Premier League football returned from the international break and the most exciting season in recent history resumed with the early kick-off at Upton Park as relegation threatened West Ham took on title favourites Manchester United. Serving the second of his five match touchline ban, Sir Alex was banished to the stands for this one. Also in the crowd, a genius of less fame but a genius all the same in the form of a certain Mr Newman.
The weeks build up was dominated by bothmanagers stating their discontent with refereeing decisions throughout the season; cue one of the most difficult games that Lee Mason will ever take charge of. By half-time he’d awarded two penalties – bothin favour of the home side. There could be no complaints with Evra’s handball for the first but Fergie would have been fuming at the second, which saw Nemanja Vidic penalised for bringing down Carlton Cole on the edge of the box when the donkey striker was already heading to ground. A missed handball by Matthew Upson would have only further angered the Scottish legend, although even he would’ve been breathing a humongous sigh of relief at the decision only to award his captain Vidic with a yellow card late on in the half for an offence on Hammers striker Demba Ba. After a highly entertaining opening forty-five, the second had a lot to live up to. And it didn’t disappoint.
After the break, West Ham installed a guard which would only be broken by a moment of brilliance. Over to Mr Rooney. First, a sublime curling freekick restored belief; second, a masterful touch and tidy finish from eighteen yards brought things level; and third, a penalty to complete the turn around. Fourteen minutes of perfection from United’s number 10, who also played a pivotal part in the fourth as Javier Hernandez wrapped things up late on. Unfortunately Wazza couldn’t refrain from shouting an expletive towards the TV cameras. It was stupid and petulant but in light of the magic he produced on the pitch I refuse to condemn the England man. F*cking what?!
Staying with London; televised games; the title race; and the relegation battle, Blackburn visited Arsenal in the late fixture on the back of an awful run but knowing that the pressure was on The Gunners. It showed. The reds created chances but as has been the case countless times over the years they squandered them all, youngster Jack Wilshirecommitting the worst felony of the lot. Even with Rovers being reduced to ten men for the last quarter of an hour Wenger was resigned to watching on in agony as once more his side failed to produce the finishing touch in front of goal. Another missed opportunity. No goals and ,in my opinion, no hope in finally adding some silverware to the Emirates Stadium trophy cabinet.
Their London rivals Chelsea had earlier lost ground too after leaving Stoke withjust the solitary point. In truth, the Blues can count themselves rather lucky to escape the Britannia Stadium with anything. After falling behind to a Jonathan Walters wondergoal, which ripped apart suggestions that David Luiz is already the complete package, Didier Drogba breathed temporary life into Ancelotti’s hopes of retaining the title but come full-time those hopes were dead, though he would never admit it. As for Stoke gaffer Tony Pulis, he didn’t know whether to be happy with a share of the spoils or disappointed not to have taken them all. Stoke are now all but safe and can look forward to their meaningless (still bitter) trip to Wembley this month.
Facing them in that Semi Final will be Bolton and they took on Birmingham at St Andrews. Experienced forward Kevin Phillips got the home side off to the perfect start when, just four minutes in, he put his knack for being in the right place to optimal use and converted from a corner. A first league goal of the season for the man who in 2000 was awarded the Premiership and European Golden Boots as tribute to his 30 goal haul. Now 37, it may well be his last goal in top flight football but might be one of the most important as it set the Blues on their way to a two-one victory that sees them climb out of the relegation zone for the meantime at least. The second came from Craig Gardener whilst Johan Elmander’s late consolation ensured a nervy finish.
The other Midlands side starting the weekend in the unenviable bottom three were Wolves, who traveld to St James’ Park having not defeated Newcastle there in the top flight since February 7th1959; the date of Mick McCarthy’s birth. Meanwhile the Magpies’ hadn’t won a 15:00 Saturday Premiership match since August 2008. Something had to give and five goals later the Toon Army had come out 4-1 winners courtesy of goals from Nolan, Ameobi, Lovenkrands and Jonas. Between goals three and four came a consolation from Sylvain Ebanks-Blake. Maybe next year Wolves (if they’re in the league).
Lying at the bottom of the table were Wigan who faced the difficult prospect of hosting Champions League Quarter Finalists Tottenham Hotspur. For all the perceived excitement surrounding the White Hart Lane this was their third consecutive scoreless game. Not much else to report about this game other than it leaves Spurs five points off fourth spot and Wigan rooted to the foot of the table. What do they say about bad workmen, or women, blaming their tools?
Down at The Hawthornes there were a few more talking points prior to, during, and indeed after the game as West Brom played Liverpool. Roy Hodgson has rejuvenated The Baggies since his switch following a dismal six months at Anfield. When Martin Skrtel’s header opened the scoring in the second half it appeared that the red side of Merseyside were about to inflict even more misery on the already sour looking Hodgson but two penalties, both correctly awarded, allowed Chris Brunt to follow in the footsteps of West Ham’s Mark Noble by bagging a brace of penalties. A huge result for West Brom that would’ve undoubtedly left Roy Hodgson beaming whilst Kenny Dalglish now has to lift his boys fast if they are going to appear on Channel 5 next year. How times change.
Liverpool’s city rivals Everton took on underachieving Aston Villa at Goodison Park and it would prove to be yet another difficult game for the officials. After Darren Bent had canceled out Leon Osman’s opener the first moment of controversy came when Jermaine Beckford’s thunderous strike cannoned off the underside of the bar, appearing to cross the line. No goal given. Minutes later and Bent had doubled his and Villa’s tally and it seemed Houllier’smen would be returning home withall three points. But the source of dispute was far from over as with just seven minutes remaining Everton were awarded a soft penalty as Phil Jagielka tumbled over a non-existent challenge from Jean Makoun. Leighton Baines stepped up coolly to slot the resulting penalty home to earn a point and leave Villa well and truly still in the relegation battle.
So on to Sunday where the action started at Craven Cottage withthe unveiling of a simply ludicrous statue of Michael Jackson. Reports around the country are now littered withsong titles from the King of Pops catalogue two weeks after I’d milked the idea for all its worth. It’s almost as if those nationally acclaimed writers don’t read my humble reports. Anyway. Whilst journalists around the country have fun toying with MJ puns, one man who isn’t laughing is the Fulham chairman who was Al Fayed up in response to heavy criticisms of the monument. He condemned any intolerance towards the tribute and stated that all haters can burn in hell, claiming the club don’t need their support. Ever the man of subtlety. It’ really is an ugly erection. The statue is an eye sore too.
Once the laughter had died down and eyes were cast back to on the pitch matters, Fulham brushed a poor Blackpool aside by scoring three without reply. Two of those came for striker Bobby Zamora his first goals in open play since returning from the broken leg he suffered during the early stages of the campaign. You wonder where Sparky’s side would be had he been able to call upon the services of his most talented goal-getter. As for Blackpool they now sit precariously in 17th place, just a point above the drop zone. In spite of a wonderful start to Premiership life it seems that their stay in the top flight will only be temporary as they edge closer to relegation. At least if they do go down they would have done it the Hollow Way.
To the weekends final game at The City Of Manchester Stadium where Sunderland were the visitors. Sunderlandcapitulated from the off and the attack minded City ran riot with a five star performance which was matched with as many goals. Simply fantastic, and yet for all the forward thinking impetus of the home side it wasn’t any of the scorers – Johnson, Tevez, Silva, Yaya Toure, Vieira– who walked away with the Man Of The Match award. In fact it was defender Joleon Lescott, after he’d kept Black Cats striker Gyan quiet all game; shame he couldn’t do it on Tuesday for England. Roberto Mancini smiled on as his side eased into third place and took one step nearer to their season target of Champions League qualification.
So as the roller coaster ride reaches top speed we are still no closer to knowing who is going down but it Manchester United’sgrip on the title race gets that little bit stronger. But if what we’ve seen in the last eight months is a barometer of what to expect then we should expect more twists and turns before the seasons end, starting with a full set of fixtures next weekend.
Goal Of The Week: Jermaine Beck… Jonas Guttierez capped a wonderful Newcastle display with an injury time run and finish that gives a glimpse of the brilliance that the Argentine international can produce. A slow start in English football but is starting to look like the player the Magpies thought they’d signed three years ago.
Fans Of The Week: Following the 4-0 Carling Cup defeat and dismal first half showing, United fans would’ve been forgiven for making the short trip back to their London homes. In all seriousness, they got behind their men and inspired them to turn it around. This could be a telling result in the title race and they were in full voice to show their appreciation. They’re Man United, and they’ll do what they want.
Hero Of The Week: Wayne Rooney. Breathtaking hattrick and, despite doing it in ill thought fashion, showed what it meant to him. Back to his best.
Villain Of The Week: Not content with overlooking club heroes in favour of unveiling what will surely become the infamous Michael Jackson statue, Al Fayed then removed himself further from the Fulhamsupporters with his outspoken comments. Thankfully they’ve got a great manager in Mark Hughes.
Team Performance Of The Week: “Too defensive”, “Not positive enough”. City proved the cynics wrong with a scintillating five goal triumph over sorry Sunderland. Almost faultless.