Nine games down, 29 more to go in the Premier League. And we learned quite a bit this weekend — for one, it was reinforced to all that the clasico remains the gold standard in world football. But the rise of the Hammers and Southampton’s charmed run have reinforced the fact that top to bottom the Premier League remains the most competitive, even if it is not always showcasing the best football on the planet.
Unbeaten … but not unstoppable
After the wrestling match at Old Trafford ended as a points draw, Chelsea stood as the last unbeaten team in the Premier League. They were unlucky to see Branislav Ivanovic sent off; unluckier not to have two clear penalties awarded to them for earlier scrums in the box. As Jose Mourinho’s teams live and tie from the rough and tumble few will be shedding a tear with the result. But United’s late comeback obscures a fact: Chelsea have dropped only four points through nine games. They have not lost a road game in their last eight outings, winning six of them. And they have a creditable chance of finishing the league season unbeaten. And that can be a toxic burden.
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Amy Lawrence has written a fascinating book about the only unbeaten side in the Premier League era that has drawn some fierce pushback in certain corners. I don’t credit those arguments, which, summed up, argue that had Arsene Wenger managed his resources better, would have allowed the Gunners to beat Chelsea and thus (somehow) win the Champions League in 2004. That’s fanciful.
But: finishing the season unbeaten in the league? That is a seductive goal, and you do have to wonder if the idea that Chelsea can repeat Arsenal’s feat is creeping in amongst what is clearly the best, hungriest, and ok, dirtiest team in this league. They want to win the title, but don’t they also want to prove all those "specialist in failure" jibes right? I think one normally pragmatic man does, making this is an interesting subplot to keep an eye on.
A valuable goal indeed
What about Manchester United? They’re actually a point behind David Moyes’ ill-fated run at this stage and yet, you do feel the pieces are starting to come together on the Salford Quays. For the first time this season, United played to whistle, played with pace, and didn’t show the defensive fragility that has been their hallmark. As Chelsea might argue they should have had a few goals more, so could van Persie, who saw two attempts denied in fine fashion by Thibaut Courtois.
Van Persie has struggled this season, rarely looking the potent scorer he was even a year ago. And yet, he popped up at the right moment to smash home what could be a vital goal. Momentum counts in this game and this league, and there is a sense United are finally gaining it. Adnan Januzaj’s performance was sterling, and Daley Blind is making a case as the sneak buy of the season, a man who is doing all the dirty work to hold together what is a frankly dreadful midfield. The quality at this club is apparent: Angel Di Maria was dangerous for much of the match and David de Gea is proving deserving of the faith shown by three managers. If there is an off note, it is in the case of Juan Mata, who, succumbing to the vapors of mystery, has become an object of derision.
Don’t count United out of the top four yet. Do count on Mata being in new digs come January, in what would be possibly the greatest fall since Icarus. Or, Fernando Torres.
Song on Green Street
Arsenal’s gifts keep on giving…to other clubs. Carl Jenkinson is on loan to the Hammers to fine effect while former defensive strongman Alex Song patrols the London midfield again. But not for the Gunners.
If the failure to re-sign Cesc Fabregas is a head-scratcher, Song’s arrival at Upton Park one is more of an irritant to the Emirates faithful. After all, Song left Islington on poor terms, failed to make an impact at Barcelona and returned to England as damaged goods. It was easy for the pretty boys to have a laugh. But, three man-of-the-match performances in a row have reminded everyone of what he used to do in red and white: he is a tough, smart libero with the ability to get forward and the smarts to hang back. He’s the reason the Hammers sit fourth, are playing sweeping, attractive football, and mind you, he’s surrounded by similar cast-offs. No wonder Sam Allardyce looks happier than cats surrounded by vats of cream.
Quiet on Liverpool
When Hull’s began their chants in the second half, singing "Just like a library," they summed up the woes infecting Anfield. Last season, a trip to Anfield was an amphetamine rush, a full-body jolt that made everyone put aside the bad old days. This year, it is a slog, and if we’re honest, what looked to be the "Brendan Rodgers Solution" now looks in hindsight as if it came down to one man.
Yes, it’s Luis Suarez. He’s a piece of work, a great player that seems completely adrift from humanity. You can adore his gifts and despise him all at once, a tricky thing that makes the watcher as complicit in his acts as he. What is undeniable is that, alongside Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, he made up the most torching, brilliant attack English football has seen — perhaps ever. It was scuzzy and dangerous, a punk rock attack. And it’s gone. So are the Reds.
A bad day at the office
Neil Warnock is many things, among them a big mouth who deflects his team’s failings on officials. But he had a point on what proved to be a vital goal at the Hawthorns, against a West Brom side that would ultimately draw Palace 2-2. Victor Anichebes header was fine enough and well-won. But Craig Dawson’s ten yard run up, leading with an elbow, to take keeper Julian Speroni out of the match? Inexcusable. The man in the middle, Mark Clattenburg, had a poor game, missing one penalty, and incorrectly crediting another goal to boot. The league should stand him down.
Game of the week: It was Real Madrid-Barcelona, of course. But in England, West Ham-Manchester City was the one with the most entertainment on an otherwise unspectacular weekend.