The term shit-eating grin was invented for guys like Jose Mourinho. Here it is the middle of February and the Special One — and his “Little Horse” — sit atop the Premier League table, one point better than Arsenal and two clear of Manchester City following a 3-0 win over Newastle on Saturday. Funny how quickly things change, as Chelsea seemed like afterthoughts on Jan. 29 following a 0-0 draw with West Ham.
Mourinho is the beneficiary of a healthy squad, allowing the Portuguese manager to select whomever he wants against any given opponent for the time being. Back in August it’s doubtful anyone connected to the EPL would’ve guessed the addition of Serbian defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic — previously a member of the club but sent to Benfica in the David Luiz transfer — in January would galvanize Chelsea, giving Mourinho his beloved defensive steel in the midfield but here we are. (Matic’s secret weapon? He’s 6-foot-4 and can play in the midfield, giving Chelsea huge physical advantage — it’s no surprise Arsenal’s fortunes have never been the same since Patrick Vieira moved on.) No longer does Mourinho need to turn to Michael Essien or Frank Lampard or even John Obi Mikel in the center of the park. In turn it’s helped improve Chelsea’s already impressive defensive record, as the Blues have allowed a league-low 20 goals in 25 matches.
Most of the doubts cast over Chelsea at the start of the season was due a lack of a reliable, goal-scoring forward. On paper the ghost of Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba didn’t look like enough. That still may be true, but it helps that Eden Hazard has assumed the role of best goal-scoring midfielder in England now that Gareth Bale is at Real Madrid. A hat trick by the Belgian winger on Saturday, upped his total to 12 goals — topped only by Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Kun Aguero. Factor in the form of Hazard along with Oscar and Willian and it’s easy to see why Juan Mata was deemed surplus parts at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho has everything he needs at his disposal to position Chelsea to win the title down the stretch. Figure he’s able to coax another couple months of usefulness out of Eto’o before the Cameroonian is sold off to MLS or elsewhere. Scoring against Chelsea will remain a difficult task with Gary Cahill enjoying his best season at Stamford Bridge and the error-prone Luiz moved into more of a defensive midfield position when John Terry is healthy. Keeper Petr Cech remains at the top of his game, week-in, week-out. Working in Chelsea’s favor, too, it hosts Arsenal and plays at Liverpool and those are really the only two tricky remaining games on the schedule.
Maybe City recovers from it’s little dip in form and goes on tot win the title, but right now Chelsea look very dangerous and Mourinho isn’t fooling anyone referring to his club as a “Little Horse.”
Liverpool blitzes Arsenal:
When a team rampages to a 4-0 lead inside of 20 minutes, as Liverpool did to Arsenal Saturday morning do you blow it up and make it out to be more than it is or look at it in a vacuum as an isolated occurance? Obviously Liverpool aren’t as good as they were in those opening minutes nor are Arsenal that poor. Gunners striker Olivier Giroud tweeted that his performance wasn’t good enough and that really says it all.
If a conclusion is to be drawn? It’s more on on the Liverpool end. When Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez are on their day, the Reds can beat anyone. Most encouraging was the addition of a third “S” to the Liverpool attack — Raheem Sterling (and Martin Skrtel on this day.) Reiterating the oddness of each set of EPL fixtures, it’s so strange Liverpool can look great vs. Arsenal yet struggle on the road at West Brom. That attack, though, when it clicks like it did against Arsenal is the most fearsome in all of England. There are simply too many options for opponents to try to focus on, meaning Liverpool can smack Arsenal around and win 5-1 in a game Suarez doesn’t even score (although his miss off the post would have been among the goals of the century had it gone in.)
Another reason to get excited if you’re a Liverpool fan — forget the team’s serial lack of depth for the moment — is the play of Steven Gerrard. Manager Brendan Rodgers wants the Scouse legend to play more of a “quarterback” role since his legs don’t allow him the pace to maraud around the field like in years past. Maybe it was a temporary performance against a shell-shocked Arsenal side, but Gerrard was as influential as ever Saturday, both in the run of play and set pieces. Liverpool’s lack of senior players mean Gerrard needs to be at his best in the middle of the field, pulling the strings if the Reds want to return to the Champions League. Growing an Andrea Pirlo beard remains optional for Gerrard.
As for Arsenal? It was a matter of time before Aaron Ramsey’s long-term injury caught up to the Gunners. Arsenal had done a fine job riding out the injuries of its key players this year, unlike season’s past but with the Champions League affair with Bayern Munich looming everything could fall apart rather quickly.
The ire of Gunners fans appears to be aimed toward record-signing Mesut Özil. The German playmaker’s influence has waned as the season progressed. As was the case in late August, Özil was a move that Arsenal was smart to make, but he didn’t address some of the club’s top concerns, namely a go-to, marquee striker. Özil needs to regain his form, but he’s not alone in shouldering the blame for Saturday’s collective failure.
Take a gander at the next three games for Arsenal: Wednesday vs. Manchester United; Saturday vs. Liverpool (FA Cup) and then the huge Champions League tilt with Bayern. The Gunners get a brief respite with games against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea but they close March at Bayern, at Tottenham, at Chelsea and then host Manchester City. Arsenal needs Özil — and everyone else on its roster — in top form to get through that series of games.
If Arsenal manage to get through that gauntlet with their EPL title hopes alive and advance in one of the Cup competitions, we’ll sing their praises from on high, otherwise Saturday at Anfield might have been the beginning of the end for Arsene Wenger’s once promising season.
It Gets Worse for City?
Manchester City blew its chance to move into first place along with Chelsea thanks to a limp 0-0 draw at Norwich City.Shockingly it was City’s second straight game without a goal.
At Carrow Road Manuel Pellegrini’s team fell victim to what I’d like to call “Arsenal Syndrome.” City dominated most of the game, as expected — although the Canaries had a great chance late in the game to take all three points themselves. For most of the match City seemed aimless, confident to possess the ball and pass it around, but lacked a clear drive in front of goal — the main complaint lobbed at Wenger’s team from 2005-2013.
A week ago City were poised to blow past everyone to the title, but the injuries to Kun Aguero and Fernandinho threw a major monkey wrench into those plans. For all the money at City’s disposal, you can’t exactly plan or buy like-for-like replacements for those two players. Who has the ability to score goals from nothing like Aguero? Whomever Pellegrini taps to play in place of the Brazilian in midfield tweaks the chemistry that Yaya Toure and Fernandinho had built up.
Fortunately for City Toure avoided a three-game ban for a kick-out at Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Toure’s been in a class to himself since moving to City from Barcelona, but even great players are due lean spells, the Ivorian’s just so happens to be coming at the worst possible time for the club.
City, with the Champions League resuming next week, were supposed to hit their peak, instead they’re playing their worst soccer of the year.
Manchester United finds new ways to continue the Moyes’ malaise:
Manchester United 2, Fulham 2 was painful to watch. Even if you loathe United with every fiber of your being, somewhere you have to take pity on a once might institution reduced to lobbing cross-after-crossing to no avail into the penalty area. Okay, who am I kidding? Manchester United haters must have been in heaven watching that pathetic display at Old Trafford and Darren Bent’s 94th minute goal sent them into the stratosphere.
It would seem soccer tactics wonks like to knock crosses in the same manner “smart” baseball analysts mock anyone who still values something like the RBI, granted Manchester United’s crossing strategy vs. Fulham was laughable as this video shows:
It’s a broken record at this point, trying to dissect United’s shortcoming. Again it boils down to the players — with a dash of Moyes thrown in. If you watch the Bent goal again you’ll see Nemanja Vidic start the movement with an aimless clearing header, followed by the big Serb completely out of position. His announcement he’ll leave the club in the summer should be the start of a big clear out. As great as Vidic and others have been for the club in the past, it’s time to start fresh.
The roster continues to be United’s greatest concern, however Moyes’ tactics — especially after the club spent a record amount of money to sign Mata — leave you very worried if you’re a supporter.
Goal of the weekend:
Rickie Lambert’s free kick from a strange angle in Southampton’s game with Stoke gets my nod.
Around the League:
Don’t look now but Spurs are only three points off fourth thanks to a 1-0 win over Everton on Sunday thanks to a cheeky Emmanuel Adebayor off a quick restart from a free kick. Everton, like many clubs, is feeling the pain of injuries or in this case the absence of striker Romelu Lukaku. … Swansea was about one or two bad results from the relegation zone, but rallied with a comprehensive win over Welsh rival Cardiff Saturday in Garry Monk’s (an Alan Tudyk lookalike) first match in charge. The worst thing that could happen for Swansea now, if they want to stay up, is defeating Napoli in their Europa League knockout match coming up. Bonus points for Swansea, the club may be the only one left in the PL that plays “Tom Hark” after goals. I know many Brits hate it, but it always puts a smile on my face. … Newcastle United won’t be relegated, but without Yohan Cabaye the Magpies probably won’t win too many more games down the stretch. … Rebecca Lowe, in Sochi for NBC’s Olympic coverage, was greatly missed this weekend. Also odd that the Olympics knocked the EPL from NBCSN to USA Network, yet the South Wales Derby aired on main NBC for all of America to see prior to winter Olympic coverage.
In the Premier League’s infinite wisdom, another marquee matchup — this time Manchester United/Arsenal — will be played in the midweek. On the plus side? Wednesday afternoon just got a lot more schadenfreude.