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Monday, April 10, 2006

Chelsea show spirit; Man Utd/Pool continue chase; relegation issue no clearer

Lousy Premiership fixtures led to five games on Saturday and five on Sunday. Alright for those who have access to Sky, where three big matches were featured live on Sunday, otherwise highlights of Match Of The Day would suffice for the average football enthusiast.

Saturday brought Charlton v Everton, Portsmouth v Blackburn, Sunderland v Fulham, Wigan v Birmingham, and Tottenham v Man City. Spurs maintained their winning form after Newcastle with a 2-1 win over City, which Robbie Keane again the main instigator of many attacks. This placed pressure on Blackburn to follow suit, only for the Lancashire side to twice concede the lead against battling Portsmouth to finish 2-2. Craig Bellamy finished off two superbly taken goals with his left foot, with Lomano LuaLua scoring a neat effort himself.

Charlton v Everton ended goalless, surprisingly, Darren Bent was possibly rested with the FA Cup replay with Middlesbrough in mind on Wednesday, while Mike Riley gave the Sunderland v Fulham fixture a chance to proceed before deciding some 20mins into the game to abandon it due to snowy weather. Wigan v Birmingham was an evening kick-off, and Birmingham knew they had a chance to distance themselves further from the relegation three with a vital away win at the JJB Stadium, but they were held by an expected stern home front that took the lead through John McCulloch's header and Andreas Johansson's headed finish. But Birmingham look to have suffered enough to know not to surrender, Emile Heskey resiliently running down the left to square across for David Dunn to put enough on the ball for it to cross the line.

The highlight of the weekend came on Sunday, where all the games were big games. Aston Villa v West Brom regarded the relegation issue, yet ended in a 0-0 result which does nothing for either side. It is not convincing for those who seek the exit of David O'Leary, neither does it allay fears for Bryan Robson's side, perched now in the zone, a point and place behind Birmingham. Middlesbrough came down from Thursday night's excellent comeback to face the North East derby, where a 1-2 home defeat cap their season of having a bad game after a good one. Not convincing for Newcastle but the job was done.

Chelsea faced West Ham at Stamford Bridge, went a goal behind from early through James Collins' header, and then a man down as Maniche was judged to have gone over the top with his challenge on Lionel Scaloni, a straight red. But Chelsea showed they do not buckle from such a disadvantage, with Didier Drogba then Hernan Crespo tidying away for a half time 2-1 lead. John Terry and then William Gallas finished off a comprehensive victory. The message clearly was 'The Bridge isn't falling down.'

Liverpool v Bolton meant a win for Liverpool would keep them that much more in 3rd place and seeking for Man Utd to slip up and relinquish 2nd place. Not a first half to write home about for both sides but mainly Liverpool were seeking the goals and not giving Bolton the openings they can easily carve chances from. Stelios Giannakopoulos made a great chance for himself but Pepe Reina was down to stop it. Peter Crouch touched a return to Robbie Fowler of the only goal of the game. Three points in the bag, that is needed.

The main focus was left to last and so much depended on its result. Man Utd v Arsenal comes at a time where a Man Utd defeat would have made it harder to catch up with Chelsea, render Utd 2pts ahead of Liverpool, albeit a game in hand, and a big scalp for one of their main adversaries. A defeat for Arsenal would keep them in 6th behind Spurs and Blackburn but a point and a game behind 5th place. Again, a draw would mean little to either side. I was surprised to see no Thierry Henry, but perhaps Arsene Wenger wanted to test his side without his talisman starting, giving Robin Van Persie a chance with Emanuel Adebayor. Also with games against Portsmouth and West Brom to follow, it could be considered less risky for Henry to come through those than a battling Man Utd.

But even without Henry starting, Arsenal were the brighter of the two from the whistle and Man Utd took time to come back into the game. Wayne Rooney wasn't his usual bustling dribbling self but come some 10-15 mins later he was causing problems to the Arsenal defence. A contentious moment came when Ruud Van Nistelrooy played through a superb ball for Rooney to chase. Rooney rounded Jens Lehmann and cut back to shoot, but the ball deflected off Kolo Toure and then the post. Rooney immediately claimed handball and replays showed he was correct, Toure getting up with both forearms in the path of the ball. The referee was Graeme Poll, you either love him or hate him. I don't hate him, I just feel he likes the limelight rather than adjudicate appropriately, for it appeared he had a decent view of the incident. Then there is the view of the linesman to consider.

Half time came at 0-0, but the breakthrough came from a Mikael Silvestre cross from the left that was allowed through to Rooney, who controlled and drilled past Lehmann. Then from there Man Utd pushed up to increase their lead. Arsenal brought on Henry with some 20mins of normal time but it may have been too late for him to make any impact, for his first touch came from a freekick that was slightly wide and then his involvement in attack was minimal. Arsenal made chances through Van Persie and Adebayor. Van Persie narrowly missed with a shot and when Robert Pires fired in a drive, it curled in Adebayor's direction, with the Togo man missing out on a touch with a flick. Whether this was telling on Man Utd's pressure for their second goal is questionable, but Rooney ran across behind Phillippe Senderos and collected the ball on the right , ran on to ride a Senderos challenge and square for Park Ji-Sung to beat Emanuel Eboue and touch in.

While Arsenal made a number of breakthroughs from which they could have converted goals, Man Utd kept shape strong enough to earn the win. It may have been justice for the potential penalty claim that was overlooked, but Arsenal gave a good account of themselves. This defeat could be immaterial for the Gunners, with the game against Portsmouth on Wednesday night, then Spurs visiting Everton and Blackburn hosting Liverpool at the weekend as Arsenal face West Brom.

For Man Utd, they are still in the chase for Chelsea. With the Friday evening game at home with Sunderland, Chelsea could possibly find they are 4pts ahead of their match away to Bolton. Then Utd won't play until the following weekend away to Spurs as Chelsea host Everton. The next game after that weekend for both teams is their encounter at Stamford Bridge on the last Saturday of April. The chase could very well conclude then.



Blogger T said...

Redsman, first and foremost thanks for another skilful commentary of the weekend's action!

Yes, I agree that the Premiership schedule this weekend was odd, and I hope it is not to be repeated too often. Further, even if you have Sky I think you have to be an amazing individual to watch three matches in a row without losing some enthusiasm... the phrase 'less is more' comes to mind!

Redsman, your analysis on the Arsenal match is spot-on. I take my hats off to Man Utd (and Abdul)for what I consider was a deserved win. We started off brightly but it soon became apparent that some players - in particular Fabregas, and surprisingly Kolo Toure - were feeling the pace and as Wenger correctly analysed Man Utd's added sharpness saw them take the upper hand. We were holding on somewhat in the last ten minutes of the first half and my fears at half-time were that we would not survive the heat of a sustained Man Utd charge.

Rooney achieved his own justice for seeing his first-half goalbound shot handled by producing a masterclass control and thunderbolt strike... a strike that had me automatically clapping. I did the same when as a 16 year old he broke an Arsenal 29 match unbeaten record in 2002. I can't help but admire his precocious natural ability even when it hurts me and my team!

Arsenal still played good football despite a hint of fatigue and I sensed that an equaliser was out there for us to grab. When Eboue beat Rooney on the touchline and flashed the ball across the goal past Van der Saar I thought that moment had arrived... only for RVP to awkwardly misjudge the bounce of the ball. When Pires' shot was missed by both Adder and Henry I sensed that it was not going to be our day. Park's goal (celebrated by the Sky commentator, Rob Hawthorne, with a big YES that made me think that he could actually be a closet Spurs fan?!) brilliantly assisted by the 'great one' Rooney sealed the deal.

Rooney can win England the World Cup if we stay solid at the back and concentrate on creating him at least one chance per match... this is because he is truly a big match player who will not turn down the opportunity to fully capitalise. What a player he is!

If I was Arsene I would be looking to freshen the side up in a big way when we travel to Portsmouth on Wednesay evening. Sol, Ljungberg, Henry, Diaby, and Reyes should come in for Senderos, Fabregas, Hleb, Pires, and RVP. Its going to be a very tough match- and one that we must approach in a very professional and ruthless manner if we want to come out with three points.

Good luck to the Gunners!

My hat goes off to Chelsea too for what sounds a magnificent display of resilience and finishing to come from a goal behind and a man light to beat West Ham 4-1. On the other hand, the Hammer's need to look at themselves and ask how they could have folded with an extra player on the pitch.

P.S Thanks Nturtle for your comments at the end of the Eboue post... perceptive analysis as ever!

4/10/2006 10:28 pm

Blogger RedsMan said...

Thanks T. I sensed too that Man Utd could have the reserve to severely test Arsenal, and who knows what may have happened if in the opening stages Arsenal took a goal. But Rooney seem to have a zest for the game that is the revelation of the past few years. He tracks back, may need to sharpen on his tackling, yet his drive in attack, shooting and vision is superb for even an English player. A lot was made about Beckham for unique talent, but Rooney is undeniably the current pinnacle of homegrown talent. Almost every game he has been very influential, yet he thrives on creating, not being a lone forward.

I have no doubt he would, if need be, play on his own, such is his tenacity, but you would obtain a better service once he is upfront with another. And with Sir Alex having the option of bringing on another striker and slipping Rooney into midfield, Rooney provides for good strategic options.

The Chelsea-Man Utd chase, Liverpool chasing Man Utd, Spurs, Blackburn and Arsenal racing for Champions League spot, the relegation zone slightly changing but not making much difference, everything still hanging in the balance a month some five weeks away from the end of the season.


4/11/2006 9:45 am

Blogger BlindJak said...

With the EU breaking up the TV packages and insisting on different broadcasters I can see more weekends like this ahead. Also don’t think it will be too far away from broadcasters screening competing games. Hope that’s an overly pessimistic assessment but do worry about the landscape come the news deals.

I was mighty impress with my team’s performance against West Ham and if we needed to send a message we couldn’t have done so in more emphatic fashion. Since the turn of the year Chelsea have rarely put in a good performance and not played a continuous 90 minutes of football (i.e. always taking their foot off the gas once taken a lead). Unfortunately for the Hammers they did both on Sunday.

While it shored up my confidence about retaining the title it did leave me a touch frustrated as I wondered where were these performances against Barca?

Also a great turn around for Drogba. At the end of the previous home game when he was announced as man of the match a small section of his own supporters booed him and Sunday when announced as man of the match again the whole stadium stood and gave him an ovation.

4/11/2006 1:10 pm

Blogger T said...

Blindjak, I'm happy from your point of view that Chelsea showed their intent for the title and put in a great perfromance. From the neutral's perspective I hope the championship is still up for grabs when Chelsea take on Man Utd on 29 April.

Wouldnt it also be great if both teams were on the top of their game for this encounter. It could then turn out to be one of THE classic Premiership matches!

Redsman, thanks for your thanks... and I liked reading your perspective on Mr Rooney! I really look forward to writing more about him when the World Cup arrives.

4/11/2006 8:52 pm


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