Efficient City capitalizes, but Liverpool shows it can be a title contender
There is, of course, a reason, for every goal and every miss. There are reasons for every victory and every defeat.
Manchester City edged visiting Liverpool 2-1 in a pulsating game on Thursday in which there were pivotal moments of brilliance and fallibility. The broader tactical battle shifted constantly. Yet sometimes the only explanation is the most childishly obvious one: City won because it made good on two of its chances while Liverpool made good on only one.
"The most important thing today," Manuel Pellegrino, the City manager told BT Sports, "was that we continued trying to attack."
It was hardly profound. That does not mean it wasn't also true.
We learned little new about City. Even without Sergio Agüero, it can be devastating on the attack. Even with Vincent Kompany it can be vulnerable on defense. Even though Fernandinho and Yaya Touré were magisterial, City never dominated midfield.
We might have learned a little more about Liverpool. Luis Suárez was again undefendable for much of the game, but his supporting cast often looked lightweight. Raheem Sterling was a menace early on but faded. Twice in the first half, he ran onto passes by Suárez and rounded Joe Hart. On the first occasion, he stepped aside to allow Phillipe Coutinho to score. On the second, his move was just too fast and too slick to be believable. The assistant referee raised his flag even though Sterling had been well onside. It was a costly individual error not of Liverpool's making.
"I thought across the board the three officials were poor on the performance level," Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, complained with some justification.
On the other hand, Liverpool players also made errors. Martin Skrtel, who often appears more preoccupied with winning the physical battle than with winning the ball, allowed himself to be bullied by Kompany as the City captain headed his team level from a corner.
"We are disappointed to ship a goal from a corner," Rodgers said.
On the second City goal, keeper Simon Mignolet seemed to be focused on flicking Alvaro Negredo's lofted shot sideways and allowed the ball through his flopping wrist and into the net.
Jordan Henderson, who had suddenly seemed to blossom into a midfield prince for Liverpool in Steven Gerrard's absence, magically transformed into a donkey again as the ball kept falling to him in the City penalty area.
City climbed into second, one point behind Arsenal. The victory reaffirmed that it is a contender. Liverpool dropped to fourth, three points off the pace. But even in defeat, its performance suggested that it too, can stay in the title mix.
"It was an outstanding performance," Rodgers said. "The team was brilliant."
The human body is a complicated machine. Even taking a single step involves an awful lot of nerves and muscles between the head and the foot. They need to move in harmonious sequence or we fall flat on our faces. Don't pretend it's never happened to you.
On Thursday at Hull, Wayne Rooney earned his money in one balletic moment as Manchester United came from two goals down to win, 3-2. Rooney also had an assist, but on a day when both teams scored once with thanks to an own goal and once with a header from a set piece, his 26th-minute volleyed goal separated the teams.
Almost anyone who has played as much soccer as Rooney has at some point caught a dropping volley just so. As all the nerves and sinews have aligned and the ball has flown sweetly off the foot and arced perfectly into the corner of the net, a little voice has said "I can bend it like Beckham." It is an illusion.
Like any mug in the park, Rooney misses those volleys more often than he connects. Some of those misses are pretty ugly too. The Hull fans enjoyed jeering his wilder efforts on Thursday. But Rooney had the last laugh. He sees the possibility for such shots quicker than most players. He lines his body up to hit such shots better than most players. And his nerves and muscles manage the mysterious trick of coordinating perfectly to hit a moving ball more often than nearly ever soccer player on the planet, including the vast majority in the Premier League.
It's a rather valuable gift. That's why Rooney has spent most of his career at England's biggest-earning club, a club that has been able, and willing, to pay a great deal to fend off the interest of other wealthy suitors.
On Thursday, Rooney and United reached a milestone together. His sweet volley was his 150th league goal for the club, only one other player in the Premier League era, Thierry Henry at Arsenal, has scored more for one club.
There was a minute, indeed 22 of them, at West Ham on Thursday when Arsenal's slide appeared to be about to turn into a slump. Yet it conjured three goals in 11 minutes to win, 3-1.
Arsenal has been mercurial and vulnerable in recent years, its seasons undermined by prolonged collapses. That might explain its caution Monday night at home to Chelsea, when the Gunners seemed happy with a goalless draw that stretched their winless league streak to three games and cost them first place. A loss at home to a title rival might have damaged morale. So too might a loss away to a London rival plummeting toward relegation on Thursday.
In the first half, Arsenal dominated without scoring.
"We were a bit uptight in taking our chances, " Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager told the BBC.
At the start of the second, Wojciech Szczesny, the Arsenal goalie, parried a shot straight to Carlton Cole who gratefully banged the Hammers ahead. After such a steady start to the season, was it a return of the old shaky Szczesny? Was this a sign that Arsenal was starting to wobble again?
Arsenal pressed harder, chasing an equalizer. It allowed West Ham chances to increase its lead.
"We were a bit lucky they didn't score the second goal," Wenger said.
Arsenal got the break it needed after 68 minutes when Adrian, the West Ham goalie, made a mess of a soft shot from Theo Walcott. Three minutes later, the ball deflected to Walcott who nodded it neatly home. It was, he said after the game, his first headed goal.
West Ham's bubble quickly deflated. It conceded a third in quick succession, scored by Lukas Podolksi.
"When we had absolutely to go for it we scored the goals," Wenger said.
By the end, West Ham was in the relegation zone, and looked the part. Arsenal was back in first pace, having answered, for now, questions about its character.
"For us it was important to win again," Wenger said.
Santa, so parents tells us, knows if you deserve your presents.
All the teams that started the day in the bottom three received an unexpected three points on Boxing Day. Their managers couldn't agree whether the victories were because their teams had been naughty or nice before Christmas.
Fulham won 2-1 at Norwich. Sunderland won 1-0 at Everton. Crystal Palace won 1-0 at Aston Villa.
The biggest surprise was at Goodison Park where Everton had not lost in the league in the whole of 2013. The home team gave Sunderland a gift after 24 minutes. Leon Osman took a pass from Tim Howard, the Everton keeper, and presented the ball to Ki Sung-Yeung. Howard brought the Korean down, conceding a penalty and earning a red card. Ki converted the spot kick. Even with 10 men, Everton dominated the rest of the game, but could not score. Sunderland manager Gus Poyet was clearly as surprised as anyone.
"When you are at the bottom, it's for a reason and it was very difficult. We beat them somehow," he told the BBC, but he also felt his team deserved its luck for being good for little reward before Christmas. "We deserved a few more things from games where we didn't get it so its compensation a little bit," he said.
There was no luck about the goal Dwight Gayle scored to give Crystal Palace victory at Aston Villa, except that his swerving shot came in added time at the end of the game, and Gayle was only on because Cameron Jerome had suffered an injury late and had to go off in the 72nd minute.
Tony Pulis, the Palace manager, argued that his team had atoned for its bad play in its previous game.
"We owe ourselves that for the performance at Newcastle where we weren't really at it," he said.
René Muelensteen, the Fulham manager, had already received a couple of presents over Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Clint Dempsey returned to the club on loan from MLS' Seattle Sounders. On Christmas Day, he received an altogether more ambiguous gift when Alan Curbishley joined Fulham as "first-team technical director." Muelensteen made all the right noises, like a boy who has received a sweater from a great aunt. It's not clear whether he really believes it suits him, but he knows he will have to wear it.
At times on Thursday it seemed Santa was giving gifts to Norwich. Gary Hooper's long-range shot took a cruel deflection to give Norwich the lead. John Ruddy barely avoided toppling into the Norwich net with the ball, but video review found a couple of inches of the ball had not crossed the line.
The Norwich wall obligingly jumped out of the way of Pajtim Kasami's free kick to gift Fulham an equalizer. Then Scott Parker, who played two seasons and 63 times for Tottenham without scoring once, smashed his second goal of the season, it was as if Christmas had come as early as it possibly can for Fulham.
Muelensteen was inclined to see the victory as a delayed reward.
"We've been working so hard since I took over, we had a run of really difficult games of which we only won one," Muelensteen told the BBC. "All the others ones I think we should have got something out of the games and we didn't that's why it's so important that we did that today."
Suddenly the bottom of the table looks tight. Aston Villa, Norwich, West Ham and Cardiff all seem to be in freefall. West Brom's point at Tottenham can't disguise that it too is in trouble.
To escape, none of them needs to be good every week, or even every other week. One victory every three games should be enough to escape. The managers won't care if their teams deserve them or not.
Tottenham enjoyed two thirds of possession against West Brom at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Yet, according to Opta, had only the tiniest edge in territory and had fewer shots on target: three to West Brom's four. Spurs also collected only one point. The game ended, 1-1.
At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had only 45 percent of possession against Swansea but had almost 60 percent of territory as it had seven shots on target to just one by Swansea. Chelsea won, 1-0.
How is it possible to dominate possession, as Tottenham and Swansea did, but not territory? Well, one way is to play the ball from side to side in your own half across your back line, as both teams did. Both also struggle to turn possession into goals. Tottenham had 10 shots blocked in the game. That reveals something about its continuing lack of penetration.
Chelsea lacks penetration too. José Mourinho again moaned about how wasteful his strikers were. This time Samuel Eto'o started in attack. It made no difference. He had four shots. He didn't score.
What separates Chelsea from Swansea and Tottenham is that Chelsea doesn't give gifts but happily accepts them.
Swansea lost because Gerhard Tremmel, unsighted by a pointless lunge from teammate Ashley Williams, was beaten by an Eden Hazard shot that passed only inches from his head.
Tottenham surrendered a point when Christian Eriksen, who had just scored, gave away the ball and committed a foul. Emmanuel Adebayor could have cleared the free kick but missed and Jonas Olsson scored.
In the end, the stat that counts is that Chelsea found a way to collect three points.