The Barclays Premier League season is rapidly nearing its conclusion. With just three games to go and massive prizes/forfeits at stake, it really is “squeaky bum time” for those involved in the relevant tussles. The relegation picture is beginning to look a little clearer after the weekend’s round of matches, which is more than can be said for the title race or the push for the third and fourth Champions’ League spots, which both took further twists over the three days and are far from settled.
We begin with by far the biggest match of the weekend on paper; Manchester City vs Manchester United. The two Manchester clubs have been fighting it out tooth and nail for practically the whole season; earlier in the campaign City’s looked irresistable, scoring goals for fun, their lead at the top looked insurmountable. There followed a period of injury, suspension and African Cup of Nations duty, which took its toll on performances and results allowing their neighbours to capitalise.
Capitalise and profit they did. Just over a fortnight ago, with United in great form, their eight point lead at the top looked unassailable. Things can change very quickly in football, however, and United’s shaky recent performances and uncharacteristic results in the final part of the season have allowed their rivals back in. City entered Monday’s crunch game knowing that a win would be enough to take them back to the top of the table, with just two games remaining.
Manchester United began the game fairly brightly, pushing on in the opening ten minutes in search of an early goal, something to hold onto, however, their early forays failed to produce an effort on target and they were soon pushed back, something which would set the pattern for their performance. Having weathered United’s early possession, City played their way back into the match and they began to create chances, Aguero twice off target.
Ferguson’s team selection for what he had billed as “the biggest Manchester derby, certainly since I’ve been here” was surprising to say the least. Rooney as an isolated lone front-man, no Young or Valencia, Park used from the start even though he’s only clocked up a paltry total of Premier League minutes this season. It was certainly a cautious, if not defensive, line-up which smacked of big respect, if not fear ,for what Mancini’s men were capable of.
United were punished for their cautious approach right at the end of the first-half. Having dealt for the most part with City’s inter-play and movement in the attacking third, Ferguson’s men were undone by that most simple of moves; a run and header from a corner. In stoppage time, Vincent Kompany lost Chris Smalling, with the former rising high to meet Silva’s right-wing corner and plant it firmly past De Gea. The celebrations were even sweeter for the Belgian as he’d been harshly dismissed when the two sides had met in the F.A. Cup at the Etihad earlier in the season.
The second-half brought more of the same; United, unimaginative in possession tried to add some attacking impetus by removing Park on the hour mark and replacing him with Welbeck, it made little difference. De Jong replaced Tevez as Mancini looked to protect the lead; the two substitutes were involved in the biggest flashpoint of the second-half, as a clumsy challenge by the latter on the former caused an altercation between the managers on the touchline; a heated exchange, something we enjoyed seeing in the game, even if the politically correct broadcasting team didn’t!
On the pitch, the best chances continued to come City’s way; Yaya Toure firing just wide after a lung-busting burst through the centre, Samir Nasri unable to get a shot away when in a great position and Gael Clichy, producing a good stop low down from De Gea. The introduction of Young for Nani had no effect on Ferguson’s side as an attacking threat and, in the end, City were more than comfortable, hanging on for a deserved 0-1 win.
City are now very much in the driving seat in the title race, although they can ill afford to drop a point in their last two games with their advantage being by the slenderest of margins; both teams are neck and neck on 83 points, however City’s goal difference is eight better. Ferguson’s men are still in the hunt but it is now out of their hands. The defeat and the manner of it, left the Scotsman fuming that Mancini had influenced the officials, comments which left most of us thinking of three words; pot, kettle, black!
The race for fourth place and the battle to stay up intertwined last weekend, with three of the teams vying for the final Champions’ League spot coming up against teams desperately struggling for Premier League survival. Newcastle made the trip to Wigan on Saturday, Tottenham entertained Blackburn on Sunday and, also on Sunday, Chelsea played host to Q.P.R. in the West London derby.
Newcastle arrived at the DW Stadium in confident mood having won six games on the spin; with Senagalese sensation Papiss Cisse having netted in all six, the Geordies’ push for the Champions’ League was seemingly in full swing. Wigan Athletic have themselves been in fine form of late, with manager Roberto Martinez able to celebrate first Premier League wins at Anfield and the Emirates in recent weeks, as well as a first ever Premier League victory over Manchester United, the Latics have played themselves very much into the box seat to stay up again this term.
In a first-half which few would have predicted, the Latics stormed out of the blocks playing not only with their customary pace and flair, but also with a higher level of incision and confidence than they have produced for most of the campaign and by half-time, they had blown the Magpies away! A quick-fire brace from Victor Moses (13 & 15) got the hosts off to the perfect start and they never looked back, Maloney added a third (36); after being sent clear by Franco di Santo and it was the Argentine himself who added the Latics’ fourth; a majestic lob in first-half stopage time.
The visitors, whose first-half performance was well below par, could have found themselves further behind; Moses with two chances to complete his hat-trick: the first, a poor finish from a good position, went wide, the second produced a good stop from Krul. Alan Pardew’s team did finally find some attacking threat, with Papiss Cisse hitting first the bar and then the post with efforts and Ben Arfa coming close. 4-0 the final score, Wigan all but guarantee their safety; one more point should do it, Newcastle allow Tottenham back into fourth.
Tottenham reclaimed fourth spot thanks not only to Newcastle’s thumping at the DW, but also courtesy of their own 2-0 home victory over Blackburn Rovers. Spurs dominated proceedings from start to finish against a Blackburn side with only two away victories all season.
Sandro smashed a twenty yarder off the crossbar before Van der Vaart headed the home side in front; following up Bale’s effort which had also come back off the frame of the goal. William Gallas saw his header strike the bar as well, before Kyle Walker wrapped up all three points with, quite possibly, the best free-kick of the season; a thirty yard right-footed curler which, at one point, was around a foot wide of the far post, before arching perfectly back into the top corner. Tottenham in fourth on goal difference, Rovers almost certainly down and out!
Chelsea thumped Q.P.R. 6-1 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday lunchtime. Rangers performance in the first-half was absolutely abysmal, as bad as I’ve seen any team play all season, and they were quickly and brutally punished. Daniel Sturridge’s right-footed stunner flew past Paddy Kenny inside the first minute and from then on, it was one way traffic.
John Terry netted the Blues’ second with a header from Mata’s corner (13), before Torres picked up a through-ball from Kalou, went past Kenny as if he wasn’t there, and rolled the ball home to make it 3-0 after just 19 minutes. Six minutes later and Torres had his second; a “Chuckle Brothers” moment between Onouha and Kenny provided the Spaniard with the simplest of opportunities.
Mata was involved in Torres’s hat-trick goal, sliding a lovely ball through for the former Liverpool man to score with a, once trademark, side-foot finish. Chelsea’s sixth came two minutes from time, Florent Malouda with a close range effort, before Cisse scored a goal that would prove to be scant consolation for the visitors (84). 6-1 the final score and, in truth, it could have been eight or nine; both Mata and Torres amongst those to miss good chances.
As good as Chelsea were, they were helped exponentially by a simply terrible defensive display from Rangers; anything less than a home win against Stoke in their next game, and I’m afraid Hughes’s team will be heading all the way South come the final day! Chelsea face a massive game on Wednesday evening, against Newcastle in the race for fourth .
Elsewhere at the bottom of the table, neither Aston Villa nor West Bromwich Albion could break the deadlock in a hard-fought Midlands derby at the Hawthorns on Saturday. Both sides had chances which they were unable to take and both sides should have had penalties for clear hand-balls; the culprits, Alan Hutton and Jonas Olsson however referee Clattenburg had clearly not been to Specsavers before the game!
Villa stay precariously only 3 points above the drop but looking at Q.P.R.s and Bolton’s goal difference, it looks like that point could be just enough to keep them up for at least one more season.As for the Albion, they’ve had a good year but, with Roy off to rove internationally again, next season could be an altogether tougher experience.
Two teams who already know their fate for next season produced an eight goal thriller at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday. Swansea City, safe in mid-table, started like a whirlwind, taking the lead against already relegated Wolves in the first minute. Andrea Orlandi gave the hosts the perfect start with his early header and, three minutes later, Joe Allen’s deflected effort put Brendan Rodgers side 2-0 to the good. Nathan Dyer added a third after just a quarter of an hour.
Steven Fletcher looped a header past Vorm (28), before Danny Graham got his first in eleven games to make it 4-1 with half an hour on the clock. Wolves then got a slice of good fortune for their second as Ashley Williams sliced Jarvis’s effort into his own net, when the defender really ought to have cleared (33).
Gylfi Sigurdsson was left cursing his luck as he twice came close to extending Swansea’s lead in the second half, however, the Icelander was denied first by the post and then by a full-stretch stop from De Vries. Wolves third was a good move between Kightly and Edwards, with the latter finishing well (54) and Edwards was involved again, as Jarvis bagged his second and Wolves’ equaliser (69). 4-4 it stayed, breathless stuff!
Three exceptional goals from Luis Suarez were more than enough to send a Norwich side, who seemed already to be on holiday, packing at Carrow Road on Saturday evening. The Urugayan’s first came after a mistake in the Norwich midfield allowed Steven Gerrard to capitalise. The England man’s first time ball was straight into Suarez’s run and the striker smashed a first-time left foot finish past Ruddy and into the far corner, from the edge of the box (24).
Just four minutes later, picking up the ball wide on the right, Suarez attacked the angle of the penalty area and, upon reaching it, unleashed a right-foot shot with the outside of his boot, which beat Ruddy all ends up and nestled in the bottom corner. Suarez added his third eight minutes from time; dispossessing Ward on the halfway line, he turned, took one touch and, seeing Ruddy off his line, thumped a shot from fully 45-50 yards, which flew, at the perfect trajectory over the Norwich goalkeeper and into the net.
There have been some fabulous goals in the Premier League this season so far, however, for me, without question, that is the best I’ve seen; the hat-trick must also go down as one of the best in Premier League history.
Everton smashed Fulham 4-0 at Goodison on Saturday afternoon to stay ahead of Liverpool in the league standings. Croatian goal-getter Nikica Jelavic got the Toffees off to a great start, converting a seventh minute penalty after his own free-kick had been blocked by the hand of Pogrebnyak, in the box. Fellaini grabbed Everton’s second (16), heading in a corner shortly after Jelavic had rattled the post. Pienaar and Jelavic combined to make it 3-0, the latter with a precise finish (40) and Cahill finished the scoring on the hour mark; Pienaar again with the assist.
Bolton Wanderers surrendered the lead and then fought back bravely to secure a point at the Stadium of light on Saturday, keeping themselves in with a chance of Premier League survival. Kevin Davies met Martin Petrov’s 26th minute cross on the full to volley the visitors in front but a neat move by Sunderland was finished off by Niklas Bendtner ten minutes later. James McClean put the Black Cats in front, with a terrific free-kick ten minutes after the break, however, Davies levelled things up with a header twenty minutes from time.
Stoke City gave third placed Arsenal a fright at the Britannia on Saturday by taking the lead early on against the Gunners. Peter Crouch added to his impressive tally for this campaign by heading Matthew Etherington’s ninth minute cross past Szczesny to give the Potters the lead, however, just six minutes later, Tomas Rosicky found van Persie unmarked at the far post, and the flying Dutchman made no mistake as he fired Arsenal level. 1-1 the final score, Arsenal stay third but lose ground to Spurs.
Suarez Image by Mark McKenny. Tevez Image by Duncan Hill.