Saturday analysis: Man City take first step, Mata magic, Palace sucker-punch Cardiff
Man City 4-1 Southampton
Southampton had racked up 61% of the possession at half time and nearly twice as many completed passes as their illustrious and significantly more moneyed opponents. City's razor-sharp cutting edge however proved irresistible, and they hit two goals in first half stoppage time to head into a 3-1 lead, after opening the scoring through Yaya Toure before Rickie Lambert's equaliser (both from the penalty spot).
Goals from Samir Nasri and Edin Dzeko were very warmly received by Manuel Pellegrini, as before that two-goal cushion things were looking ropey for a City team that looked flat-footed compared to their spritely, exciting opponents.
Southampton have been one of the most refreshing and tactically interesting teams in the Premier League this season, but they also come with a rather soft underbelly - as best displayed in a 3-2 defeat at Spurs in late March. Again Pochettino's side played nice, neat football, dominating the passing and possession stats, but lost to a side with superior know-how when it came to actually getting the job done.
City struck three times the number of shots and were largely inspired, once again, by David Silva. Silva bested the attacking third passing stats and created 6 chances, with one assist - though Southampton were unhappy at what looked a disputable offside call not given against the quicksilver Spaniard for City's second goal.
Newcastle 0-4 Man United
This game started as the Juan Mata Show and ended a complete stroll. For the second week running Newcastle were battered 4-0, leaving Alan Pardew's men with a record that reads Lost 3, Goals Scored 0, Goals Conceded 11 from their last three outings. Newcastle are decaying rapidly at the moment and look like going nowhere, fast.
Ironically, the Magpies actually forged twice the number of shots as visitors Manchester United - 14 to the visitors' 7 and post-match David Moyes lamented his team's slow start and sloppy passing. Few of Newcastle's attempts caused any real panic however and those that did were well saved by Anders Lindegaard, who had a fine game in the absence of David de Gea, who was rested.
Mata's brilliant free-kick swung the game in United (the Manchester version)'s favour and his second goal was sumptuously taken. Having lost Ashley Young through injury early on, Moyes was forced to bring on Adnan Januzaj, and some of the combination play between Januzaj, Mata and Shinji Kagawa was a joy to behold. Darren Fletcher knitted the midfield together with customarily intelligent distribution, but it was the little lads in the attacking band in behind Javier Hernandez that did the damage, Mata in particular.
Moyes' team pick up a welcome three points ahead of the biggest game of the Scot's career at Bayern this Wednesday, and the Red Devils move above Spurs into sixth. Newcastle, hopeless and uninterested, look like they're counting the days until summer already.
Cardiff 0-3 Crystal Palace
So long, you crazy Bluebirds. It's not over yet, and under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Cardiff will certainly fight to the end, but this defeat had a 'nail in the coffin' feel to it. A 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace means Cardiff are now six points behind 17th-placed Norwich with an inferior goal difference and only 15 points to play for. The demoralising manner of the defeat, as well as wins for West Brom and Fulham, only added to the feeling that this was the day when relegation became less a possibility and more a virtual reality.
This was a typical Tony Pulis patented smash n' grab for Crystal Palace, who saw far less of the ball (36%), completed practically half the number of passes (215 v 406) and mustered 7 fewer corners, yet managed double the number of attempts on goal and, crucially, three goals without conceding. Just like in the 1-0 win over Chelsea last weekend, the Eagles were also defensively strong and resolute, sitting deep and repelling all that came their way. Percentage football the Pulis way - nobody can say it ain't effective.
Two goals from Jason Puncheon and one from Joe Ledley did the damage, lifting Palace up to 14th - 7 points clear of the dropzone with a game in hand. That Ledley scored in his home city against a club he spent six years playing for only seemed to add to the pain of a bitter day for Cardiff fans. "We need a miracle now," Solskjaer lamented post-match. Few disagree.
Aston Villa 1-2 Fulham
A late goal from Hugo Rodallega, a massive win for Fulham. If the Cottagers do stay up this season they may well have not only Felix Magath to thank, but also Tottenham Hotspur. Rene Meulensteen's decision to bring in the Germany international in the January window looks as inspired as Spurs' call to only provide Holtby with limited game-time before loaning him out looks questionable.
The 23-year-old attacking midfielder was once again integral to his adopted team, grabbing an assist for Rodallega's winner and performing to a high level in almost all that he did, completing a remarkable 6/6 dribbles and leading the game for attacking-third passes and, for Fulham at least, chances created.
Without Christian Benteke, Villa had gone 1-0 down just after the hour mark thanks to Kieran Richardson's howitzer, before Grant Holt equalised for the hosts. Despite this, Holtby helped his team have the final say. Fulham had matched Villa in nearly every area of the field and tested Brad Guzan more times than Villa troubled their own keeper. Paul Lambert had admitted before the game that he too had tried to sign Holtby in January. The former Schalke star made the difference today as Fulham climbed to 18th, giving their survival chances a welcome jolt.
Hull 1-0 Swansea
Hull picked up the win in a game between two teams without too much to play for at the KC Stadium. The result keeps Swansea looking over their shoulders - Garry Monk's side now sit only six points above the relegation zone and will need to be careful, particularly as their next game is against Chelsea. Lose that (a distinct possibility) and things could really start to look worrying for the Swans.
For their part, Hull have one eye on Wembley and their FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield United. The win keeps Steve Bruce's side in mid-table - 12th and four points off the top 10 - and the Tigers can take satisfaction from a job well done in avoiding a relegation tussle on their return to the top-flight.
While George Boyd scored the winner, wide players from either side featured prominently, with Wayne Routledge and Ahmed Elmohamady heavily involved. The duo completed the first and second-most attacking-third passes respectively, and Routledge in particular played well creating 4 chances, completing 5/7 take-ons and managing a shot on target. Michu and Wilfried Bony failed to get a shot on target between them.
Norwich 0-1 West Brom
After Berahino-gate, West Brom recovered their team spirit and togetherness to pick up a vital 1-0 win on the road against Norwich, giving Pepe Mel's side a massive boost as they too tussle to avoid the tumble to Championship football. Inspired by Morgan Amalfitano's neat finish, the Baggies leapfrog Norwich and hold a five-point lead over Fulham in the drop zone - a welcome buffer as the games tick by.
Like Palace, West Brom were statistically inferior to their opponents in key areas on the day. Norwich dominated the passing and ball retention stats, seeing 69% of possession with 411 passes completed to 162, but once again their Achilles heel was an inability to find the back of the net. Johan Elmander and Gary Hooper mustered 2 shots on target between them all game, and the result leaves the Canaries staring down the barrel of an almost impossibly daunting run-in, with games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to come after Fulham next weekend.
"I understand the frustration and we just have to get on with it," said Hughton after the home fans booed off their team. Despite a five-point margin separating them from the bottom three, Norwich face an almighty battle to stay up given who they must face.
Chelsea 3-0 Stoke
"City have the destiny in their hands," Jose Mourinho continued post-match. "We depend too much on other results." Chelsea's comfortable 3-0 win over Stoke took them back to the top of the league, but Mourinho persists in writing off his team. After a thinly veiled dig at Fernando Torres in the post-match spiel against Paris Saint-Germain in midweek, Torres was restored to the side for this walk in the park against Mark Hughes' team, who had been in impressive form heading into the match.
Torres showed far greater urgency against Stoke and looked sharp - particularly in the first half, despite never really testing Asmir Begovic in goal. Stoke's early mastery of possession and passing delighted the travelling Stoke fans, but even then it was Chelsea who posed the more ominous threat, carving a number of 'nearly's and 'almost's in a final third missing benched Belgian Eden Hazard.
Willian and Mohamed Salah, however, made the difference. "Salah was very lively," raved Mourinho post-match and the Egyptian international also earned praise from Frank Lampard after scoring one and winning the penalty for the England international to convert on the rebound - having seen his spot-kick saved. Willian and Salah were both livewires all game, and both got their name on the scoresheets in what ended as a routine win. Their manager may not believe in them publicly, but Chelsea are still in this title race.