City Top The Winners, Thanks To Chelsea

Man City now have it all to lose after Jose Mourinho did Manuel Pellegrini a huge favour. It's a rare occasion when Liverpool are in the losers and Man United in the winners...

Last Updated: 28/04/14 at 13:27 Post Comment

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Manchester City
"It would be very disappointing - for football, for the fans, for everyone (if Chelsea won the title). I think the most attractive football, the more goals you can score, should be rewarded. I'm not saying it's not important to defend very well. Football is attacking and defending. But I think big teams must play as big teams."

Time for a slice of humble pie, Manuel? If the Manchester City manager is to win a first-ever league title in Europe this season, he will owe a large share of gratitude to Jose Mourinho. Unable to beat his rival on two occasions and unable to out-think Liverpool with a better team than Sunday's patch-work Chelsea side, Pellegrini has relied on Mourinho to afford City another chance.

It was one they took on Sunday with a result that was seemingly safe by the fourth minute when Edin Dzeko headed the visitors into the lead. For all Crystal Palace's many achievements under Tony Pulis, they have still gained the fewest number of points (two) from losing positions in the Premier League and, especially after City's slip at home to Sunderland, it was unlikely the Eagles would be allowed back into the contest.

On this occasion City held their nerve, with the returning Yaya Toure securing the points before half time with his 19th goal of the campaign. With six assists also to his name, that's 27% of City's total goals the midfielder has contributed towards - a hugely impressive record.

Given the leg-up they have received from Chelsea, it would be embarrassing for City to throw it away from here. With home games against Aston Villa and West Ham in the last week of the season, that should be six points in the bag. On top of that, they are likely to require three at Everton, something Palace achieved two weeks ago with a team that cost a minute fraction of City's. It's Pellegrini's last chance to prove he has a winner's touch; mess it up and he will be labelled a failure.

A final point. With the table as it currently stands, and the forthcoming fixtures being what they are, it seems probable that a City title win will be achieved on goal difference for the second time in three seasons. A curious statistic, and one that perhaps points at slow progress in Sheikh Mansour's sixth year of ownership. Winning is winning, but four trophies in six years is not a huge return on the Sheikh's astronomical investment. Neither is two wins and three defeats in six matches against the rest of the top four. City should be blowing their rivals away, but instead they have been bullying the smaller sides and letting Mourinho do their dirty work. Much more is expected from Pellegrini and his players next season.

Chelsea and Jose Mourinho
It is possible to despise the man's means but respect his end, however much an innuendo that sounds. The hypocrisy of Jose Mourinho knows no bounds; berating ball-boys at Crystal Palace for time-wasting a month ago, then telling his own players to do the same twice in a week. Mark Schwarzer was slowing the game down in the second minute at Anfield.

But it worked. As this column previously stated, if there was one man who could stop Liverpool, it was surely Mourinho, and he did it with one arm tied behind his back. Chelsea delivered their best performance of the season in the 1-0 win at City in February, and only three of that first XI started on Sunday. Even with Tomas Kalas making his full debut in defence, Luis Suarez couldn't find his first goal against a top-four rival this season. Why is it only Mourinho who can turn it on so consistently in these games?

As I've said before, Pellegrini's comments at the top of the page are a nonsense. Chelsea's approach may have been a negative one, as Brendan Rodgers opined, but that isn't to say it wasn't enjoyable to watch. The defensive discipline was remarkable, with the Blues suffocating Liverpool but committing only seven fouls to prevent set-piece opportunities around the box. And, unlike the 0-0 draw against Atletico Madrid, which I criticised here, they were a constant threat on the break, recording both of the game's two attempts on target in the first half.

There is an irony, of course, to Mourinho claiming it is 'easy' to win matches in this manner - a point on which Rodgers agreed - and then being praised for a masterclass. But then why is he the only coach to do it? Liverpool, who we'll come to, only needed a draw, and yet they played for a win and lost. Rodgers changed nothing to suit his opponent - it might be impossible to account for slips such as Steven Gerrard's, but look at the space between the centre-backs. Liverpool didn't need to play such an expansive game.

Mourinho's victory is bittersweet. With eight changes to the side that derailed City in February, his comments about lacking the squad to win the league appear even more unconvincing. Had they beaten Sunderland, Chelsea would be top and that would be that. With Norwich at home and Cardiff away to come, the title would surely be returning to Stamford Bridge for the first time in four years.

There is faint hope, although not by the sound of Mourinho's post-match interview. A City defeat at Everton and the same for Liverpool at Palace - a possibility considering how low they will be feeling - and Chelsea are back in the driving seat. Their focus is firmly on the Champions League, however, and if they play like they did on Sunday, the Blues stand a strong chance of lifting the trophy for the second time in three years. Despite their recent slip in Premier League standing, three successive European crowns would be a superb achievement.

Manchester United
A second-half performance that erased the memories of David Moyes' reign with each passing minute. It was an impressive display from Manchester United and their new manager, and one that demonstrated the hunger that has been lacking this season.

I praised Giggs in this reaction piece, but it is also right to ask questions of the players given the contrast between their commitment on Saturday and the absence of any fight and desire at Goodison Park the week before. Their standards have slipped, and that is not only down to the Moyes effect. He may have been a depressing influence in training and on the touchline - micro-managing his team to a ridiculous degree - but if you play for United (indeed, any team) you give your best every time. Some of those players can't claim to have met that demand in the past eight months.

The biggest difference between Giggs and Moyes was summed up in three little words in the manager's pre-match interview. "I trust them," said Giggs, as he explained how he had told the players to enjoy the occasion and express themselves. That was always an element to Moyes' reign that seemed to be missing. Sitting behind the manager in United's 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in January, it was startling to see the number of instructions he shouted to the team. Caution, caution, caution, with his gesturing hand telling Rafael and Phil Jones to retreat. And this was when United were losing.

This is not to say that he deserves the job (something I would strongly argue against), but in one game, Giggs looked more like a United manager than Moyes. He got a response from the players when it was needed at half-time and, unlike Moyes' fist-pumping celebration of United's second goal in the 2-2 draw at home to Fulham, Giggs acted with decorum throughout. Perhaps I should forgive Moyes his moment of jubilation, but no-one in charge of United should be so wildly excited with what would have been a narrow victory over Fulham. Giggs knew that steamrolling Norwich was only to be expected.

There is a sense that United needed this period to cleanse before the new manager is appointed. Had the players been sent on holiday or to the World Cup immediately on the back of Moyes' sacking, the regrets of this season would have lingered more persistently. Instead, a few wrongs can be righted in the run-in, with Giggs returning a cutting edge to performances (United had more shots on target against Norwich than in any PL game since December 2011) and even some of the old arrogance that was so pleasing (or puke-inducing, if you prefer) about United's previous domination.

They are not back yet. That is a job for Louis van Gaal or whoever else is installed. But United are on the road to recovery. It was fun to watch them again, and there isn't much else you can ask from a caretaker manager.

Sunderland and Connor Wickham
Would you rather see Wickham - five goals in his last three games - or Andy Carroll - two goals in 14 matches this season - in England's World Cup squad? Neither, you'd pick Rickie Lambert of course, but it says a lot about Carroll's bid to be on the plane that he's being out-performed by a striker who, before the past week, had scored once in his previous 37 Premier League appearances.

It's a brilliant story, and credit must go to Gus Poyet, however desperate he might have been, for giving Wickham the confidence to lead Sunderland's survival charge. "Maybe, with this guy, I have to slap his face a little bit," said Paolo Di Canio of Wickham's perceived lack of motivation at the end of last season. Maybe that's why you're still out of work, Paolo.

Another two strikes for Daddy Cool, tipped by our very own Cheeky Punt at 15/2 on Friday. Beers on Degsy.

To hit 15 league goals in a team battling relegation is a brilliant effort in Wilfried Bony's first season. The Swans are finally safe, and they can now focus on fixing the reported in-fighting that has cast a cloud over the club since last year's League Cup win.

A goal each for Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long to help Hull fight back from 2-0 down to all but secure survival. They don't look like money wasted now.

West Brom
A first home win for Pepe Mel at the eighth attempt, following four 1-1 draws, two 3-3 draws and a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United. West Ham, now without a clean sheet in ten games (the longest run in the division), were the perfect opponents and for once the Baggies didn't pass up the opportunity.

Four more points to guarantee Europa League football. Considering next year's winners will be awarded a place in the Champions League, it might be Spurs' best chance to return to the elite competition. After all, they're not having much luck with the fight for fourth.


Simply not good enough. Nothing more to add.

Aston Villa
There is a good chance they'll have to beat Hull on Saturday to avoid needing a result away to Manchester City or Spurs in the final week. Without Christian Benteke, their hopes look slim.

An opportunity missed. They can't afford to do the same against Stoke and Crystal Palace.

I am loath to criticise a team that have surpassed everyone's expectations this season, and anyway, Daniel Storey has done a good job of being mean to Liverpool in 16 Conclusions. If you ask me, I think he hates them.

But there are points that should be made about Sunday's defeat; one which has handed the advantage back to Manchester City, however slender it may be. You need to know your enemy. There aren't many managers in the game cast in this mould, but Jose Mourinho loves to play the pantomime villain, and at Anfield, Liverpool were the jeering audience. The afternoon was entirely about him because they allowed it to be.

Mourinho wants to be attacked and he wants opponents to attack his team. If the crowd are booing time-wasting tactics in the first minute, he is already on his way to winning. He does not care in the slightest about criticism - not during the game, anyway, although his sarcastic remark about Jamie Redknapp and his 'brilliant football brain' was an amusing retort to the Sky pundit censuring the manager's antics following Chelsea's defeat to Sunderland.

Liverpool were their own worst enemy on Sunday. They played into Chelsea's hands by forcing the issue in the first half when a draw was good enough, and then failed to find the plan B that was required to attack a team playing so deep there was no space in behind to exploit. Anfield was silent in the second half, save for a few groans at Chelsea's play-acting. The nerves spilled on to the pitch and resulted in a performance as flat as a pancake. Make us dream? Make the players believe they can do it.

It was a match in which past experience was actually a hindrance to the Reds. The many famous games in Steven Gerrard's career convinced the captain that he could save the day once again, but on this occasion his wayward attempts were wasted opportunities. Gerrard's eight shots in the second half killed Liverpool's tempo. This is when Rodgers' possession philosophy should have returned to the fore - probe, probe, probe until a chance - but instead the Reds became desperate, defined by Gerrard's lack of composure.

It is not over yet, but it may have been thrown away. Chelsea arrived with an air of resignation - a sickly Mourinho and an understrength team focused on Wednesday's semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid. They were there for the taking and, at the very least, Liverpool could have had the point they required to keep the title race in their hands.

They blew it by being themselves. Commendable, to an extent, but a meaningless footnote when the prizes are handed out in two weeks' time. For all those 96 goals and the 30 belonging to Luis Suarez, the Reds couldn't find one when it really mattered against Chelsea. A combination of nerves and naivety did for them, and it's now a case of praying for a favour from Everton. Hopefully they didn't see the Toffees' performance on Saturday.


Matt Stanger - he's on Twitter.

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