Monday, 8 November 2010

How things Change. Weekend Observations - November 6th-7th 2010

Where else to start than at Anfield? With the poor performances, player unrest, takeover shenanigans and financial troubles, it's difficult to imagine a football club experiencing a more eventful opening three months to a season. Much of the drama is akin to works of fiction and would not have been out of place on the horrifically unrealistic but highly watchable Sky One series Dream Team from days gone by.

Liverpool have somehow gone from a humbling shock home defeat against newly promoted Blackpool to an incredible victory over champions Chelsea in the space of just a few weeks – a third league win on the bounce propelling them from the doldrums of the Premier League relegation zone to the dizzying heights of mid-table.

The victory over the league leaders was inspired by the eye-poppingly good Fernando Torres whose two first half goals were enough to see off the visitors. The second of which was a moment of genius that simply reminds all of us exactly why we love watching this thing we call football.

Last week, I suggested that the Spaniard looked disinterested in Liverpool's unconvincing victory at Bolton and while I stand by that claim, the contrast in his performance this week could not have been more stark. Torres was back to his unplayable self and sent out something of a reminder as well as a huge 'F*CK YOU!!' to all the critics who have dared to write him off this season.

And it wasn't just Torres. The likes of Jamie Carragher, Maxi Rodriguez and Lucas all played unexpectedly well in this match making me think someone had spiked my coco pops with some kind of hallucinogenic drug such was my astonishment to what I was witnessing. Yes, Liverpool actually looked like a decent side for the first times in what seems like years. Maybe they finally have turned that fabled corner that everyone is so obsessed with.

As for their opponents, a strange thing occurred to me. The problem of subjective interpretations based on particular outcomes. Last week, Chelsea didn't play well but managed a result away at Blackburn. We all sat here saying it was the hallmark of champions to be able to do so and just assumed that the same would happen whoever they faced. I'm not saying that one defeat means Chelsea are in any sort of crisis but in truth, they haven't been at their best recently and perhaps are not deserving of the exaggerated hype surrounding them. They still undoubtedly remain the best side in the country and will more than likely end up as champions but maybe all the talk of them running away with the title ought to be set aside as of right now.

That very term, 'crisis' has been bandied about a great deal so far this season. As each week passes another club is on the brink of declaring some kind of state of emergency. Whereas Manchester United and Liverpool seem to have come through their periods of sensationalised disaster, last week it was the turn of Manchester City, with reports that Roberto Mancini was about to be taken out round the back of Eastlands by a large man armed with a handgun, duct tape and enough space in the back of his car to fit the body of a diminutive Italian wearing a scarf. However, the billionaires were back to winning ways thanks to two goals from marquee summer signing Super Mario Balotelli at West Brom.

If you believe what you read about Mancini being on borrowed time, this win would have surely bought him some breathing space. However, the pressure could well be right back on if City, minus their Hawthorns match winner following his sending off late in the game, lose this Wednesday in a little match taking place at Eastlands against their penny-pinching neighbours from around the way.

Speaking of whom, Ji-Sung Park's winning goal in the last minute of Fergie time... I mean, stoppage time at home against Wolves could well prove to have huge ramifications given the erratic results of the teams surrounding them this weekend. Manchester United, once again, looked far from convincing, but remain unbeaten and are slowly looking to build up something like momentum. They're turning those early season draws into wins and continue to put pressure on Chelsea above them. You have to believe that the performances will eventually come too and it will be just as important for them to avoid defeat on Wednesday as much as their cross-town rivals.

As I pointed out weeks ago following his hat-trick against Liverpool, the excessive praise dished out to Dimitar Berbatov that day proved to be somewhat premature with the Bulgarian having gone five league games without finding the net before being dropped... sorry, "rested" on Saturday. This doesn't make him shit either, it just means he's probably somewhere halfway between.

A major talking point from Manchester United's win this weekend was the aborted return to action for the lesser-spotted Owen Hargreaves, a player so unfortunate with injury an entire Salford-based hospital is set to be built and named in his honour*. For those that didn't see it, the former England international was withdrawn after just 5 minutes of the game with a hamstring injury. Yes, FIVE MINUTES!! Sir Alex has suggested 'anxiety' may be the cause of the latest set back suggesting that, understandably, there may be some psychological hump that Hargreaves will have to scale if he ever to get back to his best.

On the subject of perpetual injury problems, Arsenal found themselves in a rare position this week when what a good portion of what many believe to be their first team were available for selection. In the past five trophyless years, we've been constantly been led to believe that had Arsenal not been victims of a gypsy curse and hadn't had more players in hospital than available to play then these barren years would have been far more fruitful. The first chance to prove the validity of this claim came against Newcastle at the Emirates and it was a test they failed in spectacular fashion.

Andy Carroll
gave the visitors a shock 1-0 win in a game where the same old problems reared their ugly, ugly heads again. I'm tempted to copy/paste previous statements about goalkeeping problems, failure to perform when Cesc Fabregas isn't 100% and inability to break down any team that actually knows how to defend but these problems are so glaringly obvious they don't really bare repeating.

Arsene Wenger's team is at risk of becoming the most pointless entity in football. Every season it's the same. A top four finish without ever really looking like winning the title and a decent cup run until they come up against someone half decent. Same old tedious story every year. Repeat to fade.

Equally pointless are an Aston Villa team who this season are about as interesting as a three hour lecture on socks by Iain Duncan-Smith. Following a prolonged and patient rebuilding process, Villa were on the brink of reaching the holy grail known as the Champions League just a little over a season ago. Now, in the space of a little under six months, the whole plan seems to have unravelled and they have returned to the level of midtable obscurity that preceded Randy Learner’s takeover some years back. It's hard to lay blame at the feet of new manager Gerard Houllier but this current side are hardly one to get the juices flowing.

This weekend's 1-all draw at Fulham was just about par for the course for a team averaging less than 1 goal a game so far this season with just 10 in 11. Only West Ham (9) and Wigan (8) have scored fewer and both those sides are in the relegation zone. If Villa are not careful, they could easily join them over the coming weeks as they sit a mere three points about the bottom three.

Spurs, the team that eventually achieved what Villa couldn't by breaking into the elusive top four and subsequent Champions League qualification, did their reputation no harm last week after comfortably beating European champions Inter Milan at White Hart Lane. Now, unless you superglued your eyes shut and stuffed your ears with playdough, you wouldn't have failed to notice that the major talking point from the game was Gareth Bale whose the stupendous performance presumably had Inter's right back Maicon on the phone to a victim support helpline after the game, such was the brutality of the public violating he suffered.

Bale's performance had the 'experts' almost literally frothing at the mouth in excitement and declaring, in all seriousness, that the young Welshman is somehow up there with the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, Xavi and Drogba as the best in the world. Leaving aside the fact that in both games against Inter he was allowed the freedom of Europe to do his damage thanks to the absence of any attempt to try and stop him, I was interested to see how well Bale was performing back on home soil. His sum total of two goals (both in the same game) and one assist having played every minute of every Tottenham match this campaign would suggest that maybe he's not quite the new Maradona just yet. Talk about people getting ahead of themselves. Best in the world? Have a word with yourself!

Bale and his Tottenham team were on the receiving end of something of a hammering from Bolton which by some folks' twisted logic would mean that Owen Coyle's side are now the best team in Europe.

Final point this week would be to tread on already well trodden ground and talk about Stoke City. The staffordshire club are floundering somewhat in the league and are only outside the bottom three thanks the the abovementioned woeful scoring record of Wigan Athletic. Grandmaster Tony Pulis seems to think that this down to bad refereeing decisions going against them and Dean Whitehead has pointed to Danny Murphy's comments some weeks back, believing they have influenced officials. It's funny that Blackburn and Wolves, also criticised by Murphy, have not faced similar troubles but let's not let that get in the way of Pulis' deflection tactics to stop people noticing how piss poor his team actually are. I seem to remember him criticising other managers for 'moaning' in the past. Nothing like good old fashioned double-standards, eh Tone?

*This may not be true

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