Arsenal go top; Chelsea, Tottenham drop points; more EPL thoughts

Saturday September 28th, 2013

Chelsea's Mourinho (left) has reportedly fallen out with Tottenham's Andre Villas-Boas.
Sang Tan/AP

A Good Day For The Gunners: Arsenal started its evening game in Swansea knowing that its two serious London rivals, Chelsea and Tottenham, had both dropped points in a draw and that the two Manchester clubs had lost on the same day for the first time since 2008. This was a chance. Arsenal took it, winning 2-1 to go two points clear of Spurs at the top of the standings.

For nearly an hour, the two teams seemed to be dueling with feather dusters. It was pretty. It was delicate. There was hardly any cutting edge. Swansea has such injury problems in defense that it effectively called Dwight Tiendalli in from the parking lot to start at fullback, yet it was barely troubled in the first half.

Then came vindication of Arsène Wenger's seemingly perverse insistence that he did not need to spend Arsenal's huge pot of money on new players, because he had plenty of talent in his squad.

Serge Gnabry, an 18-year-old German pressed into service because of injuries to Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski, coolly fired the opening goal. Aaron Ramsey added a second. Arsenal looked nervous near the end and conceded a late goal, but it held on to win.

There is still a feeling that Arsenal is defying gravity. Olivier Giroud, yet again, spent part of the match in severe pain after a knock but pulled himself back from death's door. The sight of Nicklas Bendtner as his backup on the bench must fill Giroud, and everyone at Arsenal, with terror. Yet the Gunners were without half a dozen regular midfield starters. They look like they believe. After their 12th straight road victory in league and cup, they have reason to.

Mourinho The Master: The first much-ballyhooed match between teams coached by the sorcerer and his apprentice ended, on the face of it, with honor even as José Mourinho's Chelsea clawed out a 1-1 draw at Tottenham, managed by his former sidekick Andre Villas-Boas. Yet there can be little doubt that the teacher won the tactical battle during the game.

Tottenham enjoyed the edge in the first half, which had a lot to do with the way the two coaches set up their teams. Gylfi Sigurdsson gave Spurs the lead, after outmuscling John Terry to reach the ball in front of goal. His strike crowned an intricate move of clever passing and running. It is the type of soccer Villas-Boas is clearly trying to coach, but which a Tottenham team filled with new signings is only intermittently producing.

Tottenham had a couple of good chances to increase the lead, but Branislav Ivanovic cleared the ball off Paulinho's toes and Paulinho later hit the post.

The game was transformed in the second because Mourinho showed he was prepared to put pragmatism ahead of his not-inconsiderable pride and his tactical preferences. Mourinho removed a defensive midfielder, Jon Obi Mikel, and replaced him with the previously spurned Juan Mata. Mata had spent the first half sitting on the bench with an expression that suggested he was sucking lemons, as he no doubt wondered if that was where he would spend the rest of the season.

Mourinho, who moved Ramires into the holding role, had sacrificed muscle for speed and guile. Instantly, Chelsea was not only far more menacing in attack but also far more effective in defense. Terry atoned with a headed goal from a Mata free kick. Chelsea had more chances. Hugo Lloris made saves. Suddenly the match resembled nearly every other game between the two clubs in the Premier League era: Chelsea looked like contenders, Tottenham like pretenders

Only when Fernando Torres was sent off with nine minutes left did Tottenham regain a measure of control.

Mourinho, a man who likes to have enemies, had entertained himself in the days leading up to the match by laying the groundwork for a feud with Villas-Boas. The Tottenham boss had been one of Mournho's sidekicks at Chelsea and Inter Milan. Earlier in the week, Villas-Boas had been asked about their relationship and that the two had drifted apart. It was a fairly innocent response and only reiterated what he had told Portuguese media months ago. This time, Mourinho chose to take offense, acting as if his old aide had revealed some personal secret. Mourinho called AVB a child, a point he repeated when interviewed by Sky TV after the game. Yet it was hardly as if Villas-Boas had told the tabloids the Special One was lousy in bed.

It was not the only disagreement. When asked if a draw was a fair result, Villas Boas said "yes," Mourinho said "no." Even though his team had drawn away with 10 men, Mourinho wanted a victory.

Rough Justice: Perhaps it's the Mourinho effect, but suddenly Torres looks like the terrifying striker Chelsea thought it was buying when it paid more than £50 million, or $80 million, for him almost three years ago.

Against the meanest defense in the Premier League, Torres looked as if he had rediscovered the dynamite in his feet and the fire in his belly. El Niño's problems had started before he left Liverpool, but after three years of sluggish, tentative play, he again found the aggression to spin and take on defenders and the acceleration to beat them. He hasn't lost his eye for a pass, almost setting up Oscar for a tap in.

Yet the reignited Torres proved highly combustible. He was fortunate not to receive a yellow card in the first half for sarcastically applauding the officials for, quite understandably, failing to spot an imaginary foul. In the second half, with Chelsea still trailing, he did collect a yellow card for pointlessly tripping Jan Vertonghen. But Mike Dean missed Torres reaching up and raking his fingernails across the defender's face as the two men jostled after the foul.

The feud continued. When Torres leapt to contest a header with his arm raised, Vertonghen went down clutching his head. In fact, Torres had pulled his arm down as he levered himself up long before the two collided. It was not a foul. Vertonghen was cheating. Dean had seen enough and showed Torres a second yellow card.

Chelsea could appeal the red card. It's something the club likes to do. On the other hand, since Dean did not punish the earlier clawing of Vertonghen, the Football Authority could review that. Torres could find that one red card is replaced by another. For Torres that would represent one step forward and one step back, rather like his game on Saturday.

City's Travel Sickness: Manchester City started at Villa Park showing the imperious form with which it destroyed Manchester United, a week earlier. City dominated the game. It had more than two thirds of possession. It had 20 attempts on goal. It lost 3-2.

The home team, smaller, slower and not as good, looked like schoolboys being effortlessly bullied by adults. Somehow, Villa held out for 45 minutes before Yaya Touré scored from City's ninth corner.

One goal is a precarious lead. That adage was driven home by Karim El Ahmadi, when he leveled from an offside position after 51 minutes. It hardly seemed to matter. Five minutes later, Edin Dzeko restored the lead. Now surely City would push home its advantage.

Instead, City faded. In Cardiff at the end of August, against another outclassed home team that refused to capitulate after City had taken the lead, the defensive wheels came off and it lost, 3-2. Leandro Bacuna leveled with a breathtaking shot from an unnecessary free kick. Then the City center backs allowed a clearance from Brad Guzan, the Villa keeper, to sail past them. Andreas Weimann raced after the ball and rolled it into the net.

Manuel Pellegrini was philosophical.

"We played very well," the City manager told Sky television. "I was very happy with the way my team played today."

"But football is like that."

How true. But this is getting to be a pattern. City has picked up one point in three away games. That is why, despite playing the best soccer in the Premier League this season, it is five points behind Arsenal.

Mediocre United: Scroll back a year. Read the reports. Manchester United was talent-poor, aging and misfiring. By the end of the season, United was the champion again.

On Saturday, at home to West Brom, United again looked slow and confused. The difference was that where last year United seemed always to find a way to win, this year's United lost, 2-1.

Of course, West Brom caught lightning in a bottle when Morgan Amalfitano dribble through the heart of the United goal and then cleverly dummied David De Gea into diving before chipping the ball over him. It was a brilliant goal, but Amalfitano was helped by timid tackling in the heart of the United defense.

Wayne Rooney leveled with a fortuitous goal from a free kick that was intended as a cross. The relief was short-lived. Saido Berahino struck to give West Brom victory.

"We never seemed to get up to speed," David Moyes, the United manager, told Sky "They probably had the better chances in the game."

The question is: what speed can this United get up to? Will it be fast enough?

"Please say how good West Bromwich Albion were," Steve Clarke the visiting manager pleaded.

It's true. His team was good. Nevertheless, it is not a good sign for United's title hopes that West Brom was able to come to Old Trafford and dominate. The bad news is United is in 12th place, eight points behind Arsenal. The good news is there are 32 matches left. Those of us who have written off United before, would probably be wise to wait quite a lot longer before risking making the same mistake again.

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