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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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Houllier Than Thou - Weekend Observations 5th-7th March 2011:Part Two

Part One here

Aside from the big game at Anfield, Sunday also saw Wolves and Tottenham battle out a 3-3 goal orgy at Molineux. A fantastic end-to-end game in which both sides went all out for the win saw a return to the scoresheet for Jermaine Defoe who had been previously been on a run so barren that he could have been mistaken for a 45 year old woman trying to get pregnant. Both his goals were high quality long range efforts that might some people reaching for the Big Book o' Footballing Cliches and declaring something about form being temporary and class being permanent. Either that or he'll now go another 11 months without finding the target.

The game was almost overshadowed by yet more refereeing controversy as Mark Halsey only booked Alan Hutton after the latter conceded a penalty in the first half where many would have found it hard to argue if a red had been shown. Even 'onest 'arry admitted as much after the game. What you could argue however, is that the original law is an ass given that the goal scoring opportunity isn't actually denied as such given that a penalty is awarded. But with the law as it stands, Hutton should have walked.

Halsey then ballsed up what would have been a Wolves equaliser when he disallowed a Richard Stearman header for a supposed foul on Gomes. Replays show the Wolves defender jumped fairly and if anything the foul was committed by the keeper who insisted on trying to pin Stearman to the ground as the ball was going in. Wolves eventually did draw level through Steven Fletcher so the decision wasn't as damaging as it may have been.

The draw was no good for either side. Spurs will feel they dropped two big points in their battle for fourth while Wolves would have welcomed a win to help in their ongoing battle against the drop.

Also involved in a thriller were Wolves' midlands rivals Aston Villa who were beaten 3-2 at Bolton. A result makes a mockery of manager Gerrard Houllier and his outrageous decision to field a weakened side and effectively throw their FA Cup tie against Man City in midweek. Aside from the fact his daft claim that his side 'can't beat City' given they already did just a few weeks back, the cup presented an opportunity for the club to salvage what has been a wretched season for the West Midlanders. You would think Houlier would have sought some inspiration from Villa's hated cross-town rivals who were dancing a merry jig on the Wembley surface just last week. Instead, his decision to 'rest' key players for the league blew up in his face as Villa were ultimately undone by two goals from former player Gary Cahill in one of those typical ironies that make football the sport we all know and love – Damien Duff pulled off the same trick in Fulham's 3-2 home win over Blackburn.

Speaking of Birmingham, the newly crowned Carling Cup holders were brought back down to earth as they returned to their battle for Premier League survival and a 3-1 home defeat against yet another midlands rival West Brom.

With so many teams in the region, it's difficult to keep up with who dislikes who more. Interestingly, all four of Wolves, Villa, the Blues and the Baggies are separated by just 4 points and all find themselves in the proverbial relegation dogfight.

It was a massive win for the team now managed by Roy Hodgson who, after what was a disastrous spell at Liverpool, seems to have found his level in the league's lower echelons. Good on him. For his sake, one would hope he keeps West Brom in the division. If I have to look at him being as depressed as he was every time he was in the Anfield dugout ever again, I might cry.

Finally, West Ham have managed to drag their way out of the drop zone for now after an impressive 3-0 victory over Stoke that may well now drag Tony Pulis' team into trouble.

In another vaguely interesting twist, new signing Demba Ba, rejected by Stoke, was on the scoresheet for the fourth time in as many matches for the Hammers who have hit the back of the net a massive 14 times overall during this same run of games. Is that a smile I see there Avram?

Match of The Weekend:
Wolves 3-3 Tottenham

Goal of the Weekend:
James Morrison

Skill of the Weekend: Luis Suarez

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High as a Kuyt - Weekend Observations 5th-7th March 2011: Part One

For the second time this season, a Liverpool-Manchester United match has been settled by a hat trick from an inconsistent and much maligned striker who often slated for generally laclustre performances. After Dimitar Berbatov's treble back in September, it was the turn of Dirk Kuyt to take centre stage as Liverpool swept aside Manchester United 3-1 with relative ease on Sunday.

One must admit that the 'Kenny effect' seems to have actually turned Liverpool around this season and it is surely a formality that Daliglish will be given the nod permanently come the summer. Who would have thunk it? Not me, that's for sure!

Liverpool's form since the turn of the year is only bettered by the top two and if they keep it up between now and May, a campaign that looked dead in December could well and truly end up being relatively productive. Fourth place is maybe a little ambitious but not entirely unthinkable at this stage. There, I said it. It's out there.

Hat trick hero Kuyt won't score three easier goals. People have been rather unkind by doubting the 'quality' of his strikes - even I wouldn't have found trouble scoring from less than 6 yards each time... maybe - but quite frankly, if you are in the right place at the right time then does it matter how they go in? Poaching ability is still ability and a reminder that football doesn't always need to be 'pretty' – something doubly true when Dirk Kuyt is involved.

The scousers win was inspired mostly by the incredible Luis Suarez who actually came away from the game more deserving of the man of the match award than the abovementioned 3-goal hero. It was his fantastic run leaving most of the United defence on their arses that led to the opener and his free kick that led to the third. The Uruguayan spent the entire afternoon tormenting the United defence. So much so, Wes Brown and Patrice Evra have filed a joint complaint to the police for unlawful sodomy.

At the risk of taking a running jump straight onto the bandwagon of kneejerk ill-considered overreactions: Fernando who?

The game was overshadowed by a disgraceful tackle on Nani by Jamie Carragher that should have seen the Liverpool man sent off. Phil Dowd only issued a yellow and set the tone for two more terrible challenges, by Maxi and Rafael, that on another day would have also seen reds. The referee essentially gave licence to these tackles and risked the safety of the players by not properly punishing Carragher's foul which was so bad that the Portuguese was lucky to only come away with a nasty looking gash rather than a broken leg. The fact that the Liverpool man cannot be reprimanded after the game again exposes the ridiculous flaws of the retrospective punishment law that I spoke of last week.

Unfortunately, Nani being Nani, it's hard to actually sympathise given how keen he usually is to cry wolf. The fallout saw United continue their childish and pathetic media blackout as they refused to talk to the press afterwards. Leaving aside the fact that this act of petulance endears the club to no-one, surely the silence is more a mark of disrespect to their own paying fans who will at least want an explanation as to why their side was so abject? Sir Alex Ferguson's ongoing dictatorial stance is becoming so extreme that he is beginning to make Col. Gaddafi look like Nelson Mandela.
And so the title race takes more twists and turns than a child with Scoliosis on a roller coaster. United have now lost three in five and not really showing the form befitting of potential champions. But then again, who is? Arsenal continued to embrace their tag as bottlers following a 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland. Things might have been different if Andrei Arshavin hadn't had a goal wrongly flagged for offside and then denied a blatant penalty but in truth, for the gunners to complain about refereeing decisions merely deflects from the fact that they failed to score against a defence featuring Anton Ferdinand and Titus Bramble.

Wenger's team are now actually have their own destiny in their own hands. With a game in hand and still to play United at the Emirates, the Gunners "only" have to win all of their remaining games to be champions.

In the space of a week, Chelsea have seemingly catapulted themselves right back into contention following a controversial defeat of United last Tuesday and a straightforward 3-1 win against relegation fodder Blackpool on Monday night. Now only 9 points off top spot with a game in hand, The Blues trip to Old Trafford later this season could now have huge implications as to the destination of the Premier League trophy.

Manchester City did their title ambitions no harm with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Wigan and did what the top two failed to do this weekend by winning despite not being at their best. The only goal of the game came when Ali Al Habsi let a David Silva shot slip through him and into the net. The Omani goalkeeper has been one of the very few shining lights at the DW this season and his mistake probably signalled exactly why the Latics will be playing Championship football next season. When your otherwise reliable last line of defence is making costly errors then you have no hope.

No Roberto, you're going DOWN!

Part Two to follow...

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Wayne Championship Wrestling - Weekend Observations 26th-28th February 2011

Two weeks ago I headed up this here blog talking about the supposed genius of Wayne Rooney as he scored a wonderful winning goal to see off crosstown rivals City in the Manchester derby. This week Rooney showed us all the more ugly side of his game and I'm not talking about his hideous gurning mug.

In Manchester United's comprehensive 4-0 thrashing of Wigan, Mr. Potato Head took it upon himself to deliberately attack James McCarthy with a running forearm smash to the jaw that would have looked out of place in the Octagon.

Of course, this incident doesn't really bare talking about seeing refereeing parody Mark Clattenburg saw the whole thing, awarded a free kick and carried on about his business. Oh, he also forgot to issue Rooney with the red card he deserved.

As we all know when the referee sees it... no reterospective punishment... blah, blah, blah etc, etc. which means Rooney is free to continue playing for United in what is a crucial few weeks as far as their title challenge is concerned.

Naturally, the usual accusations of favouritism will be levelled at the FA who set a precedent 5 years ago when they threw the book at Ben Thatcher for his criminal assault on Pedro Mendes despite the ref having booked the City player at the time. Why was that incident any different? Because Mendes went to hospital? Are the FA saying that acts of violence are ok if no-one actually gets too badly hurt? Because McCathy's jaw WASN'T broken then Rooney gets a pass is basically the guideline as I now understand it.

I don't get the view that changing a decision post-match undermines the authority of the ref. Surely the fact his mistake is under such intense scrutiny by the media and paying fans is going to undermine him even more? Besides, the authorities overturn red cards retrospectively so isn't it hypocritical to say that they can't issue them too? It's a daft two-tier system that doesn't really make any sense. The fact that Rooney won't be serving a suspension should rightly stick in the craw of the teams he faces over the coming weeks.

I am probably repeating myself from last year but I have never been happy about the idea of domestic football on cup final day. Having Premier League games taking place at the same time as the Carling Cup final just devalues both competitions and the authorities need to fix this. As Arsenal were bottling it at Wembley, Manchester City failed to take the opportunity to put extra pressure the Gunners in the league as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Fulham.

Super Mario Balotelli gave City the lead with the kind of goal that hints at his obvious talents but then missed a sitter later on to highlight his inconsistent nature and should maybe make him think twice before talking himself up so much. His team failed to push on and win as expected allowing themselves to be pegged back thanks to a Damien Duff goal. The Irishman seems to be finding the form that made one of the most feared wide men in the division some years back and was an integral part of Chelsea's first title win for 50 years.

City will tell you that the aim for this season was a top four finish but as their league campaign continues to go off the boil, you can't help feel they ought to be disappointed about not making a better fist of what was a realistic title challenge. The indifferent early season form of their crosstown rivals coupled with Arsenal's weaknesses meant that they had a real chance to put pressure on at the top. Who knows how well they might have done?

The obvious sub-plot to the game was the return to Eastlands of Mark Hughes who was unceremoniously sent packing last season. Sparky never felt he was given enough time, nor a far chance to prove himself a capable manager at City and his blatant resentment was obvious at the final whistle given his angry handshake with his replacement Roberto Mancini. While it is easy to have sympathy for the way he was treated by the club, listening to his post-match whinge about "the manner in which Mancini offered his handshake" just made him sound like a spoilt child. He's already had previous with this kind of thing this season as well so how seriously do we take his complaints?

The tone for unexpected results on Sunday was set with West Ham's emphatic 3-1 victory over in-form Liverpool. Scotty Parker was once again at the heart of the win scoring a fine goal and generally making a nuisance of himself but the Hammers will be encouraged by the contributions of those around him. New signing Demba Ba is having little trouble settling in and was on the scoresheet once again while Gary O'Neil went all Marty McFly and looked very much like his Pompey incarnation of years gone by. Continue like this and, whisper it quietly, West Ham and Avram may live to fight another season in the Premier League after all.

Also at the bottom, Wolves comfortably turned over Blackpool 4-0 as the Tangerines continued their freefall, Jermaine Beckford did his best impression of a proper striker with a brace in Everton's 2-0 win over Sunderland, Aston Villa beat Blackburn 4-1 and on Monday night West Brom grabbed a valuable point against Stoke despite Carlos Vela's late equaliser being about a three miles offside.

The fallout now sees only six points separating the Toffees up in 11th and Wigan who currently prop up the table. With no team playing with anything that even resembling consistency, you would hope for a lot of yo-yo-ing over the next ten or so weeks. I think most neutrals will be wanting for a real old fashioned scrap down at the bottom with all teams going into the final few games totally unsure of their Premier League status.

If you want my view – which you probably don't - then I'm saying Wigan, Blackpool and West Brom are all doomed. Seriously, put money on it.

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Match of the Weekend: West Ham v Liverpool

Goal of the Weekend:
Balotelli v Fulham

Fight of the weekend:
Macclesfield v Wycombe (League Two)