Debrief: Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City dig for victory
Home discomfort gets worse for Manchester United
The point was made with pained pride. As Gary Neville co-commentated on Manchester United's 3-0 Old Trafford defeat to Liverpool, he noted that the visitors had had far too much time on the ball, and that you couldn't allow such a thing to happen at home "whether you're Manchester United or Crystal Palace, near the bottom".
True as that is, United have only gained one home point more than Palace. Their 21-point home total is the same as Norwich and Newcastle, and a shade over half Chelsea's of 41. Satisfied guests now include West Brom, Everton, Newcastle, Spurs, Swansea, Sunderland and – worst of all – Liverpool.
The Premier League's third best away side this season (behind Arsenal and Spurs), United are one of just four teams who fare better on their travels than at home; the others are Spurs, Villa and Sunderland, who have all had fan disenchantment to deal with.
Old Trafford used to terrify visitors. If it is now terrifying to its owners, that's not the fault of the fans, who have supported their team and its beleaguered boss with a passion and dedication far stronger than the "plastic glory-hunters" lie so easily thrown at them. For all that a generation of young fans reared on success are finally tasting the disappointment others frequently feel, it's a shame that United's decline is being played out so visibly in front of their most dedicated supporters.
Ramires absence leaves Chelsea in a hole
Next Saturday lunchtime's visit of Arsenal was already far from ideal for Chelsea: the Gunners will have a free midweek to prepare while Jose Mourinho's side conclude Champions League business with Roberto Mancini's Galatasaray. But the two sendings-off suffered in the defeat at Aston Villa makes the match all the harder.
Andre Schurrle should deputise ably for Willian, ruled out by a harsh second yellow, but Ramires's richly-deserved straight red is more troublesome. The elder Brazilian is a key component of Jose Mourinho's plan: of Chelsea's 30 league games, he has started 27 (compared to Willian's 14).
That means that alongside Nemanja Matic, Chelsea will have to choose from David Luiz, Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel – none of whom have consistently excelled in the holding midfield role. Furthermore, the problem will remain for a fortnight: presuming it's a three-game ban, Ramires will also miss the trip to Palace and the visit of Stoke, two fixtures in which Mourinho would prefer as much muscular midfield mastery as possible.
Coupled with the bluntness up front that left Brad Guzan with only two shots to save, Mourinho's fifth successive winless trip to Aston raises some serious questions about Chelsea. Certainly it seems their relentless, ruthless pursuit of points may not go quite as smoothly as their previous run of 10 wins in 12 undefeated league games might suggest.
Liverpool, City and Arsenal dig for victory
Victories can be hard-won in different ways. Chelsea's defeat at Villa gave the chasing pack chance to catch up – and all three challengers clawed back three points to tighten up the title race yet again.
By the time Chelsea kicked off at Saturday teatime, Manchester City had already won the lunchtime game – the hard way. Ten minutes into the game at Hull – where Liverpool lost and Manchester United went two down – City lost their inspirational skipper Vincent Kompany to a red card.
Furthermore, City's other centre-back was Martin Demichelis, to which a cynic might have said it was 12 players against nine. However, the ageing Argentine expertly marshalled his troops, including auxiliary centre-back Javi Garcia, to such an extent that Manuel Pellegrini didn't even bring on a substitute defender until the 71st minute. City dug in for a 2-0 win which says a lot about their character.
Then it was Liverpool's turn – at Manchester United, where they have come a cropper far more often than not even when the Mersey Reds ruled the roost. Brendan Rodgers again tweaked his side's shape to suit the opponents: this time, with a midfield diamond with Steven Gerrard at the base and Raheem Sterling at the top, attacking full-backs nullified United's wingers while harriers Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson hassled high and hard and gave United's midfield no respite.
It worked: Liverpool made 12 tackles in United's half, 47 in total, while Gerrard's penalty brace and Luis Suarez's late polisher made for a memorable 3-0 scoreline which smacks of a chaining of the guard. Having finished last season 28 points behind their bitterest rivals up the M62, Liverpool are now 14 points clear of them and in the thick of a title race United can only dream of.
Finally came Arsenal, who went about things in a rather different way. Having taken a very early lead at Tottenham, they ended up fielding six defenders plus Mathieu Flamini in the sort of line-up they haven't deployed since George Graham played Alan Smith as the lone front-runner ahead of a midfield including Martin Keown.
In the second half, Arsene Wenger's side – widely respected for their attacking élan – managed a total of one shot. (Meanwhile, Spurs were having 10, but only getting two on target.) Frequently looking to counter-attack with long vertical stabs forward, Arsenal completed just 248 passes – their lowest total in four years. But they won by the old-school Arsenal scoreline of 1-0, meaning that even with a game in hand they're now nine points clear of their fifth-placed neighbours and only four behind Chelsea, their next opponents.
For that London derby, might Wenger try to park the bus a la Jacques Santini (Chelsea 0-0 Spurs, 2004) or employ 19th-century football a la Sam Allardyce (Chelsea 0-0 West Ham, 2014)? Stranger things have happened. Perhaps Arsene Wenger, with the scent of Brasso in his nostrils, has remembered that last time Arsenal won a trophy, it was on penalties after grinding out a 0-0 in the 2005 FA Cup final...
Tottenham's glass ceiling
If Arsenal are exultant, Tottenham are in tatters. A week from hell has seen their two most hated rivals beat them to nil in the league, sandwiching something of a lesson in the Europa League. For all his admirable honesty and passion, Tim Sherwood seems to be doing an increasingly accurate impersonation of The Bloke On The Terrace Who Could Do A Better Job.
But it's not entirely Sherwood's fault that Tottenham are again banging their head against the glass ceiling of the top four. Andre Villas-Boas wasn't doing much better, while the running of the club led some to tote around Levy Out placards on a blistering hot day in North London.
Spurs' record against the top four this season reads: played seven, W0 D1 L6, F2 A23. They still have to visit Anfield, where demonstrably better teams have been battered; it's also worth noting that Liverpool scored five at White Hart Lane. That result ended Villas-Boas's Tottenham career. Sherwood may already be a dead man walking.
Norwich need three wins in four
A triple substitution is a tricky thing. Not only does a manager run the risk of going short-handed if his side suffers a subsequent injury, he is also making a loud statement about the failure of the starting XI he ws paid to pick. Or, as Norwich fans sang as Chris Hughton took his treble chance shortly after Southampton's own sub Rickie Lambert had made it 2-0: "You don't know what you're doing".
Angry fans aren't always right – West Ham supporters chorused "F*** off Sam Allardyce" in January, he won the Manager of the Month for February – but Hughton has been under a cloud for months, searching for the answers among a squad that was expensively extended last summer with an eye on Europe rather than relegation.
At St Mary's he made five changes, dropping his goalshy record signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel and club captain Sebastian Bassong among others. It didn't work. Not much does these days for Hughton, whose side has won twice in 15 attempts since early December and has now lost five away games on the bounce.
Norwich have eight games left, in two distinct phases. First, the six-pointers: against Sunderland (H), Swansea (A), West Brom (H) and Fulham (A). Then, they finish the season with the sort of glamour games that newly-promoted teams get excited about and safe-from-relegation sides see as a bonus chance to get an unexpected point: Liverpool (H), Manchester United (A), Chelsea (A) and Arsenal (H).
With 29 points banked from 30 games, and survival pace still set at roughly a point per game, it looks like the Canaries need at least three wins from the next four games if they aren't to leave themselves a serious struggle to survive.
Swans gliding toward trouble
Since they won the League Cup 12 months ago, Swansea have been rubbish in the league: 35 points in the last 38 games. That's not all Garry Monk's fault, but it's his problem. Since Monk's opening caretaker win over Cardiff, the Swans have gathered just two points in four games.
True, losing at Liverpool is no disgrace, and the 1-1 at Stoke is more than most have got. More worrying is their form at the Liberty: one point from hosting Palace and West Brom is a worrying return, especially as the latter hadn't won under Pepe Mel before dominating the Swans in the second half.
Swansea are bumping along on a point-per-game average which might be enough to survive but equally might not; a club legend, Monk must make sure his players know the situation they're in. It would help if they won the odd home game, starting with next visitors Norwich, but by that time they may really need to: first they travel to Everton and Arsenal.
Sunderland have to settle in
To some extent Sunderland are in control of their destiny: they've played two or three games fewer than their rivals. They also have some winnable home fixtures – Cardiff, Swansea, West Brom, West Ham, the Everton side they beat at Goodison – yet to come.
It's certainly preferable to their away itinerary, which includes Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and, er, Norwich.
Trouble is, Sunderland aren't much good at home. In fact, they're bobbins, bottom of the home-points table. Only they and Fulham average less than a point per game on their own turf. The latest guests to escape with a clean sheet and a point were Palace, tantalisingly on the other side of the dotted relegation line.If Sunderland don't want that over their heads at the end of the season, they need to start winning home games.
SEE ALSO James Maw's Saturday analysis