Weekend review: United woe
Our panel look back on the weekend's Premier League action, including more Man United strife and five-star Liverpool.
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Another horrendous weekend for Manchester United as their top-four hopes took another damaging blow in a 2-2 draw against bottom club Fulham. What now for United and David Moyes after another desperate home result?
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Dave Tickner (Sportinglife.com): The season, domestically at least, is a write-off now. Liverpool - and even Spurs - don't look like producing the sort of collapse that would get Moyes' men back in the top-four picture, and qualifying for the Europa League would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. What struck me about United on Sunday was how predictable they were. Cross after ineffective cross rained in on a team that had clearly prepared for just that mode of attack and was ready to repel it. Clearly, Fulham rode their luck to first hang on for as long as they did and then pinch that late, late equaliser, but United lacked craft and variation. The addition of Juan Mata has not yet solved that problem. The late Fulham equaliser may be the most damning moment of all; Moyes' wild celebrations of a narrow home win against the league's bottom club was telling enough and for those celebrations to prove premature is a painful, painful blow. Moyes' supporters will point to the need for stability and continuity, but in truth their own great Sir Alex Ferguson was always the exception that proved the rule on that one. Stability is admirable, but only if the alternative is worse. For United, the day grows ever closer when patience becomes stubbornness. The equation for the club is simple: is keeping Moyes a bigger risk to the club's long-term prospects than admitting he was a mistake and making a change? At the moment, sticking with Moyes looks like the gamble.
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Simon Crawford (Sportinglife.com): I agree that sticking with Moyes at present is a gamble - but what choice is there? Sack him tomorrow and who would you bring in? Who is currently out of work that they could turn to? Could ANYONE salvage this season? United missed out on several transfer targets in the summer and who's to say that a highly-rated manager would not do the same with the club appearing to be in so much turmoil at present. Whoever was chosen to succeed SAF was always going to need time to stamp their own mark on the club - on and off the field. There is no doubt that Moyes is struggling but surely some of the blame has to be on the players. The bulk of this squad romped to the title last season so I just wonder how many of them can put their hands on their hearts and say they are giving it 100 per cent for the new boss. They'll spend big again in the summer and you wouldn't bet against them being back in the running next season. And if Moyes can pull off the unlikely and win the Champions League then all will be forgiven, even though the top four looks a million miles away for them. I've heard countless United fans in recent weeks calling for Moyes to be sacked. So I ask them who they would want to replace him. I've not been given a realistic answer yet so unless United have one then I'm afraid Moyes will have to be given the time they promised him at the start ... unless they want to bring Ferguson back!
Chris Hammer (Sportinglife.com). To celebrate like that against the Premier League's bottom club. And then not even win. Moments like these continue to tickle non-Manchester United fans across the country while their noisy neighbours are positively wheezing with laughter. Some would say the widespread mocking of David Moyes for his exuberant fist punching on the touchline when Michael Carrick struck what appeared to be a late winner was a little harsh but by doing so, he showed everyone just how much he's struggling with the unrelenting pressure that keeps cranking up. He'll know the football world is treating him like a figure of fun who has somehow transformed the champions of England into a comedy club in just over six months and that perception doesn't look like changing any time soon. I'd be surprised if there aren't any doubts growing within the United boardroom about Moyes' future but having made such a big song and dance about his long-term potential when appointed, the club have somewhat tied their hands behind their back. One key reason they opted for Moyes - a man with no experience of winning trophies, managing the world's best players or biggest clubs - over Jose Mourinho - a man with quite the opposite CV - is because they were pretty sure he'd stick around much longer. To sack him so soon would therefore be a fitting punchline to such a comical season but, for United's sake, this would at least give them the chance to get serious again.
Stuart Dallimore (Sky Bet): The only positive for United at this moment in time is that they're still in the Champions League and have a pretty easy draw in comparison to the rest of the Premier League teams. They're 1/5 to progress through this stage (a similar price to yesterday) and you would expect them to do so. However, given their recent form, and nothing is certain and you couldn't bank on them getting through. Olympiakos are 10/3 to add more misery to United's season. On the domestic front the best that they can hope for is a top-four finish, but that's looking even more unlikely after the weekend results with Tottenham and Liverpool both securing key victories whilst they dropped what should have been a safe three points.
Liverpool produced perhaps the stand-out display of the season with a demolition of Arsenal at Anfield. Are they back in the title hunt? And what of the Gunners, who now face a daunting set of fixtures?
DT: The first 20 minutes at Anfield was the most outrageous passage of play I've seen this season. Like a computer game set on the easiest difficulty level. Liverpool were an irresistible force, but Arsenal were an all too easily movable object. Arsenal have a nightmare run of fixtures over the next month and it's clearly - CLICHÉ ALERT - going to make or break their season. The concern for Arsenal fans must be that we have been here before with the Gunners in recent years only for it to peter out to nothing. But perspective is needed. For all Liverpool's brilliance at the weekend and Arsenal's faults, the Gunners remain just a point off top spot and five clear of Brendan Rodgers' side. I still think the title looks beyond Liverpool, but that it is even a talking point in February is testament to their improvement this term. Fourth spot and a return to the Champions League - their pre-season aim - is theirs to lose.
SC: My worry about Liverpool is that they can be highly motivated and outrageously good against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and City but when it comes to trips to Hull, Southampton or Swansea for example they are prone to slip up. A case in point will come on Wednesday when they travel to Fulham - will that complacency creep back in again as it did at West Brom just days after Everton were destroyed at Anfield? Having said that, if Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge stay fit for the remaining 13 games then I think they will be top four all day long. I don't think they can win the title, even though the three teams above them will be heavily involved in the cups which could prove to be a distraction - especially the Champions League. Top four was the pre-season target and I think that will be achieved. I also think one of the current top three will stumble badly in the run-in and all evidence points to that being Arsenal who are having a blip at the worst possible time. They have an horrendous run of fixtures coming up and I don't think they have the squad to cope. They have punched above their weight this season and I would not be surprised to see them drop out of the top four altogether by the end of the campiagn.
CH: Although that scintillating victory against Arsenal was the pinnacle of their season so far - and unlikely to be bettered - it certainly wasn't a bolt from the blue either when you consider their numerous other goal-laden performances, so of course they're technically in with an outside chance. But six points is a lot to make up on a Chelsea side who are now hitting top gear while it's hard to see Man City, who are four ahead of the Reds, slipping up enough times in what I personally see as a two-horse race (two big Grand National style horses for that matter) for Brendan Rodgers' side to get their noses in front on the final day. As Simon quite rightly pointed out, they've had just a few too many costly results against the lesser sides but if Saturday's result has indeed knocked the stuffing out of Arsenal then they can now definitely aim a little a higher than their provisional fourth-place target. The Gunners are only a point off top spot but I can see them running out of steam pretty soon and I'm afraid another trophy less season could well be on the cards.
SD: It's difficult to not be impressed with Liverpool when they're in that type of form, butunless they improve their results on the road they shouldn't be too much of a problem for Chelsea and Man City to see off. Their aim for the season still has to be a top four finish and after their performance against Arsenal they have been cut to 2/7. Whilst that may seem a short price I think it probably lands as I struggle to see Adebayor continuing to perform at this level for Spurs whilst Everton and United seem to be falling behind a little now. I thought Arsenal had found a way to eradicate these occasional shockers that they've had in recent seasons as they've looked a fairly consistent bunch this season. I'm not sure they're as bad as their performance would suggest and they should still be capable of picking up plenty of points. They're probably the third best team in the country and they probably finish third. They're odds on favs for the without the big three market at 4/9 with Liverpool 2/1.
The "little horse" in the title race has its nose in front after an Eden Hazard-inspired victory over Newcastle. Are you as down on their chances of beating those thoroughbreds at Manchester City and Arsenal to the winning post as Jose Mourinho appears to be?
DT: Ah, Chelsea. The plucky billionaires. The people's choice. Mourinho's side are worthy favourites now after a week that could hardly have gone better for them. Back-to-back victories while their two main rivals falter alarmingly has changed the picture at the top of the table markedly. A couple of weeks ago it looked like Manchester City were positioning themselves to burst clear of the leading pack and take control. That hasn't happened as the goals have suddenly dried up with back-to-back shutouts against them. Instead it's now Chelsea who have the opportunity to grasp control, while Eden Hazard would be timing his run for player-of-the-year honours to absolute perfection were it not for Luis Suarez. The little horse has its nose in front and has the look of a powerful frontrunner, but it would be folly to assume there is not more drama to unfold down the finishing straight.
SC: Jose Mourinho is a master at playing mind games and it's great that he's back in the Premier League ... some would say where he belongs. He had the upper hand against Pellegrini in Spain but as manager of Real Madrid he had everything in his favour - apart from having to try and better a magnificent Barcelona side. Now it's much more of a level playing field in terms of resources but I still think Pellegrini and City will come out on top come the end of the season despite their weekend draw at Norwich. Both sides are going strong in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League (plus City have a Capital One Cup final against Sunderland to look forward to) and of the two I think it is City who have the greater depth of squad to cope which should give the thoroughbred a vital edge going into the final furlong, although it could easily be a photo finish.
CH: After my very confident prediction last week that Manchester City would comfortably beat Chelsea and gallop clear in the title race by 10 points, I suppose I have a smidgeon of egg on my face. Believe me, for a man who hates egg so much he banned it from the buffet at his wedding and his daughter's christening spread, that's not easy for me to admit. Nevertheless, although this past week has proved just how quickly perceptions can change in football, I'm not about to backtrack on anything other than the points margin. Chelsea's resilient and commanding performance at the Etihad proved it will be a lot closer than I previously anticipated but just because City have bizarrely failed to score in their last two games having netted 68 in the previous 23 doesn't mean they've suddenly blown it. Their first home defeat of the season will have no doubt knocked their confidence a bit and this probably contributed for an off-colour performance at Norwich, but we should just write this off as a minor wobble. If anything, those punters who missed the chance to back Manuel Pellegrini's side for the title before they went odds-on should now see this as a second bite at the cherry. Looking at the fixture list, City's next five league games (Sunderland (h), Stoke (h), Aston Villa (h), Hull (a), Fulham (a)) are easier than Chelsea's (West Brom (a), Everton (h), Fulham (a), Tottenham (h), Aston Villa (a)) and if they go top after those, surely they'll be hot favourites again? But back to the original question. Yes, the little horse is better at jumping fences than Mourinho gives it credit for, but although it will beat one of the bigger horses (Arsenal) it won't reach the finishing post quicker than the biggest of the three.
SD: It's brilliant to have Mourinho back in the League and I don't think he believes anything he says any more than football fans do. They're favourites for the league and it's understandable when you look at their recent form of eight wins and two draws in 10 games, including victories at home to Manchester United and Liverpool, plus a draw away at Arsenal and an excellent victory away at title rivals Manchester City. They have the best manager in the world and now he's got his nose in front you wouldn't be surprised if he had enough tactics and mind games to keep them there. It's still tight at the top though as they're 5/4 with City 11/8.
The relegation picture changes again with Crystal Palace going odds-against for relegation following a 3-1 victory over West Brom, who slip into the bottom three. What do you make of Palace's recovery, and who do you think will be left in the drop zone when the music stops in May?
DT: If, as now looks likely, Crystal Palace avoid relegation then Tony Pulis is manager of the year without a shred of doubt. The transformation he has inspired in the Eagles is nothing short of remarkable. The surest of sure things for the drop when he took over, they now look better placed for survival than any of the pack of clubs around them. Even their January business is already coming up trumps, with Tom Ince and Joe Ledley on target in Saturday's impressive victory over West Brom. Since defeat to Norwich on November 30 they have lost only to sides in the top eight and beaten six of their direct rivals. For all the credit Pulis deservedly receives for this transformation, it does point to a chronic lack of quality in this season's bottom half. The drop is still any three from 11, but I fear most for Cardiff, Fulham and - despite their excellent point against Manchester City - Norwich.
SC: Pulis is doing a magnificent job - but is anyone really surprised? He did wonders at Stoke who are now an established Premier League club and that takes some doing in this modern environment that is dictated so much by finance. His January signings were shrewd, designed to have an immediate impact which was underlined in that weekend win over West Brom. Most importantly, Pulis sides will roll their sleeves up, battle and will graft for the cause which will be an essential requirement to keep them out of danger. Looking at the table it's amazing to think that every side from Swansea in 10th spot is involved in a relegation scrap with just seven points separating 11 teams. I think Cardiff will go because the sacking of Malky Mackay and off-field matters have been so damaging; Norwich because of their lack of goals and Sunderland because I think that Capital One Cup final next month could prove to be a distraction they could do without.
CH: When I wrote "Crystal Palace to finish bottom at 13/5" at the start of the season, I don't think I'd ever been as sure about any tip or bet in my life. After the Eagles picked up three points from 10 games, I'd already started counting my winnings. Not even a 0-0 draw with Everton following Ian Holloway's departure concerned me - the damage was done and there surely wasn't a manager out there who could sort their mess out. Except there was. By taking the job on Tony Pulis instantly put his record of having never been relegated as a manager in real jeopardy but he's inspired them to soar up the table with seven wins since his appointment and they're now one of the toughest sides to beat in the bottom half. These battling virtues are the kind he instilled at Stoke during his long successful tenure at the Britannia Stadium before they decided he couldn't take them any further, so it's quite fitting really that Palace are now level on points with his former employers, who now look more prone to relegation without him. Of all the relegation battlers, it's hard to pick three but I'm going to pick Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich.
SD: Pulis has done an excellent job so far at Palace and appears to have taught them how to win; as ugly as his style of play can be it's what they needed to do to survive. I think they might be good enough to survive now with some of the signings they brought in during the window. West Brom have looked awful and I'd be very worried if I were a fan of theirs. It's a similar story with Norwich for me too despite the good result this weekend. I think one of West Brom & Norwich will join Cardiff & Fulham for the drop. They're 2/1 (Norwich) & 9/4 (West Brom) with Sky Bet.