FOX Soccer Exclusive
Arsenal coughs up pole position
Arsenal’s title hopes took a knock on Tuesday as the Gunners saw Mathieu Flamini sent off and were held to a 2-2 draw by a battling Southampton at St. Mary’s. The result leaves the Gunners just two points clear atop the table, meaning that Manchester City and Chelsea can both leap past Arsenal on Wednesday night.
Elsewhere, on a wild Premier League day that saw five players sent off and 13 goals scored, Liverpool steamrolled Everton 4-0; Crystal Palace got a critical home win over Hull to move up the table; and Juan Mata notched an assist in his Manchester United debut as the Red Devils brushed aside Cardiff. Chelsea face West Ham in a London derby on Wednesday while Tottenham face high-flying Manchester City at White Hart Lane as four more Premier League games unspool.
Arsenal arrived late to St. Mary’s, stuck in traffic and soaked by a driving rain. And for much of the first half, the Gunners played a like a team that was stuck in the mud, with the Saints bullying the Arsenal back line all over the place before Jose Fonte cracked the game open with a near post header that Wojciech Szczesny badly muffed. For long stretches, this looked like a game Arsenal would lose and it wasn’t until late, when Artur Boruc was forced to save Laurent Koscielny’s shot from close range that the leaders showed any bite at all.
It’s unclear what Arsene Wenger said to his charges after the break, but whatever it was, it worked. The Gunners charged out of the blocks in the second half, scoring two quick goals behind Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla before allowing a quick sucker-pinch from Adam Lallana to tie it up. When Flamini was ejected, correctly, for a stupid two-footed lunge on Morgan Schneiderlin, it seemed as if the Saints would take full points. But a fine one-handed stop by Szczesny on young starlet Luke Shaw preserved a point.
The problem for Arsenal is that they have little margin for error. Both Chelsea and Manchester City have looked unstoppable over the past month and have an easier schedule to boot. Arsenal have a home game against Palace before a brutal stretch that sees them face Liverpool twice, in the league and the FA Cup, and then Manchester United in the league and Bayern Munich in a Champions League tie. With Flamini suspended for three games and the Gunners already threadbare due to injury, the Gunners now must regroup and hope the challengers spurn the opportunity they presented on Wednesday.
At Anfield, Liverpool dealt Everton their worst loss in a Merseyside derby since 1982 and solidified their grip on a European slot. It could actually have been far worse for the Toffees, who were simply over-run. Riding two goals from Daniel Sturridge and a goal apiece from Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool simply brushed their neighbors aside with a display of pace and power that put the lie to Everton’s statistically superior defense.
Everton simply fell apart under the glare of the Kop, and Roberto Martinez’s grim acknowledgement of his side’s performance after the game spoke volumes. Everton must now recover from a grim week that saw them also lose Bryan Oviedo to a double leg-break in their FA Cup tie on the weekend.
The big winners on the night at the other end of the table were plucky Crystal Palace, a side reborn under Tony Pulis. The Eagles currently sit 14th in the table -- hardly spectacular, but remarkable when you consider how abject their season has been. Jason Puncheon scored the only goal of the match in haphazard fashion, putting in his own rebound after his initial shot came back off teammate Yannick Bolasie; then Pulis parked the bus while Hull’s frustration grew. The truth is, Steve Bruce’s side were the better with new boy Nikica Jelavic coming closest for the Tigers, but to no avail.
With Cardiff and Fulham both losing, and Stoke and Sunderland now facing each other on Wednesday in an effective six-pointer, Palace must hope the sides below them keep flailing as the Eagles’ docket is stiff: they face Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton in the weeks immediately to come.
And then there’s Manchester United, a boring, boring team this season. Dull as they may be, Old Trafford glimmered on Tuesday with a bit of hope as Mata made an auspicious debut in an easy win over a beleaguered Cardiff. Mata was particularly instrumental in the attacking third, and his work finally paid off when he set up the goal of the night, a rocket from left to right fired in by Ashley Young, with a deft bit of service.
Mata looked a bit short of match fitness and faded as the game wore on, but with both Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney returning, things might finally be looking up for the Red Devils. At the very least, they will not be relegated this season: with Tuesday’s win, they reached that magical 40-point mark.
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