Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Weekend battle: Manchester United vs. Liverpool
There is an increasing strain on the face of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. His beaming white smile has not been flashed anywhere near the number of times it was last season. Habitually a beacon for positivity, the Northern Irishman cut a particularly downtrodden figure on Tuesday night in the wake of this campaign's latest setback, as all that the side fought for in 2013-14 went up in smoke before the end of the calendar year.
It was anticipated that the Anfield effect would be enough to rouse these underperforming Reds players in their final Champions League group game against Basel, but again they were listless and got what they deserved: barely a draw. Regardless of who left and who arrived in the summer, or the so-called challenges involved in a return to the competition after a five-year absence, Rodgers should have guided his team into second place behind Real Madrid, considering their group consisted of Basel and Ludogorets.
Yet he failed and the melancholy that has inevitably followed, combined with a dour Premier League campaign so far, means the pressure is on him to save their season by ensuring requalification for the very competition they just departed. He said after the 1-1 draw with Basel, "We have to fight for the rest of the season." Ninth in the table and with six of their 15 league fixtures having ended in defeat, the improvement needs to be drastic. The ray of light is that beyond leaders Chelsea and titleholders Manchester City, the quality in the division is subpar.
A case in point are Manchester United, who have somehow strung together a run of five top-flight wins despite their displays not meriting such a sequence. Most recently they triumphed at Southampton as their two shots on target ended up in the back of the net and handed them a 2-1 victory that lifted them to third in the table. Third! At least their manager Louis van Gaal was frank in his assessment of his team's 90 minutes: "The performance was not good enough; we were the lucky team."
Worryingly for the rest of the Premier League, that result -- and the four others previously (especially at Arsenal) -- felt very "United under Sir Alex Ferguson" indeed, when they were no strangers to playing poorly yet still succeeding. The return of the clinical finishing of Robin van Persie, with three goals in as many performances, bodes well too. It also somewhat accentuates shortcomings of Sunday's opponents Liverpool, for they have not benefited from the luxury of having a cold-blooded goal scorer amid their ranks to paper over the cracks.
"For us the solution is simple -- we have to be better in our performance level" was Rodgers' rather broad resolution for Liverpool. Perhaps of greatest concern, putting the Luis Suarez sale aside and the failure to improve an already brittle defence, is the lack of chances created. Opponents are hardly being made to work hard to stifle the Reds, a team famed for its dizzying movement last campaign. Certainly Liverpool's 3-0 win at Old Trafford in the corresponding fixture last term feels a lot longer ago than March 16, 2014.
Under pressure: Arsene Wenger
It was very Arsenal to lose at Stoke as they did but also very Arsenal to respond as they did at Galatasaray three days later. When it mattered in the Premier League, Arsene Wenger's team's susceptibility for defensive incompetence, combined with gutlessness, resulted in their conceding three times in the opening 45 minutes at the Britannia. In a Champions League game that meant not much, though, the Gunners impressed and scored some excellent goals. Ergo, all is right in the Wenger world.
Now, Wenger did not warrant the frankly classless verbal barbs from those at Stoke-on-Trent station that followed the 3-2 loss, although if you sift through the lack of respect shown there are grains of agitation not without cause. Some will, of course, counter that Gunners fans are acting with a sense of entitlement, that regular Champions League qualification is a reward not a right. But that is to miss the point. Stagnation is the nub of the issue at the Emirates -- that, with Wenger at the helm, a resistance to being true winners remains.
Wenger was at least boosted by the return of natural and experienced right-back Mathieu Debuchy versus Galatasaray after his three-month injury absence. His availability alleviates some of what would have been an unnecessary -- had the club's manager done his summer transfer-window business properly -- onus on the young shoulders of Calum Chambers. Wenger is famed for giving youth a chance, but too regularly over the years he has exposed promise too severely, as the game at the Britannia Stadium showed with 19-year-olds Hector Bellerin and Chambers struggling.
A home match against Newcastle awaits on Saturday evening, the Magpies with their tails up after ending Chelsea's unbeaten start to the season -- a result probably met with a deep sigh of relief in North London as it meant their 2003-04 record remained unique. A grotesque start was the Gunners' undoing at Stoke, not dissimilar to last season's away meetings with Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, casting concern that a regression instead of progression is indeed setting in. Far better will be demanded by an increasingly disenchanted Gunners faithful.
Finding form: Manchester City
Maybe the Premier League title race isn't a foregone conclusion after all? (It still probably is.) Chelsea's loss at Newcastle and Manchester City's 1-0 win over Everton cut the Blues' lead at the summit to three points and widened it from third spot to five, which rubber-stamped this season as the two-horse race it was predicted to be. It really has been a good week for Manuel Pellegrini's side. After their fourth victory on the spin in the league, they then booked their place in the knockout phase of the Champions League with an impressive win at Roma.
That their 2-0 triumph against Roma, who are second in Serie A, was achieved without the spine of their outfield (no Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure or Sergio Aguero) made the result all the more commendable -- although lest we forget a squad as strong as City's shouldn't be winning just two of their six group games in Europe. Regardless, the victory also eased fears over how hard Aguero's absence through injury will hit them.
Pellegrini said of the news the Argentine, who has scored 19 goals in all competitions this term, will be out for up to six weeks: "Our team doesn't depend on one player." And, although the statistics suggest otherwise, City can probably take comfort in his absence coming during a seemingly favourable, albeit hectic, run of fixtures: Leicester, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Burnley and Sunderland. Caveat Aguero's injury with the return of the wonderful David Silva and Pellegrini's words don't seem too daft.
Statistically speaking (via Opta)
- Only Everton vs. Liverpool (20) has had more red cards than Liverpool vs. Manchester United of all fixtures in Premier League history (15).
- Angel Di Maria has 20 goal assists in 2014 -- more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.
- Newcastle United have won just one of the last 14 Premier League matches against Arsenal (W1 D5 L8), and have lost the last five on the bounce.
- Olivier Giroud has netted four goals in four Premier League appearances against Newcastle.
- Manchester City have only had more points at this stage of a season in one previous campaign (2011-12 -- 38 points).
Any other business: West Ham
All hail Big Sam Allardyce and his fourth-place West Ham United. To think his future was in serious doubt toward the latter part of last season -- this campaign (see Alan Pardew at Newcastle) really is one of renaissance. The Hammers' 3-1 win over Swansea was a third in succession and, after just 15 matches of 2014-15, they are a mere 13 points short of 2013-14's points total of 40. There's surely a part of everyone that would love to see Allardyce doing his thing in the Champions League. Watch out, Europe's elite (and Sunderland on Saturday), because Andy Carroll is coming to get you.