Monday, 14 December 2009

Premier League weekend – Goal and game of the season on the same day?

It’s been a while since the so-called ‘top two’ sides in the Premier League have failed to win on the same day, so do Saturday’s results mean the title race has been thrown wide open going into the busy Christmas period? Not really, seeing as it remains ‘as you were’ at the summit of the table following Manchester United’s failure to capitalise on Chelsea’s inept defensive display against out-of-luck and out-of-form Everton at Stamford Bridge. The match ended 3-3, extending the Blues’ run to four games without a win and giving Everton a chance to kick-start their flagging campaign. Not for a number of years has a Chelsea defence looked as shaky, brittle and vulnerable as it did on Saturday, where three simple free-kicks proved their undoing. The formerly imperious Petr Cech was more Leaning Tower of Pisa than a tower of strength, deflecting Louis Saha’s header into the net to give Everton an unlikely lead after just 12 minutes. Whist defensively Chelsea are in poor form, star strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka continue to shine, with the former netting Chelsea’s equaliser before Anelka curled a clever finish into the top right-hand corner from Ivanovic’s cross. However on the stroke of half-time Bilyaletdinov’s long throw caused havoc amongst the Chelsea defence, with both Terry and Carvalho failing to clear before Louis Saha side-footed home. Chelsea’s attacking prowess once again paid dividends after the break as unlikely playmaker Ivanovic centred for Drogba to volley Chelsea into the lead once more with his 18th goal of the campaign. Whilst it would be easy to blame the result squarely on Chelsea’s defensive shortcomings, Everton demonstrated huge grit and determination belying their league position to equalise just after the hour. Johnny Heitinga’s free-kick was met by Didier Drogba, whose header rebounded off Louis Saha and looped over the stranded Cech into the back of the net. The result will undoubtedly concern Ancelotti, particularly his side’s vulnerability to set-pieces, but shows Everton’s incredible resilience, having rescued draws ‘from the jaws of defeats’ twice in a week. Despite losing striker Jo in the second half, Everton shouldn’t be languishing in the bottom-half of the table for too long.

Chelsea’s defeat provided champions Manchester United with the perfect opportunity to capitalise and go equal on points at the top of the table at home to Aston Villa. With Villa having failed to defeat United at Old Trafford in the league for twenty six years, an upset seemed extremely unlikely. Yet this is exactly what Martin O’Neill’s side provided, with Ashley Young cutting inside and delivering a perfect centre for Gabriel Agbonlahor in the 21st minute. Villa then faced the prospect of holding out for seventy minutes against United’s impressive array of attacking talent, with Rooney coming closest to an equaliser when his powerful effort smashed off the bar. Dimitar Berbatov came closest to an equaliser, with unsung hero Brad Friedel tipping his long-range effort wide, but on the weekend Ryan Giggs, one of the greatest players of the Premier League era, was honoured with the Sports Personality of the Year Award, his team-mates were unable to reclaim the initiative in the title race. The result sees Villa climb to third place on 29 points, two clear of their nearest rivals for fourth-place Tottenham, whilst leaving United three points behind Chelsea ahead of a comparatively-easier tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday.

In the weekend’s highest profile game Arsenal heaped yet more misery on Rafael Benitez and Liverpool, coming away from Anfield with a 2-1 victory thanks to a screamer from Russian wizard Andrei Arshavin and Glen Johnson’s unfortunate own-goal. The hard-working Dirk Kuyt had given Liverpool a deserved lead, but Arsene Wenger’s half-time tirade inspired his young Gunners to overturn the deficit and emerge victorious. Arshavin’s winning goal was a joy to behold, extending his magnificent run of form at Anfield, but Liverpool ought to have gone ahead earlier, when Torres played in Steven Gerrard, only for the skipper to be scythed down by defender William Gallas. The referee alone knows why he failed to award a spot kick, as although Gerrard had probably lost control of the ball, no-one can deny that there was contact. The result means Benitez goes into the Christmas period under yet more pressure, with Liverpool five points off fourth place and hoping to gain momentum going into their Europa League campaign in 2010.

Going into the weekend’s games Tottenham were looking to deal out a similar punishment to Wolverhampton Wanderers as the 9-1 thrashing they had inflicted upon Wigan, yet it was the ‘other’ Spurs that turned up for their clash at White Hart Lane. Nenad Milijas’ free-kick was floated into the box, evading the entire Tottenham defence before receiving the lightest of touches from Kevin Doyle to send it into the back of the net. Whilst Tottenham conceding would have been of little surprise to the home fans, their inability to create any meaningful chances was certainly shocking. Wolves’ victory means they have won back-to-back top flight games for the first time in twenty six years, and sees Tottenham fall behind their North London rivals in the Premier League table. It will be interesting to see whether or not Wolves are able to continue their form during the Christmas period and remain outside the relegation zone come January.

Whilst the game at Stamford Bridge will grab the majority of the headlines, perhaps the best game of the season so far took place at the most unlikely of locations, the Reebok Stadium. Bolton, who have won just once at home all season, a fact unlikely to ease any of the pressure on the perennially unpopular Gary Megson, and draw-specialists Manchester City served up a hugely enjoyable 3-3 draw. The star of the day, the ‘rich man’s Dirk Kuyt’, Carlos Tevez, netted the first equaliser with a deflected effort from outside the area after Ivan Klasnic had opened the scoring for Bolton from what appeared to be an off-side position. Unlikely hero Gary Cahill made it 2-1 with a splendid effort into the bottom left-hand corner, likely the best goal he will ever score, before Micah Richards slotted in following a sleek Manchester City counter-attack. ‘Poison dwarf’ Craig Bellamy was then sent off in bizarre circumstances as the referee inexplicably gave him a second booking for diving, when he had clearly been tripped running at pace into the Bolton area. The decision was so abject that it may have made Match of the Day viewers sympathise with Mark Hughes, but it probably didn’t given the regularity with which he criticises referees. If Hughes were to judge himself by the same criteria with which he judges Premier League officials, you’d imagine he’d have been forced to resign from City a long while ago. Klasnic netted Bolton’s third from Taylor’s knock-down with a poacher’s effort before Tevez drove home a left-footed pile driver from 25 yards to ensure the game ended all-square, an appropriate end to a thrilling game of football.

Man City’s trip to Bolton may have provided the season’s most entertaining game thus far, but following Wigan’s 2-2 draw against Stoke City almost certainly contained the goal of the season. Wigan took the lead through an unlikely source in Emerson Boyce, before Stoke new boy Tuncay Sanli netted his debut goal for the Potters with a low shot from a tight angle. Stoke will undoubtedly hope for great things from the Turkish striker, but the game belonged to Wigan left-back Maynor Figueroa. The Honduran defender saw Thomas Sorensen off his line and with great audacity launched an effort on goal from within his own half, which sailed above the head of the Stoke keeper and into the net. Despite the goal being a demonstration of perfect technique, skill and hours of practice on the training pitch, Match of the Day’s Alan Hansen was still able to criticise the Stoke defenders for failing to ‘stand on the ball’. As for the remainder of the game City pressed forward in search of an equaliser, with the impressive Ryan Shawcross rising to head in a Matthew Etherington corner, before Sorensen saved Hugo Rodallega’s late penalty, making his spot-kick record five penalties saved out of six attempts and preserving the draw for Stoke.

Birmingham City continued their excellent run of form with a comfortable 1-0 victory at home to struggling West Ham, with the hugely impressive Lee Bowyer scoring his fifth league goal of the season. The result propels City into eighth place, level of points with Liverpool, whilst keeping West Ham in 18th place still searching for a buyer and a replacement for Dean Ashton, who was cruelly forced to retire at the beginning of the week following chronic injury problems. Two of the season’s over-performers, Burnley and Fulham shared the spoils at Turf Moor, meaning the Londoners’ still haven’t won away at Burnley since 1951. Bobby Zamora opened the scoring for Fulham with his second goal in a week, before midfielder Wade Elliot hit an equaliser into the top corner, meaning Fulham are in 9th place, four above Burnley who could surely not have hoped for better at the beginning of the season, when just staying up seemed unlikely. Sunderland, who had previously beaten both Liverpool and Arsenal at the Stadium of Light, failed to defeat the Premier League’s bottom-side Portsmouth, with Younes Kaboul striking at the death to salvage a point, cancelling out Darren Bent’s opener for the Black Cats. In undoubtedly the least enthralling game of the weekend relegation candidates Hull City and Blackburn Rovers played out a 0-0 draw that does neither side any favours. Hull will feel they ought to have won the game on the basis of the chances they spurned, but Blackburn’s Nikola Kalinic ought to have scored at least one of the three excellent chances presented to him. The likely departure of Benni McCarthy means the burden on Kalinic will only increase going into 2010 when the fight for survival becomes more and more desperate, with ever-smaller margins the difference between staying up and going down.

This most prestigious of this weekend’s awards goes to Carlos Tevez, often maligned for his poor goal-scoring record; his two-goal salvo at Bolton makes him a more than worthy recipient of the Player of the Week award, which can also be seen as an appreciation of his hard-work, commitment and effort throughout the season. The Team of the Week is without a doubt David Moyes’ Everton, who despite a multitude of injuries, terrible form, and being dealt a hammer blow regarding their new stadium, were able to produce a hugely resilient display at Stamford Bridge and come away with a hugely credible 3-3 draw. Goal of the week is a remarkably simple affair, with Figueroa’s effort an example of pure genius, audacity and confidence which will be re-played for many years to come. However we ought not to forget Gary Cahill’s fantastic strike for Bolton, which illustrated the type of skill and finishing ability that few Premier League centre-halves possess. Pass of the week goes to Ashley Young for his pin-point cross to Gabriel Agbonlahor in the game against Manchester United, which demonstrated his potential value to England if included in the squad for South Africa next year. The ‘Worst Team of the Week’ has to be given to Chelsea, for whilst Drogba and Anelka were sublime, football is a team game and as a team Chelsea defended atrociously and were very lucky to avoid defeat. Miss of the Week is a difficult decision, as whilst Nikola Kalinic was hugely profligate when presented with excellent opportunities in the game against Hull, Rodallega’s abject penalty just about edges it. This week’s unfortunate recipient of the ‘mistake’ award is Glen Johnson, who despite being one of this season’s success stories, was Djimi Traore-esque in scoring at the wrong end and unintentionally helping Arsenal on their way to a crucial victory.

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