City reasserts title credentials
Manchester City rebounded with a strong performance against Liverpool
Fulham has been inconsistent but played well versus the big teams
Well-traveled striker Peter Crouch looks to have found a comfort zone at Stoke
Five things we learned from the week's action in the Barclays Premier League
1. Bouncing back. Before it faced resurgent Liverpool on Tuesday, Manchester City had failed to score in its previous two games, picking up just one point in the process. By almost every statistical measure, City's display at home to the Reds was again far from the dominant standards it set earlier in the season. Liverpool had almost twice as much possession and completed twice as many passes. These would be impressive numbers anywhere, but at the Etihad against a City team built to crush the life out of opponents, they are breathtaking. Liverpool was rewarded with 16 goal attempts. But here its advantage was less than 50 per cent. City managed 11. The edge vanished with shots on target: both teams had six. And when it came to the statistic that matters, goals, City won, 3-0. In truth, once Pepe Reina, the Liverpool goalie had dived over Sergio Agüero 's 10th-minute shot, City was never threatened. It grew stronger as the game went on -- the benefits of resting players perhaps -- and was on top in the last 15 minutes even though it was down to 10 men after Gareth Barry was sent off. Clearly Liverpool missed Luis Suarez. After much whining and moaning, it had given up the damaging, and pointless, fight to defend its star striker and accepted his suspension, just before kickoff, which meant he began his eight-game ban at once. In his place, Andy Carroll, struggling to find his form, his self-belief and a role in a ground-passing Liverpool team, was easy meat for the robust City pairing of Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany. City looked out of sorts but it was still strong enough and ruthless enough to mug Carroll and Liverpool.
2. Fickle Fulham. Fulham's come-from-behind victory against Arsenal means it has taken four points off the Gunners this season. Fulham has also beaten Liverpool, drawn at Chelsea and was the first team to take points off Manchester City. It thrashed neighbor QPR, 6-0. So how come it is only in 13th place?
There has been the odd horrible result, like the 5-0 home defeat to Manchester United, but more telling was the 3-1 home defeat to Tottenham in which Fulham besieged the Spurs goal but could not score.
Like a lot of clubs in the lower half of the Premier League, Fulham's squad is stuffed with cast offs and bargain buys. Its first scorer on Monday, Steve Sidwell, has spent time with Arsenal and Chelsea. Its second, Bobby Zamora, was at Tottenham and West Ham. Both from Brede Hangeland at the back through Danny Murphy in midfield to Clint Dempsey in attack, the team has a lot of very good experienced played and has clearly been shopping well, Moussa Dembéle and Bryan Ruiz caught the eye on Monday. Yet for a while, it looked as if Fulham again had the ability to create really good chances while lacking the firepower to turn them into goals
Under Martin Jol, Fulham is playing a far more pleasing style than it did under Roy Hodgson or Mark Hughes, without surrendering defensive toughness. It has shown it can go toe-to-toe with even the best clubs; yet somehow good play is not translating into consistent results.
Jol is a hard man to dislike, but he is beginning to build a record of near-success that, to those who see the glass as half empty, could be seen as under-achievement.
He led Tottenham to two fifth-place finishes, the club's best since the birth of the Premier League. The problem was Spurs needed to finish fourth to reach the Champions League. He led Hamburg to the top of the Bundesliga and the semi-finals of the German and UEFA cups. But ended up winning nothing. Under his guidance, Ajax immediately improved 17 points in one season and finished with the best defense and best attack in the Dutch league, but in second place behind FC Twente.
On Saturday, Jol gave Fulham fans another great day; the question is whether his team can do what is needed week in and week out.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Goalscorer. There is an English legend about a child pointing at an important-seeming politician, the victim changes with each Westminster generation, and asking, "Mummy, what is that man for?"
The same question has been asked seemingly from the start of time by countless generations of English soccer fans about Peter Crouch. Crouch is an eye-catching 6-foot-7 tall. He has been pursued and then discarded by a string of managers, not least Fabio Capello, who despite Crouch's England record of 22 goals in 42 appearances, has hardly picked the big striker in two years. His latest club, Stoke, is his 10th.
Crouch is both tall and skilful, an unusual combination. But he is neither fast nor strong. Worst of all, he is maddeningly inconsistent. One advantage of moving to Stoke is that it means he no longer has to play against them. They are a physical side, who, as opponents, exploited Crouch's weakness by ruthlessly bullying him. Now they play to his strengths. That does not mean Crouch has suddenly become prolific. But the first of the two goals he scored at Blackburn was his 100th league goal. Both goals were scored with an aplomb which may have brought a rueful sigh to all the fans who crouch has passed in his meandering career and who have suffered through some of his ungainly or flaccid misses. For both goals he used his height to trap passes on his chest and his deft touch to spin and take the bouncing ball away from his defender. Then he lashed the ball into the net, once with his right foot and once with his left.
That is what the man is for. He scores goals. And when he scores he smiles and sometimes he dances and all the misses are forgiven, though not forgotten.
4. Hey Joe. This column has been able to ignore Joey Barton for a couple of months, but you can't keep a good instigator down. Despite the promising antics of Mario Balotelli, Barton remains the Premier League's premier troublemaker. He clearly thinks he's smart, but all too often he only makes trouble for himself and his team. His pace is declining, his days at the highest level are numbered, and we should relish his often self-sabotaging talent for chaos while we can. Soon he will be gone.
With Queens Park Rangers struggling though a bad run that has dropped it to the edge of relegation zone, Barton scored a neat goal after 11 minutes that gave his club a precious home lead against Norwich. QPR fans could relish a rare lead. But soon Barton, and the lead, were gone. After 35 minutes, Barton tangled first with Zak Whitbread and then with Bradley Johnson who went down clutching his head. Neil Swarbrick, the referee, sent Barton off. "Bradley's conned everyone," Neil Warnock, the QPR manager ruefully told the BBC.
Down to 10 men, QPR fought bravely, but could not hold out. Norwich scored two goals, the second with seven minutes left, and won, 2-1. Barton had given QPR hope and then thoughtlessly tossed it away.
5. Spinning and winning. One interesting aspect of the holiday period is the way teams outside the top six places approach this exhausting thicket of soccer. Despite the relative shallowness of their squads, several clubs have rotated just like the Manchester millionaires. A few have even given the impression that they are targeting some matches and conceding others. While six points from five matches over Christmas is a disaster for a club like Chelsea, it's a good return for teams that are glancing over their shoulders at the three relegation places.
Monday's matches provided two striking demonstrations of the dangers of expecting players to be able to produce twice in 48 hours and the benefits of rotation.
Aston Villa and Blackburn both scored famous away victories, at Chelsea and Manchester United on Saturday. Both their managers decided to stick with a winning team, starting 10 of the same players. Villa's one change was to bring back the now healthy Darren Bent, an automatic starter when fit.
Swansea and Stoke had both drawn at home on Saturday, despite resting some regular starters. Both rang the changes again on Monday. Swansea had different starters at Villa Park. Stoke had four fresh faces at Blackburn.
The rotators both won comfortably. Saturday's tired heroes were humbled. Stoke took a two-goal lead at Blackburn and won, 2-1. Swansea cruised past Villa, 2-0. Just two days are his best Premier League result as a manager, Alex McLeish; the Villa manager was booed by the home fans whose expectations he had so rashly raised.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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