Suárez the mad genius, Dempsey's enigmatic play, more EPL thoughts
1. Suárez gives Liverpool bite. Sometimes sports can throw up story lines so twisted, bizarre and jaw-droppingly unlikely that one has to keep pinching oneself as one tries to describe them.
And yet all the things that Luis Suárez did in a wild second half for Liverpool on Sunday he has done before.
At the end of a bland opening 45 minutes between two largely bland teams, Chelsea led 1-0 at Anfield. Liverpool's only dangerous player was Suárez. In the second half, he showed just how dangerous he can be, to friend and foe alike.
At half time, Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, threw on Daniel Sturridge to give Suárez another spiky livewire to play off. Within two minutes, Sturridge, desperate to do well against his former club, had hit the post and forced a good save from Petr Cech. After 52 minutes, brilliantly set up by Suárez, he scored. Liverpool was level and seemingly in control.
Just five minutes later, Chelsea won a corner. Suárez, always eager to work for the team, was in the goalmouth to defend. Unfortunately he chose an illegal means of doing so, flapping the ball away with his hand and conceding a penalty. Eden Hazard converted. Chelsea led. Liverpool, and Suárez, seemed to lose the plot.
Just three minutes after conceding the penalty, the Uruguayan tussled with the far larger Branislav Ivanovic in the Chelsea penalty area. Ivanovic wrapped a big arm round Suárez who, after a moment's reflection, decided that the best way to escape was to lean forward and try to bite Ivanovic's arm off. Even though Ivanovic helpfully rolled round on the grass as if he'd been shot, the officials missed the incident. The cameras did not.
Hannibal Suárez is a serial biter. In 2010, when he was playing with Ajax Amsterdam, he received a seven-match ban for sinking his teeth into Ottman Bakkal of PSV Eindhoven. On Sunday, just two days after he was named as one of the five final candidates for the Professional Footballers' Association's player of the year, Suárez probably torpedoed his chance with another flash of his teeth. Yet there was still time to show why he might be the best player in the league.
Liverpool continued to press, though most of its chances seemed to fall to two midfield lunks, Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey. Sturridge, no doubt eager to show he is learning from the master, was lucky not to receive a red card for a vicious challenge on Ryan Bertrand.
The referee Kevin Friend added six minutes at the end. The clock showed that six minutes and 45 seconds had been played when Sturridge swerved a cross into the goalmouth. There could hardly be a more dramatic moment to score. Sure enough, there was Suárez to bullet a header through Cech and earn Liverpool a 2-2 draw. It was probably his last touch of the ball this season. It was the touch that took him to 30 goals.
He's a jerk. But he's a brilliant and gifted jerk. Don't ever take your eyes off him, especially if you're an opponent with some meat on you.
2. Villas-Boas earns his money. At Chelsea, Andre Villas-Boas lost his job because he lost the senior players. In recent weeks at Tottenham, he has seemed to be managing as if his chief concern was not to let that happen again.
Villas-Boas has allowed Gareth Bale to operate in the central position which the young star apparently covets. He has tried to squeeze two of the significant summer signings, Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson, into the lineup at every opportunity even though neither seems willing, or able, to play in the wide role which used to be Bale's. The manager has persisted with Emmanuel Adebayor, a big man with a fragile ego, even though he has not been able to unlock the striker's talent.
On Sunday, Adebayor was anonymous. Dempsey and Sirgudsson kept wandering inside, leaving Tottenham crowded together and confused in midfield. With his team being effortlessly outplayed by Manchester City and trailing in a game it had to win, Villas-Boas effectively admitted his errors. He took off Sigurdsson and Adebayor as well as Scott Parker, the veteran midfielder. He ordered Bale out to the wing. He brought on Tom Huddlestone, a man he would have unloaded to Stoke earlier in the season if the midfielder had not failed a fitness test, Jermain Defoe and Lewis Holtby.
Within five minutes of the last change, Bale found space and time on the right flank to deliver a sumptuous pass across the goalmouth that Dempsey poked in. Four minutes later, Holtby played a clever pass to Defoe, who undressed Vincent Kompany before unleashing a typically vicious right-footed shot. Three minutes after that, Huddlestone's delicious pass set Bale free to run at goal. The Welshman chipped Joe Hart to put Spurs two goals ahead.
On the sideline, the boyish Villas-Boas looked ready to burst into tears. Eleven minutes after his last substitution, Tottenham had turned a one-goal deficit into a 3-1 victory.
It was a precious victory for a club that seemed again to be suffering a spring wobble. Spurs kept pace with Arsenal, which eked out a nervous 1-0 victory against 10-man Fulham on Saturday. It also gained ground on Chelsea. This is one race that should run to the last day.
3. The Dempsey enigma. There was a time when British ex-pros who migrated to the commentary box seemed to be bound by omerta. They were loath to criticize the players on the field.
All that has changed. Maybe it's because Sky, the main Premier League broadcaster, is a sister company to Fox and has seen how things are done in American sports. Maybe it's simply that it has finally dawned on the TV companies that the fans aren't blind and don't like being told someone is playing well when they can see he isn't.
In two seasons with Sky, Gary Neville, the former Manchester United and England fullback, has developed a refreshing reputation for calling it as he sees it, in a calm, logical tone of voice.
On Sunday, after Dempsey had pulled Tottenham level against City, Neville explained his reservations about Dempsey playing as a striker. After pointing out that he had played against the American many times, he said Dempsey "hasn't enough subtlety or vision or awareness in his game."
Dempsey could point to Tottenham's one flash of vision in the first half: his subtle ball over the defense that presented Kyle Walker with a one-on-one against Hart.
Yet for much of the match, Dempsey again looked pedestrian in pace, in thought and in technique. His lack of speed, strength and tricky ball skills mean he's easy to contain as a central striker and often easy to bypass in central midfield. He was part of Tottenham's problem. He offered no inkling that he might provide the solution.
Yet once again, at the key moment of a big game, Dempsey turned up in the right place at the right time. Dempsey had already struck twice from close range against Manchester United earlier this season. On Sunday, he found a huge hole in the best defense in the Premier League, inviting the pass from Bale and converting it coolly.
Neville is right. Dempsey often looks lacking in many of the basic qualities of a Premier League attacking player. Yet, somehow, he keeps getting the job done, particularly on the big occasions.
4. United close in on title. Tottenham's late rally against Manchester City was bad news for Aston Villa. It means that Manchester United can clinch first place in the Premier League with four games to go if it beats Villa at Old Trafford on Monday night.
The question, for a couple of months now, has not been if United will win the title, but when. With their hungry home crowd roaring them on, and their scary manager on the sidelines, United's players will be desperate to make Monday night the date they become champions.
The season is arriving at the point where fates are sealed. QPR could not find a way past Asmir Begovic and lost, 2-0, at home to Stoke on Saturday. Reading was outplayed as it lost, 2-1, at Norwich. Both teams are now 10 points behind Aston Villa with four games to go. One more defeat will doom each to relegation. The small slice of good news is that since they play each other next Sunday, one of them could still be, theoretically, alive entering the last three games.
With Stoke, Norwich and Sunderland all winning, Newcastle gaining an away point at West Brom and Aston Villa inactive, the big loser in the relegation fight was Wigan. The FA Cup finalists came to the rough East End of London, played like millionaires and were mugged by West Ham. That followed a defeat on Wednesday when Wigan wasted chances against Manchester City and lost, 1-0.
"If we play at the level we've played over the last two games over the last five, the points will come," the Wigan manager, Roberto Martínez, as relaxed as ever, said after the game.
In fact, what Wigan has shown over the last two games is that playing well produces nothing if a team cannot take the chances it creates.
5. The Welsh Premier League? One thing is already certain. Cardiff City is returning to the top division of English soccer after an absence of more than 50 years.
Cardiff ensured it would finish in the top two in the Championship with a home draw against Charlton on Tuesday. It clinched its division title with a draw against Burnley on Saturday.
Cardiff was one of the powers of English (and Welsh) soccer in the 1920s. It won the FA Cup in 1927 which, until Swansea won the League Cup this season, was the only major trophy won by a Welsh club.
Cardiff dropped out of the top division in 1929. The club paid two visits to the top division in the '50s and early '60s. It was in the fourth division as recently as 2001 (Swansea was there as recently as 2005). Now both will be in the Premier League, which will make the southern Wales police nervous. Is it time for the English Premier League to ponder a name change?