Chelsea and Manchester City met at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening like ships in the night sailing in different directions.
Chelsea, coming off a shock home defeat to Crystal Palace, was back to its untroubled best. It only won 2–1. It allowed City 60 percent of possession. It even had a nasty scare in the dying seconds when John Stones missed a scoring opportunity. Yet Chelsea won comfortably.
Once the home team had retaken the lead when Eden Hazard put in the rebound from his own weak penalty after 35 minutes, it was in control. Even against the attacking talent that City deployed, Chelsea was happy to trust its ability to defend. City created chances in the first half, although its goal was a gift from Thibaut Courtois; the Chelsea goalkeeper inexplicably passed the ball to David Silva who set up Sergio Agüero. After halftime, City dominated the ball but could not create any chances. Chelsea is back on its title-winning course.
“A big step against a good team,” Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager, told BT Sports after the game in his approximate English. “We showed to be a great team to win a difficult game after a defeat.”
Meanwhile, the brilliant promise of City’s flamboyant start to the season has evaporated. It is remains fourth, but Chelsea, 14 points ahead, is disappearing over the horizon. Instead, City must look backwards at Arsenal, just four points behind and with a game in hand and a better goal difference after winning 3-0 against West Ham for a first league victory in seven weeks.
“The Premier League is gone,” Pep Guardiola said. “And now will be a battle to qualify for the Champions League.”
Spurs play against type
With two minutes left on Wednesday night, the word “Spursy” hung over the Liberty Stadium.
After the door creaked slightly opened in the title race on Saturday, Tottenham seemed poised to immediately slam it shut again on its own foot. Spurs, lacking Harry Kane, Danny Rose, Hugo Lloris and Victor Wanyama, had fallen behind in the 11th minute to a goal by one of their old boys, Wayne Routledge, exploiting an uncharacteristic lack of concentration by Toby Alderweireld at the near post.
Tottenham dominated the rest of the game but had been unable to create clear-cut chances against a disciplined and determined defense. It was going to blow an opportunity once again with a limp loss.
Then in the 88th minute, the Swansea guard dropped and its defense finally parted. Christian Eriksen drove a ball across the box. It deflected to Dele Alli, wide open for the first time in front of goal. He scored.
There were seven minutes of added time, largely because Lukasz Fabianski had needed prolonged treatment after saving at the feet of Vincent Janssen. Paul Clement decided to send on the backup, Kristoffer Nordfeldt. But when the number board went up, Fabianski, who had just made a spectacular save from Alli, gesticulated angrily. With Swansea still leading, he stayed on. He probably wished he had not.
In Fabianski time, Heung-Min Son broke through and squeezed a shot through the goalie’s dive. Tottenham led. With Swansea pressing, Tottenham finally had space to counter-attack. Eriksen finished one flowing move with a decisive finish.
There was still time for Swansea to go close, twice. But it is back in the bottom three.
Tottenham meanwhile, stayed seven points behind Chelsea while cementing its grip on the second place, which it threw away at the end of last season. This year’s model has now gained 17 points from losing positions, the most in the Premier League and is unbeaten in eight matches Kane has missed. On the evidence of the final nine minutes on Wednesday it is made of tougher stuff.
Parting the red sea
With 25 minutes to play at Anfield, things were looking good for Liverpool. It had fought back to lead Bournemouth while Tottenham, which had kicked off 15 minutes earlier, was losing at Swansea. The Reds were going to pull level on points.
By the end of evening, after it allowed the Cherries to level late and draw, 2-2, Liverpool was five points behind Spurs.
It started when Jürgen Klopp yanked off Philippe Coutinho, the man who had scored his team’s first goal, and sent on Joël Matip, a central defender. Perhaps with Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané both out with long-term injuries, the Liverpool manager wanted to protect one of his few healthy creative players. Or perhaps he wanted to protect his defense, which had given up another awful goal in the seventh minute when Georginio Wijnaldum passed blindly back to his goalie only to lay the ball at the feet of Benik Afobe.
Whatever the logic, Klopp decided to hold what he had. Against Bournemouth, he should have known better. In December, at the Vitality Stadium, Liverpool led 3-1 with 14 minutes to play and then conceded three goals, the last in the 93rd minute, to lose.
With two minutes left on Wednesday, Josh King took the ball facing the wrong way and with two Liverpool defenders at his back. But the Red Sea parted as King spun and drove in the equalizer.
Klopp’s problems in what has been an area of strength, attack, are only putting more pressure on the part of his team that has long been a weakness, defense.
Mourinho remains relentless with Luke Shaw
When Manchester United salvaged a 1-1 draw with Everton with a penalty in Fergie time at Old Trafford on Tuesday it stretched its unbeaten league run to an impressive 20 games. Yet because 10 of those matches have ended in draws, United ended the evening only–and provisionally–sixth in the table, 18 points behind the leader Chelsea with nine games to go.
After the home draw with West Brom on Saturday, José Mourinho insisted: "We beat everyone on quality of play and direction of the game, possession, creation and ambition."
It’s rubbish, of course, and Mourinho must know it. On Tuesday, as United besieged the Everton goal, Paul Pogba, the world’s most expensive player, lobbed hopeful diagonal balls for Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Marouane Fellaini. It is something any British-bred plodder from the lower divisions of the Football League is trained to do. It is neither ambitious nor creative.
United salvaged a point when Luke Shaw, who only came on when Ashley Young was injured, smacked a shot toward the corner of the Everton net and Ashley Williams, in a panic, blocked it with his arm.
As United has wallowed, Mourinho has taken out his frustration on the younger players. After the West Brom draw he blamed Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, as well as Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Shaw has been a regular victim.
Mourinho’s boosters say this is a clever motivational tactic. But we’ve all worked for managers who enjoy humiliating those employees who they know do not have the confidence or status to fight back.
On Tuesday, injuries meant Mourinho had no choice but to include Shaw on the bench and then to bring him on. After the youngster’s decisive contribution, Shaw might have expected a pat on the back, but Mourinho did not let up. He said that Shaw had only looked good because he was playing on the left touchline close to the United bench.
"He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him," said Mourinho, adding it was "his body with my brain."
If Mourinho is trying to motivate Shaw through the United exit, reports suggest he is succeeding. The player is reportedly pining for the loving embrace of his former manager, Mauricio Pochettino. Maybe that’s Mourinho’s plan. Pochettino has Danny Rose, the best left back in the league, and perhaps offering a replacement as well as a huge sack of cash might induce Tottenham to sell.
Streaky Leicester continues remarkable turn in form
Leicester evoked memories of past glories as it efficiently dispatched hapless Sunderland, 2-0. No, not the title-winning Foxes of last season, but the team of 2014-15, which staged a spring surge that carried it away from looming relegation.
The victory on Tuesday made Leicester the second team in EPL history to follow five straight defeats with five straight victories. The first, naturally, was Tottenham, which lost six and then won five in the fall of 2004. That swing also included a change of manager, though Martin Jol, who replaced Jacques Santini, lost his first two matches. So, Craig Shakespeare is setting a record for the most consecutive victories from the start of a managerial reign.
Having clawed through to the last eight of the Champions League while playing horribly in its domestic competition, Leicester is suddenly one of the three hottest teams in the major European leagues. The other two leading clubs to have won last five league games are Tottenham and Atlético Madrid, the team Leicester faces in the quarterfinal starting next Wednesday.
Whatever happens in Europe, Leicester’s revival is creating a powerful sense of déjà vu.