Liverpool Jumping Over Every Hurdle

Only Liverpool can top Matt Stanger's Winners despite evident defensive shortcomings, whilst Manchester United's players looked bored in a huge game for their manager

Last Updated: 21/04/14 at 12:16 Post Comment

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What a week in the most twisty and turny of title races. The anxiety Liverpool displayed towards the end of their 2-1 win over Sunderland in March initially raised questions over their credentials, but they held their nerve on that night, and again to beat Manchester City at Anfield, and again to defeat Norwich on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Black Cats have put a severe dent in City and Chelsea's hopes, leading to considerable embarrassment for Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho.

If anyone doubted whether Liverpool can see the job through in the final four games, their trip to Carrow Road was the canary down the mine. The Reds started at warp speed, racing into a 2-0 lead through two moments of brilliance from Raheem Sterling. There are few players in the Premier League who can claim to be performing on the same level as the 19-year-old at the moment, and Brendan Rodgers deserves enormous credit for getting the most out of a player who couldn't make it into the team in the first half of the campaign.

There were points of concern, of course, in what was quite an episodic encounter. Simon Mignolet's error reinforced criticism of his decision-making and ability to challenge for crosses, while the defence were made to look vulnerable by the most impotent attack in the division. As Daniel Storey wrote here, Liverpool only have to concede two more strikes to be the champions with the worst 'goals against' record since Derby in 1975.

But what will that matter if they do finish as champions? Along with those second-half statistics that I bored everyone to death with before Christmas, an unenviable defensive record will be a trivial footnote in the story of the season should the Reds prevail. It is difficult to be so attacking without occasionally leaving yourself open at the back, and let's not forget that this is only Rodgers' second season of attempting to marry these two considerations.

Those reams of concerns over Liverpool's second-half performances were clearly exaggerated in hindsight, but I shall stand by the point one final time ahead of what is now the biggest match of the season. Defeats to City and Norwich in the second period meant nothing but extra perspiration after fantastic starts in both fixtures, but Chelsea are a different beast and will present a unique challenge to Rodgers on Sunday.

Indeed, Liverpool's task hasn't changed despite the Blues' defeat to Sunderland. Essentially, they must win or draw to avoid allowing City the chance to sneak the title on goal difference (as well as win their other two games). There is hope that Mourinho might throw in the towel and rest most of his team in the middle of two Champions League semi-final legs against Atletico Madrid, but he is bound to want a final word in the race. And, as I said last week, if there is one manager who can stop Liverpool, it is surely him.

There is a good chance that Chelsea will simply refuse to play in the first quarter of the match. By sitting deep and refusing to come out, the Blues can ask questions of Liverpool that City were reluctant to raise at Anfield. Perhaps Pellegrini is tied too tight to the principles of attacking football; Mourinho knows his reputation and cares not for accusations of parking the bus should that tactic prove successful.

Chelsea have also exhibited their counter-attacking prowess this season, particularly in the 1-0 win over City at the Etihad, and will pose an increasing threat as Sunday's clash develops. Jordan Henderson's absence was apparent in Liverpool's midfield at Norwich, and by moving the relentless Willian back into the centre of his three-pronged attacking midfield, Mourinho can look to impede Steven Gerrard's influence as well improving his own team's hopes of finding a decisive goal.

It will be a fascinating battle. Willian does the simple things so well it's a surprise he hasn't developed a reptitive strain injury, and Gerrard can expect the toughest match of his season if the Brazilian starts. But Rodgers will continue to display an unwavering faith in his players, and that belief, combined with the Reds' quality and tactical intelligence, is a potent recipe.

Two enormous results in the space of four days to revive their survival hopes. The Black Cats are now just three points from safety with a game in hand at home to West Brom.

Considering his team's achievements over the past week, there is no longer a fixture remaining that Gus Poyet should not envisage winning. With Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea to come at home, Sunderland can save themselves by dragging down their relegation rivals, while a trip to Old Trafford on May 3 is not the impossible test it used to be.

It would be a remarkable escape when all hope appeared lost. The only worry is that the Black Cats' abysmal home record - the worst in the top flight - trips them up once again.

Another team who didn't even have to play at their best to beat Manchester United. Everton's Champions League bid relies on Arsenal slipping up (perhaps at Norwich in the final game, as I suggested last week), but regardless of the outcome, this is a season to brag about at Goodison. A 38-point swing over United from this stage last year says more about David Moyes' failings at Old Trafford, but Roberto Martinez can take huge encouragement - and praise - from beating his predecessor's highest points total at the first attempt.

But statistics tell only one side of the story. What has been most exciting about Everton under Martinez is their fearless approach, attacking style and ability to switch between systems to suit the occasion - something Leighton Baines spoke about in depth in an interview with the Guardian.

"That's been the big thing for me," said Baines, "the difference in the style of play, committing to that and not feeling like we have to adapt to the opposition.

"The new manager has that confidence and belief in himself, in his own blueprint. And then in us. He tells us we're not going to change, we're just going to improve constantly and keep practising until we get to the level where we want to be. Stick to it, don't compromise, get better at it.

"He also spoke about the Champions League from the start. He didn't shy away from it. He came in and straight away he set the bar high."

One of those 'big' wins that we increasingly hear about at this stage of the season. Wilfried Bony's brace against Newcastle highlighted his magnificent 2014 thus far, with the striker notching 12 goals in his last 19 games for the Swans.

Tony Pulis
"And for my next trick, I will take Crystal Palace into the top half."

Harry Kane
Blowing a gale with three goals in three matches - the first time any Tottenham player has achieved that feat since Gareth Bale in May 2013. It's quite incredible that Spurs' season is ending with a rookie showing up the contribution of £26m record-signing Roberto Soldado.

Winners for winning, and keeping Everton at arm's length after the Toffees' costly slip-up at home to Crystal Palace in midweek. The return of Aaron Ramsey has provided a welcome boost in the run-in, but emphasises how much his absence hurt the Arsenal during a pivotal period. Clearly it is Arsene Wenger's responsibility to change the sodding record and ensure that such predictable injury problems don't hinder the Gunners once again next season.

Mike Riley
I made a cup of tea this morning only to find there was no milk in the fridge. Congratulations, Mike. *slow claps*


David Moyes
It hasn't been an easy week for the Manchester United manager, despite having ten days to prepare for his first return to Goodison Park. After fielding questions on Friday about anticipating a hostile reception - which certainly seemed a little unfair - Moyes was greeted on Sunday morning with a story in the Guardian that casts more doubts over his future at Old Trafford.

The Guardian's story was the latest leak in a long line of rumours that have trickled out of United this season, and revealed that Danny Welbeck is considering a summer move after becoming 'dismayed at his lack of opportunities to play as a striker and unsure of his relationship with the manager'.

One of the issues reportedly involved in Welbeck's unrest is Moyes' decision to fine the forward, along with Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young, after the trio were photographed on a night out the evening after United's defeat to Bayern Munich. Rules are necessary, of course, but with Welbeck and his teammates afforded a considerable window before their next match, the manager's response seemed disproportionate. It could be interpreted as an attempt to impose respect - an aim in which Moyes is destined to fail, especially after the campaign he has overseen.

It was unsurprising to note that Welbeck is entering the last two years of his contract, and so the Guardian's report is perhaps also a cynical ploy to manipulate United into opening talks over an extension. But the timing was interesting, if not completely inappropriate. 'One certainty,' wrote Daniel Taylor in the same paper on Saturday ahead of Moyes' return to Goodison, 'after this match, everybody should have a better impression whether his players are genuinely behind him.' Yet before a ball was even kicked, those doubts were strengthened by the revelations concerning Welbeck.

The match did little to change that impression. So uninspired were United that it was clear they were going to lose from the first minute to the last. It is strange to watch this once all-conquering machine reduced to a team with nothing to play for in the run-in, and even Moyes didn't look convinced by his pre-match claim that the club still had an 'outside chance' of finishing in the top four. By full-time, which thankfully brought the mathematical end of that particular nuisance, the manager no longer had to worry about keeping up appearances.

"We gave away two terrible goals," said Moyes in his post-match interview. "Prior to that we passed the ball really well, kept the ball, had great control of the game. What we couldn't do was make enough chances.

"We had a great control and we got done by two stupid decisions - a stupid decision to dive in front of the ball for one of them - two poor goals to give away."

If the manager is looking to gain the support of his players - something that I wrote in November would ultimately be crucial in whether he survives a disastrous campaign - then emphasising individual errors is not the best way to go about it. The strongest managers protect their players and, for all his irritating soundbites, Brendan Rodgers has been unrivalled in this respect this season. Moyes has struggled from start to finish - undermining his team's chances in the Champions League, pervading negativity by worrying about the fixture list, and repeatedly emphasising the necessity of a squad overhaul. He need only look at Chelsea's costly slump to see the detriment of a manager questioning the quality of his players.

As for the failure to create chances on Sunday, that came as little surprise as Moyes was out-thought by his Everton successor, Roberto Martinez. The Toffees sat deep to stifle the twin threats of Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa, while Wayne Rooney stifled himself in an increasingly familiar subdued performance. Indeed, so desperate was the striker's display that he should have been replaced to allow Welbeck his chance in the centre. Instead, Rooney remained on the pitch for the full 90 minutes, as he did in Munich despite his weak efforts.

The changes Moyes did decide to make offered almost no impetus whatsoever. Again he threw Antonio Valencia on at right-back, and again the winger looked completely lost in the position. Not only has that switch frequently failed to have the desired effect in an attacking sense, but it has also repeatedly left United vulnerable in defence and, were it not for Chris Smalling heading clear a Seamus Coleman cross in the closing stages, the unmarked Steven Naismith - Valencia's man - would have had simple chance to score at the back post.

The defensive frailties are a concern, but those worries would be reduced by more inventive attacking displays. That Moyes' United have scored 22 goals fewer at this stage than Sir Alex Ferguson's champions of last season is one of his biggest failings. "You can lose games but never be dull," said Gary Neville after United mustered just one attempt on target in the 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool in March. "United have lost games, lost championships in the past but they had fire in their performances and a die trying attitude which isn't there. The fans can't stand that it's boring to watch and it's happened so many times this season."

Sunday was more of the same, as 61% possession for the visitors resulted in just two attempts on goal. They were boring to watch and they looked bored to be there. That was the most astonishing aspect of another day of misery.

Wayne Rooney
A winner for the next five years with his £300,000-a-week contract that makes him the highest-paid player in the Premier League. But Rooney no longer looks like a man who enjoys his football. It has seemingly become a business exercise for him as much as it is for the Glazers.

Manchester United
It feels appropriate to separate the two - Moyes and United - because one has thus far embodied the opposite of everything we've come to expect from the other. But who on earth is going to carry out the necessary deed? It still appears the decision lies in Sir Alex Ferguson's willingness to admit his biggest mistake.

Chelsea and Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho is always fantastic entertainment, but even though his meltdown on Saturday is exactly the sort of thing we love to see, it was still embarrassing to watch him offer sarcastic congratulations to the officials. As this reaction piece states, Mourinho has somehow mind-gamed his team out of the title race, despite it being in Chelsea's hands and despite 'mind-gamed' being the most unforgivable verb we've ever used on Football365. Perhaps a miraculous twist will pull the Blues back in, but their Champions League pursuit is now Mourinho's best chance of avoiding a second successive season without silverware.

Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce
Second and third on the Premier League's longest-serving managers list, but how much longer can this pair keep the wolf from the door? In Allardyce's case, this tweet from David Gold suggests he has plenty of work to do to convince the owners he's still the right man for the job.

Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.

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