Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Clattered! Blues see red as ref leaves his Mark - Weekend Observations: 27th-28th October 2012

Match of the weekend
After an epic 3-3 draw last season, Manchester United and Chelsea renewed pleasantries at Stamford Bridge in a match that will, for better or for worse, leave a permanent imprint – or perhaps stain – on this, or perhaps any season of the Premier League. The two sides, supporters and officials did their damnedest to squeeze as much incident as was humanly possible into the time allocated between kick off and full time.

The visitors closed the gap on their hosts at the top of the table to just one point with a dramatic 3-2 win - a scoreline Sir Alex's men seems to have trademarked this season. Having previously netted five times in his only two previous appearances at Chelsea while playing for Arsenal, Robin van Persie again proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of the West Londoners as his 3rd minute shot cannoned off the post and into David Luiz who was helpless as the ball bounced off him and into net. The Dutch striker doubled the lead not long after and the reds, arguably for the first time this season, looked in total control.

The much talked about Chelsea midfield Ménage à trois of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar was left frustrated as United were fairly comfortable with anything that was thrown in their direction. Anything that did sneak through was dealt with by David De Gea.

That was until just a few minutes before half time. Frustrated having ceded possession to the abovementioned Hazard, Wayne Rooney showed all the intelligence of a brain-damaged polar bear on a mushroom trip as he stupidly hacked down the tricky Belgian on the edge of the penalty area. This provided an invitation for the superb Mata to curl a wonderful free kick round the United wall and past De Gea to halve the deficit.

United’s defence has been under incredible scrutiny so far this term due to their basic inability to... well, defend. Just two clean sheets in the preceeding 8 league games tells its own story and while initially things seemed to be going to plan, the concession of the first Chelsea goal on Sunday seemed to be a signal to abandon any sense of discipline. An equaliser seemed inevitable and less than 10 minutes into the second half, Ramieres provided it with close range header from an Oscar cross.

The stage was set for a grand stand finale. Would United respond or implode? Could Chelsea push on for the win? The answers we sought to these questions were indeed provided. Unfortunately, they came less through the influence of either team on the pitch than they did from the officials. With half an hour remaining, Branislav Ivanovic was rightly sent off for clipping Ashley Young and denying him a clear goal scoring opportunity. The home side’s task instantly became more difficult but was made damn near impossible just five minutes later following Mark Clattenburg’s inexplicable decision to issue Fernando Torres with a second yellow card for a perceived dive when the Spaniard had clearly been fouled by Johnny Evans.

Having already been reduced to 10 men, it’s difficult to say whether the European Champions would have got anything from the game. However, they would certainly have at least had something of a fighting chance with Torres on the pitch. The second red card didn't so much hand United the initiative insofar as it was presented to them on a silver platter.

Over the past two decades, be it rightly or wrongly, football fans have always believed Manchester United to regularly be on the receiving end of favourable decisions from referees. 'Fergie time' has become an accepted part of the football lexicon and the general reaction from away fans upon the Reds being rewarded a penalty at Old Trafford, deserved or not, is simply an eyeroll, a tut and a mutter of the word 'typical'.

There’s obviously no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any sort of influence/pressure on officials exists but the frequency with which we find ourselves discussing these incidents undoubtedly allows paranoia to grow and people to fuel their suspicions.

Although on this particular on this occasion, many would simply draw the conclusion that the man in the middle, despite supposedly being among the best in the world, is, to put it as kindly as possible, prone to the odd glaring error rather then being biased. You'd be hard pressed to find a fan of any club who couldn't provide an example of a Clattenburg clanger that has hurt their team. United supporters themselves have been quick to point out that Torres might have walked earlier when his clumsy high kick on Tom Cleverly only received a yellow. Was Clattenberg merely 'correcting' his earlier faux pas? It's more likely the case he just made two equally bad decisions.

So is he corrupt or just incompetent? Neither description paints a particularly pretty picture of the Durham official.

To make matters worse, the reds sealed a dramatic 3-2 win thanks to a goal from Javier Hernandez that was so blatantly offside, the Mexican may as well have been in another time zone (Mexico's, for example). The assistant’s failure to spot this just punctuated what turned out to be a rather dismal weekend for top flight officials. A similar goal was wrongly allowed to stand at the Emirates as Arsenal beat QPR 1-0 while in the Merseyside derby, the odious Luis Suarez was wrongly adjudged to be in an offside position as he scored Liverpool’s last gasp would-be winner against their city rivals. Two points were cruelly snatched away from Brendan Rodgers’ side as the game finished 2-2.

The tragedy of all these talking points is that a brilliant game of football has gone largely unnoticed. One of reasons the title slipped from United's grasp last season was their reluctance to "go for it" in away games against rivals. The meek surrender at Eastlands being the prime and ultimately most costly example. Lessons seemed to have been learned as they dominated the opening exchanges here and were duly rewarded. However, while defensive problems remain, the cavalier approach is always going to be a risk hence the reason this turned out to be the fifth 3-2 result (as well as a 4-2 against Stoke) they've been involved in this season with less than a quarter of the campaign gone.

Despite the loss, many people will still have Chelsea down as favourites for the title this year. Like United, problems are evident in defence but the collective firepower in attack will be enough to overwhelm most teams. Having fought back from 2-0 down, I don't think there are many that would argue that if it remained 11 v 11, they would more than likely have won the game. Still sitting pretty at the top of the league, the loss is unlikely to have any lasting effects.

Racist allegation of the Weekend
Curiously, the erroneously awarded red card and winning goal were not even the most controversial incidents at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Classy, cuddly bunch that they are, the Chelsea faithful, from first minute to last, insisted on jeering and abusing Rio Ferdinand for having the gall to be related to someone who was racially abused by their captain. These fans continued to cover themselves in glory as they decided to shower the United players with coins as they celebrated Hernandez' goal. You can't even afford them the excuse of the goal being offside to fuel their indignation given that very few of them would have been aware at that particular moment that the goal shouldn't have been allowed to stand. In the same incident, some supporters felt it necessary to take out their frustrations on a steward, causing him an injury that required hospital treatment. Any sympathy for them having seen their side robbed by the referee took very little time to disappear.

Somehow even this was pushed into the shade when, in the aftermath, the club filed an official complaint to the FA about the controversial Clattenburg, citing the use of "inappropriate language" directed at two of their players during the game. While the irony of Chelsea Football Club having the audacity to accuse anyone else of this offence is lost on absolutely no-one, the seriousness of the claim should not be ignored. Especially given that fevered speculation has suggested the official racially abused Jon Obi Mikel as well as insulting another Blue.

The allegation casts yet another dark cloud over the game. As we finally shut the door on one race saga, another swiftly decides to show up on your front porch uninvited (presumably wearing a white sheet and burning a cross on your lawn as well).

It would be remiss to speculate while investigation is ongoing but Chelsea would have to be pretty certain about what supposedly took place in order to pursue this complaint. Then again, surely Clattenburg cannot be THAT stupid to make such comments, particularly in the current climate when football's problems with race are such a hot topic. On one hand, you could potentially have one of the FA's top referees potentially guilty of racism which would prove nothing short of a disaster for the already battered integrity of the sport. While on the flipside, Clattenburg clearing his name would quite simply confirm that Chelsea football club, from the very top down, are untrustworthy liars making an extremely misguided attempt to deflect their recent troubles onto someone else. This is literally the last thing their reputation needs on top of everything else.

While we all hope this is resolved sooner rather than later, it can be probably be agreed that there will be no outcome in this case would be 'good' news.

Player of the weekend
Few (none?) particularly outstanding performances so I'm just going to give it to Frank Lampard... or Scott Parker.

Save of the weekend
It would be easy to wheel out the 'silenced his critics' line that often accompanies David De Gea's now regularly impressive performances but it would ultimately prove pointless given that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't now recognise his obvious talent. If any doubters remain, an incredible reflex clawed stop from a Fernando Torres in the first half of Sunday's match should make them sit up and take note.

Goal of the weekend
But for the events at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, the 3-3 ding dong played out at the Madjeski between Reading and Fulham would have been the standout game of the weekend. An end to end slugfest that couldn't produce a winner but had no trouble producing a number of great goals. Mikele Leigertwood's fantastic opener for the Royals and Dimitar Berbatov's late strike stood out in themselves but both were bettered by Bryan Ruiz' wonderful rifled drive which swerved its way between two defenders and managed to dip just under the crossbar leaving Alex McCarthy in the Reading goal stunned.

Dive of the weekend
The merseyside derby, and all the attention prematch was predictably on Luis Suarez and his frequent forays to get better acquainted with the turf despite never actually being fouled. David Moyes had made some damning comments beforehand but he hadn't reckoned on his own captain being the culprit on the day. Anticipating a non-existent challenge from Daniel Agger, Phil Neville went down faster than a drunken reveller falling out of Alma De Cuba on a typical night out in the Liverpool city centre. The most amusing thing was the fact that the former United man was quite clearly not experienced enough in the dark arts to execute even a remotely convincing dive and just ended up looking daft.

In fairness, he fronted up to the cameras afterwards and admitted his act of folly. Such was the embarrassing way he failed to pull off the manoeuvre, it's probably safe to say he won't be attempting any Suarez impressions again any time soon.

Ballsiest moment of the weekend
Speaking of whom, the dislikable Uruguayan put in a typically eventful headline-grabbing display scoring Liverpool's second, escaping a red card for a disgusting stamp on Sylvain Distin and as mentioned above, scoring a legitimate goal that was wrongly disallowed. Before all that however, having set up his side's opener (which went in via Leighton Baines) Suarez took it upon himself to celebrate by sprinting up to the Everton bench and, yep, DIVED at the feet of David Moyes. The Everton manager took it in good spirits but most people would generally know better than to attempt to wind up the firey Glaswegian who could only be technically described as 'Fucking nails'. In a Premier League battle royale, few would look further than Moyes as a potential victor so in that sense, credit must go to Suarez. He might act like a complete pussy at times but he clearly has balls made of solid steel.

Follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Spured On - Weekend Observations : 28th September - 1st October

Game of the weekend
Manchester United 2-3 Tottenham

It's almost become something of an accepted fact in English football that a trip to Old Trafford for Tottenham is something of a wasted journey. Without a win up there in over 2 decades, the only reason the Tottenham faithful have had any good reason to head up the M6 is seemingly to indulge in masochism as their side are only ever likely to endure some sort of humiliating defeat or witness repeated refereeing injustices that are often as laughable as they are infuriating. Ryan Giggs' sister-in law doesn't get screwed as regularly in Manchester as Spurs do.

However, recent years have seen the North Londoners go through something of a revolution and have found themselves flying up the table. At best an inconsistent and at worst a mediocre team, for a good while Tottenham were marooned in mid table obscurity with a penchant for the odd act of self harm - particularly against United. Now, they find themselves in the Premier League's upper echelon harboring not unrealistic expectations of competing in the Champions League regularly. This status firmly enshrined with a unexpected and historic 3-2 victory over Manchester United on Saturday.

This victory was far from fortunate either. Jan Vertonghen wasted no time setting the tone for what was a brilliant first half performance with his deflected first minute strike before Gareth Bale provided the perfect 'football reason' for Roy Hodgson to justify Rio Ferdinand's continued exclusion from the England set up. Not for the first time this season, United were being outplayed and struggled to get anywhere near an inspired Tottenham team who certainly didn't play like a team with a 23 year hoodoo hanging over their collective heads.

After Spurs controlled the first 45 minutes, the expected fightback from United inevitably came after the break but three goals in as many manic minutes when both sides simply said 'fuck tactics' saw the away side take a 3-2 lead. Despite numerous chances for the home side and a couple of penalty appeals, that was how it stayed and as the final whistle echoed around Salford, both Spurs and new manager Andre Villas-Boas were able to party like it was 1989.

Speaking of whom, the win was an emphatic way for the Portuguese manager to go some way towards answering back to his many critics. One of the recently adopted and accepted maxims, although one that seems solely to exist within the tabloid press, is that the club's decision to replace 'Arry Redknapp with Villas Boas was the wrong one. And that's being polite. Reading many of the papers over the last few months and you'd be forgiven for getting the impression that Redknapp was some kind of managerial sage with wisdom of Socrates while AVB was/is no better than... well, David Brent.

The fact Villas Boas has both won a domestic title in his native land as well as a European trophy (neither of which Redknapp has even came close to achieving) apparently went unnoticed in some quarters and attempts to undermine him have been frequent and persistent ever since he set foot in this country. A fleeting, albeit disastrous spell at Chelsea at the start of last season has created the false image that he is somehow some sort of clueless oaf who has no business managing in the Premier League. However, despite 'Arry's high finishes with Spurs over the last three seasons, it wouldn't be unfair to argue that the last six months of his tenure, when he somehow guided his team from touching distance of the top of the table to complete failure to qualify for the Champions League after spunking away a huge lead, was far, far worse than the failings of AVB at Stamford Bridge. Yet rather than being subject to scrutiny within the sports media for this catastrophe, Redknapp was protected has been able to emerge completely blameless for his failings. Meanwhile AVB continues to be crufified. Consequently, the conclusion is that he doesn't 'deserve' to manage Tottenham. Maybe victory at Old Trafford might allow people time to reassess him.

Of course, this result by no means suggests Villas-Boas will prove to be the second coming of Bill Nicholson but talks of crisis beforehand and the absurd notion that was touted just two weeks ago was that he was three games from being sacked just looks ever more daft in light of the win. Instead, the three successive league wins that have followed might want to make the agenda driven cynics wait a little while before penning absurdly premature obituaries.

As for United, they were once again nowhere near best this season and this match showed that continued decay their midfield seems to be accelerating at a rapid rate. Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey - the latter scoring what proved to be the winner - were both instrumental for Tottenham and you have to wonder why Sir Alex Ferguson failed to even look at either player over the summer. Each would certainly be an improvement on what is there already.

Player of the weekend
Luis Suarez.

Norfolk must be sick of the sight of the Uruguayan after he scored he second hat trick in successive seasons at Carrow Road as Liverpool put Norwich to the sword with a devastating 5-2 demolition job on Saturday.

Persistent diving, racial abuse, harassing referees. Like him or loathe him (and I make no secret of the fact it's the latter...) you'd be an imbecile to attempt to deny his ability as a player. That said, for all the fleet-footed dribbling, dazzling movement and the unrivaled way he is able create chances for himself out of absolutely nothing, questions still remain over his finishing. 11 league goals from 128 shots last season is hardly a reflection of a forward who is exactly clinical in front of goal. What people say if those were Emile Heskey's numbers?

But alas, throw enough darts and you'll eventually win the lottery (or something. I'm no good with metaphors...). Some very generous Norwich defending provided Suarez with the freedom of East Anglia and he duly obliged with a trio of well taken goals that has gone some way to lifting the doom and gloom that was making itself somewhat comfortable at the club like some unwanted house guest in recent weeks. If Suarez can continue in this vein, Brendan Rodgers might actually crack a smile sometime this side of new year.

Goal of the weekend
Adel Taarabt

I already had this section written up about Demba Ba's excellent volley at Reading until QPR's Moroccan midfielder had to go and spoil everything in Monday evening's London derby against West Ham with a stunning strike that had no place in an otherwise in a strangely watchable game devoid of any real quality. Having been reduced to something of a bit part player this year, Taarabt wasted little time after coming on as a substitute, using his quick feet to create space on the left hand corner of the penalty area before unleashing a vicious but precise strike into the top right hand corner leaving Jussi Jaaskelainen in the West Ham goal rooted to the spot.

Sadly it proved to be nothing more than a consolation - merely halving teh two goal deficit the Hammers had already established. The 2-1 defeat has The Hoops floundering at the foot of the table and with Mark Hughes' team selections continuing to baffle there seems to be little reason to suggest that will change in the coming weeks.

Dive(s) of the weekend
David Luiz/Carl Jenkinson

In direct contrast to QPR, West London rivals Chelsea made themselves comfortable at the top of the table thanks to 2-1 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates. The blues were good value for their victory but their Brazilian defender single-handedly attempted to blot their copybook with a dive so bad it was hilarious. Rather than ride a perfectly fair tackle by Arsenal's own clown in chief Gervinho, Luiz instead proceeded to throw himself to the ground in both dramatic and comical fashion in a manner befitting of his hapless animated doppelganger Sideshow Bob. Thankfully the referee saw fit to yellow card Luiz for his troubles.

Not be outdone, Arsenal full back Carl Jenkinson later decided he wanted to get up close and personal with the beautiful Emirates turf he somehow managed to win a foul after losing a 50-50 challenge with thin air and going over his own feet.

Miss of the weekend
Oliver Giroud

The same game saw Arsenal superflop Olivier Giroud find his way onto this list after fluffing a fantastic chance in the dying moments of the game to salvage a draw for his side. Having latched onto a fine pass from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Frenchman found himself with the ball at his feet, took it past Petr Cech and fashioned the opportunity to slide home a golden chance that would preserved the Gunners' unbeaten start to the league campaign. Sadly, when the vital moment came, Giroud showed all the composure of newborn foal and all the technique of a Parkinson's sufferer trying to play Jenga as he inexplicably lashed his shot into the side netting when hitting the target would have been easier.

I hope you can forgive the damn near radical thinking on my part, but I don't think I'm wrong in thinking that a striker should really be able to put the ball into that rather large white stationary netted box thing at the end of the pitch. Given that others strikers Nikica Jelavic, Steven Fletcher, Mladen Petric, Sergio Agureo, Edin Dzeko, the abovementioned Luis Suarez, Steve Morison, Grant Holt, Demba Ba, Noel Hunt, Shane Long, Darren Bent and, hell, even Fernando Torres managed to find the target this weekend suggests I'm not crazy for having that view. Although on the evidence of this miss, it might be stretching it to actually believe that Giroud can strictly be called a striker.

His own manager, seemingly as baffled as anyone watching, couldn't actually find a reason as to how his misfit frontman failed to hit the back of the net.

Giroud has yet score for Arsenal in the league and is perhaps coming to terms with the change of environment. For some players it takes time and maybe he'll come good one day but there is little room for extended periods of patience in the modern game. When you join a club to replace the best striker in Europe the previous season, you need to hit the ground running. Right now, he's just looking like a bit of an expensive mistake.

Follow me on Twitter