Another New Year begins, 2011 has been consigned to the annals of history and 2012 stretches out before us, and what a footballing year it promises to be. The European Championship Finals will be held later this Summer in Poland and Ukraine, the first time the tournament will ever have been held in Eastern Europe, and all the major European footballing nations will be there vying to be crowned the victors. Before all that though, there is the, none to small, matter of sorting out domestic honours, as we concentrate on the thrills and spills of the Premier League’s 20th season.
We kick-off 2012 at Craven Cottage for a London Derby which saw Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, on the trail of a top four finish, visiting a Fulham side improving all the time under Martin Jol, and starting to get the results that their play has deserved. The Gunners dominated much of the opening period, and took the lead through Laurent Koscielny, the defender nodding in from 8 yards having found himself unmarked from Ramsey’s deflected cross. Quick passing and movement typified Arsenal in the opening 45 minutes as they ran Fulham ragged, Gervinho was unlucky not to win a penalty as he looked to have been tripped by Senderos, the former Arsenal man lucky to escape punishment. Just the one goal separated the teams at half-time however, as a combination of wasteful finishing and excellent goalkeeping kept the Cottagers in the game; Gervinho and Walcott the main culprits for the Gunners, Stockdale with a magnificent double save from Arteta and Ramsey, amongst others. Not for the first time at home this season, Fulham emerged for the second half a changed side, much brighter, with much more attacking impetus, forcing Arsenal on to the back foot. As the half progressed the Cottagers began to assert control, Sidwell twice coming close before Dempsey and Senderos both missed, very presentable, headed chances. On 63 minutes Djourou picked up Arsenal’s first booking of the match, Fulham continued to press, Ruiz thwarted by Szczesny. Then on 78 minutes Bobby Zamora tried to latch on to a through-ball, Djourou went with him, but laid a hand on the striker’s shoulder, Zamora went down and Djourou, a little harshly perhaps, received a second yellow, sending him for an early bath. Fulham upped the ante still further, and, on 85 minutes Steve Sidwell rose to head home after Arsenal had failed to deal with a corner. The smell of victory in their nostrils, again Fulham came, and again, until finally, cometh the hour cometh the man, Bobby Zamora found himself free at the back post in the 92nd minute, and he made Arsenal pay, sending a low volley past a stranded Szczesny. A remarkable turnaround but no more than Jol and his team deserved after a marvellous second-half performance.
Next up, we’re off up north, to Tyneside to be exact and to, what will always be known as, St James’ Park, for the battle of the Uniteds. The previous meeting between these two teams earlier in the season produced a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, a game which Man. Utd felt unlucky to lose, they would be eager for revenge, especially having just been beaten at home by the League’s bottom club. It was the home side who started stronger and had the best of the early exchanges, Newcastle were unlucky not to be awarded an early penalty as Rio Ferdinand clearly brought down Demba Ba, the Utd. defender getting away with one there. Ba and Ameobi were causing the visitors’ back four all kinds of problems and it was these two who combined to score Newcastle’s opener, an excellent long kick by Krul, flicked on by Ameobi and brilliantly hooked in on the turn by, the prolific, Ba, after 33 minutes. The Red Devils, stung by the early pressure, failed to produce anything like a title contender’s response, the best they could muster, a deflected Berbatov header which hit the base of Krul’s right hand upright.
The Magpies doubled their advantage immediately after the break, effectively killing off their illustrious guests. Yohan Cabaye, undoubtedly one of the signings of the season, stepped up to bend a magnificent free-kick in off the underside of the bar from 30 yards, reminiscent of another famous Geordie, Paul Gascoigne, and his wonder goal for Spurs in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final. The Champions, sorely lacking in creativity, found it hard to get Rooney or Berbatov into the game and struggled to fabricate any clear cut chances, the one opportunity Rooney had was blocked by Danny Simpson, which kept the score at 2-0. Manchester United’s and Alex Ferguson’s misery was complete, when, in injury time, Phil Jones, who’d had a poor game, stooped to head back to Lindegaard in goal, he misjudged the flight of the ball, and it came off his knees and into his own net. 3-0 to Newcastle United, an excellent performance, they out-muscled and out-played Ferguson’s men, who’ll need to seriously raise their game if they have hopes of winning a 20th league title.
Elsewhere at the top of the table, Manchester City defeated Liverpool 3-0 at the Etihad, maintaining their 100 per cent home league record. The hosts scored early on, Aguero benefitting from an uncharacteristic mistake by Pepe Reina. The visitors dominated possession, however it was City who doubled their advantage on 31 minutes, Yaya Toure powering home a header from a corner. For all Liverpool’s possession they created few clear cut chances, and even after the home side were reduced to ten men, Gareth Barry sent off for two yellows, they made few inroads. The game was effectively sealed with fifteen minutes to go, a minute after the sending off. Liverpool gave the ball away from a free-kick, Yaya Toure, my choice for man of the match, broke free of the Liverpool defence, Martin Skrtel, desperately trying to get back, inadvertently tripped him and, the referee pointed to the spot. James Milner buried the penalty and City wrapped up the win to go three points clear at the top of the league. The two teams meet again at the Etihad on Wednesday for the Carling Cup semi-final first leg, and Liverpool will be looking for revenge.
Chelsea were fortunate to beat Wolves at Molineux on Monday, Ramires opened the scoring for the Blues on 54 minutes, lashing in from close range after the Wolves defence failed to clear a corner. Ward equalised for the hosts in the 84th minute after good work from, substitute, Stephen Fletcher, however, in the 89th minute, Ashley Cole broke down the left to cross for the onrushing Frank Lampard, he netted with aplomb and won the match for Chelsea. It wasn’t just the last minute goal that was lucky for Villas Boas’ side, both Ashley Cole, and, most definitely, Frank Lampard should have seen red in a tempestuous first half, had that happened, the result would have been very different. Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa enjoyed a happy New Year, celebrating with away wins over Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, however, the good cheer was not to last as they were brought crashing down to earth by home defeats to Stoke and Swansea respectively. Two first-half goals from Peter Crouch put Stoke in control at Ewood Park, before David Goodwillie replied for Rovers in the 69th minute, unfortunately from their point of view, the comeback stopped there. Villa were never in the game at Villa Park, as a terrible mistake from Stephen Warnock allowed Nathan Dyer in to score for the Swans after just four minutes. Swansea never looked back, and secured their first away win of the season just after the break, Wayne Routledge with his first ever Premier League goal, leaving the Swans sitting pretty in twelfth at the halfway mark of the season.
The two other newly promoted teams battled it out at Loftus Road, Q.P.R. took the lead in the first quarter of an hour, Joey Barton with a rasping finish from fifteen yards. Then on 36 minutes came the talking point, Joey Barton sent off for an off the ball incident with Norwich’s Bradley Johnson, the two players heads’ came together, after strong complaints from Norwich players and a minute or so for the officials to get their story straight, Barton was given his marching orders. The incident changed the game, and within five minutes the Canaries were level through Pilkington. Rangers rallied in the second half, but were undone seven minutes from time by Steve Morison’s winner, leaving the Canaries in eleventh at the halfway point, and, worryingly for Rangers, placing them just one point above the relegation zone. On Wednesday night, Tottenham saw off a resolute West Brom with a goal in the 63rd minute from, a bleached blonde, Jermain Defoe, a smart turn and shot, which is more than can be said for the hairstyle. Everton extended a helping hand to the league’s then bottom club by turning in an abject performance against Bolton. In swirling winds, Tim Howard, the Everton goalkeeper, miraculously put the home side in front on 63 minutes, only to have his strike cancelled out by David N’gog’s excellent equaliser. Want-away defender Gary Cahill, a Chelsea target, scored Wanderers’ winner with twelve minutes to play, leaving Moyes’ men to be booed off at Goodison. Finally, the Martin O’Neill Sunderland revival goes from strength to strength, as he saw his side rattle four past Wigan at the DW Stadium, running out 1-4 winners. Craig Gardner and James McClean put the visitors 0-2 in front, before Hugo Rodallega pulled one back for Wigan on 62 minutes; the Black Cats sealed the points with strikes from Sessegnon and Vaughn. Sunderland have now taken thirteen points from a possible sixteen since the Northern Irishman took over the reins at the Stadium of Light, a remarkable turnaround, that’s top six form, and with the money they have, next season could be Sunderland’s best for a long, long time.
This article was commissioned by and published on http://www.euro-2012-blog.com/ . First published on 08/01/12.