English Premier League: Stock Up, Stock Down
As the halfway point of the English Premier League season approaches, storylines abound.
Manchester United can't stop scoring, but now that a key player is back, the Red Devils might stop conceding so many.
Brendan Rodgers' revolution at Liverpool hit new heights last week but found stormy seas at home this week.
Meanwhile, QPR have finally won and West Brom have finally fallen back to Earth.
Which teams saw their stock rise and fall this week? Read on to find out.
Stock Up: Manchester United's Title Assault
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Manchester United swatted aside Sunderland 3-1 on Saturday with almost embarrassing ease. The victory said plenty about why United lead the table—and why, at this point, the Red Devils are favorites for the title.
Inspired again by Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in the final third, United tore apart Sunderland with two goals in the first 20 minutes. Van Persie opened the scoring with his 12th of the season—tied for most in the league—and Tom Cleverley's classy curler doubled the advantage moments later.
Rooney made it 3-0 in the second half, and by the time Fraizer Campbell pulled one back for Sunderland 18 minutes from the final whistle, a comeback was only a distant possibility.
The possibility existed, of course, because of the state of United's defense so far this season. Sir Alex Ferguson's team have allowed 24 goals, third-most among the table's top half and just 12th-best overall. But the return of captain and influential defender Nemanja Vidic should calm nerves over the unit's alarming leakiness.
United have already demonstrated they can score on any team on any matchday. With Vidic's return, the defense might start to balance the equation.
If so, the title race has a definite frontrunner.
Stock Down: Chelsea's Revival
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Chelsea didn't play this weekend in the Premier League. Even so, the Blues' stock fell.
Last week, when Chelsea routed Nordsjaelland in the Champions League and won at Sunderland in the Premier League, the Blues seemed to be turning around their fortunes. New (place-holding) manager Rafa Benitez had finally won for the first time and while the European dream was done, a renewed assault on the league seemed possible.
Then Chelsea traveled to Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup. As a competitive exercise, the trip meant little. The true title was won last May in Munich. But as internal storylines go, the trip was supposed to serve as a momentum builder and confidence booster.
That seemed to be the case when, after a comfortable 3-1 win over Monterrey, Benitez claimed his players were "enjoying their football" (via FIFA.com).
But after losing to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final, the Blues return to England with momentum dashed and league leaders Manchester United 13 points distant.
Stock Up: QPR's Chances of Survival
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Survival is still a tall order, but Queens Park Rangers' chances improved mightily with their first victory of the season.
QPR beat Fulham 2-1 on Saturday. And so, after 17 matches, every Premier League team has at least one win. Almost miraculously, after taking nearly half a season to win once, QPR find themselves only five points adrift of safety.
Of course, at QPR's rate, collecting five points can take months. But since Harry Redknapp replaced Mark Hughes as manager, Rangers have won once, lost once and drawn three times. The only loss came at Manchester United in a match QPR led in the second half.
Few clubs would consider that progress, but QPR's point of comparison was a desperate place only a month ago. For this team, six points in five matches represents progress.
Stock Down: The Rodgers Revolution
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Brendan Rodgers' rebranding project at Liverpool seemed to have gained steam last week when the Reds beat West Ham away while talisman Luis Suarez missed the match through suspension. Liverpool's confidence had soared so high that Rodgers had targeted second place and big-spending Manchester City (via BBC Sport).
So much for that.
With Suarez back, Liverpool slumped to a 3-1 home defeat to relegation battlers Aston Villa. Christian Benteke (more on him momentarily) grabbed a brace and assisted Andreas Weimann for Villa's third. Steven Gerrard provided scant consolation with Liverpool's lone goal in the 87th minute.
And with that, Liverpool went from four points off the top four to 12th place and seven points above the relegation zone.
Back to the drawing board, then?
Stock Up: Christian Benteke
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What does Christian Benteke have that Darren Bent does not?
Besides those three extra letters in his surname, he now has five goals to Bent's two and three assists to Bent's none.
After another strong performance—this one decisive in victory over Liverpool—it's no wonder Paul Lambert continues to pick Benteke ahead of Bent.
Stock Down: West Brom's Scorching Start
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After Sunday's scoreless draw at home to West Ham, West Brom remain two points outside the top four. That's hardly an insurmountable number, but the Baggies' form would suggest otherwise.
It has now been nearly a month since West Brom won a league match (4-2 at Sunderland on Nov. 24). Over their last four matches, the Baggies have claimed one point.
Steve Clarke could yet be the Premier League's manager of the season. His team's scorching start was nothing short of amazing.
The coming weeks, however, will be where he wins—or loses—the award.
Stock Down: Wigan and Roberto Martinez
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Wigan's Roberto Martinez has developed a reputation for working wonders in relegation fights (for example, this piece from the Daily Mirror). So should we skip ahead to March and just assume Wigan will be in trouble?
Saturday's loss at in-form Norwich City—how about that Chris Hughton?—dropped Wigan into the relegation zone. Another escape act, it seems, will be necessary.
For now, then, Wigan's stock drops along with that of Martinez. Come spring, though…
Stock Up: David Moyes
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We already knew David Moyes is a good manager. Now we know he has his priorities straight.
After Marouane Fellaini's headbutt on Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross this weekend, Moyes could have played coy and acted as if he didn't see the incident. The referee, after all, missed it.
Instead, Moyes condemned his star player publicly and forcefully. Per the Daily Mail: "I have told him in the dressing room that it is not acceptable," said Moyes. "I won't accept it as a manager that he does that."
Bravo to Moyes for approaching a tough situation in the correct way.
Stock Down: Newcastle United
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Last season, Newcastle challenged for fourth place and a Champions League berth until the end of the season.
Nearing the halfway point this season—not so much.
Newcastle lost again this weekend, and though a home defeat against champions Manchester City isn't overly concerning, this is: The Magpies are now just two points above the relegation zone.
Thank heavens Demba Ba is tied down, eh? Oh, right.
Stock Up: Tottenham's Top-Four Chances
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Sunday's 1-0 home win over Swansea sent Tottenham back into the top four, two points clear of Everton and West Brom and level with Chelsea. Spurs' fortunes—and results (four wins and four losses in their last eight matches)—seem to vary wildly from week to week, but for this week at least, optimism runs high.
Arsenal are in disarray. West Brom have apparently come back to Earth. For all intents, the race for third and fourth is currently a three-horse competition involving Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton.
Andre Villas-Boas should feel bullish about his chances for Champions League qualification. Just to be safe, though, let's check back next week.