Chelsea and Liverpool Top The Winners...

Chelsea and Liverpool both took huge steps towards their pre-season dreams, whilst Raheem Sterling and Eden Hazard are selected for special praise. David Moyes, not so much...

Last Updated: 10/02/14 at 12:49 Post Comment

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Winners

Chelsea and Jose Mourinho
A 3-0 home victory against a side currently struggling for form was no more than regulation for Chelsea, but with Arsenal and Manchester City dropping five points between them, this weekend provided a marked change in the title race - these are now your new favourites for the Premier League.

Not that it altered Jose Mourinho's stance, of course. Even after the stroll against Newcastle took the club to the top for the first time this season after a completed round of fixtures, Mourinho stuck to his self-penned script: "We have only one objective, which is to finish top four. I say as I feel it. I don't feel the change. We are top of the league and that's something we can't hide."

Speaking after the game, Jose joked about his 'little horse' analogy in the build up to the Manchester City victory. "You can forget about the horse now," were his first words, knowing that the horse had already served its purpose. Here is the clear master of deflecting attention and using the media for his own means. Many have commented that they don't believe his 'we're not challengers' schtick, but that spectacularly misses the point - the intention is not that you believe it, but that it becomes a discussion point. And when he talks, the press listen.

In a season in which comparisons between Mourinho and David Moyes have become inevitable, the Portuguese's most impressive achievement to date has been to get such a large proportion of his players to improve on their performances of last season. Eden Hazard (more on him next), John Terry, Oscar, Fernando Torres, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and Petr Cech have all progressed, proof of Mourinho's incredible man-management.

It's a simple formula: Make all the news about the manager rather than the players, shielding them from much of the scrutiny. Flatly deny both accusations of crisis or suggestions of glory, and do all in your power to ensure that your squad believes in every team selection, tactical tweak or signing made. Simple, but incredibly effective.

Finally on Sunday, we had the first admission from the Chelsea camp that we have been waiting for. "Top of the league," said Eden Hazard. "I go in my bed, I dream. I hope at the end of the season it will be the same." As if there was any doubt whatsoever.


Eden Hazard
New boy Nemanja Matic may have stolen the headlines following Monday's win over Manchester City (and the Serbian was again excellent at Stamford Bridge on Saturday), but this was further evidence that in Eden Hazard, Chelsea have the world's most in-form attacking midfielder.

In including Hazard in my recent Top Ten Important Players In The Run-In (I'm that prescient, folks), I remarked that Hazard was the heartbeat of Chelsea's attacking impetus, and never has that been more evident than against Newcastle. More shots on target than all of his teammates combined and only the fifth Premier League hat-trick of the season, this is still a player that has created almost double the amount of chances as any other Chelsea player this season. Goalscorer, Provider, Worker sounds an awful lot more pleasant than 'Captain, Leader, Legend'.

There is a look of the Thierry Henry to Hazard at the moment, if you'll allow me the wonderful daydream. The way in which it appears that time is running slower for him than the opposition when he has the ball at feet. The manner in which players are ghosted past in the blink of an eye through the introduction of a burst of pace or quick feet, and the finishing technique of starting the ball just outside the far post and letting your body shape and natural curl bring it back into the corner, leaving the goalkeeper with little no chance of making the save. And, to top it all off, that nonchalance in brilliance as if to say 'well yes, of course I just did that. I'm Eden bloody Hazard, that's what I do'.

His manager is equally impressed. Mourinho is a coach who continuously extols the virtue of the team over individual, but the Portuguese reserved special praise for Hazard's current excellence. "I think a team is made of 11 guys, but obviously he is special. I think in this moment he's the best young player in the world."

The most frightening aspect of it all is that Hazard only turned 23 last month. He'll still be eligible for the PFA Young Player of the Year next season.


Liverpool
Nick Miller covered Liverpool's dismantling of league leaders Arsenal in great detail in his 16 Conclusions after the game but, whilst he was correct in his suggestion that Liverpool are not (yet) genuine title challengers, that should not take away from what was a performance of incredible intensity and positivity.

I'll keep it pithy. That first 20 minutes was as good as anything a team have produced this season, and it was achieved against the league leaders. The harrying of the (high-quality) opposition during the opening stages was a deliberately initiated strategy that paid off perfectly - huge credit must go to Brendan Rodgers for that.

Like Arsenal in the Losers section below, judgement on Liverpool must be reserved slightly to see how they move on from such a performance and result. Rodgers' side are still to answer their away critics with an equally impressive statement. 16 points from 12 away games (and two victories in their last nine) provides an unstable platform for success.

But, for now, such talk seems cheap. To repeat, just watch that opening 20 minutes over and over again. Footballing majesty of the very highest order.


Raheem Sterling
If I were a betting man (and I am), I'd be taking this morning off work to have a little word with my bank manager and asking to borrow a couple of thousand large ones on something that looks closer to a dead cert.

"You can still get odds of 5/2 on Raheem Sterling making the World Cup squad dear man," I'd tell him, and he'd thank me heartily for doing so. "When you think that Joleon Lescott is as short as 6/5 in places it would be rude not to," I'd conclude, and he would smile warmly before leading me to the vault. "Let's stick it all on big man," he beams. "It'll only go on bonuses if we don't."

There seems to be an odd trend at the moment whereby Liverpool's English players are being largely overlooked and underrated. Daniel Sturridge has eight in his last seven games (more than any other player in Europe in that period?) and Jon Flanagan currently looks like England's new full-back elect. Sterling, meanwhile, appears to have started to combine the lightning pace of Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott and Andros Townsend with the eternal mythical enemy of the English winger, end product. Against Arsenal, Sterling came of age.

In an interview with the Telegraph last week, the winger revealed how he has suffered at times from playing in such vaulted company. "I realised I need to stop being shy among the senior boys. I had to be more confident. I wasn't confident enough to have a shot myself and instead I'd pass it to someone like [Luis] Suarez. I just said to myself that I had to step up and start running at defenders again; taking responsibility."

With 43 Premier League appearances since the beginning of last season, it's often easy to forget just how young Sterling is - Adnan Januzaj and Serge Gnabry are the only players younger with PL goals this season. In the last two years he has burst onto the scene, drifted away slightly and then regained his place once more.

Now seemingly firing on all cylinders, there seem to be genuine reasons to believe that Sterling has honed his game in order to come back stronger, both physically and mentally. If the winger can maintain his current form (and particularly the effective link-up with Sturridge), a place on the plane to Brazil should be regarded as a certainty. He could be an incredibly useful asset for England.


Philippe Coutinho and Lewis Holtby
Two passes and two assists that made you want to call your mother and tell her you wouldn't be coming home tonight.


Swansea and Garry Monk
Has a manager ever enjoyed such a wonderful and meaningful opening to a managerial career?

A comfortable victory over your fiercest rivals in front of home supporters that had seen just three home league victories since March 2013, scoring more than two goals in a match for the first time in 14 games.

"This is my proudest part," admitted a beaming Monk. "Confidence is the biggest thing. Half the battle is the mentality, if you can get the mentality right the football takes care of itself."

Doubts will still remain about Monk's aptitude for a battle against relegation, but the initial signs are overwhelmingly positive. Supporters will be hoping that winning becomes a habit under Monk.


Hull City
A victory against ten men, but a victory nonetheless, halting a run of six matches without a win and only a single goal scored in that period, this was just the second time this season that Hull have scored more than once away from home.

More victories will be needed to ensure that relegation fears are allayed, but a huge step in the right direction.


Tim Sherwood

A dreary match in which their opponents were often on top, but 20 points from a possible 27 for Tim Sherwood since taking over. You can read my reaction to Spurs' victory here.


Nikica Jelavic
His second goal in 35 Premier League games. The last one began a run of 21 scoreless matches so it would be churlish to get excited just yet, but the Croatian will be glad to get this particular monkey off his back.


Kevin Nolan
Four goals in two matches for Nolan, and two on Saturday achieved without the presence of Andy Carroll. His former housemate will be proud.

He may have received plenty of flak from unhappy West Ham supporters at times this season, but there is little doubt that when Nolan performs to the best of his ability, he is a key asset in West Ham's bid for survival.

That self-imposed rest over the festive period seems to have done just the trick. Perhaps that awful chicken dance is actually a tribute to the powers of Christmas turkey.


Crystal Palace
Seven wins since Tony Pulis was appointed on November 23 - a record bettered only by the current top five - things are suddenly looking rather mid-table for Crystal Palace. That was unthinkable three months ago.

Pulis evidently started by ensuring that his Palace side were solid at the back (not Ian Holloway's forte), and they have kept five clean sheets since December. However, January provided the club with the opportunity to add beauty to their brawn, and the arrival of Tom Ince and Joe Ledley in particular added much-needed invention and creativity. Both players then went and scored on their debuts in a victory that included Palace registering more than two goals in a game for just the second time in any competition this season - everything the manager is touching at present is turning to gold.

There are only two possible conclusions - either Pulis is a f*cking magician or he's a damn fine football manager.


Losers

Manchester United
Another week and another crisis at Manchester United. The draw at home to Fulham made it four points in their last four Premier League matches - only the three teams currently in the relegation zone have taken fewer. When you consider that those four games actually included fixtures against the current bottom two, that's pretty alarming stuff.

Sunday was supposed to be the catalyst for improvement. Fulham were the sitting duck, having lost their last three fixtures to Swansea, Southampton and Sheffield United without registering a goal, bottom of the league and with 17 defeats in 24 matches this season. Instead, United found another new way to shoot themselves in the foot and implode into utter mediocrity.

Before the game, David Moyes used his programme notes to bemoan his luck with injuries, referring specifically to the absence of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney for large periods of the season, but such words should fall on deaf ears. Whilst Rooney and RVP have 34 PL appearances between them, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have just three more, and the Liverpool strike pair have started nine matches as a partnership compared to ten for United's front two. City too have been forced to deal with the absence of Sergio Aguero at a time when they need him most. It's all just empty words, David.

In fact, offering excuses for underperformance is becoming the hallmark of Moyes' tenure at Old Trafford, with injuries simply the latest in a long line. Before the season began the fixtures were blamed, with the manager's bizarre "I find it hard to believe that's the way the balls came out of the bag" rant that awkwardly made us all think of scrotums.

Then Alex Ferguson received the flak. Moyes had been left with a shell of a squad, a car with no engine, a roast dinner with no meat, and other such weak analogies. The defence was aging, the midfield was aged and the wingers were inconsistent. The only reason that United won the title last season was because their rivals were so poor, we were told, completely ignoring the fact that Manchester City have actually only picked up one point more than at this stage last year, whilst United have 21 fewer. "Fortunately, he's left me a really strong team, which I think gives me a great chance of retaining the title," were Moyes' words last August.

Finally came the referees. Speaking after the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg defeat to Sunderland, Manchester United's third consecutive defeat for the first time since 2001, Moyes branded Andre Marriner and his officials "terrible". "We're having to play them as well as the opposition at the moment. We're actually beginning to laugh at them, that's the thing." It landed him an FA charge.

Well David, here are some home truths. Even accounting for all of your reasons, you're doing a rotten job of managing Manchester United, the Premier League champions. You have been in the job for only eight months and yet have already equalled Manchester United's record number of losses in a Premier League season. Your team, which was good enough to win the title last year, is now nine points off a Champions League place, and nearer to Crystal Palace than Chelsea.

On almost every level, Moyes is failing to do his job to the required level. In the broadest terms, the remit of a football manager is to get as many players as possible playing to the height of their potential. The greatest (and that evidently includes Ferguson) take this further, actually making the team greater than the sum of its parts.

Moyes is a long way from the former, simpler goal. It could be argued that Rooney is the only one performing at a higher level than last season, and even he is far from his peak form. Almost every other player without exception is performing at a lower level than they did even ten months previously. Rafael may have last month issued the stock quote expected of a player in such a situation ("I don't know why everyone is looking at the manager. It is the players who have to do the job on the pitch"), but this falls on deaf ears. The regression of individual players may be seen as an anomaly, but when 12 or 14 professional footballers suddenly begin to struggle almost en masse, the buck stops with the manager.

As I said in my piece after the game yesterday, United's squad is indeed in need of an overhaul. Moyes spent £37million on Juan Mata, but this was a luxury purchase when what United lacked is steel and solidity. Mata may well prove to be an excellent signing, but this was akin to installing a hot tub in the bathroom when the shower still needs fixing. Improvements are needed almost all over the pitch, particularly when you consider that Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs, Robin van Persie and Nani could all feasibly follow Nemanja Vidic out of the door. Captain, vice-captain, longest-serving player and top goalscorer.

The nagging question, however, is whether Moyes is the man to oversee such changes. Currently, the answer to that looms startlingly clear to all but a loyal band of Moyes supporters, a large proportion of whom are presumably simply refusing to believe that things can get any worse. But worse they are getting.

A comfortable defeat against Arsenal on Wednesday and the case for the prosecution is coming close to resting its case.


Cross, Cross, Cross, Angry
"Some people might say that one of the things that Manchester United do is play with width and cross the ball, that's in the genes here."

David Moyes really needs to get to grips with this concept, and quickly. Of course Manchester United have perennially played with width, and the likes of Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Cristiano Ronaldo are evidence of that. But there is a significant difference between then and now.

United's wing play in the past has been entwined with an exciting brand of counter-attacking football, about beating a full-back before crossing to an identified target to create a chance. It was not about a dreary commitment to a flawed strategy, a one-dimensional approach that has resulted in aimless deliveries into vague areas rather than at specific individuals.

"I don't think we just went out and crossed the ball," was Moyes' insistence, despite United attempting 81 in 90 minutes, a total higher than in any game since Opta records began in 2000.

We beg to differ, Davey, and something needs to change. While you're at it, stop putting Antonio Valencia at right-back - a joke gets old quickly when you hear it every other week.


Arsenal
It's only one defeat. It's only one defeat. It's only one defeat (and there is a great deal more on it here).

There will be plenty of Arsenal fans using that mantra over the next two days, rocking back and forth, desperately trying to persuade themselves that their season is not beginning to unravel in front of their very eyes. Again.

In fact, there is very little need to lose their sh*t just yet. After defeats to Bayern and Spurs early last year, Arsenal went on an 11-game unbeaten run until the end of the season. After they were humbled by Aston Villa on the opening day, their response was to win ten games in a row. Defeat at home to Dortmund in October was followed by a backs-to-the-wall victory in the Westfalenstadion a fortnight later, and after the 6-3 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City in December, Arsenal again went unbeaten for ten games. Adversity is inevitable, but Arsenal's responses following heavy defeats have been their reason for remaining in the title race until now.

Out of adversity comes opportunity, as my old mucker Benjamin Franklin once said, and presumably The First American was aware that Arsenal faced Manchester United just four days later. This is the opportunity to remove the demons of Anfield against an opposition that have provided their fair share of devilment down the years.

Lose (or even draw) against United on Wednesday and this column may begin making sweeping prophecies of doom. Until then, the benefit of the doubt still stays with a side that have proved their resilience on multiple occasions already.


Manuel Pellegrini
I'm loath to talk of concern, worry, angst or crisis, because Manchester City have plenty enough quality to make me look ridiculous, so I'm just going to leave this one here:

City have spent £102million on players since June. They have just one more point than at this stage last season when they finished 11 points from top.


Edin Dzeko
17 shots in his and City's last three matches, and only three of them on target. I'm scratching my head as to how he has 17 goals this season.


Mesut Ozil
A performance as rotten as one could expect from a £42million signing, even one who has flattered to deceive of late. When MOTD2's 'experts' pick up on your performance, you know it has stood out.

A huge improvement needed against United on Wednesday, but a match in which you could viably expect the German to stamp some of his obvious class. Class that's been kept well-hidden for too long.


Paul Lambert
West Ham have only beaten five teams this season, and each of the other four (Spurs, Fulham, Swansea and Cardiff) have since sacked their manager. On that basis alone, Lambert should be a worried man.

Villa may well avoid the drop, but I mean that in the least complimentary way possible, and Lambert's side have scored two goals in eight home league defeats this season. It's all utterly lifeless.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cardiff
Four defeats in five league matches under the Norwegian, and a comprehensive loss against local rivals which saw Cardiff very firmly remain in the bottom three. Malky Mackay took more points in his final five matches in charge, and he appeared to be nothing more than a dead man walking.

Cardiff's next three games at home see them face Aston Villa, Hull and Fulham. A vast improvement is needed if Vincent Tan's Red Dragons are to avoid becoming cut adrift at the bottom. You couldn't have wished it on a nicer owner.


Wes Brown
The sort of challenge that is only slightly permissible when your team is 1-0 up with 15 minutes left to play. For Brown to dive in on Shane Long with no possible hope of getting the ball was absolute madness, but to do it after just three minutes of a winnable home fixture with the scores level was just laughable to the neutral.

Brown should be thankful that Di Canio is no longer in charge. No ketchup for a fortnight.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

You should have added two more lines just to praise Coutinho. Brendan Rodgers has made him a better player. He always had an eye for a killer pass(needs to work on his shooting though) but now his ability to work off the ball is equally wonderful to watch. Take note...he has the making of the best midfielder in the world. He'll eventually get there. He is just 21 years old. All hail the magician!!!
- ynwa1892

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I

may well get slated by other United fans for this, but out of the three contenders, I'd far prefer Liverpool to win the title. Yes some elements of their fanbase can be a bit OTT, yes they're our biggest rivals and yes it will make our poor season feel even more like the end of an era (Fergie's gone, Liverpool are back on top). However I just have to applaud Brendan Rodgers and the way he's turned Liverpool around in just a couple of seasons. It...

Mike_Christie
Please Stop Telling Us What To Think

H

ooray! We are all excited now, we beat a very mediocre team! With all due respect to WHU supporters, not winning that game shouldn't even be a consideration. This is the problem, there is no winning mentality at the Emirates - we're all congratulating ourselves beating a team that we have a winning record against.

TheWhiz
Wenger hails important win

I

s this meant to be an aspiration for United supporters? Moyes mediocrity strikes again. I see the Bayern boys don't want to sign for him, and his reputation amongst the senior European coaches make other key signings unlikely.

redbornandbred
De Gea's Europa League target

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