As we say good-bye to January and enter the shortest, coldest month of the year, the Barclays Premier League is really starting to heat up. By the beginning of March the table will begin to give us fans a truly accurate prediction of what the final standings will look like come May 13th. Expect trouble at the top and battles at the bottom, plenty of drama and the obligatory controversial moments during this pivotal month which leads us into the final run in towards the season’s finale.
There’s only one place to start this week, and that’s at Stamford Bridge, where, with the help of some extraordinarily generous refereeing, Manchester United managed to come from three goals down in the second-half, to draw 3-3 with a shell-shocked Chelsea. This was the proverbial game of two halfs; the first, drab, largely uneventful, with the home side, after a few early scares, generally on top, and Ferguson’s men lacking in creativity and ideas.
Until the 36th minute, the biggest talking point of the half involved referee Webb and his failure to give Manchester United a free-kick, when Danny Welbeck was felled by, a lunging, Gary Cahill early in the game. Webb, as is becoming characteristic for him, simply ignored the incident, most likely fearing that had he given the foul, he may have been obliged to show Cahill red. He wouldn’t have had to, as Welbeck was outside the box, and the ball was moving away from goal, but a nervous Webb, fresh from a poor display in the recent Manchester City vs Tottenham game, bottled out of the award and waved away the protests. The game sparked into life ten minutes before the break, Daniel Sturridge showed good skill to beat, a flat footed Evra, and get to the by-line, his ball across was bundled into United’s goal by the unfortunate Jonny Evans, 1-0 at half-time.
The second half exploded with a goal just thirty seconds after the re-start; a fantastic, deep, arching cross from the right by Fernando Torres, picked out Juan Mata, who arrived with a powerful, controlled volley into the roof of the net, giving De Gea no chance. Four minutes later it was 3-0, David Luiz lost Evra and rose to meet Mata’s free-kick, his header looked to be creeping into De Gea’s bottom right hand corner, however a significant deflection off Rio Ferdinand took it into his top left corner, leaving the United stopper stranded.
Chelsea three up and cruising, or so you’d think, but just eight minutes later, Howard Webb would help United get right back into the game. Patrice Evra made a break down the left side of Chelsea’s area on 58 minutes, Sturridge chased him back and unfortunately for him got a little too close to the United defender. Evra, sensing Sturridge’s presence, ensured that the Chelsea man couldn’t avoid making contact with him, and, upon feeling the slightest touch, arched his back and crumpled to the ground in a fantastic impression of a dying Swan. Webb allowed himself to be conned by the Frenchman and pointed to the spot, softer than a roll of Andrex! Rooney buried the penalty, 3-1.
Ten minutes later Webb awarded United another penalty, and if the first one was soft, which it undoubtedly was, the second definitely fell into the “never a penalty” category. The ball broke to Welbeck in the box, Ivanovic unsure of himself, pulled out of the attempted challenge, however the United frontman hung his leg out in a deliberate attempt to make contact with the defender, once successful, he threw himself to the ground, and Webb, again, was conned. This time Rooney went the other way, the result was the same, 3-2. The equaliser came eight minutes from time, the predatory Javier Hernandez, with a close range header from Giggs’ cross, again proving his weight in gold snatching yet another vital point for his team, the eighth he’s secured so far this season.
Chelsea had chances to win the match both before and after Hernandez goal; Torres lacked the confidence to get off a shot when he burst through on goal, and De Gea produced one of the saves of the season when, in the dying seconds, he flew across his goal to palm away Mata’s fabulous free-kick. An outstanding match, with more than its fair share of drama and controversy, especially in the second-half. 3-3 the final score, and not surprisingly it was referee Webb who was on the minds of both managers after the game. Villas Boas was left fuming at Webb’s “absurd” penalty awards, Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, defended the man in the middle. You know things have gone Manchester United’s way when that happens.
Manchester City emerged from the weekend’s fixtures two points clear of United at the top of the table following a professional and fairly clinical performance against Fulham in the snow at the Etihad. Fulham’s away record is awful, and it showed no signs of improving as goals from Aguero, Chris Baird (og), and Edin Dzeko, sealed victory for the Citizens.
Arsenal heaped still more misery on to Steve Kean and Blackburn, running out 7-1 winners at the Emirates. Van Persie opened the scoring for the Gunners, but a magnificent curling free-kick from Gamst Pederson levelled for Blackburn. Van Persie’s second and a first Premier League goal from Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners’ secret weapon, put Arsenal 3-1 up, before Gael Givet was sent off for a two-footed lunge just ahead of half-time.
After the break things went from bad to worse for Rovers; Arteta made it four, and Oxlade-Chamberlain doubled his tally before van Persie completed another Premier League hat-trick just after the hour mark. At 6-1 Arsenal took their foot off the accelerator slightly, however there was still time for Henry and van Persie to combine in the 90th minute, allowing the returning Arsenal hero to cap the afternoon with a seventh goal. Arsenal go sixth, Blackburn drop to 19th.
Elsewhere, Sunderland’s wonderful form continued as they picked up three points, beating Stoke 1-0 in arctic conditions at the Britannia. James McClean’s solo goal was enough to beat Stoke, who had Robert Huth wrongly sent off, by the ever card happy, Martin Atkinson. 22 points from 30 now since O’Neill’s arrival on Wearside, the best form in the league.
Djibril Cisse’s harsh red card on just his second start for Q.P.R., allowed Wolves to come from behind, and turned the tables on the home side at Loftus Road. Bobby Zamora’s debut goal had put Rangers ahead early on, but Cisse saw red for “raising his arms” in reaction to a nasty challenge from Roger Johnson, something that Gareth Bale would get away with in the Monday night game at Anfield, and this changed the game completely.
Matt Jarvis equalised one minute into the second-half and, from there, Wolves never looked back; Kevin Doyle sealed Wolves first win in two months on 71 minutes, with a neat finish on the turn. Wolves climb out of the bottom three, Q.P.R. slip back towards it.
West Bromwich Albion’s terrible home form continued on Saturday as they let a one goal lead slip away, going down 1-2 to Swansea City. Albion took the lead on 54 minutes, Marc Antoine-Fortune finding the back of the net, however within the space of five minutes, the Swans had turned the game on its head, much to the dismay of the home support.
First, new boy, Sigurdsson and then Danny Graham, put the finishing touches to flowing moves, which the Albion defence just couldn’t cope with. Hodgson’s side didn’t look like coming back, and, on the final whistle, they were roundly booed off. Everton drew with bottom side Wigan at Goodison Park on Saturday, a dreadful mistake from Tim Howard allowed Wigan to take the lead fifteen minutes from time, however Victor Anichebe spared Howard’s blushes by glancing home Baines’ corner seven minutes later. Everton, for whom Nikica Jelavic made his home debut as a second half substitute, remain in mid-table, Wigan stay rooted to the bottom, five points from safety.
Newcastle’s African connection did the business for them against Aston Villa on Sunday. New signing Papiss Cisse started on the bench for the Magpies but was quickly thrust into the action, due to an injury to Leon Best. It was the Geordies other Senagalese hitman who opened the scoring on the half hour, rifling in from close range.
Robbie Keane equalised for Villa right on half-time, Villa will miss the Irishman when his short term loan ends. The home side, and their new number 9 were not going to be upstaged though, and in the 71st minute, Cisse got the goal that the Gallowgate End had been waiting for. Chesting down the ball just inside the area, Cisse spun and thundered a left foot shot, on the half-volley, which arrowed past Given in to his top-right corner. Newcastle stay fifth, Villa’s indifferent form continues, they drop to thirteenth.
Norwich City saw off Bolton with two late goals at Carrow Road on Saturday. Andrew Surman and Anthony Pilkington with the goals that kept Norwich in the top-half, and ensured that, Owen Coyle’s, Bolton dropped back into the relegation places.
Finally, the Monday night fixture between Liverpool and Spurs at Anfield, failed to live up to expectations, producing a 0-0 draw. Liverpool dominated possession and looked by far the more likely, with Tottenham happy to play for a draw the longer the match progressed. Gareth Bale had Spurs’ best chance when sent clear by Parker, but Pepe Reina got his angles spot on, and the Welshman shot straight at him.
Suarez probably had Liverpool’s best chance, but the returning Uruguayan, who came on for last 25 minutes, headed straight at Friedel from eight yards. Bale was lucky to stay on the pitch; having blatantly dived to try and win a free-kick, a bookable offence, he took exception to Agger’s verbal response, and reacted by jumping up and shoving the Liverpool defender quite violently in the chest, at least another bookable offence. Referee Oliver produced only one yellow, allowing Bale to remain on the pitch, somewhat lenient, especially in view of what happened to Cisse at Loftus Road.