Chelsea, Man City rule at home; AVB under pressure; more EPL

Sunday December 1st, 2013

Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas got a better performance on Sunday, but not the desired result.
Sang Tan/AP

No Place Like Home -- Chelsea and Manchester City moved into second and third place on Sunday with emphatic home victories over tricky opponents.

Álvaro Negredo struck the first and Samir Nasri the other two as City beat Swansea, 3-0. That score might seem like a disappointment compared with the six City whacked by Tottenham last week and the seven it hit against Norwich in its previous home league game. Yet City was uncharacteristically wasteful. It had 22 shots, but only seven on target. Furthermore, with Swansea on the ropes in the later stages, Manuel Pellegrini took off his two strikers, Sergio Agüero and Negredo.

One oddity of the game was that, yet again, the visiting team had more of the ball. What City again showed is that it's not how much you have the ball, it's what you do with it. Tottenham had more than 50 percent of possession last week; Swansea had 55 percent of the ball on Sunday. It didn't do either much good.

Chelsea meanwhile gave Southampton the lead after 15 seconds, when Jay Rodriguez pounced on a bizarre back pass from Michael Essien.

Chelsea withstood the surge of adrenaline and confidence the goal gave the Saints. Gradually, Chelsea asphyxiated the visitors. Southampton tried to defend in numbers. Yet the pressure told. Chelsea center backs Gary Cahill and John Terry scored with headers following corners. Then Demba Ba sealed the victory with a rare goal for a Chelsea striker.

It wasn't pretty but it was effective. Long before the end, Southampton, which has looked so dangerous so often this season, had been rendered impotent.

In their different ways, Chelsea and City both looked very good but they need to take their shows on the road. So far this season, City has dropped 14 points, all away from home. Chelsea has dropped 12 points, but only two at home. Home form alone will not be enough to catch Arsenal.

The Voice of Doom -- Andre Villas Boas, the Tottenham manager, said most of the right things after his team had drawn, 2-2, at home against Manchester United in an entertaining game on Sunday. What was revealing was not, for the most part, what he said, but the miserable monotone in which he said it. He sounded like a man awaiting the firing squad.

On the one hand, the draw against the reigning champion represented an improvement after the 6-0 thrashing at the feet of the other Manchester club, City, a week earlier. On the other hand, it might have been better.

After Kyle Walker put Tottenham ahead from a free kick after 18 minutes, Spurs had good chances to increase their lead. Instead a series of errors presented Wayne Rooney with the equalizer after 32 minutes.

Sandro restored the lead with a thunderbolt after 54 minutes. That proved that if you keep buying tickets you will, eventually, win the lottery. Spurs have taken more shots than any other team in the Premier League, but before Sunday, scored just nine goals. Only the bottom two teams, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, had fewer.

Two minutes later, Hugo Lloris unnecessarily brought down Danny Welbeck. Rooney, by far the best player in a mediocre United display, leveled the scores from the spot.

A week after being humiliated, Tottenham had shown energy and commitment. At last, its attack looked more dangerous. AVB was justified when mumbled that he was "extremely happy with the performance but not the result."

But is that any reason to sound clinically depressed? There has been some friction with the fans. The crowd booed in the second half when he took off one of their darlings, Aaron Lennon, who had been torturing Patrice Evra, and brought on Andros Townsend. Supporters don't like playing wingers on their wrong flank. Townsend, a left-footer playing on the right, proved their point by cutting inside every time even though United players knew what was coming and were waiting in ambush. Yet, Townsend is more of a goal threat and could have won the game when he narrowly failed to meet a cross from Walker. When asked about critical fans by BT Sport, which broadcast the game, AVB sulkily responded: "I have nothing to say to them."

His real difficulties lie elsewhere. At the start of the summer, Tottenham hired Franco Baldini in the problematic role of "technical director," or director of football, English soccer's term for general manager. If there's one certainty about hiring a director of football in a league where the manager is traditionally king, it's that he will quickly fall out with any coaches already in place.

With Tottenham's lucrative divorce from Gareth Bale in progress, Baldini was handed the club's platinum card and sent off to spend the cash. His buying, principally at the luxury end of the market, grew particularly frenzied in the final days of the summer sales. He was like a binge shopper who comes staggering out of taxi home weighed down by bags full of random shoes, coats, suits ties and socks. He dumped all his pelf on AVB and essentially said: there's a lot of expensive stuff here, you should be able to put together a very good matching outfit from that.

Tottenham, which had such high hopes, has rarely looked like £100 million so far this season. Judging by reports from White Hart Lane, Baldini is winning the blame game. No wonder AVB sounded like a dead man talking.

Goodbye Jol -- Martin Jol was another manager struggling to survive a regime change. In his case, he needed to impress a new owner, Shahid Khan, who bought Fulham in July. Jol must have known the axe was being sharpened when René Muelensteen was brought in to assist him last month.

Jol, a man who knows what it is like to be fired by Tottenham, did not have AVB's collection of high-priced players to choose from. Fulham's patchwork squad has too many aging players, but it also has undoubted talent. But where the Tottenham players battled hard for their manager on Sunday, Fulham's simply rolled over on Saturday. They lost a crucial London derby against another struggler, West Ham, 3-0.

Fulham did not manage a single shot on target. Jol was in trouble. His players don't seem to care. On Sunday, Jol was fired. Muelensteen took over.

Give That Man A Quick Haircut -- When Tom Huddlestone decided to do something for charity in November 2011 and vowed not to cut his hair until he scored a goal, he probably did not envisage that he wouldn't have a chance to visit a barber for two years.

With three minutes left against Liverpool on Sunday, Huddlestone's scuffed shot was deflected into the net by defender Martin Skrtel. His teammates, overjoyed that Hull now led 3-1 and a victory over high-flying Liverpool was safe, mobbed Huddlestone. Several tugged at Hudd's luxurious 'fro. The midfielder better hurry down to the barber. The Premier League's Dubious Goals Panel could decide to take away his first goal since he scored for Spurs against Arsenal in April 2011 and give it to someone who doesn't want it: Skrtel.

"The referee said it was mine," Huddlestone told Sky TV after the game. "We'll see on Monday."

It was the second deflected goal for Hull. Jake Livermore had put the Tigers ahead with a shot that looped off a defender. It was luck Hull deserved and which, given the bluntness of its attack, it needed. Hull resembles their manager, Steve Bruce, by compensating for a lack of top-level talent with discipline, courage, hard work, intelligence and dogged stubbornness.

Liverpool was without Daniel Sturridge, who is injured and could be out for six to eight weeks, and Phillipe Coutinho who is returning from injury and started on the bench. Their replacements, Raheem Sterling and Victor Moses, were, to put it kindly, useless. The suspicion remains that Liverpool lacks the squad depth for a sustained challenge. On the other hand, with all the breaks going Hull's was, this could have been just a bad day at the office.

Gunners Cruise -- Last week, Cardiff held visiting Manchester United to a draw. Earlier in the season it won at home against Manchester City. The Cardiff City Stadium, it would seem, is a tricky place to play. You wouldn't have known it when Arsenal rolled into Wales on Saturday and won with smooth ease, 3-0. At the end of the weekend it sat four points clear at the top of the table.

Skeptics point out that Arsenal has yet to face Chelsea or Manchester City in the league, although it lost to Chelsea in the League Cup, and lost its meeting with Manchester United. Yet Arsenal is beating everyone else, and doing it in style.

The squad still looks unbalanced, loaded with midfield creators, short of strikers, central defenders and midfield stoppers. In an era when most other teams prefer to start with two midfield muscle men, it seems insane to send out Santi Cazorla, Mike Arteta, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey, who scored twice against his first club. But that's what Arsène Wenger did on Saturday. It worked beautifully. Cardiff huffed and puffed. Arsenal's midfield dismantled them.

"We were dominant, technically and tactically," Wenger told the BBC, looking like the cat trying very hard not to show it has just eaten the canary.

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