For me, this is the weekend that we check out assumptions. We'll have more on this later but for me, this is the weekend that Chelsea officially falls out of the race for the title. They are hardly mathematically eliminated but two things combined to throw them out of the race in my mind. First, Manchester City continues to maul everything in their path which this week meant the Newcastle United team that had been having its own way with the also-rans of the league. Second was the realization that not only did Chelsea lose to Liverpool but they really haven't beaten anyone good this season. Here's the list:
That's it. As someone said on the live chat today, "not exactly Murderer's Row." Throw in draws in their two most recent Champions League away fixtures against OK (Valencia) and poor (Genk) opposition and you have a full-blown mess. If City weren't getting 3 points every week then maybe Chelsea could try to gut out a few points over the final weeks of the first half and then fortify in January but the pace City are setting is just too fast for that strategy to work.
1. Buying - the players who are on an upward trajectory:
Laurent Koscielny - He played well as a deputy at right back and looks much more comfortable with Vermaelen around settling things down at the back.
Mario Balotelli - If only we knew when he was going to start - he's been an incredibly productive fantasy player when he's started. Any chance Mancini will take Ancelotti's lead and start announcing his starting line-up ahead of time?
Jon Walters - When he came into the Prem it was easy to dismiss him because he just didn't look the part but he's really grown into it. He's never going to be the next Henry but he's a good, grity mid-table guy who is just getting it done without much fanfare.
Shane Long/Ivan Klasnic - Both are back to doing what they started off the season doing.
Armand Traore - Luke Young got the defensive goal but Traore got an assist and has quietly recovered from a very difficult start to the season.
Arsenal's Forward 3 - RvP needs no explanation but Theo Walcott and Gervinho seem to be coming into their own supporting the amazing Dutchman. You could look at their contributions in two ways - they created a lot of opportunity OR they didn't cash in. Regardless, the chances are there and that will draw attention from RvP and the midfield.
2. Selling - Those players whose performances are either rotten or have the odor of being a random strong performance as opposed to sustained class:
The Mourinho Boys - Cech, Terry, ACole, Lampard, and Drogba all looked really old against Liverpool. Hard to have the spine of your team looking that way if you want good things to happen.
Heidar Helguson - A 34 year old forward with modest physical gifts who has 5 goals and an assist in his five starts this season. A great story and vital points for QPR but I would be stunned if it is sustainable.
Per Mertesacker - Just a shadow of the guy who lines up for Germany. I've seen explanations related to having a more mobile partner but hard to use that as an excuse this past weekend with Vermaelen back. His softness on Norwich's goal was embarrassing. Hard to know if that can be fixed. At least when Senderos was embarrassed he was embarrassed by Drogba in his prime.
Yakubu - A great story for one weekend but I'm convinced I could get a goal against Wigan the way they're playing this season. I wouldn't keep him around if you were smart/lucky enough to get in on the good times this past weekend (or even if you BD'd him).
Ryan Giggs - He should have hung them up over the summer, huh?
3. How to Evaluate Manchester United? - I have to say, I'm really not sure what to make of the defending champions lately. On one hand, they are doing what we always ask of champions and they are grinding out wins when not playing their best. On the other hand, they really don't scare you at all right now, do they? But for a horrible gaffe by Angel Rangel they would have been entirely toothless. Given the opposition that they've been doing this against (not exceptional), it makes me incredibly excited to see the Red Devils against Newcastle next weekend. Let's hope Tiote is not only back but up to the challenge next weekend - he's that important to their defense.
4. Misery at the Bottom - About the worst thing that can happen in a relegation 6-pointer is a draw. Both teams drop points that they'll desperately need come April and May. Wigan have to be particularly miserable since this was a chance to pick up some points at home and they only came away with the one. Both clubs are doing what they can to decide at least two of the relegation spots early. The relegation battle has provided a ton of intrigue in recent years (think Tevez's performance at Manchester United to save the Hammers and the goal difference machinations last season). Here's hoping that it isn't dull this season because the title race doesn't seem likely to be too exciting either.
5. 5 Teams for 2 Spots - With Chelsea's demotion from the title chasing group, we now have five teams - Newcastle, Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal all competing for those two final Champions League spots. You have to assume that Spurs are in the pole position for 3rd but can you really make a call between the other four at this point? Newcastle has a chance to prove itself over the next two weeks against Manchester United and Chelsea. Arsenal have been cruising through the middle of the table since getting crushed by United. Liverpool got another big road win against one of their competitors for the fourth spot this weekend and we've documented Chelsea's rapid descent from grace. Even if the title race isn't too exciting this could be some great theater.
Busting Some Myths:
6. Fulham are good at home - We've come to know Fulham as a good home team over the past few seasons but not so much this season. They have only one more point at home than on the road in an equal number of matches (6) in each venue. Even worse, they've been leaky at the Cottage with 9 goals conceded in six matches.
7. Money can't buy happiness - Those of us (like me) who don't have a remarkable amount of money like to tell ourselves that it can't buy happiness but ask the folks dressed in sky blue in the Northwest if 34 points out of a possible 36 doesn't make them happy. Hard to believe that Fulham are the only ones to have caused a blemish on City's record thus far. Even better, City's store-bought collection is so much easier on the eyes (and ears) than the group that Chelsea put together with similar money. They play a fun-to-watch passing game and who can argue with the never-ending comedy that is Mario Balotelli?
8. Weekend of the Defenders - It was a big weekend for defenders, especially those from the greater Liverpool area headlined by Baines finally delivering on his price after a pretty mediocre season by his standards to date. He was joined by Glen Johnson scoring a nice winner against his former team, Jagielka getting a goal of his own, Micah Richards scoring City's lone goal from open play, and Phil Jones showing he can pile up defensive points in addition to marauding forward from time-to-time.
9. The Midfielders, Not So Much - As well as the defenders did, the midfielders were just as unimpressive. The only midfielders on the first three pages of scoring totals for the weekend were Theo Walcott (really a forward), David Hoilett and the following three immortals - Albert Crusat, Zoltan Gera, and Maxi Rodriguez. Apparently this was not the weekend to invest in your midfield.
10. How'd We Do? - I'm adding a new standard section for those of you who care about things like "how'd the guys who are writing the blog do this weekend?" I got the idea last weekend but decided to start this weekend so it didn't come off like me bragging about finally having a good weekend. With Spurs vs. Villa still to be played, here's how we're all doing:
Overall, I'm 6 points up on Jeremy for the season plus whatever additional lift (or drag) Kaboul gets me tomorrow since we both have Herd. I'll add the season-long comparison with Nik as well once I track down his team's info. Nik is 60-some points ahead of us for the season and would seem likely to extend/restore his lead.
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