As we approach the climax of this season’s Barclays Premier League, it is fair to say that this has been one of the most exciting, unpredictable years in a long time. It is twenty years since the Premier League roared into action and changed the weekend’s landscape forever, so it’s fitting that England’s top tier is serving up such a mouth-watering finale to mark the occasion. With just three games to play, for most teams, almost everything still remains to be settled: the title race, the battle for Champions’ League/Europa League places and, of course, the all- important struggle to survive, all continue and it looks very much as if they will all run right up until the last ball is kicked.
One club already aware of its fate is Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves hosted Manchester City at Molineux on Sunday afternoon knowing that anything less than an improbable victory would confirm their relegation to the Championship. Terry Connor’s side ended a run of seven straight defeats last weekend by holding Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, however, beating Manchester City would be a much taller order.
City, with everything to play for, began the match in sluggish fashion, as if they expected an easy ride in the Black Country, and they could have gone behind early on as Sebastien Bassong’s deflected effort went narrowly wide before Leon Davies stung Hart’s palms. Tevez and Aguero had both come close for City in the opening exchanges and it wasn’t long before the latter opened the scoring (27), finishing smartly after a defence splitting pass from Clichy picked out the Argentine.
Wolves didn’t let their heads drop as they fought to gain a foothold in the match, however, Joe Hart thwarted their best effort of the game as he reacted brilliantly to turn away Stephen Fletcher’s header just after the interval. The visitors made sure of victory just over fifteen minutes from time, quick thinking by Tevez, from a disputed free-kick on the halfway line, set up Nasri and, with Bassong pulling a hamstring in pursuit, the Frenchman pipped Yaya Toure to the ball and found De Vries’s bottom right hand corner.
0-2 final score as the heavens opened and Molineux was drenched. Wolves relegation confirmed; for many, including myself, the writing was on the wall when the club took the decision to sack Mick McCarthy. Granted they’d been on a losing streak but they had only just dropped into the bottom three at the time; with McCarthy’s experience and the esteem that he was held in by the players, most would have fancied him to have been able to steady the ship, unfortunately for Wolves fans, we’ll never find that out. As for City, the title is back within their grasp once more, a defeat of Manchester United at the Etihad next Monday would go a long way towards securing that dream.
The reason that the Premier League crown is very much up for grabs again is thanks to an astonishing game at Old Trafford on Sunday lunchtime. Everton were the visitors as United looked to increase the gap at the top to eight points over their near neighbours. Everton have been in good league form of late and, despite losing to Liverpool for the third time this season, still fancy their chances of finishing above their Merseyside rivals in the table.
The Toffees, welcoming back Stephen Pienaar to their midfield, began the match by far the stronger of the two teams and, by the time that Nikica Jelavic had angled his perfect header into the far corner of De Gea’s net (33), the Croatian could’ve had a hat-trick. United hit back before half-time through Rooney’s header (41), from Nani’s cross. Referee Mike Jones’s inconsistency was to blame for United’s second; a handy right-footed curler from Welbeck to finish (57), however, Jones should have stopped play with Pienaar injured. Though it wasn’t a head injury, the referee had stopped play for a similar incident in the first half with a United player injured and Everton breaking-away.
Just three minutes later, Nani, United’s best player, scored the home side’s third goal; clipping a delightful finish over Howard after Welbeck had done well to put him in. The champions seemed comfortable, however, on 67 minutes the visitors found a response through Marouane Fellaini’s perfectly executed volley reducing the deficit to just one goal.
Ferguson’s men bit back almost immediately as Rooney and Welbeck combined, allowing the former to send a first-time finish into Howards bottom-right corner(69); his 33rd goal of the season. Game over you would think and perhaps Manchester United did too, however, that was far from the case as Jelavic benefitted from sloppiness in the hosts penalty area to score his second of the game (83).
Just two minutes later and Everton had done the unthinkable; some neat build-up play culminated in Fellaini’s turn and pass to Pienaar in the United area, with the South African’s first time finish giving De Gea no chance. 4-4 the score at the end of a tremendous game; United’s lead cut to three after City’s win over Wolves, Everton stretch the gap over Liverpool to two points.
Liverpool would see that gap maintained as they failed to beat West Bromwich Albion at Anfield on Sunday afternoon. The story of the Reds’ league season continued in much the same vein at the weekend, as they completely dominated the match from start to finish. Dirk Kuyt missed a more than presentable early chance, sending his finish just wide when in the clear with just Foster to beat, and that would set the pattern for the match.
Andy Carroll put a header wide when he should have done better, with Maxi Rodriguez the next to miss, sending his effort over after Suarez’s shot had been blocked. However , the hosts should have had a penalty when the Argentine was tripped by Jones; referee Swarbrick somehow waved the appeals away. Albion had one real chance in the first-half but Pepe Reina was equal to Chris Brunt’s effort, before reacting to block Ridgewell’s scuffed shot from a corner.
In the second half the one way traffic intensified as Liverpool desperately tried to break the deadlock. Henderson rattled the underside of the crossbar, with the Albion keeper enjoying a large slice of fortune as the ball hit him on the back and span harmlessly away from goal. Suarez was causing havoc but unfortunately his aim was a little off kilter, as he fired over.
Carroll, enjoying another good performance, both shot and headed narrowly over with decent chances; Kuyt’s deflected effort thumped against the far post and, unsurprisingly, came back out; Spearing had an effort cleared off the line and Henderson placed another effort centimetres wide of the far upright, but the goal just would not come for Liverpool.
Fourteen minutes from time, a simple lack of concentration from Glen Johnson handed Roy Hodgson’s men all three points against his former club. After doing the hard work of out-muscling Mulumbu and reaching the ball first, Johnson’s slack pass allowed the Albion forward to divert the ball to Odemwengie, with the Nigerian giving Reina the eyes and slamming it in at the Spaniard’s near post.
The hosts battled to find an equaliser, but the injustice of what had befallen them seemed to hit them hard and in the last five minutes the game petered out. A great win for Albion as they go level on points with their illustrious opponents; more disappointment for Liverpool, who are surely only a goal-scorer away from being a top four team.
Newcastle United continued their fantastic league form by dispatching Stoke City 3-0 at St. James’s Park (S.D.A.). The visitors could have taken the lead through Jonathan Walters but the Republic of Ireland international sent his effort skywards from twelve yards after being picked out by Crouch. The Magpies took the lead through Yohan Cabaye (14); great work from Ben Arfa down the left provided a cross which Cisse climbed to meet, the Senegalese’s header came back off the bar with Cabaye on hand to nod home.
It was the same combination that manufactured Newcastle’s second just four minutes later. Wonderful vision and a perfect weight of pass by, Man of the Match Cabaye, picked out the run of Papiss Cisse and the Geordies’ new goal machine did the rest, sliding a first-time, left-foot finish across Begovic and into the far corner.
Cabaye wasn’t finished for the afternoon and, twelve minutes into the second-half, the Frenchman had his second. After a controlled spell of Newcastle passing was snuffed out just inside the visitors’ box the ball broke to Cabaye, who guided a delightful right-foot curler into the bottom corner of the net, beyond the reach of Begovic’s out-stretched left hand. 3-0 Newcastle and the Geordies now stand alone in fourth place, three points clear of Tottenham; Stoke remain safe in mid-table.
Tottenham’s awful run continued on Saturday evening as they went down 0-1 at Loftus Road against, relegation battlers, Queens Park Rangers. Adel Taraabt scored the only goal of the game midway through the first half; the Moroccan’s well flighted free-kick seemed to catch Brad Friedel off-guard, with the American stopper slow to react.
Taraabt was sent off later on for a second yellow card, a mandatory punishment for kicking the ball away, however, even this reduction in numbers for the home team could not inspire Spurs, whose control of possession failed to produce real pressure or clear cut chances.
1-0 the final score and Rangers’ not only add Tottenham to the list of illustrious scalps they’ve taken this season, but also give themselves a massive boost in the struggle for survival, moving ahead of Wigan on goal difference and three points clear of the drop-zone. Spurs on the other hand have just one win in nine league games and now sit fifth, three behind Newcastle and just one point clear of Chelsea.
Wigan Athletic can count themselves very unfortunate to lose to a very strong Fulham side at Craven Cottage on Saturday. The Latics, who have been in fine form of late, took the lead through Emerson Boyce’s pile-driver in the 57th minute. You’re never as vulnerable as when you’ve just scored, at least that’s what they say, and it proved to be the case here as Pogrebnyak lashed home Fulham’s equaliser just a minute later.
To the 89th minute and cue heartbreak for the travelling fans, as Jon Arne Riise’s left-wing free-kick picked out Philippe Senderos and the former Arsenal centre back found the back of the net. Wigan still three points clear of danger but they remain right in the mix with three games to go; Fulham’s victory moves them to ninth place, good work from Martin Jol and his players.
Blackburn Rovers faced a must win home game with Norwich City on Saturday afternoon, as they fight tooth and nail to be out of the way when the relegation trapdoor opens. They did their cause no harm at all at the weekend as they put on a confident display, running out comfortable 2-0 winners on the day.
Mauro Formica scored the opener, four minutes before half time, with a neat side-foot volley, following good hold-up play from Yakubu and a beauty of a cross from Gamst Pederson. Junior Hoilett scored the second for Rovers, four minutes after the break, with a curled finish from 25yards, after cutting in from the left, which was straight out of the top drawer. Steve Kean’s men remain in the bottom three but are still in touch, just three points from safety; Norwich are safe in mid-table.
Bolton didn’t do their chances of survival much good, playing out a 1-1 draw with Swansea City at the Reebok on Saturday. Scott Sinclair gave the Swans the lead after just six minutes with a goal similar to Hoilett’s for Blackburn; cutting in from the left-hand side, Sinclair unleashed an unstoppable right-foot curler, leaving Bogdan helpless. Chris Eagles equalised for Bolton just under ten minutes later; classic wing play from Petrov allowed the Bulgarian to cross for Eagles, who arrived on cue to side-foot home. 1-1 the final score, but Bolton can thank their lucky stars as only resolute defending and the crossbar prevented them from sliding to another home defeat.
Wanderers are second bottom, four points from safety, however, they have two games in hand over Wigan and Q.P.R., beginning at Villa park tonight. That promises to be a tense affair with both teams desperate for points to guarantee safety after Villa’s run of winless games has seen them slide ever closer to the bottom three.
Arsenal and Chelsea played out a fairly drab 0-0 stalemate at the Emirates on Saturday lunchtime. Robin van Persie had the best chances to secure the points for the Gunners but the Premier League’s leading marksman, who’s just been voted PFA Player of the Year and has today been named as the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year, had left his shooting boots at home, failing to convert any of his opportunities. Arsenal consolidate third place with Spurs losing again; Chelsea stay sixth but are now just a point behind Tottenham.
Finally, Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland visited his old stomping ground, Villa Park, on Saturday afternoon in what would prove to be another fairly uninspiring game. Both sides had chances to score, with Mignolet denying Weimann and N’Zogbia early on and Bendtner coming close for the visitors on a couple of occasions, including having a goal disallowed for a debatable offside call. Craig Gardner was sent off for the Black Cats against his former club as both sides’ frustrating recent form continued. Sunderland remain safely tucked in mid-table; Villa on the other hand are still just six points clear of Bolton in 19th, with the two sides to meet at Villa Park on Tuesday evening. Crunch time for McCleish’s men!
Trophy Image David Kenny. Molineux Image TGIGreeny. Villa Image by Sean McAndrew