By Peter Berlin
March 17, 2013
Manchester City's 2-0 loss at Everton was another bad loss for the defending Premier League champs.
Peter Powell/EPA

1) It ain't over until Man City surrenders: In its great team-building spree, Manchester City spent a lot of money on character. Last season that investment paid dividends. City showed its mental strength as its unrelenting pursuit hauled in United.

On Saturday, after City had lost, 2-0, at Everton, David Platt, the assistant manager, essentially came out and waved the white flag in this year's pursuit of United.

The defeat meant City was 12 points behind with nine games left. That deficit became 15 when United eked out an ugly 1-0 home victory over Reading in the evening.

On the final whistle at Goodison, Roberto Mancini, the City manager, disappeared down the tunnel. Platt faced the cameras and microphones instead. He explained that Mancini was "angry."

"He is angry about many, many things and I think he has decided to have the day off," Platt told the BBC.

Platt made the rote complaint that City should have had a penalty. He was right. Referee Lee Probert's decision to award a free kick outside the penalty area for a handball inside the box was bizarre (unless it was for an invisible offense elsewhere). But Everton should have had a penalty as well and had a good goal disallowed, so City came out ahead.

At the main press conference, Platt added a telling qualifier when explaining Mancini's fury: "We were outworked."

He was right about that too. On Saturday, City was without two talismans, Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero. Perhaps a more telling absence has been captain Vincent Kompany, a man who arrived at City before the oil money did. City has picked up just eight points in six league games since he was injured in January. Even so, that's no real excuse for the likes of David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tévez to stop running and start pointing fingers.

"Perhaps we didn't throw enough at them," Platt said. "We didn't get enough good chances or quality play. When we didn't create chances we didn't put them away.''

Moods can change quickly at soccer clubs. A week earlier, Everton was run off the field by Wigan.

But time was already running out for City before Saturday. Now it is essentially five games back with under two months to play. It is difficult to see how it can generate any pressure with displays like that.

Platt, who didn't seem to be in a very good mood himself, answered every question about United's lead not be declaring City could make up the gap but by demanding some pride from the players.

"It's not mathematically impossible," Platt asserted before undermining the sentiment by saying: "Even if it is it will not change our focus or intensity."

"Manchester United have a significant advantage. Our obligation is to be professional and win football matches."

Highly paid soccer stars are delicate creatures with sensitive egos. Yet it remains a little shocking when a coach of the Premier League champion, says that his only objective for the rest of the season is that his players show some professionalism. City has lowered its sights.

2) The Rio Question: United's victory over Reading was uninspiring even for the reporters, so the British media instantly moved on to the next item on Alex Ferguson's agenda instead.

Last week, Fergie accused the Football Association, which runs the England team, of using Wayne Rooney. Uncle Alex was the only person young Wayne could truly trust.

This week, Fergie threw a metaphorical arm around Rio Ferdinand's shoulder, warning him about putting his fragile health in the hands of England team staff.

Fergie has genuine concerns. There are seven United players in the England squad, more than any other club. Ferdinand's recall means that instead of taking a little break ahead of three games in nine days that include a cup replay at Chelsea and the league game with Manchester City, he could play two games for England.

Yet Fergie, a former Scotland manager after all, has a long history of making mischief for the England team.

In this case, Roy Hodgson, has made a rod for his own back. Faced with a feud between the Ferdinand family, on one side, and John Terry and his loyal retainer, Ashley Cole, on the other, the England manager opted to pick Terry and drop Rio Ferdinand. Hodgson might think the lumbering Terry is a better center back than the polished but oft-injured Ferdinand.

But the idea that soccer considerations are all that count is naïve. The problem is that the root of the feud is the accusation, found to be true by the FA itself (though not by the courts), that Terry racially abused Rio's brother Anton. Hodgson put himself in a position where he was seen to pick sides in this dispute over racism and he picked the bad side.

Of course, the injury-prone Terry is now injured. Ferdinand, having been pushed aside by Hodgson in case he upset Terry, is showing some class by offering to step into the breach.

Fergie is, as so often, showing little mercy as he grabs a handy rod with which to beat the England manager. Yet, as so often, Fergie's judgment is absolutely correct. Hodgson deserves the trouble Fergie is creating.

3) Hands Up: The strange case of Marouane Fellaini's handball against Manchester City was followed by two more pivotal handball decisions by Chris Foy, who reffed at Sunderland, on Sunday.

Mark Bunn, the Norwich goalie, was sent off after the ball hit his hands as he came out of the area to clear. Then, Sunderland leveled from a penalty after the ball had struck Sébastien Bassong, a Norwich defender, on the arm.

Every soccer pundit knows that the laws of the game mention "intent." In practice, the need for a referee to read minds has already been removed from the laws in a couple of important areas. A tackle from behind is a foul (and, in theory, a yellow card) if the tackler makes any contact with the opponent even if he wins the ball. Dangerous play is dangerous play regardless of intent. Just ask Nani. These have become sins of omission. Simply committing the offense is deemed to be evidence of careless intent.

In practise, intent has been downgraded in handball decisions too.

What player, standing near the edge of his area, as both Fellaini and Bassong, were would be insane enough to handle the ball deliberately knowing the punishment was a penalty kick?

The answer is that a different standard that has long been, in practice, applied. Did the handball change the flight of the ball in a way that gave the perp's team an advantage?

That change of focus might explain why another element that used to be taken into consideration, reflex self defense, seems to have been discarded, although a flickering notion that Fellaini really couldn't help himself might explain referee Probert's reluctance to punish him with a penalty.

Bunn was guilty of carelessness. He might not have meant to handle the ball, but he was an idiot to leap to meet it with his arms stretched out in front of his body. Goalies are supposed to know where their hands are in relation to the ball.

Intent may have been downgraded, but the equation is still clouded. Referees are required to exercise their own judgment. They are also not obliged to punish everything that looks vaguely like it might be a foul. And they are allowed to make mistakes. Sometimes, as Maynor Figueroa showed in the build up to Wigan's winning goal on Sunday, the hand is quicker than the eye.

4) Déjà Vu at Wigan Wigan's battle to avoid the relegation zone continues, but it helped itself out with a key win on Sunday.

On Sunday Wigan threw an early lead away, but its players hurled themselves at the ball in the Newcastle goalmouth to create the pinball goal in added time that beat Newcastle, 2-1. Now it is three points behind Aston Villa.

The headlines will be dominated by Callum McManaman's scary assault on Massadio Haidara, but the manager of every club in the bottom half of the standings, up to slumping Stoke in 11th, will look at the standings and feel a chill of fear. One year, Wigan will tumble over the ledge. Don't bet on it happening this season.

5) Spurs falter at home Last season Tottenham went on a long unbeaten run in the middle of the season, found itself jockeying with Manchester City for second, then exploded, slid to fourth and missed out on the Champions League.

This season, after a 12-match unbeaten run in the league, Tottenham could have closed to within two points of City last week but threw away a game it had in the bag at Liverpool.

On Sunday, in a performance chillingly reminiscent of some of the more toothless Tottenham displays at the end of last season, it lost 1-0, at home to Fulham. Dimitar Berbatov, an ex-Spur, scored the goal to add to the pain.

When Chelsea flicked aside West Ham, 2-0, later in the afternoon, Tottenham was back down to fourth and looking anxiously over its shoulder. Arsenal, which seemed buried after it lost at Spurs two weeks ago, is now four points behind with a game in hand. Its 2-0 victory at Swansea may have been a little fluky, but it was a victory. Could Arsenal hunt Tottenham down yet again?

One difference this year is that Tottenham is still in Europe.

Arsenal seemed buoyed by its midweek victory at Bayern, even though the victory was not enough to keep it in the Champions League. On Thursday, Tottenham was humbled 4-1 in extra time at Inter Milan, yet that was exactly the result it needed to advance.

After the international break it will become clearer whether Tottenham was undermined Sunday by a permanent flaw in its psyche or by a temporary tiredness in its legs.

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