You'll Never Guess Who Tops The Winners...

That's right, Liverpool are on top after their vital victory over Man City, who haven't underachieved as much as some would argue. Plus, Chelsea and the aesthetics of winning...

Last Updated: 14/04/14 at 10:18 Post Comment

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There are many signs of a brilliant team, but one that is particularly distinctive is the ability to perform under increased expectations. On Sunday, Liverpool met those expectations. It was anticipated that they would start the game in blistering fashion and yet no less breath-taking when they surged into a two-goal lead. By beating Manchester City when the pressure was really on, and becoming the first team to win ten consecutive top-flight matches since Manchester United in 2009, the Reds have irreversibly changed how they are perceived. If they fail to win the title now, it will be seen as an opportunity missed.

It showed in the manner they took the game to City from the outset. Liverpool are brimming with confidence in their first title challenge since they forced United on that remarkable winning run, and they sliced through City with enormous conviction in the first half-hour. It was a display of verve and intuition; a front six who play with compelling harmony, each understanding his individual role and how to complement his teammates.

There was no-one who demonstrated this sense of balance and responsibility more than Philippe Coutinho, who was as persistent as a wasp in midfield. Spurred by his manager's faith, Coutinho responded to doubts about his defensive diligence by making more tackles than anyone else on the pitch in the first half. And, were it not for a rush of blood in the 42nd minute, the Brazilian might have made the game safe for Liverpool before it turned on its head after the break.

It would be unfair to be too critical of the Reds for the manner in which they ceded their lead, although, as I wrote in 16 Conclusions, it certainly offers hope to Chelsea ahead of their trip to Anfield. After expending so much energy in the first half, it was impossible for Liverpool to maintain the same momentum after the break, especially when one of their most influential players, Daniel Sturridge, was having a poor game.

As Brendan Rodgers said of City's fight-back in his post-match interview: "They've got top players and top players respond". But Liverpool also have top players to take advantage of even the smallest slip; Coutinho firing in his opportunistic winner with the second of only two attempts for the hosts in the second half. It was an excellent strike from a player who should perhaps have contributed more than five goals from 86 shots this season, but saved his best performance for the biggest game.

The sight of Steven Gerrard rousing the troops at full-time felt like a defining moment. Liverpool have come from nowhere to have one hand on the title; they are four wins away from the most unexpected victory of the Premier League era. But, reassuringly for the club's fans, both Gerrard and Rodgers were preaching the importance of beating Norwich before the clash with Chelsea on April 27. Another Luis Suarez hat-trick against the Canaries would be most welcome.

Chelsea and Jose Mourinho
The Blues' title challenge is still beating thanks to Demba Ba's second crucial goal in a week, although they were made to work for their three points against ten-man Swansea. Samuel Eto'o's wasteful 45 minutes further underlined Chelsea's problems in the final third, but the Blues know what they are by now, and what they have to do to push Liverpool and Manchester City to the wire.

As I said in 16 Conclusions, Jose Mourinho will be encouraged by the manner in which Liverpool surrendered their 2-0 lead to City, and if there is one man who can figure out how to stop the Reds it is surely him. Chelsea might not be the prettiest team to watch, but they are a tough, intelligent unit with by far the best defensive record in the top flight. The only worry for Mourinho is that even if he masterminds a victory against Liverpool, the Blues will still rely on City to slip up in one of their six remaining fixtures, with all eyes on the trip to Everton on May 3.

There is a debate to be had about the aesthetics of winning after Manuel Pellegrini claimed it would be "very disappointing" if Chelsea claim the title. "It would be very disappointing, for football, for the fans, for everyone," said the City manager. "I think that 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 that big teams must play as big teams."

Some may argue that Pellegrini has a point after City and Liverpool once again proved their status as the best attacking sides in the division with their pulsating encounter on Sunday. But if Chelsea win the title, it will be thoroughly deserved given the way they have dominated the big battles this season, including home and away victories over City. In terms of magnitude, the Blues' trip to the Etihad in February was the only fixture that comes close to rivalling Sunday's match at Anfield - and how does Pellegrini explain losing both those games?

Mourinho will no doubt be unperturbed by his rival's comments and he has already outlined his intention to improve Chelsea's goalscoring record by investing in a new striker in the summer. However, it is important to emphasise the point: there is simply no benefit to tearing opponents apart on a weekly basis unless you can control your own destiny in the bigger games that decide title races. City have failed to do that on two pivotal occasions; Liverpool proved they can cope with the challenge on Sunday; and Chelsea under Mourinho are masters in this regard. Roll on April 27 when the pressure will be turned up to 11.

Demba Ba
It's too late for Ba to salvage a future at Chelsea, but there is still plenty of time for the striker to mould an impressive legacy, which he has started to achieve in the past week. If he continues to score important goals between now and the end of the season, he might be able to deceive another Champions League club into bidding for his services in the summer.

Crystal Palace
I don't wish to jinx it - especially not when Palace have that menacing eagle they can set on me - but Tony Pulis' side should now be certain of survival after moving seven points clear of the relegation zone with four games to play.

It has been a remarkable turnaround at Selhurst Park, with Palace already achieving a points total (37) that would have seen them survive in five of the last six seasons. They are only six points behind Arsenal in the form table since Pulis' first game in charge and Chelsea are the only side to concede fewer than the 18 goals the Eagles have shipped in the manager's 21 matches. Someone buy that man a new cap.

A seventh win on the spin to leapfrog Arsenal into fourth place ahead of their meeting with Palace at Goodison on Wednesday. The Toffees' were also handed a boost by the Gunners' draining FA Cup semi-final against Wigan, with Arsene Wenger's side only afforded two full days' recovery before West Ham visit the Emirates on Tuesday. Does anyone else smell a costly slip up against a Hammers team who should be feeling fresh after a weekend off? Andy Carroll still has plenty to prove if he wants to make that plane to Brazil...

Oh, look who suddenly decided to start winning. That's very bad news for Norwich - very, very bad news when you compare the Cottagers' remaining fixtures (Tottenham (a), Hull (h), Stoke (a), Palace (h)) to theirs (Liverpool (h), Man United (a), Chelsea (a), Arsenal (h)).

Hugo Rodallega
Two goals in two matches after last finding the net in the Premier League in January 2013. He'll make the Colombia World Cup squad at this rate.

How on earth did that happen? Crystal Palace's 3-0 win at Cardiff last week left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hoping for a miracle, and the manager's prayers were answered as the Bluebirds somehow survived Southampton's domination to sneak only their second away win of the season. The next three fixtures against Stoke (h), Sunderland (a) and Newcastle (a), who they beat at St James' Park in the FA Cup, are all enormous before a final-day decider at home to Chelsea.

Being smug is never a good look, especially when you're sitting in your Y-fronts, but Winners and Losers is very much enjoying Stoke fulfilling its pre-season prediction of a first top-ten finish in the Premier League.


Aston Villa
Four successive defeats - three of which came against sides in the bottom half (at the time of the fixture) - have left Villa suddenly embroiled in a relegation battle without their best player. It's a hugely worrying situation for Paul Lambert, with his team winning only four of their last 19 matches and just two of ten fixtures when Christian Benteke has been absent this season.

That Villa's starting line-up against Palace have only managed 11 strikes combined in the Premier League all season suggests they'll struggle to find the goals to get past Southampton, Swansea and Hull before back-to-back trips to Manchester City and Tottenham in the last week of the campaign. It looks like Lambert will be relying on Norwich to keep him out of trouble.

Manchester City
An enormously disappointing defeat that dents City's title hopes, but they are far from out of it with six games remaining compared to four each for their rivals. City still have to go to Everton on May 3, but they could travel to Goodison knowing that the race is back in their hands. A draw between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on April 27, and it's very much game on for Manuel Pellegrini's side.

City's performance on Sunday has been covered in depth in 16 Conclusions, but comment is required on how Pellegrini's first season should be perceived if he ends the campaign with 'only' the League Cup added to the trophy cabinet. There appears to be a consensus that City will have underachieved should that prove to be the case, but I would vehemently disagree with that position.

Firstly, there has been enormous improvement across the board at the Etihad - notably in the club mounting a much more convincing league challenge than last year, winning silverware, and progressing to the knock-out rounds of the Champions League for the first time - which included beating Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in the group stage. Were it not for City's investment in the summer, it would be agreed that the club have enjoyed an excellent campaign.

However, just because City spent significant funds in the summer, it doesn't mean we should have expected them to walk the title. It takes time to build a team and fashion a playing style - especially one so different to the previous regime - and Pellegrini has taken huge strides in this regard. When City play at their peak, there is no-one better in the Premier League, and the frequency of their top performances is only going to increase as the manager has more time with the squad.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Pellegrini's tenure is that the biggest problems for City - namely the lack of back-up in defence and a significant drop in quality from Sergio Aguero to Edin Dzeko - are now more apparent than ever before. With City forced to play at their attacking limits - which wasn't always the case under Roberto Mancini - theses issue have become more obvious. The first is likely to be solved by further recruitment in the summer; while Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo will offer more variety in attack if they can remain fit for a full campaign.

An improved performance that suggests the Canaries board should not have waited so long to ditch Chris Hughton. As Felix Magath admitted after Fulham's victory, Norwich were the better side on Saturday but failed to convert their chances. We have preached all season about it being a 34-game campaign at Carrow Road but, should Neil Adams inspire the same effort from his players in the last four matches, Norwich stand a chance of sneaking the result that could secure their survival. A win at home to Arsenal on the final day is certainly achievable.

Alan Pardew
A fourth successive defeat with Newcastle failing to score a single goal in that run and conceding 12. It seemed the time to sack Pardew was in the aftermath of his headbutt on David Meyler; fans must wonder whether Mike Ashley has enough interest to make that decision or back his manager with transfer funds in the summer.

Sunderland and Gus Poyet
After Sunderland slipped to a seventh defeat in eight matches that almost seals their relegation, it seems that Poyet is benefiting from an artificially inflated reputation owing to his success in the cups. Leaving those achievements to one side, the Sunderland manager has guided the Black Cats to just six wins and 24 goals in 25 Premier League matches - at a rate of less than one point per game.

Given that Tony Pulis had seven weeks less to turn Palace's fortunes around, Poyet certainly doesn't compare favourably, failing to lead his team to wins over Villa, Norwich, Hull and Palace at home. He has expressed his intention to stay on in the summer, but there have been few signs so far that he is the man to stop the rot at the Stadium of Light.

Matt Stanger - follow him on Twitter.

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