Hi and welcome back to It’s All in the Game after a longer than anticipated sabbatical; apologies. Back in the game for 2013 and with the EPL having emerged from its frantic, festive frenzy of football, I’m here to bring you up to date with last weekend’s matches and how things stand in the table with the season down counting down towards the run-in.
We begin with Sky Sports’s Super Sunday offerings, and what a mouthy watering pair of games they promised to be.
Liverpool travelled to Manchester United with Brendan Rodgers hoping to buck the trend which had seen each of the previous six LFC managers lose on their first trip to Old Trafford. Unfortunately for Rodgers and Reds’ fans, his hopes were dashed by a Manchester United side who despite looking very iffy at times this season, sit atop the league table having amassed an almost incredible 55 points from 22 games (a points average of 2.5 per game).
After starting the game in a confident, if contained manner, Liverpool held their own for the first twenty minutes. However when Downing and Wisdom conspired to leave Evra in masses of space down Liverpool’s right, the controversial full-back even had time to fluff his first touch before sending a low cross into the box, which Robin van Persie, having stolen half a yard on Daniel Agger, duly swept home to make it 1-0.
As has been all too familiar with Liverpool in recent years, and something that Rodgers has as yet failed to rectify, their inability to pick up the pieces after conceding first was once again all too evident on Sunday. Liverpool disintegrated for the rest of the half, and but for profligate finishing and some desperate defending, United could have been five up at half-time.
The second half was an altogether different story. Daniel Sturridge replaced Lucas from the whistle and Liverpool reverted to something resembling a 4-4-2. Immediately Liverpool looked more threatening (although that wouldn’t have been hard), with Sturridge’s pace and power giving the United defence much more to think about.
It was Ferguson’s men who doubled their lead though, around about five minutes into the second-half. Liverpool failed to organise swiftly enough when defending a free-kick about 30 yards from goal. Van-persie’s left foot produced a perfectly flighted cross to the far post, where Patrice Evra rose to meet it; his header was deflected into the net by the marginally offside Vidic, making it 2-0. Hard luck for Liverpool again, with Pepe Reina likely to have saved Evra’s initial header, although the call was a marginal one and a hugely difficult one for the officials to make, Liverpool have suffered terribly from wrong offside calls this season.
From that point on it was all Liverpool, as they began to play with the sort of confidence and urgency which had deserted them in the previous half an hour. Sturridge and Suarez began to work in tandem, and once Borini replaced Sterling we began to see what a first choice front three might look like for the Reds as the season progresses. Sturridge pulled a goal back on 57 minutes after De Gea had made a good save from Gerrard, and the new boy could have made it a dream EPL debut in Red had he not missed a very presentable chance (albeit on his weaker foot) later on.
Manchester United closed the game out and in the end were happy to get over the finishing line having conceded the initiative to their arch rivals for the vast majority of the second-half. Plenty of positives for Liverpool to take away from the game, however their first-half performances raised plenty of concerns too; something for which Rodgers will have to shoulder some of the blame. All in all a good game which United just edged, thanks to Liverpool’s abject first half showing, with Robin van Persie once again proving that one or two touches is enough for him to win a game. United look firm favourites at the moment to win their 20th league title whilst Liverpool continue to take two steps forward and one step back under Brendan Rodgers. They remain 8th, nine points of fourth and six behind, city rivals, Everton in fifth.
So to the Emirates, where champions Manchester City arrived to take on the Gunners knowing that a defeat would leave them ten points behind their city rivals in the title race. As has been well documented, City’s record at the Emirates is nothing to shout about and with Arsenal having been in decent form at home in recent times, many were expecting a real ding dong battle.
Unfortunately for the neutral that kind of basketball game feel was never allowed to develop as Laurent Koscielny, last season considered by many Arsenal fans to be their best centre-back, further added to his rapidly growing reputation for haplessness by rugby tackling Edin Dzeko in the box inside the first ten minutes. Koscielny rightly received his marching orders and although Arsenal fans were upset, for me they were clutching at straws.
That proved to be the end of the match as a contest, despite Dzeko’s penalty somehow staying out after hitting a post and rolling all the way along the goal-line. Dzeko did get on the score-sheet though, grabbing his side’s second and final goal after Szczesny had saved well from Carlos Tevez. Dzeko’s goal came just after the half-hour and reinforced the lead given to City by James Milner in the 21st minute.
Arsenal’s first half performance was abject, before and after the dismissal, and City could and should have been out of site by half-time. That they weren’t is symptomatic of the problems City have had away from home this season ie. an inability to score enough goals. However, Mancini’s men remained comfortable in the match until the game threw up its second major talking point; Vincent Kompany’s red card. With the game in its final quarter Kompany slid in on Wilshere winning the ball cleanly. The problem however was that he slid in with two feet and as such, the referee Mike Dean had no option, in my opinion, other than to send him off.
The tackle, and indeed the earlier red card, have thrown up a lot of opinions from various pundits and journalists as usual, however for me the referee got them both spot on. The way the laws are, any tackle with two feet is deemed as dangerous and therefore punishable by a red. Whatever the pundits may say about a tackle being clean, a player never needs to use two feet to make it. They have been warned by referees and the fans also know what to expect. Kompany himself can have no complaint as he was punished for a very similar tackle on Wayne Rooney last season.
As for the earlier red for Koscielny; it may be harsh to award a penalty and a red card for a defender who commits a foul as the last man, but that is the rule and it must be applied evenly. Those calling for “common sense” would do well to remember that “common sense” is a subjective concept which, if applied, will always be applied differently by different referees, leading to the laws being applied in a hugely inconsistent manner from game to game and week to week. You may disagree with the rules, but you can’t blame the referees who apply them correctly.
Arsenal improved slightly after Kompany saw red, however it wasn’t until the 90th minute when Lescott cleared Walcott’s effort off the line, with Joe Hart beaten, that the Gunners registered their first meaningful shot on target. A game dominated by red cards and faux controversy, which disguised the fact that Arsenal were very poor on the day. Their rollercoaster season continues, with Arsene Wenger coming under sustained pressure from large sections of the Gunners’ fanbase. City played within themselves, but still haven’t come close to looking like the dynamic, exciting, progressive force that they were last year. One thing is certain, on current form, they’ll have a job on to catch United this time round.
Elsewhere over the weekend, Norwich and Newcastle played out a mind-numbingly boring 0-0 draw at Carrow road. Both teams I’m sure will have been happy with the point as for Norwich it halted a run of four defeats and for Newcastle, anything that isn’t a defeat is welcome at the moment after their disastrous run of form. Having lost Demba Ba and with Coloccini desperate to return to Argentina, the reported signings of Matthieu Debuchy & Loic Remy from France will be welcome news to Geordies. However, they’ll both have to hit the ground running if they are help Newcastle avoid becoming involved in a relegation dogfight as the Magpies are just two points above the drop-zone. Norwich remain steadily in mid-table, seven point from danger and seem destined to further consolidate their Premier League credentials by the end of the season.
Swansea and Everton also failed to find the back of the net as they played out a goal-less draw at Goodison. Everton had the better chances and more of the game but solid defending and poor finishing left David Moyes cursing his luck at the final whistle. Everton now sit fifth, three behind Spurs in fourth and look like remaining there or thereabouts for the rest of the campaign, whether they’ll ultimately have the quality throughout the squad to finish in the top four is very much open to debate. Swansea sit ninth and after a somewhat unpredictable first few months, Michael Laudrup appears to have mastered the art of getting a consistently high standard from his side. Mid-table or lower top-half is beckoning, with a great chance of League Cup success and European entry ta boot.
Sunderland thumped West Ham 3-0 (Larsson, Johnson, McClean) at the Stadium of Light as the Black Cats mini-revival once again gathers pace. The Black Cats have won four of their last seven, only losing to Man.Utd., Spurs and Liverpool, thereby arresting their alarming slide down the table. Adam Johnson has started to weigh in with goals and assists, including the winner against Man.City and, under Martin O’Neill, it appears that they’ll have enough to finish low mid-table; an added bonus being the likelihood of finishing above Newcastle. West Ham are suffering now after a decent start to the season. The Hammers, who miss Diame in a big way, have won one and lost four of their last six games, a run which has seen them slide to 11th in the table. The acquisition of Joe Cole has raised eyebrows, but who knows, perhaps being back at his first club will help him find the legs that seem to have so evidently deserted him. I can see the Hammers finishing around where they are now.
A controversial Rickie Lambert penalty gave Southampton a much needed victory in the relegation six pointer at Villa Park on Saturday. The penalty came in the 34th minute after Jay Rodriguez appeared to dive under challenge in the box, and was the only goal of the game. Benteke missed a host of chances to draw the Villains level, as his all-round play continued to look impressive, if somewhat erratic in front of goal. The 0-1 score-line was a massive result for Saints as it ensured Nigel Adkins a double over, fellow relegation contenders, Villa for the season. Another clean sheet was also a welcome bonus, as Artur Boruc staked a claim to hold onto the goalkeeper’s jersey permanently. I think both of these teams will ultimately have enough to stay up, with Saints finishing above Villa – perhaps in 16th & 17th respectively.
The third 0-0 of a low-scoring EPL weekend occurred at Loftus Road, where QPR temporarily moved themselves off the bottom by cling on grimly for a point against Spurs. Spurs had far more of the game and hit the post through Defoe in the first-half. Defoe’s 20 yard drive was expertly tipped onto the upright by Julio Cesar, and it was only the Brazilian’s 10/10 performance which kept his side in with a chance on Saturday. Harry’s worked miracles before, but this one is a tall order. If they are going to stay up, they’ll need to pick up results against the teams around them. Personally I think they’ll go down. Spurs look very good under AVB. After a bumpy start to life at the Lane, the fans have begun to take to the former Chelsea boss and, with players like Bale, Dembele and Lloris, Tottenham are firm favourites to take fourth place. The way the club is run should help AVB with that task, considering that he’s bound to be able to strengthen the squad should he desire.
Chelsea thumped Stoke 4-0 at the Britannia, to inflict the worst home defeat the Potters have ever suffered in the Premier League. Two own goals from Jonathan Walters (who also missed a late penalty) and goals from Lampard and Hazard ensured that Rafa Benitez’s side reclaimed third spot from Tottenham. Stoke are Stoke, you know what you’re gonna get and about it, there’s little else to be said; I envisage a mid-table finish for them.
Chelsea on the other hand, are interesting; a wonderful squad, a top class manager and the ability to strengthen when they like, they are certainly one of the top teams in the country. They sit 14 points behind United and seven behind City with a game in hand on them both. It’s going to be a tall order to win the league from there, with over half the season gone, but it isn’t an insurmountable one and, if there’s one thing we know about Rafa’s teams, it’s that they finish the season very strongly. I have to say, I fancy them to at least split the Manchester clubs and push the eventual winners all the way to the end of May.
The Madejski Stadium Reading is now officially home to the greatest comeback of the Premier League era. 0-2 down courtesy of West Bromwich Albion’s Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku ( who incidentally looks like he’s going to be a real World-beater), with eight minutes to play, goals from Kebe, Le Fondre (pen) and Pogrebnyak sent the Royals’ fans into raptures and condemned the Baggies to the most unlikely of defeats. QPR achieved a similar result in similar circumstances against Liverpool last year, a result which kick-started a survival bid which ultimately proved successful.
As to whether Brian McDermott’s Reading can achieve the same result of the back of this remarkable comeback remains to be seen. I would doubt it in all honesty, in my opinion Reading are not as good as the teams around them and they lack goal-scorers, I can’t see them staying up. How Albion quite managed to shoot themselves in both feet quite so drastically is a matter for Steve Clarke to get to the bottom of. The defeat will be a bitter pill for the Scot to swallow, however, their home form remains good, and it looks likely they’ll finish the season around mid-table.
Finally, Wigan came from a goal down to rescue a point at Craven Cottage on Saturday, as Fulham’s form continues to cause concern for Martin Jol. Fulham took the lead in the first half through Karagounis but were pegged back by a Franco di Santo curler towards the end of the game. Fulham have won two and lost five of their last ten and a top half finish is looking very unlikely for Jol, whose team sit in 13th, six points from safety. They should have enough about them to stop the decline, however these are worrying times at the Cottage where even Fulham’s usually strong home form is suffering.
Wigan have also only won two of their last ten, however the point on Saturday helped them move out of the bottom three on goal difference. The Latics are no stranger to relegation battles and Martinez’s men have come through three of them unscathed so far, the question is, can they keep that record up or will this season see them drop back into the Championship.
Fergie image by Andrea Sartorati. Koscielny image by Ronnie McDonald
Redknapp image by curiouslypersistent. Rafa image by etyek.