Prem Week 09: Man Utd save Prem; RvP stupid

If it wasn’t for Robin Van Persie’s late strike earning a point for Man Utd at Old Trafford, the Premier League title might have been all over already. Chelsea's Didier Drogba rolled back the years with a power header early in the second half. Marouane Fellaini was to blame for losing the Ivorian at a corner, while midget Fabio needed a step ladder to match Drogba’s 8ft leap.

Van Persie equalised at the death but that did not stop Louis Van Gaal remarking on the Dutchman’s stupidity for removing his shirt and earning himself a yellow card.

There used to be a debate about booking players for removing their shirts to celebrate. Apparently, they just can’t help themselves and lose their minds with sheer excitement! Funny then that when a player scores against their old club you often see them solemnly wander back to the halfway line, a model of self-control.

Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, an eight point lead for Chelsea might have been a bridge too far for Man City who lost 2-1 at West Ham, with goals from Morgan Amalfitano and Diafra Sakho – the £3.5m signing from Metz who has scored in every Premier League game he’s played this season.

West Ham fans wanted Sam Allardyce buried at sea last season - or just dumped in it, and although his style of football has never been my cup of tea in the past, one has to admit he’s done a brilliant job to turn the ship.

At the moment, Chelsea look a class apart from the rest of the Premier League, and Jose Mourinho is a class apart from other managers. He doesn’t do complacency. While they will no doubt drop points, you can assess where they might slip up, whereas Man City – their only genuine rivals, seem capable of slipping up at any given moment.

At White Hart Lane, Daniel Levy is likely already thinking about loading his gun and firing off a P45 in the direction of Mauricio Pochettino’s as Spurs succumbed to a 2-1 defeat at home to Newcastle. A dreadful result, Tottenham had everything under control - leading 1-0 – until Sammy Ameobi equalised eight seconds into the second-half. From that position, the Spurs players' heads dropped and they lost.

Like their North London neighbours, Tottenham’s spine is weak, and the team has no leaders running through it. Pochettino could be the wrong man for the job as his players do not seem physically equipped to play his pressing game, and with impatient home fans already booing inanely, one wonders when Levy will move into his usual self-preservation mode.

Could Southampton make the top four this season? Unlikely, but I’d love to see them do it. They beat Stoke quite comfortably at St. Marys 1-0, continuing their remarkable run of form. If they can avoid injuries, they may have a chance – but most clubs succumb to that at some point in the season, and those with smaller squads usually suffer.

Meanwhile, a couple of teams that impressed last season, have started revving up the engines again. Everton looked a lot more solid, beating Burnley 3-1 with the help of two fine goals from Samuel Eto’o, while Swansea‘s Wilfred Bony scored two to put paid to Leicester City – Bony's career ratio is almost exactly one in two.

Liverpool’s struggle to assimilate Mario Balotelli continued with a 0-0 draw at home to Hull, and Sunderland threw away the points again with more comical defending at home to Arsenal.

QPR earned their first win of the season at home to woeful Aston Villa; you wouldn't bet against Harry Redknapp getting The R’s out of trouble one way or another.


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Prem Week 08: Astonishing Saints/Aguero runs riot

There was no mercy for Tottenham at the City of Manchester Stadium this weekend as Sergio Aguero showcased some devastating finishing. Scoring four goals, there was even room for him to miss a penalty and shank the rebound over the crossbar. When Aguero is on form, Man City are a different animal; statistics show he has the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any striker in Premier League history.

The scoreline flattered City slightly, Roberto Soldado had the chance to level the scores and put the home side on edge but his tame penalty was saved by Joe Hart. The point of no return arrived when towering centre-back Federico Fazio saw red for pulling Aguero down in the box.

City remain five points behind Chelsea, who comfortably beat Crystal Palace 2-1 at Selhurst Park. Oscar whipped a stunning free kick past Julian Speroni after just six minutes, and not long after half-time Cesc Fabregas finished a seamless move with his first goal for the club. Diego Costa was missing through injury.

Prem Week 08 might be remembered for some of the worst defending in Premier League history. Sunderland conceded eight at Southampton, where nobody was more inept than goalkeeper Vito Mannone who was to blame for at least three of the goals.

Although Sunderland were beyond abysmal, credit must go to Southampton for their clinical finishing. Demeaned and depressed, Gus Poyet will demand a massive reaction in Sunderland’s next game – until yesterday they had one of the meanest defences in the Premier League.

Meanwhile, at Loftus Road, QPR were also guilty of some shocking errors during their 3-2 defeat to Liverpool. Despite missing a catalogue of chances in the first half, Harry Redknapp’s men fell asleep from a quickly taken set piece 19 minutes into the second half. Richard Dunne turned his back on play then put the incoming cross into his own net, he's now set the record for Premier League player with the most own goals (10). In a crazy eight-minute spell, four goals were conceded between the two sides right up until the final whistle. The final crime committed by Steven Caulker, who bundled the ball into his own net with seconds to spare.

While Mario Balotelli was his usual petulant self, it's worth noting that on both own goals it was his positioning that forced the errors. 
QPR continue to languish at the foot of the table, but Liverpool have no right to be happy with their performance either. Sloppy at the back again, Brendan Rodgers shows no sign of being able to reverse his side’s defensive indecision.

Burnley’s defending could also be called into question during their 3-1 defeat to a West Ham side that scored three headed goals. Manager Sam Allardyce, long known for his tedious, one-dimensional tactics is confounding critics by winning football matches in a relatively stylish manner.

At The Hawthorns, West Brom twice took the lead against Manchester United, with fine goals from Stephane Sessegnon and Saido Berahino. I managed to catch most of the second half and Maourane Fellaini had a big impact on the game. He came on at half time, and apart from scoring an excellent goal possessed the physical presence that Man Utd have been missing for quite some time.

Fellaini could be the key to reversing Utd’s form, and it will be interesting to see his impact on their next two games against Chelsea and Man City. Danny Blind also scored a cracker, but his goal three minutes from time came too late for Utd to complete the comeback.

Everton looked more like their old selves, keeping a clean sheet to comfortably beating Aston Villa 3-0 at Goodison Park. Villa enjoyed a good start to the season, but have collapsed under the weight of a very tough run of fixtures.

At the Emirates, Arsenal threw away more points, this time at home to Hull. The game finished 2-2, with Danny Welbeck scoring a late equaliser against a Hull side incapable of holding onto a lead. Arsene Wenger’s post-match interview with BBC correspondent Jacqui Oatley provided another glimpse of the ugliness lurking beneath his arrogant exterior.

Oatley’s line of questioning was refreshing. The vast majority of journalists are cowards. Privileged enough to get free tickets to write about the sport they love, they would rather ask asinine questions than risk being barred from press conferences by managers they annoyed. Note how whenever a manager loses their temper, journos are quick to back down no matter how illogical the answer.

My view? If a newspaper sports writer is barred from attending a press conference/interview for asking perfectlly legitimate questions, the paper in question should revoke all journalists from reporting about that club and throw the rule book out of the window when commenting on that manager until the journalist is reinstated.


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Prem Week 07: Arsenal escape 4 red cards/De Gea rescues Utd

The Premier League saw a full complement of games this weekend as attentions turn to another yawn-inducing international break.

The big game of the weekend was to be found at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea hosted Arsenal. Unlike last year’s 6-0 mauling, Chelsea lacked verve and energy up front. Despite repeatedly winning the ball in midfield, they failed to counter-attack with any pace or conviction. However, they did fight from back to front, unlike their opponents who were physically, mentally and tactically inferior.

The two managers had a spat on the touchline after Gary Cahill committed a late and clumsy tackle on Alexis Sanchez. Arsene Wenger waltzed into Jose Mourinho’s technical area spoiling for a fight, which only served to rouse a lethargic Chelsea, as Eden Hazard swiftly dribbled through the Arsenal defence to win and bury a penalty. A game of few chances, Diego Costa finished Arsenal with a late goal following a delicious long ball from Cesc Fabregas!

Arsenal should have had four players sent off; Laurent Koscielny for his penalty foul on Hazard, Callum Chambers for deliberate obstruction when already booked, Danny Welbeck for a two-footed lunge on Fabregas, and Alexis Sanchez for a violent punch that connected with Branislav Ivanovic.

Post-match, Wenger degraded himself by stating that the team with the most money won. An undignified excuse, and partially incorrect considering Arsenal now have a higher wage bill than Chelsea, and let’s not forget Arsenal’s £108,000,000 four-man attack, which cost £80m more than Chelsea’s back five yet could not manage a single shot on target throughout the entire game.

At Old Trafford, Man Utd looked potent going forward, but Everton ran them close after another nervous defensive display from the home side. David De Gea had his best game for the club, with several outstanding saves, including a penalty, helping Utd to a 2-1 victory.

Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, showed signs of successfully implementing an attacking philosophy during Spurs 1-0 victory over Southampton. Emanuel Adebayor held the ball up top, while Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli and, pick of the bunch, Christian Eriksen, rotated in attacking positions.

Liverpool and Man City also recorded wins, beating West Brom 2-1 and Aston Villa 2-0 respectively. Pool boss Brendan Rodgers preferred Ricky Lambert to Mario Balotelli who will need to adapt his style of play if he is to be a success at the club – presuming he can be arsed.

Hull beat Crystal Palace 2-0, a late goal from Nikica Jelavic preventing the sort of comeback that Hull are susceptible to, while West Ham reached the dizzying heights of 7th following an impressive 2-0 win over QPR, where Harry Redknapp finds himself entrenched in another battle for survival.

For the second time in a matter of weeks, Pape Cisse threw Alan Pardew a lifeline with two goals – this time at the Liberty Stadium, although Newcastle could still not achieve victory. Burnley also showed some fighting spirit to rescue a point at Leicester in the weekend’s other 2-2 draw. 


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Prem Week 06: Derby sides not up to title challenge

This was the weekend that proved none of the teams on show in the North London and Merseyside derbies will be challenging for anything other than a domestic cup and a place in the top four – at best.

On Merseyside, Liverpool and Everton fought a 1-1 draw after Steven Gerrard’s set-piece free-kick was cancelled out in the dying seconds by a spectacular long-range drive by Phil Jagielka. Both sides have already dropped 23 points between them.

Down South, the score was the same in the London Derby. Spurs chief Mauricio Pochettino knows his team does not yet have the players to play his style or system, but any half-decent side can negate Arsenal – and so it proved. Spurs took the lead early in the second half after Mattieu Flamini was mugged in midfield by Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli set up to finish. Arsenal levelled after Danny Welbeck’s laughable miskick fell straight into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Arsene Wenger can’t see the wood for the trees. Nobody knows why he plays who he plays or the logic behind who plays where and when. He has nine attacking central midfielders spread out all over the pitch, and can’t get consistency out of any of them. In Wenger's world, why bother with tactics? And herein lies Arsenal's malaise. Also, Wenger continues to exacerbate injuries by adopting prehistoric training methods and pushing players to their physical limits, hence injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mikael Arteta in the first half. All three injuries were non-contact, a sign of nervous-system fatigue due to poor conditioning or insufficient rest.

Meanwhile, Chelsea and Man City proved why they alone will battle it out for the title. Chelsea comfortably demolished Aston Villa 3-0, and Man City saw off Hull 4-2 despite having to recover from £32m new signing Eliaquim Mangala gifting the opposition a goal and a penalty.

City looked potent up front with a fully fit Sergio Aguero, while Edin Dzeko is purring having seen off Alvaro Negredo - now on loan at Valencia.

Desperate for a win, Man Utd struggled to beat West Ham 2-1 at Old Trafford. Angel Di Maria was anonymous and Wayne Rooney sent off for a stupid high kick on Stewart Downing. West Ham complained after Kevin Nolan appeared to equalise in the final minute, but his tap-in was ruled offside. I thought Nolan was onside because his feet were level with the last man, but didn’t realise this rule was changed in 2005. Regrettably for Nolan, even if a player’s nose is ahead of the opposition’s last man he’s deemed to be offside.

After humiliating Utd last week, Leicester were brought back down to earth by Crystal Palace who beat them 2-0, but the best goals of the weekend were to be found at St. Mary’s. With Southampton ahead, Charlie Austin levelled for Q.P.R. with a seamless touch, turn swivel and shot, the brilliance of which was equalled two minutes later by Graziano Pelle’s superb scissor-kick, set up artfully by his own first touch.

Southampton held on for a seventh straight win in all competitions. Having sold numerous key players in the summer, what Southampton have achieved so far this season has been truly remarkable.

Elsewhere, Sunderland and Swansea fought out a bore draw, and West Brom thrashed doomed Burnley 4-0. Alan Pardew, meanwhile, moved closer to the dole queue after Newcastle lost 1-0 to Stoke on Monday night.


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Prem Week 05: Utd embarrassment/Europe’s high fail rate

A highly entertaining weekend in the Premier League. Actually, let me rephrase that, a remarkably entertaining weekend.

Most of that entertainment was to be found at the King Power Stadium, where Leicester demolished Manchester United 5-3. Utd started the game on fire and were two up within 16 minutes, courtesy of a Robin Van Persie header and an exquisite chip shot by Angel Di Maria. Leonardo Ulloa continued his fine start to Premier League life by pulling a goal back in the 17th minute, but Ander Herrera’s back-heel restored Utd’s two-goal advantage and the game seemed to be over.

However, driven by a powerhouse performance from debutant Jamie Vardy, Leicester fought their way back into the game. In truth, referee Mark Clattenburg has some explaining to do after giving an outrageously bad penalty decision in Leicester’s favour. David Nugent converted in the 62nd minute, igniting a resurgence that would heap further embarrassment on Utd’s plagued defence.

Utd’s collapse was on a par with a game I distinctly remember from April 1996, when Southampton beat them 6-3. A stark reminder to Louis Van Gaal that battering teams into submission is not likely to work as a singular tactic every week. Still, credit the manager for not making a meal out of a couple of dreadful decisions that led to Leicester goals. He knows – like we all do, that there’s no excuse for letting a 3-1 lead slip.

One defender who I’ve always rated highly, and cannot understand why Liverpool and Man Utd have ignored, is Joleon Lescott. The centre back formed an excellent partnership with Vincent Kompany at Man City and put in a Man of The Match performance for West Brom during their 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane. OK, he’s 32, but both clubs are crying out for that sort of experience at the moment.

A flaccid Spurs side were not the only ones to struggle after a week of European football, Liverpool suffered their third defeat of the season away to West Ham (3-1) and Everton lost at home to Crystal Palace (3-2). Individual errors continue to haunt both Merseyside clubs.

European football clearly has a big effect on teams not used to the travelling and few rest days in between. Personally, I think the Europa League should be scrapped. It has no prestige, while for most clubs attendances are a third of what’s normally expected and the prize money a quarter of what teams make from Champions League income.

Domestic leagues would be stronger and more competitive at the top end if those trying to break into the top four were not stifled by participation in such a meaningless competition.

Indeed, Arsenal were the only team to win this weekend following their European exploits. According to newspaper reports, Mesuz Ozil requested Arsene Wenger play him in his favoured number 10 role and the German responded with a rare goal and an assist during his team’s 3-0 victory. Having said that, it would have been a completely different game had a virus not swept through the Villa camp decking three players prior to kick-off. Many were in no fit state to play either, including Andreas Wiemann who could not make it past half time.

Biggest game of the weekend was Man City vs Chelsea, which, thankfully for those seeking a Premier League that’s not over within two months, ended in a draw. Manuel Pellegrini was frustrated by Chelsea’s defensive-minded tactics (surpise, surprise), especially after The Blues hit 10-man City on the break with a goal from Andre Scurrle on 71.

City equalised five minutes from time courtesy of ex-Chelsea legend, Frank Lampard. As soon as Lampard came on, the script was written.

Diego Costa is a joy to watch. Manhandled all afternoon, he didn’t dive around like a cissy and only took umbrage when Zabaleta clattered him late from behind. He is a dream striker, and any club would have him.
A goal from Victor Wanyama settled the score in a game between two of the Premier League’s best footballing sides, Swansea and Southampton. However, the away team was assisted by the uncharacteristic psychosis of striker Wilfred Bony, who looked coked-up prior to his Braveheart-style barge on Maya Yoshida - followed not much later by a scissor-kick from behind on the same player. Bony was red carded after 38 minutes.

Elsewhere, Alan Pardew’s neck was saved by two late goals from Papiss Cisse in a 2-2 draw against Hull. Lessons not learned from the FA Cup final, as Steve Bruce once again rues his side’s inability to hold onto a 2-0 lead.


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