For many Manchester United fans, Marouane Fellaini epitomized everything that was wrong with David Moyes's brief, miserable reign at Old Trafford.
The hostility seemed to stem from Fellaini’s arrival for £27.5 million on deadline day last season. The fans wanted Moyes to pull a more glamorous, more expensive rabbit from the hat.
Fans adore star signings. It reassures them that their club is attractive to players and its ownership ambitious. This season, United gave the fans what they want and signed big names. It bought Angel Di Maria for £59 million, borrowed Radamel Falcao (and his £265,000 a week salary) and even spent £27 million on teenage fullback Luke Shaw.
On Sunday at Old Trafford, Di Maria and Shaw were nowhere to be seen. Falcao, who has been playing for the youth team, was on the bench where he stayed for 82 minutes. On the field, Fellaini destroyed Tottenham.
Fellaini is big, ungainly and thuggish. He does not fit obviously in any traditional position, but he does an awful lot of things well. He’s strong, hard working, skillful and quite quick. Above all, he can bully almost any opponent he faces.
On Sunday, Fellaini was the pivotal figure as United ripped Tottenham to pieces in the first half and won, 3-0.
“Probably the best 45 minutes we’ve had all season,” Wayne Rooney told Sky television after the game.
Fellaini scored the first goal after nine minutes with a fierce, low, left-foot drive. In the 18th minute, he caused chaos from a corner and Michael Carrick scored.
Playing wide on the left, Fellaini was up against Kyle Walker and three of Tottenham’s kids, Eric Dier, Andros Townsend and Ryan Mason. He was a man among boys.
Suddenly United looked at ease. Tottenham’s youngsters, meanwhile, were like deer in the headlights. Two of them, Nabil Bentaleb and Dier contrived to present Rooney with the third goal.
It was the knockout blow. Rooney, whose home sparring with Stoke’s Phil Bardsley made the headlines this week, celebrated with a flurry of shadow punches. It was perhaps aimed, in his mind’s eye, at whomever leaked the video of him lying on his kitchen floor apparently unconscious.
The victory probably kicked Tottenham out of the race for the Champions League. It allowed United to close within two points of Manchester City in second and stay one point behind surging Arsenal.
REELING TOWARD THE TITLE
Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at home to Southampton on Sunday provides the latest test as to whether the club’s fans see the glass half full or half empty.
Chelsea took the lead after 11 minutes with a well-worked header by Diego Costa. Then, Chelsea repeated the error it made twice against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday and allowed Southampton to level rapidly as Dusan Tadic scored with a penalty eight minutes later.
Chelsea played the rest of the first half like a team with a hangover. Only a combination of wasteful finishing and typical brilliance by goalie Thibaut Courtois prevented the Saints from building a comfortable lead.
The second half was better, though only Eden Hazard looked remotely close to his best. Costa hit a post. Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster made a string of close-range saves. Yet Chelsea’s afternoon was summed up in added time when the ball dropped to John Terry in front of goal. Terry’s first shot hit a teammate. The ball came back to Terry but he blazed the second attempt horribly wide. He then stared dazedly into the distance.
Since losing at home to Bradford in the FA Cup on Jan. 24, Chelsea is unbeaten in 12 matches. It has won the League Cup. It has increased its lead in the Premier League, though only by a point, over Manchester City. But six of those matches have ended in draws, including the two that closed Chelsea’s participation in the Champions League.
José Mourinho attempted a Joe Namath moment after the elimination by PSG. He guaranteed that his team would win the Premier League. His statement, hardly that daring given City’s form, was probably aimed at Chelsea’s disappointed fans and doubting players. On Sunday, it did not seem that the team fully believed the message.
After the game, Mourinho did not seem sure if the glass was half full or half empty either.
“Chelsea at home not winning is not a good result and loses two points,” he told the BBC. “But objectively, before the game we have a five-point lead, and after the game we have a six-point lead.”
The Chelsea machine—bus at the back, muscle car up front—is rolling, but the engine is sputtering.
YOU ARE THE REF
When Nemanja Matic, the Chelsea midfielder, flipped Sadio Mané off his feet early in the second half on Sunday, Mike Dean, the referee, seemed to lift his hand toward his shirt pocket, before dropping it back to his side. Dean actually keeps his yellow card in his shorts, but the movement created the suspicion that the referee had suddenly remembered that he had already shown Matic a yellow card when he awarded the first-half penalty.
The Guardian revealed this weekend that the Football Association, which runs the officiating in English soccer, keeps a table that ranks clubs by behavior. Chelsea’s players are last when it comes to respecting officials. The club’s coaching staff is 19th in the same category because Gus Poyet and his assistants at Sunderland give officials even more abuse.
Referees are meant to be neutral, but it must be tough in games involving a club that seems to have declared war on officials.
Yet the furor that surrounded Chelsea’s behavior against PSG on Wednesday, when nearly every outfield player surrounded the ref demanding a red card for Zlatan Ibrahomic, might have had an effect. There were almost no protests when Dean did not give a penalty after Branislav Ivanovic went down, when a home player was fouled or when a decision went against Chelsea. Terry, the captain, sometimes asked a polite question. That was it.
And at the key moment, Dean kept his red card in whichever pocket it was hidden.
THE STRANGE CASE OF MANCHESTER CITY
Even in its two championship seasons, Manchester City had inexplicable lapses. For example, it did not beat Sunderland in either campaign.
The 1-0 loss at Burnley on Saturday means that this season, City has taken just one point in two games against a tiny neighbor anchored in the bottom three.
After the game, City manager Manuel Pellegrini said his team was unlucky to lose. He had a point. Sergio Agüero wasted a couple of good chances. David Silva’s normally silky control deserted him when clean through. City should have had a penalty in added time.
Yet City did not dominate Burnley. The home team created chances of its own. Shortly before George Boyd scored with a sweetly hit shot, he went close with a volley.
“I don't think we played very bad,” Pellegrini told the BBC.
City did not look like a title contender, yet somehow it still is. On the other hand, with Arsenal, which beat West Ham for its fifth straight league victory, and United closing in, perhaps City should be looking down not up.
Somewhere recently fired Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert might have been keeping an eye on the Villa score at Sunderland with his hands across his eyes. As each succeeding goal went in, Lambert probably knew that his chances of landing a good management job were shrinking.
Villa, which had scored four goals in its first 14 away league games, scored four in 26 minutes in the first half at the Stadium of Light on Saturday en route to a 4-0 win. It beat Sunderland, which gave another of its occasional white-flag displays, to overtake the home team and claw closer to survival.
Lambert might object that Villa’s suddenly reborn confidence owes a lot to a stroke of luck in its last league game: an added time penalty which beat West Brom. But managers often make their own luck.
Lambert’s squad included the attacking pace and menace of Gabby Agbonlahor, Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph, Leandro Bacuna and Charles N’Zogbia, and indeed many of them were in the squad because of him. But Lambert rarely picked all of them at once and he sent them out to defend first.
Current manager Tim Sherwood may be a far less tactically sophisticated manager than Lambert, but he has let the dogs off the leash. It paid on Saturday.