Liverpool need to shut the back door to reach the top four
Brendan Rodgers has assembled a fearsome frontline, with Luis Suarez assisted by Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho. No wonder they haven't failed to score since before Bonfire Night – and they could have got even more threatening had Rodgers been able to sign Ukraine winger Yevhen Konoplyanka.
But for all their effective forward play and regular Anfield annihilations of all-comers, Liverpool
won't get far while they're so easy to score against on other people's patches. West Brom
became the 10th hosts in 11 league fixtures to breach the Liverpool backline, courtesy of an absolute howler from Kolo Toure.
The Ivorian, presumably following the Rodgers template of playing it out from the back, succeeded only in playing a ball across his own penalty area straight to the unmarked Victor Anichebe, as youth-team coaches across the country howled at their TVs about setting a bad example.
The result on this occasion was two dropped points, meaning Everton - humbled 4-0 at Anfield in midweek - are now back to two points behind the Reds' fourth-place slot. It's far from an isolated example – Opta say Liverpool have made 29 defensive errors leading to a goal attempt, which is the leakiest in the division.
Rodgers is a man of strong beliefs but the stats show that to play quite so confidently at the back, he needs better players – and his window of opportunity has just closed with little sign of much intention in that area. How many Reds fans would be unhappy if he told the back lads to tone down the tika-taka if it's the difference between Champions League and Europa?
Paging Hatem Ben Arfa…
's miserable 3-0 defeat to hated rivals Sunderland
was unforgivable parochially, it makes perfect sense in sporting terms.
Sunderland are a team in form – which, contrary to cliché, didn't even get near the window at St James' Park – with plenty to play for. Newcastle, out of both cups and marooned in upper mid-table, may be one of the two Premier League teams (along with Southampton) with nothing to fear or fancy this season – and, being a trading club, have just sold their prize asset without replacing him. For all Gus Poyet's new-broom positivism you wonder if it would have been the same had the team's positions been reversed.
Economically, Mike Ashley knows what he's doing: if you're reading this in the UK, there's only a 12 in 63,230,000 chance you're richer than him. But the Newcastle model has sporting implications. It can't be motivational for a team to go onto such a psychologically important match shorn forever of their most influential player, with their leading goalscorer (borrowed) also unavailable through suspension.
In-form Adam Johnson scored again as Sunderland overcame Newcastle, again.
Although they couldn't hope for a gutsier line-leader than Shola Ameobi, he couldn't produce his usual derby goal; behind him, Hatem Ben Arfa, who often seemed to want a bigger role in Newcastle's play, fluffed his lines on the biggest stage in the region.
Sunderland, having opted against selling their captain on deadline day, march on toward Wembley and safety. You can't buy either of those, nor can you purchase the joy of a third successive derby win – or pay to negate the pain of a third straight loss.
Cardiff's crack-papering can't last forever
If signings can save a season, Cardiff
should be fine judging by the way their January additions gave the Bluebirds wings in the 2-1 win over Norwich
– with Kenwyne Jones scoring the winner after the side was reinvigorated by substitute loanee Wilfried Zaha. However, there are still big issues remaining for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Going into the match in bottom position, the side from the Welsh capital had gone in 1-0 down at half time after being the poorer side against Norwich, who themselves have hardly been pulling up trees. A quickfire double early in the second half proved enough for the win – obviously there's something about the Norwegian, substitutes and 2-1 turnarounds – but the Canaries, playing in white to avoid those red-vs-yellow colour clashes which have spoiled so many pool games, were again the better team after going behind.
These were Solskjaer's first Premier League points, at the fourth attempt. Zaha's 38th-minute introduction may have been an honest early acknowledgement from the manager that he needed to change things, but Vincent Tan won't want a tyro learning on the job in a division where mistakes can cost millions.
Goalscorer Bellamy was blistering in his assessment of the Cardiff fans.
There's nothing wrong with grinding out somewhat fortuitous wins, which is exactly what Sam Allardyce's West Ham did in Cardiff three weeks ago. But expectations are high in South Wales, perhaps poisonously so, as local lad Craig Bellamy – whose equaliser made him the first player to score Premier League goals for seven different clubs – noted in a typically forthright post-match interview.
"I haven't heard a [Cardiff] crowd like that – that's not the club I'm from," said the Wales forward, whose finger-to-lips celebration may have been a pointed note to the home supporters. "I've seen them [the fans] turn in the first half, and I've not been a part of that – I've not seen them direct it at individuals, which they did. Maybe that's modern football but it's not like us."
Much of Cardiff's troubles have been blamed on the owner's caprice, be he changing strips, badges or managers. But if the Cardiff City Stadium becomes a bear pit for its own team rather than visitors, it could be a long spring ahead for a team arguably surpassing the sum of its parts under Malky Mackay.
Fortune not favouring brave Moyes
With Jonny Evans having already limped off, replaced by sole defensive sub Rafael with Chris Smalling sliding over from right-back, Moyes had little option but to drop Michael Carrick into the heart of the defence, as his predecessor had done before him. And rather than safely fill the Carrick-shaped hole with Darren Fletcher, Moyes chased an equaliser by bringing on Danny Welbeck, with Wayne Rooney tending to drop deeper. Again, so far so Fergusonian.
Moyes' bold switches didn't pay off for Manchester United.
The reshuffle seemed to work when Juan Mata set up Robin van Persie's leveller, but five minutes later Charlie Adam was given time on the edge of the box to hammer home his second as the hosts regained a lead they'd never lose, giving them their first league win over Manchester United since Mrs Januzaj was heavily pregnant.
Although Stoke have never stood on ceremony for illustrious hosts, there is a distinct beatability about United this season, and on this occasion fortune didn't favour the brave decisions made by poor old Moyesy.
Hats off to Roberto Martinez
's win on Saturday was their 300th against Aston Villa
, manager Roberto Martinez's 50th in the Premier League and his 100th as a manager in 'English' (and Welsh, if you like) football. And he certainly earned it, helping his side from from behind with cunning substitutions.
It was never going to be easy without Romelu Lukaku as front-man, and Kevin Mirallas battled in vain against Villa's three centre-backs. Paul Lambert's side had set up in a narrow 3-4-1-2 to allow January loanee Grant Holt to join Christian Benteke up top.
Losing at half time to what turned out to be Villa's only shot on target, Martinez replaced his central trequartista Ross Barkley with Steven Pienaar, who instead operated from the left flank, often in concert with Leighton Baines.
Then, as the possession-phobic visitors retreated into effectively playing five at the back, Martinez replaced the promising but somewhat superfluous right-back John Stones with striker Steven Naismith, pushing James McCarthy to the right of midfield; with Baines predominantly on the front foot, Martinez left Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin minding the shop, in order to let Naismith join Mirallas up front.
Martinez's mid-match tactical switches helped Everton come from behind against Villa.
Furthermore, both strikers frequently pulled to the left of the attack, joining the Baines-Pienaar axis, but Martinez left new signing Aiden McGeady way over on the right to help prevent Villa shuffling across. And it worked, Pienaar slipping Naismith in for the equaliser before Mirallas curled in the winning free-kick from that side - a goal he sprinted to celebrate with his manager.
“It was a very different tactical puzzle to ones we are used to and we became worried and cagey,” said the Spanish gaffer, who called it his most satisfying win so far. “But this is a team with a knack of looking adversity in the face." In that respect, Everton take after their manager, combining David Moyes's determination with Martinez's acute tactical brain. It's a combination that could take them into the Champions League, and who outside their immediate rivals would begrudge that?
Predictable Premier League pleasingly compressed
Although not an uneventful Premier League weekend – and one which saw the gap between 18th and 12th narrow from five points to a terrifying two – it contained several scripts that could have been written in advance.
Similarly, there'd be no prizes for predicting Crystal Palace
would be "disciplined" (as Sky pundit Kevin Phillips mentioned six times at half time alone) but lose to a well-worked Arsenal
team goal, then concede again in trying to equalise. Nor would you have been acclaimed for saying that Fulham
would be utterly rubbish. Any idea that getting rid of Dimitar Berbatov would be a panacea was discredited with a gutless 3-0 loss at home to Southampton
, whose England wannabes had fun against a disorganised team apparently determined to see the Championship.