A potentially pivotal weekend in the English Premier League saw Chelsea extend their lead at the top of the table to five points following Manchester City’s home defeat to Arsenal whilst Southampton, Manchester United and Liverpool all registered victories to keep up their hopes of a top four finish. New Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew continued his dream start with the club as his side fought back from two goals down to beat Burnley at Turf Moor, as fellow Premier League strugglers Leicester City, Hull City and Sunderland all failed to take advantage of the Clarets’ slip up.
Chelsea imperious at the Liberty Stadium
A first-half demolition job courtesy Oscar and Diego Costa saw the league leaders sweep aside Swansea in a match that was widely expected to present a tough challenge for Chelsea given the Blues’ less than ideal form away from home of late. Swansea were missing key midfield players Jonjo Shelvey (suspension), Ki Sung-Yeung (national duty) and Leon Britton (injury), forcing manager Gary Monk to play Gylfi Sigurdsson in a deeper midfield role. The plan backfired just a minute into the game as Chelsea pressed high up the pitch, forcing a mistake from Sigurdsson whose poor pass fell in the path of Oscar. The Brazilian made no mistake from 20 yards, beating Fabianski with a low shot and scoring his team’s opener for the second Premier League game in a row.
If the first goal was slightly fortunate, the second was anything but. It came at the end of some beautiful interplay between Chelsea’s attacking players – a move involving Matic, Filipe Luis, Fabregas, Willian, Oscar and Diego Costa was finished off in style by the Brazilian-born Spanish international for his 16th goal of the campaign. Chelsea were as ruthless and clinical as Swansea were poor and the Blues’ intensity and pressure high up the park forced another mistake – this time from Federico Fernandez as his backpass was intercepted by a lurking Diego Costa who swept the ball home with ease for Chelsea’s third. Oscar made it four a minute later, effectively killing the game well before the half-time whistle. Schurrle put the icing on the cake in the second half, but all the damage was done in the first – the league leaders throwing down the gauntlet ahead of City’s clash against Arsenal.
Manchester City title hopes dealt major blow by Arsenal
Arsenal pulled off a major upset in the Premier League on Sunday by beating Manchester City 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium. Arsene Wenger, who has been heavily criticised for being unable to secure victories against the top teams in the league, adopted a more cautious approach as his side ceded possession to City opting for a more counter-attacking style of play. Often criticised for not having a Plan B, Wenger’s side showed immense tactical discipline and none of the reckless abandon that saw them get humiliated in the same fixture as well as at Anfield and Stamford Bridge last season.
Francis Coquelin – recently recalled from his loan spell at Charlton – stood out in his defensive midfield role, allowing the likes of Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez to weave their magic in the attacking third. The two-footed Spaniard in particular was superb, converting Arsenal’s penalty before setting up Olivier Giroud for Arsenal’s second. Manchester City, for their part, looked toothless up front despite the return of top scorer Sergio Aguero. Perhaps the absence of Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure was telling, as the home side failed to fashion any clear-cut chances against a depleted Arsenal defence. The Blues now trail league leaders Chelsea by five points going into the big clash at Stamford Bridge on January 31st – not a position they would have wanted to find themselves in. Arsenal, on the other hand, can draw inspiration for the rest of the campaign from what was a morale-boosting win in a big game away from home. Perhaps a title challenge is beyond them this season, but with plenty of football still to play, the Gunners will be hoping to get as close as possible.
Louis van Gaal abandons 3-5-2 as second-half substitutes secure United win
Manchester United snapped a three-game winless streak with a 2-0 win against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road. Much to the chagrin of United fans, manager Louis van Gaal set his team up in a 3-5-2 formation yet again, with Angel Di Maria partnering Radamel Falcao up front. The Colombian’s poor half-season for the Red Devils has invited speculation about his long-term future at the club, and El Tigre failed to make his mark yet again despite looking much sharper and having several chances to get his name on the scoresheet. QPR had the better of the first half as United failed to carve out any openings, the players seemingly struggling in the formation they were being played in.
The away fans made their discontent known with chants of ‘4-4-2’ directed at their Dutch manager – and to his credit, van Gaal acknowledged the tactical failure by bringing on Marouane Fellaini for Juan Mata at half-time as well as reverting to an orthodox back four. The move paid dividends soon after as Antonio Valencia set up the Belgian in the box for United’s opener. QPR struggled to keep up as a golden opportunity was wasted by Eduardo Vargas after the Chilean took advantage of some sloppy communication between Michael Carrick and Marcos Rojo. Teenager James Wilson made the points safe in injury time with a breakaway goal, consigning Harry Redknapp and his side to their second loss in a row – their fifth consecutive game without a win.
Southampton, Liverpool keep up top-four pressure with away wins
Southampton – without doubt the surprise package of the season – kept up their brilliant run of form by following up their wins against Arsenal and Manchester United by beating Newcastle United away from home. New signing Eljero Elia scored both goals in a 2-1 win that was all the more impressive given the injuries in the Saints’ squad. Few would have predicted them to be in third place by the end of January, and that includes manager Ronald Koeman. Speaking after the game, the Dutchman said, “If, in August, people had said we’d be third in the league now I’d have laughed but I’m very, very happy and very delighted.”
Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, seems to be piecing his Liverpool side back together gradually as the Reds registered yet another clean sheet in an away win. Fabio Borini started up front for Liverpool and put away an inch-perfect cross from stand-in captain Jordan Henderson to give his side the lead. Aston Villa, who have scored a miserly 11 goals in 22 games this season – the lowest in the league by a distance – struggled going forward again in this game despite some half-chances that fell the way of Belgian forward Christian Benteke. Substitute Rickie Lambert put the result beyond doubt ten minutes from time, finding the bottom right corner of Guzan’s goal with pin-point accuracy. Liverpool are now the most in-form team in the league behind Southampton, and with just five points separating them from the Champions League spots, there’s all to play for going into the business end of the season.
Elsewhere in the league, Tottenham Hotspur saw off Sunderland’s challenge at White Hart Lane with star man Christian Eriksen scoring just his latest winner in what was Spurs’ seventh 2-1 win this season. High-flying West Ham beat Hull City 3-0 with Stewart Downing once again on the scoresheet, whilst Stoke City heaped pressure on Leicester boss Nigel Pearson with a 1-0 win at the King Power Stadium ensuring the Foxes remain rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table. Meanwhile, Alan Pardew’s Midas touch continued as his Crystal Palace side fought back from 2-0 down to beat Burnley 3-2 at Turf Moor thanks to a Dwight Gayle brace.
All in all, an exciting weekend in the Premier League, and one that sets up a grandstand finish to the month that could have a major say in where the title ends up come the end of the season.