What a 10 day period it has been for Liverpool fans. A title race with just one listed runner ten days ago has become interesting again. Manchester United remain, literally, the odds-on favorites but their having a wobble.
United should still have the final word in the final chapter but the story belongs to Liverpool for the moment. Four goals against Real Madrid, four at Old Trafford and another five against Villa. They are demonstrating a different aspect to their play than witnessed previously and it makes for devastating reading. So much for the barb that Rafa’s contract extension only made for good news outside of Anfield.
The only downside for Pool fans is the international break coming now. For Liverpool, maintaining momentum after a 13-day break will be problematic. For United, the break will only prove a blessing if they make the response against Villa that they could not deliver at Fulham.
The respective form of Gerrard and Cristiano Ronaldo captures their teams’ situation in microcosm: while the Liverpool captain has his swagger back, the United forward is suffering a catastrophic loss of form.
Gerrard is playing brilliantly at the moment. He was outstanding at Old Trafford a week ago, his hat-trick did for Villa on Sunday after they foolishly and naively allowed him the freedom of Anfield. Whether he should be considered the best player in the league ahead of Ronaldo is a debate for another day, but his claim to be the best player on current form is indisputable.
There is, however, one qualification that ought to be applied to the tributes he is currently receiving. As he hailed Gerrard’s 20th goal of the season on Sunday, Radio Five Live commentator Alan Green added the rejoinder: “And he’s a midfielder!” No, he’s not – or at least he is no more a midfielder than Ronaldo was just a winger last season.
As this position, whatever it is actually called, seems to be Gerrard’s best, the interminable ‘Gerrard or Lampard?’ debate can, finally, be made redundant. Yet, for Fabio Capello, the solution of one problem just brings another. Whether Wayne Rooney is suited to playing the role of leading-the-line centre-forward is questionable, not least because his best performances in an England shirt have been made in combination with Emile Heskey from a position similar to that which Gerrard occupies for his club behind Fernando Torres. Are the two Scousers going for the same spot in the England team? Could Gerrard be on the verge of usurping not one, but two United superstars? Fabio, it’s over to you.
Every manager has their thing. Arsene will tell anyone who cares to listen of his unwavering belief in his latest team regardless of their position in the league table, Fergie is obsessed with defeating complacency, and Rafa has a simple obsession with perfection. Content with a 5-0 victory? No chance. “I wanted more goals. The players are doing a fantastic job, but always can improve a little bit.”
He’s a tough man to please – which may be why he is so successful.
It has only taken seven months of the season to happen, but Spurs are finally providing an accurate account of their standing in the league. Their recent run – in which they have held both Arsenal and Manchester United over ninety minutes as well as beaten both Chelsea and Aston Villa – isn’t an over-achievement but a reflection of how poorly they under-performed before Christmas.
The centre of midfield remains an area of weakness, but theirs is a squad of top-six status. Or at least it should be. Consider the identity – and cost – of their substitutes against Chelsea: Cudicini, Bentley, Huddlestone, Pavlyuchenko, Dawson. The reason why Spurs’ reserve team thrashed Chelsea’s 4-0 last week was that it was a Premier League team in all but name.
It’s been said before, but, in Premiership terms, there exists a Dormant three of Aston Villa, Everton, and Tottenham behind the Big Four. Unlike the Toffees, who continue to pack a punch greater than their weight, Spurs have money – and plenty of it – on their side so the shame of this season is that it has taken them so long to wake for their slumbers.
Robin Van Persie
In addition to scoring nine league goals this season, Van Persie has also been credited with ten assists – the most of any player in the league. With Arsenal so far in arrears, the Dutchman cannot win the award but he deserves, at a minimum, to at least be regarded as a contender for the Player of the Year gong.
Fulham and Stoke City
Of their combined total of 70 points this season, 60 have been collected on home soil.
Despite losing five of their 15 home games this season, City now boast the third-best home record in the league after their tenth victory at Eastlands of the campaign.
It’s odd how a loss of form can creep up on a team. With the benefit of crystal-clear hindsight, United’s mini-slump began even when they were still winning. Reviewed closely and the clues of regression can be seen in their messy victories over Blackburn, Newcastle, Inter and Spurs.
This – whatever ‘this’ is, for it’s still a current unknown if this is just a mini-slump or the start of something more serious – has been coming and any suggestion that the humiliation suffered at the hands of Liverpool was a temporary blip was refuted in ugly fashion at Fulham when the reaction demanded and expected did not materalise. “We did not play well enough to win,” accepted Sir Alex. “What disappointed me is that we did not get a response from the Liverpool result.”
Once again, the centre of United’s midfield was found wanting and the bite of Owen Hargreaves badly missed. A lack of commitment in general was glaring, with Dimi Berbatov statuesque for Fulham’s opener and Patrice Evra jogging rather than sprinting in retreat for the second. If Roy Keane were still on the payroll, Craven Cottage may have witnessed spontaneous combustion.
Not that Sir Alex isn’t prone to fury either, of course. For the United manager, the ignominy of back-to-back defeats will be particularly galling for what he said in advance of the visit of Liverpool. “March and April are the key months that will decide the league. We have lost leads because of bad form in March and April, we have won them by going on fantastic runs. I keep saying it, but no one listens.”
Unfortunately for Sir, everyone is listening now.
To put their claim to be considered the fourth-best team in the country into context, their record against the top three this season, with a trip to Old Trafford still to come, is: Played Five, Won 0, Lost Three, Scored None, Conceded Eight.
If only more managers could be as concise and honest as the interim Chelsea boss was following his side’s defeat at Tottenham:
“These are the days you look back on and regret very much when you are in a title race. We won’t give up on the title, but today was an ideal opportunity to close the gap on Manchester United and we missed it.
“We cannot afford to drop two or three points in any game if we want to catch United, and today we lost – it’s a huge blow. Let’s be honest – if you don’t win at moments like today you have to blame yourselves.”
In sixteen games this term against top-half opposition, Sunderland have collected just seven points.
Now just four points above the relegation zone.