Archive for April 4th, 2011

What We Learned From Prem Week 31

Haçienda That Then…

That’s the way to do it. You go off to West Ham, go two goals down with 30 minutes left and what do you do? If you’re Arsenal, you push and scrape and just about manage to get a draw (if they’re lucky) but play lovely football. If you’re Chelski you lay siege to West Ham’s goal and just about manage to get a result (if they’re lucky) but more realistically get a draw. If you’re Man U, on the other hand, you grind out a result, score a bucketload and win. And that’s what makes them the champions.

This was a big, big week for the Premiership. Both Arsenal and Chelski played after Man U. At 60 minutes and 2-0 down they both must have thought their chance had come. Half an hour later they must have felt like they’d been crushed – and they hadn’t even set foot on a pitch. Both knew that nothing less than a win would do to keep up the pressure on Man U. And yet, and yet, neither was able to muster up anything like a winning display. And 90 minutes later that’s your season gone. At least 7 points down with only 7 games to play, it seems that there’s no way back for either of the London clubs.

On To The Games

You can’t go much further than West Ham‘s defeat to Man U as the biggest, most important match of the weekend (arguably the most important match in 2011) for both ends of the table. For West Ham it’s the first time since January that their revamped midfield and attack line up has been rendered impotent and while they might have thought that taking any points off Man U was happy thinking prior to the game, they will have been dispirited by the manner in which they were both outplayed and outgunned. Their next two games, against Bolton and Aston Villa, are now must wins if they want to survive. For Man U it was a declaration of intent. For possibly the first time this season the worst Man U side since the Prem started looked like they were realistic champions. It’s been clear that the likes of Gibson, Obertan and others aren’t first class players, in truth they really aren’t even up to the second string talent of O’Shea, Brown and Fletcher, but you can begin to see the quality in Fabio and Smalling, while Hernandez has been one of the signings of the season. So you can just about see the spine of a top quality side there, alongside Vidic, and, er, Rooney (just about). This will still be the single worst Man U team to win the Prem, but at least they’re now starting to walk the walk.

Arsenal were clear about what they had to do. And they bottled it. For the first time in eight years they failed to beat Blackburn at home and in the process threw away any pretence  they had of even challenging for the Prem.  It’s clear that certain players aren’t really up to it. For example Rosicky, Arshavin, Bendtner, Denilson, Almunia, Squillaci and Diaby just don’t seem to be able to mould games to their will. Sure they can provide a moment of genius (a great shot, a fabulous save) to win the odd match, but you never feel that they’re capable of imposing their will on a game and genuinely dominating it. Meanwhile players who are capable of doing that, Fabregas, van Persil and Nasri have been increasingly peripheral and injured. You sense that the failure to win the Carling Cup has crippled this team and Wenger will be doing a significant amount of restructuring in the summer. Blackburn did what they do, defend as a 10 man unit and try to be as physically violent as possible. They could still be relegated.

Stoke‘s safety seems assured, they are like the ugly leper who is unusually blessed. Their draw with Chelski helps pull them further to the pretty side of the table (worst luck) and increases the gap between top and bottom. For Chelski, it was a disaster. After all the good work they’ve done against Man U and Man City, they really didn’t want to fail to beat Stoke. And yet that’s what happened. It’s clear that Chelski’s mojo has only partially returned. However, you sense that it would be a successful season if they beat Man U in the Big Cup rather than win the Prem.

Man City made a real effort to eradicate the perception that Mancini only knows how to play a 10 man defence by shredding Sunderland. It’s a measure of their spirit that they were able to crush Sunderland, while Arsenal were not even capable of scoring against them. The return of Adam Johnson seemed to rejuvenate City and it was almost amusing to see Mario Ballotelli’s many, many attempts to score end in failure. Sunderland were simply rubbish – you sense that their Ghanaian contingent were still exhausted after the outstanding match against Engerland.

One of the great debates of this season is likely to be whether Tottingham will consider it a successful season if they fail to secure Big Cup football for next season. Certainly it will be a shame not to see them in the Big Cup as they’ve been one of the most enjoyable sides to watch. However, they’re not going to be getting into fourth any time soon if they continue to play as they did against Wigan.

Blackpool continue their plummet down the table with another loss, this time to Fulham. Most worrying is the fact that they were the architects of their own downfall, playing badly, giving the ball away and never looking like getting anything from the game. Fulham will have been delighted that Zamora started his first game since November and scored two great goals.

Newcastle are having a bit of a mixed bag season, which for them is great given their ambition was simply to stay up. They utterly took apart Wolves, who still look like being unable to stay up. Newcastle have moved out of the danger zone, while Wolves are fighting it out in the increasingly shrinking relegation dogfight.

I was surprised to see Everton move up as far as seventh this week, really topping the list of teams who aren’t so much looking up as staring down into the abyss. Their draw with Villa emphasises the quiet progress they’ve been making. Their problem is still scoring goals and the fact that they are essentially a selling team (although £20 million for Lescott was a great piece of business that any club would want to make). Their ambition must be to finish higher than Liverpool this season, which isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. Villa, meanwhile, must be wondering how they can have players who do well for Engerland, but then perform so poorly for them (yes Downing we are talking about you). Bent (the rich man’s Emile Heskey), once again pulled them back into the game, scoring twice. You suspect it will be enough to save Villa, but major restructuring is needed as their defence is rubbish and Ashley Young is going to leave in the summer.

Birmingham will be very happy that they beat a Bolton side that simply doesn’t perform away from home. They certainly benefited from a week when all the teams below them dropped points.

Any other week, the match between Uncle Wroy’s West Brom and King Kenny’s Loserpool Redsox would be the event of the round. This weekend, what with the Prem being fundamentally decided, and the race for fourth being given a bit of oomph, it wasn’t even in the top 4. Was Loserpool’s loss essentially the result of them playing with the side that Wroy added to (although of Wroy’s summer signings only Miereles actually played) or was it a result of Kenny being unable to manage a very average Loserpool side? Alternatively, it could be because Wroy was given a very capable West Brom side. Either way, it could be the match that secures West Brom’s Prem status and ensures that Loserpool won’t be playing European football next season.

Rob Green Save Of The Day

No real super keeper howlers to mention this round, although Almunia once again did his best to fumble a rare Blackburn shot and spoon it Green-like into his own net. No, this week, it’s a return to the Pascal Chimbonda Memorial Backpass prize, the winner being Blackpool’s hapless James Beattie, who managed to gift the ball to Fulham’s Bobby Zamora for his first goal. Admittedly Zamora was on the halfway line and had to take the ball all the way into the area before lashing it into the net, but it was clearly Beattie’s mistake that led to the goal. The picture of Beattie on his knees, head in hands afterwards was a classic.