Weekend Round-up: Spurs in turmoil, toothless Chelsea and stylish Liverpool

1 – Everton serious contenders for a Champions League spot.

While other teams have suffered following the appointment of new managers last summer, Everton have had a fantastic season under Roberto Martinez. Astute dealings in the transfer market have given the team a strength in depth unseen for years at the club.

Everton fans will hope that the bubble doesn’t burst when loan signings like Gerard Delofeu and Romelu Lukaku return to their parent clubs. A Champions League club needs players of that quality, and if Everton can beat Arsenal at Goodison Park in two week’s time, they have an excellent chance of mixing with Europe’s elite next season.

everton fulham

Everton were 3-1 winners at Fulham yesterday,

2 – Chelsea need a new striker.

Jose Mourinho has conceded defeat in the race for the Premier League title, a race that he said Chelsea weren’t really in anyway. The defeat at Crystal Palace was Chelsea’s first against a newly promoted club in Mourinho’s two spells at the club. A John Terry own goal gifted Palace a much needed victory, but it was the lack of a cutting edge on Saturday that really hurt Chelsea’s title tilt.

It’s all very well having the creativity of Oscar and Hazard, but who is there to finish off the chances they create? Fernando Torres started at the weekend and Demba Ba made an appearance towards the end but neither made an impact.

Mourinho spoke after the game about the need to add a striker during the summer. Diego Costa is rumoured to be the main target and the question is which current front-man will be surplus to requirements.

3 –  Arsenal’s glimpses of quality not enough for team with title ambitions

Paul Scholes’ assessment of Arsenal last week irked Arsene Wenger enough that he responded before his side’s game with Manchester City. Scholes said that Arsenal were a “million miles away” from being able to challenge for a title, with Wenger retorting that six points cannot be called a million miles. However the points difference doesn’t tell the whole story. In games against other big sides this year Arsenal have looked out of their depth at times. Chelsea scored six against them last weekend, following on from another hammering from Liverpool in February.

Against Manchester City on Saturday evening, it took a David Silva goal for the visitors to spark Arsenal into life. They look nervous when faced with the big challenges, and until they can prove they can put it up to other teams with title ambitions on a regular basis they will have to be content with chasing a Champions League spot.

4 –  Spurs heading for another summer of change.

Spurs fans knew that it would take time for the multitude of new players bought with the Gareth Bale money to settle in. Nevertheless having broken their transfer record three times in the space of a few weeks with Paulinho, Soldado and finally Erik Lamela the hype was such that fourth place and the Champions League was the least expected from the White Hart Lane faithful.

Whatever hope was left of a fourth placed finish vanished within a minute at Anfield yesterday when Younes Kaboul knocked the ball into his own net. Now Spurs are looking at another summer of big change where there will certainly be players leaving, and perhaps the manager too.

Tim Sherwood was handed an 18 month contract in December following the sacking of Andre Villas Boas and won supporters initially due to Spurs playing a more attacking brand of football. However results have been inconsistent and questionable tactical decisions have contributed to rumours that current Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal will take over in the summer.

Yesterday’s game at Anfield was viewed as a chance for Sherwood to prove his worth to the Spurs board, and it was a test failed by both players and the manager. If a new manager does come in, then Spurs fans hopes for a settled squad by this summer will be dashed as he moulds the squad to his liking.

liverpool chelsea spurs arsenal everton

Soldado and Spurs set for another summer of change

5 – Liverpool worthy of top spot.

Liverpool would not have gone top of the Premier League table yesterday if it weren’t for results elsewhere. However it is hard to argue with their league position given their recent form. They have won eight on the trot in the league, and have won 12 out of 13 at home.

They are playing the best football too, with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge contributing 49 league goals between them this campaign. Suarez’ 29th goal of the season against Spurs yesterday gave him the accolade of most goals scored by a Liverpool Player in a Premier League season.

Equally important to Liverpool’s run-in are the likes of Henderson, Gerrard and Coutinho. These three (along with yesterday’s man of the match Raheem Sterling) are a big part of the reason the strikers are so prolific this season. Their work-rate in the midfield has been second to none, and the link up play has been wonderful to watch at times.

Manchester City still have the title in their grasp, and if they manage to overcome Liverpool at Anfield in a few weeks time the title race will be as good as over. However Liverpool have the greatest goals per game ratio since the 1960/61 Spurs team, and that in itself shows their title credentials.

 

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Liverpool vs Spurs as it happened.

Liverpool Suarez Sturridge

This season’s most potent strike partnership

Welcome to coverage of today’s game between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. After fellow title-chasers Chelsea and Manchester City dropped points yesterday, Brendan Rodgers’ side have the opportunity to top the Premier League table by 6pm this evening. Tottenham have been in underwhelming form all season, but a last gasp victory at home to Southampton last weekend was a timely boost to morale.

It will take more than morale for the visitors to leave Anfield with three points today. Liverpool start as firm favourites following seven consecutive league victories, the most recent being a hard fought win over Sunderland in midweek. The strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge has produced 48 league goals so far this season, and if Spurs play to the same level they did in the reverse fixture in December, they may well reach the half-century.

That 5-0 defeat before Christmas was Andre Villas Boas’ last in charge of Spurs, and while a similiar result would be unlikely to cost successor Tim Sherwood his job on Monday, it would do serious damage to his chances of holding onto his position beyond the summer. Louis Van Gaal has been heavily linked to the club, and fellow Dutchman Ruud Gullit has said this weekend that there has been contact between Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and the veteran manager.

Updates will appear throughout the game, with the most recent on top. If nothing’s happening just hit refresh. Have your say on the game by commenting underneath or tweet me @AlanKeane23

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17:54 – Thanks for following the game. Leave your thoughts below, or tweet me @AlanKeane23

93 mins- The final whistle goes at Anfield. An easy day at the office for Liverpool as Spurs were never at the races. A goal in the first minute set the tone. Spurs head back to London with their season well and truly over, while Liverpool head to the top of the table. A terrific end to come in this Premier League season.

91 mins – Liverpool players still working hard. Everyone wants to impress the manager and consolidate a starting place for the run-in.

90 mins – 3 minutes added at the end of the game. To compound Spurs’ misery, Soldado is taken off on a stretcher after landing awkwardly.

88 mins – Suarez flagged for offside. Doesn’t look like he’ll be adding to his tally today but you never know…

86 mins – Spurs players look like they wish they were anywhere else. Dawson comes close with a header from a corner.

82 mins – Substitution Sterling makes way for Victor Moses.

78 mins – Of course Spurs were up against it today considering their main source of goals against Liverpool the past few seasons retired in the summer. Jamie Carragher is watching from the stands today.

77 mins – Chadli and Sigurdsson have chances for Spurs which come to nothing.

72 mins – GOAL! 4-0 Liverpool Henderson assumes free-kick responsibility and whips one in from the left. Luis Suarez lets it run and so too do the entire Tottenham defence. Suarez makes sure everyone knows it was the midfielder’s goal by running directly too him.

69 mins – Substitution Gerrard makes way with Liverpool fans applause ringing in his ears. Lucas on in his place. Brendan Rodgers will be pleased his captain didn’t pick up a yellow card today. It would have kept him out of the next game.

67 mins – Sturridge nearly gets gets on the score sheet with a cheeky back-heel.

65 mins- Suarez picks up a slight knock. Rodgers may consider taking him off soon with this game wrapped up.

61  mins- Coutinho hassling and harrying in midfield. The difference in desire is plain to see, Liverpool are up for this game and the chance to win the title. Spurs are on already on their summer holidays and, in the case of Tim Sherwood, they could be long ones.

59 mins – Substitution Bentaleb and Lennon make way for Dembele and Townsend as Tim Sherwood rings the changes.

57 mins- Liverpool fans singing “Wer’e going to win the league.” Manchester City and Chelsea still have to come to Anfield though… An interesting end of the season coming up.

54 mins- GOAL COUTINHO! Spoke too soon! Coutinho allowed too much room at the edge of the box and he drills a right-footer beyond the despairing dive of Lloris into the bottom left corner. Good finish but the Brazilian was allowed far too much time to pick his spot by the Spurs defence.

53 mins – Henderson fluffs his lines after a beautiful one-two between Sterling and Sturridge. Sterling squares the ball to the former Sunderland man and with the Tottenham defence in disarray he fails to find the target. Spurs lucky to still be within two goals of their hosts.

51 mins – Flanagan almost plays in Suarez but Dawson manages to intervene. Down the other end. Soldado shows pace to outrun Agger but the Dane gets back and wins the goal-kick.

48 mins – Roberto Soldado has been kept quiet all afternoon. While his goal-scoring record has been poor this season, he has shown promise in his link-up play. However Skrtel and Agger have him well marshalled. Spurs miss the physical presence of Adebayor. Any long balls played so far today have been eaten up by the Liverpool defence.

46 mins – Sigurdsson booked for a drag back on Coutinho.

17:03 – And we’re off again. No changes to either side.

17:00 – Suarez is 6 goals from the Premier League record for goals in a season. Could he do it today? If Spurs continue defending the way they have done, he could get a few more anyway.

16:47 – The half time whistle goes and the teams go down the tunnel. Their two goals have come from mistakes but Liverpool are well on top in this game. A stunning save from Lloris in the closing minutes of the half have kept Spurs somewhat in it but they’re going to have to be bolder going forward second half if they are to rescue anything from this game. And that’s going to leave room at the back for Liverpool’s pace to exploit.

45 mins – Two minutes added. Spurs want the whistle and the chance to regroup.

44 mins – Naughton slips and handles the ball at the edge of the Spurs box. Suarez curls the resulting free-kick agonizingly wide of the far top corner.

40 mins- BIG CHANCE! Oof! A mistake from Rose down the left and Sterling’s cross reaches Suarez at the back stick. He thumps a header which Lloris punches against the crossbar and somehow Spurs clear.

39 mins – A prolonged period in the Liverpool half for Spurs. Soldado gets  the ball on the left of the box and aims a shot at the far top corner. Parried by Mignolet and Liverpool clear their lines.

37 mins – A hopeful long-range shot from teenager Nabil Bentaleb is easily gathered by Mignolet in goals for Liverpool.

34 mins – Spurs just can’t string two passes together, and that’s largely due to the intense pressure Liverpool are putting them under. Brendan Rodgers’s side are playing a high-tempo game and the visitors aren’t able to keep up.

32 mins – Kaboul is booked for a late tackle on Sterling at the edge of the box. The central defender is having a nightmare and with Vertonghen gone and the technically weaker Dawson now alongside him, he might be wishing this game was over already

31 mins – Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish are interested onlookers today. Bet they’d like to have played along-side Suarez.

25 mins – Spurs almost pull a goal back immediately. Eriksen’s shot well blocked by Skrtel.

24 mins – GOAL Suarez! No sooner has the substitution been made and Liverpool double their lead. Dawson horribly misjudges the flight of the ball, Suarez out-muscles Kaboul  and shoots hard and low across Lloris into the bottom right hand corner. A new Liverpool league scoring record for Suarez. 29 this season.

23 mins – Suarez blasts the free-kick over the bar. Vertonghen’s race is run. Dawson comes on in the Belgian’s place.

21 mins – Free-kick for Liverpool in a dangerous area following a dubious Sigurdsson hand ball. Spurs players have an emergency meeting while Vertonghen gets treatment from the physios.

20 mins – Chadli and Eriksen have both made surging runs in the past few minutes but couldn’t execute the final ball into the runners.

15 mins – Liverpool sharp on the ball. Some trickery from Sterling down the right leads to a cross. Kaboul clears but from the throw in Suarez gets on the ball and picks out Couthinho. The Brazilian volleys just wide from 12 yards.

12 mins – Spurs just can’t get on the ball in these opening stages.

9 mins – CHANCE! Suarez glides beyond Naughton on the left and whips in a cross that is just too high for Sturridge on the back post.

7 mins – Just before the goal, I was about to say Spurs hadn’t scored a goal in the first 15 mins of any league game this season. I guess they have now. Wrong end however.

5 mins. The Liverpool crowd smell blood. Spurs haven’t spent any time inside the Liverpool half yet.

1 min – GOAL! Kaboul OG. A Glen Johnson cross hits the French defender inside the 6 yard box and trickles in. Disaster for Spurs. 1-0 Liverpool.

16:00 – And we’re underway!

15:58: It will be interesting to see if Cristian Eriksen or Nacer Chadli start behind Roberto Soldado today. Chadli is a more natural winger with Eriksen a creative presence at number 10. That’s not how they lined up last week however, and Sky Sports graphics suggest Eriksen will once more find himself out on the left.

15:57 – The teams are out and Anfield is rocking.

15:55 – The teams are in the tunnel. Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen looks relaxed, considering he’s about to come up against the 48 goal strike partnership of Suarez and Sturridge.

15:50 – Ten minutes to kick-off at Anfield. @OptaJoe has a stat that shows just why Liverpool are favourites today. Liverpool have won 11 and lost none in their last 12 league games at home.

15:48 – Tim Sherwood on Sky Sports now. Says he hasn’t watched the video of the 5-0 drubbing Liverpool dished out to AVB and Spurs in December. Pays tribute to Suarez and Sturridge, calling them the best strike partnership the Premier League has seen in a long time.

15:45 – Both sides have named attacking line-ups today. No holding midfielder for Tottenham and that has to be a worry for Spurs fans as Jordan Henderson has been doing damage through the centre in recent weeks for Liverpool.

15:42 – Brendan Rodgers being interviewed on Sky Sports now. Says supporters can dare to dream of a first league title in 24 years but the players must remain calm. Also mentions Spurs’ high line, which could be a source of much joy for the home side today.

15:40 – Raheem Sterling makes his first league start since the 3-0 win at Old Trafford two weeks ago. Joe Allen drops to the bench for the home side.

15:25 – The final whistle has just gone at Craven Cottage and Everton come away with a 3-1 win. They are hot on the heels of Arsenal now for the fourth and final Champions League spot. Fulham meanwhile are in serious trouble. 5 points from safety with 6 games left, and with the worst goal difference in the league. A whopping minus 42!

15:15 – A blow for Spurs before kick-off as Emanuel Adebayor fails to even make the bench. Gylfi Sigurdsson is rewarded for his late winner last week with a start in midfield.

15:10 -Team news just in.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan, Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge, Suarez. Subs: Jones, Sakho, Cissokho, Lucas, Moses, Allen, Aspas.

Tottenham: Lloris, Naughton, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Rose, Bentaleb, Sigurdsson, Lennon, Chadli, Eriksen, Soldado. Subs: Friedel, Dawson, Dembele, Sandro, Townsend, Winks, Kane.

 

Advantage Liverpool as Chelsea and City drop points

Liverpool Tottenham

“Really? John Terry!?”

Liverpool can go top of the Premier League tomorrow evening after results went their way today. Brendan Rodgers’ side host Tottenham Hotspur in the Sunday afternoon kick-off and victory will see them leapfrog Chelsea to the summit.

A John Terry own goal gifted a struggling Crystal Palace side a vital win at Selhurst Park this afternoon, and Liverpool fans had more to cheer about as Manchester City could only draw at Arsenal.

David Silva gave City the lead at the Emirates, but a Mathieu Flamini equaliser ensured Manuel Pellegrini’s men left London with just one point.

Liverpool go into tomorrow’s 4pm kick-off knowing that a win will put them top, two points ahead of Chelsea and four ahead of City, albeit with two games more played than the Manchester side.

The Merseyside club have been in a rich vein of form recently, winning their last seven games in the League and scoring 26 goals along the way. This weekend’s however can only dream of that consistency. Tottenham have lost three of their last six games in all competitions. Tim Sherwood’s chargers haven’t lost three consecutive away games in the league since January 2009, but that record is under threat tomorrow.

Brendan Rodgers will again look to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to lead the charge. The SAS partnership has yielded 48 league goals so far this season, and with Spurs short of defensive cover, the strikers will be confident they can add to that tally tomorrow as Liverpool chase their first league title in 24 years.

Tottenham have little left to play for this season, however with Louis Van Gaal openly courting the managerial position, Tim Sherwood will be keen to show that his side can compete with the top sides in the league. They snatched victory late on against Southampton last weekend, keeping the pressure on Everton in the race for fifth.

Striker Roberto Soldado showed some intelligent link-up play in last week’s win, however the Spaniard is still struggling for goals and Tottenham will be hoping that Emanuel Adebayor will have recovered sufficiently from his ankle injury to take some part tomorrow. Jamie Carragher has retired so Spurs can’t depend on him for goals anymore in this fixture.

3 vital points at stake as Arsenal welcome Manchester City

arsenal

Wilshere and Silva clash in December’s clash

Manchester City go to Arsenal on Saturday evening chasing the three points that will keep their title tilt on track. Arsenal meanwhile need the victory to stave off Everton who are breathing down their necks for the fourth and final Champions League spot.

If this fixture had occurred a few weeks back it would have been billed as a battle between two title contenders. However a bad run of league results in March for Arsenal, victory over bitter rivals Spurs notwithstanding, has left them adrift of the top three. Last weekend’s 6-0 hammering by Chelsea was followed by a calamitous midweek draw at home to Swansea. Everton are now just 6 points behind the Gunners with a game in hand and Arsenal still having to visit Goodison Park in April.

Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes was quick to put the boot in on Tuesday night, questioning Arsenal’s lack of leaders and heart in big games. Even his own beleaguered former club has taken four points off of Arsenal in the league this season. In games against strong opposition this campaign Arsenal have crumbled. Against Liverpool in February they shipped 5 goals away to Liverpool while in the December’s reverse of Saturday’s fixture Manchester City hit them for six.

As is usually the case with Arsenal, talks of a crisis don’t tell the whole story. They may be out of the Champions League after losing to Bayern Munich and have no chance of lifting the Premier League trophy, but they are still in the FA Cup (felling Liverpool the week after losing 5-1) and haven’t fallen below fifth in the league all season.

Nevertheless February and March have, for the past few seasons, seen the start of a good run of form for the Gunners which would consolidate their place in the top four. That has certainly not been the case this campaign, and if they should capitulate to Manchester City on Saturday then Everton will certainly fancy their chances of overtaking them.

City go into the game having scored 8 goals in their last two outings. Yaya Toure has helped himself to half of that total and Arsenal have to  find a way to subdue the big Ivorian, along with the in-form David Silva. Pellegrini’s men had no difficulty in demolishing Manchester United at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, even with the home side crowding the midfield in an attempt to curb Toure’s influence. If Arsenal’s midfielders don’t harry and hassle City in the middle of the park at every opportunity, they will leave their defence with too much to do.

With City only three points behind league leaders Chelsea, with two games in hand, they know that a victory at the Emirates will give them the upper-hand going into a crucial period of games which includes a trip to Anfield to face second placed Liverpool.

 

Jury still out on UEFA’s Nations League

Spain v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Final

Spain, winners of a 16 team Euro 2012

In the future, international friendlies will be a thing of the past. The 54 members of UEFA this morning unanimously ratified the proposed Nations League, which will come into effect from 2018 onwards.

The aim of the competition, according to UEFA’s website, will be “to improve the quality and standard of international football.” UEFA admits in its statement that the exact format of the Nations League is yet to be determined, but “the concept is for the 54 teams to be divided into four large groups according to co-efficient rankings.”

When news of this possible development broke earlier in the week, it was easy to dismiss it as a PR move to make international friendlies more appealing. However it has emerged that the Nations League will be linked to the Euro Qualifiers, with extra places in the European Championships at stake.

In some respects this is a welcome move. Weaker countries will get extra opportunities to qualify for the European Championships. Anything that adds some spice to international friendlies can only be good for supporters, particularly Irish ones. If it wasn’t for the appointment of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane last autumn, the Aviva Stadium would have been harder to fill for games against Latvia and Poland.

However is there really a need to throw another competition into the mix? The Nations League runs the risk of becoming the Europa League of international football; important to the smaller sides but treated with contempt by the top teams. Furthermore, if it is important to the weaker nations, does that allow less room for them to blood new talent? International friendlies, while often tedious, have always been the stepping stone for younger players between club football and the higher intensity of competitive international fixtures. If the Nations League threatens teams with relegation should they lose, will they be reluctant to field inexperienced players?

In any case, with the expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams taking place, surely the current qualification route would have been enough of an opportunity for the weaker teams to stake their claim. Traditionally the group stages of the Euros have been more exciting than those in the World Cup due to fact that there were only 16 teams of a decent quality involved. Raising the quota to 24 teams has already given the third-best side in a qualification group the opportunity to progress to the flagship tournament via the play-offs.

UEFA run the risk of not only diluting the quality of the championship itself but also of the qualifiers. If a team is doing well in the Nations League, will they focus more on achieving their qualifying objective in that manner than in the qualifiers?

These are all questions which cannot be definitively answered until the inaugural Nations League in 2018. The tournament could be a success, or it could be just another ridiculous idea like those linesmen behind the goals who don’t actually do anything.

 

Poyet calls Liverpool mid-table team without Suarez

“Hey! Liverpool! Ye’re nothing without Suarez!”

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet has earned the wrath of Liverpool fans by suggesting the Reds would be a mid-table team without his fellow Uruguayan Luis Suarez.
Poyet was speaking to El Observador, a Uruguayan publication, and to be fair to the Sunderland manager he was probably just heaping praise on Suarez rather than trying to question Liverpool’s squad depth. However his decision to do so in the run-up to such an important game for his Sunderland side, embroiled in the battle to avoid relegation, was inadvisable at best.
Suarez has of course been in stellar form this season after returning from his 10 game suspension. Currently level with Robbie Fowler as top Liverpool goalscorer in a Premier League season on 28 goals, there’s every possibility he’ll make the record his own tonight.
However to imply that Liverpool are a one man team would be to do them a disservice. Take Suarez out of the equation, and the next highest goalscorer in the Premier League is his strike partner Daniel Sturridge. Captain Steven Gerrard is also having an excellent season, scoring two penalties at Old Trafford ten days ago to bring his tally for the campaign into double figures. Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling and Skrtel have all contributed goals for Brendan Rodgers’ side as they keep the pressure on Manchester City and Chelsea.
Sunderland go into tonight’s game in 18th place, three points behind Crystal Palace in 17th but with a marginally better goal difference and two games in hand. No win in their last 6, coupled with Liverpool’s perfect record in the same period, would suggest tonight is a write-off for Poyet’s team. It will be interesting to see whether he puts out a weakened side and focuses instead on Saturday’s game against fellow strugglers West Ham.
A win for Liverpool tonight would lift them to second in the table, two points above Manchester City albeit with two games more played. Both City and Chelsea have yet to come to Anfield, and those encounters in April may very well be crucial in deciding who lifts the Premier League title come May 11th.

Manchester Derby: Toothless display from United as City march on

Dzeko gives City a very early lead
United tonight had the opportunity to have their say as to where the Premier League trophy spent it’s summer holidays. They capitulated with barely a whisper. A second consecutive 3-0 home defeat.
By the end of the game David Moyes was sat in the Old Trafford dug-out with a look on his face that is all too familiar to United fans this season. Bewilderment.
No sooner had the game began and City had the ball in the back of the net. 45 seconds was all it took for United’s positivity, garnered from two wins on the trot, to dissipate. Rafael did well to block Silva’s initial attempt but the ball eventually found its way to Nasri. His shot cannoned off the upright into the path of Dzeko who was left with the easiest of tasks.
City had the game by the throat and you feared that United would capitulate in the manner of Arsenal at the weekend. Silva was a constant menace, popping up everywhere in the final third. In the midfield Yaya Toure was controlling the tempo without breaking a sweat. Ominously for United, Fellaini, the man best equipped to deal with Toure’s physicality, was brushed off the ball by the big Ivorian easily in the 7th minute.
Moyes looked furious on the touchline. Tom Cleverley was moved to the right wing from a central berth with Mata heading in the opposite direction. Antonio Valencia was stripped off and ready for action with a mere ten minutes gone and it looked like Cleverley was going to be the one to make way. He got a reprieve and showed some promise as the first half developed, linking well at times with Rafael down the line.
City’s movement off the ball however was just too much for United. Nasri, Navas and Silva flitted about, occupying United’s defence while their full-backs made inroads down the sides. Zabaleta in particular was getting the better of Patrice Evra, but the Argentinian was subdued somewhat after shipping two nasty challenges within 15 minutes of each other. Welbeck took him out with a sliding tackle after quarter of an hour, and Fellaini was lucky to stay on the pitch following an elbow to the full-back’s face with half an hour gone. Both United players saw yellow.
United gained a foothold in the game in the last 15 minutes of the first half, but couldn’t make any meaningful progress behind the City defence. If Moyes’ plan A is to get the ball out wide and cross it early, then so be it. If that’s the case however, it’s something that needs more work at the training ground. Aside from Wayne Rooney, who should be in the box and benefiting from decent deliveries, not one Manchester United player this evening looked capable of threatening the City defence with a cross. Rafael and Evra over-hit the majority of their efforts, Mata often hit the first man, and substitute Antonio Valencia rarely threatened the byline, having lost much of his pace at this stage of his career.
Pace. That’s at the heart of United’s problems this season. They have no-one with the searing pace of a Ronaldo who can turn defence into attack in seconds. When they are under the cosh, there’s no outlet with which to relieve the pressure. The ball may make its way into the midfield, but any build up play is laboured and clunky. While both have other attributes, neither Carrick nor Fellaini seem capable of imposing themselves on a game the way Yaya Toure does for Manchester City. A central midfielder (or two) of that ilk is desperately needed in the summer. Parachuting Rooney, their biggest goal threat, into the midfield is not a viable long-term solution.
Manchester City’s second goal highlighted United’s shortcomings in defence too. City were dominating without creating much in the early stages of the second half. However in the 52nd minute they had a corner and Fernandinho flashed a header over following a flick on from Kompany. Fellaini had failed to follow the run of his compatriot. United had been warned. Two minutes later it was Rio Ferdinand who lost Edin Dzeko at another corner, and the Bosnian volleyed in from close range.
The second goal effectively ended the game as a contest. Welbeck had two half chances either side of the 70th minute, but it was comfortable for City. Jesus Navas made way for Javi Garcia, who sat alongside Fernandinho allowing Yaya Toure to roam further forward. It was the Ivorian who delivered the final insult when a cross from sub James Milner deflected into his path and he finished coolly down to De Gea’s right.

The talk tomorrow will focus on Manchester United’s toothless display, but City’s quality cannot be overlooked. They march on with the Premier League title still theirs for the losing.  United will be hoping for a pick me up when they welcome Aston Villa to Old Trafford on Saturday. That’s because a week from today they’re in Champions League quarter final action. Against an irrepressible Bayern Munich.

Manchester Derby: United hoping to derail City’s title ambitions

😌

City ran out 4-1 winners in September’s reverse fixture

Sky Sports may have raised a few eyebrows when they pronounced tonight’s Manchester derby as the “Race for the Title”, but regardless of Manchester United’s position in the table, they can still have a say in the destination of the trophy come May.
Tonight’s game is their final chance to do so however, as City are the last team they encounter this season still in the running. Manchester City could afford to lose tonight, as winning the rest of their games would most likely put them one point ahead of Liverpool and level on points with Chelsea with a superior goal difference come the 11th of May. However, with crucial games coming up against Arsenal and Liverpool, they would be leaving themselves with a mountain to climb should they capitulate at Old Trafford.
It says something about the shift in power in Manchester that United go into tonight’s game on home soil as underdogs. That’s something that would have been unthinkable during the Ferguson era. Such has been David Moyes’ maiden season in charge however, that home advantage hasn’t guaranteed one point, let alone three. West Brom, Newcastle, Spurs and Liverpool have all left Old Trafford with maximum points this season.
It seems that Moyes’ struggles to make the best out of the less than stellar squad bequeathed him by Ferguson has been met with a certain amount of Schadenfreude from opposing fans and the media. Where other manager’s travails have slipped under the radar somewhat, the focus on Moyes has been intense and unrelenting. While this may be unfair in some respects, some blame has to attributed to Manchester United’s transfer dealings, or lack of same, last summer. With a clear need to strengthen in midfield and at the back, United’s efforts in the summer ultimately amounted to the capture of Marouane Fellaini on the final day of the transfer window.
In contrast, Manchester City, themselves under new stewardship with the introduction of Manuel Pellegrini, identified their targets early and had time to integrate them into the squad before the start of the Premier League season. Fernandinho and Alvaro Negredo in particular have come in and strengthened the squad. When Manchester’s new managers went to battle for the first time at the Etihad in September, the home side ran out 4-1 victors. The tone for the season had been set.
However, while a Capital One Cup victory and possible Premier League success constitutes an impressive season, Pellegrini’s belief that his side could attain an unprecedented quadruple was misplaced. Defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League, after a second consecutive defeat at the hands of Wigan in the FA Cup, left that dream in tatters. The only English teams left in the Champions League are title rivals Chelsea and who else? Manchester United.
And so back to tonight’s game. United manager Moyes has kept his own counsel this week regarding the availability of his centre halves. With Michael Carrick having to deputise at the back in Saturday’s 2-0 win at West Ham, United fans will be hoping that at least one of Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand will be fit to face Kompany and co.
Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata started at the weekend, with the Japanese international occupying the number 10 role apparently coveted by Mata. Moyes has stated that the Spanish playmaker is happy to occupy any position for the side. With City usually deploying full backs who like to get forward however, perhaps the manager may move Mata to a more central attacking role in order to facilitate a more defensive minded winger.
With Robin Van Persie unavailable yet again due to injury, United will very much depend on Wayne Rooney for goals tonight. Having found the net five times in his last five appearances against City, the £300k a week striker should be a key concern for Pellegrini. Two goals at the weekend will have boosted his confidence and City should aim to keep him, above all others, under wraps.
With Sergio Aguero out injured, and Alvaro Negredo in a poor run of form, it may be up to free-scoring midfielder Yaya Toure to inflict damage on United tonight. Fresh from a hat-trick against Fulham at the weekend, the Ivorian international will be City’s key player. While United fans may flinch at the idea of adapting tactics to stop other teams rather than just playing their own style of football, it is imperative that Moyes’ midfield tonight is set up right. Liverpool’s 3-0 victory 9 days ago at Old Trafford is a case in point. Jordan Henderson was allowed too much space and was involved in much of his side’s good play. With all due respect to Henderson, Toure is an infinitely more accomplished player at this point in time. If he is allowed the same space as the Liverpool midfielder then United will surely miss their chance to dictate where this year’s Premier League title ends up.

El Clasico: Messi hat-trick re-ignites Barca title challenge

Messi the difference in Bernabeu encounter

The latest instalment of El Clasico was preceded with a minute’s silence for Adolfo Suarez, the Prime Minister who united Spain after the reign of General Franco. Once the formalities were over, the only thing uniting Real Madrid and Barcelona was their desire to strike a blow to the other’s title hopes.
This game began at the pace we’ve come to expect in meeting of these two sides. Neymar had the first shot in anger in the third minute, and following a half-hearted Ronaldo penalty appeal, Iniesta drew first blood for Barcelona. A well-timed ball from Messi found the Spanish midfielder in plenty of space and he blasted a left footed shot across Diego Lopez and in off the woodwork.
That goal provoked Madrid and they responded swiftly. While all talk before the match was about Ronaldo and Messi, Bale and Neymar, it was Angel Di Maria who was running the show. He teed up Benzema in the 12th minute but the Frenchman squandered the opportunity, blasting over from close range. A few minutes later however the centre forward made no such mistake. Di Maria the provider again, Benzema rose highest to power a header past a despairing Valdes. The keeper got a hand to it, but it served only to place the ball in the top corner.
Di Maria and Madrid had their tails up, and three minutes later they took the lead. Di Maria was giving Dani Alves a torrid time down the left, and it was his cross again that found Benzema on the edge of the six yard box. A good first touch was followed by a smart volley with his right foot. The Barcelona players looked stricken as Ancelotti lost his usual composure celebrating on the sidelines.
With the combination of Di Maria and Benzema proving so effective, Barcelona would have been well advised to shackle them. The problem with that being that leaves space for messrs Bale and Ronaldo. So it was no surprise when Di Maria once more found space on the left flank to put in a cross. The ball eventually found its way to Benzema who shifted it onto his left and aimed for the bottom corner. Only a last-ditch block on the line from Gerard Pique prevented the French striker from completing a perfect hatrick.
It was all Madrid for large periods of the first half. When in possession, Barcelona faced a white wall near impossible to break down. Five minutes before half time however, Messi found a way through. His pass to Neymar inside the box deflected back into his path and he made no mistake, finishing low to Diego Lopez’ left. As Messi celebrated becoming the all time top scorer in El Clasico (19), Pepe and Fabregas rubbed noses and proceeded to fall to the floor. Both were awarded yellow cards for their efforts. There was still just time for Benzema to flash another header wide before the teams trudged down the tunnel. The 400 million people watching had time to draw their collective breath.
The second half didn’t spark to life until the 53rd minute. A jinking run from Ronaldo was ended abruptly with a trip from Dani Alves just outside the box. Incredibly however, the referee Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot, despite the protests from the Barcelona players. Unconcerned with the Barca players’ feelings, Ronaldo dispatched the penalty to give Madrid a one goal lead that was to last just ten minutes.
As Ronaldo had scored the penalty, it was Messi’s turn to influence the game once more. His slide-rule pass to Neymar was inch perfect and the Brazilian went down in the box following minimal contact from Sergio Ramos. The Spanish centre-half was duly shown the 19th red card of his career. It was his third in an El Clasico, and the 13th shown in the past 14 meetings between these two sides. Messi made no mistake with the spot-kick.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti sacrificed Benzema for compatriot Rafael Varane as he looked to protect the draw which would leave his side four points ahead of their bitter rivals. Zinedine Zidane was on hand to console Benzema as he came off without attaining his hat-trick.
Gerard Martino also made a change, taking off a disappointing Neymar and replacing him with Pedro. Calls had been made for Pedro’s inclusion from the start, given Neymar’s recent run of poor form as opposed to the Spaniard’s 14 goals and 8 assists this season.
The game died down again following Messi’s penalty, with both sides fighting hard for possession in the middle of the park but failing to make any significant breakthroughs. Dani Alves struck the base of the left post in the 73rd minute but the rebound failed to find any players in blue and red. Martino brought on Alexis Sanchez another player who had cause to be disappointed not to start the game. The Chilean had 17 goals and 7 assists before this weekend. Cesc Fabregas made way after an underwhelming performance.
It was neither Sanchez nor Pedro who were to make the vital contribution to the game however. Andres Iniesta, who had been lively all evening, found himself near the left by-line being marked by Carvajo and Alonso. As he tried to drift through the non-existent space between them, he found contact and went down. The referee pointed to the spot once more amidst howls of protests from the Bernabeu faithful. Messi blasted the penalty high into the roof of the net to secure his 26th career hat-trick. He scored his first against the same opponents way back in 2007.
The game ended scrappily as Madrid struggled to reclaim the ball from their opponents. Martino may have introduced a Plan B to this Barcelona side’s armoury, with crosses and diagonal balls not uncommon in games, yet this was all Plan A. Patient build up play, supporting the player on the ball. Alonso, Ronaldo and Modric received yellow cards for kicking the shadows they chased in the closing stages.
85,454 people in the Bernabeu to witness the latest in a long line of classic El Clasicos. When the final whistle blew, all that could be heard was the jubilant singing of the travelling Barcelona supporters.
Celebrating too will be Atletico Madrid. This result leaves them top of La Liga following their 2-0 victory away to Real Betis earlier this evening. Level on points with their bitter city rivals, they have a better head to head record. Barcelona’s victory brings them to within a point of the Madrid sides. Real Madrid must finish clear points ahead of both sides to claim the championship.
The last La Liga El Clasico of the season is by no means the last time these two magnificent sides will meet. They lock horns once more in the Copa Del Rey final on April 16th, and there is still the possibility that they will meet in the semi-finals or final of the Champions League. After matches like this one, we can only hope.

El Clasico: Messi v Ronaldo not the only show in town

An intriguing encounter in store tonight
El Clasico. There’s no more intriguing game in the football calendar. Leaving aside the political context, Real Madrid and Barcelona is never a boring spectacle. For the past few years it has been the Ronaldo and Messi show. That duel still takes centre stage, but this season there’s a wonderful supporting act in Bale and Neymar.
In the last El Clasico at the Camp Nou in October, the home side ran out 2-1 winners following goals from Neymar and Sanchez. That goal helped endear Neymar to the Barcelona support following his high profile summer move from Santos. Unusually however, the Brazilian’s transfer has come under even more scrutiny in the interim. It has emerged that the Catalan side paid far more than originally estimated to secure his services.
Off the field problems aside, Neymar has struggled for consistency when playing for the Blaugrana. His best spell coincided with Lionel Messi’s absence due to injury. Since Messi’s return this year, Neymar has found it difficult to be as effective. Could it be that Neymar needs to be the main man in attack in order to reach his full potential? Can he and Messi form a long-term beneficial partnership up front? Games against teams in the lower half of La Liga can only tell us so much. Real Madrid in the Bernabeu  will give a real indicator as to how the two South American stars can play together.
Messi himself has cut a frustrated figure at times this season. Gerardo Martino’s time at the helm has seen a slight shift away from the tiki taka football cultivated to devastating effect under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova.  This season has seen an emphasis in some games on diagonal balls and crosses, as opposed to patient build up play with the ball and urgent pressing without it. Martino is clearly trying to formulate a Plan B that Barcelona can switch to when opponents are difficult to break down. However these tactics need a genuine number 9 who can hold up the ball and get on the end of crosses. Messi is many many things, but an old style centre forward he ain’t. Noises from the Camp Nou suggest that Martino will move on in the summer, most likely to take over the Argentina national side. If he does, expect to see an advocate of Tiki Taka hired in his place. Messi is the one player who Barcelona don’t want to upset. He was the star of Barca’s 7 goal dismantling of Osasuna last week and will likely need to reproduce those goal scoring exploits at the Bernabeu. 
Since defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals in October, Real Madrid haven’t lost a game. This extra-ordinary run has been facilitated by a cohesive unit who are as potent in attack as they are  solid in defence. Ronaldo has been in his usual superlative form, and has been adequately supported by the player who usurped him as the most expensive footballer on the planet, Gareth Bale. Bale played in the last El Clasico while still not clearly fully fit (he didn’t have a pre-season), but since then he has been in flying form, weighing in with 14 goals and 17 assists as Madrid marched to the top of La Liga and into the Champions League quarter finals. His former team-mate at Spurs, Luka Modric, has been imperious in the midfield, with short odds on him being voted player of the season in La Liga.
Also in good form has been Karim Benzema, with Zinedine Zidane’s move from upstairs to the coaching team being credited for improving the French striker’s performances. The number 9 is a doubt for tonight, and Jese Rodriguez is certainly out. If Benzema doesn’t recover in time, Arsenal target Alvaro Morata may see game time. An extremely talented youngster, he has yet to  prove his worth to a dubious Carlo Ancelotti.

With Barcelona’s difficulties at the back (set to be compounded at the end of the season with Carlos Puyol’s retirement) it is difficult to see past Real Madrid for tonight’s game. However, if Messi and Neymar manage to combine to good effect, there’s always a chance Barcelona could sneak a result. A win for Real is a disaster both for Barcelona and neutral observers, as it would leave the Catalans 7 points adrift entering the home stretch of the season. A draw would suit Atletico Madrid as well as anyone, as they travel to Real Betis beforehand and could be level with their city rivals at the summit before El Clasico brings the footballing world to a standstill.