Monday
Nov102014

Prem Week 11: Chelsea unassailable? White lines

Many people are beginning to think that the race for the Premier League title is already over. Despite Southampton only being four points behind Chelsea  (following their 2-0 home win against Leicester), The Saints are not genuine challengers, while Chelsea sit eight points ahead of the only team that most sane people recognise can realistically catch them.

What’s more, Chelsea have already played Everton, Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool away from home, and have a fearsome home record under Jose Mourinho. With a squad hungry for success, it’s hard to see how Chelsea will capitulate.

Indeed, against Liverpool, Chelsea confidently dismissed their opponents despite going behind to a deflected goal. Gary Cahill, who was lucky to get away with a clear handball in the box, equalised for the Blues and Diego Costa thrashed home the winner to heap more misery on Brendan Rodgers, who can’t seem to make a right decision at the moment.

Man City, meanwhile, dropped two points at QPR, and were lucky to even get that considering Sergio Aguero handled the ball in the lead up to his 32nd minute equaliser. Fortunately for him, he was surrounded by two defenders who obscured the vision of both the referee and linesman, but still, the little genius scored two mesmerising goals.

Newcastle’s remarkable turnaround continued with a 2-0 win away to West Brom, a highlight of which was Ayoze Perez’ instinctive flick shot – technically, as good as any goal you are likely to see in the Premier League this season. From being relegation candidates only a few weeks ago, Newcastle are now 8th, two points from a Champions League place.

At White Hart Lane, Spurs lost at home to Stoke. The fourth time they’ve lost following a Europa League match, Mauricio Pochettino’s men are too lightweight to cope with a heavy fixture list, and a season of optimism looks like being another miserable one for them. If so, disgruntled supporters might finally turn their anger towards Chairman Daniel Levy, whose running of the club is beginning to look inept.

At the top end of the table, West Ham could only draw at home to struggling Aston Villa who managed a rare clean sheet, although they were tested at the end by Andy Carroll. Back following a long-term injury, the talented front man is still only 25 and could yet take the club to new heights following his £15m move from Liverpool.

In two other close-fought games, Man Utd beat Crystal Palace 1-0 courtesy of Juan Mata, and Arsenal fell apart again having taken a 1-0 lead at Swansea. Tactically, Arsene Wenger sank to unprecedented new lows with absurd substitutions and an abject refusal to protect/remove rookie full back Callum Chambers, who was skinned by Jefferson Montero up to and including the cross that set up Bafetimbi Gomis to head the winner.

Final observation from the weekend centres around the referee’s vanishing spray pain marker. I can't be the only one to notice that players are already starting to shuffle forward and encroach past the white line at set pieces. Referees seem to feel their job is done by using the spray paint alone.

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Wednesday
Nov052014

Prem Week 10: Man City hang on to Chelsea’s coattails

This weekend’s Premier League games were full of controversy – too much to go through on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, I don’t believe bad refereeing decisions decide a team’s fate. Withstanding a series of outlandish decisions, if a team needs assistance from a referee to claim a victory then it didn’t do enough.

All fans are biased and bore us to death with their complaints about injustice, and managers are not much better – it's very tiring to watch so many people lying or deluding themselves.

The big game of the weekend was at The Etihad, where Man City beat rivals Man Utd 1-0 to stay within reach of Chelsea, who beat QPR 2-1 the previous day without being at their best. In what was initially a tight game, Chris Smalling was dismissed for two bookable offences, handing the initiative to the home side. United also survived two penalty shouts following careless tackles on Sergio Aguero by Marouane Fellaini.

Aguero nabbed the winner regardless, but Man Utd are showing signs of defensive improvement and, because the Premier League lacks teams of a high calibre, are still well-positioned for a top-four battle despite their worst start for decades.

For me, Fellaini has been the difference in their last two games. Although he’s treading thin ice at times, at least United now have a physical presence in midfield that can also make a difference when defending set pieces.

The other Sunday game saw Spurs visit hapless Aston Villa, beating them 2-1 with two late goals. Villa took the lead through Andreas Wiemann, but Tottenham looked alarmingly toothless despite the sending off of Christian Benteke for raising his hands to Ryan Mason – who might have been sent off himself for pushing his head into the striker’s face. In all honesty, yellow cards for each would have sufficed, but Mason got away scot-free despite his provocation.

At the moment it’s hard to believe Roberto Soldado was ever a prolific striker; a decimal point would need to be placed in the middle of his £26m transfer fee in order to achieve a sale. The game itself was low on quality, and although Villa were unlucky to concede a deflected free-kick in the last minute, they only have themselves to blame for failing to mark Nacer Chadli at a corner.

On the Saturday, Newcastle’s excellent form continued with a 1-0 home victory over Liverpool, who conceded another daft goal due to an individual error from Alberto Moreno. As age catches up with him, Stephen Gerrard is looking increasingly peripheral at Liverpool. One wonders whether manager Brendan Rodgers would be better served only starting the 34-year-old in home games.

A 0-0 draw between Everton and Swansea drew controversy when Antolin Alcaraz performed a diving save in his own box, although from the referee’s angle it may have looked as though the ball took a ricochet off his knee.

Elsewhere, brilliant Southampton won again, 1-0 at Hull, after Victor Wanyama seized on goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic’s poor clearance with a 40-yard strike. Southampton should have won by three or four, but have only conceded five goals this season, so one was enough.

One of the weekends most entertaining games was at Stoke, who were held 2-2 by West Ham despite taking a 2-0 lead. Along with Ronald Koeman at Southampton, Sam Allardyce has made the best signings of the summer, none more so than the reinvigorated Alex Song. Man Utd and Liverpool may well be wondering how he slipped through the scouting radar, and although he is only on loan to the Hammers at present, you would imagine Barcelona will be happy to do a deal for the right price.

Leicester got their first win of the season at West Brom (1-0), but relegation certainties Burnley are still searching, following a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.

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Tuesday
Oct282014

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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Tuesday
Oct212014

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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Wednesday
Oct082014

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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