On a weekend where Swansea City created history and Liverpool strengthened their Champions League qualification hopes with a vital yet luck-ridden win over surprise package Southampton, it was the standard of officiating in the English top-flight that was called into sharp focus after events at Stamford Bridge and St. Mary’s.
Chelsea ceded ground to Manchester City as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Burnley in a game that saw Nemanja Matic sent off after retaliating to a truly horrific tackle from Ashley Barnes and referee Martin Atkinson delivering a shockingly inept performance.
It was not a good weekend for the men in the middle, as on Sunday Atkinson's colleague, Kevin Friend, failed to award at least one spot-kick as Southampton had two strong penalty appeals turned down.
Manchester City capitalised to thump a woeful Newcastle on the day Ivorian duo Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony returned from a successful Africa Cup of Nations while Arsenal leapfrogged Manchester United into third place as the top four game of musical chairs continued. This is your weekly Scorecard:
The Blues had three clear penalty appeals turned down, Jose Mourinho feeling more vindicated on his season-long conspiracy theory that there is a campaign against his side, a siege mentality that has crept into his players minds. Granted, Atkinson had a terrible game but the 'us-against-them' mindset creeping into Blues players is a dangerous one.
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An unpunished challenge by Stamford Bridge public- enemy number one, Burnley’s Ashley Barnes, on Branislav Ivanovic; being denied two clear penalties and the career-threatening stamp on Nemanja Matic by the same player that led to the Serb’s sending off for violent conduct, were some of the controversies that surrounded this fixture.
But, that notwithstanding, Chelsea should still have managed to see off their un-adventurous visitors. In the smog of foul-cry, perspective must be maintained and, as insensitive as this may seem, this ultimately counts as two points dropped.
Chelsea grade – B.
2. Manchester City
Seven points off the pace, the Citizens knew nothing but a win would do before the weekend fixtures kicked off. After the sultriness at Stamford however, Manuel Pellegrini’s men had the chance to cut Chelsea’s lead to five.
With the returning Yaya Toure, fresh from winning the Africa showpiece together with compatriot Wilfried Bony set to make his debut, the signs weren’t good for Newcastle...and so it proved.
Like a wounded lion with a point to prove, City put five past a hapless Toon outfit, slick Silva bagging a brace and a lovely assist for Dzeko’s well taken strike. The big Bosnian, a peripheral figure this season, looked lively throughout and provided a timely reminder to his manager and new-signing Bony who looked on from the bench before eventually coming on for Aguero.
The impact of Yaya Toure on this team cannot be overstated and City looked much like their old selves with him in the side. David Silva was sublime, Edin Dzeko penetrative and Samir Nasri buzzing, things are looking up at the Etihad after some recent trying times and with Barcelona coming to town in mid-week, City could not have had a better rehearsal.
City grade – A.
3. Manchester United
Louis van Gaal’s men travelled to face a plucky Swansea City side that had handed the Dutchman the most unsavoury of welcomes, his first defeat in their first Premier League match at Old Trafford.
United had been on a decent run, but had been steady rather than spectacular and their away performances have often been drab and unimaginative. Swansea had managed a few eyebrow raising results themselves, not least leaving St. Mary's with a win over Southampton and manager Gary Monk had urged his side to be fearless in this return fixture and go on for the victory to make history.
The Liberty stadium was rocking and the atmosphere seemed to get to United, early on with Ander Herrera having to clear from the line after Bafetimbi Gomis’ goal-bound header from a corner.
The same player headed over the bar once more after a near post flick-on found him all alone in United’s six yard box. United could not get any rhythm going forward even with Rooney reinstated in a forward role but made the breakthrough when Herrera fired into the corner after a slick passing move involving Van Persie, Rooney and Blind led to the latter laying it off for the Spaniard on the edge of the Swansea penalty area.
United’s lead didn’t last long however, as familiar failings at the back led to Ki sweeping the ball past De Gea, stealing in front of Rojo after a Shelvey delivery. Things settled down a bit after those exchanges and the second half saw United pile on the pressure but profligacy prevented them from adding to their tally and they would soon rue their lack of sharpness in the final third.
Jonjo Shelvey picked the ball up about 20 yards away from goal and smashed into De Gea’s net albeit via a deflection from his teammate Gomis. Liberty Stadium went into raptures.
United threw everything forward and should have been punished on the break atleast twice but the final ball was poor on both occasions and eventually, despite constant late pressure, Swansea held on for the win and did the double over United for the first time. History had been made, joy for the Swans, dejection for the Devils.
United grade – D.
Arsene Wenger’s men travelled to Palace and with Monaco on the back of their minds, this fixture had the potential to be a banana skin for the Gunners. New manager Alan Pardew had masterminded a famous win over their rivals Tottenham and would like nothing better than the scalp of old foe Wenger.
However, things did not start well for the hosts as Pape Souaré conceded an early penalty after a rush of blood led to him tripping Welbeck after being dispossessed by the Englishman. Santi Cazorla dispatched the spot kick to give Arsenal the lead and Olivier Giroud doubled it after tapping in a rebound from a Welbeck drive.
Palace rallied after the break and had Arsenal defending deep, their late pressure resulting in a goal from Glenn Murray in stoppage time. The same player was cursing the width of the post after it prevented him from a certain equaliser with virtually the last kick of the game.
The Gunners escaped with all three points from a difficult ground and moved up to third in the league after United’s defeat. Great start to a pivotal week for the Emirates outfit.
Arsenal grade – A.
5. Liverpool and Tottenham
The two outsiders for European qualification suffered contrasting fortunes. Liverpool travelled to Southampton for a vital fixture while Tottenham hosted West Ham in a London derby.
90 minutes later, Liverpool had ridden their luck but left with all three points and a fifth clean-sheet to boot from St. Mary’s while Tottenham had homegrown hero Harry Kane to thank for saving his side from certain defeat with a dramatic late equaliser after the hosts had gone 2-0 down.
This means Liverpool continued their brilliant unbeaten run since mid-December and are the form team in the league at the moment. They also, to add icing on that cake, leaped above Tottenham and closed to within two points of United who lie in fourth.
Not bad for a team that were lying in 11th place in November. European qualification is well and truly in sight and Brendan Rodgers deserves all the credit that comes his way.
Liverpool grade – A.
Tottenham grade – B.