Meanwhile In The Premier League 25th&26th February

Walcott and Arsenal Stun Spurs

The Barclays Premier League roared back into action at the weekend after the F.A. Cup break, and it didn’t disappoint.  Nine matches in all over the two days, with Liverpool’s visit to Wembley meaning the postponement of the Merseyside Derby, and , as if we needed a little reminder, the Premier League once again made it quite clear to all of us who thought the pattern was set and the rollercoaster was over for the season, to wise up and think again.

We begin at the Emirates for Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off, where Arsenal hosted Spurs in the North London Derby. Arsenal, having been all but eliminated from the Champions’ League by Milan, and knocked out of the F.A. Cup by Sunderland, in the same week, faced a real test of character against their fiercest rivals, with both teams scrapping for a top four finish.  Tottenham came into the match in fantastic league form, and Harry Redknapp’s team were looking to complete the double over the Gunners this season, in their bid to keep their title aspirations alive, and deal Arsene Wenger’s team another psychological body blow.

Tottenham started the game reasonably well, and took the lead early on, Louis Saha latching onto a throughball, his effort hit Vermaelen and looped up over Szczesny with only four minutes gone.  Arsenal responded brightly, and began to see much more of the ball, however, their defensive weakness was again exposed by a Tottenham counter attack in the 34th minute, which ended up with Gareth Bale going down in the box under challenge from Gibbs and Szczesny. Bale’s gathering a reputation for diving, certainly amongst fans of other clubs, and it seemed to be the case here again, as the replay indicated that if there was any contact with the Welshman at all, it was as minimal as a Berlin techno track. Nevertheless, Adebayor stepped up and slotted the penalty home, in front of the snarling home fans.

At 0-2 many thought Tottenham would go on to secure another three points, however Spurs’ never really looked comfortable, even with the two goal cushion, which on the balance of play, they were fortunate to hold. Harry Redknapp’s game-plan, of allowing Arsenal a lot of possession, began to work against his side as the Gunners’ midfield trio of Rosicky, Song and Arteta, began to run the show,  and the front three, particularly van Persie, were ready to take advantage. It was van Persie who played a huge part in Arsenal’s first goal, his cross-shot came back off the far post for Arteta to cross, and Sagna to plant a great header, past Friedel into the far corner. It was the Dutchman who scored Arsenal’s equaliser; picking up a poor clearance from Assou-Ekotto 25 yards out, he showed excellent footwork to spin away from two defenders, and, getting the ball on his left foot, smashed a curling shot into the top corner, giving Friedel no chance.

2-2, and at the interval Redknapp replaced Louis Saha with van der Vaart, and the paceless  Niko Krancjar with Sandro, in an attempt to sure things up in the middle of the park, and stop Arsenal from controlling the game. The plan failed, and the Arsenal barrage kept coming; buoyed by their first-half response, they were ahead within five minutes of the re-start. Rosicky allowed to run freely into the box to apply the finishing touch, from point blank range, to a move that the Czech had begun.  Wenger’s men were now in free-flow, banishing the memories of last week’s and perhaps, last season’s disappointments, and slapping down their “upstart” rivals in the process.

Tottenham never looked like they had an answer to Arsenal’s pace and guile, and within seventeen minutes, an emphatic Arsenal comeback victory was confirmed. Theo Walcott, booed heavily by a significant number of Arsenal fans at 0-2, responded with two clinical finishes: the first in the 65th minute, a clip over Friedel, even after a poor first touch; the second a confident drive across the veteran stopper, who could have done absolutely nothing about any of the five goals he conceded on the day.

This was Arsenal at their best, fearless free-flowing attacking football, and what a day to produce it! At 0-2, after the week they’d had, and the stick, totally unwarranted, that the team, and especially the manager, had been receiving from their own fans, many expected them to buckle. It was Spurs however who buckled, and now, their psychological strength must be questioned, especially given the inability of everybody’s favourite possible England Manager, to stir even the slightest response after half-time. Once again in the Premier League, the form book flew out of the window and what we thought we knew, we must now thoroughly re-evaluate.

Staying with Sunday’s games, we begin our round-up at Carrow road, where Manchester United did it again. United are the masters of “winning ugly”, and that’s just what they did against Paul Lambert’s Norwich. Paul Scholes opened the scoring in the seventh minute, tapping in from close range, and it looked as if the Old Trafford club were in for a routine victory. Norwich however, had other ideas, and David de Gea was forced into making a string of top class saves before Grant Holt’s superb 83rd minute equaliser.  Typical United though, and all credit to them, they would not drop points; Ryan Giggs, scoring in the 90th minute with a far post winner, making Scholes and Giggs the oldest pair of scorers for a club in Premier League history.

In Sunday’s other game, Stoke City had too much for Swansea City at the Brittania. Stoke scored two first half headers to wrap up the points, the first from Matthew Upson (24), the second from Peter Crouch (39), his tenth of the season. Swans, who were without their sensational goalkeeper Michel Vorm, had a great early chance through Sinclair, however he blazed way over from close range. Chelsea eased the pressure a little on their under fire boss,  by recording a 3-0 home win over Bolton on Saturday. Chelsea made heavy weather of the first-half, but David Luiz’s 46th minute opener paved the way for a comfortable victory. Didier Drogba (61) and Frank Lampard (79),  back in the starting line-up, possibly under owner’s orders, made sure of the points. Pressure eased slightly, but Villas Boas position is eminently precarious.

Newcastle United threw away a 2-0 first-half lead at home to Wolves on Saturday. The Magpies took the lead after just six minutes through new signing Papiss Cisse, and they went further ahead ten minutes later; Jonas Gutierrez with a thunderbolt from 22 yards, a definite contender for goal of the season. Wolves, under new boss Terry Connor, rallied after the interval, and two goals in sixteen minutes- the first from Jarvis (50), the second from Doyle (66)- earned the Midlanders a point, something which had looked unlikely in the extreme at half-time. Fulham recorded a rare away victory on Saturday, defeating Q.P.R. at Loftus road by one goal to nil. Pavel Pogrebnyak, Fulham’s new Russian striker made it two goals in two starts for the club, showing good skill and composure to round Paddy Kenny and slot home, after being put through by Bryan Ruiz. Rangers, who had Malian debutant Diakite sent off in the first half, were poor, and face a relegation battle to stay up.

Perhaps the most surprising result of the weekend was West Bromwich Albion’s 4-0 home win over Sunderland. Albion have been abysmal at home this term, securing just eight points at the Hawthorns all season. Sunderland under Martin O’Neill have been in superb form of late, losing only twice in fifteen matches since the Northern Irishman took the helm. Once again, the form book was an irrelevance as a 3rd minute goal from Peter Odemwingie set the tone for the match. Sunderland were poor, no question about it, and they were effectively beaten by  goals either side of half time. The first was a header from James Morrison in the 41st minute, the second, a shot from the edge of the box after a breakaway by Jerome Thomas with 48 minutes played, giving Odemwingie a brace. Andrews bagged the fourth late on to give the Baggies a, thoroughly unforeseen, 4-0 victory.

Manchester City maintained their lead at the top of the Premier League with an utterly convincing 3-0 home win against, relegation strugglers, Blackburn Rovers. Mario Balotelli opened the scoring with a smart finish on the half-hour. Aguero capitalised on a Paul Robinson blunder, smashing home from twelve yards to make it 2-0 seven minutes into the second-half, and Edin Dzeko made absolutely certain, heading a third nine minutes from time. Blackburn didn’t register a shot until the 89th minute, but then, the Etihad is not where their season will be won or lost. Finally, bottom club Wigan picked up a vital home point in their relegation scrap, against an Aston Villa side lacking any kind of flair or creativity. Ali al Habsi made some fine stops for the home team, and the visitors had Darren Bent stretchered off with ankle ligament damage. However, it looks like the Villa fans’ worst fears about Alec McCleish are coming true, as the Scot seems to have turned them into a carbon copy of his Birmingham City side.

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