EPL Notes: Chelsea welcomes back Costa; Sanchez plays hero in Arsenal win, more

Sunday January 22nd, 2017

At the end of what had been a dramatic and traumatic weekend for the five teams trying to give chase, Chelsea restored humdrum predictability to the Premier League.

Like Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, Chelsea faced a team much lower down the standings and with far less resources.

Unlike Liverpool, who lost at home to Swansea, United, which faced the toughest assignment and drew away at Stoke, or Arsenal, which needed a 98th minute penalty to edge visiting Burnley, Chelsea won with something to spare, beating Hull, 2-0.

Hull has played pleasing soccer all season. It did so again on Sunday without ruffling Chelsea. Hull lacks punch in attack and is prone to lapses the back. At Stamford Bridge on Sunday, had only slightly less than 50 percent of possession. It matched Chelsea with nine goal attempts, four of which were on target. It might even have had a penalty.

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Yet at precisely the moments home fans might have been starting to fret, Chelsea scored. The prodigal, Diego Costa, rifled in a low shot in the final seconds of the first half. Reviled as a traitor barely a week ago, he was serenaded when he came off in the 87th minute. By then Chelsea had its second goal. Gary Cahill, the obvious threat from corners, was left free to head home in the 81st minute.

The draw between Manchester City and Tottenham on Saturday meant four of the teams immediately below Chelsea dropped points, including the two who started the weekend second and third. Chelsea worked much less hard than any of its rivals and still increased its lead to eight points, over Arsenal. Chelsea has dropped 11 points in 22 matches this season. If it keeps collecting 2.5 points a game for the remaining 16, the Gunners would have to be perfect just to draw level.

When Antonio Conte faced the Sky Sports cameras after the game, the striking thing was not anything he said, he worked with his usual efficiency through the stock responses, but how much he smiled, particularly when contemplating the other results.

“If you look at the other games you understand this league is very difficult,” he said with a chuckle. “We faced this game in the right way.”

The worrying thing for its rivals is that Chelsea faces a much lighter workload. Like its rivals, Chelsea  plays in the FA Cup next weekend. Unlike Arsenal, the two Manchester clubs and Tottenham, Chelsea is not in Europe. Unlike Liverpool (and United) it is not still in the League Cup.

After a roller-coaster weekend, Chelsea enjoyed another armchair ride. In coming months, as its rivals toil on weekday evenings, Chelsea players will be watching from their armchairs. They will probably be smiling.

Ian Kington/Getty

MEN IN BLACK  Arsenal climbed back into second place with an ugly 2-1 victory over visiting Burnley in a match that demonstrated, once again, that the one person on a soccer field who can never win is the referee.

Jon Moss made three crucial decisions each of which changed the direction of the match. In each case the reaction of the punished team was of angry disbelief. Moss sent Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, from the touchline, he showed Shkodran Mustafi, an Arsenal center back, a yellow card for dissent and ended the game surrounded by angry Burnley players and being yelled at by their manager Sean Dyche. None seemed prepared to acknowledge that, in fact, Moss had probably been right in every case.

After Arsenal huffed and puffed for nearly an hour, Mustafi put it ahead with a simple header. Six minutes later, the walking red card, Granit Xhaka lunged into a tackle on Steven Defour. Moss sent the midfielder off for the second time this season.

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With an extra man, Burnley pressed. In the third minute of added time, Francis Coquelin panicked and hacked down Ashley Barnes.  Moss gave a penalty. Andre Gray smacked the shot at the middle of the goal. Petr Cech got a hand to the ball but could not stop it. On the sideline, Wenger, secure in his belief that any penalty against his team must be a refereeing error, harangued the fourth official.

Arsenal responded. In the seventh minute of added time, Laurent Koscielny stooped to head a ball toward the Burnley goal. Ben Mee, who might not even have seen the Arsenal player, lifted a panicked boot and kicked Koscielny in the face. It was extremely dangerous play. Moss gave another penalty. Alexis Sánchez stroked the ball into the middle of the goal while Ben Heaton dived toward a post.

Neither set of players left the field happy, but Arsenal left with all three points.

Assuaged by the victory, and facing a ban for pushing the fourth official, Anthony Taylor,  Wenger took an apologetic line when he faced the media.

“I regret everything,” he said. “I should have shut up and gone home. I apologize for that."

Dyche, the loser, argued that Koescielny had been offside and implied that Moss had lost his nerve.

 "To lose a game in that fashion, with an offside not given, is tough, particularly when you come to tough places like this," Dyche said. “The officials have to be brave at places like this, I understand that, but you've got to think it has to be given."

Moss could console himself with the thought that if both teams were angry with him he probably did something right.

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UNSAFE HANDS  Soccer cliché No. 55 is that playing badly and not losing is a sign of a good team. Often playing badly is a sign of a bad team. There is also the question of the team that plays well and somehow does not win.

After Tottenham somehow drew, 1-1, away to Manchester City on Saturday evening, Mauricio Pochettino readily admitted his side was lucky. His counterpart, Pep Guardiola, could only repeat “we lost.”

Against a rampant Tottenham team, the Manchester City manager picked five attacking players with Yaya Touré picked as the holding midfielder, a role he appears to distain. Of the front five, only Leroy Sané claims to be 6 foot tall. The other four averaged less than 5-foot-9. Against the hulking Tottenham central midfield and defense, that appeared to be asking for trouble.

“Tottenham are by far the best when you let them play,” Guardiola told the BBC after the game.

City, humiliated at Everton the week before, played with intensity and energy. It did not let Spurs play. It was a signal of intent when Pablo Zabaleta, playing right back, burst into the penalty area only to squander City’s first good chance after just 11 minutes.

City was brilliant. Tottenham was awful. Mauricio Pochettino quickly changed formation, moving Eric Dier from central defense to midfield. it did little good. Yet, once again, City kept spurning chances. Even so, only a series of eye-catching saves by Hugo Lloris allowed Tottenham to survive until half time.

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Lloris is the only goalie in the Premier League with a better pass completion percentage than Claudio Bravo. His first half display was a reminder that a goalie can be good with his feet and save shots too.

Then, early in the second half, Lloris made too horrible mistakes. First he reacted late to a long pass and opted to dive and head rather than stand and catch. The ball struck Sané’s arm and bounced kindly. He stroked it into the empty net.

Five minutes later, perhaps still disconcerted, Lloris spilled a routine catch at De Bruyne’s feet a couple of yards out. City, unable to convert any of the chances its brilliant soccer had created, had been handed two goals.

City should have had a penalty. Raheem Sterling broke clear. Kyle Walker, a step behind, shoved Sterling in the back. The striker stayed on his feet but, unbalanced, shot straight at Lloris.

“I wasn't going to get it otherwise,” Walker told the media after the game. “I just had to try and put him off as much as possible.”

Over the 90 minutes, Tottenham, the most trigger-happy team in the Premier League managed just two shots on target. It scored with both. Last week, Bravo conceded four goals on four shots at Goodison. Yet on Saturday so good were the finishes that he did not have a chance of reaching either and might reasonably have asked how his defenders had allowed first Dele Alli and then Son Heung-Min so much time in front of goal.

“We lost,” Guardiola told BT Sport after the game, “We lost because we missed a lot of chances.”

City played well. Tottenham was awful. Yet both earned one point and Spurs remained three points ahead of City.

Unlike Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino was prepared to accept that sometimes life is not fair.

“They were better,” the Spurs manager told BT. “They deserved more.”

SCRATCHED RECORD Wayne Rooney broke Manchester United’s scoring record in satisfyingly spectacular fashion on Saturday. Deep into added time at Stoke, Rooney smashed a free kick into the goal to salvage a 1-1 draw. It was his 250th goal for the club, breaking the record he had shared, for a few days, with the great Bobby Charlton. Rooney is also the record scored for the English national team, ahead of Charlton.

Rooney was clearly proud of his record.

“It is a great honour and I am very proud,” he told the BBC but then added: “It is difficult at the minute to be over-pleased because of the result.”

If the record had a bitter-sweet taste because United had missed a chance to climb the table, the same can be said of Rooney’s career.

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"He is a true great for club and country,” Sir Bobby said after the game. The question remains whether, despite the numbers, that is true.

Rooney remains a remarkably talented player, as his goal showed. He is a team player, as his reaction to the result proved. Yet anyone who saw him in his late teens and early twenties knows that he has not fulfilled the breath-taking promise of his youth.

Rooney also suffers by comparison with another who was once a team-mate for five years at United. Rooney has scored 267 goals for Everton and United. Cristiano Ronaldo, who is seven months older, has scored more than 500 for Sporting Lisbon, United and Real Madrid. Rooney has scored 53 goals for England. Ronaldo has scored 68 for Portugal. Unlike Rooney, Ronaldo has won a major tournament with his country. Ronaldo only played 25 minutes in the Euro 2016 final but they were the first 25 minutes. On Saturday, Rooney played 27 minutes but, once again, he did so coming off the bench. Good as is he is, he is no longer good enough to be first choice for his club.

Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have set the bar of true greatness extremely high. Measured against them Rooney, good as he is, falls short.

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ACCORDING TO PLAN  Paul Clement’s previous experience as a club manager, eight months at Derby County, did not end well. It seems remarkable that he has been able to transform Swansea City in just over two weeks at the club. Perhaps he is building on the work Bob Bradley did in his 11-match reign earlier this year.

On Saturday at Anfield, Swansea looked like a team which had a plan, understood it and was prepared to put in the effort to make it work.

Liverpool has developed a bad habit of slipping on the division’s bottom feeders. Yet it had not lost at home for more than a year.

On Saturday, there was only a brief five-minute period in the second half when Liverpool looked as if it might win.

On Saturday, Swansea, organized and determined where only a few weeks ago it had been a nervy shambles, absorbed Liverpool’s lethargic first half pressure. In three minutes early in the second half, Fernando Llorente punished Liverpool twice, running to the Swansea fans as he celebrated and shouting “Vamos!”

On Saturday, Liverpool again roused itself. Roberto Firmino scored two pretty goals. By the 69th minute, Liverpool was level. The script was written.

Then tiny Tom Carroll scurried through Liverpool’s disorganized defense, the ball broke to Gylfi Sigurdsson, completely free, and he scored.

At the 16th attempt, Swansea won a league game at Anfield for the first time. It climbed out of the bottom three.

Liverpool remained stuck in fourth. The home team missed Sadio Mané, who is at the African Cup of Nations and Joël Matip, who isn’t. But it was also outfought, outthought and outmanoeuvred by a less talented team.

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