saturday, Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko, twice, were both unmarked as they scored for City.

Yet if it was an unusually odd afternoon for Everton, it was a typically weird one from City. Early on, it struggled to adjust to the Everton formation, although, apart from a breath-taking goal by Ross Barkley, Everton hardly threatened.

Agüero changed the game in two ways. First he scored, with a drive inside the near post that looked uncannily like the goal that beat QPR and won the Premier League title two years ago. Six minutes later he went off.

Agüero was replaced by Fernandinho. That allowed City to match Everton's numbers in midfield. City took control. Dzeko struck twice. This was the performance of a team determined to grasp the Premier League title. Then City turned off the domination. Romelu Lukaku closed the gap. City ended the game happy to defend its lead.

The victory put City top of the table, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference. Both have two matches left against teams becalmed in mid-table. Liverpool visits Crystal Palace on Monday and entertains Newcastle on the final day. City is at home twice: against Villa on Wednesday and West Ham next Sunday.

If City wins both games, Liverpool would have to make up 11 goals. It is capable of that. Liverpool has scored five goals in a game four times this season and six goals once, although it conceded at least one goal in four of those victories. Its record league victory, 9-0, was over Palace almost 25 years ago.

More worrying for City was that both of its two top scorers in the league, Agüero and Yaya Touré, went off on Saturday. Agüero later tweeted that he was replaced as a "precaution" to protect his groin injury.

City has a long tradition of making life difficult for itself, as it did against QPR in 2012. Agüero has shown a talent for clearing up those difficulties. He might be the key to making fans of both City and Everton fans happy.

Mixed feelings -- If you had offered Arsène Wenger fourth in the league and a place in the FA Cup final after Arsenal lost its opening game at home to Aston Villa on August 17, he'd probably have accepted.

Yet, with both of those objectives attained, the 1-0 victory over visiting West Brom on Sunday had to be accompanied by the sense of an opportunity missed.

At the end of November, Arsenal led the standings by seven points. By kickoff on Sunday, it was 10 points behind the leaders.

The display against West Brom pretty much summed up Arsenal's season. It produced some extremely pretty and incisive soccer through midfield. Yet it only scored once, when Olivier Giroud headed in a corner. At the other end, the defense mixed calm solidity with the occasional scary wobble.

Wenger has predicted a quiet summer on the transfer market. That's partly because, as usual, he thinks his squad is better than many pundits and Arsenal fans do. It's also because, as he pointed out last week, the World Cup complicates the summer market.

That hasn't stopped Arsenal being linked with a string of strikers (Mario Mandzukic, Wilfried Bony, Diego Costa and Loïc Remy, to name four) and several central defenders (Rio Ferdinand is the latest name to pop up in the British press).

That makes sense. Arsenal needs backup for Giroud, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.

It doesn't mean that Wenger will be able to resist his compulsion to buy another creative midfielder. Assuming Arsenal does sign a good striker, the key next season to rising above the sequence of third-place and fourth-place (usually fourth-place) finishes that stretches back to 2006, will be keeping the delicate bodies of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey and the delicate mind of Mesut Ozil right.

Europa's weak pull -- When soccer stars talk about wanting to play for clubs that can offer "European football" they aren't talking about the Europa League.

Europe's secondary club competition can offer a mildly lucrative diversion for clubs like Fulham, Swansea or Hull, which secured a berth on Saturday when its FA Cup final opponent, Arsenal, locked up a Champions League spot. For teams with aspirations to break into the elite, such as Tottenham, Newcastle or Everton, it can be an exhausting distraction.

That could explain Tottenham's display at Upton Park on Saturday. With a chance to draw level with Everton, which occupies fifth place and holds the final Europa League place, Tottenham stunk. It capitulated, 2-0, for its third loss of the season to a mediocre West Ham team.

That left Manchester United as the one team that could catch Everton. Ryan Giggs, the interim United manager, turned his nose up at the opportunity.

After the game, Giggs refused to rule out the possibility that he would leave Old Trafford if he isn't appointed manager. "You never say yes or no," he told the BBC. He also indicated he would name himself as a sub for the last home game of the season, against Hull on Tuesday.

That would make for an emotional farewell. The team he picked for the visit of Sunderland suggested he was giving a lot of other players a chance to say goodbye. He included three veterans, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, who look likely to leave in search of one last big signing bonus. He also gave rare starts to Nani, Ashley Young and Javier Hernández, any of whom could serve as a poster child for "not good enough," the mantra of this Manchester season.

The upshot was another result that wasn't good enough.

If, or more likely when, Louis van Gaal takes over, it's difficult to see who he might deem good enough to regain the league title beyond David de Gea and, maybe, Adnan Januzaj. Robin van Persie is world class, and will be crucial to Van Gaal's Dutch team at the World Cup, but he might to too old and too injury-prone to rely on over a long league campaign.

The club might be regretting the record-setting deals to secure the services of Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. So might the two players. Will the famously abrasive Van Gaal tolerate Rooney's sensitive star persona or Mata's inability to defend?

Van Gaal has reportedly demanded £200 million ($337 million) to quickly restock the squad. As Tottenham has shown, splashing a lot of cash may buy a lot of international players. It doesn't necessarily buy a team.

In any case, when competing with City, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain for the very best players, United will be operating under a big handicap. It cannot offer European soccer -- of any kind.

Sunderland scent freedom -- The Norwich draw at Stamford Bridge was an admirable result but it was, as Mourinho pointed out, one that leaves the Canaries hanging by a thread.

West Brom and Hull are safe. Norwich can only escape if it beats Arsenal at home next week and Sunderland loses at home to West Brom on Wednesday and Swansea next Sunday. As recently as April 15, Norwich was seven points ahead of Sunderland. Four games later it is two points behind.

In that time Norwich has drawn at Stamford Bridge. Sunderland has won there. Norwich lost at Old Trafford. Sunderland won there.

Sunderland has staged a remarkable rally. For Norwich to bounce back on the last day would be a dazzling feat. Whichever survives will be the latest addition to the roll of Premier League escapologists.

What is often forgotten by fans is that the 1963 movie, The Great Escape, ends with almost two-thirds of the men who had broken out of Stalag Luft 3 lying dead in a field, executed by the Gestapo and the American Captain Hilts, played by the Steve McQueen, hanging from a barbed wire border fence in sight of freedom.

Of the 76 who had crawled out of the tunnel on a cold night in early 1943 with high hopes, only three hit a "home run." Curiously, two were Norwegian, a piece of trivia that might not appeal to Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, the Cardiff manager.

The term "Great Escape" has been taken up by Premier League fans, who when their team is mired in the bottom three, dream of emulating Oldham in 1993, Southampton in 1997, Bradford in 2000, West Brom in 2005, Portsmouth in 2006, Fulham in 2008 and Wigan in 2012.

Yet it is an unavoidable truth that every team that does escape leaves three others lying dead on the field. Sunderland's victory on Saturday condemned Cardiff, which lost, 3-0, at Newcastle and Fulham, crushed 4-1 at Stoke, to the drop.

Furthermore, the reprieve can be brief.

Oldham, Bradford and West Brom went down the next season. Wigan lasted just two more seasons. Only West Brom has since returned. Portsmouth lasted four more seasons, but the debt it built up defying gravity meant that when it dropped, it dropped like a stone. It finished this season 13th in League Two, or 81st in English soccer.

Sunderland's victory on Saturday was its first at Old Trafford since 1968. Its victory at Stamford Bridge ended Mourinho's long home unbeaten run. But the 2-2 draw at the Etihad, which started the revival, might prove to be the single most important match of the Premier League season.

Immediately after the game, Sunderland might have been distraught that Vito Mannone's late, late error threw away a precious victory. City was doubtless unhappy it had dropped two points to the bottom club. Yet the draw gave Sunderland confidence to win its next three games. The point City did gain might well prove the difference between winning the title and finishing second.

On Sunday, Norwich manager Neil Adams clasped at the idea that a point away to a title contender offers his team an escape route.

"It's kept us going, for sure," he told Sky.

Every Great Escape starts with hope, even if those hopes are so often dashed.

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