Here we are again, silly season in the Barclays’s Premier League, as the festive season draws ever nearer, so the games come thick and fast. While many of the major leagues across Europe are preparing for a winter break, and players are looking forward to spending time with their families during the holiday season, this is not the case in England. Five sets of fixtures in seventeen days, running up to January 3rd, got underway last weekend, as the Barclay’s Premier League entered what is widely regarded as the most crucial part of the footballing calendar.
We begin this week with a trip to Manchester, the blue half, to see how the richest club in the world would handle a home tie against a much improved Arsenal. Man. City, as I’m sure you are aware, lost their unbeaten start to the season at Stamford Bridge last Monday night, and they would have been keen to bounce back, against a Gunners side unbeaten in the league since October 2nd. The match would not fail to live up to expectations. Right from the off, the high tempo, high quality, attacking football that the Premier League is famed for, was on display from both sides. City had the best of the opening exchanges, and Aguero should have put the Sky Blues in front early on, however he fired over from Zabaleta’s cross, before having another effort saved. Arsenal weren’t holding anything back either, and Hart had to be on his toes to keep out Gervinho and then Ramsey. Unfortunately for Arsenal, their already makeshift back four had to be re-shuffled again just after half-time because of an injury to Djourou, and it was this lack of continuity in the defensive positions which contributed greatly to the concession of the only goal of the game. On 53 minutes Mario Balotelli found himself in acres of space down the Arsenal right, lacking immediate options, he cut inside and rifled a shot, with negligible backlift, across Szczesney, who could only parry into the path of Aguero. His header dropped for David Silva, who was on hand to poke the ball home from about three yards out. Arsenal responded rapidly, and Walcott tested Hart immediately, with what was to be his last, and only, major contribution to proceedings, before being substituted. Hart saved from van Persie and Gervinho, after van Persie had had a goal correctly ruled out for a marginal offside call, and Vermaelen’s late curler had the City keeper worried, before it went narrowly wide; however but for Nasri’s inexplicably poor cross Balotelli would surely have wrapped up the points for City. As it was, a pulsating match, full of quality, City came out on top, but both teams look strong.
The victory at Eastlands put City back to the top of the table on Sunday afternoon. Yes, I say back to the top, because earlier in the day their closest rivals, both geographically and competitively, had displaced them with a 0-2 away win at Loftus Road. The writing was on the wall for Q.P.R. from very early on, as some inept defending allowed Rooney to head home Valencia’s cross after just 53 seconds. From that moment on, the game was Manchester United’s, huge gaps in the Rangers back line were exposed time and again by United as first Welbeck, and then Jones twice, burst through only to be denied by fine stops from Cerny. Spirited though Rangers were, they only rarely threatened, and the game was well and truly wrapped up after 56 minutes, when Michael Carrick stole the ball from Joey Barton in his own half, showed a little trickery to get away from Faurlin, and was then allowed to waltz unopposed for 40 yards, before finishing well with a low shot from the edge of the box. United totally dominant, and boosted by the return from injury of Javier Hernandez after only a couple of weeks, when initially it was thought that he would be out for a minimum of 2 months.
In England’s second city Liverpool killed off any potential challenge from Aston Villa within 15 minutes at Villa Park. Craig Bellamy produced a Man of the Match performance with a goal and an assist as Villa’s woes from set pieces continued. Without the injured Darren Bent and the suspended Agbonlahor, Villa were completely bereft of any attacking prowess whatsoever, as Heskey and Delfouneso made heavy weather of things up front. Liverpool for their part, were excellent all over the pitch, Suarez was unlucky not to bag a couple as he hit the crossbar and the post, on separate occasions in the second period. Another plus for the Reds was the performance of Jonjo Shelvey, making his first Premier League start, the 19 year old put in an accomplished performance playing behind Suarez, and had a hand in the opening goal.
Elsewhere, Tottenham Hotspur got back to winning ways, condemning Martin O Neill to his first defeat as manager of Sunderland. The Black Cats gave as good as they got in the first half, but ultimately Spurs’ superior quality shone through, with Roman Pavluychenko bagging the goal, a crisp finish, low across the keeper in the 61st minute. Sunderland played well and signs of improvement under O Neill are definitely already there, however, they need a striker. Spurs, without the injured Bale, march on. Saturday evening’s kick-off saw Chelsea go to Wigan, looking for their fourth league win on the spin, having seen off Newcastle, Wolves and Man. City in recent weeks. Wigan, at the wrong end of the table, have done well against the Blues at home in recent years, and Saturday was to prove no different, as Roberto Martinez’s men came from a goal down to snatch a last gasp equaliser. The impressive Daniel Sturridge fired the visitors ahead just before the hour mark, only to have his strike cancelled out by Gomez’s 87th minute tap in, after Cech had spilt Rodallega’s initial effort. Also at the bottom, Steve Kean’s Blackburn Rovers suffered their sixth home defeat of the season, as wonder strikes from, first James Morrison, and then Peter Odemwengie, were enough to cancel out Scott Dann’s effort. Rovers lose again, and the pressure on Kean gets ever greater, Blackburn face fellow strugglers Bolton on Tuesday night in what is, even at this point in the season, a bonafide relegation six pointer.
Back in the Capital, and Fulham’s record signing Bryan Ruiz began paying off his transfer fee with a goal and an assist to help his team to a 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers. Ruiz has shown flashes of potential hidden genius since his arrival in the summer, but on Saturday afternoon, he produced it for all to see. First a pinpoint cross for the arriving Clint Dempsey to power in a header from 16 yards, leaving Jaaskeleinen grasping air, and then, the icing on the cake; latching on to Dempsey’s throughball, Ruiz held off the attentions of a defender, advanced on the keeper, and finished sublimely with a flick lob that gave Jaaskeleinen absolutely no chance. Bolton were poor again, having lost 13 out of 16 matches this season, it’s difficult to see where their next win will come from, as I’ve mentioned above, Tueday’s game will be vital. Norwich and Everton played out a 1-1 draw on Merseyside, the visitors took the lead against the run of play after a fine turn and shot from Grant Holt. Everton finally equalised on 81 minutes, and might have won the match had it not been for the form of Ruddy, in goal for Norwich, the keeper made a number of fine saves throughout the match to thwart the Toffees. Stoke City made it four league wins in a row, coming from behind to beat Wolves at Molineux. Wolverhampton took the lead from the spot, Stephen Hunt converting after Woodgate had fouled Jarvis, controversially the referee chose not to book Woodgate for the challenge, had he done so, Woodgate would’ve been sent off, having picked up a yellow for an earlier challenge on the same player. Stoke equalised from a disputed free-kick decision, Huth’s effort cruelly deflected past Hennessey by Kevin Doyle; Peter Crouch got the winner in the 70th minute, leaving Mick McCarthy to fume at the manner of Wolves fourth defeat in five games. Finally Swansea stopper Michel Vorm had another great game, keeping a clean sheet as Newcastle tried in vain to break the deadlock at St. James’ Park. Demba Ba and Coloccini hit the woodwork in the first half, and Vorm made a string of excellent saves to keep the Magpies at bay. Newcastle unlucky not to get the win, but they’ll be happy to have arrested a run which had seen them lose three of their previous four games.
This article was commissioned by and published on http://www.euro-2012-blog.com/ . First published on 20/12/11.