The monotonous droning of the FA Cup halted proceedings in the Premiership last weekend and unless you are a supporter from one of the four semi-finalists you will agree that the FA’s decision to revamp the world’s oldest cup competition can only be a positive move as attendance figures, as well as TV viewings, continue to decline as the once loved trophy detaches itself further and further from it’s magnificent past.
It is a sorry sight for a fan who grew up dreaming of a day out to Wembley but since returning home after the 5 year stint at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium the magic simply hasn’t been recaptured and this is a stark reminder that all good things come to an end; even this, the greatest Premier League season in recent memory.
But there’s a lot of football to be played between now and then.
At White Hart Lane the weekend’s action kicked off just 24 hours after it had been announced that Tottenham would host the great Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Final. Surely nothing could detract their attentions away from that mouth watering tie, apart from a London derby against their Olympic Stadium rivals West Ham.
Despite heavy dominance Spurs simply couldn’t find a moment of inspiration like the ones which have seen them progress so far in Europe’s most prestigious competition. Ex-Hammer, Jermaine Defoe had a pair of glorious chances but failed to convert what would have been his centenary strike for Tottenham. Perhaps he was put off by the chants coming from the away stand; chants which cannot repeated in print due to extensive use of the greatest obscenity known to the English language. And that’s the ‘c’ word isn’t it?
The other ‘c’, captain Michael Dawson hit the bar whilst it was Aaron Lennon’s shot which cannoned off the post to present Defoe the home sides best chance. However, it was The Hammer’s Carlton Cole who was guilty of missing the games greatest opportunity of breaking the deadlock with a tame effort that was easily saved. Despite being 0-0, it was an enthralling contest right to the wire and only the fingertips of the outstanding Robert Green could prevent a later Gareth Bale free kick. The last blast on the whistle was met by a sigh of disapproval from the home support, who now only have the visit of Ronaldo and Co to look forward to. Times are hard at the Lane.
Another clash between local rivals took place at Villa Park as Houllier’s horrific spell hit new lows with a one-nil defeat to their bitter enemy Wolverhampton Wanderers. Prior to kick-off stewards removed anti-Houllier banners from the stands, before presumably helping to resurrect them come full time. Week by week the Frenchman is beginning to look increasingly uncomfortable in the Villa Park hot-seat and the white flag, which is a necessity to those from his homeland, must now seem like a very realistic option. Meanwhile the away contingency will have made the short journey home in strong voice, and none more so than goalscorer Matt Jarvis. The 24 year old winger’s 5th goal of the season was later rewarded with a call up to the England side whom face Wales next Saturday.
It was a result that meant Wigan simply had to win to avoid falling away from the pack. And that they did against fellow strugglers Birmingham who now lie in the relegation zone with just one game in hand. Could it be possible that the Carling Cup winners may fly their trade in the Championship next season? If this is the case the Birmingham City 2011-12 tour may read something along the lines of; Elland Road, San Siro, Glanford Park. That would be a nightmare scenario for McLeish, even Tinie Tempah hasn’t been there.
Wigan still remain stuck to the foot of the Premiership table in spite of their 2-1 victory but the situation would have been a whole lot worse had it not been for the stoppage time strike courtesy of Maynor Figueroa. The Honduran’s winner completed the turnaround following Tom Cleverley’s first half goal cancelling out that of Birmingham’s influential Liam Ridgewell. It was a wonderful way for Figueroa to cap his 100th league start for the Lancashire club and has truly left McLeish feeling The Blues.
Staying in Lancashire and leaders Manchester United aimed to move one step closer to the being crowned Champions as they took on Bolton. United have a strong record against The Trotters but in light of their defensive worries there was more than a slight sense of apprehension amongst the home fans. For long periods the stalemate never showed sign of changing but then with half-hour remaining an incident involving Jonny Evans altered the complexion of the game completely.
The young center half saw red for an ill timed challenge that injured Bolton midfielder Stuart Holden. It’s been labeled as a horror tackle but in reality it was misjudged rather than malicious as both parties went in whole hearted for a 50-50. In today’s game, the referee made the right decision but calls for an extended punishment, to me, seem unjust. One can only wish the Bolton player is not sidelined for too long.
As for Evans, the Irishman hung his head in shame as he left the field of play knowing his teams chance of victory had been placed in jeopardy and the last person you want to see in a situation as awkward as this is the master of management Sir Alex Ferguson. Luckily for Evans the Scot was serving the first of his five game touchline ban and so by the time that their paths crossed the game had already finished. And United had won. Dimitar Berbatov’s 20th goal of the campaign, his first as a substitute, was just enough to see the favourites home.
With it being Cheltenham festival this week just gone the ongoing title contention would not have been the only race attracting Fergie’s attentions, but it does now seem that only Arsenal can prevent United from winning a record-breaking 19th crown. But if Arsene’s army are to cross the line in first place then it’s going to be at a canter rather than a gallop.
All week it was the goalkeeping crisis at The Emirates which dictated the content of many newspaper columns as if to prepare us for what was in store at The Hawthorns. Already behind to a third minute Steven Reid header, Arsenal once again pushed the self destruct button as keeper Manual Almunia announced his return to Premiership football by inexplicably running into teammate Sebastien Squillaci leaving Peter Odemwingie with the simplest of tasks to extend the home sides advantage. A late Gunners backlash saw both Andrei Arshavin and Robin Van Persie score to level matters but it was still two-points dropped in a must win game. For West Brom however, they keep their unbeaten record under Roy Hodgson intact for another two weeks at least.
One side who could do with The Baggies resilience is the ever descending Blackpool. At Ewood Park captain Charlie Adam’s brace installed a two-goal lead for the travelling Tangerines. But yet again, despite numerous shouts from the tactical mastermind of Liam Newman, Ian Holloway simply will not employ a defensive approach. This negligence allowed Blackburn to steal a point which leaves both clubs on 33 points, just two above the relegation zone. The Rovers goals came from Chris Samba and the young David Hoilett, with the equaliser coming deep into injury time.
*I have no reason to believe that Ian Holloway has ever come into contact with any of my works.
At The Britannia, Stoke fans were still jubilant after booking a place at Wembley in the Mickey Mouse(not at all bitter as a West Ham fan) Semi-Final against Bolton but were well aware that there was still business to take care of in the Premiership in the form of Newcastle United. Four goals later and survival is all but certain for The Potters whilst Alan Pardew can start to look to next season as relegation seems nigh on impossible for The Magpies with Europa League qualification even less likely. There isn’t much else to say on this game, as a football reporter I’ve decided to stick to teams who actually play rather than lumping long throws and direct balls into the box. Actually that is a little harsh on Tony Pulis and his side but after last Sunday there is no way that I will be describing their performance with the superlatives it probably merits. Hopefully they’ll lose their next match.
The evening kick-off saw Everton entertain Fulham who, in what was the weirdest news story of the week, have unveiled plans to erect a statue of Michael Jackson. Aware of the difficult challenge ahead, Mark Hughes hoped his men would Beat It but what he actually witnessed in the first half was simply Bad. It wasn’t quite a Thriller but the match certainly had it’s moments and Louis Saha stepped up to the role of Smooth Criminal as he scored against his former employers.
Is this game getting Dangerous yet? I’m a Speed Demon, I Can’t Help It, it’s just Human Nature. Then again, Another Part Of Me is looking at The Man In The Mirror and asking if You Wanna Be Starting Somethin‘? OK, OK. I’ll step off the Carousel now.
Everton’s Seamus Coleman had opened the scoring during the latter stages of the first half whilst Clint Dempsey ensured the battle lasted right to the last whistle. The three points mean that Everton have now reached the magic 40 point mark, whilst Fulham will still be looking down at the relegation zone for a little while yet as they remain on 35.
Sunday saw Liverpool travel to Sunderland. During the build up, Luis Suarez was the chief talking point with Sunderland’s Ghanian striker Asamoah Gyan expressing his bitterness towards the Uruguyan who handled to stop the African nation progressing to last years World Cup Semi’s. The Monday headlines will still contain Suarez’s name but this time it will be down to his achievements in the oppositions eighteen yard box. The January recruit riffled in from the tightest of angles, taking advantage of some shoddy goalkeeping in the process.
It was a great strike but a gift nonetheless and it wasn’t the only one the Anfield outfit were awarded. Earlier on they had been given the cheapest of penalties, which Dirk Kuyt duly obliged to finish. Some may brand it as poor refereeing whilst others will simply call it retribution after the infamous beachball incident last season. Either way the Kenny Dalglish revolution continues to grow in stature and the Scousers can genuinely start to believe that European football will be on the cards again next season. That’ll be something to Bragabout to their Merseyside rivals.
Our final game of the weekend couldn’t get much bigger as Champions League qualification rivals Chelsea and Manchester City locked horns at Stamford Bridge. With so much riding on this game City were devastated by the injury of Carlos Tevez and in his absence it was clearly evident that Mancini’s multi-millionaires don’t have the depth to compete at the very top just yet. Despite this, they battled extremely hard and for 78 minutes looked like holding strong until they were undone by Chelsea’s January signing. Not the birthday boy Fernando Torres, by this time he’d already been replaced by Didier Drogba and it was he who provided the cross that allowed Sideshow Bob look-a-like David Luiz to steer home with a glancing header.
The young Brazilian is already establishing himself as a cult hero at the West London outfit and it was his compatriot Ramires who sealed the win with a mazy run and tidy finish late on. It might be too late for a serious title push, although with a trip to Old Trafford to come Ancelotti quite understandably refuses to throw the towel in just yet. In the grand scheme of things, that clash on May 7th may yet be irrelevant but the same cannot be said for their April meetings in the Champions League. The 2008 finalists meet in the Quarter Final and with the winner of Inter Milan vs Schalke awaiting, both sides will fancy their chances of booking a place at the Wembley final. For United, it could yet mark the last piece of silverware in their endeavour to repeat the 1999 treble. Should that happen would it be time for Britain’s greatest ever manager to call it a day? Only time will tell.
But one thing is for certain, as the Premiership race enters the final stretch fans of the worlds most exciting league will be able to keep up to date with all the latest ongoings here at Back Page Football and my pun filled ramblings will continue to wind down the action as the weeks roll on, my next input being in two-weeks due to International fixtures.
Goal Of The Week: Simply for it’s importance Maynor Figueroa’s injury time winner has to win the award this week. The dramatic game decider ensures that the relegation battle remains the closest fought in Premier League history.
Fans Of The Week: A little biased here, but West Ham’s supporters at Spurs were outstanding and for much of the game we drowned out the home support (or at least it sounded that way from where I was stood). For similar reasons I will share the award this weekend between them and the Wolves following.
Hero Of The Week: After spending much of the last month or so in the shadow of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, the league’s most prolific striker of the season stepped off the bench to earn the all important three points. Dimitar Berbatov: a class act.
Villain Of The Week: Ian Holloway’s refusal to employ a more defensive approach when leading games will be the source, in my opinion, for Blackpool’s relegation.
Team Performance Of The Week: After booking their place at Wembley last weekend, Stoke followed that triumph with a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle. An almost faultless team display. The words professional and diplomatic spring to mind (to describe their performance, not my writing. Oh stop it guys. Honestly.)