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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Andorra v England - the minimum

"Nothing concerns me outside what is written, what people say, it matters inside and there is a great determination now to prove a lot of people wrong. And gentlemen, if you want to write whatever you want to write, you can write it because that's all I'm going to say. Thank you."

- England coach Steve McClaren, post-match press conference

"The fans had their opinions during the game which isn't nice for the players to hear. They are entitled to their opinion but for the players' and England's sake it is best kept until after the game. The booing or the McClaren chants are not helping the players."

- England captain John Terry

It was clear from the first half of this game that the england players were feeling the heat from the pressure emitting from the fans, much less the media. They could not relax, therefore could not focus and found it hard to break down so many men behind the ball. Testament to that is the amount of possession and attacks Andorra had in that half. OK, it was to be expected from a national side 163rd in the FIFA World Rankings, 157 places below England. Yet our application as a result of the amount of possession we had was poor. A number of passes were not accurate enough, not enough power behind the pass, in other places too much and the ball would go off for an Andorran kick or throw. Steven Gerrard was centre but was found at times to be lacking in quality and now and then I was surprised to see him far back than usual, given that he has his central role in the absence of Frank Lampard. It was becoming that the Chelsea central an would be beckoned to on account of the first half, particularly where the ball would be delivered in, either in the air or along the ground, and Andorra had little trouble defending them.

From the outset Wayne Rooney was clearly targeted for a wind-up mission by centre-backs Oscar Sonejee and Antoni Lima, as Sonejee kept whispering to him and Lima ran upto Rooney to complain. Thing is Rooney was taking the bait bit by bit and he again hardly featured in the match. The referee wasn't shocking but some incidents went unpunished. Micah Richards was met with a clear high (or thigh) challenge that had nothing whatsoever to do with the ball. Owen Hargeaves went to challenge for a high ball and was clearly seen by Andorra skipper Jordi Ruiz and was clearly met with an intentional elbow, how he got away with it I could not understand. A number of challenges were conducted with intentional malice that england seemed more inclined to respond to them than the need for goals. At half time the cameras around the ground ensured on capturing the reaction of the England fans, where their displeasure, disgust and annoyance was on display for Steve McClaren and all to see.

Now, whatever was said in the England dressing room at half time, England began as a changed unit. There was now a hint of some urgency in their play and the likes of Gerrard, Aaron Lennon, Hargreaves and Stewart Downing began an attacking midfield job we expected from them. The fluidity in their movements was faster and they showed that they wanted to not approach the Andorran guard, that they wanted to damn well breach it. And it was about time. The only thing that marred the effort was Rooney. The nearest linesman flagged the referee over to report Rooney and Sonejee for petulance and that was what it was, silliness that they both should have been warned about for a final time. Yet with many referees there seems to be an onus on less discretion and more rigid no-nonsense officiation, so both were booked, meaning Rooney will miss the Estonia game under suspension.

Micah Richards was hurt in the first half and I had suspected from the Israel game, and from Stuart Pearce's words, that he was not 100% fit to play, and as the Man City defender layed on the pit, McClaren took the opportunity to change both he and Rooney for Kieron Dyer and Jermaine Defoe respectively. I called for these two during the Israel game and their appearance brought more movement to our game. Now the defence had no one to wind up but instead more more to keep tabs on due to pace, which opened the Andorran defence. Lennon moved down the right and crossed, Ashley Cole nooded it down, Terry hooked the ball to Gerrard to hit a half volley. Goal. As Gerrard and the others celebrated, I wouldn't have. Having delivered groceries later than expected, the customer wouldn't be too happy. It is now about delivering on time in future. So one goal is nothing to celebrate, there should be more.

Then Gerrard picked up the ball and knocked it to Downing, one-two, the same with Defoe, one-two, two little touches and Gerrard was in the box, simply place the ball and score. And he did. That was the Liverpool Gerrard. Then we had more awful conduct from the Andorrans again, Hargeaves tackled Ruiz and nudged him with his palm on the back, which sent the captain into a rolling spin worthy of the Highland Games. Hargreaves was booked, TV replays showed the wrong man was cautioned. Further, Cole came in with a high (thigh) challenge and in retribution he was immediately and maliciously kicked by Genis Garcia. Cole shoved Garcia who then fell and rolled with hands to his face, it was embarassing viewing. The Andorrans are part-time players but most of them must be bit-part actors. They appeared content to disrupt England rather than compete, and I believe that was the game plan all along.

Cole was rightly booked, so too was Garcia, but if Cole was booked for the challenge, what about the challenge in the beginning on Richards?? The game continued from then with Andorra enjoying one or two counter-attacks but nothing more. I felt it called for David Nugent to come on. Previously I would have had Richards off for Dyer for the second half, 3-1-3-3 to leave Dyer and Rooney to pull the defence open. But with 10mins approaching, it felt right for Nugent to come on for Andy Johnson, who had tried well as he did on Saturday. With that, Gerrard was seen free in midfield, he was passed, he then sent a through ball to Defoe, who was onside as the appeals went up, and his shot squirmed under the keeper with Nugent racing in to poke the ball as it reached the white line. Was it Nugent's or Defoe's goal? I say Defoe's, it was already going in but that matters little.

For the record, as desperate as it may have been, I do not condone Gerrard's dive and hope the Andorran keeper's reaction deters him from doing it again.

Now, Steve McClaren. While I still opinionate that it is too early to dismiss him but the man needs to get on the touchline and scream those lungs out. The fans want to see blood, guts and passion. We dont want to lose but if we had to, it would be after we have bursted every vein, vessel and vest. Chants of 'you're not fit to wear the shirt' emanated at half time means such qualities were not evident in the first 45mins. England could have drawn 0-0 but with more of a display as was produced in the second half, you could possibly then say there was at least some passion in their play. For McClaren to say the above shows the pressure is getting to him, and he shouldn't have shown it. No, it is not nice and is unsavoury to recieve such criticism and reaction but it is inevitable if you do not play as well as expected, particularly when you are in need of nothing less than a win.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Israel v England - a bore draw

Funnily enough Steve McClaren made the exact changes I would have except for Micah Richards on for Phil Neville, whereas I would have opted for either of Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard coming off for Kieron Dyer to inject more pace and urgency in attack. Certainly Aaron Lennon has played for Spurs on the left and for good reason too but he is within a known set structure different entirely to the England set up. Lennon looked quite uncomfortable yesterday and seemed restricted in forming anything enterprising once the Israelis began to double their marking. They picked up that his left foot was his weakest and forced him mostly to turn onto his right foot and shephered him away from the flanks to come inside and then end up passing the ball back.

Gerrard hardly made runs down the right and therefore did not deliver many crosses, opting instead to hold back and allow for Neville to go down the wing. Otherwise Gerrard gave a hint as to how he wanted to flow, coming inside and doing more of a midfield contribution than as a winger. Lampard made two telling chances on goal, where he should have made more of the first one after being played in by Gerrard. The second was a acrobatic half volley that almost made a second chance for Wayne Rooney. The defence were troubled on occasion, notably Pini Balili turned on the ball and wide enough to not trouble Paul Robinson. Yet the telling player was Israel's Tal Ben Haim, who made himself something of a wall between our attack and the Israeli goal. Rooney had little trouble with him at Old Trafford recently yet he, Andy Johnson and anyone else approaching goal were hindered by the Bolton defender. Rooney only actually came into the game more after he and Ben Haim had a little set-to from which both were booked.

But in all it was a bore draw from an England perspective and for the record defender Arik Benado should have been booked again for deliberately blocking off Lennon but for some reason the Norweigan referee took no action other than award a freekick. Ben Haim also blocked off Johnson in identical fashion and again the referee took no action. We have these top players from the Premiership who go out on a limb almost every week yet internationally we are struggling to score, much less win, and that is not right at all. We had the pace of both Rooney and Johnson to inflict problems on Israel, that of Gerrard and Lennon and Lampard's ingenuity and yet we were boring in attack. Pace wasn't enough, therefore, and so creativity is another factor to be considered and in that the likes of Jermaine Defoe, Kieron Dyer and Stewart Downing are the ones for me who would have given that. Downing has been in sharper form domestically and we needed him on the left where Lennon was being squeezed out, and Defoe has a reputation, not of late I must add, of squeezing a shot from almost anywhere on goal.

The issue that crops up is the selection of both Lampard and Gerrard, both central attacking midfielders. In doing so means there is no one covering once under a counter-attack in central midfield, so we adopt a holding midfielder in Owen Hargreaves but yesterday on occasion when Israel did break the centre was found wanting in an England shirt. I would have looked on taking off either Lampard for Dyer and move Gerrard into the middle, or a straight swap of Gerrard for Dyer. If we are to have both Lampard and Gerrard together, then we either allow both to go forward and take the risk of leaving the middle exposed, or we have Rio Ferdinand dropping down as an ad-hoc holding player once the central midfielders go up.

On the horizon are the likes of Gareth Barry, Darren Bent (unfit), Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and the likelihood, as a result of seeking success, is English players are having to go on loan to Championship teams to get noticed. The thing is we have to take risks now and perhaps it is evading doing so that is our main Achilles heel. Before the choice of Peter Crouch upfront was interesting, intriguing, and yet now Rooney and Johnson are available, I failed to see how innovative they both were yesterday. It is a hard decision but a set of players can be chosen on reputation and gain nothing, alternatively little known players or players of less stature internationally could come in and do an excellent job.

Right now, the urgency is rising with the wins of Croatia and Russia yesterday. Croatia were one down before half time yet came back with a superb freekick from Shaktar Donetsk's Darijo Srna that went straight in from a tight angle. Croatia contended with ten men to gain a winner before time while Russia made a tidy job against Estonia. Five points ahead means at the least England must win all from now, particularly when we next meet Croatia and Russia, to claw back the deficit. But I could not understand was we had the need for three points yesterday and nothing less yet the players, practically with exception to the defence, played as if they were in a friendly. Very frustrating.

A mention to Scotland for their superb win against Georgia, the Scots gained the lead on 11mins through Kris Boyd but were pegged back by former Rangers man Shota Arveladze minutes before the half time break. Craig Beattie scored the winner just minutes before full time and the Tartan Army go to Italy on Wednesday.

Ireland recorded a 1-0 win against Wales via the aptly named Stephen Ireland in the first football match at the Croke Park stadium, and Northern Ireland witnessed more excellent work from Leeds' David Healy as his hat-trick not only aided the side to victory but recorded Healy as the first Irishman to score two international hat-tricks. Another mention to Porto's Ricardo Quaresma, who collected on the right by the penalty box to cut inside and dip a tremendous effort up and over the Belgian keeper during Portugal's 4-0 win.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Come high, come low, a win tomorrow

This is why:

Group E Table

1) Croatia P 4, W 3, D 1, GD 10, PTS 10

2) Russia P 4, W 2, D 2, GD 4, PTS 8

3) England P 4, W 2, D 1, L 1, GD 4, PTS 7

4) Macedonia P 5, W 2, D 1, L 2, GD 1, PTS 7

5) Israel P 4, W 2, D 1, L 1, GD 3, PTS 7

6) Estonia P 3, L 3, GD -4, PTS 0

7) Andorra P 4, L 4, GD -18, PTS 0

And this too:


P Neville, Terry, Ferdinand; Carragher;


Gerrard, Lampard, Lennon;

Rooney, Johnson.

Are we a nation which considers itself at the national football level too good to fail or is it because we are English that we take for granted we have automatically earned the right to compete in elite football tournaments? Because when England do play, we have a high expectancy of winning the game, be it a friendly or otherwise. For myself, I expect us to win games because of the comparison between us and the opposition and on analysis of the players chosen in both sides.

Most of us presumably are familiar of the Israeli members Tal Ben Haim & Idan Tal (both of Bolton Wanderers), Yossi Benayoun (West Ham United), and a brief glimpse of Ben Sahar (Chelsea), and that does not go on to suggest Israel are inferior to England and a win is therefore inevitable. I say a win is the only result because of the calibre of players we have at present and how they play, they can equal most of the Europe's best. As such we have a stronger chance of doing well in competitions than before, provided the players play fully to their abilities as they do domestically.

I for one would love for David Nugent to come on and score, the first Preston North End player to be chosen since Sir Tom Finney in 1959. But intriguingly is that we have Andy Johnson and Wayne Rooney fit and ready to start, two of many who we have yet to see unleashed fully for England together. Both pacy with a keen eye for goal and they have good attacking midfielders to help them. Quite simply Steve McClaren and John Terry need say no more than go out there, maintain possession, shut down the opposition quickly and attack their goal with fervour.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

FA semis requiring a difference last night

I managed to watch Man Utd v Middlesbrough and felt it was a tight game, so tight that it appeared to require something out of somewhere, perhaps extraordinary, to make a wedge between a winner and loser. Wayne Rooney was one-on-one twice to be thwarted excellently by Mark Schwarzer in Middlesbrough's goal both times, definitely keeping Middlesbrough in the game. Middlesbrough in turn came at Utd on occasion, for when under pressure they failed to sufficiently deal with clearing the ball and relied on some spirit to simply be in the way of any attack on goal. Stewart Downing had an excellent chance to score when played in by Mark Viduka but the ball came onto his weaker foot and his chance went wide.

Christiano Ronaldo went close himself when yet another through ball brought him close to Schwarzer as the keeper came out, the Portugal winger tipping the ball away from the keeper and almost cutting the ball back towards goal from a tight angle but for the post. As the game went on, it seemed Utd would have to look to something to make a breakthrough while Boro couldn't forge enough pressure on the Utd goal to thoroughly worry their defence. That difference came via Ronaldo after Michael Carrick played him down the left. Jonathan Woodgate make a beeline to cut off Ronaldo but Ronaldo was still too nimble to shut-off, darting along the goalline inside the penalty are and forcing Woodgate into a desperate challenge that caught Ronaldo's right leg.

The penalty was given and protests ensued inevitably as the Boro players alleged the contact was not enough to warrant the penalty, insisiting Ronaldo had dived. Replays showed contact being minimal and it is likely Ronaldo could have stayed upright, owever the 'new' concept of intention has come into the offence of a foul and if the spot kick was not warranted for Roanldo going to ground, then it could be alternatively for Woodgate potentially aiming to deter Ronaldo. Nonetheless the award was given and Ronaldo coolly deposited the ball for the winning goal. Frustration crept in as Ronaldo skipped down the left again and James Morrison came across to hack him down, ref Mike Dean giving the Boro midfielder the straight red card.

Gareth Southgate (post-match): "The galling thing for me is that we have played [Man Utd] three times this season and conceded three dodgy penalties.

[In response to the Boro bench reaction to the penalty decision which saw assistant coach Carlos Quieroz arguing with the Boro personnel]: "In the heat of the moment, everybody is entitled to a reaction. It is the 75th minute of an FA Cup quarter-final. People are going to react in a way you wouldn't normally.

[In response to the James Morrison dismissal]: "In that situation, we would all love to do that."

Christiano Ronaldo [in response to the Boro reaction towards him]: "Maybe some people don't like me. Maybe I'm too good. For me, it is a penalty. Why when I am involved is it always polemic?"

I have seen the goals in the Spurs v Chelsea tie and have been made aware Spurs dominated the first half an hour. Given that the half time brought no goals, the tie was even and left more for both teams to play for. Yet that difference trait appeared again, the something out of nothing that once picked up on can go on to win matches. Andriy Shevchenko has endured a difficult start in his England league debut season but his finish against Sheff Utd was matched by another sweet effort. Running down the right, he tucked inside onto his left, one touch then shot a curling effort to Paul Robinson's right that the England keeper didn't even consider a threat. Could Shevchenko be coming into his good form now?

Yet one goal makes for no winners with half an hour left so Shaun Wright-Phillips added a second after Didier Drogba played him through on the left by chesting a high ball. Wright-Phillips then pounced on to and smacked the bll with his left foot. Dimitar Berbatov raced onto a through ball with Ricardo Carvalho in tow, the Portuguese defender challenging from behind in the box and not getting contact with the ball but also at the same time not causing enough contact on the Bulgarian to bring him down. That being so, the understanding is always that if one makes a challenge in the box and does not make enough visible contact with the ball, the danger is a penalty decision, albeit the referee should not award anything if in doubt. Robbie Keane netted from the spot.

Considering how they had to fight to perserve their unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge, and how, this was a much needed win for Chelsea to go into their first FA Cup semi under Jose Mourinho. What concerned me was the footage of a fan running onto the pitch and coming towards Frank Lampard at the end as the Chelsea players celebrated. The fan aimed a swinging punch that Lampard ducked and then stewards came in along with Chelsea players to completely enshroud the fan, equal to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Lampard is then seen to be restrained from behind by the arms by a steward and then pushed away from the melee, which Lampard objected to and I agree was not necessary. Lampard turned to have words with that steward. Another fan came onto the pitch near to the melee and appeared to have had no part in the matter.

The fan was then brought up to his feet and taken away, with one person in a suit grabbing the fan by the face, something that is not in the restraining procedure training particularly when the subject is surrounded and bound by several other stewards/security personnel. In such circumstances as the fan coming onto the pitch, the players are in danger as a possible target and they can ill-afford to be maimed or injured, not to mention the potentiality of a terrorist threat. If stewarding cannot increase to a higher degree, then something of a warning like a siren or bleeper should be considered to alert all of an unauthorised person on the pitch.

Additionally, if such a circumstance arose again, players should NOT be involved and should step away from it all entirely, for they put themselves back in danger and they are not authorised to deal with such circumstances. Some may not be too fond of Mourinho but he came onto the pitch (along with Arsene Wenger) during the League Cup Final as players clashed, and he happened to be nearby when the fan came on and went over to the melee with no hesitation and with concern for his players. That might not make a difference for neutral fans but to me he held responsibility that few do during such scenes and goes towards maintaining control of his players.

In conclusion, Chelsea and Man Utd had that difference to go through, a difference that was needed in a game which would not seperate. Man Utd v Watford and Blackburn v Chelsea make up the semi-finals for the FA Cup, Chelsea chasing a quadruple, Utd another treble, Watford and Blackburn the consequent obstacles in their paths. The scene after the match at White Hart Lane was unsavoury and made for more where players became involved. A measure should be in place to alert all of people coming onto the pitch who should not.

Football Association [in response to the after match incident]: "These scenes were totally unacceptable and we will be contacting Spurs as a matter of priority. We want to establish what safety and security provisions were in place for the game and to confirm what action was taken against the fans who ran on to the pitch."

Martin Jol: "I have not seen it. I can understand the fans' frustration but they shouldn't do that."

It appears that the fan who was restrained by the stewards was a Spurs fan who was arrested and potentially due to be charged and brought before the magistrates this morning, also to face a lifetime ban by Spurs for White Hart Lane games. The second fan was said to be a Chelsea fan, and though I saw no involvement by any other fan, the Chelsea fan has had his details sent to Stamford Bridge for appropriate action, if any.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lampard's consistency levels are outstanding

Frank Lampard is getting better and better in my opinion. I have watched him since he was at West Ham and when at Upton Park reckoned that he could be an excellent midfield partner for Patrick Vieira at Arsenal. The reasons why are very clear today: he has good physical presence, very good passing range, good mobility, and a very good shot.

In his early days at Chelsea I remember him remarking on more than one occasion how he saw Vieira as a role-model for the sort of dominating and highly consistent midfield player that he would like to become. And now at the age of 28 he, for me, is really coming into his prime and is producing excellent football game after game.

A big factor behind this is his incredible fitness and ability to simply play every game. The momentum and development that naturally comes from having missed only three Premiership games since 13 October 2001 (one though flu, the other two - if I remember correctly - were through being rested at the end of last season when the title was already won by Chelsea) can only have enormously helped his rise into one of the finest midfielders in world football. Can anyone else in top-level football claim such a phenomenal appearance record in the last six years?

One underrated aspect of Lampard's game is his set-piece delivery. Chelsea score a large amount of goals through set-pieces and they mainly come from the right foot of Lampard who has a grooved repeating technique of whipping in fantastic corners or free-kicks for the likes of John Terry to attack. His penalty technique is also top class. With Beckham's departure form the international scene it should be Lampard who takes over control of set-pieces.

In 2005 Lampard was voted the second best player in the world by the FIFA coaches and for me he has not gone backwards since gaining that honour. He scored his 20th goal of the season on Wednesday at Man City which is an amazing feat for a midfield player, and his overall performance was again highly efficient in contributing to both the defensive and attacking aspects of Chelsea's game.

Frank Lampard deserves high recognition for his all-round playing ability, outstanding consistency of performance and incredible feat of being available for selection in game after game. He is an English footballer to admire and I guess the one thing he can still really work on is to impose more of his game when in the England team. As he is entering his prime I feel this will come.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The week that was in Europe - 6-8/03/07

It has been a good week of European football for the Brits this week, overall. Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea emerged further into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Rangers came back from a goal down at Ibrox to level their UEFA Cup tie and Spurs put in another good away performance in Portugal to come away with a victory for their second leg UEFA campaign.

Liverpool played well against one of the best in Europe and current Champions and rattled a crossbar that has a hatred for John Arne Riise. Momo Sissoko almost got his first for the club, Ronaldinho hit the post, Peter Crouch almost equalised Eidur Gudjohnsen's only goal from yards. Good performance from Liverpool, arguably one that earned their progress as well as kept out the Spanish giants.

Man Utd had to endure an uncomfortable first half with Lille threatening to score but I sensed the French side had enough to come at Utd but not enough to susbtantially threaten to score. Their quality upfront was lacking and it told that Utd would score, ironically by Henrik Larsson in possibly his last Red Devils game. Utd go on to face Roma.

Chelsea also gave a lacklustre first half performance and were rocked when Porto scored first through Ricardo Quaresma, good goal. One half time break later and Chelsea were better, scoring twice to go through. If Liverpool-Barcelona was the tie of this round, then Chelsea v Valencia must be the one to watch for the quarter-finals.

Arsenal repeated their home game against CSKA Moscow in creating chance after chance yet failing to score and in the end drawing the game. This time drawing meant they were eliminated. It just was not to be for the Gunners and after PSV defender Alex scored in his own net the indications appeared to be Arsenal would use the fortune to turn up the heat on the Dutch side. Bringing on Thierry Henry therefore seemed appropriate, but an unfit Henry didn't fit this equation. A freekick later the Frenchman showed signs of discomfort that then went universal through the team as Alex nodded in an equaliser from a freekick seven minutes from time.

Celtic were the Braveheart of Scotland at the San Siro against AC Milan and it took a full ninety minutes of action with no goals scored to bring this tie into a further dogfight. The fact that Kaka would make a difference is not surprising as he made his run from midfield with space and a hesitant defence awaiting to slot under Artur Boruc. Celtic could not fashion a shot on goal to trouble the Italians and it would have taken any chance on goal just to get the vital equaliser to go through on. But Kaka's goal made a psychological impact, the Hoops lacking afterwards to at least hold the ball amongst the Milan defence.

Newcastle, Rangers and Spurs focused on the UEFA cup. Newcastle went goals-crazy for a 4-2 win, Rangers came from a goal behind to level at full time against Osasuna, and Spurs recorded another good away win in Portugal against a Braga side renowned domestically for their defensive record. Dimitar Berbatov really impressed again for Spurs, and he was practically taking the fight to Braga on his own so how he failed to score was one question.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Determined Reading; Killer McCarthy; Premiership w/e

To begin, a brief note on the week's FA Cup action. Time had allowed me the comfort and opportunity to watch Reading v Man Utd and I sensed Reading would have a good chance to threaten Utd to somewhere near victory, given their performance at Old Trafford. It wasn't an appropriate send off from The Riverside but it showed they have strayed from newcomers into Premiership apprenticeship quality about to qualify. Just as West Ham had began their first season and went on to end it, Reading have gained 6th spot currently and have left talk of relegation to those who have had long tenure in the top flight (Man City, Fulham and Aston Villa are more at threat repectively). But no one could have been prepared for the Utd start on Tuesday.

Gabriel Heinze's shot had one or two bodies in the way but I felt Adam Federici should have gotten down to it quicker. A Rio Ferdinand long ball and bad defending allowed Saha to gather and turn on goal for number two, then Reading defended hazardously which allowed a great pass from Kieran Richardson towards Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, rightly onside, and the finishing from the Norweigan silent assasin was apt of his talent. I wondered if the hosts would turn and capitulate. To have gained a goal back gave some sign of confidence something could be done in return and the second half found Reading more likely to score, which they did but just one too little to force extra-time. As I said, just as West Ham were impressive last season, so have Reading been thus far.

I didn't get to see Blackburn v Arsenal but I understand from reports and statistics the Gunners dominated possession and had good chances to score. I managed to catch BBC1 at the end to see Blackburn had snatched victory almost at the death through Benni McCarthy's killer goal. T has made comment saying he would like to see the South African at The Emirates, and I must point out he is a Fantasy Football favourite of my Arsenal colleague, which emphasises his admiration for the former Porto forward. I'd followed McCarthy at Porto and felt he was scoring regularly enough to warrant attention from the top core of the Premiership, though such attention had not been made public if it existed. At the time of his capture by Blackburn, I was surprised the likes of Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs had not come in for him.

So when McCarthy came on on 63mins, he took a further 24mins before he ran onto the superb ball down the line from possibly Stephen Warnock and ran on to turn inside Philippe Senderos, pausing then curling a sweet effort over and round Manuel Almunia. I saw the replays of the highlights, which featured two penalty claims by Arsenal regarding Jeremie Aliadiere and Freddie Ljungberg. While I understood Aliadiere's was dismissed potentially because he made more of the contact, Ljungberg's was an extremely tight decision and may have occurred just on the edge of the area.

It encapsulated a bad eight days practically unheard of for the Gunners following from the Champions League 1st leg and the Carling Cup Final, with Emmanuel Adebayor still on a FA charge for apparently aiming a flailing fist or arm at Frank Lampard and for not leaving the field of play promptly, Emanuel Eboue found guilty of violent conduct during the final and Kolo Toure's Cup Final dismissal, making all three players unavailable for three games.

So to come over the weekend are games not for those of a nervous disposition. Liverpool host Man Utd in an afternoon kick off at Anfield, a sharp start to the afternoon football. Utd's third consecutive away fixture in a week, having narrowly beaten Fulham and Reading, so it will be a testing time to the record of both sides so far. A high spirited battle will be needed from the Merseysiders to beat through a strong dogged Utd side. Then it's the case of the derbies. Newcastle host Middlesbrough in the North East on Saturday, and Watford welcome Charlton in also a relegation encounter (Watford counting as a London side though officially in Hertsfordshire does not bode right with me).

Sunday brings two more derbies. Lancashire accommodates for Bolton v Blackburn, fifth against tenth respectively and a good home record from the Wanderers against a Blackburn side keen to continue from Wednesday night, both sides vying for a European position. After that is West Ham v Tottenham and football fans should be aware of the importance of three points to the Hammers. Alan Curbishley merely seeks some guidance on how to perform miracles for his side, where can he tinkle to convert chances into goals, strength his defence and cajole the players into better performances. Ten more games, nine points behind Wigan who are 17th, it is a tall order that is still possible, other results pending.

Spurs moved on from a drubbing at Craven Cottage, a successful away win in the final minutes at Goodison Park and a strong finish against Bolton at home with Robbie Keane dismissed in the first half. Dimitar Berbatov carried the Bolton game on his own in the second half and, had he scored, would have made a major difference with his touch and balance. West Ham will simply have to have all senses on alert throughout the match if they aim to thwart Berbatov and potentially Jermaine Defoe, though perhaps Ahmed 'Mido' Hossam would be a stronger bet to combat Calum Davenport's height and add his own as he did for Keane's volleys at Fulham. Fitness pending, of course.



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