January Blues…, Reds, Whites, Hoops, Stripes, whatever your club colours are, they’re all still here, they’re all still scrapping, as this Barclays Premier League season is very much alive and kicking. The media’s been quick to hype up a three way title race, for my money it’s still too early to say with another seventeen games to go. Most of the top six still have to play each other, and as such all of them are in with a shout, particularly given the unpredictable nature of this season’s results. At the bottom, nothing is certain either, although Bolton and Wigan will have to improve rapidly to avoid the drop. This time, we’re going to concentrate on the fortunes of the newly promoted teams, how they fared at the weekend and where their seasons might be heading.
We begin at The Hawthorns, where Paul Lambert’s Norwich bid to continue a magnificent run which has, not only, seen them gain two successive promotions, but also, carry that on into a great first half of the Premier League season. Roy Hodgson’s West Brom haven’t been picking up results at home this season, winning only two of eleven games at the Hawthorns so far, so they were desperate to get some points on the board to arrest their slide down the table. The Baggies started brightly, Odemwengie testing Ruddy from 20 yards, before James Morrision had a half volley cleared off the line by Andrew Surman. The home side were on top for much of the first half, but have struggled to score goals this season, as they pushed for the opener just before the break, they found themselves in trouble. A quick, slick counter attack ended up with Hoolahan picking out, the unmarked, Surman, who volleyed home smartly from twelve yards, a sucker punch for Albion. Hodgson’s men started the second half in much the same vein and, substitute, Shane Long added pace and a goal threat to the Albion cause, involved straight away, testing Ruddy with a low shot. It was the Irishman, Long, who drew the sides level, coolly converting from twelve yards after Jerome Thomas was scythed down in the box by Ayala. West Brom piled forward sensing a winner, and put Norwich under sustained pressure. The Canaries however, as we’ve seen before, soaked up the pressure calmly and then broke Baggies hearts with another superb breakaway goal. This time, club Captain and substitute, Grant Holt, with a barnstorming run down the left and a delightfully floated cross to Steve Morison, who powered in a header at the far post.
Final score W.B.A. 1-2 Norwich City, and the result and performance were typical of a Norwich side who under Paul Lambert have really caused a stir in the Premier League so far. Although resolute in defence, Lambert’s men have failed to keep a clean sheet in 21 games, however, it’s their never say die attitude, their ability to counter attack incisively with genuine pace, and, their aerial prowess in front of goal which are the three things that have defined the Canaries in the Premier League. These qualities show no sign of fading and, at the moment, it seems very much like Norwich may finish in the top ten this season, a stunning achievement for a newly promoted team.
To St. James’ Park now, where another one of the newly promoted teams, Queens Park Rangers faced a tough away fixture on Tyneside. Rangers’ recent fortunes have been in stark contrast to those of the other Premier League newcomers; after a decent start to the campaign, a poor run of results in the league and, almost, an embarrassing FA Cup third round exit at the hands of M.K. Dons, has resulted in the, somewhat hasty, sacking of manager, Neil Warnock. Mark Hughes, the new man at the helm, saw his team kick-off the day in 18th place in what would be his first game in charge. Q.P.R. started well, playing at a high tempo and not letting the home side settle, the Londoners also had the best of the early chances, Shaun Wright-Phillips clipping the crossbar with a decent drive from the edge of the box. Yohan Cabaye was then stretchered off for the Magpies, already missing Ba and Tiote, with an ankle injury, before Bothroyd feathered the outside of the post with a luscious curling shot. It was the Geordies however who took the lead, 37 minutes gone and Danny Guthrie found Leon Best on the far side of the area, Best, who’s dropped down the pecking order a little in light of Ba’s form, still had a lot to do, but he did it with aplomb. Excellent touch and immaculate close control with both feet allowed him to turn inside Luke Young and place the ball in the far corner, 1-0 Newcastle. After the break, it was much the same pattern to begin with, Rangers pressing for the equaliser keeping the Magpies on the back foot. Bothroyd missed two glorious opportunities, and Mackie blasted over after his initial effort had been saved. Newcastle held firm though and in the latter stages looked like adding to their lead, Best and Gutierrez both with chances, however, they failed to convert them and it finished 1-0.
Rangers are in a bit of trouble, and their future is uncertain, already in the bottom three, they have struggled to find the net this season, and have a poor home record. The new man Hughes has been promised a decent budget and plenty of transfer activity is likely in the window, however, trying to bed in a new manager and a load of new players is not going to be easy and they must start to get results quickly if they are to avoid going straight back down.
The game of the weekend undoubtedly took place at the Liberty Stadium, South Wales, home to Swansea City, where the Gunners of Arsenal were the visitors on Sunday afternoon. Swansea have impressed many observers this season with their attractive brand of, Barcelona style, short passing football, they have also shown themselves to be hard to beat securing away points at Anfield and St. James’ Park, and have one of the best defensive records in the division. Arsenal, in fifth, were keen to keep the pressure up on Chelsea and the rest of the top teams by winning in Wales. Arsenal started brightly and took the lead within five minutes, Robin van Persie latching on to a, rare, great through-ball by Arshavin, and beating Vorm at his near post. It seemed as if the Gunners would run away with it, however, the pattern began to change as Swansea re-affirmed their credentials, gradually imposing their style upon the match. The Swans restored parity through a Scott Sinclair penalty, expertly dispatched after Nathan Dyer had gone down under challenge from Aaron Ramsey, the Welshman unlucky to be penalised. Arsenal receded as the half progressed while Swansea asserted themselves further, out-passing and out-moving the Gunners, who’ve arguably been the best passing team in the league for the last decade; Swansea were beating the Arsenal at their own game, and loving it. Twelve minutes after the break Swansea got the lead they deserved, Joe Allen robbed Ramsey, who had a torrid afternoon back in Wales, and played it through to Dyer, who steadied himself before burying it in the top corner. In the 69th minute, against the run of play, Walcott found himself in acres of space and neatly clipped over Vorm to make it 2-2, however less than a minute later Swansea were ahead again. A glorious ball from, substitute, Sigurdsson, allowed Danny Graham to race beyond Arsenal and finish sweetly across Szczesny into the far corner.
3-2 Swansea, and that’s how it stayed; the result lifting the Swans into the top half and the manner of the performance leaving observers waxing lyrical about Brendan Rodgers team. Hard work, spirit, and, above all, total belief in what they are doing, encapsulate Swansea under Rodgers, they look almost certain to stay up this season, and, on the evidence of last weekend, thoroughly deserve their place in the Premier League.
Elsewhere, Liverpool stumbled again at home against a Stoke side that went to Anfield determined to get a draw. 0-0 the final score, and, if we learned anything from the game, we learned that it’s impossible to foul Andy Carroll, at least in, referee, Howard Webb’s eyes. Paul Scholes scored Manchester United’s first in a 3-0 win over, sorry, Bolton; Welbeck and Carrick with the other two. Tottenham faltered at home against Wolves. Steven Fletcher put Mick McCarthy’s men in front before Luka Modric second half equaliser. Manchester City ground out a 0-1 away win at the DW Stadium; Edin Dzeko with the goal in the first half, in what was a lacklustre City performance. Blackburn climbed out of the bottom three with an excellent 3-1 win over Fulham. Goals from Pederson, Dunn and Formica did the damage for Rovers, after they were reduced to ten men early on; Duff replied for Fulham. Chelsea were fortunate to defeat Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland by a goal to nil, Lampard tapping in after Torres’ acrobatic volley crashed back off the bar. The Black Cats created some fantastic, clear cut chances but failed to convert any of them. Finally, Aston Villa played out a 1-1 home draw with Everton, Darren Bent put the Villains in front but Everton struck back to, deservedly, share the points, Anichebe beating, the excellent, Shay Given.
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