So Christmas Day has come and gone, presents were all opened and the family fed, all that was left to look forward too was cold turkey sandwiches, hangovers, and, of course, football, football, football! The third round of fixtures in the Barclays Premier League festive extravaganza got underway on Boxing Day and threw up some very unexpected results, as a tidal-wave of draws swept across England’s top division.
We begin though with one of only three games that produced a definitive result, as Manchester United looked to close the gap over rivals Manchester City. The visitors to Old Trafford on Boxing Day were Roberto Martinez’s Wigan side; the Latics were looking to carry on their recent good form which has included draws at home with Chelsea and Liverpool. Things didn’t start well for Wigan, as Park fired United ahead in the eighth minute, they then proceeded to exert pressure with long range efforts from Gibson and Giggs. Martinez’s men began to come back into the game, Ronnie Stam in particular, with some excellent breaks down United’s left hand side, and some inviting crosses, was causing the home side problems. Then, just after the half hour mark, came the decision that would effectively end the game as a contest, and hand it to Ferguson’s Red Devils. Wigan striker, Conor Sammon was sent off for an innocuous clash with Michael Carrick on the half way line, Sammon’s forearm caught Carrick while the two jostled for position, and referee Phil Dowd, inexplicably, produced a straight red card. The decision left players and managers bemused, and has already been reversed on appeal, however it put paid to any slight Wigan hopes of a positive result on Boxing day. Shortly afterwards Berbatov made it two, and, added a third quickly after half-time with a deft turn and sharp finish. Antonio Valencia netted the fourth, rifling a low shot across Al-Habsi, following a United corner. Wigan never gave up the fight but failed to really test Lindegaard in the second half at all, and the rout was completed when a penalty was awarded against Antolin Alcaraz for a foul on Park, which actually occurred outside the box. Dimitar Berbatov stepped up and made no mistake as the Bulgarian sealed another hat-trick in the red of Manchester, a feat which has, reportedly, earned him a one year contract extension. The Latics can write this one off as a bad day at the office, where decisions went against them; United, albeit with a little luck on their side, are beginning to look ominously good.
The second of our Boxing Day offerings took us to Anfield, and the red half of Merseyside, as Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool looked to condemn the Premier League’s bottom side to their third defeat in a week. Blackburn, for their part were desperate for points, after an awful run culminated in home defeat against their closest rivals, Bolton, in their previous game. Liverpool started the game brightly, dominating possession and looked by far the more likely to take the lead. Suarez, enjoying the support of the Liverpool fans, was as lively as ever and produced a number of efforts, none however, really testing Bunn, in goal for Rovers. On 26 minutes the first major chance of the game fell to Andy Carroll, the ball dropping at the Liverpool striker’s feet, six yards from goal, Carroll hit it firmly enough, and was unlucky to be thwarted by Bunn’s rapid reaction. Shortly afterwards Liverpool should have had a penalty as Maxi Rodriguez raced onto a through-ball, arriving just before Bunn, the Argentine’s touch took him away from the keeper, who brought him down. The referee’s assistant, however had wrongly flagged Maxi for offside, the decision, a free kick to Rovers, Liverpool fumed! Right on the stroke of half-time Liverpool conceded a controversial corner, as Daniel Agger looked to have been fouled when trying to clear. Charlie Adam, followed up his recent penalty miss, by inadvertently diverting Pederson’s corner past Reina for an own goal, and Blackburn, inconceivably on the balance of play, had a half-time lead. The second half was no different, and Liverpool’s domination provided an early goal, Maxi Rodriguez doing the busines with a free header on the back post, from Martin Skrtel’s cross. Liverpool pressed and pressed, Suarez with a great chance from a corner, but he headed wide. Steven Gerrard made his return on 68 minutes, replacing Adam, who looked low on confidence following the o.g., and was immediately involved, crossing for Maxi who should’ve scored his second. Gerrard looked sharp, and Liverpool began to create more and more, Downing had two great chances that he should have done better with, Suarez rose well at the far post, only to miss the target again, and Carroll was unlucky again, producing a fine header which had Bunn beaten, but dropped agonisingly wide. Still Liverpool pressed, into injury time, as Bunn produced a miraculous stop, low down to his right, to deny Carroll for a third time, and then, with the last action, debutant Henley produced a remarkable goal-line clearance to keep out Agger’s header. Blackburn resilient, fighting for their much maligned manager, hung on grimly to secure a point. Liverpool frustrated again, although surely not far away from putting a decent run of results together.
Tottenham Hotspur were the only other side in the top six to win their game, as they travelled to Norwich on Tuesday to inflict a 0-2 defeat on the Canaries. Gareth Bale again did almost all of the damage, as he continues to enhance his reputation as one of the very best in the league. Two goals from Bale in twelve second-half minutes wrapped up the points for Spurs, as they keep up the pressure on the top two. Elsewhere on Boxing Day, two Newcastle goals in two minutes killed off Bolton’s mini revival, following their victory at Blackburn. Newcastle were the better side and their class shone through with the goals, the first an excellent strike from Ben Arfa, the second, a poacher’s goal from joint Premier League top scorer, Demba Ba.
All of the other matches ended in draws, which while not unprecedented, is extremely rare, especially when you consider the fixtures. Who would have thought the West Bromwich Albion would be the first team to stop the Sky Blue machine from scoring? That’s exactly what they did though, Hodgson’s heroes holding Mancini’s men to a goal-less draw at the Hawthorn’s, and actually coming closest to winning the game through Shane Long and Jerome Thomas. However, Mario Balotelli did have a first half goal wrongly ruled out for offside. Goal difference now the only thing separating the Manchester Clubs at the top. Arsenal were held to a draw at the Emirates by, ten man Wolves, Milijas harshly sent off for the visitors with fifteen minutes to go. Gervinho put the Gunners in front, before Stephen Fletcher levelled the score in the first half. Arsenal dominated, but a string of great saves from Hennessey and some resolute defending, earned Wolves a much needed point. In the London Derby at Stamford Bridge, Fulham held Chelsea to their third draw in a row as Clint Dempsey’s 56th minute strike cancelled out Juan Mata’s goal just after half time.
The Martin O’Neill show was upset slightly at the Stadium of Light, with Everton coming from a goal down to take a share of the points back to Merseyide. The Black Cats took the lead as Colback’s deflected shot looped over Howard in the 26th minute. The Toffees can thank their lucky stars however, as they were awarded the worst penalty ever given in the history of the Premier League, bar none. In the 51st minute Leon Osman broke into the box cut across two players, shaped to shoot with no Sunderland player close enough to make contact with him, kicked the ground and fell over. Not a dive, definitely not a foul, just a “cock up”, however referee, Howard Webb did little to enhance his faltering reputation by awarding a spot kick. Baines duly scored, and Everton left Wearside with a point. In Wales, Queens Park Rangers came from a goal down to draw with Swansea, Danny Graham with the early goal for the Swans after fourteen minutes, Jamie Mackie levelling things up in the second half, for Rangers. Finally, by far the dullest game of this round of fixtures, produced a bore draw between Stoke City and Aston Villa, both sides hit the crossbar, but neither the Potters’ agricultural style of play, nor the Villains’ economical style of play, produced excitement or goals.
This article was commissioned by and published on http://www.euro-2012-blog.com/ . First published on 30/12/11.