Manchester City in Premier League driver's seat via Derby domination
Though Manchester City only beat Manchester United 1-0, it dominated the Derby
The Premier League title is City's to lose, but this season has seen many twists
Fernando Torres' hat trick on Sunday suggested the Spaniard's head is clear
Five Premier League thoughts after City's Manchester Derby victory:
1. City was clearly better than United. The Blues only won the Manchester Derby 1-0 on Monday night, yet, after the home team overcame its early nerves, it dominated the game. It enjoyed a substantial edge in possession and territory and had 15 shots to United's four (or three, depending who was counting), and none of United's shots were on target. According to Sky, that hasn't happened to United for three years. In was not quite the route of the 6-1 City triumph at Old Trafford in October but, with the late-season pressure on, it was still an impressively dominating victory.
United did beat its neighbor in the FA Cup, but City took the two games that really count. Yet despite the six-point edge from those wins, it only leads United on the goal-difference tiebreaker (plus-61 to plus-53). It is the better team, but that does not mean it will win the title.
City already seemed to have the Premier League won once this season only to suffer a bout of vertigo and hand the initiative back to United. This victory could lend City unstoppable momentum toward its first title since 1968, or nerves could set in again. It is difficult to see it losing to QPR at home on the last day, although Rangers could need to win to stay up. Newcastle away on Sunday looks a tougher challenge.
United, on the other side, have been erratic lately. The problem, as Monday night suggested, is not nerves. It is that this team is not as good as either City or as earlier United teams. It faces Swansea, which already seems to be in a summer holiday mood, at home this weekend. Then it travels to Sunderland, a gritty, defensive team even at home, on the final weekend.
The title is City's to lose. Although it could conceivably win both games and still be overtaken on goal difference. Both teams have missed a series of opportunities this season. There have been so many twists in the plot that we should not rule out another -- or even two.
2. The world was watching the Derby. The huge audience figures often cited for broadcasts of major events are extremely approximate. The numbers for the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, for example, vary from one billion to four billion. But the point is that anything between those two numbers (and who in China would admit they did not watch) is huge. On Monday, L'Equipe, the French sports daily, said that while the global audience for the recent Clásico between Real and Barça, the two clubs who represent the Premier League's only rivals as a global attraction, was 400 million, the figure for the Manchester Derby would be 650 million. Martin Tyler, commenting on the match for Sky the British broadcaster, happily talked of "billions" of viewers. Those numbers might be guesses, but the two important points are (a) that everyone massages the figures in the same way and (b) both are very big, and the second is bigger.
What did those viewers get? Well, they got noise. Patrick Vieira, a man who is now employed at the Etihad and who has never played in El Clásico, tweeted from the ground that it was "The best atmosphere ever."
The viewers also got passion and frenzied action. The game was played at a furious pace, with intense physical commitment frequently crossing into nastiness and bad temper, including a confrontation between Roberto Mancini and Alex Ferguson on the sidelines that briefly offered the enticing prospect of fisticuffs.
The audience got tension as both teams threatened (City more so) in a frenzied finale.
The viewers even got some quality amid the flying bodies, particularly from City, who produced some very pretty passing around the United penalty area.
It wasn't always great soccer, but it was great viewing.
3. Ferguson tipped the players he trusted. With the title on the line, Mancini picked the same team that started the previous league match. Ferguson, on the other hand, rang changes from the team that faltered in that sloppy 4-4 draw with Everton.
Those choices told us a lot about the managers and which men they trust in the crunch. It is a sign that winning trumps everything else, that Mancini is prepared to put his faith in the talent of Carlos Tévez -- a man he said he would never pick again -- at least until the crucial last 20 minutes when he was replaced by Nigel de Jong.
Ferguson has always been willing to tinker with his team and use his whole squad. He brought in the energetic Park Ji-Sung for only his 10th start of the season and his first since January. Veterans Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes started together for this first time since February. Nani replaced Antonio Valencia, and Phil Jones took over at right back from the smaller, less disciplined Rafael.
But the significant change turned out to be one that was forced on Ferguson. Just as Jonny Evans was suddenly, miraculously, beginning to look the part as a Premier League defender, he suffered a calf injury. United turned to Chris Smalling and, a minute before half time, in the pivotal moment of the game, Vincent Kompany turned Smalling at a corner. Smalling allowed himself to get a little ahead of his man. Kompany transformed the slight positional error into a pick and roll, immediately stepping toward goal and immediately behind Smalling and alongside teammate Joleon Lescott. Smalling had no choice but to run the long way around Lescott and his defender, Rio Ferdinand. By the time he got back to Kompany, the City captain had smashed in his header.
On such small margins do titles hang.
4. Tottenham has a mental problem. This writer was puzzled by the argument that Tottenham collapsed because its manager, Harry Redknapp, was linked with the vacant England job.
The statistics are suggestive. On Feb. 3, when Fabio Capello quit as England boss (and Redknapp was cleared of tax fraud), Tottenham was third, seven points ahead of fourth-place Chelsea. It won just two of its next 10 league games. It just might be the England vacancy was to blame for that run. Equally, it just might be that the nose-dive cost Redknapp the England job. On Sunday, just after the FA said it wanted Roy Hodgson, not Redknapp, as England manager, Tottenham rediscovered its mojo and swept aside Blackburn 2-0.
One of the job skills for professional football players and coaches is putting distractions out of their mind. Redknapp's long-running court case didn't seem to distract him or his players. Why would they be unsettled by the thought of the boss taking over England, but not by the thought of him going to jail?
In any case, the run included a couple of impressive performances. There was a 5-0 thrashing of Newcastle on Feb. 11 and a 0-0 draw at Chelsea on March 24. Spurs finished that game in total command but, and this has been a recurring theme, could not turn pressure into chances and chances into goals. Perhaps the moment the wheels started to come off came Feb. 26 when Spurs took a 2-0 lead at Arsenal and contrived to lose 5-2. Redknapp's reaction may not have helped matters. With Aaron Lennon injured, the manager started to use two holding midfielders more often. The caution did not pay.
The players solved Harry's problem for him. Lennon recovered. Scott Parker was hurt. On Saturday, Spurs reverted to an attacking formation, even if Rafael van der Vaart often plays so deep and Emmanuel Adebayor so wide, that it can look like a 4-6-0. Maybe the absence of Parker helped make Sandro's task clearer. The Brazilian, whose season has been hobbled by injury, finally recaptured the dominant form he showed at the end of last season.
It may simply be that Tottenham suddenly looked good again because Blackburn was so horribly bad. It came out cowering in a defensive crouch and stayed there even after it fell behind. Rovers failed to muster a single shot in 90 minutes, a truly pathetic statistic. Yet Tottenham, for all its bombardment, only managed two goals. It will need to rediscover its ruthlessness in its final three games. Even if it wins them, the nightmare scenario remains: Arsenal wins twice to pip Spurs to third by a point, then Chelsea wins the Champions League and grabs England's final place for next year.
But on Sunday afternoon, when he faced the cameras, Harry was once again happy and relaxed.
5. Fernando Torres solved his mental problem. I'm prepared to believe that a striker as good as Torres could get the yips in front of goal. Sunday's hat trick as Chelsea trounced QPR, 6-1, suggests that his goal at the Nou Camp five days earlier had cleared the Spaniard's head. In practical terms, that last-minute goal against Barcelona did not matter. Even if Torres had missed, Chelsea would still have won its Champions League semi on away goals. Maybe that's why he could score with an aplomb that had seemed long lost. It was a goal of immense symbolic importance -- and not just for Torres.
Not all the Spaniard's problems have been of his making. He is most dangerous when the ball is played into his path as he runs at, through or past defenders. That's not been Chelsea's style. Week in, week out, Chelsea faces teams that set out to defend. A more measured approach allows it to exploit the unusual firepower it has in midfield and defense. Didier Drogba has been the ideal man for the system because he is happy to play with his back to goal.
The Torres hat trick owed something to the opposition. QPR was not as craven as Blackburn, but it was, if possible, even more inept. Huge holes opened for Torres. His teammates responded with early passes. He also, at last, got a couple of breaks in front of goal. Maybe that was a sign that he was being aggressive again. Most of all, he took his chances with the icy certainty of old.
Carrying Chelsea to European glory is what Torres was bought to do.
Now the question is whether Chelsea tries to adjust its style, which might make sense, as Bayern will not park the bus in Munich, and uses Torres, not Drogba, for the final.
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