EPL parity shining through; Torres regains his form; more thoughts

Sunday October 27th, 2013

Jozy Altidore didn't score, but he put forth a strong performance in Sunderland's win vs. Newcastle.
Richard Sellers/Getty Images

A pretty good league -- The Premier League is in the habit of describing the competition as the "best league in the world." For most of this millennium, the notion that the league is competitive, balanced or unpredictable has been largely rot.

In truth, for most of its 21 years the league has been dominated by Manchester United, challenged for a while by Arsenal and at other times by three clubs with super-rich owners: Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City. Usually, most clubs were closer to relegation than to the champions. In some recent seasons, a full half the clubs in the division deserved relegation. In some ways the nadir was last season when a merely average United team won easily because none of the other teams were consistently good and most of them were simply bad.

On the face of it, the results from this weekend suggest that the league is as predictable as ever. The only club in the top nine that didn't win was Manchester City, which lost, 2-1, at second-place Chelsea. The only team outside the top nine to win was Sunderland, which won its derby against Newcastle, 2-1.

The difference is that every team in the top nine this season looks good, with the exception of Tottenham and Manchester United, which look as if they could be good.

Certainly some of the big boys rode their luck. Arsenal hung on with 10 men to edge awful Crystal Palace, 2-0. Thanks to Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, Manchester United came from behind to steal a 3-2 home victory over Stoke, which could have won the game before half time. Tottenham needed a dodgy penalty to beat Hull, 1-0.

On the other hand, Everton (with American goalkeeper Tim Howard) survived an early storm for an impressive 2-0 victory at Aston Villa. Liverpool crushed West Brom, 4-1. Southampton was frighteningly good as it beat Fulham in a game in which it managed 20 goal attempts and allowed only two. Somehow, the final score was only 2-0.

Throw in ninth-placed Swansea, which might have been suffering from post-Europa League fatigue as it drew 0-0 with West Ham, and there are now an awful lot of consistently good teams in the Premier League. This could be a very interesting season.

The Fernando fear factor -- When Fernando Torres set off in pursuit of Willian's hopeful hoof in the dying seconds of added time on Sunday, there were two Manchester City players better placed to reach the ball. Maybe it is a sign that Torres had suddenly become scary again that both panicked.

Joe Hart charged out of goal, even though Matija Nastasic was going to arrive first. Hart had a crazed rush of blood, but he was in Nastasic's line of vision. The center back could have whacked his header out for a corner. Instead he lobbed the ball over Hart, as if to say "There, that's where you should have been." Then the defender set off in pursuit, but one step behind Torres who had never stopped running. Torres got there first and squeezed the ball into the goal to give Chelsea a 2-1 victory.

The afternoon had started badly for El Niño. After 29 minutes, in front of goal with only Hart in the vicinity, Torres snatched at his shot and skied it over the goal. That's what he has been doing for the last three years, and it has been something of a mystery why a player who was so good could become so bad while still in his 20s. On Sunday, after that miss, the old, dangerous Torres re-emerged.

Four minutes after his miss, far from the goal, Torres streaked past Gaël Clichy, hardly a slouch, and rolled a perfect cross into the path of André Schürrle. The German did not miss. Before half time, Torres produced another flash of his old talent: a powerful shot with almost no back lift that caromed off the goal frame.

Chelsea, as manager José Mourinho pointed out after the game, could have led 3-0 at half time. "We were better, much better and it is difficult than a fantastic team and they are fantastic team."

The second half was different. Sergio Agüero produced a shot every bit as sudden and powerful as Torres. The difference, this being Agüero, was that the shot hit the inside of the post on its way past an astonished Petr Cech.

City had the better of the second half, but Torres deprived it of a point.

Confronted by a camera after the game, Torres looked at the ground when asked if he was getting back to his best. "We are improving as a team," he mumbled.

Mourinho was more effusive and clearly rather surprised by the return of Fernando's mojo.

"I didn't give him confidence straight away," Mourinho told Sky which broadcast the game. "I put him in some difficult moments. I left out of a few matches. I put him on the bench. I left him at home. I didn't select him."

Asked if this was cunning psychology, Mourinho laughed.

"It would be easy to say I did it as strategy, no it was not a strategy."

Whatever the reason, for one afternoon at least, the old Torres was back.

Altidore's moment -- As the clock ticked toward the final whistle in Sunderland's 2-1 derby victory, Alan Smith, the analyst for Sky, had to elect the best player in a bad match. He made Jozy Altidore, the American center forward for Sunderland, "Man of the Match."

Altidore had not scored. Indeed he hadn't managed a shot. But Smith, a No. 9 who scored 86 goals in 262 games for Arsenal and just 2 in 13 England appearances, might be expected to empathize with a non-scoring striker. Altidore did have an assist on Sunderland's winning goal, but that looked suspiciously like an accident. It rather summed up the good and the bad in Altidore's contribution.

When Sunderland caught Newcastle napping in midfield with five minutes to go, it moved the ball forward quickly. The target was, of course, Altidore. The American had worked tirelessly all afternoon. Once again he was available.

Altidore is built like a tank. He had bullied Newcastle's second-string centerbacks all afternoon. By the 85th minute, Michael Williamson was giving Altidore a two-yard cushion.

The problem is that Altidore also has the touch, the turning circle and the acceleration of a tank. His touch was, again, heavy. The ball bounced off his foot but straight to a teammate, Fabio Borini, who smashed the ball into the goal.

The fevered local derby was low in technical quality but high on physical commitment. It was played in a swirling wind. The trend in the Premier League is five-man midfields and intricate passing soccer. Sunderland started with two old-fashioned English-style forwards. When Altidore's strike-partner Steven Fletcher gave Sunderland the lead after five minutes, it was hardly a surprise that it was with a header after a corner. By the end, Newcastle had emulated Sunderland and brought on two big central attackers, Papiss Cissé and Shola Ameobi and adopted the traditional English tactic of lumping long high balls into the goalmouth.

Altidore was the best of the big men. He never stopped running and battling. He was a rock when Sunderland had to defend. He was prepared top go toe-to-toe with the Premier League's most fearsome enforcer, Cheick Tiote, and won as often as he lost.

Altidore never looked like scoring. He still hasn't scored for Sunderland in the league. Despite his limitations, he showed he can score at AZ Alkmaar. Altidore's chances will come, but there probably won't be many. Sunderland has only scored seven goals in nine league games. It doesn't pass very well. It's going to have to rely on effort and energy for a while. Altidore can play that game.

Townsend crashes to Earth -- It has been a glorious few weeks for Andros Townsend. For four years he was a talented spare part at Spurs, loaned out to nine clubs. This season, the departure of Gareth Bale cleared his path into the Tottenham team. Injuries to others opened a route to the England side for the last two crucial World Cup qualifiers. He grabbed both chances and set off at breakneck pace to make the most of them. It seemed a sign that suddenly fortune was smiling on him when he scored with an attempted cross last week.

On Sunday, Townsend came crashing to earth against Hull in the most terrifying fashion.

Townsend and Spurs had labored against a determined opponent for 80 minutes. It had taken the lead with a harsh penalty converted by Roberto Soldado. The Spanish striker has scored four times in eight league starts for Tottenham, but three of them have been penalties. Indeed, Spurs have only scored nine goals in nine league games. The fact that they are fourth, just three points behind Arsenal, is down to some good defense and some good luck. No wonder the fans grumbled and moaned throughout the game, to the disgust of Andre Villas-Boas, the Tottenham manager.

A goal down, Hull had to attack. That gave Townsend space. He raced down the wing but could not stop, careened into the advertising hoardings and disappeared into the equipment-filled photographers' pit. Townsend was hidden and stayed hidden. A crowd of medical staff and ambulance men assembled. TV cameras showed one photographer with blood spattered down his face.

With Townsend out of sight, the referee played on. Tottenham hung on. Then, as the match entered five added minutes, Townsend rose shakily from the pit, a bandage round his arm. The photographer's blood had been his own, his scalp sliced by a cleat as Townsend somersaulted into him. The player was guided towards the bench, gesturing toward the field and tugging to escape his minders and get back on. Finally he was granted his wish. Things are going so well that it would take more than a nasty fall and a painful arm to keep Townsend down.

Run Jordan run -- Sir Alex Ferguson probably savored the howls of outrage from Merseyside this week after his biography appeared, taking swings at Liverpool players. The former Manchester United manager was never going to sell many books there anyway.

Ferguson's assertion that Steven Gerrard was not a "top, top player" might be an innocent attempt to open one of soccer's favorite debates: whether a player is great. But it is hard to avoid the suspicion that it was simple barbs aimed at a player who opted to stay with a club Ferguson clearly detests rather than sign for United and more money and some easy medals.

Ferguson also singled out a far lesser Liverpool player. He said Jordan Henderson runs funny. Many asked why Ferguson should bother taking a swing at a journeyman midfielder. The answer is that he is a coach to the tips of his toes. That is precisely the sort of detail the greatest manager in the English league over the last 40 years, Bob Paisely, would have noticed in his 24 years as physio, coach and manager at Liverpool. Henderson does run funny.

After Liverpool crushed West Brom, Henderson said he would heed Ferguson's point. Maybe he was just being diplomatic, but he should listen. When it comes to the minutiae of soccer Ferguson knows his business.

After Saturday's game, Gerrard could be forgiven for believing that he might finally be in sight of the league title that has eluded him. He is playing his part for a Liverpool team that sits third, just two points behind Arsenal. But the chief reason is Luis Suarez, who dismantled West Brom with a dazzling hat trick. Suarez had ill-tempered scrapes with Ferguson's United. But even Sir Alex could not deny that the Uruguayan is a "top, top player.

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