Sunday, 27 December 2009

A festive Premier League round-up – The perfect present for West Ham and Aston Villa’s turkeys stuffed at the Emirates

The Christmas period always provides a multitude of clichés, analogies and well-worn jokes, and although Roque Santa Cruz was mercifully excluded from Manchester City’s starting line-up, the weekend’s football was still well worth tuning in for. Although it is customary to start any Premier League round-up with the current leaders, West Ham’s clash with Portsmouth was one of huge importance to both sides, the proverbial ‘six-pointer’. The game saw Gianfranco Zola’s side run out 2-0 winners, and haul themselves clear of the relegation zone. Substitute Luis Jimenez was scythed down by former Hammer Hayden Mullins, providing West Ham with their seventh penalty this season, which was converted by the in-form Alessandro Diamanti. The Hammers were forced to stand firm for almost seventy minutes before an unmarked Radoslav Kovac headed in Jimenez’ free kick, bringing a palpable sense of relief for both the players and the fans. The result leaves Portsmouth rock-bottom of the table on 14 points, three behind their nearest rivals, both of whom have at least a game in hand. Zola described the result as “massive”, adding “it will be a big boost to everybody”, whilst his opposite number reiterated his belief in Portsmouth’s ability to survive, saying “everything is possible”. In what was on paper the most attractive game of the weekend, defensive scrooges Aston Villa travelled to the Emirates to face an Arsenal side which had taken ten points from a possible twelve. Not since Chelsea’s visit in late November had the Gunners been defeated in the Premier League, but Villa proved a worthy adversary throughout the first half, and forced Wenger into a bold substitution on 57 minutes. Despite not having recovered from a hamstring injury, Cesc Fabregas entered the fray hoping to inspire Arsenal to victory, and managed to do just that, curling in a stunning 25-yard free-kick after being fouled by Richard Dunne. Fabregas netted his second within twenty-five minutes of coming onto the field, chipping the ball past Brad Friedel from Walcott’s inch-perfect pass. Abu Diaby netted an emphatic third to bring Villa’s run of four clean sheets in a row to a dramatic end, and put Arsenal within just four points of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand. Martin O’Neill had unsurprisingly little to say after the game, perhaps still a little shell-shocked, but despite the defeat his side remain a point ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham, and on course for Champions League qualification.

Premier League leaders Chelsea faced a difficult encounter against nine-game unbeaten Birmingham City, undoubtedly one of the season’s surprise packages. Whilst many were expecting Chelsea to extend their lead to seven points over Manchester United, they were frustrated by a spectacular performance from home goalkeeper Joe Hart. Hart denied Daniel Sturridge his first goal for the West London side, whilst producing a magnificent save to prevent Frank Lampard opening the scoring. Birmingham at times rode their luck, and ought to have gone behind but for Ivanovic inexplicably heading over from point-blank range. Despite this Alex McLeish’s side were cruelly denied three points by the linesman, who incorrectly ruled out Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez’s tap-in for off-side. It remains to be seen whether Chelsea will be able to cope with the absence of their African Cup of Nations-bound players, particularly Didier Drogba, given Nicolas Anelka’s injury and Sturridge’s lack of top-flight experience. Meanwhile Birmingham will continue to dream of Europe and will do well to continue their impressive unbeaten run, which currently stands at ten games. Champions Manchester United overcame a scare against struggling Hull City at the KC Stadium to move within two points of Chelsea. Wayne Rooney gave United the lead, tapping in from Darren Ferguson’s deflected cross before Craig Fagan netted his first goal of the season from the penalty spot. Rooney’s abysmal back-pass gifted the ball to Fagan, whose wayward cross would have been met by Jozy Altidore were it not for a push from Rafael. Rooney made amends for his error when his low cross was turned in by Hull defender Andy Dawson in the 73rd minute, before he brilliantly provided Dimitar Berbatov with the easiest of tap-ins to make the result safe. Whilst a 3-1 score line may appear conclusive, it was anything but for United who were lucky to come away with all three points, but for all their endeavours Hull City remain firmly in the relegation zone, just a point off safety going into the New Year.

In the obligatory Boxing Day London derby Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur played out an entertaining 0-0 draw in which Heurelho Gomes finally proved his worth with a succession of world-class saves. Following his abject error last season, when he fumbled a shot from distance into his own net last season, he produced a simply magnificent save from the most in-form striker in the Premier League, Bobby Zamora, palming a goal-bound header wide. Not to be outdone, Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer pulled off a heroic double-save, first diving low to his right to save Peter Crouch’s volley, then rising almost instantly to deny the follow-up from Jenas. The result means Fulham remain ninth, five points ahead of Sunderland, whilst Tottenham are just two points ahead of Manchester City, who following a hugely turbulent week hosted Tony Pulis’ Stoke City in Roberto Mancini’s first game as manager. It proved to be a rather uncomplicated affair with Martin Petrov, restored to side by Mancini, opening the scoring on 28 minutes, before Carlos Tevez’ volleyed home from Gareth Barry’s header to guarantee the win for City. The game’s importance however lay in the performance of Robinho, who was pointedly substituted to huge relief from the Manchester City fans with fifteen minutes to go. Whilst the sulky Brazilian this time acted appropriately rather than storming off down the tunnel, his lack of effort and nonchalant manner was of great contrast to his replacement Craig Bellamy. Bellamy and Santa Cruz were reported to have been left out because of their negative reaction to Hughes’ sacking, but on recent form Mancini can ill-afford to leave the Welshman out if City are to meet their owners’ huge expectations this season.

Struggling Liverpool overcame a stubborn Wolverhampton Wanderers side at Anfield by two goals to nil, taking the lead through Steven Gerrard’s header just after the hour mark, with Yossi Benayoun firing the second into the top corner with twenty minutes to go. Yet it took a bizarre few minutes to give Liverpool the impetus to opening the scoring, as the referee somehow managed to book Christophe Berra for a foul committed by Stephen Ward. After being surrounded by Liverpool players in a manner unfortunately becoming more and more common in the Premier League, he eventually realised his mistake and showed Ward his second yellow card. Mick McCarthy correctly pointed to the dismissal as the turning point, as prior to this Wolves had been taking the game to the hosts. Yet Benitez’ side quickly capitalised on their numerical advantage to gain yet another convincing win and leap-frog Birmingham into seventh, just five points off the coveted top four positions. Sunderland’s poor form continued with a disappointing draw at home to Everton, who battled their way to an equaliser five minutes from time. Darren Bent gave Sunderland the lead with a powerful header after just 17 minutes, before Marouane Fellaini fired an equaliser from Tony Hibbert’s cross following a second-half in which Everton overwhelming dominated, with Steven Pienaar a continual threat. Burnley and Bolton Wanderers fought out a spirited Lancashire derby which ended 1-1, David Nugent heading in Wade Elliot’s cross to increase his chances of remaining at Burnley until the end of the season. Matthew Taylor had given Bolton the lead with a well-struck free-kick from distance just before the half hour mark, and were fortunate to remain ahead as Steven Fletcher squandered a number of opportunities for the home side. Bolton remain third bottom with Burnley just three points ahead in 13th place, whilst fellow strugglers Wigan and Blackburn played out another 1-1 draw which did little for either side; Hugo Rodallega equalised for Wigan just after half-time. Benni McCarthy had put Blackburn ahead with his first goal of the season but Blackburn were denied the three "precious" points manager Sam Allardyce had sought ahead of the match.

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