PL perspective: Underdogs have their day

FOX Soccer’s lead analyst reflects on the Premier League weekend.

This weekend brought us four key lessons about the Premier League, but they all boil down to this: The most important thing for every team, especially at this time of year, is belief.

The underdogs are having their day

Teams like Newcastle and Stoke are showing that just because people don’t always think of them as first-tier teams, that they can play top-class football. Both teams are displaying the confidence and resilience that every team needs to succeed. They are working hard for their managers and most important, working hard as a team. That unity is giving them the confidence to win games and play with the big boys, and I think you saw that with my old club going and getting a good point against Spurs on Sunday.

Both Stoke and Newcastle have honest, hard-working and realistic managers, and they are fully deserving of the rewards they are getting right now. Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew have earned their players’ respect because they have been frank with their teams and quick to solve problems. A great example of that is how Pardew dealt with the distractions at the beginning of the season. Kevin Nolan wanted a long-term contract, but he wasn’t going to get it, so they made the move quickly. Joey Barton voicing his opinion publicly; he was shipped out right away. The problems were not allowed to fester, and that led to respect in the locker room. Frankly, this is something Roberto Mancini might have to do with Manchester City, which is the team I want to talk about next.

City are showing genuine belief

We saw against Aston Villa that this is a team that thinks they can go all the way. It was like watching Ricky Hatton – you know that haymaker is coming. Even with some of their better players on the bench, they had that mindset of “we will score.” When Balotelli’s shot went in, you just knew it was done.

There’s going to come a reckoning over Tevez. I think what Mancini has done in a difficult situation is laid down a challenge to the players. We’re talking about four world-class players in Silva, Aguero, Balotelli and Dzeko, and what he’s said is “we’ve got a problem – what are you going to do about that?” Not: “I,” “we.” That’s really important. He’s made sure it’s not him against Tevez, but a challenge to the team to step up in Tevez’s enforced absence, and they have answered his prayers.

Now, I don’t agree with how they handled Tevez initially. I don’t like the idea of giving him two weeks off so he can basically sit at the beach. He should be back and made to train alone with a physio — and I saw that a lot at clubs I played for — and then they sell him in January. I don’t think they should be forced into anything, either. They don’t need the money, and Tevez is a very good player. They will get dollar value for him, so sell him when it’s right for the club. But don’t let him have time off and relax – that sends the wrong message to the team.

Rio Ferdinand and Manchester United are proving vulnerable. (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

United are beatable

United’s start raised fear across England and Europe. That changed with that game against Basel, and there are now question marks about the `keeper, their defense, and Rio Ferdinand in particular. Phil Jones has had to play a lot of games and is showing the strain, and with Vidic out, some cracks are showing. That started at Stoke with that draw. Maybe a little bit of doubt is creeping in, and that only helps all their opponents. That said, against Liverpool, with that rotation, they showed they have men who can change a game. Hernandez only needs one chance, and they are very confident when they go forward. But I think they’ll be pushed – Liverpool had a lot of chances this weekend.

Chelsea’s young coach is getting an old machine back on track

I think the enthusiasm Andre Villas-Boas is showing is really rubbing off on the players. I think he also made a big statement with how he handled Frank Lampard. I know Frank very well, and I know he’s not about ego, he’s about playing well and he’s a man who loves a challenge. I think the manager told him not to listen to the papers, not to listen to the doubters. He said that “I want you to play for me — but you’ve got to perform.” That’s a challenge players relish, and I think he told Terry and Drogba and Cole the same thing.

I think it was a wakeup call, really. Maybe some guys thought they were set in stone to be picked every week. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle that, and the way Villas-Boas has done it has turned it into motivation. It’s respectful, and it says to these guys: You’ve got the time left, but you have to do it yourself.

I’ll have more for you next week and you can follow me every day on Twitter at @warrenbarton2. Thanks for reading and tune in Tuesday and Wednesday for my thoughts on the Champions League, only on FOX Soccer.