As one year draws to a close, so the next lies ahead of us, we wonder what it may bring, more of the same, or something completely different? For, just when we think we’ve got everything worked out, things have a funny habit of surprising us. That’s just what happened in the Barclays Premier League over the New Year holiday, shocks galore, as none of the top four won their games and the “smaller” clubs showed that they can beat anybody on their day.
We begin at Old Trafford where Manchester United, fresh from two 5-0 victories, took on bottom of the table Blackburn, looking to build on their recent impressive point at Anfield. United were without Wayne Rooney, the striker dropped for yet another breach of discipline, missing the club curfew. Blackburn took the lead in the 16th minute, Yakubu coolly scoring from the spot after Dimitar Berbatov had wrestled Chris Samba to the ground in the area. United’s response was negligible, the best they could muster in the first half was a drive from Nani, which failed to trouble Bunn in goal for Rovers. After the break, it was Rovers again who had the ball in the net, Yakubu, spinning away from a static Phil Jones before rifling the finish into the top corner, leaving De Gea no chance. This time United did respond, Berbatov redeeming himself by heading in Rafael’s wayward shot, less than a minute after the re-start. Ten minutes later, United were level, Berbatov again, this time a smart finish with his right foot, following a good cross from the right by Valencia. United seemed as if they were going to pull it out of the bag like we’ve seen so many times before, but on this occasion it wasn’t to be. Blackburn weren’t giving up without a fight and, with ten minutes to go, they exposed United’s fragility at the back, in particular their goalkeeping predicament. De Gea, who’d been shaky all afternoon, came for a Pederson corner and got nowhere near it, ending up in a heap on the floor, he could only turn and watch as Grant Hanley headed the ball into the United net, to make it Manchester United 2-3 Blackburn Rovers. A massive shock, the Champions beaten at home by the league’s bottom club, a team who were 28-1 with some bookies to win this game, it doesn’t get much better than that.
So, to Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea, without a win in three, took on an Aston Villa side struggling for form and goals of late. It was the Blues who took the lead, Didier Drogba, somewhat fortuitously, scoring from the spot after he’d been brought down by Richard Dunne. The lead lasted just five minutes, Stephen Ireland, who’s had all sorts of problems since moving to Villa, and has struggled to hold down a first team place, started and finished a flowing move at the second time of asking, after an excellent run from Charles N’Zogbia. The game ebbed and flowed with both sides creating chances, Drogba wasteful on several occasions for Chelsea, and Agbonlahor spurning a great chance for the Villains, firing straight at Cech when one on one. Chelsea pushed for the win and, substitute, Fernando Torres was unlucky to see his 25 yard effort crash back off the crossbar, not long after coming on. However, it was Villa’s pace up front that ultimately did for Chelsea, as the Blues pushed on, Ciaran Clark found Stylian Petrov with a measured through-ball and the Bulgarian made no mistake, firing past Cech to make it 1-2. Villa wrapped up the points with four minutes to go, Frank Lampard, on as a substitute gave the ball away cheaply; Stephen Ireland raced clear before allowing Darren Bent to finish Chelsea off for all their fans to see. Another shock away victory, as the Blues were booed off at the Bridge.
The Stadium of Light, no, not Benfica, Sunderland on Wearside, the venue for Sunday afternoon’s game between the Black Cats, and the Sky Blues of Manchester City. Sunderland haven’t enjoyed the best of seasons so far, however, new boss Martin O’Neill has had a positive effect on the team since his arrival, and he was hoping that would continue as they played host to the newest member of Billionaire’s Row. City, coming off a disappointing 0-0 draw away at the Hawthorns on Boxing Day, were keen to get back to winning ways on the road, having not won their last three away games. It was Sunderland who started brighter and they had the first chance, Sessegnon sending Bendtner clear, but the player on loan from Arsenal could not get his touch right to get off a meaningful strike, allowing Hart to deal with the danger. City began to dominate possession, but Sunderland defended resolutely, allowing the Citizens little space and even less time on the ball, a display exemplified by the excellent Cattermole. Mancini brought on Aguero at half-time, and Silva soon afterwards, the former testing Mignolet from close range, the later doing the same later on, before Micah Richards’ header came back off the bar. Still Sunderland held firm, and the game looked certain to be heading for a 0-0, when, in the third minute of stoppage time, substitute Ji Dong-Won broke free, rounded Hart and rolled the ball home to the delight and disbelief of the home fans. Ji was most likely offside, however the flag remained down, and Martin O’Neill could celebrate a third win in five.
At Anfield on Friday night, Liverpool rounded off 2011 with a 3-1 victory against Newcastle United. The visitors took the lead through a deflected Cabaye header, however two goals from Craig Bellamy, against his former club, and one from Steven Gerrard were enough to secure victory against the Magpies. Newcastle were lucky to keep Cabaye and Colocchini on the pitch, both should have seen red, the former for a terrible over the top challenge on Jay Spearing, the latter for an elbow on Craig Bellamy which left the Welshman needing stitches. Elsewhere, a late, rare Victor Anichebe goal did the damage at the Hawthorns as Everton overcame West Brom 1-0. Robin van Persie broke Thierry Henry’s Arsenal scoring record as he notched his 35th of the calendar year, in a 1-0 victory over Q.P.R. at the Emirates.
Tottenham Hotspur were held to a 1-1 draw at the Liberty Stadium by a Swansea City side that continues to impress. Rafael van der Vaart put Spurs in front just before the break, only to see his goal cancelled out by Scott Sinclair in the 84th minute. It was a tale of two goals at Carrow Road as well, one very early and one very late. Fulham took the lead after just seven minutes, Orlando Sa with a lovely curled effort to beat Ruddy, and in truth they should have had the game wrapped up before half-time, Sa with an effort cleared off the line, and Dempsey hitting the woodwork. Second-half pressure from the hosts built and built until finally, in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Simeon Jackson stooped at the far post to head Norwich level, cue the celebrations for Canaries fans. In a bottom of the table clash Bolton and Wolves shared the points at the Reebok, Ricketts after 22 minutes for the home side and, almost inevitably, Steven Fletcher with the equaliser for Wolverhampton on 49 minutes. Finally, Stoke and Wigan played out a fantastic match at the Britannia Stadium. Wigan took the lead at the end of an open first half with a smooth counter attacking goal, Rodellega’s cross, perfect for Moses, who made no mistake. Stoke drew level on 77 minutes, Gary Caldwell handled Crouch’s goal-bound effort and received a straight red card, from the resultant penalty, Walters made no mistake. A frantic final ten minutes ensued, and Stoke thought they’d won it when Crouch and Walters combined to set up Cameron Jerome to score his first goal for the Potters in the 84th minute. Wigan were not beaten however and on 87minutes, Rodallega was fouled in the box by Ryan Shotton, Wigan boss Roberto Martinez brought on specialist Ben Watson specifically to take the spot-kick, and he duly scored, sending Sorensen the wrong way to make it 2-2, and that’s how it finished.
This article was commissioned by and published on http://www.euro-2012-blog.com/ . First published on 03/01/12.