Things remain tight at the top of the league after this weekend’s fixtures, and Leicester City have done the unthinkable and gone two points clear at the summit. Although they did the business in their fixture against Swansea, convincingly beating them 3-0 through a Riyad Mahrez hat-trick, it was City’s beating at the hands of Stoke that made it possible. This week saw quite a number of big clubs humbled by hard working performances from teams they would’ve have comfortably dispatched a few seasons ago.
Stoke 2 – 0 Manchester City
A popular and memetic phrase that commentators like using when questioning a player’s ability in the Premier League is to ask whether they’re able to play well “On a cold, windy night in Stoke”. This game wasn’t played at night, but it was a cold, windy affair that gave City’s £150m lineup an icy dose of reality.
The Citizens looked labored from the beginning, while Stoke had an air of determination and belief about them. As early as the sixth minute some strong dribbling down the right by Shaqiri saw him put Fernando on the seat of his pants, using a quick step over to elude both Kolarov and Otamendi to slip a cross into the six yard box that Arnautovic expertly side-footed home.
For the rest of the first half Stoke pinned City in their own half, quickly dispossessing any attacking moves from Sterling or Bony. It would only take another eight minutes before another display of strength from Shaqiri helped him evade Fernando and play a world class pass behind the defense for Arnautovic to latch onto again, displaying a composed finish under Joe Hart to put Stoke 2-0 up. The score didn’t change for the rest of the game, but outside of a couple of solid saves from Jack Butland City struggled to threaten Stoke’s goal. A worrying trend of lethargic effort from City is developing, if they’re not careful they could drop points to any team willing to work harder than they are – regardless of quality in the side.
Arsenal 3 – 1 Sunderland
Arsenal’s rapidly deteriorating injury crisis has threatened to derail their season, but they managed to do a good job at Sunderland, starting with a typically slick attacking move that Joel Campbell converted with a cool low finish from the left hand side, courtesy of another fantastic through ball from Mesut Özil.
Olivier Giroud unusually scored at the wrong end, clumsily bundling a Sunderland free kick into his own net right on half time. Arsenal wouldn’t capitulate though as Giroud headed home at the right end this time off an Aaron Ramsey cross. Aaron Ramsey’s return to midfield through the injury-stricken squad paid dividends when he added a third in the 90th minute, giving Arsenal three points and some renewed hope of a legitimate title challenge.
The coming Christmas period will test their thin squad, with more responsibility to create goals likely to fall at Mesut Özil’s feet, but that could be shared by Aaron Ramsey’s consistent creative ability.
Chelsea 0 – 1 Bournemouth
Chelsea have now had a succession of false revivals this season. After each victory it seems as though the champions have turned a corner and rediscovered some form, only for the fans to be quickly disappointed with another crushing defeat. This week it came at the hands of newly promoted Bournemouth, and once again luck was not on Chelsea’s side.
They started very brightly and registered some good attempts at goal through Willian and Hazard, but their attacking urgency lessened the longer they went without scoring. Eventually the game slowed and doubt seemed to creep back into Chelsea’s game, unaided by what should have been a clear handball from a Bournemouth player. Instead of being awarded what would’ve been a Godsend of a penalty, Chelsea continued attacking but failed to convert any chances – the result of determined defending from Bournemouth and a large amount of bad luck on Chelsea’s part.
A forgettable game for the Blues would go from bad to worse ten minutes from full time as Chelsea failed to deal with a dangerous corner. The delivery was good and bounced around the area until it found a Bournemouth player who scuffed it off the turf, the wayward and unintentional cross located two players unmarked at the back post, and Murray gleefully put it away. Mourinho is truly hanging on by a thread at the moment, but one still imagines with all their quality that Chelsea’s bad luck can only last for so long… surely?
Newcastle 2 – 0 Liverpool
The Geordies have had an absolutely dismal season so far, sugar coated now and then by hopeful glimmers of Premier League survival. Their performances generally lack any heart, cohesion, tactical awareness, or any characteristic one usually associates with a competent footballing display. Needless to say that the visit of Liverpool drew trembles from the Newcastle faithful after the Reds absolutely hammered Southampton in the Capital One Cup last week. What few would predict is that Liverpool would completely lack attacking drive, while Newcastle was somehow blessed with it in abundance.
Newcastle showed defensive resilience and a kept the score at 0-0 until the 69th minute when a cross from Sissoko located Wijnaldum in the box, he jinked and shuffled to get some space to fire off a shot that flicked agonizingly off Skrtel’s shin to open the scoring. Most times when Newcastle have scored this season they’ve gone on to concede quickly after, but they not only managed to hold on until the end but added a second in the 93rd minute after a strong counter attacking run and a good cross from Sissoko found Wijnaldum once again and he gracefully chipped Mignolet to log three invaluable points for Steve McClaren’s men. If they show the same amount of desire as they did in this game they’ve got a good shout at staying up, but too many indifferent displays similar to their 5-1 thrashing at Crystal Palace could see the historic club relegated in short order.
Leicester City continue to be the talk of the league, everyone dismissed their good form as a flash in the pan earlier this season, but they’ve recently indicated that they aren’t putting in a cameo performance. In most seasons the team on top at Christmas is the team that wins the league, but Leicester have easily the toughest Christmas run of any team with games against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City in a 15-day period. Should they still show the fantastic form they have recently it might be time to entertain the possibility that they are actual title challengers, as unusual as it sounds. Arsenal and City still look like the most logical bets, but Arsenal’s injury crisis is likely to cost them points while City’s defensive incompetence without Vincent Kompany could cause them to make a title challenge more difficult than it needs to be. Next week Chelsea have the unenviable task of going to Leicester City; can Mourinho make a statement against the league leaders, or will the Foxes boot the Blues into the relegation zone?