Liverpool looks better but still can't find a W; EPL analysis
1. Liverpool looks like Liverpool: For much of the two decades since Liverpool last won the English league, the club has carried the aura of greatness. It was an aura enhanced by its Champions League triumph in 2005. At Liverpool, even mediocre teams could find a way to win Europe's most important trophy.
Yet last season, as Andy Carroll struggled, Luis Suarez dived and Charlie Adams lumbered, Liverpool was finally in danger of becoming laughable. Even this year, when Brendan Rogers boasted that his team was a title contender just before it lost at home to Aston Villa, it was hard not to smirk. When Liverpool was humiliated at Oldham in the FA Cup last week, it was official. The club was a joke.
Yet since that defeat Liverpool has played away at two of the clubs that have usurped it in the top four. On Wednesday, it dominated Arsenal for long periods. On Sunday, in another wonderful game, Liverpool outplayed the champion, Manchester City. As Liverpool pulled the home team apart with crisp, sharp passing and smart incisive running it looked like Liverpool again. When Steven Gerrard smashed Liverpool ahead after 73 minutes, it seemed the Reds were about to announce themselves as serious contender in the brawl for top four places with a signature victory.
Yet, just as at the Emirates on Wednesday, Liverpool could not hold the lead. Once again it drew, 2-2. A point at the home of the champion is a respectable result. The team in red played well. But we will know that Liverpool is truly Liverpool again when it kills opponents off.
2. United in Command: When it comes to killing people off, Manchester United is the modern master of the mystifying murder.
The plot is growing familiar. Manchester United takes on a mid-table club. In an exciting end-to-end game, the other side plays well, dominates for periods and creates some excellent chances. Yet at the end, United is the one still standing. Alex Ferguson congratulates the brave opponent. The losing manager laments his luck but says his team has shown it can compete with the best.
On Saturday it was Fulham. Last Wednesday it was Southampton. It could have been West Ham, Reading, Newcastle, Sunderland or..... fill in the name of your club here.
Fulham had United back on its heels for long spells. David de Gea made some good saves. Bryan Ruiz hit the post. In the last minute Robin van Persie, United's star striker, cleared off his own line.
Yet the result never seemed in doubt. With 12 minutes left, just around the time when United fans might have been growing anxious, Wayne Rooney ran straight through the middle of the Fulham defense and rolled the ball into the net. It was the only goal United needed and it was terribly easy.
It's not as if United's players are taking their foot off the gas. You can't usually win with less than a full effort in the Premier League. You certainly can't expect to keep your place in a Ferguson team if you don't try.
Fergie seems to have adapted to the new refereeing climate by simply abandoning the idea of a ball-winning midfielder (where have you gone Roy Keane, Bryan Robson and so on).
He is also merrily rotating his squad. There is a sense that United is managing its games and its campaign. It no longer attempts to dominate every minute of every match. The aim is to win. This squad is doing that better than any of Fergie's previous United teams. It leads the Premier League by nine points. United is winning so regularly that other teams feel better about themselves if they competed against the Premier League's best.
3. City Slipping: This is not the first time, Manchester City has been tied to the rails as the train roars down the track.
Sergio Agüero again untied the knots on Sunday. He gave a reminder of what City can do when he scored with an outrageous lob from somewhere between the edge of the penalty area and the corner flag. Yet this time his goal did not earn City a victory.
City started without Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré and Carlos Tévez. It finished without David Silva. It has lost Mario Balotelli, who earned the club precious points in its remarkable late run last season. By the end it was depending almost entirely on Agüero for a moment of greatness.
Roberto Mancini's deadpan reaction when asked about Agüero's goal spelled out exactly where City stands. Sergio "should play better," the manager said.
City has been here, or somewhere very like it, before. It trailed United by eight points with six games left last season. But this time the fixture list favors United. City needs to stay in touch until it visits Old Trafford on April 6 and then win. For those things to happen, City needs to play better.
4. The Geordie Rule of the Ex: The Italians, who are inclined to view life through the lens of love, long ago identified an iron rule of soccer: the immutable law of the ex.
Danny Sturridge returned to the club where he first played, Manchester City, and scored for his new club Liverpool on Sunday. Of course, when those two split it was the club that was the spurned partner. Sturridge was lured away by the big money and King's Road address of sophisticated Chelsea. Still, Sturridge played Sunday like a man with something to prove to his ex.
On Saturday, another striker returned to his former home, as Demba Ba started for his new club, Chelsea, at Newcastle. The Geordies take a slightly less romantic view of their exes. A clash with Fabrizio Coloccini, who himself has been going through some commitment issues recently, left Ba bleeding, bandage and quickly replaced.
Chelsea had to revert to Plan A and bring on Fernando Torres. He set up a very nice goal by Juan Mata that put Chelsea ahead just after and hour. But two goals from Moussa Sissoko, who might have had four in the last 20 minutes, and has already repaid his tiny transfer fee by changing his new club's trajectory, gave Newcastle a 3-2 victory. Chelsea left with nothing.
For Ba, the meeting with the ex ended not with a broken heart but with a broken nose.
5. Eyes on Africa: Several Premier League managers probably gave a silent cheer or Sunday when Nigeria upset Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Manchester City know they will get the Touré brothers back by next weekend. Newcastle will have Cheick Tioté, who scored the Elephants goal, in a 2-1 defeat. On the other hand, Chelsea, which could be without Ba for a while, will probably have to wait another week for Victor Moses, even if Nigeria loses its semifinal in midweek.
Management at Tottenham must have been watching anxiously as its second striker, Emmanuel Adebayor, played for Togo against Burkina Faso.
Clubs whine a lot when players go off to represent their nations. Yet this particular edition of Africa's championship does raise questions.
African soccer is poor. That is why CAF, the African soccer confederation needs to stage its marquee tournament every two years instead of every four. Africa is hot. That's why it makes sense, as a rule, to stage the tournament in January. But South Africa, where this competition is being held, is far south of the equator. It is high summer there. The temperature in Rustenburg, where Nigeria beat Ivory Coast, reached 30 centigrade, or 86 Fahrenheit, on Sunday afternoon.
Even given the oddities of FIFA's calendar, this tournament could, and should, have been played in May. Staging the tournament in January may, perhaps, enhance its value to broadcasters, but it depresses the value of African players to their clubs.