Tuesday, 24 January 2012

North and South - Super Sunday Observations: 22nd January 2012

So 'Super Sunday' presented us with a repeat of the Manchester v North London double header. It was promoted in such a way that suggested the sides from the capital would be seeking 'payback' having been humiliated in the respective reverse fixtures back at the tail end of the summer. Alas, both Arsenal and Spurs failed in their revenge missions as both Manchesters United and City smote their opponents yet again to re-establish Northern dominance over the south.

In the early kick off, table-topping, cash-splashing Manchester City beat upwardly mobile Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 in one of the most rip-roaring matches of the season. Well, second half at least. The Lancet actually recommends that patients who are about to undergo major surgery should watch the first 45 minutes repeatedly as it is officially now the world's most effective anaesthetic.

The game sparked into life when Samir Nasri, a man who was already public enemy number one at both ends of the Seven Sisters Road, riffled home after latching on to a typically delicious David Silva through ball. It just had to be the former Arsenal man, didn't it? Nasri already has four goals to his name in North London derbies but has been nothing short of a disappointment since his controversial move to Eastlands last summer. It was just obvious he would find his 'spark' again against Spurs. I've often, half-joking mused whether this ridiculous sport we all love is actually the world's biggest scam. Is the game fixed or scripted not unlike professional wrestling? This Nasri goal, considering the circumstances, goes some way to reinforcing this admittedly deluded conspiracy theory of mine. The truth is out there...

Joleon Lescott doubled City's lead almost immediately after bundling in from a corner but before the City fans had even finished their daft, vomit-inducing 'Poznan' celebration, their advantage had been sliced in half. Jermaine Defoe made it 2-1 as he capitalised on some woeful defending by the clueless Stefan Savić. The gormless look on the poor Montenegrin's face as the goal went in served as a pertinent reminder that if the City juggernaut is to rumble on, suspended captain Vincent Kompany cannot come back into the side soon enough.

Gareth Bale then evened the the score with a sensational strike that looks more impressive on every viewing. Four goals in under 10 minutes made me wonder if I had stumbled across some sort of televised 5 aside football match such was the rapid frequency of the scoring.

The rise of Tottenham under Harry Redknapp's stewardship has been one of the stories of the season. After decades of near misses, underachievement and general periods of laughable embarrassment, Spurs have finally gone some way to justifying their famed 'Glory, Glory' tag by muscling their way in among the big boys and making themselves right at home. Sir Alex Ferguson recently said that they are playing the best football in the league at present. While this was clearly just a ploy aimed at winding up City, Tottenham's spirited fightback suggested that there was actually very little between Redknapp and Mancini's teams on the day – absences not withstanding, obviously.

In fact, the away side almost deservedly snatched the points. If Jermaine Defore hadn't been born part hobbit and managed to get any decent contact on a 92nd minute Bale cross, Spurs would be waking up today with the unfamiliar but enjoyable feeling of being within touching distance of the Premier League summit. But he didn't and in the cruelest twist of fate, it was City who got the win after Super Mario Balotelli converted a last gasp penalty having been felled by Ledley King with the game in it's dying embers.

Of course, it was extremely premature of the 'experts' to indulge in the absurd hyperbole of a week or so back when all and sundry starting to declare them champions elect and other such over-exaggerated nonsense. Such proclamations with such a long way to go in the season only serve to make people look stupid in the long run. One step at a time and all that. Given the glaring inadequacies of the so-called challengers for those much sought after Champions League spots, third place this season should be the absolute minimum they achieve, the fourth place they were aiming for in August would actually be a disappointment given how impressive they've been thus far this campaign. Beyond that, who knows?

But the biggest talking point of the match at the Etihad was not Defoe's miss, Nasri's goal, nor the Spurs fightback. Yes, not for the first time, Super Mario Balotelli decided to hog all the headlines to himself. Selfish.

Despite only being on the pitch for 25 minutes, the eccentric Italian stamped his authority on the match in more ways than one. While he may have successfully won and converted the decisive last minute penalty that secured his side the points, there are few people outside the blue half of Manchester that believe Balotelli should have even been on the pitch. On any other day, or with any other referee (Oh, Howard Webb...), Mad Mario's attempt to decapitate Scott Parker with the sole of his size 12s would have been greeted with the red card it deserved. It has since been announced that retrospective punishment is to be heading his way but what consolation is that to Spurs? Any ban will not get back the point (possibly more?) they were set to take back down the M1 on Sunday evening.

That said, I risk using that most despised and ignorant of football-isms about things evening themselves out. Many City fans will tell you that Balotelli's escape (in the game at least) is some sort of retribution for the scandalous decision to send off Vincent Kompany for executing the perfect tackle in the FA Cup 3rd round Manchester derby two short weeks ago that resulted in an absurd and unjust four game ban – a tackle not entirely dissimilar to one made by Parker himself in the first half of this match on England colleague Micah Richards. Not that it deserved a red either, mind.

The inconsistencies, contradictions and hypocrisy did not end there. Joleon Lescott was also inexplicably spared a dismissal after a UFC style forearm smash to to the face of Yonues Kaboul. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was then quick to condemn the Balotelli footsie-stampy shenanigans post-match. Yes, the same Harry Redknapp who swiftly turned a blind eye when his own player was accused of a similar offence in the past. It was also interesting to see the lack of criticism aimed at Redknapp for publicly calling for a player to be dismissed given all the unnecessary hoo-ha over Roberto Mancini's imaginary card-waving antics in recent weeks. I'm struggling to get my head round how the gesture in the heat of the moment is deemed a 'disgrace' while a calculated and considered press conference is acceptable. The former is trying to influence a referee while the latter completely undermines their authority. Both are as bad as each other.

The biggest head-scratcher over the whole incident of course comes by way of the FA who will rightly throw the book at Balotelli yet completely make fools of themselves in doing so having very recently campaigned fiercely to have Wayne Rooney's violent conduct ban by UEFA for next summer's Euros reduced. Do as I say, not as I do etc.


If the first game was the starter, Arsenal v Manchester United was a disappointing main course as both teams were simply resigned to going through the motions in an attempt to keep up with their respective now superior local rivals.

A wretched football match saw United just about eke out a marginally deserved 2-1 victory over their one time most-hated foes. Sir Alex's team took the lead on the stroke of half time through an Antonio Valencia header. Robin van Persie (who else?) equalised for the gunners finishing a flowing move that was a throwback to the long forgotten Arsenal of a decade ago. Contract rebel Danny Wellbeck snatched all three points late on.

The major talking point at the Emirates was what seemed to be what I'm calling a Wenger watershed moment. After a diabolical first half in which Arsenal were devoid of passion pride and anything even resembling the kind of fighting spirit they would do well to learn from their North London rivals earlier in the day, the one time 'invincibles' stepped up a gear and actually took the game to an abject United side following the break. The equaliser came amidst a flurry of missed chances and such was the momentum with the home side, there only looked to be one side capable of winning the game at 1-1 and it wasn't Uinted. That was until the beleaguered manager decided to withdraw his side's best attacking threat in the game, the 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who was putting his more experienced colleagues – hang your head Theo Walcott – to shame. The youngster was replaced by Andrei Arshavin – a player who hasn't had a good game since the days of disco. The often quiet Emirates crowd then found their voice, not to support their team, mind, but to viciously direct a barrage of abuse at Mr. Wenger in the dugout. “You don't know what you're doing” is the last chant one would ever expect to hear from the gooner faithful who are better known for blindly following their manager no matter what he does.

A lifetime ago...

It's no secret that after years of failure, this season has been Arsene Wenger's toughest test for the most successful boss of London's most successful club. For the first time in his tenure, Arsenal look like slipping outside the top four and equally, for the very first time, he is losing the support of the fans who previously wouldn't dare question him. Whereas the grumbles were once consigned to a small minority, it would appear the number of the dissenters is growing at a rapid rate. More worrying, the public disapproval of his captain to the substitution speaks volumes. It's one thing to lose the fans but when results stop going your way and you start to lose the players, things are only going to get worse. Of course, van Persie has moved to reassure fans that he was not challenging his manager but the simple fact is, his unhappiness was clear for all to see.

Time has a funny way of catching up with us. Muhammed Ali, the greatest boxer of all time has Parkinson's. Terry Pratchett, one of the best authors of a generation has Alzheimers. I'm not saying Arsene Wenger has a debilitating disease but I do feel it necessary to use such extreme examples to hammer home my point that nothing lasts for ever. Not even perceived genius. The mask is undoubtedly slipping. The Arsene Wenger of today is not the Arsene Wenger of a decade ago. As he himself was quoted last week, failure to secure a top four finish could well prove to be a disaster. The exact kind of disaster he does not currently appear able to recover from.

Naturally, the substitution itself didn't lose Arsenal the game but as sod's law would dictate, Arshavin was at fault for United's winner meaning Wenger's gamble backfired spectacularly and in some sense justified the criticisms of the fans - telling him he doesn't know what he's doing is perhaps a bit strong though. Someone with Arsene Wenger's record deserves a tad more respect than that. Booing, and vocal criticism, although completely within the rights of those who pay their money and are therefore entitled to express their displeasure, is simply divisive and counterproductive.

As usual, Arsenal fans were quick to wheel out the old injury excuse and lack of recognised full-backs for their defensive problems. However, on this occasion the argument was rendered redundant due to the fact their of their opponents' back five on the day, only Patrice Evra could be considered one of Manchester United's 'first choice' defenders. Add to that the the fact that Phil Jones was stretchered off in the opening exchanges and you would say that the flaws at Arsenal are surely more to do with tactics rather than personnel.

As Arsenal and their troubles were the main focus after the match, United's own problems went unnoticed. The fact they picked up the three points here didn't tell the whole story of their own shortcomings. While they may have been in control during the first half, they were far from convincing. They saw a lot of the ball, yes, but it certainly wasn't a case of them carving the gunners open at will despite the generosity of Johan Djourou who personally allowed Nani the freedom of Islington. A 'better' side would have been home and dry by half time.

In second half, they simply retreated and almost threw the game away. I know it seems fashionable to have a go at Michael Carrick but I genuinely don't see what he does. I would welcome any explanation. Wayne Rooney may as well have stayed on the team bus such as his anonymity while the 'rabbit in the headlights' look has become so synonymous with Johnny Evans that he Northern Ireland international should just patent it and be done with it. Again, a 'better' side than Arsenal would have been able to capitalise on United's dismal second half showing. They will however, be encouraged by the sensible person's choice (bore off, Sky) as Man of the Match Antonio Valencia who scored one and made the other of the two match-winning goals. He and the abovementioned Chamberlain were the only two shining lights in what was, in truth, a poor game.

I seem to find myself saying this year after year but the deficiencies of Sir Alex's team make them look anything but champions yet they still find themselves within spitting distance of their city rivals at the top of the table. Despite the current side's glaring limitations, only a crazy person would dare write them off.

So what conclusions can we draw? Power shifts? It would be difficult to argue against it in North London but perhaps not quite yet in Manchester. However, the results suggested that if fans of THE BESTEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD (!!!!!!!) were hoping for anything other than a two horse race (yet again), it is looking like they will be sorely disappointed.

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