After a week which made the Premier League’s claim to be the best in the world look more like hype than reality, two of the clubs humiliated in Europe met at Anfield on Sunday and showed that soccer in England can still be as entertaining as anywhere.
Liverpool beat Manchester City 2-1 in a frenzied game. There were three tremendous goals. Another fabulous finish by Adam Lallana was ruled offside. Sergio Agüero hit a post. Agüero, David Silva and Daniel Sturridge, among others, all came very close to scoring.
On a bobbly Anfield surface, there were plenty of scrappy moments, but it was a match in which both attacks knew they were better than the opposing defenses and went for it.
It’s not surprising that City’s all-star attack should stretch Liverpool’s defense, which has been so solid in recent weeks, to the limit. At the other end, Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala had a horrid afternoon against a Liverpool attack spearheaded by Raheem Sterling.
Kompany clearly doesn’t trust Mangala, and seems to take the quite reasonable view that he needs to do the thinking for both of them. But Kompany doesn’t seem to trust himself anymore either. At 28, the Belgian should be at his peak. Instead he appears to be on a slippery slope. He was frequently out of position, and though he still bursts out of the line to attack the ball, now he fails to win it. Most humiliatingly, in the second half, Kompany was brushed off the ball by Sterling. Sterling has great qualities, but he is no one’s idea of a true center forward. At 5-foot-6, he should not be bullying a world-class center back.
Yet the fundamental difference between the two teams was in midfield. Neither Fernandinho nor Yaya Touré started on Wednesday when City’s central midfield was overrun by Barcelona. Their return to the lineup changed nothing against Liverpool. Touré provided some thrust going forward. But he and Fernandinho were outworked, out-fought, and out-thought by Joe Allen (who played two hours in Istanbul on Thursday) and Jordan Henderson.
The title is slipping away from the defending champion, but a lot of its players seem unable to summon the extra effort to retain it.
Allen, a Welshman, and Henderson, an Englishman, know that even when the skill level slips, the hallmark of the Premier League is the relentless energy and aggression of its players. Even when the play isn’t consistently great, it can still offer a great spectacle.
Gunner hits target -- One of the scapegoats in Arsenal's humiliation at home by Monaco on Wednesday was Olivier Giroud. In the 60 minutes before he was yanked off, the French striker had six strikes on goal and did not hit the target once.
Whatever Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott might think, Giroud is Arsenal’s only genuine central striker. Arsène Wenger gave Giroud another opportunity on Sunday against Everton. Giroud did not immediately seize the moment. He missed two chances in the opening 30 minutes. Strikers have to miss them to score them, as the old saying goes, but this was getting ridiculous.
After 39 minutes a low corner somehow reached Giroud. He hit it first time. If Everton had put a defender at the far post, the shot would have been blocked. But the goal was unguarded. The ball went in. Giroud reacted like a man who had just won the lottery. In a sense he was. Giroud had kept buying tickets, in the end his number came up.
Blame the ref, part I -- Multi-angled, high-definition TV replays and one-eyed, low-principled soccer managers have turned every marginal decision in soccer into an opportunity for fans and pundits to bash referees. Even so, the furor over Wes Brown’s red card at Old Trafford on Saturday smacks of trolling.
Yes, Brown was only able to clip Falcao’s calf because John O’Shea had already yanked the Manchester United striker back. But referee Roger East got the essentials right. Falcao had been fouled in front of goal. East was correct to send a player off and awarded the penalty that set United on the way to a 2-0 victory.
Although manager Gus Poyet made a fuss after the game, Brown hardly protested at the time. Perhaps both see an opportunity. If Sunderland successfully argue mistaken identity and get Brown’s red card overturned, neither center back will be suspended.
When he brandished his red card, East did show the pains he takes to get things right. When Mike Dean justly sent off Glenn Murray of Crystal Palace at West Ham earlier in the day, he waved a rectangular red card – the same shape as the yellow card he showed the striker twice. East produced a circular red card. Presumably he’s chosen the shape so that when he reaches into his pocket he can be sure he is grabbing the correct card. On Saturday, he did. The fact that O’Shea deserved it more, is much less important
Blame the ref, part II -- Steve Bruce’s attack on Chris Foy after Hull lost 1-0 at Stoke also completely missed the point. It wasn’t the referee’s fault Hull lost.
Bruce told the BBC “We are convinced Peter Crouch was offside.”
Perhaps, viewed very carefully in super-slow-motion, one of Peter Crouch’s gangly extremities might have been slightly offside as the ball was crossed for him to head the only goal. But over the course of the 90 minutes, Stoke had 17 attempts on goal. Hull had just one, and that was off target. Bruce’s team was badly outplayed. That could have had something to do with the result.
The art of retaliation -- Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager, also laid into Foy. Hughes was unhappy that the referee did not punish a lunge by Maynor Figueroa that left Stephen Ireland with an ugly gash needing 10 stitches. Hughes was seeing only what it suited him to see.
Earlier, Ireland and David Meyler had competed for a ball on the ground. Meyler put his leg behind the ball, as players are meant to do. That turns the challenge into a fair test of strength, timing and courage. Ireland did what modern players increasingly do. He ignored the ball, lifted his foot and planted a boot on Meyler’s leg.
Hughes mentioned that “there has been a lot of talk about another tackle in a game between Chelsea and Burnley.”
This week, Chelsea management has been arguing that such a dangerous challenge should give the victim the right to hit his opponent. Hull’s players weren’t so completely stupid. They did what Hughes himself might well have done. Maynor waited until the game presented him with a chance to take revenge. He got away with it. Were you watching, Nemanja Matic?
Two faces of management -- After just 15 days as manager of Aston Villa, Tim Sherwood already looks like an extra in The Walking Dead. His eyes are red and sunken. His face is ringed with nasty stubble, deeply lined and tinged a deathly green. But then his team had just finished like zombies, squandering a string of good chances, to lose, 1-0, at Newcastle. That stretched Villa’s league winless run to 12 games.
Management, it seems, is not good for the health.
Yet, look at Alan Pardew. Almost three months after he opted to leave Newcastle and take over a club in the relegation zone. Pardew is a picture of shining wellbeing. There are small bags but the eyes above are clear and twinkling. His well-shaved face exudes a ruddy, vigorous glow. It helps that his team is winning. The 3-1 victory over West Ham was Palace’s fifth in a row away in the Premier League under its new manager. Pardew also gives the impression that he is in control of the pressure. Sherwood looks like a man staring into the grave knowing he is going to be pulled down.