English Premier League: 10 Things We Learned from EPL Week 22
Week 22 of the English Premier League certainly wasn't without its drama and excitement this week, and it certainly wasn't short of showing us several things about the teams and players within it.
We had Chelsea bouncing back with a big win against Stoke City to silence Rafa Benitez's critics for the time being, and we also had Reading's incredible three-goal comeback against West Bromwich Albion.
There was the usual drama and tension that spilled out of Manchester United's clash with Liverpool, as well as Tottenham's frustrating scoreless draw against former manager Harry Redknapp's Queens Park Rangers.
All in all, it was another big week for English football.
So what did we learn from this weekend's matchups and results?
Chelsea Are Traveling OK
After a stunning 1-0 loss at home to Queens Park Rangers last week and a 2-0 loss at home to Swansea City during the week in the Capital One Cup, big questions about Chelsea lingered again.
Manager Rafa Benitez was still not thought of as a good option for the club—in terms of his success both on and off the field—and the Blues simply didn't look like the title-chance that they did earlier in the season under Roberto Di Matteo.
The only man under question more than Benitez was Fernando Torres, who had the spotlight thrust back upon him once more with the arrival of Demba Ba. The former Newcastle striker would be given his opportunity to show what he could do here in replacement of Torres, and despite not scoring a goal, Ba definitely had an impact for the West London club.
Playing at one of the more difficult venues in England, Chelsea picked up a 4-0 win and cruised back into third position in the league table. They were dominant in attack—particularly through the middle of the field—and showed that they are not in "crisis" or "turmoil" at the moment.
The Blues are still marching on this season and cannot be considered anything other than a real contender in the race for a top-four spot.
Swansea Continue to Threaten
Swansea City might not possess the same goal-scoring proficiency that they showed earlier in the year, but they are quietly working their way into a very strong league position at the moment.
Michael Laudrup's men picked up a huge point this weekend with a scoreless draw at Goodison Park—just the second time all season that Everton have been kept scoreless. For a side boasting the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar and Nikica Jelavic, that is no easy feat to achieve.
Swansea's last "success" comes after a very strong period of late—dominating in both league and cup competitions alike recently. They are on the brink of competing in the final of the Capital One Cup, where they could very well play the lowly Bradford City for the title.
They are undefeated in their past five Premier League matches and have only lost two league games since October—taking points off Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton, Arsenal and Liverpool in that time period.
Swansea are without doubt a top-half team this season and, depending on how well their current form continues on this year, could perhaps even make a surprise run at the top four. You just never know what could happen with this dynamic football team in 2013.
West Ham Continue to Drop off
After starting the 2012-13 season, West Ham are starting to slip away.
Being promoted to the top flight was thoroughly deserved for the Hammers this year, and they showed early that they can mix it with some of the best teams in the league.
However, of late, the consistency and fluidity in the middle simply hasn't been there.
The absence of Mohamed Diame has been huge for the London club, not to mention the inadequacies in front of goal from the likes of Carton Cole. In all, this team isn't a top-half team this season. The Hammers are proving that they belong in the bottom half of the league—period.
Currently occupying 11th position, West Ham were completely overrun by a good but not spectacular Sunderland team at the Stadium of Light. The loss means that they only have one win from their past six league matches and are without an away win since November—results that simply aren't good enough to be considered a top-half team in 2013.
And with Manchester United (FA Cup), Queens Park Rangers, Arsenal and Fulham rounding out January for the Hammers, January could be a very long month indeed.
What Has Happened to Stoke's Defense?
The Britannia Stadium is still tough to play at, and Stoke City are still difficult to break down, but the question must be asked: What has happened to the Potters defense of late?
Heralded as one of the top defensive sides in the Premier League, Tony Pulis' side have conceded 10 goals in their past three games and haven't kept a clean sheet at home since their win against Fulham back on the 24th of November, 2012.
Ten goals in three games might not seem that bad, but consider that up until that point, Stoke had only allowed 14 goals all season—and then they allow 10 in three games!
The Potters have had some key injuries and played great attacking teams in Manchester City and Chelsea, but even still, this recent decline was not expected by anybody. They only allowed one goal to both clubs when they met earlier in the year, so chalking up a good defensive performance really wasn't that much of an ask for Stoke, but they were simply unable to do it.
Interesting to see in the near future whether they can get back on track with some better defensive performances, particularly against the top clubs.
Diving Continues to Rear Its Ugly Head
Diving has reared its ugly head in the Premier League, though this time it wasn't Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez or Ashley Young who deserved to be called into question.
No, the naming and shaming needs to fall onto two players in particular—both of whom should apologize for their horrendous efforts at simulation.
The first is Southampton's Jay Rodriguez, whose blatant dive won his team a penalty against Aston Villa, ultimately deciding the match. Enda Stevens didn't touch the attacker, yet a penalty was awarded and Rickie Lambert did the rest from the spot.
The Saints would go on to win the match 1-0.
The second didn't have any impact on the game, fortunately, although action should have been taken towards Queens Park Rangers midfielder Stephane Mbia. Mbia was running on to a through ball when ruled offside, yet he decided to make contact with Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to try and win his side a free kick anyway—for some unknown reason.
What did happen was minimal contact (which Mbia initiated) followed by the most ridiculous, theatrical, joke of a rolling around I've witnessed in recent years. It took up a full minute and was absolutely ludicrous—something that the referee should have penalized Mbia for.
The midfielder, of course, was fine and running a minute later.
Highlight/lowlight of that game was probably Mbia rolling around as if he'd been tasered then springing to his feet moments later.
— James Dall (@JamesDallESPN) January 12, 2013
— Des Kelly (@DesKellyDM) January 12, 2013
Adebayor Not Good Enough This Year
Tottenham Hotspur played out a frustrating scoreless draw against Queens Park Rangers this week, and credit must be first given to Harry Redknapp for picking up another "win" against a top club this year.
Having said that, the result could have been different for Spurs had they had a better performance (or really any performance) from their go-to striker, Emmanuel Adebayor.
Adebayor looked like he didn't care in the loss, as he wasn't running after the ball and simply wasn't doing anything creative with it other than missing from point-blank in the best goal-scoring chance of the afternoon for the North London club.
He is but a shadow of the striker he was last season, with the reason behind his lowly two-goal total for the year largely due to the fact he doesn't get involved—that is, other than turning the ball over and missing easy goal-scoring chances, which he's becoming very, very good at.
The striker will leave the club for a bit to play at the African Cup of Nations, and truth be told, it could not come at a better time for Andre Villas-Boas' men.
The manager now has a chance to completely utilize Clint Dempsey and see just what the American international can do up front. And regardless of whether he scores a bagful of goals or not, hopefully Deuce will show the heart and determination that has been missing from Adebayor all season long.
He simply hasn't been good enough this year, and it's shown.
The EPL Is Still Home to Great Goals
Not that we were ever really in doubt about it, but the Premier League proved once again that it is more than capable of providing some excellent goals for our enjoyment.
Week 22 in particular was one where great goals were found, with three specific gems most likely making their way onto any list of great goals of the season.
First is Eden Hazard's 25-yard bomb against Stoke City to put the game on ice—a wonderful insight into just what the Belgian international can do at the club.
Then there's Sebastian Larsson's opener for Sunderland against West Ham; a beautifully controlled ball that finds its way into the back of the net with pure class.
And what about Giorgos Karagounis' goal from outside the box to get Fulham on the board against Wigan Athletic? Another superb strike from the Greek international, who has proved over the years that he can certainly put them in from long-range.
A great week for goals in the EPL.
Daniel Sturridge Continues to Impress
They might have gone down 2-1 to their arch rivals, but Liverpool's latest signing in Daniel Sturridge would no doubt have been a huge takeaway for Brendan Rodgers out of this one.
The former Chelsea man came off the bench to score in his Premier League debut, giving him two goals in his first two appearances for the Merseyside club.
Sturridge was active in attack and strong in tandem with Luis Suarez, which is exactly what the Reds will be looking for from their new arrival. He could very well command a starting berth in the near future following his good performance here, if this is any indication of how he will fare this season.
The England international put pressure on United's defenders and almost clawed the Reds from two goals down to give them an undeserved 2-2 draw in stopping time. Alas, his final shot was over the bar, and Liverpool were forced to settle for a 2-1 defeat to the Red Devils.
Plenty of promise shown by young Sturridge here, who looks to be a great signing for the future of Liverpool's ever-growing attacking unit.
Manchester City Win When They Need to
Manchester City went into their Week 22 clash against Arsenal as slight, slight favorites, but in reality, few would have considered this a "lock" for the Citizens.
After all, this was a club that hadn't won at Arsenal in the league since 1975, giving them 27 matches in a row where they hadn't defeated the Gunners on their home soil.
They were without several star players in Sergio Aguero, Micah Richards, Maicon, Jack Rodwell, Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure and Kolo Toure, and yet, despite all of that, they still managed to win comfortably.
Even with a missed penalty, Roberto Mancini's side cruised to a 2-0 win over a 10-man Arsenal side that never got going once Laurent Koscielny was sent off. City showed that when they need to, with the title race potentially on the line, they can get results at any ground in any circumstance.
City have now scored 10 goals in their past three games and average a clean sheet in 40 percent of their league fixtures this year—conceding the least amount of goals from any team.
If they can get those players back from international duty and from injury and keep the gap to United at seven points or less, they definitely can't be counted out of any title discussion just yet. Not when they can get results on the road like this week, anyway.
Relegation Battle Is Wide Open
Perhaps the biggest fact we learned coming out of this weekend was as to just how wide open the relegation race is in the Premier League.
Six teams sit within nine points at the bottom of the ladder, with all capable of dropping down or staying up this year, providing one of the best relegation battles we'll have seen in recent years to see who avoids the dreaded drop this season.
Southampton moved out of the relegation zone with a win over Aston Villa, who now find themselves inside the bottom three as a result. Newcastle United continue to slip down the ladder and now find themselves just two points above the drop zone; for Wigan Athletic, that margin is just goal-difference.
Reading managed a huge win to close the gap inside the relegation zone, whilst Queens Park Rangers picked up a huge point against Tottenham Hotspur to try and move off the bottom.
It certainly was a huge week for the relegation teams this week, with just one team in the bottom eight losing—a truly remarkable achievement.
Who will and who won't remain in the top flight at the end of the season will be one of the most fascinating battles to watch throughout the remainder of the year—especially if this week is anything to go by.
What did you learn from the Premier League this weekend?
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