Barclays Premier League midweek games served up quite a spectacle as the two Manchester clubs continued their merry run at the top of the table while West Brom’s juggernaut came to a grinding halt in Wales. QPR got a hard fought point under the stewardship of new manager Harry Redknapp as they aim to achieve the improbable.
North London took on Merseyside as Tottenham entertained Liverpool while Arsenal traveled to Goodison Park. In the end, it was Spurs who walked away with the honors despite Liverpool’s much improved second half display while at Goodison it all ended all square.
Chelsea, under their already under-fire manager Rafael Benitez, played pragmatic football as their local derby against Fulham ended in a dour stalemate. Chelsea now have back to back clean sheets but worryingly haven’t scored in three consecutive games in all competitions – a first for them in the Abramovich era.
In other games at the top of the table, Manchester City kept the pressure on neighbors United with a hard fought win at the DW against a spirited Wigan side while the Red Devils just about got the job done themselves with a deflected RVP goal as nerves jangled inside Old Trafford.
Here are some of the talking points from the midweek action –
Rafa’s Chelsea searching for balance
Say what you want about Benitez but he sure knows how to organize a team to defend with precision. No wonder that Chelsea are yet to concede under the Spanish tactician as the Stamford Bridge outfit, for the first time this season, looks solid at the back. However, fans clearly demand more as there were cries of ”We want our Chelsea back” from the Matthew Harding Stand as an already unpopular manager perhaps turned a few more fans against himself with his pragmatic approach to football. The manager, rather strangely, opted to leave Juan Mata on the bench and although the midfield maestro was introduced after the hour mark, it was probably too late for him to break the Fulham resistance.
Seven points adrift from the leaders, Chelsea could find themselves fighting hard to hold on to even the third spot. Not to put the blame on Benitez entirely, but the manager perhaps could have shown more ambition at home against Fulham. All is not lost though and Chelsea shouldn’t be written off for a title challenge, at least not yet.
Newcastle United and Alan Pardew under pressure
After a season where the Magpies surprised all and sundry and defied all expectations, its back to the drawing board for Alan Pardew as another defeat, this time at the hands of a dogged Stoke side, left them in the bottom half of the table. Despite all the apprehensions, Newcastle managed to retain all their star performers in the summer and also added depth to the central midfield with Anita joining the party. However, the trouble for the manager compared to last season is two folds: 1) Getting Cisse and Ba to work together in tandem 2) Getting his best eleven fit and firing just like last term.
Cabaye’s form and availability hasn’t been up to the standards this season and with the Frenchman ruled out until February, Pardew has been left clutching his straws with no quality player to deputize for him. The defence has also been a problem for the Magpies, especially in the absence of Coloccini who has missed far too many games this season due to injuries and suspension. Pardew must stem the rot as the Magpies European ambitions for the next season start to fade into oblivion.
David Moyes’ Everton running out of fuel
After many seasons of slow and sluggish starts, the Toffees finally began a league campaign with a bang with new signings jelling in and Fellaini proving a handful for opposition defenses. Lately though, the wins have turned to draws and the vibrancy and creativity again seems to be on the wane. Lack of squad depth continues to bog the Merseyside club especially during a period of more than a game a week. Likes of Steven Pienaar haven’t come to the party yet and with Everton’s thin squad they need everyone to be pulling in their weight. The injury to Phil Neville and now Leighton Baines has increased the worries for Moyes manifolds and with Manchester City to come in the next game, Europe certainly seems a destination too far for Moyes and his men.
There is no doubt that the Toffees’ first eleven is capable of competing against the best in the league but it the strength in depth of the squad that has time and again left the Merseysiders short of their target. Everton need to strengthen but will January provide any relief, smart money would be on a loan moves or two at best.
Can we call it a two horse race already, or will Chelsea manage to keep up? Well it looks an increasingly familiar story as both the Manchester clubs picked up all three points while Chelsea stuttered at home under new management. Man City are still unbeaten in the league and ominously getting better by the game while neighbors United currently occupy pole by just about playing to their standards for 15-20 minutes per game. The Premier league could turn into just a rainy La Liga by the looks of things although to be fair the Spanish League this term might be a stroll in the park for the Catalan giants.
Saints go unbeaten in four as Mark Clattenburg returns
After a horrific start to a new innings in the league, Southampton are surely on the road to redemption. The early season run of results could also be attributed to the extremely tough fixture list but now with the sun out (read a kind run of fixtures), Saints are surely making hay. Another point against a resurgent Norwich City and it could so easily have been all three had goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga been his usual reliable self. Nevertheless, a total of 8 points in 4 games represents marked improvement and most importantly hope when none seemed to exist.
Also, referee Mark Clattenburg began his officiating duties after being cleared of allegations of racial abuse. It was an understated and quiet return and that is how it should be.