Man United reeling from Madrid loss, Spurs collapse, more EPL thoughts
1. Run Wayne, Run: After 65 minutes at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, Manchester United might have started dreaming of another famous treble. Then the wheels fell off its Champions League campaign in a way that enraged the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson and his players.
Within 24 hours, the controversy over Nani's red card had been driven off the British sports pages, by that old chestnut: Wayne Rooney's United future.
Ferguson omitted Rooney against Real. The British media learned, somehow, that the manager was unhappy with the player's lackadaisical attitude to training. Rooney might leave United, the stories went. But you don't have be Ferguson to see that Rooney isn't fit enough to do justice to his talent. So, who would take the fat boy and his even fatter £200,00-a-week salary, is a mystery.
On Friday, Ferguson insisted Rooney wasn't leaving. On Saturday, the manager poured gasoline on the question, as well as suggesting that he wasn't Rooney's real enemy, and accused the FA of exploiting and exhausting the striker when he was on England duty.
In one masterful burst of media manipulation, Ferguson had moved the agenda away from his club's European failure.
Yet, the loss to Real might have left scars.
On Sunday, United leapt into a 2-0 lead in the first 11 minutes against Chelsea in an FA Cup quarterfinal at Old Trafford. Rooney scored the second. The goal owed little to Ferguson's powers of motivation and everything to the Chelsea's inability to deal with a free kick that was clearly intended not as a shot but as an in-swinging cross.
Rooney could have had a second and United could have buried Chelsea by half time. The blues seemed, once again, in disarray.
Yet in the second half, United's domination melted away. The frailty that occasionally marked its performances at the end of last season and earlier this campaign re-emerged. United became increasingly tentative and uncertain, allowing Chelsea's talents to shine. Eden Hazard and Ramires scored. Juan Mata missed a chance to hit a winner.
The good news for United is that its elimination from the Champions League means it has plenty of mid-week dates free for a replay at Stamford Bridge. Those gaps in the calendar will also give Ferguson more sessions on the training ground to work on Rooney's fitness and his team's morale.
2. Spurs give it away: After 65 minutes at Anfield on Sunday, Tottenham was looking like a team that could challenge Manchester City for second place. It had survived an early surge by the home side. It had taken the lead with two goals by Jan Vertonghen. It was stifling Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge. It was dominating midfield. It was peppering the Liverpool goal.
Then Kyle Walker's thoughtless long-range back pass from the touchline near the halfway line put Hugo Lloris under pressure. The goalie's tentative clearance struck Stewart Downing, who gratefully gathered the rebound and scored.
If one sloppy bit of play wasn't bad enough, with eight minutes left, Spurs did it again. A corner was cleared to Jermain Defoe, but he too suffered a moment of brain lock, lobbing the ball back into his own penalty area to Suárez. Benoit Assou-Ekotto bundled him over. Steven Gerrard converted the penalty. Liverpool won, 3-2.
The victory lifted the Reds above their neighbor, Everton, and into sixth place, seven points behind Chelsea in fourth. It was Liverpool's first victory over a top-six team this season. But while it was a testament to Liverpool's persistence, the performance, as a whole, suggested that talk of an Anfield revival might be premature.
Tottenham's 12-match unbeaten run in the Premier League came to an end in the same city where it suffered its last league defeat, on December 9. Then it conceded two goals in added time to lose, 2-1, at Everton.
Mistakes will kill a team. Maybe Tottenham was tired. Ten of its starters Sunday had also started as it crushed Inter Milan in the Europa League on Thursday night. But Spurs have another problem. Tottenham is at +15 in the goals difference column. That's significantly worse than any other team in the top six. Tottenham, as it showed again in the second half Sunday, is inefficient at turning domination into goals. If a team allows opponents to stay in the game, it needs to be a lot better in defense than Tottenham was on Sunday.
3. Mancini vs. Tévez, round 2: A home FA Cup quarterfinal against the team that sits in last place in the Championship, the second tier of English soccer, seemed to be just the sort of light exercise Manchester City and Carlos Tévez needed.
Tévez, who was arrested last week for driving even though his licence is suspended, scored a hat trick, and City won, 5-0.
Clearly everyone wasn't happy. Tévez, who had a furious row on the sidelines with his manager, Roberto Mancini, when he was asked to warm up against Bayern in the Champions League in October 2011, had another one on Saturday. This time, the pair exchanged angry words when Mancini brought him off after 76 minutes. It wasn't clear whether the cause was because Mancini had removed Tévez, or because he hadn't removed him earlier. Soon after completing his hat trick, Tévez had signaled to the bench that he was done.
Mancini shrugged afterwards that he had thought Tévez was injured but that he wasn't. "He asked for a change," Mancini told the media. "Maybe he was tired."
It's a bit much to expect eternal love from such a volatile pair. Tévez could start an argument in an empty room. As a player, Mancini had a reputation for thumping teammates.
Their last spat led to Mancini banishing Tévez being for several months. This time, the matter could be out of the manager's hands. The driving offence could carry a jail sentence.
Still, Mancini had only good words for the police who arrested Tévez.
"If it has an effect on him I hope that the police can stop him every day -- after this he scored three goals," Mancini said. "I hope also next Friday."
Doubtless that joke will improve Tévez's view of his manager.
4. A little luck at Loftus Road: While Queens Park Rangers were limping to just 17 points from 27 games, it sometimes seemed that the ball never bounced their way. Of course, bad luck is something that tends to happen to bad teams. Yet if QPR was going to build the momentum to stage a second consecutive great escape, it needed a few breaks to go its way.
That's what happened as QPR beat Sunderland, a club on the fringe of the relegation battle, 3-1, on Saturday. QPR fell behind in typical bad-team fashion when Sunderland cleared a corner, counter-attacked and Steven Fletcher scored. QPR received its first lucky break when a weak shot from Andros Townsend hit a defender and fell into the path of Loïc Remy who finished ruthlessly.
A sign of how the tide was turning came in the second half, when Sunderland cleared two more corners, only for QPR to score. First Townsend, who had taken a string of poor shots, finally connected with one and smashed the ball 20 yards shot into the top corner. How long will it be before he does that again? Then another player borrowed from Tottenham, Jermaine Jenas, pounced on a ball outside the penalty area to blast the third goal. When Jenas, who had not scored in the Premier League since December 26, 2008, hits a screamer, you know your luck is in.
QPR is still last, but it is not adrift and sinking as it was less than two weeks ago. It is four points from the last safe team, Aston Villa, which it visits next weekend.
Yet QPR was not the only struggling team to ride its luck on Saturday. Southampton picked up a point when it drew, 0-0, at Norwich after its goalie, Artur Boruc, saved an injury-time penalty. After Aston Villa conceded a horrible own goal by Nathan Baker, it dominated another struggler, Reading, took the lead but then suffered a late attack of nerves and finished gibbering and clinging onto a 2-1 victory.
Harry Redknapp, the QPR manager, is a master of the confidence trick. After Saturday, he may be able to convince his players to believe.
5. The Wigan enigma: The wild card in the relegation struggle remains Wigan Athletic.
There are times when it takes the field looking as if the manager, Roberto Martínez, had neglected to mention during the week, that there would be another team out there. A week ago, Wigan appeared clueless and lazy as it lost, 4-0, at home to Liverpool in the league.
On Saturday, it looked like a team that had been meticulously primed as it out-thought and out-fought Everton and won, 3-0, at Goodison Park in the FA Cup.
Wigan's pretty boys overpowered Everton's midfield workhorses, Phil Neville and Leon Osman. It scored all its goals in a period of 3 minutes and 23 seconds in the first half when it looked like Barcelona at its best.
The victory earned the club its first trip to Wembley. On Sunday the semi-final draw paired it with either Blackburn or Millwall, two teams struggling in the Championship who drew, 0-0, in their quarterfinal on Sunday.
Yet it was not a wholly positive weekend for Wigan. Villa's victory pushed Wigan back into the bottom three in the league.
Wigan is one of the few clubs that might trade a Premier League place for an FA Cup victory, although to win the cup it would have to win its semi-final and beat one of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea in the final. If it did so, it would win the first major trophy in its undistinguished existence. Furthermore, its owner, Dave Whelan, has a history with the cup. He played for Blackburn against Wolves in the 1960 final and was carried off with a broken leg in the first half. In those days, there were no substitutes. Blackburn's 10 men lost, 3-0. Whelan was moved to tears as he retold the story to the media last week.
Martínez is one the more attractive Premier League managers, always fair, rational and reasonable both in victory and defeat. He seems completely unflustered by his team's precarious position. It's as if he knows that his team can produce a performance like the one on Saturday when it really needs to and escape again, as in each of his three full seasons in charge.