Top clubs survive Boxing Day chaos
Manchester City emerged as the big winners after a crowded Boxing Day card that also saw Arsenal, Manchester United and an unlikely Crystal Palace pulling out key wins. And while Liverpool dropped their game with City at the Etihad 2-1, they also came out on top in a way: for while Arsenal and United won, they looked unconvincing in victory. Liverpool lost — and yet with their style and power, served notice again that they have to be taken seriously as a Premier League title contender.
When the dust had settled, Arsenal were left atop the Premier League by a single point; Liverpool, who had started the day at the summit by virtue of goal difference, had slid to fourth. Such is the volatile and unpredictable nature of this year’s race in England, where it appears the contest will come down to the wire.
The game of the day, fittingly, was at the Etihad, where the two best teams in the Premier League right now clashed. City walked away with the three points thanks to Alvaro Negredo and a game-plan that largely stifled Luis Suarez. It would be a mistake to call this anything more than a speed-bump for the Reds. They were clearly up to the challenge, and had an offside call against Raheem Sterling not been badly blown, this game could easily have ended up in a score draw.
As it was, it was a thrilling showcase for the kind of attacking and expansive football we normally associate with the Bundesliga. Both sides launched wave after wave of attack and counterattacks — Liverpool using Suarez and Phillipe Coutinho; City using Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri — and both keepers were called upon to make a series of dizzying saves. In fact, the game was ultimately decided between the posts; Joe Hart proved his rehabilitation is nearly complete with a flawless performance, while Simon Mignolet made a bad gaffe to allow the winner over his line.
But the larger lesson is this: if City can find this sort of fluidity and confidence outside the Etihad’s friendly confines, they will win this league on the trot. There isn’t a team with their depth and power anywhere to be found elsewhere in England, yet Manuel Pellegrini’s conservatism on the road seems to be a shackle. Liverpool, on the other hand, look a far better side without Steven Gerrard, and now must figure out how to integrate their slower captain into this much faster side. Brendan Rodgers has his squad playing incisive and thoughtful football with a real razor’s edge — but when the Reds drop their speed and their passing, they immediately become vulnerable.
At the Boleyn Ground, against a West Ham side under real relegation pressure, Arsenal nearly came a cropper. Wasteful for much of the first half, Arsenal squandered a handful of chances before being hit by a sucker punch right after the break, when Carlton Cole bundled home a spilled save by Wojciech Szczeseny. Olivier Giroud, well off the boil on Thursday night, looked disconnected from his service lines and watched a series of convincing crosses from Mesut Ozil and Bacary Sagna pass him by, and after the Hammers scored, it seemed that the wheels were coming off again for the Gunners.
In fact, Cole (Carlton, not Joe) had a couple more chances to score and it realistically could have been 3-0 — and Arsenal’s title hopes would have been in serious doubt to boot. But a brilliant cameo by the returning Lukas Podolski and two goals from Theo Walcott helped Arsenal claw all the way back to a 3-1 win. Arsene Wenger claimed after the game that his team were “convincing,” but those of us who have been around long enough know that when a manager says such a thing, it is because no one else will. They were not, but Arsenal have the luxury of three more games that could produce full points. They will have to do without Aaron Ramsey, however, out for the festive period with a thigh injury.
Manchester United had a taller hill to climb after allowing Hull to stake a 2-0 lead. James Chester went from hero to goat in the match, scoring the Tigers’ first — then heading the ball into his own net with twenty to play to secure the points for United. Chester, of course, was a former United man, and left with his head in his hands. In between, United huffed and puffed but showed enough industry through Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney to overcome a spirited but reckless Hull. Alex Bruce was denied by the crossbar and Chester nearly made amends at the death, testing keeper David de Gea at the near post.
United did not come away unscathed. Rafael limped off with a groin injury and is out at least two weeks, joining Phil Jones on the trainer’s table. And Antonio Valencia was ejected late in truly idiotic fashion, kicking the ball away to earn himself a second yellow. Privately, David Moyes will be fuming, but after this escape, he was publicly sunny. The fact remains: This is not a vintage United side, and while the table might indicate they have an outside chance of catching the leaders, reality is starting to bite.
Later in the day at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho was left exhausted after watching his Chelsea side struggle to finish off Swansea City, but for once was left lauding the heroics of Swansea’s goalkeeper, rather than his forwards’ failings in front of goal.
Eden Hazard’s first-half goal gave Chelsea a 1-0 win over Swansea in a match which saw goalkeeper Gerhard Tremmel deny Samuel Eto’o either side of halftime as the Blues exhibited familiar failings in front of goal. Mourinho also felt Chelsea should have had a penalty when Hazard was tackled by Jordi Amat in the box, but there were few on-field protests over the second-half incident.
"They kill me. Every game I’m tired in the end," said Mourinho after the match. "You don’t score, you finish feeling you are going to concede. But the boys, they worked hard defensively and in the last part they looked comfortable in their control of the game."
After Thursday’s results, the Blues now sit in third place with a crucial match against Liverpool on Sunday at Stamford Bridge on the horizon. Yet, Mourinho’s men will face a stern test and they will be without one of their most consistent performers after Ramires was booked for halting a counter-attack in the second half, picking up his fifth yellow card of the season.
Tony Pulis’ Palace — yes, Crystal Palace — clambered their way out of the drop zone after Dwight Gayle’s injury time goal gave the Eagles a deserved 1-0 win. Palace have now won three of their last six Premier League games since Pulis took over from Ian Holloway and while no one is going to mistake them for a quality side, they are playing with a swagger they lacked just a month ago. They may be ahead of Fulham only on goal difference, but considering they were written off for dead in August, they’ll take it. Believe it or not, the Selhurst Park stragglers were big winners as well.
FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.