Friday, 18 December 2009

Midweek review, weekend preview – One game too many for Arsène Wenger?

In the absence of Champions League action the Premier League took centre-stage this midweek, with the so-called ‘Top Four’ of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all in action. Despite the Arsenal manager’s complaints there has always been something special about games played under floodlights in the run up to Christmas, and this midweek’s offering was no exception, despite offering up few unsurprising results. Premier League leaders Chelsea were in action against bottom-club Portsmouth, with many expecting the in-form pairing of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka to inflict a painful and humiliating defeat upon ex-Chelsea and current Portsmouth boss Avram Grant. Instead the result was a very unconvincing 2-1 victory for Chelsea, their first in five matches, which restored the Blues’ three-point advantage at the top of the table. The first-half was an extremely one-sided affair, with goalkeeper Petr Cech rarely tested after the defensive aberration a week previously against Everton. Chelsea took the lead after 23 minutes, when Alex’s cross was slotted home by Anelka, following a host of chances spurned by the home side. Portsmouth’s only attacking foray ended with Cech spilling Piquionne’s well-struck effort into the path of Herman Hreidarsson, only for the Icelandic defender to miss-control the rebound. The league leaders appeared to have allowed complacency to slip into their play in the second half, and were punished when Jamie O’Hara’s free kick deflected off Ashley Cole into the path of Piquionne, who smashed a ferocious equaliser beyond Cech. Portsmouth then had chances through the self-styled ‘Ghetto Kid’, Kevin Prince Boateng, before Chelsea’s blushes were spared by Frank Lampard’s 79th minute penalty. Flying right-back Branislav Ivanovic was clearly brought down by Marc Wilson, and Lampard stepped up to banish memories of his spot-kick miss against Manchester City the previous week. The result means Pompey remain rooted to the foot of the table, but Avram Grant’s arrival has clearly inspired greater confidence amongst the South Coast club’s players, who will hope to build on their victory against Burnley and late draw against Sunderland last weekend. Chelsea will need to improve for their Sunday afternoon encounter with London neighbours West Ham United if they intend to remain at the summit of the table.

Manchester United encountered a drastically weakened Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, boasting ten changes from the side whose heroic defensive effort guaranteed victory at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Only goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann was retained, whilst George Friend, recently recalled from his loan spell at Scunthorpe United, made his first Premier League start. Wolves were only able to hold out for half an hour against the Champions, who took the lead after Ronald Zubar handled Darron Gibson’s corner and Wayne Rooney dispatched the subsequent penalty. Nemanja Vidic headed in the second from another Gibson corner, and a powerful strike from Antonio Valencia rounded off a comfortable 3-0 win for United. Temperamental Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov flicked the ball over his head to Valencia, who slammed a half-volley into the roof of the net. Mick McCarthy’s decision to field such a weakened side has since generated great comment, not least from Arsène Wenger, who bitterly stated “we will have to compete with Manchester United over 37 games instead of 38”, implying that Manchester United were ‘given’ the victory. Both Owen Coyle and Tony Pulis have condemned Wenger for his comments, with the Stoke manager stating “the players Mick played, most of them are seasoned professionals who he has spent decent money on”, adding “I don't think it was the walk in the park for United that people are suggesting”. Despite such support the Premier League has asked McCarthy to explain his team selection, as rule 20, section E stipulates that teams must field a full-strength side in all top-flight matches. Fans have also joined in the condemnation, chanting ‘we want our money back’ during the game; Wolves supporter chief Arthur Williams, talking to the BBC, branded the selection “grossly disrespectful” and called for McCarthy to make amends in the club’s next game against Burnley. It remains to be seen whether or not McCarthy and Wolves will be punished, but one thing is for sure; if the club were to defeat Burnley at the weekend, in what is a crucial game, the fans will no longer feel the need to complain. United meanwhile will be hoping to close the gap on Chelsea with a win away at Fulham tomorrow afternoon.

Third-placed Arsenal took on Owen Coyle’s over-achieving Burnley side at Turf Moor on Wednesday night, with goals from Francesc Fabregas and Graham Alexander ensuring the game ended all square at 1-1. Fabregas somehow managed to evade Burnley defence and slot home the opening goal after just seven minutes, before Andre Bikey’s powerful run was brought to an abrupt end by a clumsy challenge from Thomas Vermaelen. Scottish international Alexander netted his 100th career league goal from the penalty spot, in what has become a formality, to deny the Gunners what would have been an unlikely six points from two ‘tricky’ away ties in the North of England. Despite the draw being on the whole a good result for both sides, Wenger would have been severely disappointed to see his goal scorer limping off with an injury just before half time. His annoyance was clear after the game, when he criticised the Premier League’s fixture list for making his side play three games in a week, whilst his side’s next opponents Hull City missed out on the opportunity to due Everton’s participation in the Europa League. Wenger’s outburst was greeted by Tony Pulis, who accused the Arsenal boss of “moaning like a drain”, but Pulis’ assertion that any ‘top’ side ought to be able to handle three games a week is certainly correct. I very much doubt the North London side will encounter any difficulty in over-coming Phil Brown’s Hull at the Emirates tomorrow.

This season’s strugglers Liverpool overcame a gutsy Wigan outfit at Anfield on Wednesday to move up to sixth place, just five points behind Aston Villa in fourth. The game marked a special celebration for the fans, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of Scottish legend Bill Shankly becoming Liverpool manager. With Rafael Benitez having ‘guaranteed’ a top-four finish this season, the pressure was on Liverpool to prove such confidence not to be unfounded. In the end goals from the much-maligned David N’Gog, an impressive performer on the night, and the returning Fernando Torres sealed a hard-fought 2-1 victory. N’Gog opened the scoring for Liverpool with a glancing header from Aurelio’s cross, his sixth goal of the season, before Gerrard’s header released Torres, who took the ball past Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, and scrambled the ball in after his initial effort had been blocked by Titus Bramble. The goal was Torres’ 61st for Liverpool in just 100 appearances, a phenomenal record, and his manager will undoubtedly be hoping he can stay fit for the second-half of the season, and the club’s Europa League campaign. Wigan’s efforts received some reward when the outstanding Charles N’Zogbia netted with a well-placed finish through a gap in the Liverpool defence, to make up for striker Jason Scotland’s appalling miss earlier in the game, when he smashed his shot against the bar with the goal gaping. Benitez summed up the game in the post-match conference, saying “the main thing for us was just to win”, whilst his opposite number emphasised his disappointment at coming away with nothing having played so well. Tomorrow’s game away to Portsmouth should provide Liverpool with a test, as well as being a huge opportunity to close in on Spurs, who remain in fifth place, whilst Wigan will be looking for a greater reward at home to Bolton on Monday.

The remaining games saw Aston Villa continue their excellent recent form with an impressive 2-0 victory at the Stadium of Light, Emile Heskey answered critics of his goal-scoring record by giving Villa the lead on 24 minutes, before the star of recent weeks James Milner gave his England credentials yet another boost with a majestic 30-yard drive into the top-corner. The win keeps Villa in third place, level on points with Arsenal having played a game more, whilst Sunderland are tenth, having slipped out the of European picture in recent weeks due to a string of poor home results. Villa have the chance to consolidate their hold on fourth place at home to Stoke tomorrow, whilst Sunderland face a tricky game at the City of Manchester Stadium, with Mark Hughes’ side likely to be out for revenge following their midweek annihilation in North London. Tottenham made amends for their hugely disappointing 1-0 home defeat by struggling Wolves last weekend in style by thrashing City 3-0 at White Hart Lane. Niko Kranjcar was the star of the show, netting twice, once in either half, with Jermaine Defoe scoring his fourteenth goal of the season soon after the interval. Kranjcar opened the scoring in the 37th minute, slotting the ball home after Crouch’s header had deflected off City midfielder Stephen Ireland. Tottenham’s man-of-the-match then netted his second in the third minute of added time, cutting-in from the right and placing the ball underneath Shay Given. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp described Kranjcar’s performance as “fantastic”, and will be hoping for more of the same in tomorrow’s game against Blackburn, partly in order to take the attention of his disgraced players following Robbie Keane’s organisation of a ‘secret’ Christmas party Redknapp had explicitly banned. Redknapp has promised to “severely” punish those involved, and it remains to be seen whether Spurs’ captain Keane will be sold in January, partly in response to his poor form throughout the first half of the season. Birmingham City continued their excellent recent form with a 2-1 victory against Blackburn on Tuesday, Cameron Jerome scoring twice before Ryan Nelson halved the deficit twenty minutes from time. The result is Birmingham’s fifth successive league victory and keeps the club in the European places, a remarkable achievement given City’s start-of-the-season expectations. Bolton heaped yet more misery on second-bottom West Ham United with a 3-1 victory at the Reebok Stadium. South Korean striker Lee put Bolton ahead just after the hour, before Alessandro Diamanti equalised for the Londoners. Robert Green’s World Cup hopes were dealt a severe blow when he inexplicably spilled a Gary Cahill shot and Ivan Klasnic side-footed the winner. Cahill then made the result safe with a late header from Ricardo Gardner’s corner, his fourth league goal of the season. The result lifts Bolton out of the bottom three at the expense of Wolves, whilst ensuring West Ham face an uphill struggle to climb out of the relegation zone, starting with Chelsea at home on Sunday.

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