Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Weekend Premiership review - Sharp conks & snake charmers

One of the key fixtures of the week-end was the "is one of you going to make the title race interesting or just hand it to Man Utd on a plate" contest between Liverpool and Chelsea. With the Red Devils having overcome the stout resistance of Everton thanks to a Ronaldo penalty, winning yet again, not conceding yet again, breaking records and looking irritatingly invincible as their seemingly irrepressible march to predictable Premiership glory continued, either Liverpool or Chelsea had to win in order to hang on to Fergusons coat-tails. 


Liverpool would go on to triumph 2-0 thanks to two late Fernando Torres goals, but I have to say that despite talk of the result re-igniting the title race and despite Benitez's smug assertions in the face of contract questions or Robbie Keane queries that he was "enjoying today", I didn't see anything that convinced me that they will seriously challenge for the League.        



Even though it was being billed as a must win game, neither side were showing a great deal ofambition and the match was in danger of petering out into a dreary stalemate, when inexplicably, an hour in, referee Mike Riley sent off Frank Lampard for a challenge that didn't even warrant a booking (and has since been rescinded). It was a decision that gave Liverpool the ultimate opportunity, but still Benitez seemed reticent to take it.


  When it comes to being bold, Rafa is certainly less like his lookalike Ming the Merciless and more like his caricature, the sheepish Spanish waiter who's forgotten the drinks order. Fifteen minutes elapsed before Benitez made the brave like for like swap of Benayoun for Riera and a further eight minutes before he went positively gung ho and threw on Babel for Mascherano. Basically, even though they were facing a ten man team who weren't showing anything coming foward themselves, Benitez persisted with a formation containing 2 holding midfielders until the 83rd minute. 


Granted Liverpool eventually won the game and you can hail the tactical genius of Benitez if you want, but I would argue that he was bailed out by the brilliance of a resurgent Torres and that as a manger, he is too gutless to take the risks needed to win enough games to win the Premiership. Also, now that he has flogged Robbie Keane back to Tottenham, a decision that was more of a tactical manouevre against his adversary Rick Parry, Liverpool are desperately short up front and generally don't have the squad depth to compete with Man Utd this season. 


If anything, Chelsea seem to be in even more dire straits. Only one point in five games against their 'Big Four' rivals is a damning statistic and what must concern Chelsea fans even more is that Scolari seems almost resigned to the fact that the Blues will be also-rans for the forseeable future. It would be hard to dispute such an assessment though, as the twofold problem Chelsea now face seem somewhat insurmountable in the current climate.  


Firstly, they have this ageing squad who have the air of a team who are are on the downslope, descending from the halycon days when they were at the peak of their powers. Cech, once an impenetrable barrier, now looks vunerable and was way out of position for the first goal. Carvalho has become increasingly injury prone. Ballack meanders around and goes missing in the big matches. Deco is lightweight. Malouda and Kalou aren't top drawer. Another dire cameo from Drogba demonstrated that he has seemingly given up the ghost. Secondly, with the older players having little re-sale value and given that Abramovich is unwilling to spend for now, how will Scolari realise the 'new Chelsea philosophy' to re-vamp the squad and replace his waning heavyweights with a new breed of hungry, young stars?  


His first step in this direction has been to loan Ricardo Quaresma from Inter Milan, a Portugese winger who will offer width to Chelsea's narrow midfield. I wonder if he will have the requisite mentality though - he was Jose Mourinho's first big money signing for the Italian club, but he has fallen from grace very quickly. Will Scolari be able to get the best out of a player when the former Chelsea 'Special One' couldn't? 


So, it all looks very good for Man Utd and to compound matters at the top of the table, both Aston Villa and Arsenal dropped points, held to goalless draws at home to Wigan and West Ham respectively. A couple of excellent defensive displays complete with numerous scrambled goal line clearances left both O'Neill and Wenger frustrated and realistically out of the title hunt. Crucially though, Villa maintain their 5 point gap over the Gunners in the race to finish in the top 4. O'Neill will look to returns for Ashley Young and John Carew from suspension and injury whilst Wenger will hope the Arshavin saga ends favourably, as these are players that will help both teams in their quests to unlock tight defences in the future.  


Manchester City certainly looked a million miles away from being a top 4 team as they put on another inept, timid away display, this time at the Brittania Stadium. Stoke, down to 10 men following the dismissal of Rory Delap for punting the ball at SWP's ribs, managed to put themselves ahead just before half time, recent signings combining when James Beattie headed in a Matthew Etherington cross. Man City's hastily compiled selection of new boys failed to respond and despite having the lions share of possession in the second half, they rarely threatened, Robinho especially, was far short of his inspirational best. Mark Hughes surely can't survive too many more performances such as this. 


Two other young managers under the cosh are Gareth Southgate and Tony Adams. Both their teams winless streaks continued as Middlesbrough escaped with a goalless draw at home to Blackburn despite being dominated, whilst a shambolic defensive display from Portsmouth led to their 3-1 demise away at Fulham. Both fledgling managers must hope that Steve Gibson and Sasha Gaydamak don't get together and use Southgate's nose to play pin the pink slip on the donkey. If any proof was needed that ridding yourself of rookie coaches and replacing them with seasoned old hands was beneficial, the respective chairman need only look at their weekend opponents and see how Blackburn and Fulham have flourished since Sam Allardyce & Roy Hodgson took over from Lawrie Sanchez & Paul Ince. 


There also won't be too much optimism around the Riverside or Fratton Park after the window concluded. Talk of attacking talents such as Saviola & Dos Santos coming to the south coast were mooted, but the reality was Greek busted flush Angelos Basinas. Up on Teeside, Southgate opted for the dangerous policy of not strengthening and 'working with what he's got' - which doesn't appear to be much. 


Someone who did strengthen was Phil Brown at Hull, with the eye catching signing of Jimmy Bullard (quite a strange move from the players perspective - but not the most mystifying transfer in the window, that honour goes to West Ham bit part player Julien Faubert flitting off to Real Madrid, bizzarre) as well as veteran Premiership campaigner Kevin Kilbane and Angolan hitman Manucho on loan from Man Utd.  


Brown's team were at home to fellow new boys West brom and they fought out at an exciting 2-2 draw. Both sides would've taken some satisfaction from the result, for Hull, it put an end to a run of 7 successive league defeats, whilst WBA can refect on gleening a rare away point. They're both still in the thick of things when it comes to the relegation dog fight, but both have a fighting chance. 


It was also even stevens in the Tyne-Wear derby as Newcastle and Sunderland shared the spoils, Shola Ameobi converting a dubious penalty to equalise Djibril Cisse's goal as he beat the offside trap to stab home at the second time of asking. It was certainly a dramatic and hotly contested match, with an electric atmosphere perhaps galvanising the home team into putting forth more effort that they often produce. 


Mike Ashley ended his St.James exile, but may have to go back into hiding again as the plethora of new faces that were expected on deadline day failed to materialise, with ambitious bids for the likes of Micheal Jonhson and Sami Hyppia rejected. Their opponents and local rivals had an unlikely audacious bid of their own rebuffed when they tried to spirit Darren Bent away from White Hart Lane, but met firm resistance. 


Which brings us finally to Tottenham, whose mania for bringing back former players continued, as in the wake of Jermaine Defoe being crocked, Redknapp went and rescued Robbie Keane from Anfield. Apparently 'Arry had been thinking of acquiring former star Helder Postiga as further attacking cover, but changed his mind after reading about his constant abject displays on my colleague Mr.Shine's Portugese Liga Sagres review. Further conjecture was abound after Paul Gascoigne was seen at White Hart Lane, but the pissed up midfield maestro had been looking for the White Hart. 


Alas for Spurs, Keane's arrival was a day too late to help them from slumping to a 3-2 defeat against Bolton. Megson is far from being a favourite amongst the Reebok faithful, especially after branding the clubs fans "pathetic" for criticising him (he went on to say "If your face doesn't fit, it doesn't fit", but he should know that an ugly, rubbery, gingery face doesn't fit in most places and get on with it) managed to inspire his team in spite of the media furor surrounding him.  


A Puygrenier header, then a Kevin Davies goal (followed by ridiculous looking celebration that I imagine was supposed to be something along the lines of a snake charmer or the Pied Piper, but instead, looked like a bunch of grown men attempting to perform fellatio whilst on pogo sticks) put the Trotters two up, only to be pegged back by a Darren Bent brace, wasting a 2 goal lead for the 2nd time in 4 days. A different outcome on this occasion though as the sting in the tail was a late Davies winner, as Tottenham suffered more last gasp heartache. 


Results: Arsenal 0-0 West Ham, Aston Villa 0-0 Wigan, Bolton 3-2 Tottenham, Fulahm 3-1 Portsmouth, Hull 2-2 West Brom, Man Utd 1-0 Everton, Middlesbrough 0-0 Blackburn, Stoke 1-0 Man City, Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea, Newcastle 1-1 Sunderland. 

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