Stars and sackings
After a weekend that saw Andre Villas-Boas and Steve Clarke lose their jobs, plus Manchester City thrash league leaders Arsenal 6-3 at the Etihad Stadium, Matt Stanger reviews the latest Premier League action
By Matt Stanger and Adam Bate
Last Updated: 16/12/13 5:15pm
End of the road for AVB
A round of fixtures that began with Arsenal being on the receiving end of a six-goal thrashing ended with their north London rivals Tottenham emerging as the real losers from the weekend of Premier League action. More specifically, as was confirmed by Monday's sacking, it was a nightmare game for Andre Villas-Boas as his Spurs side succumbed to a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool.
The Portuguese coach had been the subject of considerable doubts over his future ever since Spurs were hit for six by Manchester City but this was arguably even more devastating - and certainly more final. Tottenham fans are more than entitled to regard Liverpool at home as a winnable fixture but they were totally outplayed and the lack of fight shown when down to 10 men probably cost Villas-Boas his job.
It was a stunning performance from Liverpool to increase the gap to Spurs and Manchester United (the viable contenders for the top four who aren't currently occupying a place) and boost an already healthy-looking goal difference that could prove crucial come the end of the season. Liverpool will have watched Monday's Champions League last-16 draw with interest as several of their rivals face draining distractions in February and March while the Reds continue to plough ahead with their primary focus.
Indeed, it seems there is a perfect storm at Anfield in which several factors have conspired to afford Liverpool their best chance of returning to the Champions League. There are no fatiguing Europa League commitments; Spurs and United are struggling; Luis Suarez stayed for one final push; Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge had already been integrated into the team after arriving in January while others, such as Jordan Henderson, continue to improve; and Brendan Rodgers has had a year to adjust to the requirements of his role.
The last point was influential against Spurs as Rodgers again demonstrated his tactical acumen to attack Andre Villas-Boas' high defensive line - and particularly the vulnerable Michael Dawson - with Jordan Henderson's runs from midfield a key feature of the first three goals. Liverpool were positive from the outset and Rodgers made a telling comment about the mentality of his team when he said they "earned the right to play" through their relentless pressing and work rate.
The worry of course, is that if Liverpool don't manage to hold on to a place in the top four this year, one wonders when they will ever have a better opportunity, especially given that failure would guarantee Suarez's exit. Steven Gerrard conceded as much in the Sky Sports studio on Sunday, and both he and Jamie Carragher pointed to the contrast between Spurs' struggles after losing their star player and Liverpool's progress as they continue to build around theirs.
It is still difficult to know how strong Liverpool are without Suarez - despite their form during his suspension - but accusations of being a one-man team are irrelevant. The striker is certainly showing no signs of slowing down after hitting 17 goals in only 11 Premier League appearances so far, and he has proved that his employers were right to remain strong in the summer. Imagine what the gap to Arsenal would be had they sold their prized asset.
A complete attacking performance to decimate the best defence in the division and reinforce City's status as the champions-in-waiting. No matter how much Arsenal pushed to get back into the game, they were always kept at arm's length. There was never any fear that City couldn't score again if they needed to.
On the evidence of City's current form, it seems it might take something as unfortunate as an injury to Sergio Aguero - who limped off after 50 minutes - to keep things interesting in the title race. It has been an open battle in the first half of the season, but the cream is rising to the top and once City reach first place - which they inevitably will - it is difficult to imagine them being overhauled.
Arsenal are the only other team in the Premier League who seem capable of winning five games in a row - having done so in September - but they are already beginning to look jaded ahead of the busiest period of the season and require a statement against Chelsea this weekend to get Saturday's chastening defeat out of their system. Title winners tend not to run out of steam before Christmas.
As City continue to move through the gears, it appears less likely that we will witness another freak result such as the defeats to Sunderland and Aston Villa. Despite Manuel Pellegrini's poor maths, he obviously had a point about the significance of the win in Munich and that result could have the same galvanising effect that has taken Arsenal from fifth place to title contenders.
Although everyone else is in transition - as Chelsea try to mount a genuine title challenge for the first time in four years, Liverpool in five years, Arsenal in six, while Manchester United adapt from being champions to Europa League hopefuls - City are already the finished article, bar maybe one additional defender who we can expect will arrive in January.
It says everything we need to know about the race at the top that Pellegrini always had full confidence his team would improve their away form, while Jose Mourinho bemoans his strikers and Arsene Wenger grumbles about the fixture list. Arsenal may be holding on to first by their fingernails, but it is City's title to lose.
Worrying defeat for Arsenal
Let's be clear about this: Arsenal are very much in the title race despite the doom-mongering that has followed Saturday's thrashing. While City may possess a stronger squad and first XI, on another occasion - perhaps not a mere 60 hours after a difficult night in Naples - the Gunners would have run their opponents closer, as Arsene Wenger suggested.
Mistakes are a product of fatigue, and at the Etihad, Arsenal's exhaustion handed the advantage to a City side with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Saturday's clash at home to Chelsea will provide a much more accurate measurement of their credentials.
And elsewhere on Merseyside...
There was another goal glut at Goodison Park to complement Everton's boast of the best defence in the Premier League (joint with Southampton). That the Toffees have lost only once all season - a 3-1 defeat at the Etihad that almost looks like a victory after the thrashings handed to Spurs and Arsenal - is a remarkable achievement as they lie equidistant to first and sixth after 16 games.
Much needed win for Moyes and Manchester United
Surely we have not yet reached the stage where praise is piled on Manchester United for an elementary victory over Aston Villa? Despite the context of their sorry season, if that is now the case then all hope is lost. Not long ago this was the strongest team in Europe, but the legacy of Glazernomics - and Sir Alex Ferguson's myopia - has left them with the look of plucky battlers, who still languish ten points off the pace.
As Graeme Souness said on Sky Sports, there was no kick from United after they beat Arsenal in November, there was no kick from United after they thrashed Bayer Leverkusen 5-0 - so can we reasonably expect anything different following a walk in Villa Park? It will take more than that to ease the pressure on David Moyes.
Still, they have a brilliant opportunity to progress in the coming weeks, which should provide near conclusive evidence of how well the squad has responded to the new manager's methods. Teething problems are understandable to an extent, but by mid-December there are no excuses for United not beating the likes of West Ham, Hull and Norwich, as well as Stoke in Wednesday's League Cup quarter-final.
Moyes will have been encouraged by the performances of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley ahead of the forthcoming schedule as the duo plugged the gaps left by Robin Van Persie and Marouane Fellaini's mysterious absence, but with Van Persie now missing for a month, Welbeck's display cannot be a flash in the pan. Another brace before months of drought is simply not good enough.
United supporters must hope to see a repeat of Welbeck's ruthlessness at Old Trafford when West Ham visit on Saturday after watching the champions score only eight goals on their own patch in the Premier League so far - almost a quarter of City's home total. If Moyes is to continue currying favour, he must eke Sunday's entertainment levels out of his team on a more regular basis.
Baggies sack Clarke
It is difficult to know what to make of Clarke's sacking. After only seven Premier League wins in 2013 and a slide to 16th following four successive defeats, it might seem that the club were wise to act, but that greatly depends on who they now appoint.
While much has been made of Clarke's appalling record in the calendar year, it should also be remembered that he guided West Brom to eighth in the previous campaign - ahead of Swansea, whose manager is now second favourite to replace Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs.
Football management is a curious profession, and it's unlikely that Clarke's reputation has been severely damaged despite being dismissed from his first job. Indeed, should Sam Allardyce's problems continue at Upton Park, perhaps the Hammers' former No 2 could swiftly find himself back in work until the end of the season.