Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chelsea Victory Defines Early Season Title Race

Chelsea looked like potential champions all season until the week before the Liverpool game. But a loss to Wigan and an unimpressive win midweek in Champions League led to questions about the Blues heading into their clash with Liverpool. But a comfortable 2-0 win will quiet the critics for the moment.

Liverpool started the game on the front foot, and had occasional quality chances throughout. Most of those chances fell for super-striker Fernando Torres, just as the Reds would have hoped. But Torres seemed a touch off and did not convert either his free header from 12 yards out, or the bouncing ball that came to his left foot (or shin, as it turned out) while he was unmarked 15 yards from goal. Not Fernando's day. Otherwise, Chelsea's defense held firm, with John Terry clearly cross after cross and generally looking confident in leading the backline.

There was little doubt Chelsea's time was coming, as the chances they created increased in quality throughout the match. Finally, Deco played Drogba through on the wing, who found a streaking Anelka in front of goal. Anelka got behind Carragher and managed to keep the bouncing ball down rather than sending it over the crossbar. The second goal was a tap in for Malouda after Drogba again dispatched a helpless Carragher. Overall, the performance from the Liverpool central defense was actually an improvement, but was still not good enough against a side of Chelsea's quality.

Heading into the break for international play, the two sides are in two very different places. Chelsea now top the table by two points and have to be at least co-favorites with Manchester United. Drogba and Anelka continue to play well together, and refusing to deploy both of their talents at the same time for so long now seems silly. The defense is strong, with only six goals allowed, tied for lowest in the Premier League with Villa. The midfield looks solid, and there is quality on the bench. Hilario looked solid as well in relief of Cech. Chelsea is primed in both England and Europe.

For Liverpool, three losses in eight games leave them sixth in the table, and Villa is two points back with a game in hand. Their three losses came in the three matches they actually played quality opposition: Tottenham, Villa and Chelsea. They also lost midweek to Fiorentina and looked awful. Are they legitimate title contenders at this point? It's hard to say yes, and not just because of the results; Liverpool have problems all over the pitch, with the exception of striker and goalkeeper. Gerrard is the engine that makes the side go, and has been below par to this point. Lucas is awful. Why Benitez continues to put him out there every match is mystery, aside from a total lack of other options. Insert generic comment about missing Xabi Alonso here. One would presume that Aquilani would take Lucas' place in the lineup when healthy, but Aquilani is still a couple weeks away. The central defense is still a question mark and the defense in general lacks depth. Riera is inconsistent and can't find his way into the lineup regularly. The lack of attacking options on the bench was particularly highlighted by Rafa's last substitution at Stamford Bridge. Trailing 1-0 late, Benitez' final move was...to replace Insua at left back with Fabio Aurelio. At least Aureilo wasn't playing in midfield, like he did midweek in Champions League.

After the break, the next two matches for Liverpool are at surging Sunderland, currently sitting eighth in the table, and home for Manchester United. Another loss (or two) may bring an early end to any title aspirations. Likewise, the next two Champions League matches are against group leaders Lyon. It's not unthinkable that by early November, the goals for Liverpool this season may go from "winning the league and in Europe" to "retaining a Champions League spot". Even that last part may not be guaranteed. Tough times for Benitez, and the next month will define the season.

Elsewhere this weekend, United managed a late draw against the previously mentioned Sunderland side thanks to a deflected own goal. The Sunderland striker partnership of Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones continue to cause havoc for defenses across England, and both scored in the match. Bent's strike was taken beautifully, and though there was some question of a foul on Jones' header against the goalkeeper I believe the referee appropriately did not blow his whistle, as Foster arrived late and did not deserve to be bailed out. Otherwise United struggled and probably didn't deserve a point. It's hard not to think of Chelsea as the favorites after this weekend.

Arsenal have missed their opportunites against other top flight competition, but no one plays more beautiful, flowing football in England than the Gunners. Their attacking display in a 6-2 victory over Blackburn was pure joy. Despite twice stunningly falling behind, Arsenal kept their nerve and kept pressing forward. The end result was a celebration of football to commerate Arsène Wenger becoming Arsenal's longest serving manager. As a neutral, it's hard not to admire Arsenal, once known for playing some of the ugliest football in England, but now created in Wenger's image as just the opposite.

As ARF mentioned, Man City and Villa drew Monday, a just outcome given the even nature of the contest. Villa are a solid side, but it's hard to imagine them legitimately threatening for the top four. I wouldn't say the same about City. Tottenham drew at Bolton, and sit third for the moment, but both City (even on points) and Arsenal (one behind) have a game in hand on Spurs. Portsmouth managed to win, though ARF's Championship diagnosis is surely correct. At least they've paid their wages now, and Saudi oil money is on the way. Hull also managed to win. Those two sides won't win on the same weekend very often. Burnley defeated Birmingham in a contest of newly promoted sides, and the Clarets are still perfect at home with four wins and sit in the top half of the table. Of course Hull started off hot last season and barely stayed up, so nothing is guaranteed.

Key matches two weeks from now: Villa hosts Chelsea on ESPN2 (at 7:45 ET, so set the DVR if you plan on sleeping in), while Liverpool must travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland. Darren Bent against Jamie Carragher should be enough to give Liverpool fans nightmares for the next two weeks.

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