Debrief: Chelsea pick up pace, Carroll makes comeback & celebrating Fletcher's return
Chelsea look ominous in tussle for the top
Though the weekend's schedule is not yet over, with Arsenal away to Aston Villa on Monday night, there was something ominous about the way Chelsea ground out yet another three points at Hull to go top of the league on Saturday, before Manchester City reclaimed first place the following day.
While Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Everton have all deservedly won plaudits for their form at various points of the campaign, Chelsea have sat somewhat rather awkwardly out of the spotlight for much of the season, like an odd painting at an art exhibition no-one quite knows what to make of. Jose Mourinho's team has a midfield that looks decidedly unbalanced, a Bassetts Allsorts pic n' mix of a forward line that changes nigh on every week, and has come under criticism at times for looking, well, nothing at all like a Mourinho team in the way we've all come to appreciate.
Despite this, the Special One continues to work his magic, and the seeds continue to be sown for a team who could soon put the burners on and start to accelerate away from the chasing pack. Much has been made of Man City's home form, but Chelsea have only dropped two more points than Manuel Pellegrini's team so far, a 2-2 draw with West Brom their only blip. Eight wins from the Blues' last 10 games sees them looking increasingly convincing, and just two goals conceded in their last six games - three of which were against Liverpool, Arsenal and Southampton - show a defence becoming increasingly sturdy as it evolves and adapts to Mourinho's methods.
With John Terry in imperious form (minus one or two hairy moments at Hull), Willian rapidly improving, new signings expected in January and Eden Hazard developing into one of the league's finest players under Mourinho's tutelage, Chelsea look to be evolving into a real force. They look similar to Manchester United circa 2010-2013 - not necessarily the best first XI or squad on paper, but driven on relentlessly by clearly the league's best manager. (JF)
ANALYSE Hull 0-2 Chelsea
Ki leads Sunderland revival
While Adam Johnson rightly grabbed the headlines in Sunderland's 4-1 win at Fulham, one player who continues to impress under Gus Poyet is Ki Sung-Yeung. Another understated performance at the heart of the Black Cats' midfield helped swing the balance of the game in Sunderland's favour, lifting them off the bottom of the table and offering hope for the 17 remaining fixtures that will decide their fate.
Though Fulham had more of the game than the scoreline suggested, Ki's contribution, of which a goal and assist were particular highlights, had a direct impact on Sunderland picking up a second away win in four games. Ki's passing is crisp and effective - the Sergio Busquets of South Korea - and the way he is gradually beginning to influence games more and more makes you wonder if Michael Laudrup isn't privately regretting shipping Ki out on loan from Swansea for the season.
With a growing injury list - including midfielders Jose Canas and Jonathan de Guzman - and the Swans still not quite clear of relegation danger, Ki is the sort of player they could probably use at the Liberty Stadium right now. Despite this, Laudrup refuses to consider a recall for the midfield marauder. A decision that could prove costly. (JF)
ANALYSE Fulham 1-4 Sunderland
Fletcher's return should be celebrated by all
You need only spend a few minutes reading up on ulcerative colitis to realise what a truly unpleasant disease it is. A form of inflammatory bowel problem that results in diarrhoea mixed with blood and leads to weight loss, abdominal cramps and many other nasty symptoms, one can only imagine the difficulties those with the illness face and its impact on their everyday lives.
The challenges facing someone diagnosed with such an illness would be tough to face in any walk of life. So for Darren Fletcher to cope with all the resultant hardships, battle through them and still return to playing elite level football is nothing short of remarkable, and worthy of huge praise.
Fletcher has been out of action at Man United for nigh on two years, since it was announced he was taking a break from football for health reasons in December 2011. There were doubts as to whether the Scotland international would ever play again, but behind the scenes, away from the glare of the spotlight, Fletcher has fought - and won - his battle to return to playing at Old Trafford.
After making his return in the 3-0 win at Aston Villa in December, Fletcher is gradually gaining in strength, and his typically diligent showing in the 2-0 win over Swansea this weekend summed up everything that is good about a midfielder who has been sorely missed. Though United laboured to some extent, managing only 38% possession at home, Fletcher was the hosts' top passer with 64/69 completed (a 93% success rate), creating 2 chances in the process.
So much ink has been spilt in recent seasons about how badly United need a midfielder, but what was often forgotten is that Fletcher was that man all along. Illness cost him what should have been some of the peak years in his career, but if he can return to anywhere near his best it will be a major boost for United's prospects this season. (JF)
ANALYSE Man United 2-0 Swansea
Andy Carroll can save the world (or at least West Ham)
Towering, long of hair and furry of beard, there was a touch of Christ's Second Coming about Andy Carroll's emergence for the final minutes at Cardiff, and travelling Hammers fans certainly welcomed him that way. And while Cardiff's own AC9 struggled to make an impact, the England striker did what was necessary for his team as they battled to hold onto the lead.
Carroll cut a very lonely figure in Cardiff's half but his presence kept Cardiff's defenders honest and gave his own defenders an outlet. He won headers, held up the ball, made interceptions and even contributed the assist for Mark Noble's injury-time result-sealer.
Carlton Cole started the game and, to his credit, he scored an important goal and showed the impressive strength for which he's known. But he won only 5 of his 13 aerial duels and committed 5 fouls – though, staggeringly, he wasn't booked. Maybe that's an achievement in itself. (HD)
Fulham need to cut their losses with Berbatov
In terms of natural talent, there are few players who have more than Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian’s first touch is so good you often wonder if he’s covered his boots in glue. When he’s on his game, he’s an elegant assassin, capable for ripping teams apart, without having to break sweat. But when he’s not up for it, he may as well be back in the dressing room, chugging on his favourite cigarettes.
When FFT’s Andrew Murray saw Berbatov star in Fulham’s 2-1 over West Ham, he was gushing with praise for the former Man United striker, but after watching his lazy, selfish performance against Sunderland it was impossible to have anything but criticism for him. Herein lies the problem – consistency. When you’re in a relegation scrap, you need your experienced, talented players to step up and lead by example – something Fulham skipper Scott Parker is doing his utmost to do.
Berbatov has the nous and the skill, but he doesn’t have the heart. Instead of putting his body on the line for the cause, he strolls around the pitch, waving his arms in disgust at his team-mates’ inability to deliver perfection. Grafting for 90 minutes has never been Berbatov’s game so it’s pointless suggesting he should change now, but in Fulham’s predicament they need a forward with the work ethic of Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters. A player willing to sacrifice himself for the team. A player who is going to give the opposition 90 minutes of hell.
This isn't to suggest for one minute that Walters is the answer – the Cottagers need a proven goalscorer with more talent – but someone with Walters’ work-rate is what is needed. Against Sunderland, Berbatov missed two early chances to give Fulham the lead and then completely lost interest.
With little effort, he still managed to complete 22 of his 23 passes, but he lost 4 of his 6 aerial duels, he made 0 tackles and committed 4 fouls. It’s easy to understand his frustration, but rather than sulk and moan he should take more responsibility and fight. His talent is undoubted, but on this showing he isn’t the right man to rescue Fulham. (BW)
SATURDAY ANALYSIS Chelsea, Hammers and Adam Johnson do a lot with a little