Champions-Elect Chelsea Top Winners...

Barring a run to the Champions League final, Matt Stanger cannot see Chelsea not winning the title. That's no slur on Liverpool, who are so ahead of schedule...

Last Updated: 26/03/14 at 13:53 Post Comment

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Winners

Chelsea
The biggest winners of the weekend, both in their 6-0 victory over Arsenal and what that means for the title race. It was a shoot-out between the quick and the dead at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea bursting into a 3-0 lead and the Gunners crumbling in the pathetic manner we have come to expect. They just don't do big matches in the Premier League; Jose Mourinho just doesn't lose them.

This is not the first time in recent weeks that we have said Chelsea should win the title from this position and, despite the slip-up at Aston Villa which put Manchester City's fate in their own hands, the Blues are still the strongest shout. Can City beat Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool away from home? They have shown signs of recovery in recent weeks, but not yet to the extent that you would back them to gain the points they require in those matches.

Chelsea, on the other hand, have an incredibly straightforward run-in, facing five of the bottom ten, Stoke at home, and Liverpool away. With peripheral players such as Andre Schurrle and, on Saturday, Fernando Torres, beginning to play a bigger role in first-team fortunes, Mourinho is well-equipped to see the job through, regardless of his constant reminders that Chelsea are a year ahead of schedule. If that's true, then how many years have Liverpool shaved off?

The main issue is whether a Champions League quarter-final against PSG will derail Chelsea's challenge. We have already discussed at length the Blues' struggles to recover from midweek matches, and the results that have been a consequence of that factor, while the possibility of reaching the final is a significant distraction.

The quarter-final is perhaps not an enormous problem. Chelsea play Stoke at home on Saturday tea-time after the trip to Paris on Wednesday April 2, but have a break until Sunday (when they travel to Swansea) following the return leg at Stamford Bridge on April 8. That the clash with the Potters comes only 72 hours before the second leg against PSG is a nuisance to the Blues' Champions League hopes, but surely surmountable in the context of the title run-in.

However, should Chelsea progress against PSG, they will face a much bigger barrier to their title chances. Not only are they likely to draw a tougher opponent (although PSG can rightly be considered among the favourites this year), but the fixture list will suddenly look worryingly congested. The Blues will have to play four more games than Liverpool and Manchester City in April, with the trip to Anfield coming between the two semi-final legs in what could be a season-defining week.

If Chelsea lose to PSG, barring an acute crisis of confidence it seems almost certain they will secure the title. If they make it to the semi-finals, it will require an incredible effort to remain on course in that final week in April.


Nemanja Matic
The signing of the season if Chelsea win the Premier League. While Arsenal froze, Liverpool faffed and Manuel Pellegrini combed Martin Demichelis' lovely hair in January, Mourinho fixed a long-term problem in his starting XI. The result has been a 1-0 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad and a 6-0 thrashing of Arsenal that has ended one rival's title hopes and put a significant dent in the other. Matic was superb again on Saturday, contributing two assists and bossing the midfield with a commanding presence that should be entirely unexpected just two months after his second debut. Talk about needing time to adjust.

Given Mikel Arteta's inconsistent form this season, and the fact that Mathieu Flamini is merely a stop-gap, surely Arsene Wenger should have been keeping a close eye on Matic's development. Had he stolen a march on Chelsea, the second half of the season could have played out quite differently. The Serb's contribution has been that significant.


Liverpool
Another scintillating attacking performance to make it nine wins out of 11 and six in a row for the first time in eight years, but a worryingly error-prone defensive display that raises doubts ahead of home matches against Manchester City and Chelsea.

Brendan Rodgers focused on the positives after the 6-3 win at Cardiff, commending the Reds' "real attacking threat" that has seen them amass 82 goals already - a bigger total than the title winners in 16 of the previous 21 Premier League seasons.

"We went behind twice in the game and we didn't panic," said Rodgers. "And in the second half we showed great composure on the ball to create chances."

With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge on a run of form that has seen the duo claim more goals between them (47) than 15 teams have managed in total (including Everton and Tottenham - and only one fewer than Manchester United), Liverpool maintained their composure despite trailing twice before half-time. It was inevitable they would score - the only question was how many.

But that hasn't always been the case, as the 2-2 draw with Aston Villa at Anfield proved - dropped points that would have put the Reds just two behind Chelsea with a game in hand at home to Sunderland on Wednesday. Their pursuit of the two leads they gifted to Cardiff was aided by the hosts being particularly rotten, but the same cannot be expected against Chelsea or City, or even Spurs and West Ham.

That Liverpool have conceded more goals (38) than Hull (12th) and only one fewer than Crystal Palace (17th) should be a major concern to Rodgers. Saturday's result accounted for 12% of Cardiff's total number of goals, while requiring three and four to beat Fulham and Swansea in recent fixtures is another sign that the defensive aspect of the Reds' displays must improve.

But then how much should we expect? This is a side performing way beyond their previous levels and where many believed they would stand after 30 matches. To average 2.7 goals a game is an extraordinary feat, matched only by Chelsea in 2009/10 when the Blues scored a phenomenal 33 strikes in the final eight fixtures - including winning scorelines of 5-0, 7-1, 7-0 and 8-0. For Liverpool to have put themselves in the same attacking class as the team holding the record number of goals in Premier League history (103) is quite remarkable.

The Reds have already bettered their points totals in the previous four seasons, scoring 11 more goals than the highest number they managed in those campaigns. This has been a transformation, centred on three individuals - Rodgers, Sturridge and Steven Gerrard. Suarez might steal the headlines, but the credit for unlocking his potential should go to the manager and his decision to recruit Sturridge as the best strike partner in the business.

With Gerrard adapting to a deeper role that limits the necessity of Lucas' inclusion, Liverpool have been able to explode in the final third. They are unrecognisable from the team that managed only 47 goals and 52 points in 2011/12 - with Suarez scoring just 11 in 31 appearances that year.

David Moyes might be preaching transition at Manchester United, but he has a long way to go if he is to match Rodgers' achievements in just two years at Anfield.


Manchester United and David Moyes
Moyes deserves plenty of credit for United's performance on Saturday, however, as a somewhat experimental starting line-up impressed at Upton Park. Wayne Rooney's wonder goal was the main talking point, but more significant to Moyes was a 90-minute display in which the champions showed attacking incision and defensive resolve. In truth, the scoreline should have been more than 2-0.

City will prove a tougher test on Tuesday, of course, but Robin van Persie's absence afforded United much more balance in the final third. It was a curious week for Moyes, with Van Persie declaring that he his happy at Old Trafford before scoring a hat-trick against Olympiakos, and then United providing their most complete performance in some time when the striker was absent against West Ham.

The removal of this particular selection headache helped to focus Moyes' vision. Juan Mata was played where Juan Mata should play, behind Rooney and ahead of two central midfielders, while the width offered by Ashley Young on the right allowed Shinji Kagawa to play a narrower role coming in from the left. For once, there was wonderful harmony to United's play, as they carved open West Ham with alarming ease.

While Liverpool hit seven shots on target to United's single attempt on goal last week, the numbers were reversed in United's favour on this occasion. It was the most shots on target United have managed in seven matches since the 2-2 draw with Fulham on February 9 and the fewest they have conceded since the 2-0 win over Cardiff in January.


Norwich
Another win when Chris Hughton needed it most to boost Norwich's survival hopes before those four defeats that are likely to come in the final four matches. The Canaries have conceded only one goal in six home outings in 2014 (a penalty in the 1-1 draw with Stoke), but we still can't see them holding off Liverpool and Arsenal at Carrow Road in the run-in, nor United and Chelsea away.

Alan Shearer wondered "just what they expect down there" when discussing the disgruntlement of Norwich fans on Match of the Day, but the impressive win over Sunderland shouldn't sweep Hughton's failings under the carpet. With seven games remaining, Norwich are 12 points behind last year's total with the third-worst goal difference in the top flight. And this after the manager was backed in the transfer market over the summer.

Perhaps change is required, whatever the result of the Canaries' bid to avoid relegation.


Alexander Tettey
Tugay-esque. There is no higher praise.


Tim Sherwood
A winner for masterminding Tottenham's first victory when they trailed by two goals since the 3-2 win over Arsenal in November 2010. Sherwood was like a banana in pyjamas running up and down the apples and pears all afternoon but, whatever he said at half-time, it worked.

The decision to replace Mousa Dembele, who Sherwood later admitted was struggling for fitness, with Gylfi Sigurdsson at half-time was hardly a masterstroke, but nevertheless proved crucial in the victory. In the first half, Tottenham were disorganised, but after the break they gave Southampton a taste of their own medicine, pressing the visitors into mistakes and profiting from a more tenacious display.

Only time will tell whether this was a case of a stopped clock being right twice a day. It seems absurd that Sherwood continues to pick Christian Eriksen on the left when he could be so much more effective through the middle, but on Sunday it worked as the Dane scored twice and set up the third in a performance reminiscent of his contribution at Old Trafford.

Roberto Soldado was also impressive, responding to the criticism of his dismal display against Benfica. "He worked like a Trojan," said Sherwood, but it was the cuteness of two touches in the first half and his driven cross to assist Eriksen after the break that provided the most encouragement.

With seven games remaining and Liverpool away next, Sherwood must do everything he can to gain the backing of the fans and board to remain in charge next season. As names such as Louis van Gaal continue to be linked, that seems an unlikely scenario, but Sunday was a good start.

It might be worth considering that managers can turn around a difficult situation with a summer in which to build their own team and impress their ideas during pre-season - so crucial in any coach being given a fair chance to succeed. Sean Dyche's transformation of Burnley following criticism of his approach last season is a case in point.


Yaya Toure
His 14th, 15th and 16th Premier League goals of the season, with a stunning drive to complete the hat-trick. If United perform as they did against Liverpool in Tuesday's Manchester derby, Toure could beat them on his own.


Southampton's England hopefuls
Other than his neat assist for Saints' second goal, it wasn't a great day for Rickie Lambert, but Adam Lallana once again impressed in front of Roy Hodgson while Jay Rodriguez scored with a beautiful finish before departing through injury. On a day of defensive mistakes at White Hart Lane, Luke Shaw proved his reliability, leaving Hodgson with plenty to ponder before he announces his World Cup squad on May 13. In this column's opinion, three of the four should be on the plane, with Rodriguez possibly getting the nod over Lambert to be the fourth striker.

We expect Hodgson to pick Andy Carroll.


Ross Barkley
Instrumental in Everton's win against Swansea and another young Englishman who should travel to Brazil. Barkley has shown enough this season to suggest that it would be worth taking him over Frank Lampard, considering either is only likely to be a back-up option in midfield. Frank does take a good penalty, mind.


Jordan Henderson
Should be certain to make the squad, even before his pass against Cardiff that made me whinny in the office on Saturday.


Backheels
...are back, baby! Two delightful flicks from Sturridge and Marko Arnautovic were key to goals at the weekend, and were just the sort of thing we'd love to see more of - especially from Englishmen.


Stoke
Winners and Losers is sitting with a smug grin on its face this morning (and yoghurt down its shirt) after tipping Stoke to claim a first top-ten finish following Mark Hughes' appointment. You can't touch this. Actually, you can. Please. It's been so long.


Losers


Dejan Lovren
We're still chuckling at the defender's tweet on Sunday evening - simply, 'I am sorry' - which rather sounded like he had a gun to his head.


The Art of Premier League Defending
Gone. Dead. Forgotten. It was a brilliant weekend - and season - in terms of the goals we've been treated to, but the flip side is that there has been some woeful defending along the way. When the manager of team who lead the table suggested that training dummies could score against his side earlier in the season, it's a poor indictment of the standard of defending.

Chelsea have since recovered from their problems at the back, but the sickness of Premier League defending has lingered for some time. Last season, Man United won the league despite conceding more goals than four of the other five teams in the top six, while Man City's record of just 29 strikes conceded in 2011/12 was the best since 2008/09, when United, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at their pomp, let in only 24 goals - four of which came at home to Liverpool.

Struggling to effectively replace Ferdinand and Vidic is an issue that has become even more pressing at Old Trafford, given the captain's pre-arranged move to Inter and Ferdinand's expected retirement. However, rumours of a bid for Dejan Lovren over the past week, and the defender's subsequent performance against Spurs, highlights the paucity of options in the Premier League.

Liverpool's defensive woes have already been detailed, while Man City have frequently struggled with Martin Demichelis in the team and Arsenal fold every time they travel to top-class opposition. And let's not even begin to talk about the defences in the bottom half where six teams have hit double figures in negative goal difference.

When a 36-year-old Sylvain Distin can still be regarded as one of the finest centre-halves in the division, you know there has been a problem in replenishing the previous quality at the back.


Arsenal
Seventeen of the 34 goals Arsenal have conceded this season have come in just three away games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. Ten of those goals came in the first half of those fixtures; eight in the first 20 minutes. It would appear that for all the signs of improvement at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger's latest house of cards is no more stronger than the last.

We have been saying that Arsenal's title challenge is over for weeks, much to the annoyance of chippy Gooners, but even the most optimistic fan would struggle to claim differently after Saturday's defeat. For more on the shellacking at Stamford Bridge, come this way for 16 Conclusions. You can read about Andre Marriner in there, too. Oh goody.


Sunderland
This is a survival battle, chaps, and your two games in hand are away to Liverpool and Manchester City. What on earth were you thinking losing 2-0 at Norwich?


West Ham
Back-to-back-to-back defeats to wipe the grin from Big Sam's mug. The Hammers were pony on Saturday and were desperately lacking quality in midfield. Where's Ravel Morrison when you need him?


Swansea
So this is what they mean by a 'dying swan' act.

Matthew Stanger - follow him on the Twitter

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