In the headline game of the week in the Premiership last Sunday, Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, with the winning goal coming from Fernando Torres in the final minute of the match. It had been an up and down game for the Spanish striker, who missed an early chance to give his side the lead, but then provided an assist for Andre Schürrle to score his first goal for Chelsea, before Torres himself hit the bar with a speculative effort from the edge of the area. In the second half, City had got back onto level terms thanks to a fantastic strike by Sergio Aguero, but in the final minute a mixup between Matija Nastasic and Joe Hart saw the defender head the ball beyond the goalkeeper, allowing Torres to pounce and claim his first Premiership goal of the season into an empty net. As he was going to retrieve the ball, Hart made it clear that he had claimed the ball (you did not need to be an expert lip reader to see him say “Keeper’s, f*cking keeper’s”), which both sold out his teammate and also displayed a complete lack of awareness that if he had simply stayed on his line, there never would have been an opportunity for Chelsea to score. I have to say I do have some sympathy with Hart on the amount of criticism he has been getting due to a number of these types of mistakes, since Tottenham’s first choice keeper, Hugo Lloris, also has a tendency to rush out of his area and on two occasions this season – against Norwich, when he was only cautioned for handball, but could have been dismissed; and versus Aston Villa, when he was adjudged to have touched the ball inside the area, but replays suggested otherwise – has been almost caught out in a similar manner and remains highly rated. Despite patchy form – and England’s number one has also allowed some soft shots to get past him as well as the decision-making gaffes – Joe Hart remains the best option for both his club and country, I just hope he does not start playing at his best at least until after Spurs have a chance to face him this season.
The impressive win for Chelsea moved them back into second place in the Premiership, ahead of Liverpool, who had beaten West Brom 4-1 at Anfield the day before, with Luis Suarez grabbing a hat-trick; and two points behind Arsenal, who overcame Crystal Palace 2-0, despite being forced to play the final 25 minutes with 10 men, after Mikel Arteta was dismissed for bringing down Marouane Chamakh just inside his own half. The red card was particularly harsh on Arteta – who had scored the opener for the Gunners via the penalty spot – as not only would Chamakh being free to run behind the defense not really count as a goal-scoring opportunity, but replays suggest that the contact was initiated by the Palace striker rather than the Spanish midfielder. With a numerical advantage, the home side did press for an equalizer and only a couple of brilliant saves from Wojciech Szczesny kept Arsenal in the lead, until a break away goal from Olivier Giroud in the final four minutes sealed the three points for the league leaders.
The final place in the top four is currently held by Tottenham, who kept their 12th clean sheet of the season in all competitions in the course of their 1-0 victory against Hull, though the winning goal came from another highly questionable penalty that was converted by Roberto Soldado. The game was most notable for the fact that afterwards, Andre Villas-Boas came out and criticized the home crowd for being too nervous and not supporting the team enough at White Hart Lane, making the players too anxious and prefer to play away. Now, as a former season ticket holder – who was never part of a crowd that any Spurs manager ever complained about over the course of the five and a half years I was attending matches regularly, despite some pretty poor performances – I can see both sides of this argument. It is definitely true that there is now a level of expectation around fixtures such as Hull at home where it is demanded that Tottenham should get three points and there should be no difficulty in doing so, completely ignoring the fact that up until last weekend, Steve Bruce’s men were level on points with the reigning champions and are no pushovers (even if they have now lost four of their five away matches in the Premiership). However, it is a dangerous tactic for Villas-Boas to adopt by going on a the warpath with the home supporters, who to this point he has won over and gained their belief and trust. That will now be completely eradicated following his rant if results start to worsen and he has to realize that, as much as the fans need to inspire the team, the relationship is reciprocal – good, entertaining performances will be rewarded with appreciation from the White Hart Lane faithful. Hopefully Wednesday’s match in the League Cup, which saw Spurs win on penalties for the first time in 19 years – following seven lost shootouts, two of which I witnessed in person against Middlesbrough and Liverpool in consecutive seasons in the same competition – to progress at the expense of Hull, who will likely be glad to see the back of North London for a little while.
In the other matches in the League Cup that were played this week – Sunderland and Southampton will meet next Wednesday, since their tie was postponed to avoid clashing with Newcastle’s home fixture with Manchester City, which they lost 2-0 – West Ham setup a quarter-final showdown with Tottenham following a 2-0 win at Burnley; Chelsea and Arsenal both fielded second-string teams, but the Blues prevailed 2-0; Leicester edged a seven goal thriller against Fulham; Manchester United put four past Fulham; and Stoke beat their Midlands rivals, Birmingham, on penalties. Elsewhere in the Premiership last weekend, David Moyes found himself staring another home defeat in the face, but his side rallied back from 2-1 down to beat Stoke 3-2; Gus Poyet’s tenure at Sunderland is already resembling Paolo DiCanio’s, thanks to a victory in the Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle; Everton won away at Aston Villa, 2-0; while the matches between Swansea and West Ham, plus Norwich and Cardiff ended up goalless.
2012/13 versus 2013/14
There was one other match last weekend, which saw Southampton beat Fulham 2-0 at St. Mary’s and in the review of that match on The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast, it was mentioned that compared to the corresponding fixtures from last season, the Saints were 14 points better off than they were in 2012/13. That is to say, last year when they played the Cottagers at home, the result was a 2-2 draw, so in 2013/14 they have a two point improvement from that fixture and, from the 9 games they have played in the Premiership, the total increase in points gained is 14. This got me thinking how the other teams in the top 8 (the other seven of which finished 1-7 last campaign) have performed compared to how they did in the same fixtures in 2012/13 – so I went through and worked it out, replacing the three relegated sides (Wigan, Reading, QPR) with Cardiff, Hull and Crystal Palace – in that order, corresponding to the league finishes of the two sets of clubs from last year. For example:
Liverpool games played in 2013/14: Stoke (Home); Aston Villa (Away); Manchester United (H); Swansea (A); Southampton (H); Sunderland (A); Crystal Palace (H); Newcastle (A); West Brom (H).
Total points in 2013/14: 20 points
Total points from corresponding fixtures in 2012/13 (replacing Crystal Palace with QPR): 15 points. Improvement +5 points
Working this out for the rest of the top 8, this is the point difference from last year:
Manchester United: -8 points
Manchester City: 0 points
Everton: +1 point
Chelsea: -3 points
Tottenham: +4 points
Arsenal: -5 points
This last one is the most interesting to me: as the league leaders, it has seemed like Arsenal have finally put to rest the notion that they cannot compete for a trophy and that they look like the strongest team in the division. However, in 2012/13, when they finished fourth, 1 point above Tottenham and 16 below United, in the 9 fixtures they have played so far this season they took maximum points. By comparison, Spurs have fared 4 points better than they did in their 9 matches last year, so if the two North London rivals were to replicate their form from 2012/13 over the remaining 29 games, then the Waffles would finish 8 points above the Gunners. Obviously this is wishful thinking on my part and this comparison is not exact – there is no real way to replace the relegated sides with the promoted ones since, for instance, Hull appear to be a lot stronger than Reading were – but it does perhaps suggest that it is a little too early to tie the red and white ribbons on the Premiership trophy just yet.
This weekend, North London takes on Merseyside as Arsenal host Liverpool (a fixture that was drawn in 2012/13 by the way) and Spurs travel to Everton (where they lost through two late goals last season). However, the biggest fixture of the weekend will come in South Wales as two fierce rivals, Cardiff and Swansea, meet for the first time in the top flight – a match that is likely to be worth watching, even if you have no rooting interest. Elsewhere, Chelsea travel to the northeast to face Newcastle; Fulham host Manchester United; Hull entertain Sunderland; Southampton are away at Stoke; Manchester City take on Norwich; Aston Villa are in East London to take on West Ham; and West Brom have the chance to claim three points, as they play Crystal Palace.
Last week, 6-4; Season, 48-42
Home teams listed first
Newcastle vs Chelsea – Away win
Fulham vs Manchester United – Away win
Hull vs Sunderland – Home win
Manchester City vs Norwich – Home win
Stoke vs Southampton – Draw
West Brom vs Crystal Palace – Home win
West Ham vs Aston Villa – Home win
Arsenal vs Liverpool – Draw
Everton vs Tottenham – Home win
Cardiff vs Swansea – Draw