The Barclays Premier League reached the three quarter mark with the conclusion of last weekend’s fixtures, eighteen of the twenty teams now have just ten games to go, with Liverpool and Everton contesting their game in hand in the 217th Merseyside Derby at Anfield on Tuesday evening. Just seventeen goals from ten matches made the weekend the lowest scoring match-week of the season so far, but as things tightened up, there were crucial games and results, with movement at the top and the bottom of the table.
Manchester United claimed undisputed top spot this week for the first time since October, by recording a comfortable, if workman-like, 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Sunday. After a fairly drab opening half an hour, in which the visitors more than held their own against the defending champions, Wayne Rooney gave United the lead, diverting Hernandez’s cross-shot past Foster and into the back of the net (35). Hernandez, or Chicharito, was lively and alert, Albion’s back line struggled to cope with him, and early in the second half, he was unlucky not to double United’s advantage; his powerful shot rattling the upright, with Foster well beaten.
The visitors were then unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty for what looked like a clear cut trip by Patrice Evra on Odemwengie. Replays clearly showed Evra’s leg coming out, missing the ball by some way, and making definite contact with the Nigerian, who went tumbling. Lee Probert said no, to the amazement and disgust of Odemwengie and the Baggies’ travelling support.
Welbeck had the hosts’ next chance, having done the hard work in going round Foster, the England international, surprisingly, fired well wide, albeit from a tight angle. Young and Chicharito were a constant thorn in Albion’s side, the latter’s endeavour proving too much for Jonas Olssen, the Baggies’ defender shown a second yellow for a foul on the Mexican, with 25 minutes remaining. Soon afterwards, it was the former’s skill in the opposing box which brought United the chance to make the game safe, when he was taken down by Keith Andrews. Rooney, who seems to be over those failures from the spot earlier in the season, buried the spot-kick, low down to Foster’s left (71).
With the second goal came the spoils for United, as Albion never looked liked getting back into the game. Reclaiming the top spot with just ten games to go, they have thrown down the gauntlet to their rivals across Manchester, and being the course and distance specialists, with, on paper, a much smoother run in, Ferguson’s men are now favourites to pip Mancini’s Manchester City to the Premier League title.
Manchester United were given the opportunity to take top spot for the first time this year courtesy of Swansea City’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday afternoon. City, without Vincent Kompany, injured in Portugal in midweek, and with Aguero on the bench, produced a fairly lethargic display against a Swansea side that have had impressive results at home against the top teams this season.
The home side dominated possession early on and were given the chance to take the lead from the spot inside five minutes, Routledge fouled by Hart. The England keeper atoned for his error by saving Sinclair’s weak penalty though, Sinclair’s only miss from fourteen attempts.
The Swans, as has become the custom at the Liberty, dominated possession for large periods of the game, and their illustrious opponents found it hard to get their game going and exert any kind of influence on the match. In the first half Routledge was unfortunate not to get on the score-sheet, foiled by Hart, with Danny Graham unable to hit the target for the home side from Sigurdsson’s pass.
Aguero was introduced for City, but to little effect, as Mancini’s men couldn’t muster a cohesive attacking threat. The few sights of goal that they had were squandered, Silva, Yaya Toure and Balotelli, unable even to properly test Vorm.
Swansea won the game in the 82nd minute, when substitute Luke Moore, only just on to replace Danny Graham, rose to meet Wayne Routledge’s pinpoint cross seven yards out, and planted a header firmly past Hart, into the back of the net. The drama wasn’t over just yet, two minutes from time, Micah Richards thought he’d snatched a point for the visitors as he beat Vorm to the ball, and headed into the empty net, however, his effort was correctly ruled out for offside. 1-0 the final score, a fantastic win for Swansea, but City will be kicking themselves.
At the bottom of the table, two massive relegation six pointers took place on Saturday afternoon: Wolves vs Blackburn, and,Bolton vs Queens Park Rangers. We begin with the latter of the two, a game which produced more than its fair share of controversy, and underlined the need, yet again, for better linesmen, or failing that, video technology to help them out.
Video technology is, obviously, required to help officials with a difficult job and would be generally beneficial to the game, limited forms of it are due to be introduced, finally, to the Premier League. However, I don’t believe that a decent linesman should have needed that technology to get the big calls right in the game at the Reebok on Saturday.
Q.P.R.’s Clint Hill headed Joey Barton’s 20th minute corner towards goal, it was saved by Bogdan, however, the ball had clearly already crossed the line by a yard before Bogdan made contact with it. The linesman, looking directly along the line, failed to notice this fact, and the goal was not awarded. There was no excuse as far as I can tell for the referee’s assistant to miss the incidents, being from a set-piece, and with him looking directly along the line, replays confirm that he should have had a good view. It was a glaring error and probably changed the course of the entire match, and with it Rangers’ season.
As it was, Bolton took the lead through Darren Pratley’s 37th minute header from Tim Ream’s cross. Just three minutes after the break, Rangers were level, Djibril Cisse latching on to Shaun Wright-Phillips’ pass to fire past Bogdan. However, this was the second glaring error made by the referee’s assistant. Cisse was clearly offside when the ball was played through to him, certainly a yard beyond the last defender; the ball from Wright-Phillips only travelled ten to fifteen yards, it was not a difficult decision to make, however, the flag stayed down and the goal stood.
Bolton’s late winner was less controversial, wonderful play from Ryo Miyaichi to play the ball into the path of Ivan Klasnic, who took the ball in his stride and finished superbly, with a low left-footed strike across Kenny, and into the bottom corner. 2-1 Bolton, and a massive three points against their fellow relegation strugglers, enough to see them climb out of the bottom three at Rangers’ expense.
Mark Hughes was justifiably seething at the ineptitude of the officials, and the slowness with which the F.A. have resolved to introduce technology to aid them. Rangers are now in huge trouble, this was a game they had to win to put daylight between themselves and the bottom three, instead, a really poor decision has cost them dearly, and with six of the top seven still to play, it looks like they could well be back in the Championship next year, despite all the investment and ambition.
Blackburn Rovers condemned Wolverhampton Wanderers and, new manager, Terry Connor to a second successive Premier League defeat, running out 0-2 winners at Molineux on Saturday afternoon. In so doing, Rovers climbed out of the relegation places and heaped more pressure on a Wolves side lacking in confidence, direction, and, dare I say it, leadership.
Junior Hoilett scored both goals for Rovers either side of half time, as they kept their first clean sheet in 31 games. Hoilett’s first came on 43 minutes, finding himself in space from a deflected Gamst Pederson throw in, the youngster rifled a half volley into the far corner of Henessey’s goal. The second came in the 69th minute, when Hoilett collected Yakubu’s pass and beating O’Hara with ease, smacked a left-foot shot into the bottom corner.
Wolves were dire again, they’ve shipped fourteen goals in their last four matches and scored just twice, leaving them second from bottom. Rovers are now three points clear from the relegation zone, and manager, Steve Kean, is well on the way to achieving the impossible ie. keeping them in the Premier League. With all the stick he’s taken from fans this season, both himself and the owners, perhaps it is fitting that the owners faith in, and loyalty to, their man seems to be paying off, while other, more trigger happy owners, such as those at Molineux and Loftus Road, are finding out that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Tottenham Hotspur continued their recent poor form, as a resurgent Everton beat them by a goal to nil at Goodison Park in Saturday’s evening kick-off. Nikica Jelavic scored on his full home debut to give the Toffees all three points, superbly diverting Leon Osman’s cross past Brad Friedel in the 22nd minute. Everton move to within two points of their city rivals Liverpool, who they meet on Tuesday evening; Spurs are now just one point ahead of Arsenal.
Arsenal closed the gap on their North London rivals, in the race for the Champions’ League, to a single point, by beating fellow top six team, Newcastle United, 2-1 at the Emirates on Monday night. Hatem Ben Arfa opened the scoring for the Magpies in the fourteenth minute, smashing in a low shot to beat Szczesny at his near post, after cutting in from the right. The lead lasted less than a minute though, as Robin van Persie levelled things up from Walcott’s pass. The Gunners had plenty of chances to add to their lead, however, Krul was equal to all of their efforts, until Thomas Vermaelen gambled in the final minute of stoppage time. Bursting into the box, the Belgian arrived to meet Walcott’s flicked on cross, and sent the ball into the bottom corner.
Heartbreak for Newcastle, who’d hung on valiantly, but deserved for Arsenal, whose fans got a glimpse of some of the fight, petulance and the touch of arrogance that seemed often to serve them so well during the Henry era, in van Persie’s running battle with his Dutch compatriot Tim Krul. The two players exchanged words on more than one occasion during the match, and after Arsenal’s late winner the pair clashed again, with both receiving yellow cards.
Liverpool and Sunderland produced a dour encounter at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon. In a game of few chances, the Black Cats got a lucky break in scoring the only goal of the game. Fraizer Campbell was afforded to much space on the edge of the box, his right foot shot came back off the post, hit the diving Reina on the back of the head, hit the same post again, and popped out perfectly for Nicklas Bendtner to tap home (56). Three Premier League defeats in a row for the Reds, who have big games against Everton and Stoke(F.A Cup) at Anfield this week.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Aston Villa scraped a 1-0 victory at home to Fulham. The Cottagers, looking for their fourth consecutive league win, looked to have done enough to earn a point. However, in the 93rd minute, Mark Schwarzer mishandled a shot from Gary Gardner, and young Austrian, Andreas Weimann bundled in his first goal for the Villa, giving the hosts all three points, and all but ensuring Premier League survival.
Chelsea just about managed a 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge on Saturday against a Stoke side that played the majority of the match with ten men, following Ricardo Fuller’s early dismissal for a ridiculous stamp on Ivanovic. Didier Drogba showed fantastic touch in the penalty area to collect Mata’s pass, round Begovic, and fire home his 100th Premier League goal, after 68 minutes. The Blues will face a sterner test at home to Napoli in the Champions’ League on Wednesday.
Finally, Wigan travelled to Norfolk to take on Norwich at Carrow Road on Sunday, desperately seeking three points to ease their plight at the foot of the table. The home side, however, were in no mood to oblige, and took the lead through Wes Hoolihan after just ten minutes. The visitors had the better of the game for large periods, but their profligacy infront of goal looked like costing them dearly again. The Latics, however, did find an equaliser midway through the second half; Shaun Maloney, on as a substitute, found Victor Moses with a delightful through-ball, and the Wigan striker made no mistake, rounding Ruddy and slotting the ball into the open net. 1-1 the final score, Wigan stay bottom, two points from safety.