One of those weird things we do in sports is focus on the negative rather than the positive. It tends to be the juicer story. Such was again the case in the wake of Manchester City’s 4-1 demolition of Manchester United Sunday afternoon in Premier League.
The blitzing performance by City — turning a 1-0 lead into 4-0 in a quick flurry of goals around both sides of halftime — was eye-opening. It was easily the best performance in the Premier League by City in the Manuel Pellegrini era. Aguero’s goal in the first half alone told the story, with City’s combination play producing an eye-catching opening tally, whereas United were bereft of any attacking impetus.
Take away the quick succession of goals, namely Aguero and Samir Nasri’s one-two punch after the restart and this result shouldn’t be all that unexpected. If we think back to August, City was the team most folks, including myself, picked to win the league. If it’s possible, Yaya Toure will be even more influential now that he can roam forward with Fernandinho covering in the midfield. City have started slowly, but this is a team that has the look of title winners, as points will become harder to take against them unless Joe Hart continues to have the yips in goal.
And pity the other 19 teams in the Premier League if Nasri is happy and contributing throughout this campaign rather than sulking at the end of the bench.
The thumping by City bodes well and is reminiscent of the 6-1 result it lodged over United in October, 2011 on its way to an eventual league title. City has two poor results under its belt — a loss at Cardiff City and a draw with Stoke — but remains only two points off the top of the very bunched up top of the table.
Again the story here is more United’s abject performance — save for Wayne Rooney’s late free kick — rather than City playing up to its preseason potential. Forgot about David Moyes replacing Sir Alex Ferguson at United. The Red Devils’ squad seemed lightweight a year ago. It’s still a marvel how Sir Alex was able to coax a title from Robin van Persie’s goal-scoring exploits surrounded by an average (by United’s standards) team. United’s summer improvements were minimal, adding only Marouane Fellaini at the last minute and the tall Belgian isn’t going to change the entire team playing in a defensive midfield position.
Ashley Young figures to be the No. 1 scapegoat for United fans Monday morning as the dive-happy winger went missing in action at the Etihad Stadium. The usually solid defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic looked past their prime trying to keep pace with City’s fleet of tricky attackers.
Five games do not a season make, but United should be concerned. If we go with the assumption City or Chelsea win the title, United will have a fight on its hands in the form of Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and yes, Moyes’ former club Everton for a spot in the top four. Life without Sir Alex is an adjustment for United supporters, best to wrap your heads around the fact finishing fourth — and getting back into the Champions League — is a more realistic outcome than defending the league crown.
Sunday’s display at the Eithad Stadum was something you could see coming months ago.
When you’ve won the Champions League at two different clubs, you can call your own shots which Jose Mourinho appears to be doing on his second go-around at Stamford Bridge. How else to explain the Special One’s snub of Juan Mata — arguably the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League in 2012-13? Mourinho left the Spanish ace out of matchday 18 Saturday vs. Fulham. (Chelsea won the match, by a rote 2-0 scoreline.)
This is one of those decisions that only one person in the entire world seems to understand — Mourinho.
As baffling as the decision is, Chelsea do have plenty of other players who can fill the Mata role, namely Oscar, so the Blues can survive while Mourinho freezes him out and eventually sells him to PSG or Juventus. Less defensible is Mourinho’s decision to loan out Romelu Lukaku to Everton with Chelsea’s questionable depth at striker. Right now the Blues options are the ghost of Fernando Torres, an out-of-sync Samuel Eto’o or Demba Ba, another player Mourinho doesn’t rate. Lukaku scored 17 goals last season on-loan at West Brom and would have appeared ready to play for his parent club. (Lukaku scored the winner for Everton coming on as a late sub vs. West Ham on Saturday.)
Perhaps Mourinho is trying to ratchet up the degree of difficulty during his second swing through England or prove to the English press that, indeed, he can walk on water?
The Jozy Blues:
When you’re wrong, you’re wrong and I’m not above admitting in the summer it seemed Jozy Altidore’s move to Sunderland made a lot of sense. Although not a “sexy” destination the club figured to look a lot different with manager Paolo Di Canio given a time to mold the team for a full season. Altidore was a big part of those plans, seemingly set to be the club’s No. 1 striker.
Barely a month into the season Sunderland is a trainwreck with one point through five games, through no fault of Altidore. As we’ve seen with the U.S. National Team, when Altidore is isolated alone up top in the attack, he struggles.
Altidore’s lack of goals are the least of the Black Cats concerns. Di Canio helped the club stave off relegation in the spring but quickly reverted back into an unhinged lunatic, including a ban of ketchup, cell phones and mayonnaise for his players. It bottomed out Saturday via a bizarre staredown with fans after losing at West Brom 3-0. He later put all the blame on his players. In a shocking move, the club parted ways with the Italian coach Sunday.
The English rumor mill has linked former Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo to the job, which could bode well for Altidore. The good news for Altidore and whoever takes over at Sunderland: there are 33 games to clean up the mess Di Canio made. Pass the Heinz.
North London Rising:
Hey, look at this, Arsenal and Tottenham are tied atop the Prem table with 12 points. Who would’ve guessed? Weren’t Arsenal a team in tatters a month ago? One that would never win another game? In fairness nobody in August saw Mesut Özil switching from Madrid to London. The German playmaker has transformed the club, setting up all three goals in the Gunners 3-1 win over Stoke City Sunday. (U.S. international Geoff Cameron scored the Stoke goal.)
A proven, veteran, international star playing well? That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Özil is a world-class player. Critics complaining Arsenal didn’t need another midfield schemer are looking increasingly like people who complain just to complain — coughing in your direction, Piers Morgan. Özil is making the players around him better, while taking pressure off both Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.
Meanwhilte at Tottenham, life after Gareth Bale hasn’t quite shifted into fifth gear yet, but Spurs have already notched four 1-0 victories, including Sunday’s stoppage time winner by Paulinho vs. Cardiff City.
The sample size is small, but Spurs have quickly gotten the best of both worlds. They cashed in on Bale and improved the squad at the same time, which is harder than it sounds. More than that, they’re no longer overly reliant on one superstar — Bale — or the streaky goal-scoring rate of Jermain Defoe. Needing a late goal vs. Cardiff, Spurs were able to turn to starlet Erik Lamela — signed from Roma in August — for help, and he set up the game-winner. That’s a nice luxury to have for the last 10 minutes of a match.
Tottenham even has fortune on its side since goalie Hugo Lloris probably should have been shown a red card for coming off his line and handling a ball outside the penalty area.
Something else to ponder: what would have happened had Chelsea allowed Andre Villas-Boas some time at Stamford Bridge rather than firing him after a couple months since he alienated veterans John Terry and Frank Lampard? True enough, Chelsea won a Champions League and Europa League after canning AVB, but imagine what he could have done with Chelsea’s current, younger roster? Spurs fans will be happy this never happened.
Leighton Baines Presevation Society:
Everton left back Leighton Baines remains among the most valuable players in the Prem. Saturday, he helped rescue the Toffees at West Ham with a pair of goals from free kicks in the second half.
One of these days I’ll write a late-60s era Kinks song about all that is great about Baines. It will be a very long song. God save Hobbit hair …