Chelsea's bragging rights, the magic points number, more EPL thoughts
1. Talking the talk and walking the walk. The run up to the Manchester United-Chelsea game on Sunday was dominated by the usual sniping that occurs whenever Rafa Benítez takes on Sir Alex Ferguson.
It's a contest in which Benítez invariable comes off worse. His resentment of Ferguson is barely concealed. Ferguson, as is his wont, exploits that insecurity ruthlessly and effortlessly. Benítez ends up looking like a petulant child taking wild swings at an adult -- not a very nice adult, but an adult nonetheless. His suggestion during the week that the fact that United had won the title did not prove that it was a better team than Chelsea seemed particularly pathetic.
Yet on Sunday, Chelsea did look the better team as it beat United, 1-0, at Old Trafford.
Including cup competitions, Chelsea and United have met five times this season. United won the first encounter at Stamford Bridge at the end of October, when Roberto Di Matteo was Chelsea manager, and as still he was three days later when Chelsea eliminated United in the League Cup. Under Benítez, Chelsea has won twice and drawn once against United.
What made Sunday's victory all the more impressive was that Chelsea had played, and won, in a Europa League semifinal on Thursday, yet it outlasted United. Chelsea scored the winner three minutes from time when Juan Mata's shot deflected in off Phil Jones.
The goal was lucky. The result was not. In a cagey game, Chelsea had more shots, more possession, more territory and more quality. It became the first visitor to Old Trafford to stop United scoring in 67 league games. It was the better team.
The chippy Benítez scored not only against one nemesis, Ferguson, but also against another, Roman Abramovich. Benítez proved that he can marshal Chelsea's resources to more than match United. The club has talent and depth, but the impatient owner keeps changing coaches every six months.
Last week, Fergie accused Benítez of worrying too much about his resume. On Sunday, Benítez showed Abramovich and Chelsea fans his qualifications for the job. Not that it will do much good. Everyone at Stamford Bridge seems besotted with the prospect of ramping up the melodrama and turmoil by rehiring José Mourinho.
2. Title hangover. United fans might argue that Fergie and his team weren't really trying on Sunday. The title is won. The coach phoned in the changes.
Some players, notably Robin van Persie, looked out of sorts. Indeed, Wayne Rooney, when he came on in the second half, looked like some hung-over Sunday leaguer plucked from a park as Fergie drove to Old Trafford. Rooney couldn't control the ball, pass to a teammate or run at more than slow trot.
Yet anyone who thought that losing to Chelsea at Old Trafford didn't matter to the champions merely had to see the way Rafael reacted after United went behind. The little fullback took two, maybe three, whacks at his far bigger compatriot David Luiz to earn a red card in the dying seconds. Luiz clearly specializes in irking opponents, but the basic message was clear: Rafael, and United, did not like losing.
3. Muted Merseyside. And what did we learn from Sunday's other game? The Mersey derby used to be a momentous match filled with skill, passion and X-rated tackles with league titles or, at the very least, Champions League places at stake.
Sunday's was a tame 0-0 draw between two teams battling unenthusiastically for the honor of finishing sixth. There are clearly some good players at both clubs. Philippe Coutinho offered enough flashes to advertise his undoubted potential. Steven Gerard to yet again reminded us of his undoubted greatness. Marouane Fellaini, who spent the afternoon trying to escape the illegal clutches of pretty much every Liverpool defender and midfielder, showed enough glimpses of his bad temper and sharp elbows to suggest he might be banned for the end of the season.
Sylvain Distin of Everton had a goal disallowe, perhaps a little harshly, but 0-0 was all either team deserved. The two Merseyside clubs are in a little bubble of their own. They are significantly better than Swansea and West Brom, but not remotely as good as Arsenal and Tottenham, which, given the way the North London clubs played on Saturday, is setting the bar pretty low.
4. London congestion. Last season, the Premier League brought us the thrilling final-day denouement of the Manchester title showdown. This season, the best prospect for last act drama is the squabble between three London clubs over two Champions League spots.
On the face of it, all three clubs did what they had to do, eking out 1-0 victories this weekend. In practice, while Chelsea's victory at Old Trafford was impressive, their North London rivals looked jaded and uninspired.
Tottenham did not manage a shot in the first half at home to Southampton. It did not have a shot on target until Gareth Bale hit the winner, his 20th league goal of the season, with less than four minutes to play. It couldn't prevent a slick Southampton team dominating for long passages.
While Spurs scored late again, Arsenal scored early, again. Theo Walcott struck, with his 20th goal of the season, after 23 seconds at QPR. Yet after Walcott hit the post midway through the half, Arsenal went more than 40 minutes without a shot on target. It seemed unwilling to fight hard enough to stop an inept Rangers team gaining the upper hand.
Hugo Lloris kept Spurs in the game early on when he dived low to his left to palm away a free kick by Rickie Lambert. Wojciech Szczesny preserved Arsenal's victory late on when he dived low to his left to palm away a shot by Loïc Remy.
Both teams are on respectable runs. Tottenham has picked up 11 points in its last five league games. Arsenal has collected 20 in its last nine. Yet Saturday highlighted their weaknesses: Tottenham plod too much, Arsenal don't plod enough.
The key differences are that Arsenal has two more points and a far better goal difference while Tottenham has a game in hand. Unfortunately, that game is at Chelsea, which has picked up 13 points from its last five games, on Wednesday. Tottenham hasn't won at Stamford Bridge in 22 years.
Spurs have shown a flare for the dramatic against the biggest opponents (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Inter Milan) this season, and they will need to do that again this week to keep the season alive until the final day.
5. Hitting the target, missing the point. The modern manager, in every field, likes to set targets. A thoughtfully selected objective can help focus the workforce and provide a yardstick for measuring performance. On the other hand, simply plucking an arbitrary number out of the air because that's what managers are supposed to do, and most of us have worked for someone like that, can miss the whole point.
It's a sad fact of Premier league life that for the majority of club managers, the solitary objective each season is simply to avoid relegation. Most are quite aware that the number of points needed for safety each season is a moving target. Yet almost all, at some time or another, talk of the "magical" 40 points will guarantee safety. It's certainly a nice round number, but historically it guarantees nothing. It has not been hard to detect result of this dangerous groupthink around the league over the last couple of weeks.
Fulham's display as it lost, 4-2, at home to relegated Reading on Saturday for its fourth straight defeat, suggested that some of its players had mentally gone on holiday, perhaps after it gained its 40th point against Newcastle four weeks ago.
Newcastle's own 6-1 capitulation to Liverpool last week suggested it felt the work was done when it hit 38. It woke up enough on Saturday to gain a 0-0 draw at West Ham and a point that took it to 39. The result took West Ham to 43. The Irons know from bitter experience that even 42 is not enough, as they were relegated with that total in 2003. Since 1995, when the Premier League was trimmed to 20 teams, two other clubs have been relegated with 40 points.
Saturday's other results, with Wigan winning, 3-2, at West Brom and Aston Villa winning, 2-1, at Norwich for its second victory in a week, suggest that all those fans, players and managers who had thought 40 points represented safety might have to readjust their sights upward.
Villa has reached 40 points and 13th place. Wigan is on 35. If the Latics keep winning they could reach 44. Suddenly, Sunderland, who had looked as if it could relax after two consecutive victories under Paulo Di Canio, on 37, Norwich and Newcastle on 38, Southampton on 39 and even Fulham and Stoke, on the "magic" 40, should be growing twitchy.
Wigan would need to beat Swansea, Arsenal away and Villa at home in a 12 day spell that also includes an FA Cup final against Manchester City. But that is what Wigan does. The distinctly fortunate way it beat West Brom only serves to add weight to Roberto Martínez's assertion that this is "Wigan time."
Over the last three seasons, Wigan have seemed to set targets the way a runner with a sprint finish does. They sit just at the back of the pack where they can see everyone. Then they run them down in the home stretch. They know that the points total is not what counts, it's finishing ahead of three opponents.