Its tabloid headline day! Even the Daily Star would like that one I think….
Anyway, after a relatively dull Champion’s League week, where the main shock results were Apoel Nicosia drawing at Porto to stay top of their group, Olympiakos beating Dortmund comfortably at home, and Arsenal squeaking an injury time winner at the even more inconsistent Marseilles, the Premier League returned with a bang.
I’m sure anyone with even a passing interest in the punting of pigs bladders took interest in Man City’s humiliation of their Old Trafford hosts. While it sadly proves that Money can buy you pretty much anything, including a certain degree of love, it was nice to end the cockney reds talking about unbeaten seasons early this year. For me, Utd have looked vulnerable all season. The face is, even when they stuffed Arsenal 8-2, the defeated team had almost as many shots on goal, and 4 of Utd’s goals were brilliant shots from distance. Vidic has been carrying a couple of knocks, Ferdinand has been gently waning for two years now, and Smalling, Evans, Jones and the two young Brazillians are not yet ready to lead a defence. Also Evra’s continued willingness to get involved in petty 1-on-1 squabbles is becoming more noticeable without as solid a unit around him. City, however, have been playing Football Manager with the cheat mode on for three years now, to the degree that Mancini can completely fall out with Tevez, loan out or give away £65m worth of strikers, and still have an embarrassment of riches up front. The floppy fringed Italian has done excellently forging his tribe of mercenaries together, and deserves credit, but for me their success is a very bad thing, which I find hard to say having always liked Man City and particularly their fans. You can understand why their supporters have no desire to question that their club has moved from the ownership of fans and ex-players to corrupt south-east Asian politicians and now oil Sheiks at the head of a partially repressive regime, but for me the motives of those involved has to be questioned.
As for my lot, the Gunners got a good home win against the hard-working, resolute, and entirely cynical Stoke City. The potters have a lot to admire about their commitment and attitude, and I try to think kindly of them having lived up there for five years and met some of the old players, but they do play horrible football. I have seen them play quite expansively against weaker opposition, but yesterday was like watching old style northern-hemisphere rugby. Lots of long kicking, playing for territory and set-pieces. This is compounded by Rory Delap’s bullet throw ins. Personally, I’ve no problem with the long throw, and if he’s worked out it can add more to him as a player, all power to him; but the time it takes out of the game, even without the provision of home-team only towels at the Brittania is a joke. Over the course of a game it must take out at least five minutes, which is time the supporters have paid for. That and the endless time-wasting when the game was level…one goal kick took about 90 seconds at 1-1, which I’m pretty sure is not in the spirit of things. This is compounded by the unnecessary physicality of players like Wilkinson and Shawcross (nice sneaky elbow in RVP yesterday), and the willingness of all their players to suddenly become like Bambi on ice whenever within set-piece range. Given the players and money Tony Pulis has at his disposal, they really should be trying to adapt their game. It also stifles good players like Etherington and Whelan, and anyone who’s followed Peter Crouch’s career knows that for such a tall man he’s better with the ball at his feet.
Anyway…the game! With Djourou filling in for the two injured full-backs, and the chunky Santos at left back, not to mention the towering Mertesacker, this was for once, an Arsenal back four well suited to the arial bombardment of Stoke. That said, the visitors goal was from a set-piece, and a well worked one it was too, following a back in and dive of the sort that Crouch has been at for 10 years. The ball forward to Shawcross on the wing even fooled the crowd, and when its about winning second balls, Stoke are always favourites. Lee Mason would continue to aggrevate the home fans all game with his lax attitude to Stoke tackles and inexplicable free-kicks (he is from Bolton!), but he didn’t make too many major incorrect decisions, unlike Louis Saha’s 10 yards offside goal last year. That said he did mange to not give Chamakh a penalty directly after the Stoke equaliser despite Wilkinson hugging him ever-so-tightly from behind when he was going for a header.
Other than that, and maybe one late header half-chance from Kenwyne Jones near the end, Stoke created nothing. Whether this was attributable to greater defensive cohesion from Arsenal or a Europa League hangover from Stoke is unclear, but given that the visitors made more changes than the hosts, I’d suggest the former.
Despite the improved defensive display and Arteta and Ramsey re-locating their passing radars, Arsenal looked lightweight up-front, despite the spirited and ever dangerous Gervinho. Throughout the game, Stoke’s deep defence, coupled with Arsenal’s reluctance to shoot from range and a lack of movement from Chamakh or Walcott led to a lot of crab like passing, particularly in the early second half. It took a great piece of invention, Ramsey’s golf chip over the defence to Gervinho to create a clear chance, and one that was taken with aplomb.
The game seemed to be creaking towards a frustrating one-sided draw, when Captain Fantastic Van Persie replaced Chamakh. It lifted the crowd and the team tangeably, and his fantastic movement and general sparkiness changed the game. Gervinho managed to beat his full-back twice (the second after a well timed and weighted ball from the other sub Arshavin), and both times his pull-backs resulted in goals, due to the liveliness, conviction and technique of the Dutchman. A very good contribution from the settling Ivorian winger, with a goal and two assists, which was just as well after falling asleep for Stoke’s goal! His decision making needs a little work, as does the consistency of his finishing, but his directness and dribbling skill mean he is always a threat. How he was missed earlier in the year due to that cheating toe-rag Joey Barton.
Van Persie now has 25 goals in 26 league games in 2011 following his return from injury, despite the struggles of his team-mates and the current absence of lasts years three best midfielders. How many will he score when Jack Wilshere returns?
All in all much improved. There are of course still concerns regarding the injury curse, Walcott’s capacity to disappear in tight games and Chamakh’s total lack of confidence, but the team is starting to function as a unit again, and hopefully results will breed confidence, and in turn better football. I personally am looking forward to going to the Carling cup game tomorrow and seeing the likes of Park, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and maybe even a goal for the misfiring Moroccan.
Highlights of Arsenal vs Stoke: http://arsenalist.com/video/?id=a47cee2930a82babfe33920e035d255c&t=ru
Around the league, the QPR vs Chelsea game was fascinating, as Luiz demonstrated his impulsiveness in defence again, and the referee was very brave, but correct with the sending off’s of Boswinga and Drogba. That said, Chelsea were fantastic with nine men, showing fantastic determination, and probably should have been given a penalty themselves. I am glad to see QPR do well though, as I have always had a soft spot for the boys from the bush. Perhaps bigger news is the accusations of racisim by John Terry towards Anton Ferdinand. So far Terry has denied it, and Ferdinand has said nothing, but Terry has been accused quite a few times in his career, noteably by Samuel Etoo and Pascal Chimbonda. QPR are looking into it. From the footage I’ve seen that has been cited, it seems utterly inconclusive, but most of the footage has been taken down by the FA.
Liverpool were kept at bay by a fine performance by Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy, formerly of Everton, and Norwich have shown several times this year that they have the stomach for a battle. After the game Kenny Dalglish complained that Luis Suarez needs more protection from referees. The vast majority of commentators on the subject thinks that Kenny is pushing his luck on this one. When Dalglish was playing someone would have punched Suarez by now.
Aston Villa lost narrowly against West Brom after one of their youngsters, Chris Herd, appeared to be sent off for nothing by the huffing Phil Dowd. The baggies Chris Brunt missed the resulting penalty, but then set up both their goals with excellent corners. Spurs held on to beat Blackburn due to two excellently taken goals by Rafael Van Der Vaart, who is one of those players who seems to not do a lot but score great goals. Fair enough really. Inconsistent Everton beat inconsistent Fulham with really well taken goals from Drenthe, Saha and Rodwell, while Fulham should have won, especially with Zamora missing an open goal at 1-1 on 89 minutes. Elsewhere, wolves fought to come back from two down at home to grab a point against Swansea, Yohan Cabaye got a great first goal in England to grab three points and keep Newcastle’s unbeaten run going, and Bolton’s dismal run continues, with Sessegnon scoring and setting up the second for Bentner.
All in all, a surprising and controversial weekend in the Premier League, which always retains its excitement levels, even when the quality varies.