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English Premier Review: Arsenal, United, Chelsea, Liverpool

Believe it or not, we’re getting close to the halfway point of the 2010-2011 season in the English Premier League, and it’s starting to get to the point where we can figure some things out.

For instance, at the top, teams like Manchester City (despite some off-the-field issues) and Tottenham don’t appear to be going anywhere in the title/Champions League race.

At the other end, West Ham looks like they’re in big trouble, but picking the other two who may join them down the trap door to the Championship remains extremely muddled and uncertain.

You may or may not like parity, but it sets up to be one of the more exciting races the Premier League has seen in a few years (of course, last year’s race was pretty good, too).

Here’s what we learned this week in the EPL:

Manchester United 1:0 Arsenal
United 9-0-7 (34 pts.); Gunners 10-5-2 (32).
What we learned:

The question is: Can Arsenal win the title with a center back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Sabastien Squillaci (we’re not even going to go after the goalkeeping here)? If they can get Cesc Fabregas healthy, with Samir Nasri in the form he’s in, with the Gunners playing a lot more physically this season, with guys like Andrei Arshavin yet to hit their stride, and Marouane Chamakh being a legitimate goal scorer?

I still have to answer no, and not because of what happened Monday, despite what you heard pregame, in-game, and postgame. No, Arsenal’s demise in the title race will come at say Blackpool or West Brom when a defensive miscue (or just weak defending) allows those teams to get equalizers that will cost Arsenal two points each.

Manchester United won’t lose those games. Heck, it doesn’t look like Manchester City will lose those games, either. And that will be the difference.

Tottenham 1:1 Chelsea
Spurs 7-4-6 (27 pts).; CFC 9-4-4 (31).
What we learned:
It’s still a half-full, half-empty case for Chelsea. The half-full part was a pretty solid performance at White Hart Lane that nearly got them three points, a marked improvement over their last few outings certainly. They actually should have won, had it not been for a Didier Drogba penalty miss in stoppage time on a ground where they had lost in two straight seasons.

But they laid it all on the line today: John Terry, Michael Essien, even Ramires – while having plenty of room for improvement technically – put in a great workrate for 90 minutes. Was that Chelsea’s top gear? Even if so, is it a bad result?

Meanwhile, Tottenham showed was 20 minutes away from three points that would have brought them to within a point of Chelsea, and really put them in the title race. When pressed, Sebastian Bassong looked a little shaky, and without a true holding midfielder, there was all kinds of space for Chelsea to attack. It made for entertaining soccer, but it’s not a great way to close out a game with the lead.

Spurs are still fine, but that type of thing is the difference between fifth and fourth at the end of the line.

Bolton 2:1 Blackburn
Wanderers 6-3-8 (26 pts.); Rovers 6-8-3 (21).
What we learned:
There’s plenty of talk about Blackburn’s hideous style of play, and I’m not here to defend them. Wait a minute, yes I am. But not today.

However, Bolton has looked a lot like Blackburn lite this season at times, and – needless to say – it has paid huge dividends for them. Today, they outplayed Blackburned Blackburn. Look at the two goals they scored. On the first, they surrounded the box on the long ball, keeping Fabrice Muamba outside for the clearance. Blackburn missed an assignment (looked like Mame Biram Diouf), and Muamba had them up 1-0. On the second, Stuart Holden makes the hopeful run, Kevin Davies wins the first ball, and Holden scores a beautiful goal, granted, but it didn’t exactly involve 15 passes.

For Blackburn, they were unlucky not to get at least a point, they had the misfortune of their best chances falling to Gael Givet. I think they’ll be OK.

Wolverhampton 1:0 Birmingham
Wolves 4-10-3 (15 pts.); Brum 3-5-9 (18).
What we learned:
It’s surprising to me that Wolves have allowed the most goals in the league (30, tied with West Ham), or maybe Birmingham’s offense is just that poor. Nikola Zigic is really hurting Alex McLeish these days, he was counting on Zigic to give him offense, and he hasn’t been able to even hold the ball for him, forcing him to play Cameron Jerome as a lone striker for much of the season.

They were really outplayed badly by a Wolves side that is in 19th place and was missing the likes of Kevin Doyle, Michael Mancienne and Steven Mouyokolo (although that one isn’t so bad). Their bench consisted of Steven Fletcher, Marcus Hahnemann, and this quartet: Matthew Doherty, Sam Winnall, Geoffrey Mujangi Bia, Nathan Rooney, and Ethan Ebanks-Lawdell.

I think both these teams will be in relegation discussions until the bitter end.

Newcastle 3:1 Liverpool
Toon 6-7-4 (22 pts.); LFC 6-7-4 (22).
What we learned:
How much do you think Tony Pulis wishes Newcastle would have spent one more year in the Championship and he might have been able to grab Andy Carroll instead of Kenwyne Jones? Just saying.
Carroll was dominant against two pretty big dudes in Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Krygiakos in this one, and Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan do what they do, be annoying and pop up at the right place at the right time.

Liverpool didn’t play a horrible game, but paid for criminal mistakes in the back, played without Steven Gerrard – their only real playmaker – and Fernando Torres just isn’t himself this season. Combine those things, and you have a mid-table team who is going to struggle on the road. You have Liverpool.

West Ham 1:3 Manchester City
Hammers 2-9-6 (12 pts.); City 9-3-5 (32).
What we learned:
Sometimes it can be this simple: Roberto Mancini started the season with three holding midfielders in a 4-3-3. He moved Yaya Toure forward, told him to attack, and now City are legitimate title contenders. Yaya had a pair of goals, and certainly played most of the role in the third goal, as City rolled in this one, almost easier than the final scoreline suggested. Who knows about Carlos Tevez and Emanuel Adebayor, but Jo played extremely well, and keeping (getting?) Mario Balotelli’s head screwed on correctly may be all that separates them from the league title.

Meanwhile, West Ham looks headed straight for the abyss, and Avram Grant may be out of a job soon. It’s not really his fault, but they are the worst team in the league right now by a decent margin.

Stoke 0:1 Blackpool
Potters 6-8-3 (21 pts.); Pool 6-6-4 (22).
What we learned:
You want to know Ian Holloway’s mindset? With a 1-0 lead at the Brittania, one of the toughest places to play in the league, Holloway made only one sub. In the 80th minute, he put Matthew Phillips on for Eliot Grandin pretty much a like-for-like. That was it.

Tony Pulis summed it up best: “We knew it would be an open game. We have watched a lot of Blackpool this year and they are playing roulette football. They are throwing the dice and hoping things will drop for them. They are very positive with it and playing with no fear.”

Pulis has to be a little discouraged that Jones hasn’t really scored as much as he would like, and Rory Delap is pretty much stationary much of the time when he’s not producing long throws.
Meanwhile, Holloway is living the dream. And it’s made the league much more entertaining.

He said: “We have been in the casino, been in the gym and on the beach. We were there on Thursday. It was brilliant. You have got to adapt.

“We had a poker tournament and the lads were given £20 each to see who was the champion. We gave a lesson to the ones who don’t play. The boys were looked after and our goalie fell asleep. I don’t think he likes cards. Ian Evatt was the winner. He must have had a mis-spent youth.”

Fulham 0:0 Sunderland
Cottagers 2-5-10 (16 pts.); Black Cats 5-3-9 (24).
What we learned:
“It was agony,” Steve Bruce said.
About sums it up. To Fulham’s credit, they were the far better team in the second half. But they rarely looked like scoring, and they’re going to have to go with Andy Johnson and Diomansy Kamara until Moussa Dembele or Bobby Zamora come back. They’ve already scored less than a goal a game (16), and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to get a whole lot better anytime soon.

Sunderland, meanwhile, will probably never be a good away side, it’s in their blood. They have only one win away in this campaign, and a point is not too bad, although they’re starting to look like a team that should make Europe with plenty of attacking depth, and guys like Nedum Onuoha looking like breaking out into stars in this league.

Everton 0:0 Wigan
Toffees 3-5-9 (18 pts.); Latics 3-7-7 (16).
What we learned:
You still don’t expect Everton to be in a relegation fight at season’s end, but you have to be a little bit concerned, don’t you? With basically everyone healthy, Everton couldn’t break down Wigan – the league’s most porous defense last season – at home. Sure, they had a lot of the ball, etc., but they were almost caught a couple of times at the other end, too. But a defense of Antolin Alcaraz, Steven Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, and Steve Gohouri shouldn’t shut you out at home, I’m sorry.

By the way, if you told old-timers that an Omani (Ali Al-Habsi), a Ghanian (Richard Kingson), an American (Tim Howard), an Australian (Mark Schwarzer), and a Belgian (Simon Mignolet) international would pick up clean sheets in the top flight on the same day, they might keel over.

Aston Villa 2:1 West Bromwich Albion
Villa 5-7-5 (20 pts.); West Brom 6-7-4 (22).
What we learned:
Despite getting three points, Villa were far from dominant in this one, and that’s still a big change from last season. The quality of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing (and a little of Marc Albrighton) saw them through here, but it’s hard to see them going anywhere but mid-table. American Eric Lichaj started and played pretty well, which is good for the national team.
Meanwhile, West Brom and Roberto Di Matteo can still keep their heads up with a decent away performance. Their backline is still suspect, but is improving, and that should be enough to keep them up with the head start they already have.

Until next week, thanks for reading.


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