The Weekend Wind Down

by Liam Newman

A derby between two relegation threatened Midlands clubs kicked off Saturday’s Premiership football as West Brom made the short trip to St Andrew’s to take on the newly crowned Carling Cup kings, Birmingham City. Both sides anticipated a hotly fought contest, and they weren’t left disappointed. Especially if you were stood in the away end.

After a goalless first half the game sparked into life when just three minutes into the second both teams had found the net with Birmingham’s Jean Beausejour equalising just seconds after Youssuff Mulumbu had broken the deadlock. With the scores level both teams searched for the vital third goal of the game and it was Hodgson’s West Brom who found it when James Morrison hit his fourth of the seasons with a screamer from outside the box just before the hour mark. Paul Scharner’s 72nd minute finish confirmed the result, meaning the Blues replace their neighbours in the bottom three although they do still have two games in hand on most their rivals.

The Carling Cup runners-up (I’m still struggling not to laugh) Arsenal turned their attentions back to their title challenge following their miserable day at Wembley six days ago. The Gunners had been in action since then, smashing five past the mighty titans that are League One outfit Leyton Orient. Wenger had also received a trophy this week too, albeit the Manager Of The Month award for February.

Combined with Sunderland’s recent dip in form, this was Arsenal’s to lose. Or at least draw, as the Gunners couldn’t find a way through the Black Cats defence. On the one occasion that they did Andrei Arshavin was declared offside when actually level with the last defender. The Russian also had a penalty claim turned down, despite the cute Meerkatesque pleading. During the post match interviews, Arsene Wenger expressed his ‘disgust’ at the decisions. A little odd coming from the man who usually sits in the only view restricted seat at The Emirates.

Back down the other end West Ham hosted next Sunday’s FA Cup ¼ final opponents, Stoke City. Throughout the weeks build up the away manager announced his dismay at Avram Grant’s decision to sign striker Demba Ba in light of fears concerning the Frenchman’s fitness. Of course, the inevitable happened and it was Ba who opened the scoring after capitalising on some calamitous defending from the away side. The Hammer’s other “new signing” Thomas Hitzlsperger then provided the second as Manuel Da Costa converted from a deep swinging free-kick.

The German Hitzlsperger, who shares a nickname with his club after being renowned for his Hammer of a left foot, has breathed new life into a midfield that previously relied almost exclusively on the performances of Scott Parker and it was he who finished the contest with a late rocket, although he couldn’t have done it had it not been for the inspirational Parker’s cutback. It was a result that meant, like West Brom, the Hammers were lifted out of the relegation zone at the expense of Birmingham and Avram Grant can enjoy his first full week outside of the bottom three for over a year. This is the man who led Chelsea to a Champions League final, how times change.

Wigan were the other occupant of a relegation position as they held onto bottom spot before the weekend’s action. And it looked very much as though that was where they would remain as they faced the unenviable trip to Eastlands to face Manchester City. However, the Latics had reason to believe. After all, in the absence of Kolo Toure the home defence certainly looked a lot thinner.

Allegedly.

But try as they might, Martinez’s men couldn’t break down the potentially vulnerable City defence and instead it was David Silva who took advantage of a tender back line when goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi somehow scrambled a tame effort into his own net. It was a blunder that would of left the Omani stopper tearing his hair out, if he’d had any.

With this being the late kick-off it was the last thing the away fans (all twenty of them) wanted to see. If they are to stay up, the Latics will certainly need to feel the roar from the stands; unfortunately the blue and white army is more like a team of misguided fifty year old fathers on a paintballing trip whose fate has been sealed long before the final bell.

On the other hand, Newcastle’s Toon Army arrived in great voice ahead of their mid table fixture with Everton. Of the three promoted sides, it is they who look most comfortable back in the top tier and are all but safe. However, they would be breathing a lot easier had they came out victorious against the Toffees. But goals from Jagielka and Osman overturned the lead that Leon Best had given the home side midway through the first half. Everton stayed strong throughout a scoreless second half and the win leaves them on thirty-six points and like Newcastle they are probably now just two wins away from securing Premiership football next season.

The two remaining matches on Saturday both provided an impressive five goals split in favour of the home team. Each also supplied a brace from unlikely sources; ironically against ex-employers. At The Reebok it was defender Gary Cahill who chipped in with two strikes against former club Aston Villa whilst at Craven Cottage midfielder Damien Duff bagged his first Premier League double since 1997- when he played for Blackburn.

Another common factor shared between the two five goal thrillers was the excitement and controversy of a penalty. At Bolton it was the away side Aston Villa that were awarded the golden opportunity to grab a third. However, Ashley Young’s effort from twelve yards was brilliantly saved by veteran stopper Jussi Jaaskelainen before Ivan Klasnic notched his third in as many appearances to steal the spoils late on.

But at Craven Cottage it was madness as Mark Clattenburg first waved away extremely strong claims from the home side before awarding one of the softest penalties ever from the resulting corner. Perhaps the man in black had realised his mistake seconds earlier and some would argue that the ends justified the means, but try telling that to under pressure Blackburn gaffer Steve Keen. It was Bobby Zamora who cooly slotted his first goal since February following a prolonged time on the sidelines. Mark Hughes is slowly dragging Fulham to safety, whilst Rovers fans will be increasingly aware that their once Premiership Champions could soon drop to the second tier of English football for the first time in a decade.

Speaking of ex-title holders, Sunday lunch saw the clash of the titans as the countries two most successful clubs in history, with a joint record of eighteen league titles, locked horns at Anfield. Manchester United went to Liverpool on the back of Tuesday’s loss to current holders Chelsea. The home side too were looking to bounce back from defeat following last Sunday’s battering by West Ham. Manager Kenny Dalglish was also hoping to inflict some personal revenge on the opposing Alex Ferguson following United’s FA Cup victory over the Kop back in January, which was of course King Kenny’s first game back at the helm.

Prior to kick-off the potential headlines revolved largely around the possibility of record signing Andy Carroll making his long awaited debut. With both Ferdinand and Vidic missing from the United backline the home fans certainly believed they could get one over their fiercest rivals and the thought of Carroll scoring the winner in front of the Kop was a dream shared by all home fans. It didn’t quite happen that way but the Anfield faithful wont mind one bit as it was Dirk Kuyt who pounced not once, not twice, but three times to score a hattrick of goals from little more than a yard out on each occasion. It was the Dutchman’s first Premier League treble and he couldn’t have picked a better time to do it. His scintillating show of poaching prowess left the Liverpudlians in a state of euphoria, even followers back in his native Holland were said to be feelin’ high.

The afternoon visit of Tottenham to Molineux seemed to carry little significance despite the importance of the match to both sides as football was put into perspective as on pitch tensions came to a halt as the sport remembered the life of Dean Richards. An ex-defender for both sides who tragically died aged 36 following a long battle with illness. A moving tribute was carried out as both sets of supporters united as echoes of “There’s only one Deano” reverberated across the pitch where his late wife and two sons stood in appreciation.

On the pitch, the two sides fought in a vernacular reminiscent of the way Deano approached his football in years gone by. Fittingly both sides left with a share of the spoils as both Kevin Doyle and Jermaine Defoe scored two goals a piece for their respective teams. Defoe’s goals in particular were top class and it begs the question of how he had not previously registered a single league goal all season. It was his strike partner Roman Pavleyuchenko who thought he’d won it with his 48th minute scorcher, but Steven Flethcher had other ideas as the substitute striker looped his header over the helpless Gomes just three minutes from time to ensure that Wolves at least left with something.

Wolves ended the weekend 19th but know that just one victory could move them up to as high as 14th. One of those catchable teams is Blackpool and after losing 3-1 to Chelsea on Monday night, the relegation favourites could now be very much in danger. For Chelsea it was a comfortable victory thanks to a rare John Terry goal, which was later added to by a pair of Frank Lampard strikes including one from the penalty spot. Jason Puncheon epitomised Blackpool’s never say die attitude with a consolation but manager Ian Holloway must now surely consider the notion of defending as he sees his side slip further and further down the table.

Under his guidance I would be very surprised if the Tangerines avoid the drop. But then what do I know? It has been yet another topsy-turvy weekend full of surprised and it looks almost certain that this is the route that will continue until May’s conclusion. With each passing set of fixtures it feels increasingly likely that the battles at both ends of the table will go to the wire. I’ll be here to keep you updated throughout starting with my next post in a fortnight.
Until then…

Goal Of The Week: Jermaine Defoe. Take your pick.

Fan Of The Week: Rather than sitting in either the dugout or a VIP box, hardcore United fan Gary Neville roughed it out in the stands with his fellow Red Devils at Stamford Bridge. What a lad.

Hero Of The Week: After missing a couple of months through injury, Daniel Gabbidon finally made his comeback against Stoke on Saturday when he popped off the bench to put in a tireless twenty second stint before the full time whistle was blown. On a serious note, the award simply has to be handed to Dirk Kuyt after his three goal haul against arch rivals Manchester United. Simply faultless from the flying Dutchman.

Villain Of The Week: Following last weeks RoonGate incident, referee Mark Clattenburg could only have hoped for an error free performance at Craven Cottage but instead stepped back into the spotlight with a rash decision to award a penalty to Fulham late on. Who’d be a ref?

Team Performance Of The Week: Most fans expecting Sunderland to feel the wrath of Arsenal’s Carling Cup defeat in very much the same way that Leyton Orient did midweek. But Steve Bruce’s side put in a fantastic team shift and held the Gunners to stalemate, ending their own run of defeats in the process.