United falls again, Chelsea stunned at Stoke; More EPL thoughts

Saturday December 7th, 2013

David Moyes and Manchester United are flailing after losing a second consecutive home match.
Peter Powell/EPA

Fading Greatness -- Manchester United slipped to a second consecutive 1-0 home defeat as it lost to Newcastle at Old Trafford on Saturday, a game played in the shadow of the previous day's World Cup draw.

Yohan Cabaye scored the only goal with a neat finish after Patrice Evra had given the ball away in his own half. The home team could complain that earlier Vurnon Anita had blocked the ball on the Newcastle line with his hand. United may have deserved a draw but it hardly deserved to win.

Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, told the BBC that there had been a "really strong feeling in our dressing room that we could come here and win." That's not a feeling many clubs have had in the Premier league era - Newcastle itself had not won at Old Trafford since 1972. United has lost five league games already. No team has won the Premier League while losing six or more games. It has lost two consecutive home games for the first time in 14 years.

As Pardew observed, the spotlight will fall on his United counterpart. "I know we won't get the headlines because of poor David Moyes and United."

But the difficulty is not just the new manager; it's the squad he's inherited. United has almost no genuinely top class players in their late-20s prime. Wayne Rooney was suspended. Robin van Persie, returning from injury, was stifled. Nemanja Vidic, who is 32, was strong, brave and passionate at the back. Ahead of him stretched is a wasteland of leaderless mediocrity. Evra, at 32, could have set an example. Instead, he gave away the decisive goal with a sloppy header.

Evra is symbolic of a United squad that has been allowed to slide. He can still be extremely dangerous in going forward. He is still feisty, but defensively, he can't consistently take a punch.

Evra recently earned yet another suspension from the French national team with a public settling of grudges. Among his targets was his predecessor in the France team, Bixente Lizarazu. Evra boasted that he was twice voted the best left back in the world, while Lizerazu never was. Of course, Lizerazu has a World Cup winner's medal. Evra doesn't.

Evra was recalled to the French team for the World Cup playoffs but, on an afternoon when a host of his Frenchmen burnished their credentials in the black and white of Newcastle, Evra might have hastened the arrival of Leighton Baines as his replacement at United. Left back is not the only position where United needs a makeover, but it's a good place to start.

"Because we are Manchester United, we have to do better," Moyes said. To do that, he needs better players.

Hit and Miss -- If Evra is symbolic of United's faded glory, Sergio Agüero, on Saturday, personified a Manchester City team that is proving strangely hit and miss on the road.

There were times in the first half at St. Mary's when City looked sublime on attack. Yet somehow it ended up hanging on to a 1-1 draw. City has won all its home games, but picked up only eight points in eight games on the road. That's why it's in fourth place, five points behind Arsenal ahead of its game with Everton on Sunday.

After 10 minutes, City carved injury-depleted Southampton open. Alexsandar Kolarov rolled a pass across the penalty area. Agüero, anticipating far quicker than four defenders, reached the ball with time to spin and drive a perfect low shot into the net. The natural reaction was to wonder why other teams, and other players struggle for entire games to score, when Agüero, like all great players, had made a difficult task look so simple.

Agüero then spent the next 80 minutes showing that even for him, finishing can be difficult. He had five more chances but could not score. Some of his finishing was wild and high. Some was tame and timid. As the chances slipped away, so did City's control.

Southampton's relentless pressing took its toll. The Saints, seemingly unaffected by three straight league defeats, gradually took control. Dani Osvaldo leveled with a finish of such breathtaking precision, that again, the natural reaction was "why can't strikers curl the ball into the top corner every time"? Osvaldo himself provided the answer. The muscles failed to coordinate with the same precision as he skied two far easier chances.

Even when you are as good as Agüero soccer is not an easy game. The problem for City, which leads the league with 41 goals, is that it cannot find a balance between feast and famine.

Sloppy Chelsea -- For the second away game in a row, Chelsea conceded three goals. The difference on Saturday was that it didn't score four. It lost, 3-2, at Stoke.

Again, this was a match in which the aristocratic visitor dominated from the start and took an early lead, this time with a nice goal by André Schürrle.

Chelsea couldn't turn domination into goals, conceded a sloppy score to Peter Crouch just before half time and eventually lost to a last-minute bullet from Oussama Assaidi.

José Mourinho refused to blame individual players, "I can't do that." But he made clear that Chelsea had lost because its defenders had made individual errors, its strikers had failed to produce and, for the last 15 minutes, the whole team had been "stupid".

Stoke could not remotely match the soccer Chelsea played in the first half, but with a combination of effort, luck and game management it eked out a victory.

"When you produce such good football as we produced in the first half you have to score goals and we didn't," Mourinho told the BBC. Instead, Chelsea presented Crouch with a chance to score from close range just before half time.

"You are giving life to an opponent you know they fight hard,"

Stephen Ireland and Schürrle exchanged pretty goals in the second half. Schürrle also hit the bar. Ireland missed a sitter. Assaidi came off the bench to win the game.

Mourinho praised Stoke's mastery of the dark arts of soccer. "In the second half they stopped us with many fouls and stopping the play and complaining to the ref in an intelligent way."

It was a match that showed that neither manager is yet hitting his targets.

Mourinho was brought in to restore the numbing consistency of his first spell at the club, but was left to bemoan the way his team had been unable to keep control of the game.

Mark Hughes was hired to teach Stoke to pass the ball on the ground. On Saturday his team won with the old formula. Stoke turned the game in to a high-paced, end-to-end, helter-skelter and it won.

Protecting the Palace -- In a way, Saturday brought two victories for the man Hughes replaced at Stoke.

Tony Pulis was fired by Stoke, who didn't want to play his way any more, in the summer. He was hired last month by Crystal Palace, who sitting on the bottom of the Premier League with a squad of lower-division players, was not in a position to be picky. Both teams won using his methods on Saturday.

Palace survived an early scare against Cardiff and went on to win, 2-0, with goals by Cameron Jerome and Marouane Chamakh. It could have been more.

Palace has won two in a row. It has won three out of four since Pulis was hired. Those wins have come against the two other promoted teams, Hull and Cardiff, and at home to the team in 17th, one place above Palace, West Ham. Palace has Chelsea, Manchester City and Newcastle coming up in the next four matches. That will give a better idea of whether the Pulis method can save his new club.

Of course, coming into a club in mid-season and achieving immediate results, requires a very simple method. Nevertheless, listening to Pulis describe what he was doing after the victory, made it clear why Stoke had wearied of him.

"We have worked a lot on shape and things I think are essential to give you a chance and the players have responded well. You've always got a chance if you get yourself organized," he said.

What does he mean by shape?

"We were very tight and narrow," Pulis said.

As for the other things that are essential, it's probably best not to ask, but Mourinho praise of Stoke might offer a clue.

Liverpool Rebounds -- Suddenly, everything is bouncing Liverpool's way. The Reds, so limp at Hull last weekend, crushed Norwich at Anfield on Wednesday. On Saturday, it dismissed West Ham, 4-1, with the visiting players seemingly queuing up to give Liverpool a hand.

Guy Demel and Joey O'Brien of West Ham both scored own goals, although both were topped by a spectacular effort from Martin Skrtel that briefly brought the Hammers back into the game. But Luis Suárez restored Liverpool's advantage with his 14th league goal of the season.

On a day when the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea had dropped points and knowing that either Arsenal or Everton, or both, would drop points on Sunday, Brendan Rodgers was in relaxed mood after the game.

He responded to Manuel Pellegrini's claim this week that Agüero was a better all-around player than Suárez by saying: "I think Agüero is a wonderful player as well but I wouldn't swap Suárez for anyone."

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