Heading into their weekend fixture against Liverpool, Arsenal had not lost in the league at Anfield since 2007 and had efficiently taken care of Brendan Rodgers’ team at the Emirates in November, enjoying a comfortable 2-0 victory. However, less than a minute into Saturday’s encounter, the Gunners found themselves 1-0 down when Martin Skrtel applied the finishing touch to Steven Gerrard’s whipped-in free-kick and, by the 20th minute, Arsene Wenger had to completely rip up any pre-match plans he might have had as Liverpool had raced into a 4-0 lead and the new aim for the visitors was simply damage control. To some extent, Arsenal managed to do that, with the final score reading 5-1, but it could have been much worse as the home side were rampant – especially in the first half – and made a mockery of their recent failings in this fixture.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the result was not so much that Liverpool put five past Arsenal, but they did so without Luis Suarez ending up on the scoresheet – though the Uruguayan did have a cracking effort that bounced back off the post – as Skrtel and Rahim Sterling both scored twice, while Daniel Sturridge claimed his 15th goal in 17 Premiership appearances this season. Although it will be very hard for Liverpool to usurp all three of the teams above them to claim their first league championship since 1990, they are only six points off the top of table and they are looking like strong contenders to at least claim the fourth and final Champions League place. Arsenal, on the other hand, desperately need to put this thrashing out of their minds as they have a run of fixtures that could make or break their season – although Wednesday’s home match against Manchester United is not quite the daunting task it was in previous campaigns, they follow that up with another game against Liverpool in the FA Cup, then the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.
With that defeat for the Gunners happening in the lunchtime kick-off on Saturday, both Manchester City and Chelsea were hoping to overtake them in the table when they played later in the day, against Norwich and Newcastle respectively. City, who had beaten the Canaries 7-0 in the return game at the Etihad last November, failed to score for the second time in a row and as Norwich frustrated them and held on for a 0-0 draw, leaving Manuel Pelligrini’s men in third place. Chelsea were not so forgiving to their rivals, as they claimed their 11th victory in 13 Premiership matches at Stamford Bridge this campaign with a 3-0 defeat of Newcastle, with Eden Hazard scoring a hat-trick – the first two coming from nice moves and finishes from the Belgian, with a second-half penalty giving him the match ball and moving the Blues to the top of the table.
One of the most exciting games of the weekend was at Old Trafford, where Manchester United were hoping to improve on their recent failings at home as they took on the bottom side, Fulham. The Cottagers appeared not to have read the script, however, as they took an early lead when Lewis Holtby – inexplicably allowed to leave Tottenham on loan during the January transfer window – played a perfect ball in to Steve Sidwell, who directed it past David De Gea. For the next hour of the match, United threw everything that had at Fulham but were unable to find the breakthrough, until finally doing so in the 78th minute when Robin Van Persie converted a pass from Juan Mata, then within two minutes the home side were ahead courtesy of a deflected shot by Michael Carrick. The game was then winding down, with Fulham looking beaten after holding out for so long, until the fourth minute of the minimum of five that had been displayed for injury time when the visitors went on a break, Kieran Richardson took a shot that De Gea saved, but it fell perfectly for Darren Bent who headed into the net to give Rene Meulensteen and his charges a much-needed point. The inability to beat a team bottom of the table at home only adds to the pressure that is on David Moyes in his first year in charge at Old Trafford – actually I should correct that from first year, since that implies they will be a second. It is perfectly possible that the Glazers will not even wait until the end of this campaign to make a change of manager, should they lose to Arsenal on Wednesday night, then failure to progress from their Champions League tie with Olympiakos – something I thought unlikely when the draw was made, but their Greek opponents are stronger than both Stoke and Fulham, who have taken four points off the Red Devils in the last week – could be the final straw for owners who require revenue from Europe’s top competition to fund their debt-based control of the reigning champions.
Along with Chelsea and Liverpool, the only other team who had started the weekend in the top half of the table to win were Tottenham, who overcame tactical superiority by Everton to claim all three points with a 1-0 victory. The goal came out of the blue and thanks to some quick thinking from Kyle Walker and Emmanuel Adebayor, with the right-back finding the striker with a quickly taken free-kick that caught the Toffees napping and allowed the Togolese forward to fire the ball into the net for his 6th goal in 9 Premiership starts. Spurs were very lucky to have even been in touch by that point, as Leon Osman alone had four good chances to score in the first 15 minutes of the game and Everton were clearly missing the injured Romelu Lukaku up front. Tim Sherwood had opted to forego his preferred old-school tactics of “four-four-fahkin’-two” and instead played with five in midfield, yet his team could not gain any control in the middle of the park. Part of the reason for that is his insistence with playing Nabil Bentaleb as the fulcrum of the side in front of the back four, with the youngster looking like a good prospect, but far from the dominating presence that is needed in the Premiership (by the way, if he was looking for a youth team product in that position, a better option with be Tom Carroll, but he has been shipped off on loan to Queens Park Rangers for the season). Another issue with the line-up was that our best player, Christian Eriksen, was played out of position on the left-wing, rather than behind the striker, and his ineffectiveness from the flank led to the Dane being withdrawn just after the hour mark. When you have such a talented playmaker as Eriksen available, accommodating him must be the first order of business for the attack and what summed up Sherwood’s inexperience was his decision to replace him with Andros Townsend, someone who is much more suited to the wing, but who actually prefers to line up on the right (as does Aaron Lennon, who occupied that flank on Sunday) so that he can cut on to his left-foot (then have his shot charged down and forcing Tottenham to start again from the back, but still). Regardless of all the flaws, I can only complain so much because Spurs did actually win the game – against one of their rivals for the top four – and are only three points (and 33 goals) behind Liverpool in the race for Champions League qualification.
In the other matches at the weekend, Swansea started life without Michael Laudrup with a comprehensive 3-0 victory in the South Wales derby over Cardiff, who remain in the relegation zone; West Ham moved out of the bottom three with a 2-0 win away at Aston Villa, with Kevin Nolan scoring both goals, just as he had done in the Hammers previous match against the Swans; West Brom replaced the east Londoners in the bottom three after they were beaten 3-1 by Crystal Palace, who continued their resurgence under Tony Pulis and look like they might avoid relegation from the Premiership for the first time in five attempts; Sunderland had Wes Brown sent off in the third minute for a professional foul, which made Hull’s task easier and they prevailed 2-0; while Southampton and Stoke shared four first half goals but neither could find a winner after the break as they drew 2-2 on the south coast.
There is another round of Premiership fixtures in midweek, with the headline match being Wednesday’s clash at the Emirates between Arsenal and Manchester United. The day before, Chelsea have an opportunity to extend their lead at the top when they travel to West Brom, one of only two teams to have avoided defeat at Stamford Bridge in the league so this season, as they were unlucky to be held to a draw after conceding a harsh late penalty that gifted the Blues a point. Manchester City will look to end their two game scoring drought when they play Sunderland, but the Black Cats held them out and beat them 1-0 at the Stadium of Light when they met in November and this provides a preview for the League Cup final when the teams will square off again at Wembley on March 2nd. In the race for the final Champions League spot, Spurs travel to Newcastle; Liverpool head to Craven Cottage to face Fulham; and Everton have a home fixture against Crystal Palace. Elsewhere, Cardiff entertain Aston Villa; Southampton are away at Hull; 15th plays 16th as West Ham take on Norwich; while Stoke and Swansea – who drew 3-3 in south Wales – square off at the Britannia Stadium.
Last week, 3-7; Season, 127-123
Home teams listed first
Cardiff vs Aston Villa – Home win
Hull vs Southampton – Draw
West Ham vs Norwich – Home win
West Brom vs Chelsea – Away win
Arsenal vs Manchester United – Draw
Everton vs Crystal Palace – Draw
Manchester City vs Sunderland – Home win
Newcastle vs Tottenham – Away win
Stoke vs Swansea – Draw
Fulham vs Liverpool – Away win