Commentary

Chelsea lives (for now)

Updated: December 5, 2011, 3:56 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

As disappointed as I was that the height of Mario Balotelli's crowd-pleasing antics consisted of simply using his shoulder to knock the ball into an open net when any other player on the planet would have banally slotted home with either foot or head, I guess the naughty Italian had a reason to be on his best behavior. Balotelli hopes to play Wednesday in Manchester City's most important Champions League match in the club's history since, well, the last one, in which it contrived to lose to Napoli and likely resign itself to another bout of Europa League purgatory.

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Gareth Copley/Getty ImagesAndre Villas-Boas and his players lived to fight another day after beating Newcastle, but can they survive their mid-week Champions League clash?

But here's a scary thought: If the Sky Blues don't make it past the group stage -- either a defeat to first-place Bayern Munich or a Napoli victory over winless Villarreal would eliminate them -- they can, as Roberto Mancini likes to say, "concentrate on winning the league."

Isn't it nice to know that they've been playing with one foot tied behind their back through the first 14 games while rampaging to a five-point lead atop the Prem?

On the other side of Manchester, there's an entirely different vibe, as it's squeaky-bum time for Sir Alex's men, who must draw away against Basel on Wednesday to be sure of qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League. They'll also be without their Mexican hit man Javier Hernandez, who tore ankle ligaments in United's 1-0 bore-fest with Aston Villa this past weekend.

Meanwhile, there's one EPL team that has banked a place in the Champions League knockout round, and it resides in London. Hint: It's not Chelsea, which needs either a win or scoreless draw against Valencia on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge to advance, and it's certainly not Tottenham, which wasn't good enough to qualify for the CL and is facing the unspeakable indignity of being bounced from the Chumpian's -- sorry, I mean Europa League.

So that leaves Arsenal, which showed off its sense of liberation with a footloose and fancy-free exhibition as it rolled 4-0 over the dead muskrat on the relegation highway that is Wigan.

But enough about my beloved Gunners. Instead, let's take a look at how the other 99 percent live, as we review this weekend's key games while Steve Bruce's body is still warm.

Blues cruise

This is how nerve-jangling it was to be a Chelsea fan before the start of the Blues' surprisingly relevant game at Newcastle: The man in blue on the barstool next to me drained six pints of Guinness between the 7:45 a.m. kickoff and the 89th minute, knocking them back with awe-inspiring regularity until Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge's efforts allowed him to relax -- or black out, as the case may be.

Six friggin' pints! That's twelve ounces of beer every seventeen minutes -- or 6 minutes longer than Fernando Torres' latest stumbling cameo.

Even on my worst day -- when Arsenal blew a 4-0 halftime lead to Newcastle -- I never had more than three Stellas before 10 a.m. But, of course, there was no danger that Arsene Wenger's job was riding on the outcome, whereas in some quarters this game was being billed as Andre Villas-Boas' Second-To-Last Stand.

General Boas Custer's true reckoning happens when Chelsea hosts Valencia in that Champions League game that is shocking only in that it is important. Usually by the last match of the group stage, Chelsea scrapes the bottom of the squad barrel, as first place has long been secured -- how else would Nicolas Anelka, Alex and Florent Malouda ever hope to get a match?

However, judging by the inspired way Villas-Boas' team responded Saturday to reports that owner Roman Abramovich was polishing his managerial eject button, if I were Guus Hiddink I wouldn't be booking any private jets to London just yet. You see, the Blues proved over the 90 minutes that they can indeed play well and thrive in intense, controversial games -- though it didn't hurt that referee Mike Dean provided them with a fifth-minute assist by failing to brandish the right color card in David Luiz's face for the most professional of denying-an-obvious-goal-scoring-opportunity fouls on Demba Ba.

Had Dean not gagged on the call and rightfully dismissed the Chelsea "defender," the result -- and AVB's fate -- could well have been different. If nothing else, Villas-Boas should make sure that Dean has a little something special in his Christmas stocking.

Who knows how a 10-man Chelsea would have coped with the resurgent Magpies -- who, despite last weekend's loss at Man City, are playing with a confidence that belies manager Alan Pardew's just-happy-to-be-invited-to-the-party pose? From an almost-neutral's point of view, I was pleasantly surprised that Dean didn't send off Luiz, because it would have ruined what turned out to be a hugely entertaining match that was well worth watching at an indecently unfair hour. After all, if I want to catch up on my Z's I'll put on any match featuring Aston Villa (see below).

But this was always going to be a jolt of early-morning caffeine, considering the quality on display. For one thing, I'm developing a serious man-crush on Juan Mata, who, perhaps more than any other Chelsea player, seems both worthy of wearing Gooner red and hell-bent on saving AVB's job.

It was the mini-Mourinho who signed him, and they certainly bear an eerie physical resemblance to one another. But it was Villas-Boas' decision to make the Spanish playmaker the creative heart of his team that continues to pay off. With Mata at his fluent best -- his elegantly clipped left-flank cross teed up a vintage Didier Drogba power header to give Chelsea the lead -- the Blues looked ever-dangerous going forward. In fact, if you were to try to divine any discernible drinking pattern to Mr. Six-Pint, it would be that he appeared to only order his beers when Chelsea was defending.

To be fair to John Terry -- something I'm not genetically programmed to do -- he was immense in the back, baby-sitting for Luiz and even chipping in a goal-line clearance in the 74th minute. Like a steady and loyal bull mastiff, Terry knows that Luiz is about as comfortable defending as he is with a comb, so the Chelsea captain stayed doggedly home to guard the Blues' front porch.

As for Newcastle, Pardew made it frothingly clear that the Brazilian should not have been on the field for the final 85 minutes. Once Dean pulled his colorblind act by flashing a yellow, the Newcastle manager went "Full Fergie" on the fourth official. What made his tirade all the more comical was Pardew's ability to seemingly forget that last week against United, his Magpies reaped the benefit of a similarly boneheaded call when Rio Ferdinand was deemed to have fouled Hatem Ben Arfa in the penalty box on what was, in fact, a clean challenge -- pot, kettle, etc.

With Luiz magically escaping the hangman's noose, Chelsea was free to flow forward, and its ebullient attack -- rounded off neatly by Sturridge's injury-time strike, his third consecutive game with a goal -- should keep Roman's victory-lust sated for now. But how long will the Russian remain quiet about AVB's stubborn insistence on playing Luiz, while exiling Torres, Abramovich' s most highly prized vanity purchase?

And now with perma-sullen Anelka and sloth-heeled center-back Alex (there is room on Chelsea for only one mainly useless Brazilian defender) all but out the Stamford Bridge exit, the AVB evolution continues unabated. That is, unless the Blues lose Tuesday.

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Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesAgainst Aston Villa, Wayne Rooney saved his most intimidating best for the refs.

Rooney's hairy season

It used to be that you had the pick of the Prem litter -- Stoke, Sunderland, Wolves -- when it came to anointing the dullest team to watch in the EPL. No more. That dubious honor belongs to any club managed by Alex McLeish. Since his impressive trophy haul with Hibernian and Rangers, the flame-haired Scot has adhered to a singular philosophy -- first with Birmingham City and now Aston Villa -- to play an utterly joyless, miserable style of soccer in an effort to grind out points. So it was no surprise Saturday that Villa was, yet again, overly defensively minded in front of its home fans, displaying neither a hint of desire nor ambition.

Is it really that unbearable to play for the former manager of your crosstown rival (both Villa and Birmingham share the same beautiful, gray, smog-choked city)? Not only did Villa fail to muster a single shot on goal in the first half, but the only time United's Danish keeper, Anders Lindegaard, had to put down his Kindle was in the 76th minute when he was called on to tip over a James Collins bullet header.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don't think I've ever seen a more wretched home performance in EPL history than the steaming pile the Claret and Blue deposited on their own turf. And I say this as someone who was at Highbury in 1998 when a team of Arsenal reserves -- where have you gone, Nelson Vivas? -- plus Dennis Bergkamp allowed Chelsea to walk all over them in a 5-0 humiliation.

It's fair to say that had Villa been hosting the other Manchester and played in the same abject fashion, Sergio Aguero & Co. might have broken double digits.

By contrast, the once-fearsome United attack seems incapable of squeezing more than one goal past its Prem opponents these days -- four 1-0 wins in its past five league games -- or even mid-table Championship fodder like Crystal Palace, which stunned the Red Devils 2-1 in the Carling Cup.

Saturday's limp effort will no doubt embolden FC Basel, United's hosts in their critical midweek Champions League game, to believe it can accomplish the unthinkable -- preventing the Red Devils from reaching the knockout round of a competition they won in 2009. Personally, I can't see it happening, but then I never imagined how toothless they would look against Villa.

Whatever hope Sir Alex Ferguson may have had of seeing more attacking brio in his side went the way of the latest Paul Reiser show within 12 minutes when Chicharito -- scorer of four of United's past seven Prem goals -- was stretchered off with a shredded ankle. Ferguson moved Nani up to partner Rooney and, despite the occasional moment of slick interplay between the two, neither player offered much venom -- unless you consider Rooney's sporadic ref abuse a threat.

You could make the case that with Villa offering so little resistance, United cruised to victory without physically taxing any of its key players. But after issuing a rare public apology to United supporters midweek for his team's woeful performance against Palace -- normally Fergie delegates the postgame remarks following a bad result to his deputies so he can continue "chatting" with the players in the privacy of the dressing room -- Sir Alex could not have been overjoyed by what he saw at Villa Park. And he must be starting to fret about Rooney's latest goal-scoring slump, particularly with the Little Pea out for the next month.

On the Fernandy Carroll scale of barren, goalless ineptitude, Rooney's drought -- eight scoreless Prem games and counting after tallying nine goals in his first five -- is a blip. Hell, it's neither as long or as panic-inducing as his last one, which went on for 14 Prem games after the World Cup, and can also be seen as a reflection of the different roles Rooney has been asked to play, including central midfield.

But given United's ambitions and City's indisputable title credentials, the Red Devils simply can't afford for their best player to go on another midseason goal-scoring holiday. For a guy whose club and country are seemingly convinced that he and he alone holds their fate in his Shrek-ish paws, Rooney's recent everything-but-the goals-form is a legitimate concern, especially when neither United (Dimitar Berbatov's last Prem goal? April 9 versus Fulham) nor England (think the Spaniards, Dutch or Germans are afraid of the likes of Nacho Crouch, Bobby Zamora or Jermain Defoe?) have any saviors-in-waiting.

Until Rooney's impotence in front of goal is rectified (and I doubt Pfizer can help with this one), the Old Trafford faithful had better learn to embrace the old Arsenal chant: One-nil to United.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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