The first weekend in March, officially signalling the start of Spring in Britain, also signifies that the “business end” of the Barclays Premier League season is upon us. With just over a quarter of the campaign to go, it looks as if it’s a two horse race between the Manchester clubs for the title. Below them, however, there are at least five clubs fighting it out for the remaining European spots and, down at the bottom, the fight for Premier League survival is tighter than ever. With five possibly six clubs in danger of going down, goal difference may, in the end, prove crucial.
Arsenal made the trip to Merseyside on Saturday, for the lunchtime kick-off against Liverpool, in good spirits, following last week’s wonderful comeback victory over Spurs at the Emirates. Kenny Dalglish’s men were full of confidence too, having come through a gruelling Carling Cup Final with Cardiff, to emerge victorious at the end of a penalty shoot-out. Something would have to give.
After an early scare, when Pepe Reina was forced to save from Walcott, it was Liverpool who took control. Some excellent passing moves allowed the Reds to dominate possession, and they began to create chances. Downing wasted the best early opening, missing the target, after a poor clearance from Szczesny had left the Arsenal goal unguarded. Luis Suarez was looking more like his unplayable best, and it was he who was felled by Szczesny in the 19th minute, giving Liverpool a penalty. Some protestations from the Arsenal stopper, however replays clearly showed contact had been made, despite the young Pole’s belated effort to pull out of the challenge. Szczesny redeemed himself by saving Kuyt’s penalty, low down to his right, and then recovering to thwart the Dutchman’s scuffed effort on the rebound.
Liverpool were undeterred, and had their deserved lead less than five minutes later, Laurent Koscielney slicing Henderson’s cross into his own net, with Suarez waiting to pounce. Liverpool continued to press, and should’ve had a second moments later, Henderson allowed Szczesny to save, when the keeper should’ve been given no opportunity, and Suarez smashed the rebound onto the near post, with not much of the goal to aim at.
Arsenal, who’d been played off the park in the opening half hour, grabbed an unlikely equaliser on 31 minutes. A fantastic, pinpoint cross whipped in from the right by Bacary Sagna, picked out Robin Van Persie who thumped in a header past Reina from six yards; the deadly Dutch ace making no mistake, having all too easily escaped the attentions of Jamie Carragher.
Liverpool were stunned, but reacted almost instantly, and could have had two more goals before half-time. Suarez, showing his ability to embarrass defenders, turned on a sixpence away from two on the edge of the Arsenal box, and then jinked his way past two more, before placing a low shot to Szczesny’s left; the Pole was
equal to it, pushing it round his post. Kuyt almost atoned for his spot-kick failure by meeting a low cross from the left with a deft touch, with both goalkeeper and defenders beaten, the ball came agonisingly back off the inside of the post.
After a long delay at the beginning of the second-half because of an injury to Arteta, the former Everton man accidentally colliding with Jordan Henderson, the game took a little time to get back to the standard of the first-half. When it did, the home side regained superiority, albeit slightly less dominant than their first half performance had been. Arsenal had a couple of chances, notably Theo Walcott’s deflected effort, which Reina did well to save with his legs, and Walcott’s flicked header, which though a good chance, the Englishman failed to get enough purchase on.
Liverpool had a number of excellent chances to seal the victory; Martin Kelly mishit his effort from three yards, when Kuyt’s perfect cross had taken defenders and goalkeeper out of the play, and the goal lay gaping. On another occasion, Downing broke free down the left, and had Suarez onside, unmarked and in the middle, but the winger panicked and got the easy ball all wrong, allowing Szczesny to gather easily.
So the game entered the stoppage time, eight minutes due to the earlier injury, the home crowd feared that yet another home game would be drawn, when it could and should, have been won convincingly. The Anfield faithful was not prepared for what happened next; Alex Song floated a slightly angled ball from midfield into the left side of the Liverpool box, Robin van Persie made himself a yard, got into position, and unleashed a perfectly timed, controlled, accurate, left foot volley in at Reina’s near post, to give Arsenal all three points.
Terribly harsh on Liverpool, but their inability to put away teams when on top has been their downfall this season, and surely Dalglish will not allow this to go on, a proven goal-scorer must be brought in this Summer. Smash and grab for the Londoners, but for Arsene and Arsenal, things are looking up, a top three finish is very much within their grasp, and Champions’ League football will go a long way to keeping R.V.P. a Gunner next season.
Tottenham again showed their frailty when faced by the ”big guns” on Sunday evening. Manchester United were the visitors to White Hart Lane, and defeat for Ferguson’s men would have left them just five points clear of Redknapp’s Spurs. Tottenham haven’t beaten Manchester United for a decade though, and after last week’s morale sapping hammering at the Emirates, a match which saw Scott Parker sent off and thus suspended, victory for Harry’s team was always going to be difficult.
Without Van der Vaart and Bale, Spurs still had the better of a bitty first-half, United were, as they have been for most of this season, “not at their best”, and could have found themselves a goal down, when Adebayor bundled in from close range as half-time approached. Martin Atkinson disallowed the goal, amidst massive complaints from the home side, but replays suggested that the referee was correct, as Adebayor had controlled the ball with his arm.
United took the lead from an Ashley Young corner, Wayne Rooney left free in the box for a simple header, right on half-time. At the beginning of the second half, Spurs applied the pressure; De Gea saved well from Livermore, Assou-Ekotto curled a free-kick onto the bar, but as ever against Manchester United, they flattered to deceive, and on the hour, they were further in arrears. Ashley Young turned scorer this time as he acrobatically smashed a volley across Friedel from close range.
Tottenham were shocked, and their fate was sealed just nine minutes later, when Ashley Young, again, broke free of the Spurs back line to curl a magnificent, right-footed shot around Friedel, and into the top corner, capping a wonderful personal performance. The game was effectively over, Jermain Defoe, desperate to make the England squad for the Summer, came on as a late substitute for Tottenham, and grabbed a consolation goal in the 87th minute, cracking a shot past the unsighted De Gea from twenty yards.
Manchester United fans will be happy to have Ashley Young back in such sparkling form, and believe that, with a relatively smooth run-in until the Manchester Derby, their team will be pushing their City rivals all the way. The wheels have come off a little for Tottenham, after a great season up until two weeks ago, the speculation over Redknapp’s future, coupled with two defeats in a row against their biggest rivals, and the team that they’ve been chasing, Spurs are in danger of dropping by the wayside slightly. If Harry can’t get them turned around quickly, then what could have been a season of glory for Spurs fans, may yet prove to be a season of bitter disappointment.
We begin the round-up at the Etihad, where Manchester City dispatched a poor Bolton side with the greatest of ease. 2-0 was the final score, with an own goal from Steinsson (23), who deflected Clichy’s effort ,and a finish from Balotelli (69), after great work from Adam Johnson, however the result didn’t accurately reflect the game. Bogdan, Bolton’s young keeper, was unquestionably man of the match, with a string of fine saves denying Balotelli on numerous occasions, among others. Balotelli could have had six goals himself, especially if referee Clattenburg had awarded the two clear penalties that he should undoubtedly have been given. Bolton were lacking in quality, as they have been for almost all of this season, Owen Coyle has got a massive job on in keeping them up.
Fulham’s fine form continued on Sunday as they smashed five past a woeful Wolves side at Craven Cottage. Pavel Pogrebnyak opened the scoring in the 36th minute with his third goal in as many games, before doubling the Cottagers’ advantage just before half-time. Clint Dempsey rattled in Fulham’s third on 56 minutes, and the American’s second goal of the afternoon (83), lashing home a fine finish to cap an excellent move, came after Pogrebnyak had completed his hat-trick (61), with a left foot finish. The Russian is going out of his way to make his country’s Euro 2012 squad, and at this rate, he’s sure to be successful. Fulham were irresistible but Wolves were appalling, the logic for sacking Mick McCarthy is looking evermore misguided, and Terry Connor must perform a miracle now to pick them up for the run-in.
Newcastle hosted Sunderland in a heated Tyne and Wear Derby on Sunday morning, with honours being shared in the end. Lee Cattermole, the Black Cats Captain, set the tone for a strongly contested game when he was booked in the first minute for a tackle on Tiote. Bendtner gave the visitors the lead from the spot (24), after Mike Dean gave what some have called a “brave decision”, penalising Willamson for shirt pulling from a free-kick. The decision would’ve been brave had Mr. Dean followed it up by consistently awarding decisions for similar incidents throughout the match; he didn’t however, which rendered his “brave” early decision, a soft one.
Newcastle settled down in the second half and began to create chances of their own, and when Sessegnon was sent off for Sunderland, for hitting out at Tiote, with half an hour to play, there was really only one team in it. Tiote’s play acting to ensure Sessegnon’s dismissal was a disgrace to English Football, and the Premier League, the F.A. ought to take strong, punitive, retrospective action, to stamp that kind of thing out; no doubt however, they will do nothing. Sessegnon had to go, regardless of Tiote’s reaction, and Newcastle pressed and pressed for the equaliser. Ben Arfa came close before Newcastle were awarded a penalty of their own, for a foul by Fraizer Campbell. Demba Ba stepped up, but Mignolet saved the Senagalese’s penalty, to leave Geordie’s wondering if it was going to be one of those days.
Then in the 90th minute, Shola Ameobi, a second half substitute, wrote another chapter in his personal derby history, by popping up at the far post to score the vital equaliser, sending St. James’ Park into raptures. That wasn’t the end of hostilities though, as both managers fell out on the touch-line, and Lee Cattermole talked himself into a second yellow card after the final whistle; the Sunderland Captain now faces a four match ban.
West Bromwich Albion made it two home wins in a row by upsetting Chelsea at the Hawthorns on Saturday. The Blues, with a team chocked full of the “experienced players” that so many pundits believe will get them through hard times, put in a decidedly lacklustre performance against a team that they had never previously lost to in the Premier League. Sturridge and Lampard missed Chelsea’s best chances, Albion, however, won it with a close range finish from Gareth McAuley (82), making it three Premier League wins on the spin for Hodgson’s men. The defeat led to the sacking of young Chelsea boss Andre Villas Boas on Sunday, after less than a full season in charge. The related article can be read here: https://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/andre-villas-goas/ .
To the bottom now, and Blackburn and Q.P.R. both picked up vital points at home to Aston Villa and Everton respectively. Blackburn did well to come back in the second half after being outplayed by Villa, who scored through Charles N’Zogbia in the 24th minute, for large periods of the first-half. Some good saves from Paul Robinson, notably from N’Zogbia again, kept Rovers in it, and a David Dunn header five minutes from time earned them a point; the travelling Villa fans were not impressed. Q.P.R. also went a goal down through Royston Drenthe’s left foot strike in the 31st minute. Bobby Zamora’s near post header (36), pulled Rangers level, and they were shold have taken the lead before half-time, Taraabt’s curler hitting the post, before Buzsaky hit the other post, squandering a fantastic opportunity. 1-1 the final score, both Rovers and Rangers remain locked in the relegation dogfight.
Wigan stay rooted to the foot of the table following another home defeat on Saturday. Wigan, the side with the worst home record in the league, lost to Swansea, the side with the worst away record in the league. Two wonderful goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson did the job for the Swans: the first, just before half-time, a fabulous 20 yard curler into the top corner; the second (54), a perfectly flighted curling 25yard free-kick, in off the far post. Swansea had Nathan Dyer sent off with half an hour to play by Andre Marriner; another unfathomable dismissal in a season littered with inconceivable red cards, however it made no difference as Swansea held on comfortably.
Finally, Stoke City made it two wins on the spin, edging out Paul Lambert’s Norwich side 1-0 at the Britannia on Saturday. Tony Pulis’ side had a stroke of good fortune, as the throw in which led to Matthew Etherington’s 72nd minute winner, should have been awarded to the visitors. However Etherington’s awareness and finish were superb, cracking the ball past John Ruddy from the most acute of angles to seal all three points. Norwich will feel disappointed as this was the first away game of the season in which they had failed to score, but tenth place with eleven games to go, will no doubt temper that feeling.