This week’s league fixtures were somewhat overshadowed by Sunday’s Carling Cup final, where Arsenal would finally end their six year wait for a trophy as they start the push for their unprecedented quadruple. Only a struggling Birmingham stood between Wenger and silverware, however, the Blues hadn’t read the script.
From the off the Blues looked to take advantage of a nervous Arsenal side and their intent was shown just five minutes in when they should have been awarded a penalty only for Lee Bowyer to be wrongly deemed offside. Birmingham continued to press forward and were rewarded when a first half corner was guided home when Nikola Zigic used all of his 6ft8in frame to rise above the bewildered Gunners back-line and nod the ball home. The giant, often taunted as a circus freak by opposing fans, had stole the spotlight inside the big circle. But the day’s comedy was yet to be seen as the clowns within the Arsenal defence left it until the big finale to leave their audience utterly gobsmacked. And as Wenger blew his big-top you have to wonder whether the Frenchman is now walking the increasingly thin managerial tightrope.
Despite being second best throughout the first half the favourites finished the first half level after Robin Van Persie scored an athletic volley that extended the Dutchman’s personal purple patch in front of goal to an outstanding 11 in 9. It was a terrific strike that left Ben Foster helpless in the Birmingham goal but the stopper would prove his worth throughout the second half as Arsenal simply couldn’t find their way past the heroics of the goalkeeper who capped his third Carling Cup victory in as many years with the Man Of The Match award. How inconvenient for sponsors Carling that Monday’s headlines were dominated by the namesake of one of their biggest competitors.
But the win wasn’t all down to Foster’s phenomenal performance. Every single member of Alex McLeish’s side gave it their all, including the substitues. In fact, it was Obafemi Martins who stepped up from the bench to grab the winner after being gifted with an open goal after a communicational collapse between Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny and his goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in a blunder that can only truly be appreciated when accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune. It was simply catastrophic.
So the underdog had prevailed at Wembley and the first piece of silverware heads to St Andrews whilst the position of trophy cabinet cleaner at The Emirates remains vacant. The triumph is only Birmingham’s second major honour in their history and on the balance of things they thoroughly deserved it.
Back to the business of the Barclays Premiership and the action kicked off on Saturday with five matches, in which three teams managed to net an impressive four times. Even more incredible was the fact that one of these high scoring outfits was Wolves, who started the day rock-bottom. However, on the flip-side of that coin, they were playing a Blackpool team renown for not defending. Nonetheless a four-nil drubbing was just what the doctor ordered for a Molineux outfit whom looked all but dead just two or three weeks ago.
And at Villa Park the home side continued a wonderful weekend for the Midlands based outfits by brushing aside the poor traveling Blackburn thanks to a brace from Ashley Young and another by Stewart Downing. Blackburn’s bad day was epitomised by an own goal from the inexperienced defender Grant Hanley and despite a late consolation from Nikola Kalinic their fate was only further condemned when captain Ryan Nelson saw red for a second bookable offence.
At The D.W Stadium there were also four goals for one team, unfortunately for the home fans it was their table-topping Lancashire neighbours Manchester United. And all without the leagues top-scorer Dimitar Berbatov. As the brilliant Bulgarian sat this one out, it was seemingly up to Wayne Rooney to pick up from where he left off against rivals City two-weeks ago and presumably the England star was instructed to stamp his physical presence from the off.
That is the only possible excuse I can offer United’s number 10; for it is well documented that he is not the sports brightest spark and perhaps he took this advice too literal. In an off the ball incident that escaped punishment from both ref Mark Clattenburg and, later on, the Football Association Wayne’s world entered the absurd as he struck Wigan’s James McCarthy square in the face with an elbow smash. These bursts of petulant violence are an aspect of his game that many believe the 25 year old had slowly weened himself away from but this condemning evidence would suggest otherwise. Despite the ugliness (of his actions, not appearance) his class is indisputable and he bagged the third in United’s latest demolishing of the Latics.
In the corresponding fixture last season the Red Devils managed even one better than last year. On that day Michael Owen scored his first goal for the club but now the England legend is little more than a forgotten face and the Old Trafford have a new hero – Javier Hernandez. It was ‘Little Pea’ Chicharito who struck the opener and then put the game beyond doubt by doubling his tally. Fabio’s neat finish late on was just the icing on the cake as United stretched their lead at the top to four in preparation of a huge week ahead that will see Fergie take his team to both Stamford Bridge and Anfield.
Liverpool will be doubly determined to get one over their old foe in order to stop their record of eighteen league titles being beaten. On a personal note, Kenny Dalglish will also seek revenge for the FA Cup elimination inflicted at Old Trafford on his first game since returning to the Anfield outfit. Another source of motivation will be their desire to bounce back from Sunday’s loss to relegation battlers West Ham.
Following the Wolves win on Saturday, Avram’s Army went into this difficult fixture lying in 20th position. Before the game there were fears that Scott Parker would not make the match after falling ill but after taking a heavy dose of medication the Hammers midfielder not only took to the field, he even opened the scoring with a precisely placed curler from distance. It was only the second goal Liverpool had conceded in eight matches. And in the closing stages of the first half the lead was extended when Demba Ba met Gary O’Neil’s cross with a beautiful header which Pepe Reina could simply do nothing about. I promised no-more sheep puns, so let’s just say that the Ba was serving up a Happy Hour to the home fans packed into Upton Park.
A late goal by Glen Johnson ensured a nervy few minutes but all fears were quelled when Carlton Cole popped off the bench to restore the two-goal cushion during injury time. Meanwhile, Sunday’s other match took place at Eastlands where Fulham were the visitors. It was a return to Manchester for Mark Hughes and before the match he and his background staff were greeted by former employee Carlos Tevez. However, the friendly welcome would not be extended by Sparky’s replacement at the City helm. Instead, Roberto Mancini made little effort hiding his discontent during the post match hand shake. On the pitch, Balotelli’s first half strike was cancelled out by Damien Duff’s equaliser early in the second. Neither side threatened to take the advantage and a share of the spoils always looked likely. For City a top-four finish is the only realistic target, whilst Fulham are starting to ease away from the bottom three, although there is still a lot of work to do for the West London outfit.
As for their ex-manager Roy Hodgson, he took his West Brom side to Stoke on Monday night. After wins for West Ham and Wolves the Baggies had dropped to 19th and with five minutes left to play it looked as though that’s where they would remain. Trailing to a Rory Delap header, Hodgson’s final roll of the die was to throw on-loan striker Carlos Vela into the action. Just minutes later the young Mexican showed levels of composure that his parent club Arsenal could have used at Wembley when he latched onto Steven Reid’s ball to rescue a point for the Albion, lifting them out of the drop zone once more. Just two points now separate the ever changing bottom four and this will be the most exciting run-in for years.
But that’s not to say some clubs won’t find themselves playing for anything more than pride come the end of the season. On Saturday there were two games involving teams that I personally believe don’t have enough about them to sustain a challenge for continental qualification but whom are also too strong to worry about relegation.
At Goodison Park, Jermaine Beckford’s fifth and sixth league goals of the season ensured a victory against a struggling Sunderland that sees them move onto 33 points. It’s probably too late too mount a serious push towards a Europa League place whilst Sunderland are quickly falling away from contention in light of Darren Bent’s departure to Aston Villa. Sunderland’s fierce rivals Newcastle drew at home with Bolton after ex-Trotter Kevin Nolan saw his opener levelled by Daniel Sturridge, who continues his goal a game start to life at the Reebok. The result sees the two sides split either side of 8th placed Sunderland, with Bolton retaining a one point lead over the 9th placed Magpies.
On Tuesday night the two titans clash as last years winners Chelsea host the title favourites Manchester United, who will travel to Stamford Bridge knowing that last year the Blues took six points off them in the league, and will understandably be cautious. In particular they will want to stop Ashley Cole from firing any shots at them; unless it’s a penalty.
I’ll be back next week to report on a full schedule of Premier League fixtures that starts with a Midlands derby and ends with the Champions traveling to Bloomfield Road on Monday night. Until then…
Goal Of The Week: Scott Parker scored a screamer despite being in no fit state to play. You could see he was on his last legs from about the hour mark but he battled on to fight for the team before playing down his role in the victory by stating anyone else would do the same. What a lad.
Fans Of The Week: Not strictly a Premiership game but how could anyone take the spotlight away from Birmingham after their achievement on Sunday?
Heroes Of The Week: Wojciech Szczesny &Laurent Koscielny cost Arsenal their first piece of silverware, momentarily uniting the entire country (bar Gunners fans) in celebration for the underdogs of Birmingham. Talk about taking one for the greater good of the game.
Villains Of The Week: Wayne Rooney nearly drops from hero to zero after his rush of blood to the head, but his blushes are spared thanks to Roberto Mancini. Disrespectful, arrogant and rude: who would’ve thought it from an Italian.
Team Performance Of The Week: Wolves dragged themselves out of the relegation with a delightful display against Blackpool. The gloss was somewhat removed by West Ham’s conquering of Liverpool just 24 hours later and Albion’s late equaliser at Stoke but nobody can take anything away from an emphatic romp by Mick McCarthy’s men.