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United’s failure to compete with Chelsea hardly a surprise

It has long been one of the emblematic fixtures in English football - an often intoxicating and fiercely competitive blend of high-end finesse and bone-crunching physicality. This time it was almost all over by half-time. And four minutes after the break, when the rejuvenated Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o completed his hat-trick, Chelsea led the champions Manchester United 3-0. It was definitely all over by then.

Few teams anywhere in the world, you might argue, could expect to compete against Chelsea with their two most influential attacking players sidelined with injury. From a very early stage in the season there has been a consistent view that Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are pretty important, and this game did nothing to dispel that thought. And without that double spearhead, United were a blunt weapon indeed.

 United’s failure to compete with Chelsea hardly a surprise

Manchester United are missing their biggest weapons. Getty Images

Jose Mourinho's second term at Chelsea has not gone without a hitch, but he has stuck to his principles and the team is now playing in his guise. In an interview before the game, the manager spelled out how Juan Mata, an unused substitute on Sunday, still had plenty to learn about strategic discipline. Alongside Mata, older players like Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Obi Mikel were on the bench.

It's a very good sign for a club when the young players are able to look after themselves on their own - a sign that the future is bright indeed. Nemanja Matic began his second spell at Stamford Bridge late in the game. He's an old-fashioned central midfielder who is very adept at taking on defensive duties - perfect for Mourinho's Chelsea and the sort of player who a number of clubs in the Premier League could do with.

Manchester City's powerful attack brought them the quickest century of goals in Premier League history, eight games faster than Chelsea achieved last term. This tells us two things: one, that City have set a new blueprint for best practice when it comes to mobilising midfielders and full-backs as supplementary attackers, and that their squad depth will be a vital ally in the titanic tussle between them, Arsenal and Chelsea for this season's Championship builds.

"It is impossible for me to have a headache when you have three strikers playing at the level they are at the moment," said manager Manuel Pellegrini. Isn't he the lucky one? Notably, when Sergio Aguero spent eight games out with injury recently, Edin Dzeko slotted into the primary striking role with deadly effect. Dzeko and Aguero both scored in the 4-2 win over Cardiff. Between them, City’s trinity of strikers have netted 29 times in the league so far.

Liverpool try to replicate City, but when doing so they fly a bit too close to the sun, and looked to be crashing to earth quite miserably when trailing 2-0 at home to Aston Villa. Brendan Rodgers' starting teamsheet was very bold. There was no place for either Lucas or Joe Allen, thus no natural holding midfielder.

They got one goal back just before half-time and then Steven Gerrard slotted home a debatable penalty, by which time Lucas had correctly supplanted an out-of-sorts Philippe Coutinho to give the back four some help with defensive duties. Of Liverpool's defenders, Kolo Toure was particularly weak, exacerbating the need for Rodgers to sign a new centre back. Aly Cissokho was little better as he failed to make anything stick when pushing down the left flank.

Even if Rodgers is successful in his attempts to galvanise the defensive reserves at Anfield, he must consider the possibility that a slightly more cautious approach may reap better overall rewards. The battle to finish fourth in the Premier League is going to be extremely tight, with Tottenham, Everton and Manchester United all competing for it.

Arguably, Liverpool's defence is the weakest out of those four sides - thus the need for Lucas or Allen to play from the start. As they found against Villa, where they were unable to score a winner, goal-scoring opportunities are not as plentiful if they play this way. But it's probably worth taking that medicine, and looking to win 1-0 or 2-0.

Tottenham have a hugely inferior goal difference but they drew level on points with Liverpool when beating Swansea 3-1 away from home. Tim Sherwood is enjoying a tremendous start to his tenure – and the Spurs renaissance engineered by him has continued well past the normal "new manager bounce" cooling off period. At last that Tottenham squad is beginning to look something like the sum of its parts and the decision to get rid of Andre Villas-Boas has been vindicated.

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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2014 09:21:53 IST