The cliché gauge of what it takes to succeed in the Premier League is a rainy winter’s evening in Stoke.
By that measure, the 0-0 draw late on Sunday afternoon that kept Arsenal top of the Premier League was a display of character, if not much else.
Stoke may be a drab town but it’s not clear why the rain there should be any worse than elsewhere in England or Wales. There are some who argue that the abuse that pours down from the stands at the Britannia is worse than elsewhere.
Ahead of Sunday’s game, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said of the Stoke fans: “I don’t know why they boo me so much. You should ask them. I don’t bully them. Is it worse than Tottenham? It is maybe more aggressive, yes.”
Much of Stoke’ reputation as a scary place to visit can be blamed on the ghost of Tony Pulis. Wenger first provoked local ire by calling the Pulis side a rugby team after Aaron Ramsey's leg was broken by a rash tackle from Ryan Shawcroess at the Britannia in 2010. In their hearts, home fans must know this comparison was an insult to rugby teams rather than to Stoke City. Yet their hostility might help explain why Arsenal has not won at Stoke since.
The Pulis style is one reason the manager now works at West Brom and not Stoke. Instead, Mark Hughes has built a team around creative talents such as Bojan and Marko Arnautovic.
On Sunday, on as a rainy winter’s afternoon turned to evening in Stoke, the game was a generally skillful and pleasing without a single yellow card. Stoke had slightly the better of an Arsenal team without Mesut Ozil, who has joined the club's long injury list.
The two most eye-catching players were the goalies. Jack Butland of Stoke and Petr Cech of Arsenal each made a couple of spectacular saves.
After the match, Wenger, insisted that Stoke was “very physical and were very direct.” It was an odd remark, but Wenger only needs his players to believe it. To convince his team that it can cope with adversity, a coach teams to talk up the adversity.
"We needed to be strong physically and had a great spirit,” Wenger told the BBC. “It is a hard fought 0-0. We have done better than years before at this ground and showed we can fight even when we miss certain players.”
Arsenal drew while the two Manchester clubs and Spurs won. The Gunners even lost a tiny bit of ground on Leicester, which at least scored a goal as it drew at Villa.
Yet this insipid draw on a rainy evening at Stoke can still be a small step forward for Arsenal.
Grinding United — In the clash between English soccer’s two fallen heavyweights, Liverpool was first to every loose ball, except one; its central defenders won every aerial ball except one; it created every dangerous chance except one.
In the 76th minute, Marouane Fellaini finally beat Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Touré to a high ball. Fellaini smacked his header against the bar but it fell to Wayne Rooney.
The striker, showing more poise in front of goal than any Liverpool player had done, took a second to take aim and then took his chance with power and precision.
It was United’s only shot on target. Liverpool’s strikers had hit the target six times but been thwarted by a mixture of David de Gea’s habitual excellence and their own hesitation.
After the six-goal craziness at Newcastle last Tuesday, United returned to Louis Van Gaal’s tactical Plan A: grinding out a narrow victory.
It meant that after the game, the United manager could go back to his rhetorical Plan A and start boasting about the title chances of his dreary team.
“It’s a big step,” he told the media after the game. “I’m very happy. We survived the first half. In the second half we played much better.”
“We are seven points behind. We have a lot of matches still to go. We can do it. We show every week that we can do it.”
Calm Klopp and Raging Roberto — After Sunday’s lost, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp faced the cameras and said that it was too soon to calmly analyze the loss. Then, he did just that.
“We lost a game which we should not have lost,” the Liverpool manager said. “The goal was to defend and we didn’t do it.”
“I cannot stand here every 3 days and talk about set plays. We have to do it better and then we can win games.”
Klopp can afford to be honest because he inherited this mess. It will be interesting to see how cool he is after he has been in the job for a few seasons and has not been able to collect trophies to match the expectations his style excites.
Perhaps he will follow the arc of another likeable manager committed to attacking soccer who is struggling to deliver to expectant Merseyside fans.
At Everton, the normally calm Roberto Martínez is increasingly looking for scapegoats. Here are four recent post-match quotes.
A - "I don't know why the referee allowed play to continue for so long.”
B - “They are decisions you rely on the referee.”
C - “You cannot understand how such an experienced referee gives that decision right at the end. It was such a wrong call.”
D- “Anger. Pure anger. The offside, for me I can’t really explain it how the linesman cannot spot that.”
Martínez uttered the first after Everton took the lead in added time only for Bournemouth to level in the 98th minute and draw 3-3 on November 28. The second dates from December 20 when Leicester scored two penalty kicks and won, 3-2, at Goodison on December 20. The third came on December 26, when Stoke won a penalty in the dying seconds at Goodison to beat Everton, 4-3. The last came on Saturday after exactly the same thing happened at Stamford Bridge.
Guus Hiddink, the Chelsea manager who benefited from John Terry’s late equalizer on Saturday, was more balanced – but he can afford to be. Terry, he agreed, was offside.
“I will not deny it,” Hiddink told the BBC. “I cannot say I did not see it I saw it. Sometimes it’s in your favor and the other time it’s damaging.”
Martínez was also unhappy that, after signaling seven minutes of added time, the officials allowed more than eight.
“It’s 50 seconds well over the time, just something that’s not good enough,” he told the BBC. He made the same complaint at Bournemouth and the explanation was the same both times. It was Everton’s fault for scoring in added time.
“There was seven minutes extra time,” Hiddink explained. “They are celebrating at least one and half minutes in our corner. Let it go.”
Martínez needs to keep making these excuses because his team keeps making the same mistakes. Yet again Everton played really well. It led 2-0 and then 3-2 away to Chelsea. Yet again the Toffees threw away the points it had earned.
What will Klopp be saying in three years time?
You talking to me? — It is perhaps not entirely surprising that in joining the bad-haircut movement, John Terry has gone wildly too far and chosen to imitate Travis Bickle’s Mohawk. Many English soccer fans would be hard-pressed to decide which they find more objectionable: the Chelsea captain or Robert de Niro’s psycho in Taxi Driver.
There is one difference. Terry doesn’t have to ask. He knows what everyone is saying. He doesn’t care. At 35 he still has a remarkable talent for becoming the center of every argument.
Against Everton, Terry hit an attempted clearance against his own leg. It rebounded into the Chelsea net for the opening goal.
Perhaps the way that ball went in was in Terry’s mind when the ball dropped at his feet in the 98th minute and he flicked it through his legs and past a bemused Tim Howard to earn Chelsea the draw. It almost goes without saying that Terry was offside when he scored.
One way or another, Terry has been offside for much of his career. The Bickle look suits him.
Helping hand — Sometimes foot ball is all about hands.
After Leicester blew a chance to grab a three-point lead in the Premier League with a 1-1 draw at last-place Aston Villa, Claudio Ranieri lamented: "I think we had the match in our hands.” The Leicester manager, as usual, had a twinkle in his eye. Was he making a pun?
Could he have been referring the incident in the first half when Villa’s Aly Cossokho dived to block a shot from Riyad Mahrez with an arm and conceded a penalty but escaped a red card. Or maybe Ranieri was referring to the incident in the second half when Leicester center back Robert Huth whacked a hand and arm into Libor Kozak in the box but escaped punishment. Or maybe he was referring to Villa’s Rudy Gestede controlling the ball with his hand before spinning and smashing the equalizing goal.
Rémi Garde, the Villa manager, was relaxed about the Leicester penalty. He could afford to be. Mahrez was too relaxed when he took it, slapping it straight down the middle and hitting the diving Mark Bunn. If Mahrez had converted, Leicester would have led, 2-0.
Garde thought the Leicester penalty should have obliged the same linesman to award Villa a spot kick. Was Huth’s assault a penalty?
“Of course. Definitively. Without doubt,” said Garde.
Ranieri focused his complaints on Gestede.
"There was a handball the referee didn't see," he said. "The striker touched the ball with a hand and controlled the ball.”
Ranieri did not even make the effort to sound indignant. He knew that Leicester should have won regardless of the officials. Jamie Vardy burst clear three times, and while he has, for the moment, lost of the knack of just beating the goalie, he did set up the first goal for Shinji Okazaki and laid on a glorious late chance for Danny Drinkwater. Leicester’s other goal-machine, Mahrez, lacked conviction as he missed his second straight penalty.
Yet Leicester still looks like a team that believes. After the game Ranieri revised his points target for the season from 40 to 79, almost a 100 per cent increase. The leader Arsenal is on pace for 78 points. Ranieri has changed his objective from survival to the title. He wants to get his hands on the Premier League trophy.