Champions Manchester City must beat Premier League leaders Chelsea next week if they are going to hold onto their title, according to defender Pablo Zabaleta.
The Blues arrived in Abu Dhabi for a crucial training camp on Monday, hours after a shock 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal saw them drop five points behind Jose Mourinho’s side at the top of the EPL.
They have been working hard since landing, with tonight’s friendly against Hamburg the culmination of the one-year anniversary
celebrations for the opening of Al Ain’s majestic Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
City have the game against the Bundesliga outfit and Saturday’s FA Cup fourth round tie against Middlesbrough to come before the titanic clash at Stamford Bridge on January 31. Lose that and an eight-point gap will emerge, a fact not lost on Argentina international Zabaleta
“Unfortunately, we lost an important game against Arsenal,” the 30-year-old said following an open training session at a sodden
Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium last night.
“Now we have to play Chelsea, the leaders. We need three points if we are going to fight for the title.”
The trip to the UAE has given City time to re-focus after a disappointing result at the Etihad Stadium.
Captain Vincent Kompany enthused about the mid-season break when asked about its value in tackling the challenges ahead.
“It is massively important,” the Belgium centre-back said. “You get so much out of it.
“For us, it is an 11-month season. It gives us time to be out of it for a bit and it is great for the team spirit.”
City put in an uncharacteristically insipid display against the Gunners, who fully deserved their triumph thanks to a penalty from
Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud’s free header.
Brazil midfielder Fernandinho declared there was no time to wallow, with the next fortnight being “extremely important” in determining their fate.
He said: “We are facing a difficult moment and the two coming weeks will be extremely important for us. It will be great if we can win on Saturday so we can arrive in front of Chelsea with a very high level of confidence within the team.
“This week is also critical as it will help us organise the team and prepare some of the areas in which we failed. We will come into the next games a lot more prepared.”
City took to the Etihad Stadium pitch without talismanic midfielder Yaya Toure, who is away on Africa Cup of Nations duty with
Ivory Coast. Manuel Pellegrini’s men have long struggled in the 31-year-old’s absence, April’s 3-1 win against West Bromwich Albion the last time they claimed three points in the top flight without him.
If Les Elephants, as expected, make it to the business end of the competition they could be without him until the home match against Newcastle United on February 21. Summer signing Fernando expects the rest of the squad to step up to ensure Toure’s
absence “will have less impact” in the future.
The 27-year-old former Porto defensive midfielder said: “It goes without saying that Yaya is at an extremely good level and
contributes highly to the team’s results.
“At the same time, Manchester City have hired very good players and we have to count on every single player in the team.
“Definitely, since he left the results have been declining. But we have to hope that in the future his absence will have less impact. We hope to compensate as a team.”
In the cash-rich world of modern football, there is plenty of room for cynicism. Sport360 has it for you in abundance every Monday, as we take a sideways glance at the Premier League action.
Fresh off from being paid handsomely for Wilfried Bony’s services by Manchester City during the week, Swansea arrived at the Liberty Stadium punch drunk, having presumably spent a huge chunk of the largesse on frivolities the night before. Now, Off The Bar understands the irresistible nature of having more money than you actually need – this column spent its first big pay cheque on nonsensities – and indeed sympathises with Swansea’s band of impressionable young men but a game against Jose Mourinho’s rampant Chelsea is the worst possible moment for anyone to have an off-day. This is not Hull or Aston Villa, lads.
Swansea’s imitation of a defence was all over the place and Chelsea ripped into them at will with the consummate ease of a hot knife through butter. Gylfi Sigurdsson generously laid the ball on for Oscar within the opening minute and the Brazilian accepted with the gratitude of a man unwrapping a Christmas present. The tone for the afternoon was set. Diego Costa grabbed his first of the afternoon with the now obligatory Cesc Fabregas assist and poetry was set in motion. Federico Fernandez, not to be outdone by Sigurdsson, was on hand to pick Costa out with a sumptuous back-pass. The Brazi-Spaniard did not miss what turned out to be his 5th goal against the Swans in just 117 minutes of Premier League football.
— Bullseye (@kyle_thomson) January 18, 2015
Death and taxes are certainties – you can now add Costa scoring against Swansea to that list now. Chelsea strikers have a knack of handpicking certain teams and scoring against them as they wish. We know Arsene Wenger failed to sign Didier Drogba for just Dh 830,000 (£150k) and the Ivorian spent the best part of his Chelsea career punishing him. What’s Costa’s story? The whole world is interested. Chelsea made it four soon enough through Oscar, and Willian hit the post and upright before the half-time whistle. Costa and Oscar were on a hat-trick and Willian decided to go against the norm by shooting at the woodwork. Twice. What a hipster.
The game was done at this point and we were all waiting for a few pertinent questions to be answered. Famous for getting his handshake in early in order to supposedly call his wife, we wanted to see how Jose would behave this time around. Would he be brave enough to shake Garry Monk’s hand before full time? Would Monk punch him in the gut if he did as Roy Keane promised to, back in September? Being the joyless spoilsport that he is, Mourinho didn’t treat us to the spectacle and demonstrated yet again how football misses its rare moments of eternal glory. The league is over now and the only sensible thing is to find another sport to follow. Mourinho’s juggernauts have ruined football beyond repair.
There were several reports during the week that poor ol’ ‘Arry Redknapp would be sacked should his team lose to United, which frankly is a bit like promising to buy toys for your kid if Marouane Chamakh misses an open goal: both scenarios are gloriously inevitable. Bearing in mind that QPR’s last win in any form over United was months before football started – football started in August 1992, do you not know? – Redknapp was facing Mission Impossible.
The opening half was dull and uninspiring, perhaps not a surprise given both sides are filled with expensively assembled mercenaries. Both teams served up a game so boring that silence fell upon Loftus Road and we could actually hear Louis van Gaal thinking about his philosophy. Wayne Rooney spent more time arguing with referee Neil Swarbrick than he actually spent playing football and Van Gaal managed to take a team containing Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata and Rooney and make them play turgid, slow and ponderous football, which is no mean feat. Hats off to the man, it’s only a manager with touch of genius who could pull that off. Di Maria was on a one-man mission for a winter break, with the Argentinian continuing his holiday on the pitch.
The best, however, was yet to come and when Phil Jones, with both hands held high in the air, swung in United’s first corner of the afternoon, football peaked. Forget James Milner playing as a false nine few weeks ago for City, this is the moment historians will re-tell for centuries to come. As you might have guessed his effort was hopeless but in an increasingly long list of awful corner kicks over the past year, this was much better than Iago Aspas’ or Rooney’s against Italy at the World Cup. “I was alive when Phil Jones took a corner-kick,” is the stuff stories told to grandchildren are made of.
— Gal (@Gal098) January 18, 2015
LVG brought on the Premier League’s resident Sideshow Bob and with perhaps his first touch of the ball, Fellaini nutmegged Clint Hill, a grave offence that should be punishable by an instant nine-game ban for the veteran defender. Never mind his rifled opener for United, this was Fellaini’s best piece of work. Redknapp turned to Adel Taarabt in what was a practical attempt at throwing the kitchen sink at the problem. James Wilson won it late on with the second bite of the proverbial cherry, leaving Falcao to hang his head in shame. “I don’t worry about the owners,” Redknapp said. It was a response limper than his team’s performance.
All is not well at Villa Park and Paul Lambert cannot pretend anymore. “I understand everyone’s frustrations – no one is more frustrated than myself because this is a great club. Do I hope they reconsider? That’s what you’re hoping for,” said Lambert in what was a spectacular case of missing the entirety of a point. In September, Villa were second in the table after three games with Lambert earning himself the most dubious contract extension ever in the history of dubious extensions. In a category that also regularly features Emmanuel Adebayor, it was an impressive effort from Lambert. Now the chickens have come home to roost and Villa are sinking into oblivion faster than a key dropped in water. In their last seven games Villa have a mind-blowing record of amassing more red cards than goals, with Christian Benteke’s goal against United their solitary effort in a period that has seen players sent off on four different occasions. Villa’s next two games are against Arsenal and Chelsea and it is difficult to see things getting better anytime soon.
“Nathan Baker will be a top centre half in a few years time” Paul Lambert 2013… https://t.co/AV5DnQClSd
— Conor (@cmrichey29) January 17, 2015
Similarly sinking without a trace are Hull City, who have contrived to lose four of their last six games while playing some hopeless football in the process. The Tigers have admittedly been incapacitated by injuries, but the players out injured are hardly world beaters. Curtis Davies looked lost at West Ham on Sunday and Andy Carroll had him for lunch at every given opportunity. This was a man who went on a campaign last season at the perceived injustice of him being left out of the England squad. Nothing more should be expected of a team captained by Curtis Davies.
“It’d be nice to win but getting three points is the most important thing,” said John Carver to Sky Sports prior to Newcastle’s game against Southampton. Thankfully he got neither or we would have needed to explain that winning and getting three points are the same thing.
“He is a young player with tremendous promise, somebody that I have tracked personally and this club has too, so that fitted well,” Pardew said on the loan capture of Yaya Sanogo from Arsenal while simultaneously calling off the work of weary sniffer dogs, his comments sounding more like that of a jilted lover checking on their ex-partner’s next move.
City have failed to win a league game without Yaya Toure since April 2014 and their barren run continued on Sunday against Arsenal. Little wonder the man was moping about a birthday cake in the summer. He knows his weight in gold to the Citizens. Just buy him a Bentley when he returns from the Africa Cup of Nations and watch the wins roll in.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers believes his summer signings are finally emerging from an adaptation period and showing signs they can be a success at the club.
Forward Lazar Markovic was first to shine with a number of impressive cameos, culminating in the 20-year-old’s maiden league goal since a £20 million (Dh111m) move from Benfica which beat Sunderland last weekend.
Emre Can, meanwhile, has found a position for himself on the right side of a back-three but has shown his versatility with roles in midfield.
The German, who turned 21 this week, is a product of Bayern Munich’s youth system and arrived in a £10m (Dh55.6m) deal after one season at Bayer Leverkusen.
“He will need a bit of time moving to a new country as a young player,” said Rodgers. “I think he has shown his value and I think there is no doubt he will prove to be a real bargain for us.
“He is a wonderful talent, great footballer, his stature and power is well suited to the Premier League, he is two-footed, has great balance and good aggression in his game.”
Reds captain Steven Gerrard and fellow midfielder Adam Lallana have a chance of being fit for Saturday’s game agaainst Aston Villa. Gerrard was withdrawn at half-time of Saturday’s win at Sunderland with a tight hamstring while Lallana is ahead of schedule in his return from a thigh injury sustained on New Year’s Day.
Meanwhile, Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert has urged the club’s fans to forget about a planned protest before today’s game.
Three unofficial fans’ websites have called on supporters to boycott the opening eight minutes to signify the eight years owner Randy Lerner has been in charge as they are fed up at the way the club is being run.
Lambert said: “I understand the fans’ frustrations, but we’ll have a better chance of winning a game of football if they don’t protest, if they stick with the lads.”