Liverpool Top The Winners List Again...

Can they win the title? Yes they can, writes Matt Stanger, who puts Tottenham in the Winners section but still gives them a kicking. Top of the losers? You know who...

Last Updated: 04/03/14 at 09:33 Post Comment

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Winners

Liverpool
This is becoming a habit.

Unbeaten in the Premier League since back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea in December and seven wins in their last nine matches. Liverpool would be top of the table if it weren't for that disastrous first half against Aston Villa and Kolo Toure's costly error at West Brom.

The Reds have learnt a lot from those setbacks, though. Brendan Rodgers has been less bullish in voicing his title ambition, while "the three gentlemen up front" (phrasing courtesy of John Henry) have realised they have to score as many goals as possible to atone for Toure's mistakes. On Saturday he was left on the bench as Liverpool recorded their first clean sheet in six matches.

A particularly impressive aspect of the win over Southampton was the way in which Liverpool controlled another game despite recording less possession than the hosts. The Reds restricted Saints to just two efforts on target despite a prolonged spell of pressure before half-time and then dominated the second period following the introduction of the third gentleman, Raheem Sterling.

The winger's goal preceded a final half-hour in which Liverpool managed as many shots as they had in the previous 60 minutes, while Southampton only had two further attempts. With Rodgers choosing to start Joe Allen ahead of Sterling as he switched to a diamond formation, it was a performance of containment followed by ruthless counter-attacking to see off an opponent that had lost only once in their previous seven fixtures, an opponent that embarrassed Liverpool in this fixture last year.

"We've worked on this formation all week. We chose to play a diamond and I think it shocked Southampton," said Steven Gerrard. "We broke, played on the counter-attack superbly well and could have got more goals."

So the question on everyone's lips: can Liverpool win the title? Of course they can. Taking the respective fixture lists into consideration, the Reds can be out of Arsenal's reach by the end of March and have enough quality to take maximum points from Chelsea and Manchester City when the pair visit Anfield. The clash with Jose Mourinho's side on April 27 already looks set to be decisive.

And on top of that, Liverpool have enormous momentum. The last time the Reds went nine games unbeaten in a single top-flight season was when they finished second in 2008/09, and picked up 31 points from their last 11 matches. The striking thing about that run is that it saw Liverpool keep seven clean sheets and concede a total of just three goals in ten of those final 11 fixtures. The other was the famous 4-4 draw at home to Arsenal, which proved to be a defining moment in the title race as Manchester United moved three points clear with a game in hand the following evening.

As we have seen with the current Liverpool team, the propensity for damaging lapses has not disappeared. With only one defeat at home all season and 42 goals on their own patch (more than 15 clubs have scored in total, and only one fewer than United's number) the Reds will be confident of beating City and Chelsea. But there are still plenty of opportunities for another result such as those against West Brom, Villa and Hull earlier in the campaign.

But Liverpool have been rapidly improving to a point where their belief is now believable. The players have responded to the manager adapting his system to get the best out of his phenomenal strikeforce, while a lack of European competition has also been crucial. No-one expected Liverpool to be in this position with just ten games left to play, and being the surprise package in the title race may work in their favour.


Chelsea and Andre Schurrle
A victory for top against bottom may not seem like a terribly impressive result, but the circumstances made Chelsea's trip to Fulham rather tricky. Derby matches always throw up the potential for a shock (although not usually in this particular derby), while the Blues' record when they have had only two days' rest between matches this season makes for grim reading.

As Winners and Losers has outlined before, a lack of recovery time was partly responsible for Chelsea dropping points away to West Brom, at home to West Ham, losing to Sunderland in the League Cup, losing at Stoke, losing away to Basel and just about escaping with a point at home to West Brom. It's no wonder Jose Mourinho and Frank Lampard have been kicking up a stink over the past week.

However, the result and performance at Fulham provided timely encouragement to Chelsea's hopes of seeing the job through. The Blues were not at their brilliant best, but did enough to make light work of the hosts thanks to Andre Schurrle finally contributing something of note since his goal in the 2-1 win over Man City back in October. For £19m, Mourinho could be forgiven for expecting a little more from the Germany international in his first campaign, but perhaps Schurrle is now poised to make an impact.


Tottenham
The sort of blunt performance that Spurs supporters became accustomed to under Andre Villas-Boas (especially in the first four months of this season), but a significant victory nonetheless. As Spurs fan and Four Four Two writer James Maw tweeted: 'That second half was possibly the worst 45 mins of Premier League football I've ever seen.' Still, moving six points behind Arsenal ahead of the north London derby on March 16 is some consolation.

And yet there is understandable frustration and resignation surrounding Spurs' bid to snatch fourth place. This campaign has been a huge gamble at White Hart Lane that hasn't once looked close to claiming the jackpot. Tottenham are in the race just enough to provide a tantalising sense of hope, and yet not enough for that hope to kill you. Supporters know the club's quest is doomed, despite Tim Sherwood's impressive record of eight wins in 12 matches.

As much as fans may rage at the manager - and with just cause following the defeat to Norwich - the real anger is directed at the board. The lack of a convincing contingency plan following Villas-Boas' sacking was unforgivable, while the decision to replace the Portuguese when Tottenham were five points from fourth and still in every cup competition remains questionable.

This is not to say that Villas-Boas didn't make mistakes, the most culpable of which was the acquisition of Roberto Soldado - one signing the manager couldn't pin on Franco Baldini. It was amusing to see the almost patronising way in which the Spurs players celebrated with the striker when he scored against Cardiff, with Emmanuel Adebayor and even Andros Townsend pointing to the Spaniard in sheer disbelief. Rarely has a celebration seemed so incongruous with a £26m price tag.


Stoke
Six points clear of the drop following another huge result at home. One wonders how Stoke can beat Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United at the Britannia, but account for one of Norwich's two away victories. The Potters face the Canaries next, and have a chance to claim back-to-back victories for the first time since August and only the second time this season.


Aston Villa
A result of mixed fortunes. On the one hand, supporters will be glad to see Christian Benteke back in form as Villa notched a quarter of their total number of home goals in just 16 minutes. However, the victory - and the stride towards safety - makes a new contract for Paul Lambert seem all the more likely. Is it worth it for one or two days of entertainment a season?


Romelu Lukaku
Back from injury and back on the scoresheet for the first time since December. The Europa League may be an unwanted distraction to many, but qualifying for the competition ahead of David Moyes' Manchester United would be a great achievement for Everton in Roberto Martinez's first year in charge.


Newcastle
Back-to-back wins to stop the rot of three straight defeats. Will they finish eighth or will they finish ninth? The suspense is killing us.


Steven Caulker
Inexplicably recalled to the England squad ahead of Cardiff's 16th defeat of the season and sixth in eight matches under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

One wonders what James Tomkins has to do to get a call-up. The 24-year-old has six years' experience of playing in the Premier League compared to Caulker's three and has played a crucial role in West Ham's revival following his return from injury. The Hammers' ten clean sheets in Tomkins' 20 top-flight appearances this season suggests he was unfairly overlooked.


Losers


Arsenal
And just like that, it was over. No mauling against Manchester City, no chastening defeat to Chelsea; instead, a defeat to Stoke that reinforced everyone's suspicion for some time - Arsenal's squad is not quite ready to challenge. The Gunners' campaign has been far from a disappointment, but still immensely frustrating when you consider what could have been achieved with one or two more signings either in the summer or January. To miss one opportunity could be seen as unfortunate, to miss two is negligent.

Injuries have been crucial and yet that is no excuse for Arsene Wenger when Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott were ruled out long before the winter deadline day. Had Liverpool lost one of their leading threats to injury (or perhaps more likely, suspension) then their momentum would have taken a similar hit to Arsenal. Instead, the Reds are unbeaten in nine, winning seven of those matches. The Gunners have won one and lost two of their last four.

The defeat to Stoke again highlighted the absence of Ramsey and Walcott as Arsenal struggled to create chances, as well as Wenger's failure to recruit a frontman with more mobility than Olivier Giroud. (Apropos of nothing, Salomon Kalou scored a hat-trick for Lille at the weekend. Even the best worst option might have offered Arsenal something in the final third of the campaign.)

That Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain created more chances than any of his teammates in just 16 minutes on the pitch says everything you need to know about a dreary Arsenal performance. That Yaya Sanogo skied one of Chamberlain's assists over the bar from ten yards says an awful lot about Wenger's misguided faith. The placebo effect of Mesut Ozil was already wearing thin by January - just why didn't he feel compelled to do more than loan the broken Kim Kallstrom?

Kallstrom will now make his debut with Arsenal's title hopes already ended. The Gunners face Tottenham, Chelsea and Man City before the end of March looking to save face more than anything else. How many points will they pick up from those three fixtures and the following game at Everton? If they continue to perform as they did at Stoke, a fight for fourth may not yet be beyond them.


Fulham
Another defeat in the absence of record signing Kostas Mitroglou. Spending £12m on a half-fit striker to save their season wasn't one of Fulham's better decisions this year. In fact, we're struggling to think of anything Shahid Khan has got right, apart from that wonderful moustache.


Alan Pardew
The only thing more embarrassing than Pardew's headbutt was the ridiculous (and entirely expected) reaction on Twitter. Why would you want to send a manager who headbutts opposition players to prison? Keep televising Pardew's hilarious implosions, I say.


Swansea
A wasted chance to secure three vital points. They can't afford more gifts to their rivals when West Brom and Norwich visit the Liberty Stadium before the end of March.


Norwich
A shiny penny for the thoughts of David McNally this morning. It is now too late to sack Chris Hughton, but also too late to secure survival. Norwich might look comfortable as they sit four points above Sunderland (who have two games in hand) but they have only six games left to save themselves. The last four matches - against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - looked impossible even before a 4-1 drubbing at Aston Villa.

Norwich's mistake was to allow Hughton so many chances to save himself which, rather inexplicably, he has managed to take every time.

Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.

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