Realistic contenders?

Our wrap-up of the weekend action dissects whether Liverpool can now lay claim to being in it to win it, discusses what proved to be another miserable 90 minutes for David Moyes and analyses Arsenal's hugely entertaining stalemate with Everton at the Emirates

Our wrap-up of the weekend action dissects whether Liverpool can now lay claim to being in it to win it.

Team of the Week

Can Liverpool really win it?

Most people seem fairly convinced that this won't last. This can't last. And with good reason. Recent history, for one thing, tells us that Liverpool are not serious title contenders, despite being second in the league, five points behind the leaders, level with Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, ahead of Manchester City and some eight points in front of Manchester United. The size of their squad is another, with Brendan Rodgers himself pointing out that they are not strong enough to cope with the loss of their best players. With Steven Gerrard now out for an indeterminate number of weeks with a hamstring twang, add him to Daniel Sturridge as key players that will probably be missing for the Christmas period, and while Gerrard is not the force and Liverpool's only hope that he once was, observers who were paying closer attention than I to their 4-1 win over West Ham noted that they lost a significant amount of control in midfield after he went off. And yet, why not? Why not put them down as genuine title contenders? Liverpool are currently a full 11 points better off than they were at this stage last season. On a weekend when Manchester City were dropping points at Southampton and Chelsea were losing to Stoke, Rodgers' side were wiping the floor with West Ham. Sure, their fixtures thus far have been relatively friendly, but blips against Hull and Southampton aside, they have dealt with almost everyone else pretty emphatically. Losing to this iteration of Arsenal is not exactly a sign that Liverpool cannot challenge, and everyone else is so unpredictable that it would be premature to write them off. Of course, the sizeable fly in Liverpool's title ointment (a vaguely unpleasant image, but I make no apologies for it) is that injuries to Gerrard and Sturridge have come at a bad time, with a very tough run of fixtures coming up. In their next four games they face Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea, all away, with the brief respite of a home game against Cardiff somewhere in the middle. The next few weeks will decide whether Liverpool can stay where they are, or whether they will fade back into the pack. Read Chris Kamara's views on Luis Suarez here

Berbatov breaks into a trot

Whether it was a sign of a man who wished to underline his commitment to Fulham or whether it was a player seeking to offer a reminder of his talent to potential new employers, the maverick Dimitar Berbatov had a fine game against Aston Villa. The Bulgarian, whose agent recently announced the striker wants out of Craven Cottage, was hugely influential, demonstrating all of his trademark classy control, sublime passing and drifting movement. His work ethic will always be questioned but his ability on the ball is similarly never in doubt. His volleyed pass with the outside of his boot to set up Alexander Kacaniklic to win the penalty was out of this world while his spot-kick conversion, which maintained his 100 per cent record from eight Premier League penalties, was an audaciously idiosyncratic combination of class and cheek. Compare Berbatov's performance against Villa to that of his previous appearance in the 2-1 defeat by Swansea City, Jol's last home game in charge, and the contrast is clear. In 90 minutes against Swansea, Berbatov had one off-target shot, created one goalscoring chance, touched the ball 45 times and played 23 passes in the opposition half at a success rate of 60.9 per cent. In just an hour against Villa, Berbatov had four shots, of which three were on target - including his penalty goal - created one chance, touched the ball 40 times and played 27 passes in the opposition half at a success rate of 70.4%. Berbatov was given the chance to drop off and influence play as opposed to being pushed into the lone striker role which Darren Bent played against Swansea. Kacaniklic and Ashkan Dejagah were the men detailed to push further forward by Rene Meulensteen versus Villa to give Fulham some attacking pace and variety in wider areas. This was not the case against Swansea when Bent was isolated and did not have the speed to take advantage of Berbatov's play-making. Dejagah, in particular, was impressive in playing 55 passes at an 87.3% success rate. To read our full match analysis of Fulham's defeat of Aston Villa click here

Canaries singing again

Quite a way to bounce back from a 5-1 humping by Luis Suarez. Indeed, it should speak well of Chris Hughton's side that this is the second time they have responded to a sound thrashing, six-of-the-best, by winning the next game. After the 7-0 hiding at Manchester City in November, they responded by beating West Ham a week later. It might be considered a bad thing that they apparently require a rather sound boot in the trousers to stumble into action, but it is at least better than the alternative. While they are still a mere four points from the bottom three and most definitely have the capacity to be profoundly rubbish, this resilience should ensure that they stay clear of the most serious mischief this season.

More Moyes misery

Ha! You thought there couldn't possibly be anything else to say about David Moyes, didn't you? Naive. There was a shot of Moyes immediately after Newcastle scored on Saturday when he looked like a little, confused boy, unsure what to do and utterly lost. Moyes may have been lumbered with a sub-standard and lop-sided squad, but sub-standard and lop-sided squads have won league titles before. This one, for example. Indeed, with the additions of Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, with no significant departures from the playing staff, it's actually stronger. Moyes didn't exactly do himself any favours by pointing this out after the game. "We've got roughly the same squad that was champions last year and we've not changed an awful lot in that period," Moyes said. "We can play better, but there were a lot of games last year where Manchester United didn't play particularly well and maybe, in a game like that, sneaked it with a goal." Of course, Moyes simply brought attention to the one big thing that has changed at Old Trafford, thus inviting everyone to draw their own conclusions as to why they're ninth, having dropped more points than they've won. He was certainly quite confident that the United support would understand that all this is terribly tough and so forth, claiming they understand that this is a transitional year and that not everything goes right in transitional years. Well, sure, that's true, but as has been pointed out, Roberto Martinez seems to be dealing with his own transition pretty well, and as Ron Atkinson (of all people) said at the weekend, when you're a manager of a club as vast as Manchester United, you're not really allowed transitional years. United are in serious danger of missing out on the Champions League, never mind the league title, and are only a point closer to the top of the table than they are to the bottom. Perhaps the most concerning thing for United fans is that they really didn't create anything of note after Newcastle scored on Saturday. They had two clear opportunities in the 29 minutes after Yohan Cabaye scored - one was Robin van Persie's disallowed goal, the other a free-kick that flashed across goal by Van Persie. Two set-pieces to show for half an hour of pressure. Again, we return to the probably unfair Ferguson comparison, but had the old man still been in charge, Tim Krul's goal would have been under siege, the footballing equivalent of the bit in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when the Celts attack and the Sheriff's men start firing flaming arrows at the outlaws' treehouses. It was on telly last night. "I tried to chuck the kitchen sink at it," claimed Moyes. Really? The kitchen sink is still attached to the wall, David. The good news for Moyes is that United now have a relatively friendly run of games, facing Aston Villa, West Ham, Hull then Norwich, but the bad news is that they now not only have to win all of those games, but win them convincingly. We'll leave the last word to Alan Pardew, who perhaps unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally given the two men have a 'history', apparently stretching back to a gloriously petty episode when they were managing Preston and Reading, and Moyes' North End side were prevented from warming up on the Madejski Stadium pitch for some reason) signalled a low point in Moyes' tenure/career by saying: "I know we won't get the headlines because poor old United and David have had a tough day."

Away day blues

More points dropped on the road. The last time Manchester City won back-to-back away games in the Premier League was December last year, when they beat Wigan then Newcastle, which was then followed by their annual 1-0 defeat at Sunderland. "I think it is a good point for us because we didn't play better than Southampton," Manuel Pellegrini said after the game. "Southampton played very well also. I think it was a very close game for both teams. We had one or two other chances and so did they to score, so I think it was a very logical result." Should the manager of Manchester City be happy with a draw away at Southampton, no matter how well they are playing at the moment? Especially since the Saints' recent form isn't exactly scintillating - they had lost their previous three games, to Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa. City have won just twice away from the Etihad this season, putting them in tenth place of the away league table. It hardly needs saying that for a team in the title race, this is not good enough. It's a good job their next away game, at Bayern Munich, doesn't really matter.

Cech doing a Hart?

On the quiet, Cech is having a bit of a stinker this season, to use a technical term. His flap at a cross for Stoke's opening goal wasn't the first time an error of his has led to Chelsea conceding of late, with the West Brom game in November springing to mind. Also, he has only kept four clean sheets this season. One was on the opening day against Hull, one against Manchester United when the teams appeared to have come to some sort of Anschluss game-esque pact not to shoot, one was against Fulham, proud owners of 14 goals from their 15 league games, and the other against West Ham, who don't have any strikers. Jose Mourinho pointed to individual mistakes (of course it wasn't his fault, of course it wasn't), but didn't name names. One imagines he was merely saving his goalkeeper the embarrassment.

Bluebirds on the slide

That's one win in the last nine, of which five have been lost. Some of those defeats (Arsenal, Chelsea) have been excusable, but losing to Crystal Palace is not. The point against Manchester Untied hinted that there are some causes for optimism, but six points from an available 27 is relegation form.

Honest Gus

The line between being honest and throwing your team under the bus is a very, very fine one, and one that Paolo Di Canio either didn't recognise or delighted in dancing over. However, Gus Poyet seemed to get it about right in his assessment of Sunderland's squad and season so far. "At the moment, we are not good enough," he said. "Sometimes being honest doesn't mean that you are negative. I am not, I am very positive. I am realistic and at the moment, that's what we are. "We want to keep going, yes. The desire, the fighting, the spirit - the players are trying their best. At the moment, it's not enough, so we will see how we are going to change." While their performance against Spurs was creditable, Sunderland are now stone bottom of the Premier League, five points from safety and with Crystal Palace and Fulham, the other two seemingly damned and doomed teams improving and even winning, the immediate future looks a little grim. "At the moment, I see too many players of the opposition playing against us probably their best games of the season," continued Poyet. "Do you think that that's a coincidence as well? You have to be very naive to think that." Poyet had better hope that 'telling it like it is' works, otherwise there is (more) serious trouble ahead.

McCarthy the key cog

James McCarthy is at times even overshadowed by on-loan team-mate Gareth Barry when praise is being lavished on this current Everton squad but his contribution should not be underestimated. Everton, passing in triangles and with players drifting in between the lines of Arsenal's formation, were superb for the opening 40 minutes of Sunday's 1-1 draw and finished the first half with 317 passes to their hosts' 196. Martinez's visitors also had a superior passing accuracy of 87.07 per cent compared to Arsenal's 75.51%. Additionally, Everton had enjoyed 137 more touches of the ball than their opponents.
First-Half Statistics Arsenal Everton
Total Passes ( Excl Crosses & Corners ) 196 317
Passing Accuracy 75.51% 87.07%
Possession 37.90% 62.10%
It is rare that Arsenal are out-passed to such an extent, with their first-half possession of 37.9% proving to be less than their record overall Premier League match lows at the Emirates against Manchester City last season (40%) and Liverpool in 2008 (42%). The key factor in Arsenal's difficulties was McCarthy, whose 97% pass completion rate in the first half was the best of any player on the field. The midfielder sat in the centre circle alongside Barry and dictated play as Everton spread their formation to expose a compact Arsenal. Barry and McCarthy, especially, were providing the possession with a platform to the likes of Ross Barkley, who without that service would not have been able to go and hurt Arsenal as he did. Arsenal also began strongly immediately after half-time but they never took control of midfield and the game evened out. Again, McCarthy was vital in maintaining that foothold for Everton. He was the responsible player who sat in midfield despite being the less experienced member of Everton's central pairing. Barry was given more permission from Martinez to get forward. This was demonstrated by the fact the Manchester City loanee played more passes in the opposition half (51) compared to McCarthy (27) but this is still unusual. It is difficult to imagine many players of McCarthy's age being trusted as the player to fight the urge to break forward while he also has younger legs than Barry. Following on from a similarly impressive performance in the win over United, McCarthy finished the game against Arsenal having won only one of his four duels. But it was in his simple yet smart use of the ball that Everton were able to build for a draw which was the least their performance merited. He ended the game with an 88.2% success rate in his passing which was more than any other midfielder on the field who had produced more than 50 passes. It was a mature, composed and subtly influential performance. In McCarthy, Everton have a midfielder of class and dependability for the present and future. To read our full analysis of Everton's draw at Arsenal click here. Meanwhile, Guillem Balague answers your questions on Gerard Deulofeu's Barca chances here

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