Soccer

English Premier Rewind: Manchester, Chelsea, Liverpool and More

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... And a man named Nedum Onuoha shall lead them.

 

Write this down, file it away as one of those dates to remember -- Nov. 14, 2010. The day Sunderland -- a team with two away wins in the last 15 months, who'd been beaten 5-1 two weeks ago by Newcastle -- beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The day, according to Opta Sports, the Blues were scored on at home for the first time in over 900 minutes of game action. The day the mighty Blues tank could barely muster the strength to fire a shot on goal with the fearsome presence of Titus Bramble (him again) contributing to a clean sheet.

Or better yet, remember it as the day Bolo Zenden joined the ranks of Mark Madsen and Elaine Benes in the Awkward White Person Dancing Hall of Fame.

Really, the Dutchman's late-arriving boogie alongside the much more coordinated (and prepared) Asamoah Gyan, after the Ghanian's goal which made it 2-0, was about as insulting as just about anything that could have happened at Stamford Bridge short of Asier Del Horno or Adrian Mutu returning to West London to drop a turd on the center line.

And it was glorious to watch from an ocean away.

In recent years my disdain for Chelsea has thawed. Aside from John Terry and Ashley Cole there's not a ton of personalities to dislike at Stamford Bridge, what with Ricardo Carvalho bringing his hatchet to Madrid and Michael Ballack returning to der Fatherland. Also, Manchester City has even trumped Roman Abramovich on the rich list. Hell, even Didier Drogba has moved into that transcendent realm where he's so talented you have to question if you like sports if you don't enjoy watching him play.

Still, to see Chelsea humbled by Steve Bruce and his attempt at a fashionable jacket was a delight.

The loss kept Chelsea in first place, but the Blues have three losses -- one more than fifth place Bolton and sixth place Sunderland.

Credit goes out to Sunderland for limiting Ashley Cole's forrays forward, which cut down any creative spark in the Chelsea lineup, which lacked any midfield creativity from Obi Mikel, Ramires and Yuri Zhirkov. At some point it seemed like Chelsea were turning to the old NBA tactic where the four other players stand around and wait for the superstar -- think Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant -- etc. to make a play as the shot clock expires. The Black Cats then kept up its attacking threat, forcing the Chelsea defense to stay active and Petr Cech to make a bunch of saves.

Emailing my friend Tom, a Chelsea fan, he chalked it up to a collective poor run of form. Hard to argue with that assessment. After opening the season red hot and staking his claim to the Prem's best XI, Flourent Malouda has shrunk to invisible status. Nic Anelka is still lethal in the penalty area, but is a player that shows up in flashes or individual moments, either finishing a movement of playing a part in its completion, not it's creation.

Perhaps, as usual, the simplest answer is the most telling. This team misses the football brain of Frank Lampard. Love him or hate him, Lampard does produce week-in, week-out when healthy. By any list, if we're only counting club games not internationals, he's among the best 50 players in the world when healthy. At his best, Lampard is a guy who's always in the right spot, making positive offensive contributions, something Ramires isn't and Zhirov can't do for a sustained level of time. Even the classy Michael Essien isn't able to replicate the Lampard role. The player in the team most able to step into the England midfielder's shoes is Yossi Benayoun, who himself is hurt.

The sky, of course, isn't falling for Chelsea. The team is still in first place, even if the central defense looks patchwork with both Alex and Terry injured. Cheslea, as it stands, are the best of flawed, if balanced, bunch of teams.

It's hard to see Sunderland representing the first Visigoth arriving on the streets of Rome, as it were, either.

If anything, it seems Arsene Wenger might have been right, in retrospect. Arsenal maybe did out-play Chelsea, despite losing 2-0 at the Bridge on Oct. 3. This was a week after Chelsea lost to Manchester City. Since beating Blackpool 4-0 on Sept. 19, the Blues haven't been quite as good as their blinding start, which saw them out-score opponents 21-1 in the first five matches of the season.

Chelsea sleptwalk to a 0-0 draw at Villa. Struggled vs. both Wolves and Blackburn and then were beaten by Liverpool and now Sunderland.

The Blues calling card has been defensive muscle and power, complemented by the pace of Cole on the left and the sheer force of will up top by Drogba. Teams might be figuring them out a bit and Carlo Ancelotti, with the state of the current roster doesn't have options. He'll have to figure something out quick, because December is hellish for Chelsea -- v. Everton; @ Spurs; v. Manchester United; @ Arsenal and v. Bolton.

Sunday the Italian manager said the team lacked, "fighting spirit."

Never thought I'd see that day at Stamford Bridge.

No wonder Zenden felt the need to boogie.

Bruce Bruced:

Now, from a journalistic standpoint, what's the story on Sunday? Sunderland pulling the shocker or Chelsea laying the stinker?

For me, it's simply easier to write about the negative, which is probably the case for most writers. It's the nature of the beast.

It's unfair to under-sell the win by Sunderland, since the club took apart Chelsea as comprehensively as anyone I've ever seen. Sunderland was confident and composed, taking down Chelsea. Even down a goal, it never felt like Chelsea was on the verge of equalizing.

It's fitting that it was quality that broke Chelsea's will.

Onuoha's stunning, slaloming goal before the stroke halftime put half the Blues' defense in a clown suit. Almost as importantly it doubled as the most exciting play by anyone under contract to Manchester City this season. That's some delicious irony, or at least coincidence on the weekend City put us to sleep with another 0-0 draw, no?

Two other quick Sunderland thoughts.

1. Jordan Henderson raised his eventual transfer fee. (More on this later in the week.)

2. Darren Bent ... possible Ewing Theory potential?

Guess this is a problem Bruce wouldn't mind, two borderline world class forwards in the fold, with Bent and Gyan, but do they work together? Gyan has scored in two straight games in Bent's absence, which might only be coincidence. Bent is a proven scorer and bagged over 20 last season, which is impressive but also glosses over that he was about the only weapon on the team.

Bent is certainly the craftier, savvier player, while Gyan has the game-changing pace. Sunderland almost seem better suited for a 4-5-1 type lineup with the Ghanian at the top of the spear, racing forward.

Let's see how this develops. If Gyan -- who himself limped off -- and the on-loan Danny Welback keep it up expect Bent's name to be thrown around in January. Wouldn't be crazy to see Tottenham buy him back, might be somebody Liverpool targets.

Laying in the Weeds?:

Sir Alex Ferguson really is Murdock from "The A-Team."

Here it is, Manchester United does nothing for about 80 minutes, falling behind 2-0 at Villa Park, needing a frantic rally spearheaded by Frederico Macheda and Nemanja Vidic to pull out a single point.

It looked like a lost weekend for the Red Devils, but like that silver-haired devil George Peppard, Sir Alex, "loves it when a plan comes together." Chelsea lose, so United actually gain in the standings despite playing a game featuring Dimitar Berbatov creating a wormhole of sunken-eyed languidity.

United have an eye-popping seven draws, but without a loss, the club is only three points off the top.

Sunday, Arsenal were the big winners, doing the business 2-1 at Everton and moving up to second place, only two points behind Cheslea.

If Onuoha scoring wasn't fluky enough, then Bacary Sagna (didn't he switch it to Bakari? Am I nuts?) certainly was. Frankly I didn't think the flamboyantly-coiffed Frenchman knew how to shoot, but there he was ripping a rocket to beat Tim Howard near post.

Cesc Fabregas made it 2-0, before late consolation from Tim Cahill.

Nothing much on the memorable side of the ledger for the Gunners, simply another solid road win and three more points to heap on the pile. The biggest thing for Arsenal to take away is a sold showing from the oft-injured Johan Djourou in the middle of defense.

And that's what it's going to take this season, grinding away 90 minutes after 90 minutes. Nobody is running away with this. Nobody, yet, is a total pushover. The standard of play might not be as high as days gone by, but it should make for a more exciting title chase.

Ambien Not Required:

So much for that alleged soccer revolution that was going to be ushered in by the oil barons at Manchester City, eh? A third of the way into the season all Roberto Mancini was done is lead a one-man 1990s Serie A revival.

And that's not really a compliment, either.

In the span of three days many of us watched 180 minutes of Manchester City soccer. Fair to say, 99.9 percent(*) of us want those minutes back.

(*) Perhaps the descendants of Helenio Herrera were the 0.01 percent that enjoyed those dual snooze-fests.

Nothing typified the unfounded conservatism of City than late in Sunday's eventual 0-0 draw with Birmingham City -- at home no less -- Mancini withdrew Carlos Tevez for ... Gareth Barry. The irony here, is that for a change the Italian manager broker up the Power Trio of Barry, Yaya Toure Yaya and Nigel de Ripper Jong, opting for more of a 4-2-3-1 with James Milner, David Silva and Adam Johnson all complementing the Argentinian savant up top.

Didn't seem to matter. City had no ideas, further confirming whatever offensive skills Yaya Toure displayed at Barcelona were through osmosis playing next to Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. These three could make anyone look like a borderline star player, well, expect if you're a big tall, unlikeable Swede with the initials "ZI."

For all that's been written -- and spent -- by Manchester City, few have addressed the team's ambitions. The team is spending at the top of the world pack, but it's dreams are almost too modest. The unstated goal is a top four spot and a place in the Champions League first, then setting the sight son the league.

The villainous Miami Heat, these Citizens are not.

In fact, it's hard to register any type of emotional toward the Eastlands outfit other than apathy or indifference. Other than de Jong, there's not a player on the field that's easy to loathe. Despite the rumors linking it to every player on the planet, City hasn't bought a galaxy of star, either.

The club just sort of is. It's like the Middle Eastern owners have assembled the world's most expensive luxury yacht, but don't know where it should make its first port-of-call. Hell, the diamond encrusted water slide on the top deck might sparkle, but it's a boring, slow descent into the pool below.

Mancini, it seems, isn't the man to wear the captain's hat -- or scarf for that matter.

The one comparable to City's rise from the pack is Chelsea, but the difference was the Blues under Roman Abramovich made their intentions known from the start. And as we know, Jose Mourinho would never publicly state fourth place would be go enough.

Money is buying a lot of things at Manchester City, but not excitement. The way the Prem is shaping up, 0-0 draws might be enough to linger around fourth place, if not higher, but the way they're coming about are rapidly morphing City into the "Waterworld" of super-teams.

And, Mancini's scarf aside, City can't even match the unintentional comedy(*) of Kevin Costner's soggy would-be epic.

(*) Yes, if you clicked that link, it is indeed Jack Black flying the Smokers scout plane.

Old Man Hodgson:

I'll admit it, I fell for the conventional wisdom. Roy Hodgson was a revelation at Fulham, leading the Cottagers to the Europa League final last season. Ipso facto, given the funds and players available at Liverpool, it would be a match made in heaven, coming off that dream run at Craven Cottage.

Wrong.

And not just wrong, but wrong for falling into a stupid media trap without looking into the facts.

A week ago Hodgson had moved off the fire as Liverpool beat Chelsea 2-0. Since then it's two awful road results, a 1-1 draw at Wigan and a eye-stabbingly depressing 2-0 defeat at Stoke City, with Ricardo Fuller scoring the sloppiest goal you'll ever see.

The buzzword against Grandpa Roy this week is rotation. With three games in six days, Hodgson made two change, included an unchanged XI from Chelsea on Sunday to Wigan on Wednesday. Finally at Stoke he swapped out Martin Kelly for Sotirios Kyrgiakos, moving Jamie Carragher to right back. Liverpool aren't exactly a young side, aside from Lucas, so naturally this caught a ton of scorn from hardcore Liverpool supporters, who began chanting for Kenny Dalglish in the corners of the Britianna Stadium.

Figured it would be interesting to see how Hodgson dealt with this issues at Fulham, where he was hailed for his "system" en route to losing to Atletico Madrid in Hamburg last May.

First off, after that wild, historic 4-1 win at Craven Cottage vs. Juventus, Fulham went 2-2-5 (W-D-L) in its final nine Premier League games. Fulham weren't in relegation trouble, nor were they serious chasers for Europe, so Hodgson could be forgiven for minimizing the Prem games.

In the Europa League knockout stages, beginning with Shaktar Donetsk, Hodgson only made at most three changes. In matches with Juventus and Wolsburg the players used were very similar to what was seen on the weekend in the Premier League, with the bigger shifts in formations from 4-4-1-1 to more defensive 4-2-3-1. It wasn't until the final was in sights, when Fulham beat Hamburg in the semifinals that Hodgson relieved his tired, veteran squad with wholesale changes on the weekend, giving more run to the Erik Nevland/Jonathan Greening/Stefano Okaka's of the world.

Maybe the only defensive for Hodgson is that he figured if greybeards like Danny Murphy and Simon Davies, as well as, vets like Zoltan Gera, Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes could live up to the grind of 180 minutes over three or four days, why couldn't Liverpool's comparable squad? It's not sound logic, but it at makes some sense, although it sounds like Hodgson has definitely made enemies with guys like Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and Ryan Babel, freezing them out.

Is rotation the only reason Liverpool crashed back to earth after the Chelsea win?

Obviously not, but it's another indictment against a manager that seems over matched and grasping at straws. The irony here is that the constant lineup shifts is part of what got Rafa Benitez in trouble, or at least was something his detractors pointed to as a weak point.

Once again, though, the best course of action for John Henry and NESV might be to clean house. Everyone is expendable, except for the King of the Scousers, Steven Gerrard, if only from a P.R. standpoint.

***

Hate selling Stoke City's effort short, but is anyone wrapped up by the Potters? Nice, gritty win, either way. Stoke embody that large middling group of teams that are certainly stronger and capable of better things that the bottom half of the table even as short as two years ago. When he shows up and decides to play hard, Kenwyne Jones is a load to handle.

Dueling Dempsey:

It's fitting, that the big heavyweight boxing match this week was in Texas, since Clint Dempsey is rapidly becoming the most combative player in England -- a Texas Tornado of jangly elbows and overhead kicks.

Saturday when Mark Hughes and the Seamonsters, err Fulham, played Newcastle at St. James Park, Dempsey was once again a man with slight anger issues. Midway through the 0-0 draw Dempsey was pushed near midfield by Cheick Tiote. It was nothing malicious, but it bumped the U.S. midfielder off his run.

Dempsey reacted like a man who's girlfriend had just been dissed by a punk kid in a movie theater, getting in the Ivorian's face with a facial expression that combined the Teutonic growl of Oliver Kahn and the Demon from that old Aphex Twin video. This is on the heels of his mid-week dust-up with Michael Essien and Jose Bosingwa at Stamford Bridge.

Not sure why Dempsey has all of a sudden became this warrior, but it might warrant a remix of "Don't Tread."

Other stuff:

In the states we talk about "contract years" and players boosting their level for a fat new deal. Wigan's Charles N'Zogbia is on that kind of path now, trying to work his way out of the DW Stadium. Saturday he made a really nice run up the field vs. West Brom, slipped near the top of the box, got up, kept his balance and threaded a pass for Victor Moses to run unto for the winner. ... ESPN's halftime feature about the bricks outside Villa Park was immediately forgotten. ... West Ham and Blackpool combined for about 40 chances on goal for a chance that ended 0-0. In case you hadn't noticed, Ghana keeper Richard Kingson has hooked up with the Tangerines. ... If Joey Barton ever crosses the line fully, and gets a lifetime suspension he could probably find work in an Interpol cover band. ... Fairly typical Tottenham game, beating Blackburn 4-2. Roman Pavlyuchenko missed a penalty, then scored a nice header. Peter Crouch got on the scoresheet in Premier League action, oh and, Gareth Bale scored twice, including a diving power header. Guess the on-paper mismatch between he and Miguel Salgado was even more pronounced in real life. Bears noting I finally dropped the Welshman from my fantasy team this week after mimimal production in two months. Figures. ... Don't want to short-change Aston Villa for a spirited second half, at least for about 35 minutes vs. Manchester United early Saturday. Like what I'm seeing from the young players being integrated into the lineup, including burgeoning USMNT-er Eric Lichaj. Will expand on what this means in the big picture on Friday, promise.

Great Job!:

New weekly feature here, inspired by "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job." Simply, it'll be handed out to someone who deserves the pencil noises.

This week it goes to Stuart Holden for scoring his first Premier League goal in Bolton's 3-2 win at Wolves. (Highlights here.)

It wasn't the most memorable goal of all time, slapping in a squared ball from Lee Chung-Yong, but it was a composed finish from a player who's been nothing less than steady since moving away from the Houston Dynamo. Better yet, Bolton is fifth in the table with only two losses this season. Holden is a big part of that rise along with Johan Elmander and his six goals.

For that, Stuart Holden, Great Job!

Fantasy Team O' the Week:

Jack Fu's "Local Sports Team" had one of the highest single-week totals I've seen, 86, thanks to Cesc Fabregas (captain), Bale, N'Zogbia, Kenwyne Jones and Scott Dann.

One Other Thing:

One thing that's nice about the presentation of the Premier League, at least from an overseas standpoint, is it doesn't wrap itself in the Cross of St. George. This is a welcome, refreshing change from most American sports -- even the god-awful Faith Hill NBC "Sunday Night Football" theme song has the words "star-spangled" in it.

Granted the Premier League -- officially the Barclay's Premier League, not the EPL -- is a world league watched across the globe.

It was still nice this weekend for the League observing a moment of silence in honor of Remembrance Day before kickoffs, as well as honoring veterans with poppies on the team uniforms. It wasn't obnoxious or xenophobic, but considering the EPL/BPL is about as secular a league as there is, it was a welcome, earnest moment from the heart for a league that is usually driven by one thing and one thing alone -- cold hard cash.