Posted: Sun April 7, 2013 7:09PM; Updated: Sun April 7, 2013 7:19PM
Peter Berlin
Peter Berlin>INSIDE SOCCER

The Mancunian machine, Di Canio's disaster, more EPL thoughts

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The only thing more disappointing than Sunderland's performance in their loss to Chelsea may have been the abominable outfit of controversial new manager Paolo Di Canio.
The only thing more disappointing than Sunderland's performance in their loss to Chelsea may have been the abominable outfit of controversial new manager Paolo Di Canio.
Alastair Grant/AP

1. The Big Red Killing Machine. There has been a peculiar lack of fury amid all the sound bites ahead of the Manchester derby Monday night. City could win the match, but in reality the Blues are a beaten team, and both camps know it.

The City players have been trying to explain, perhaps chiefly to themselves, why the 15-point gap does not mean they are suddenly a far inferior team. Javi García insists United's huge lead is not a "true reflection" of the relative strengths of the teams.

"I can't explain why we are so far behind," he said before venturing a radical theory: "The simple reason that we have lost and drawn matches." Well, yes, that would do it.

Joe Hart, the City goalie, disagreed. United, he said, deserve to be 15 points ahead because it has won more matches, United has been a "killing machine," Hart said. City has not matched that ruthlessness (the implication being that City has matched United in other departments). Hart wanted to draw a lesson from the season. Just as United bounced back after last year's disappointment, City will to do the same next year.

So drained of drama is the title race that Alex Ferguson, the United manager, could barely be bothered to goad City in the run up to the derby. The league is won. Short-term psychological warfare is unnecessary. Instead, Fergie tried to convince his rivals that the big red bogeyman was here to stay. So good, and so full of potential is his young side, he suggested, that City would need to buy a couple of £200-million players to keep up.

The table supports Fergie's suggestion that this might be his best-ever squad. His team is on course to break Chelsea's 2004-05 record for most points in a Premier League season (95) and Tottenham's 1960-61 record for most victories (31), a mark set when the season was four games longer. Yet Fergie's suggestion has drawn skepticism. It's easy to see why.

Setting aside the question of the quality of the individual players, while the young crop that Fergie boasts about is deep and good, it has been difficult this season to see potential greatness in the younger generation, with the possible exception of David de Gea.

Results suggest Fergie's team is somehow more than the sum of its parts even though it does not look like any recent embodiment of soccer greatness. It does not smother opponents physically, the way Fergie's earlier teams or Arsenal's Invincibles or Mourinho's Chelsea did. Nor does it dominate possession, as Barcelona does.

There is no Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Patrick Vieira, Michael Essien, Claude Makélélé or Didier Deschamps. Indeed, "tackling" is not one of the first words that springs to mind when watching Michael Carrick, canny defender though he is, and Tom Cleverley.

Maybe United is getting such good results because the rest of the Premier League, City included, is so bad. Or maybe it's because Fergie is ahead of the curve yet again.

First, there is the issue of the midfield ball-winner. Even a decade ago, Keane was often a liability. His penchant for kicking opponents meant he was suspended for a Champions League semi-final game against Dortmund and, later, a Champions League final against Bayern. In today's climate, he would hardly have finished a game. Maybe United's lack of traditional British midfield bite is a conscious decision by Fergie. Tackling is passé.

One solution is to smother opponents with a pressing game and then keep possession, passing the problem of how to regain the ball to your opponents. That's what Barça, and a host of imitators, do.

It's not what United do. Again, this might be a failing, as the elimination in the Champions League suggests, or it may be another expression of Fergie's genius. He would doubtless like his team to have the ball more, and opponents to have it less, but he knows that the essence of winning soccer is not keeping the ball, however satisfying and pretty that might be. It's putting the ball into the opponent's goal. When United gets the ball, its immediate objective is to score.

It's easy to see why García is puzzled. United isn't bad defensively -- although City is better. The one thing United does consistently better than any other Premier League team is to score. It is, to adapt Hart's grudging phrase of praise, a big red killing machine.

2. Arsenal and Chelsea Stay Calm. Manchester United will win the league and take on of England's four Champions League places. That leaves six clubs jostling for the other three spots. Manchester City has a significant cushion in second place, but its advantage has been shrinking, and could shrink even more on Monday.

While none of the other five contenders lost this weekend, three of them drew. The two clear winners were Chelsea and Arsenal.

Chelsea, clearly conserving energy for its crowded calendar of cup ties, cruised to a 2-1 victory over Sunderland in a game in which all the goals were the product of random deflections.

Arsenal clung to a 2-1 victory at West Bromwich with 10 men after Per Mertesacker, at the second attempt, earned himself a red card. The Gunners stayed in fifth but are now only two points behind Tottenham with a game in hand. They have also opened more of gap on the two Merseyside clubs. Everton is four points back. Liverpool, which drew 0-0 at home to West Ham on Sunday is a further three points behind and done.

Chelsea wasn't trying its hardest. Arsenal didn't look good. Yet both have often been in this position before at this stage of the season. They showed the value of experience as they did enough to win.

3. Tottenham's Troubles. When Tottenham found itself priced out of every striker it believed was good enough, it loaded up on goal-scoring midfielders instead.

One of those was Clint Dempsey. In recent weeks the American has found himself at the back of a three-man line all hoping to fill one place. But with the injuries to Jermain Defoe, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, three of the men who give Spurs its speed, all three of Tottenham's attacking midfielders—Dempsey, Gylfi Sygurdsson and Lewis Holtby—started against Everton on Sunday. They played like strangers.

Tottenham dominated possession for much of the game, but, after Emmanuel Adebayor scored in the first minute, struggled to create openings and fell behind. Dempsey managed five largely harmless shots -- only one on target - but for the most of the afternoon, looked lost in a crowd.

The most eye-catching American contribution was a save by Tim Howard, the Everton goalie, who reacted brilliantly to push a deflected shot by Mousa Dembélé against the bar.

Sigurdsson finally levelled when he popped in a rebound from close range. The game ended in a 2-2 draw that helped neither team.

With only one healthy striker, Tottenham has a problem. For now, Dempsey does not look like the solution.

4. Di Canio's Difficulties. Paolo Di Canio should enjoy his brief time as a Premier League manager.

Nothing about Sunday's toothless loss at Chelsea suggested he is going to give the listless Black Cats the extra life they need. And while Sunderland left London with nothing, four of the other five teams clawing to avoid the third relegation places -- Newcastle, Norwich, Aston Villa and Wigan -- all picked up points.

Yet again this weekend, Sunderland looked the weakest of the threatened teams (with the possible exception of rock-bottom Reading). The British tabloids have reported that when Sunderland hired Di Canio less than a week ago, it inserted a get-out clause in the Italian's contract. If the club goes down, the boss goes. The Sunderland directors are probably congratulating themselves for that bit of foresight as they try to ignore the storm that Di Canio's hiring has provoked.

That outrage, some of it cynically stoked by the tabloids, did raise the question of why it is morally acceptable for a self-proclaimed fascist to manage in the lower divisions, as he did at Swindon, but not in the Premier League. Yet Sunderland is at the heart of an area with strong socialist tradition. It's bad enough when local politicians and churchmen condemn the hiring, but when the coal miners union, bedrock of its support, turns on Sunderland AFC, the club knows it has a serious problem.

One of the gruesome pleasures of the whole business has been watching Di Canio wrestling with the question of just how much he should sacrifice his unpleasant principles in the name of career advancement. When he has disowned his beliefs, it hasn't worked. "I'm not a fascist," he declares. "Liar," comes back the chorus from anyone with access to his autobiography or to past interviews.

Perhaps it was the pressure from the anti-racism lobby that led Di Canio on Sunday to compound his thought crimes with the lesser transgression of fashion offender. Wearing a hideous lilac argyle sweater under his blazer was bad enough. Pairing it with a Sunderland red tie was an outrage against all that is right and decent. Perhaps Di Canio was trying to prove that he was telling the truth when he insisted he was color blind.

TURNER: Di Canio's hiring could go either way for Sunderland

5. Zamora's Confusion. It's easy to understand why Bobby Zamora was upset, and bemused, when he was sent off in QPR's must win match against Wigan.

There you are trying your hardest, obeying the laws of the games, keeping out of trouble for 20 minutes. Then, in one second of ill-coordinated absent-mindedness, you boot an opponent in the head, and the referee shows you a red card. All that effort, all those good intentions ruined by the lack of sympathy from hard-hearted Phil Dowd.

It's a pity soccer does not allow its offenders to plead insanity. What was Zamora thinking as he raised his boot more than four feet off the ground and planted the studs on the side of Jordi Gómez's head? What was Zamora thinking when he reacted to the red card with disbelief? If he had made the same contact three feet lower, on the side of the leg, there could have been no argument over a red card.

The problem is that an instant stupidity by one man could have immense long-term ramifications for a whole club. Even with 10 men, QPR played well enough to suggest it could have won comfortably with 11. It took the lead with a another eye-catching goal by Loïc Remy five minutes from the end but could not hang on as Shaun Maloney leveled in added time.

That goal, that result and that red card mean QPR remains seven points from safety with only six games left.

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