City stuns United, Spurs leave it late; five EPL thoughts

Sunday September 22nd, 2013

Paulinho hit a clever finish in injury time as Tottenham pulled out an important win over Cardiff.
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

City make a noise: Somewhere in New York on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson was probably experiencing mixed emotions. There would have been annoyance, at the least, that his club, Manchester United was being thrashed, 4-1, at its bitter rival, Manchester City. There would have been a feeling of déjà vu; after all, Ferguson was in charge when United lost, 6-1, at home to City two years ago. There might also have been a sense of relief, perhaps even a touch of self-congratulation that he got out after last season.

David Moyes, who replaced Fergie, can expect criticism. United has failed to win any of its three games this season against other big teams. It drew at home to Chelsea and lost away to Liverpool. But the problem runs deeper. For the first 50 minutes, as it built a 4-0 lead, City was better at every single outfield position. The only reason for excluding the goalies is that Joe Hart of City had nothing to do.

Of course United was without its best player, Robin van Persie, who had a thigh injury. But even he could not have bettered the left-foot volley with which Sergio Agüero gave City the lead.

City is still third, two points behind Arsenal and Tottenham. It is ahead of Chelsea only on goal difference. The three London clubs won at the weekend. One difference between them and City was that none of their managers would dream of starting a game with two strikers. Manuel Pellegrini picked Alvaro Negredo alongside Agüero and, for good measure, also started Jesús Navas, a pure winger and the defensively lightweight Samir Nasri.

City may have had one fewer man in midfield, yet Yaya Touré and Fernandinho often seemed to have the United trio outnumbered and surrounded. When Touré is in the mood, he is the best all-around midfielder in the Premier League. Touré gained his reward by scoring the backbreaking second goal with his knee with the last kick of the first half.

Yet, like Touré, City has already blown hot and cold this season: dazzling against Newcastle, limp at Cardiff and Stoke.

Given the chance to proclaim City the league champions after just five games, Vincent Kompany, the team captain struck a cautious note.

"You make a statement over the length of the season," he told Sky, the British sports channel. "It's too early to say it's a defining game."

It was left to Moyes to sing the victors' praises.

"Manchester City were very good," he said.

Arsenal change the formula: Arsenal's 3-1 victory over visiting Stoke on Sunday was pretty much what the bookies predicted. Yet almost everything else about the game turned expectations on their head.

Against a team famed for its efficiency at corners and free kicks, Arsenal scored all three of its goals from set pieces.

"That's unusual for us, especially against a team like Stoke," Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager told the BBC.

Against Arsenal's master passers, Stoke, a team famous for its minimalist and physical approach, enjoyed a slight territorial edge and near parity in possession and passes completed. Certainly Stoke is evolving under Mark Hughes, but it was a strangely mixed performance by the home team. There were spells when Arsenal threatened to dismember Stoke, but there were also long periods, especially in the second half, when the Gunners were penned in their own half defending desperately.

Arsenal fans spent the summer fretting over their club's lack of transfer activity, before being placated on deadline day with a £42 million sop, Mesut Özil. On his home debut, the fans gasped, applauded and even cheered his misplaced passes. If he'd bent down to tie his laces, he would probably have received a standing ovation.

Özil did play a role in every goal, but not with flashes of creativity from open play. Aaron Ramsey popped in the first from a rebound after Özil's free kick had hit a post. Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna scored the next two with looping, hopeful headers from Özil set pieces.

The best goal of the afternoon came from a far less elegant source. Geoff Cameron, Stoke's American defender, won the ball and burst forward to launch an attack. Cameron kept running and arrived in the middle of the field to pounce on a rebound. His bouncing shot wasn't pretty but it went exactly where he aimed it, in the far corner of the net. After that goal, Arsenal briefly looked as if it might come unhinged. It didn't and recorded its fourth straight league win.

Wenger praised his team's "desire."

"To win is always important," he said.

Tottenham takes a chance: After 80 minutes at Cardiff on Sunday, Tottenham's match was beginning to look suspiciously like the sort of league game that have ultimately cost the club a Champions League place over the last two seasons.

Against a much less celebrated opponent, Tottenham had dominated. It had bombarded the Cardiff goal. Many of the shots were from long range, but there had been two or three good close range chances. Cardiff had not had a shot on target. Then with 10 minutes left, Peter Odemwingie latched on a lapse of concentration in the Spurs defense and rolled the ball to Aron Gunnarsson, unmarked in front of goal. This was going to be the moment when Spurs somehow found a way to turn a commanding performance into a 1-0 defeat. Then Gunnarsson leant back and blasted the shot over the bar. Cardiff still had not managed a shot on target.

Some 12 minutes later, deep into added time, Erik Lamela, one of the summer's expensive recruits engineered a little space on the right and drove a low cross into the goalmouth. The ball was flying behind Paulinho, another of Tottenham's big buys. He reacted by turning and then flashing the ball into the net with a back heel. It was a dazzling piece of quick thinking. With its 29th goal attempt, Spurs had broken through. Two of the big money signings had done what big money signings are bought to do and produced a moment of inspiration with the game on the line.

In many ways, these Spurs looked a lot like previous Tottenham teams on days when it's a struggle to break down determined foes. This time the result was different.

Oscar winner: Juan Mata was Chelsea's player of the year the last two seasons, but a lot of the fuss over his treatment this year by José Mourinho ignores one of the fundamental truths of soccer: a manager can only pick 11 players.

Chelsea has an awful lot of candidates for the role of No. 10, but the man who has taken over the role, Oscar, is the most complete midfielder at the club. Indeed, in the weeks when Yaya Touré goes missing, Oscar is the best all-round midfielder in the Premier League. It's a point he drove home on Saturday when he pounced to give Chelsea the lead in a game it eventually won, 2-0.

Mourinho watchers often argue that his headline grabbing shtick is a tactic to protect his players. But the Special One is in fact quite happy to hang his players out to dry rather than accept blame for a setback. The coach effectively blamed Mata for the 2-1 loss to Basel in the Champions League. To complete the public humiliation, Mata was not even on the bench on Saturday. Maybe that will persuade him to turn himself into Claude Makélélé, though it seems unlikely.

It's generally held that one skill of a good coach is to find a way to make the most of the talent he has in his squad. At Chelsea, as at Real Madrid, Mourinho knows he needn't bother. The squad is so stacked that if Mourinho wants to squander the talents of Mata, or Willian for that matter, he can. Yet, in a way, both were performing a role on Saturday.

Mata was sitting in the first row behind the bench, offering a scary reminder to the other stars that they better do what Mourinho wants. Willian has yet to play a minute of league soccer for his new club. But he hasn't played a minute for Tottenham either, which might the main reason paid more than £30 million to buy him.

Mourinho doesn't much like small players. But Oscar, who is only 5-foot-10 and 144 pounds, plays big. For the moment that is why he has been handed the prize of the creative role in Mourinho's team. But he only needed to look into he stands on Saturday to know what can happen if he slips.

Lukaku is a knockout: There is an old soccer joke about the player who is knocked senseless on the field.

"Bad news," the physio reports to the manager. "He can't even remember who he is."

"Tell him he's Pele and send him back out there," comes the answer.

When Romelu Lukaku was revived after being knocked out at West Ham on Saturday, the trainer did not have to try that trick. Lukaku only has to be reminded that he was Lukaku. He did however, need to be told that he had just had scored the final goal in Everton's 3-2 victory.

Lukaku replaced Nikica Jelavic at half time and then gave an impressive display of the center forward's art. His pace and power terrified West Ham. His first touch was consistently excellent. His eye for a pass was dazzling. He crowned an impressive debut by displaying the striker's most important skill. He scored. Lukaku headed the ball a split second before Joey O'Brien, the West Ham defender, arrived to head him.

Lukaku has scored 18 goals in 36 Premier League appearances on loan to West Brom and Everton. On the other hand, he hasn't scored in 10 league games in the black hole that is center forward at Chelsea.

His display yesterday revived the second-guessing about Mourinho's decision to send the 20-year-old Lukaku out on loan while bringing in the 32-year-old Samuel Eto'o. But Mourinho is not interested in wasting time developing young players. He wants the finished article. Yesterday, Lukaku looked close to that. He might not be Pele, but, in an Everton shirt, he looked a lot like Didier Drogba. Maybe all Mourinho needed to do was to tell him.

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