Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Going Down: Weekend Observations March 19th-20th

As the season enters into the proverbial 'business end' and 'hots up', I'd be intrigued to know if I'm the only one finding the top of the league becoming a bit tiresome. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with the tedious claim that the Premier League is 'unpredictable and full of surprises' but as someone who regularly wastes their spare moments putting my thoughts down in the form of this here blog, I like to this I have some sort of authority in suggesting that maybe this might not be the case. I wish it was. I mean, granted, I'd end up being wrong and contradicting myself a hell of a lot more than I do already but as it is, I would rather indulge in unashamed hypocrisy than to be currently sat here with a horrible feeling of Déjà vu as I attempt to assess the week's action.

Stop me if you've heard any of the following before: Man Utd win without playing well. Arsenal's defensive and goalkeeping problems undermine any so-called challenge for honours. With the quality in their team, it would be crazy to write off Chelsea. Manchester City are far too unadventurous and ought to be performing far better than they are. Sub plots: City lack attacking invention without Carlos Tevez, Fernando Torres continues to misfire and playing with no keeper at all my actually benefit the gunners more than starting with Manuel Almunia.

As with near enough every season and every league in football, it's the relegation battle which is far more 'entertaining' than, if we're honest with ourselves, the mind-numbing processions that title races tend to be. Given the current form of the top sides, it looks like once again we will be going into the final straight with Chelsea and Manchester United fighting it out with Arsenal going through their now customary capitulation. To that, I simply say "Yawwwwn"!

I genuinely have no idea which year this is from...

I touched on this before but as we approach the final straight of what has hardly been the best year of Premier League football, only 6 measly points separate bottom of the table Wigan and 11th placed Newcastle. Even Sunderland, just two places and two points above their North east rivals could theoretically be dragged down into a relegation battle if their recent abject form doesn't rapidly improve. The Black Cats were on the receiving end of what Steve Bruce might call unfair decisions in their 2-0 home defeat to resurgent Liverpool but given their good fortune at The Emirates last time around, the old adage that these things even themselves out looks more valid... even though as we all know it isn't.

Ultimately, following the departure of Darren Bent and injury to Danny Welbeck at the start of the year, Sunderland look a shadow of the team that had designs on Europe at the start of the season and unrecognisable from the side that marched into Stamford Bridge in November and boldly handed the champions their collective backsides on a silver platter.

In a season when the Mackems have featured in televised games on far more occasions than is surely necessary, it's still damn near impossible to discern what the football 'philosophy' is at the Stadium of Light. When it appears as though Steve Bruce sends them out to attack, they often quickly run out of steam and looking at their defensive players, it doesn't appear as though they have the ability nor the discipline *cough* Lee Cattermole *cough, cough* adopt a more pragmatic style of play. It's unlikely they will go down but improvement will be needed to make damn sure.

Neighbours Newcastle were so dire at the Britannia stadium, they made opponents Stoke look like Barcelona and the resulting 4-0 scoreline not even remotely an unfair reflection of what went down. Sol Campbell was back in the Geordie's starting XI and given his culpability for at least two of the home side's goals, fans will be hoping his return is a fleeting one.

Like Sunderland, it looks unlikely they will go down but having only taken 6 points from the last 21 available, I wouldn't be sitting to comfortable if I were Alan Pardew... well, actually, with a five and half year contract, I wouldn't care less. If the Magpies are playing in the Championship next season, it would further reinforce the sheer stupefying lunacy of sacking Chris Hughton earlier this season.

Newcastle's next two fixtures see them take on Wolves and Aston Villa in what are the archetypal relegation six-pointers. The midlands rivals squared off at Villa park over the weekend with Mick McCarthy's side taking the three points in a Matt Jarvis inspired 1-0 win. The winger was rewarded with a call up for the England squad much to the surprise of idiots like me who, for no particular reason, assumed he was Scottish...

Anyway, having lost only one of their last six in a run that includes a victory over champions elect Manchester United and a draw with Spurs as well as Saturday's win, Wolves are somehow still in the relegation zone - albeit by a single goal. The fact that they are still in trouble puts paid to the belief that good home record should be enough to keep you up. Wolves' form is not being justly rewarded. If you are playing this well and still staring into the abyss then what hope remains if you suddenly hit a slump again?

Their vanquished opponents will be worried about the fact that they, on the face of it, aren't even playing well enough to get themselves out of trouble. Gerrard Houllier appears to have lost both the support of players and fans as Villa tumble down the league like a inebriated Brummie after one two many Strongbows falling down the stairs of the Oceana nightclub on Hurst street. A high profile and rather ironic falling out during a recent 'bonding session' saw the club's very own Mitchell Brothers James Collins and Richard Dunne openly slag off the disillusioned Frenchman all the while failing to realise that a lot of the club's on field problems are down to what the uncoordinated pair mistakenly confuse to be defending.

If Villa do stay up, it's hard to see how this current side could push on. Certain young players deemed to have potential have actually been discovered to not be as good as initially thought and if more senior players share the sentiments of the above mentioned duo then Houllier and the board will need to take a long hard look at the team and make some serious changes else they want to find themselves involved in another battle next season.

Villa may ultimately survive thanks to the failure of arch rivals Birmingham Citywho are playing like they are still feeling the effects of crate after crate of complimentary Carling following last month's big Wembley win. The Blues' latest setback came in a late 2-1 defeat against a Wigan side that most (me) have already written off in the race for survival. They the key to staying up is picking up points against the sides around you so recent defeats against West Brom and now Wigan are likely to see Birmingham bang in trouble. Like some sort of Kamikaze pilot, Roberto Martinez may end up taking Alex McLiesh down with him thanks to Saturday's result at the DW.

That said, even if they do go down, cup success for the first time for aeons and European football on the horizon will still surely equate to a successful season?

Seemingly heading in the other direction are the 'West's' of Brom and Ham. The former hosted a Arsenal side out of form and out of confidence. The resulting 2-2 draw was almost harsh on Roy Hodgson and his team. Rather than be happy with a point, you imagine the Baggies will be disappointed at throwing away a 2-goal lead after, for the second time this season being given a huge helping hand by alleged Gunners “goalkeeper” Manuel Almunia.

The Hammers also managed to secure a point against North London opposition as they somehow came away from White Hart Lane with a 0-0 draw in a match where Tottenham had enough chances to win three times over. Despite being outplayed, Avram Grant's team managed to hold out where previously such intense pressure would cause them to collapse like all the furniture in Beth Ditto's house. A sign of a more robust survival-hungry Hammers team? Only time will tell.

Amusingly, former Iron Jermain Defoe had apparently worn a special t-shirt to celebrate scoring what would have been his 100th Premier League goal but proved to be about as effective in hitting the target as a blind archer. With no hands!

Last but not least was the battle of the two teams prefaced with the word 'Black'. Burn faced Pool at Ewood Park where the latter battled back from 2-0 down to secure a last gasp draw. Once again, Ian Holloway's team were inspired by Charlie Adam who bagged a brace. The first being a controversial penalty awarded by Howard Webb (No!!! Really????) and the second a stunning free kick.

Once again however, the Tangerines' naivety meant they were unable to hold on and allowed Steve Kean's men to come back. Blackpool are struggling but Rovers are looking as bad as anyone in their division and of all the team's hovering around the dreaded drop zone, there is little reason to suggest that they will do any better than any of the others down there. In the aforementioned Kean, you have a manager who is as accustomed to Premier League management as Les Reed (remember him?) and going through their squad you are struggling to find any top class players, instead there are very few who don't immediately invoke the reaction of 'meh'. Young goal hero Junior Hoilett looks about the only half decent player in the side.

If my opinion mattered – which of course it doesn't – I reckon Blackburn will be the team to join Birmingham and Wigan in the Championship next season.

But alas, given my history with predictions (including some shambolic punts at Cheltenham last week which are probably best left undiscussed at the juncture) I'd recommend putting everything you own on all three surviving.

Match of the Weekend: Blackburn 2-2 Blackpool

Goal of the Weekend: Danny Higginbotham (Really?)

Idiot of the Weekend: Alleged Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia

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