The Daily Shift’s Ian Colgan reviews the weekend’ s action in the Barclays Premier League…
Match week 22 did not start particularly well. Three dreary 0-0 draws among Saturday’s round of fixtures were supplemented with two low-scoring affairs where the only notable outcome was Aston Villa’s painful and graceless descent into the bottom three, as well as Wigan’s awkward climb out of it. Even the much-hyped QPR v Tottenham clash failed to deliver. No goals, no controversy, and no major talking points apart from the supposed ‘feud’ between Redknapp and Villas-Boas in the days leading up to it. In fact, it was diffused instantly when the two men embraced like old friends before kick-off.
On the whole, it looked like a downer, but in the end it didn’t matter. With a Super Sunday schedule that pitted Man United against Liverpool and Arsenal against Man City, Saturday was never meant to be anything more than a ho-hum taster. But there were, of course, two stark exceptions that jarred this theory out of the water.
The major story to come out of Saturday was Reading’s triumphant comeback against West Brom, who had been winning 0-2 until the 82nd minute before Reading sucker-punched them by scoring three goals in eight minutes. It was a shining example of the rope-a-dope tactic, taken from the boxing ring and put to use on the football pitch. It was what Royals boss Brian McDermott would call “having a bash”. I didn’t see it, as by then I had committed myself, in full, to Stoke v Chelsea – a 0-4 drubbing that flouted almost every pre-conceived notion of how it was supposed to go.
Stoke had gone into the game as the only team in the Premier League this season yet to concede a goal from outside the box – a record that Eden Hazard killed with his strike in the 73rd minute. It was also meant to be a low-scoring event, with only four goals scored across the previous four encounters between the sides. And with Stoke keeping nine clean sheets and holding one of the best defensive records this season, most were predicting a narrow victory. The bolder gamblers, though, might also have put money on Demba Ba to score, just like he’d done in each of his last four games against Stoke for Newcastle.
There were several faintly surprising facets to Chelsea’s win. Nobody would have predicted, for instance, that Jonathan Walters, a striker, would score two own goals and then miss a penalty – a shameful new archetype for what it means to be ‘off your game’. It was a probable Premier League first, and when his spot-kick bounced off the crossbar and into the crowd, Tony Pulis sagged and shook his head sympathetically. It was the look of someone who would have completely understood if he read in the Sunday papers that Walters had announced his early retirement so he could flee to Japan to be a pundit for the Shikoku Adult League.
An unusually cruel ending. One final blow with the meteor hammer – but the win itself was easy to see coming. Out of the nine previous Premier League confrontations between the sides, Stoke had failed to score in six of them and Chelsea had come out as winners in seven.
The victory put them back into third, just about, with an opportunity to go within four points of City and eleven of United when they make up their game in hand against Southampton on Wednesday. Anything other than a convincing win will cast Benitez right back into the fire, especially given that it will be played at Stamford Bridge where they have recently suffered defeats to Swansea and QPR, and where the crowd has a tendency to flip and turn venomous, often for no reason.
Crushing Southampton 1-5 in the FA Cup on January 5 is already forgotten and will count for nothing to fans who still persist with acknowledging the one-minute applause in honour of Roberto Di Matteo in the sixteenth minute of every game. It’s fast becoming a backdrop that’s more rattling for the home team to have to play in than it is for any hopeful visitors. What’s not helping Chelsea is the fact that neither United nor City show any signs of falling foul of the kind of ill luck Chelsea will need them to have if they’re to re-launch themselves back into the fray of the title race.
Both Manchester clubs took all three points in their respective heavyweight fixtures on Super Sunday, meaning that United retain their healthy seven-point lead at the top going into what will be a fierce contest against Tottenham at the weekend. Ferguson made no secret of the fact that he would happily “win ugly” against Liverpool, yet the only astonishing match-fact was that there were no red cards in a typically violent contest that’s seen fourteen of them since the Premier League began. Only the Merseyside derby has recorded more, but even that explosive fixture comes with a sense of kinship and communal understanding that’s absent from the United/Liverpool rivalry.
Actually, the game was reasonably civilised, and there wasn’t much that was ‘ugly’ about United’s performance. It even bordered on sleek, at times, and their win was a matter of course. Van Persie’s established track record against Liverpool – six goals in the last seven appearances now – was always going to weigh heavily on proceedings. And once he drew first blood, United’s record as the only team not to drop any points from a winning position at home this season was not to be overturned.
The Arsenal v City encounter, by contrast, at least had the outward appearance of meeting the expectations for incredible savagery it’s recently become famed for – with Mike Dean showing little to no leniency. Straight red cards for Laurent Koscielny and Vincent Kompany made it six reds in so many meetings, along with six other bookings (two for Arsenal, four for City). Kompany’s sending off, for a supposed reckless lunge at Jack Wilshere with two feet off the ground, seemed especially unjustified, and an Independent Regulatory Commission has since overruled it and upheld the appeal City lodged on Monday.
They were right to appeal it, but Koscielny would not have had the same vindication if he had decided to formally contest his own sending off for rugby tackling Edin Džeko in the box. It’s hard to imagine what the French defender was thinking at the time, but it had all the hallmarks of being one man’s very warped take on an instruction to defend his club’s home record against City at all costs. It had been five games since Arsenal had conceded so much as a goal to City at home, and City hadn’t won away to Arsenal since 1975.
That’s all over with now. City will go into Saturday’s game against Fulham in the Etihad with Kompany available and feeling very righteous, while Arsenal attempt to grind out a result against Chelsea at ‘The Bridge’ on Sunday. Not an ‘easy’ place to travel to, but it’s getting easier all the time.