Premiership Midweek Roundup and Weekend Preview

Jason Puncheon - he shoots when he wants

Jason Puncheon – he shoots when he wants

Midweek Roundup

Even though there were only three fixtures played in the Premiership in midweek, the results still managed to cause a significant shift in the balance of power in the race for both the title and the final Champions League place.  On Tuesday night, Arsenal lifted themselves back into fourth by coming from behind to beat West Ham 3-1 at the Emirates, with two goals from Lukas Podolski and a well-taken finish from Olivier Giroud canceling out Matt Jarvis’ 40th minute opener for the visitors.  Things got better for the Gunners the next night, when Crystal Palace surprised Everton – who were on a run of seven consecutive league victories – and defeated them 3-2 at Goodison Park, leaving the Toffees a point behind Arsenal, with just four matches remaining.  The opening goal for Palace was scored by Jason Puncheon – his fourth goal in the last three matches – and the fact that, despite his excellent form and productivity, he does not even seem to be in England reckoning is bizarre, especially considering Andros Townsend, who has not played particularly well since October, could still end up on the plane to Brazil.  Perhaps Roy Hodson is mindful of the fact that in six of the last ten tournaments they have qualified for, England have been knocked out on penalties and cannot get this miss by Puncheon out of his head from earlier in the season.  Regardless of that failure from 12 yards, Jason Puncheon is Crystal Palace’s top scorer in the league season and many of his goals have been crucial in ensuring that the south London club will almost certainly avoid relegation from the Premiership for the first time in five attempts.  As for Everton, they now need to win all of their remaining matches – two of which are against the Manchester teams – and hope that Arsenal slip up during their much easier run-in, otherwise the Gunners will qualify for the Champions League for the 17th consecutive year.

The other game in midweek was Sunderland’s visit to Manchester City, who were hoping to brush off their defeat at Liverpool last Sunday that meant they no longer had their title fate in their own hands.  Things started well for Manuel Pelligrini’s side, as they scored within the first two minutes through Fernandinho, but any expected thrashing never came and the Black Cats – who are rooted to the bottom of the table and look likely to be playing Championship football next season – had several chances to equalize during the first half.  At the other end, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo – who have scored 52 goals between them this campaign, but neither has found the net since the end of January at Tottenham – were far from their best and Sunderland fully deserved to draw level when they did finally break through, thanks to Connor Wickham in the 73rd minute.  Ten minutes later, things got worse for City as Wickham provided the finish to a quick counter-attack and it looked as though City would be beaten at home for just the second time in the Premiership this season.  However, two minutes from time a shot from Samir Nasri squirmed through Vito Mannone’s grasp and the goalkeeper was slow in reacting as the ball slowly rolled over the line and, moments later, the French midfielder had a great chance to win the match for Pellgirini’s men, but he put the ball over from 12 yards out.  The draw means that not only are Manchester City now reliant on Liverpool dropping three points, they also need Chelsea to fail to win at least one of their final four matches if they are to have any chance of winning back the title they won so dramatically in 2012.   Read more of this post

English Football Roundup – Liverpool One Step Closer To The Title

Shankly_GatesBefore I get into a roundup of the weekend’s football in England and a preview of the midweek fixture, a short note to honor the memory of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster – which occurred on 15th April 1989 – as well as the 3 spectators who died a year ago at the Boston Marathon.  Such tragedies put the importance of sport into perspective and while us fans do truly care whether our teams win or lose, that pales into insignificance in comparison to those two events, which took place 24 years apart.  In the case of Liverpool, it would take the most hard-hearted of supporter of an opposing club to not be able to find some part of you rooting for them to win the Premier League this year – especially as it is Steven Gerrard’s last, best shot at winning the title, a local boy who defines the club and whose 10-year-old cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough.

On Sunday, Liverpool came up against one of their main title rivals and the only other team who still had destiny in their own hands in terms of topping the table this season, as Manchester City traveled to Anfield with both sides knowing that if they won all of their remaining fixtures they would finish in first place.  In recent years, such matches between the top few clubs in the country have often been disappointing as nobody wanted to lose and hugely hyped games were cagey affairs that ended up 0-0 or 1-0. However, this was not a match up of Mourinho’s Chelsea, Ferguson’s United, or even Wenger’s Arsenal (expansive in home fixtures against Fulham or Southampton, less so in contests with other top four sides) – but rather the two most entertaining and attacking teams in the league this season.  Both Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pelligrini are fully aware that defensively their sides are not the strongest in the Premiership – highlighted by the fact that Vincent Kompany started for City, despite having broken down in training the day before the match (though given his error for the final goal, perhaps Pelligrini will wish he had not risked him in the end) – but the array of attacking talents that both clubs possess mean that their natural instinct should be to take the game to their opponents.

As has been the case at home against the other teams in the top six this season, Liverpool came out the blocks fast on Sunday and Manchester City found themselves a goal down within six minutes as Rahim Sterling got on the end of a pass from Luis Suarez, then jinked left and right a couple of times before putting the ball past Joe Hart and into the net.  Twenty minutes later, from a corner Steven Gerrard was given the freedom of the penalty area by the City defense, but his header was well saved by Hart.  However, the England goalkeeper could do nothing from the subsequent corner which was taken by the Liverpool captain and beautifully headed in by Martin Škrtel, who has made a habit of grabbing important goals this season, having previously nabbed a brace against both Arsenal and Cardiff.  In the second half, Manchester City were inspired from a surprising source: James Milner, as the substitute – who has looked like a journeyman midfielder since the age of 16 – was influential in engineering a comeback and the visitors scored twice in five minutes to draw level and momentarily silence the Anfield crowd.  Nevertheless, this was a day of poignancy and progression for the Reds and, in the 78th minute, Kompany sliced a clearance straight to Phillipe Coutinho and the Brazilian midfielder made no mistake as he dispatched the ball past Hart for the winning goal.

The only negatives for Liverpool were Jordan Henderson getting a red card in injury time for a reckless challenge on Samir Nasri, which means that the midfielder will be out for three of his team’s final four matches of the season, one of which is against Chelsea, who stayed in the title race with a narrow 1-0 victory at Swansea; and Daniel Sturridge had to be substituted in the second-half as he had a tight hamstring, which the club are doing more tests on to determine if he will miss any games.  Nevertheless, if Rodgers’ men can win their last four fixtures, they will be champions of England for the first time since 1990 – so long ago that it was a time when the back pass rule was still not in play, the Premiership had not yet been introduced, and Spurs could finish third in the league.

To be fair to Tottenham, their record against the top four this season improved at the weekend as…Everton beat Sunderland 1-0 through a Wes Brown own goal, lifting them above Arsenal in the table and thus meaning that Spurs have gained 5 points against teams that currently occupy the top 20% in the table (as opposed to just 1 when the Gunners are in fourth).  Arsene Wenger’s men will have the opportunity to move back above the Toffees on Tuesday when they host West Ham, but at the weekend they were at Wembley for their F.A. Cup semi-final against Wigan.  Although I have been ready to concede that Arsenal will end up lifting the trophy this season, they nearly came unstuck against the Latics, who took the lead in the 68th minute through a Jordi Gomez penalty and held on until eight minutes from time, when Per Metersacker – who had given aware the spot-kick – made amends with a headed equalizer.  The current F.A. Cup holders Wigan were reluctant to give up on this year’s competition and they managed to hold on to take the game to a shoot-out, but Arsenal were able to win 4-2 on penalties and stay on course for their first piece of silverware since 2005.  Their opponents on May 17th will be Hull City, who came from behind to beat League One’s Sheffield United 5-3 to make it to the first major final in the club’s history.  Should Arsenal finish fourth, then Hull will be guaranteed a Europa League place even if they were to lose to the Gunners in the final, but if Everton end up taking the last Champions League qualification place and the Gunners win the F.A. Cup, then the team who finishes seventh (most likely either Spurs or Manchester United) will also be in the Europa League next season.  So when Hull host Arsenal this weekend, their best chances of qualifying for Europe would come from losing to the Gunners, though I am sure they will be more interested in getting one more victory that would ensure they are completely safe from the threat of relegation. Read more of this post

English Football Roundup – United’s Miserable Season and Liverpool vs Manchester City

Robben hoodwinks five United defenders as he scores Bayern's third

Robben hoodwinks five United defenders as he scores Bayern’s third

United’s Misery

There have been several occasions where I have bemoaned the lot of being a Spurs fan – most recently this final missive on the current campaign – but this week it has been an unusually bad one to be a supporter of the most successful English team in the Premiership era: Manchester United.  On Wednesday, they were eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich and the only consolation they could take from their exit was that they had put in a good fight against a far superior team – but merely being competitive over two legs is a big drop in expectations for a club that has appeared in three of the last six finals of the competition, lifting the trophy once in that time.  There was a brief period of hope for David Moyes’ men when it looked like they might cause an upset by eliminating the current European champions, but Bayern responded with a goal by Mario Mandzukic within a minute to cancel out Patrice Evra’s stunning opening strike and the Bundelsiga winners did not look back, scoring twice more through Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben to win the tie 4-2 on aggregate.  The defeat means that United – who are seven points behind fourth place with only five matches remaining – are almost certainly going to be absent from the Champions League next season for the first time since the competition expanded to include runners-up (in 1995/6) and, for just the third time since the inception of the Premier League, they will end a campaign without lifting a trophy (it also happened in 2001/2 and 2004/5).

This Sunday, things get worse for Manchester United fans as the two teams they have the biggest rivalries with – Liverpool and Manchester City – meet at Anfield with the winners controlling their own destiny in the title race (a draw would leave City having the advantage of knowing winning their remaining matches would make them champions again, but it would also open the door for Chelsea should they slip up again).  Still I am not going to feel too much sympathy for supporters of the Red Devils – they have had 25 years of success to make them feel better – and there still is a chance that they will qualify for the Europa League by finishing in the top six, especially after their 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle at St. James’s Park last Saturday that kept them within two points of Tottenham.  In some media outlets, there has been the suggestion that Spurs and United would both rather finish seventh and thus avoid being in the Thursday Cup but, starting next year, the winners of the competition gain qualification for the Champions League and that might well be the best avenue for either side to get back into Europe’s top club tournament.  For their part, Tottenham recovered from a goal down against Sunderland on Monday to beat the Black Cats 5-1, with Christian Eriksen the star man with a goal and two assists, while Emmanuel Adebayor scored twice and saluted Tim Sherwood, who was rumored prior to the game to be a dead man walking, with a replacement set to come in this summer.

Premiership Roundup

Last weekend, the status quo was maintained in the title race as all three sides in contention with lifting the Premiership trophy in May won: City beat Southampton 4-1, propelled by two goals in injury time before the interval that effectively ended the game as a contest; Chelsea got revenge for their defeat at the Britannia Stadium earlier in the season by defeating Stoke 3-0 at Stamford Bridge; and Liverpool edged West Ham in East London 2-1, thanks to two spot kicks from Steven Gerrard.  The Reds’ second penalty looked like a very poor decision since Hammers goalkeeper, Adrian, clearly played the ball when he challenged Jon Flanaghan, but West Ham’s goal should not have stood either, as Andy Carroll clearly struck Simon Mignolet in the face during the buildup.  The victory was Liverpool’s ninth successive win in the league and they will head into Sunday’s contest with Manchester City full of confidence that they can claim their first title since 1990, though Manuel Pelligrini will be able to include Sergio Aguero in his lineup once again as he returns from injury.  It is also a poignant weekend for the club as Tuesday marks the 25 year anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their life during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and all matches this weekend will kick off seven minutes later than usual, to mark the time when that match was abandoned as so many fans senselessly lost their lives.   Read more of this post

Premiership Roundup – Liverpool in Poll Position

Liverpool celebrate winning the title in 1990 (Right to left, Ronnie Rosenthal, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen and John Barnes)

Liverpool celebrate winning the title in 1990 (Right to left, Ronnie Rosenthal, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen and John Barnes)

Title Race

Growing up in the 1980s, Liverpool were the first team I remember being dominant, as they won six of the ten league titles that decade, alongside lifting the European Cup and F.A. Cup on two occasions each, plus the League Cup four times.  Even in the years they failed to win the championship, they seemed to only just miss out, like on 26th May 1989, when they ended up second on goal difference due to Michael Thomas’ last minute strike for Arsenal in the final match of the season – a game that had been postponed in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster the month before.  However, since 1990 Liverpool have failed to add to their 18 league titles and they have not even been able to finish inside the top five in any of the last four seasons, as their days as the pre-eminent team in English football appeared to be behind them.  Nevertheless, the installation of Brendan Rodgers as manager in the summer of 2012 has proven to be a master stroke as he has transformed the Reds to the most entertaining team in the Premiership, with the results matching the style of the performances.  Last Saturday, score lines in other matches conspired to put Liverpool into an enviable position: win all of their remaining fixtures and they will be champions of England once again.

It started at Selhurst Park at 3pm (local time), where Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were unable to break down the highly organized Crystal Palace team that has been rejuvenated under Tony Pulis and the Eagles were full value for their 1-0 victory over the Blues, who had gone into the weekend as the league leaders.  Then, in the evening kick-off at the Emirates, Arsenal held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw – a result that means that the Gunners, who have struggled away from home against the top three, have gone unbeaten against that triumvirate at home – as Matthieu Flamini’s second-half goal canceled out David Silva’s toe-poked opener.  With all of their direct rivals dropping points, the onus went onto Liverpool to take advantage of the situation and move to the top of the Premiership by beating Tottenham – a task that did not prove to be too difficult as Younes Kaboul opened the scoring by putting the ball into his own net within the first 75 seconds, with Luis Suarez, Phillip Coutinho and Jordan Henderson also scoring as Rodgers side won 4-0.

As Liverpool set their sights on winning the Premier League for the first time, across Stanley Park Everton remain in the race to finish to qualify for next season’s Champions League, as they moved to within four points of fourth place Arsenal with a 3-1 victory away at Fulham, their fifth Premiership win in succession.  The Toffees have a game in hand on the Gunners and the pair meet at Goodison Park this weekend, but after that fixture, it is Arsenal who have the easier run-in.  In fact, of the top five only Chelsea do not have their fate in their own hands in terms of their various ambitions - this is how things stand heading into the final six weeks:

Liverpool - Remaining Fixtures: West Ham (A); Manchester CIty (H); Norwich (A) Chelsea (H); Crystal Palace (A); Newcastle (H). If they win them all they will finish: First

Manchester City - Remaining Fixtures: Southampton (H); Liverpool (A); Sunderland (H); West Brom (H); Crystal Palace (A); Everton (A); Aston Villa (H); West Ham (H). If they win them all they will finish: First

Chelsea - Remaining Fixtures: Stoke (H); Swansea (A); Sunderland (H); Liverpool (A); Norwich (H); Cardiff (A). If they win them all they will finish: Guaranteed at least second, if City drop five points then top (if City were to drop four points – two draws – then Chelsea would require 15 goal swing to pip them on goal difference).

Arsenal – Remaining Fixtures: Everton (A); West Ham (H); Hull (A); Newcastle (H); West Brom (H); Norwich (A). If they win them all they will finish: At least fourth.

Everton – Remaining Fixtures: Arsenal (H); Sunderland (A); Crystal Palace (H); Manchester United (H); Southampton (A); Manchester City (H); Hull (A). If the win them all they will finish: At least fourth. Read more of this post

Premiership Midweek Roundup and Weekend Preview – City Beat United, Face Arsenal Next

United's defence gets nowhere near Dzeko as he scores his second on Tuesday night

United’s defence gets nowhere near Dzeko as he scores his second on Tuesday night

Midweek Action

It took just 43 seconds for Manchester City to take the lead against their cross-city rivals on Tuesday night, as they attacked United from the first whistle and found their reward quickly through Edin Dzeko’s goal inside the opening minute.  City went on to beat the reigning Premiership Champions 3-0, to claim their third consecutive derby victory and fifth in the last six meetings between the two clubs.  After going behind so early, Manchester United did respond well and the rest of the first half was an end-to-end contest with both sides looking dangerous on the break.  However, after the interval the gulf in class between the two teams was evident as City pulled away and extended their advantage when Dzeko grabbed his second from a corner, then YaYa Toure completed the scoring in the final minute.

While Manuel Pelligrini’s men are looking upwardly mobile and now sit just three points behind leaders Chelsea with two games in hand, the defeat appears to have been the last straw for many United fans who are starting to openly revolt over David Moyes’ stewardship of the club.  Perhaps the most telling evidence of this is not that a group of supporters are planning on flying a plane over Old Trafford during their match on Saturday calling on the Scot to be sacked, but that Sir Alex Ferguson – who handpicked Moyes as his successor – reportedly received abuse in the Director’s Box on Tuesday evening – if the United faithful are ready to turn on their most successful ever manager, then things must be getting bad.  It was the 10th defeat of the league season for the Red Devils – their most ever in the Premiership era – and they now look unlikely to qualify even for the Europa League, which would mark the first time they have not been in a European competition since 1989-90, when all English clubs were banned from competing as a result of the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 (the last season United were eligible to play in a European competition and did not was 1981-2).  The statistics back up just how badly United have been at home this season: their record is won 6, drawn 3, lost 6, while they have scored just 18 times in those 15 games (compared with 45 in 19 fixtures last season with basically the same squad) and have conceded the same number.  But no matter what the numbers say, the biggest indictment on the failings of Moyes tenure is that when you are watching Manchester United play now, you do not believe they will be able to beat the best teams – they look and perform like a second tier Premiership club.

Next up for Manchester City following that derby victory is a trip to Arsenal on Saturday and they once again have the opportunity to pile onto the problems of one of England’s most established teams who are having a tough time.  It seems to happen every year that the Gunners have a major stumble around February or March, as a previously promising looking campaign comes tumbling down and they end up recovering only enough to finish a single place above Tottenham.  On Tuesday, following on from their 6-0 thrashing by Chelsea, Arsenal faced a home match against Swansea, who had failed to win in their previous seven games and are hovering just above the relegation zone.  The Swans took a lead into half-time as Wilfried Bony climbed above Per Metersacker to head in the opener, but the home team responded with two goals in 66 seconds to turn the match around and appeared to give Arsene Wenger’s men a victory that would have moved them to within four points of the top of the Premiership.  However, in the final minute their was chaos in the Arsenal box as Leon Britton’s attack was thwarted by Metersacker, but his interception bounced off Wojciech Szczesny and Matthieu Flamini then into the net to give the Welsh side a much-needed point and all but end the title hopes for the Gunners, who sit 6 points behind leaders Chelsea, 5 of Liverpool and 3 of City, who have two extra games left to play.

Rather than looking to catch the teams above them, Arsenal must now be looking over their shoulder as they try to hang onto the final Champions League spot, with Everton closing in on them.  The Toffees won their fourth consecutive Premiership fixture with a 3-0 defeat of Newcastle at St. James’s Park, with the opener coming from a 70 yard run by Ross Barkley, who had started the move by helping clear a corner from the edge of his own penalty area, before picking up the ball and running straight at the home side before finishing past Tim Krul.  Although the gap between Everton and Arsenal is 6 points, the Merseyside club have a game in hand and the two teams meet at Goodison Park next weekend, not to mention that the Gunners face Manchester City this Saturday, while the Toffees are playing bottom side Fulham.  Nevertheless, the remainder of the run-in heavily favors Arsenal who, after their trip to Everton, have home fixtures against West Ham, Newcastle and West Brom, with their last two away games being at Hull and Norwich; while Roberto Martinez’s men still have to play both Manchester clubs (well I guess City will still be tough, if not United).

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Premiership Roundup and Midweek Preview – Chelsea Thrash Arsenal and the Manchester Derby

Referee Mark Clattenburg Andre Marriner doesn't know his Ox from his Gibbs

Referee Mark Clattenburg Andre Marriner shows off his excellent vision

Weekend Roundup

In their final away match against the other teams that comprise this season’s top four, Arsenal were once again on the receiving end of a thrashing, following up their 6-3 loss at Manchester City and 5-1 Anfield defeat with a 6-0 beating at the hands of Chelsea.  In the buildup to the fixture, there was much made of this being Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge of the Gunners, but his otherwise impressive tenure was put into some context by his failure to beat Jose Mourinho during his spell in North London.  Any notions that this trend might end were gone by the 7th minute, as the Blues raced into a 2-0 lead and the title race seemed like it was down to three teams by the 14th minute, when Eden Hazard converted a penalty to make it 3-0 and Arsenal were reduced to ten men – although not the correct ten.  To be fair to referee Andre Marriner, he got the decision to dismiss one of the visiting team correct, since a shot from Hazard was tipped wide (although it probably was not on target anyway) by a hand that did not belong to goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but it was completely inexcusable that he could not differentiate between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who committed the offense) and Kieran Gibbs, who was erroneously shown the red card.  To make matters worse, Oxlade-Chamberlain told Marriner that it was in fact him who should be sent off, but the referee for some reason chose not to believe him or correct the mistaken identity and Arsenal lost a defender instead of an attacking midfielder.  In their subsequent review of the incident, the FA rescinded the red card for Gibbs and gave no suspension to Oxlade-Chamberlain, stating that it was not a sending off offense because the shot was going wide – but the Arsenal midfielder did not know that at the time and his intent was to stop a goal thus I believe he should have been dismissed (the letter of the law does say differently, however).

Overall, the officiating mistake did not affect the outcome of the game and Wenger must be concerned that his team’s performances against their title rivals this season – with just Manchester City at the Emirates to go, the Gunners record reads as: Played 5; Won 1; Drawn 1; Lost 3; Scored 6; Conceded 17 – allowing as many goals in those five matches as they have in their other 25 in the league.  As for Chelsea, they remain first in the Premiership and unbeaten against the rest of the top four this campaign, as they got five goals from attacking midfielders – two for Oscar, the penalty for Hazard and one each for Andre Schürrle and Mohamed Salah – after Samuel Eto’o had opened the scoring in the fourth minute, before the Cameroonian striker was forced off with a thigh injury.  The Blues are currently four points above Liverpool, who beat Cardiff 6-3 at the weekend with Luis Suarez notching another hat-trick and Martin Skrtel scoring twice; and are five points ahead of Manchester City, who were propelled by three goals from YaYa Toure – two from the penalty spot and a stunning third into the top corner – in their 5-0 thrashing of bottom side Fulham.

Those defeats for Fulham and Cardiff were indicative of a bad weekend for the sides in the relegation battle, with the bottom five teams all losing their respective fixtures.  Sunderland were beaten 2-0 at Norwich, with the second goal for the Canaries coming via a fantastic 30-yard volley from Alexander Tettey.  It is crucial for Norwich to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the drop zone over the next few weeks since their final four fixtures see them host Liverpool and Arsenal either side of trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.  One good sign for the Canaries has been their defensive performances at Carrow Road – since the start of 2014 they have had 6 Premiership matches at home and conceded just once, holding out both Tottenham and Manchester City during that run and allowing only Stoke to find the net from a penalty.  Crystal Palace looked set to earn a point in their away match with Newcastle on Saturday, having held out the Magpies for 94 minutes, but with their final attack the home side gained all three points when Hatem Ben Arfa’s cross found Papiss Cisse’s unmarked in the area and the Senegalese striker made up for some earlier misses by heading in the winning goal.  West Brom completed the quintet of failure for the bottom quarter of the Premier League as they were undone by their former striker, Shane Long, who won a penalty from which Hull got the opener (the spot kick was saved but Liam Rosenior headed in the rebound) and then scored himself to give Steve Bruce’s side a 2-0 victory.  After the game, Long was subjected to abuse from some Albion supporters while he was walking with his young daughter, something that is never excusable but was particularly harsh considering the striker did not celebrate his goal, nor claim a penalty when he had tripped himself up in the box.

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English Football Roundup – One Final Spurs Rant; and United Progress in Europe

Sandro - a beast in midfield - was forced to play central defence on Thursday

Sandro – a beast in midfield – was forced to play central defence on Thursday

Following on from last weekend’s derby defeat to Arsenal – which I covered with a live blog here – Tottenham’s season effectively ended on Thursday night when they were knocked out of the Europa League by Portuguese side Benfica.  After Spurs had lost the first leg 3-1 at home, it looked unlikely that they would have much chance of progressing, but the odds lengthened further with one look at the team sheet, as Tottenham were forced to play Sandro and Zeki Fryers as a central defensive partnership because Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Vlad Chiriches were injured, while Jan Vertonghen was serving a one game suspension.  To compound having a centre back pairing who were both playing out of position, Spurs also appeared to have already given up on the Europa League, as they left Hugo Lloris, Kyle Walker, Paulinho and Emmanuel Adebayor in London, stating that they all had strains but, in all likelihood, at least three of the four will be lining up against Southampton this Sunday.

Despite the fact that Tottenham had appeared to give up on the competition, I still held out some hope that we might progress – the delusion of an avid fan who, despite his best efforts, just cannot abandon all hope.  After 75 minutes, I had managed to allow the pessimism to take over and had reached the acceptance stage as the inevitable loss was approaching, but then Nacer Chadli scored twice and Harry Kane was taken down in the area for what should have been an aggregate tying penalty and I was back  believing that the impossible could happen.  Of course, it did not and a late spot kick for Benfica denied Spurs a win on the night as the second leg ended 2-2, the competitive aspect of the season is over, so this will be my last post complaining about centering on Tottenham this campaign, from now on – even though I will be watching all their games religiously (with candles and everything) – the title race and relegation battle will be the primary focus.  Before that though, my judgement on who should be coming back next year for Tottenham. Read more of this post

Adopting an MLS Team – Toronto FC’s Newest Fan

Toronto FC's new stars, Jermain Defoe (left) and Michael Bradley

Toronto FC’s new stars, Jermain Defoe (left) and Michael Bradley

Why Toronto FC?

For some time, I have tried to get into MLS* without much luck, not because I do not love the sport – I have been a lifelong football and Tottenham Hotspur fan (those two are not always mutually exclusive, I assure you) – but rather as I lacked any affiliation to a team.  This was not an easy process however, I could not force the issue to pick any club, there had to be a compelling reason for me to support them.  Of my other rooting interests, I have been a Tottenham fan as long as I can remember; picked the Green Bay Packers when I started following the NFL in the early 1990s as they seemed a good alternative to the star-studded Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers; and started watching baseball during the 1996 World Series, chose the Yankees as my team rather than the Braves, since New York was the city I wanted to live in one day.  In all three cases, however I have come to support a club, once I am a fan I will not change my team, so I did not just want to pick a franchise randomly.

*One thing I have learned early on is not to refer to it as “the MLS” which makes sense as that would be “the Major League Soccer”.

Geographically, supporting NY Red Bulls made the most sense, but then they went and signed Thierry Henry as their star player, eliminating them as a contender for my support as I could not root for someone who was such a legend at Spurs’ most hated rivals, Arsenal.  Inevitably, the connection had to come from Spurs and, during my time as a season ticket holder at Tottenham – from January 2002 until my move to Brooklyn in April 2007 – there were two diminutive strikers who ranked as the top two scorers I had seen in person for Spurs, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe.  Keane was the first of these two to move to Major League Soccer, but he joined the L.A. Galaxy who had become a super-popular team when David Beckham moved to them in 2007, so that felt like a full bandwagon on which to attempt to jump.  There was a supposed theory that many Tottenham managers had that the two short strikers could not play together up front – a fact that I always disagreed with considering the regularity with which they banged in the goals when they first partnered each other in 2003 – but of the pair, I was always a bigger fan of Defoe and wanted him to start every match.  When it was announced this January that the England forward would be moving to Toronto FC, I was gutted that he would no longer be a Spurs player – even though he was hardly getting a game in the league this season, I still felt confident in his ability to get goals whenever he made it onto the pitch.  However, Defoe’s arrival in MLS meant that finally I had an allegiance to a team in the league – starting with the 2014 season I would be Toronto FC’s newest fan.

Grasping the Basics

I wish I could tell you I did not laugh at this picture of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford every time I see it. I wish I could tell you that

I wish I could tell you I did not laugh at this picture of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford every time I see it. I wish I could tell you that

I am completely aware that new fans to a club can be welcomed, but also treated with disdain by those who have been there for a while, which in the case of Toronto FC, can be since the start since the franchise was founded in 2006.  However, for any die-hard U-sectors or Red Patch Boys, let me assure you that I am not taking this lightly and henceforth will be rooting for your our team, even if Defoe ends up being traded or sold.  I would recommend a reciprocal deal where Toronto FC fans could start supporting Tottenham Hotspur, but I am not sure you would thank me in the long run.

While I know the sport of football/soccer inside out, in order not to sound like an idiot when talking about MLS I needed to learn a few things about the league and in particular, Toronto FC.  My first panic came when I realized I could not remember what their nickname was, thinking that it was going to be something like the Toronto Moose, so I was somewhat relieved when I search-engined it and found out that I had not forgotten it, rather they did not have one and it was simply Toronto FC.  While this is classy and separates them from clubs that are named after an energy drink, it did get me wondering what nickname they could have used – my suggestions: Toronto Rob Fords (when you have a memorable Mayor you might as well use it); or the Toronto Floods (mainly because my one trip to the city last summer coincided with the heaviest storms in a century that led to a deluge of rain and provided the worst driving conditions I’ve ever experienced).  The other thing I learned was that the team’s primary color is red, which gave me pause since that aligns them in my mind with Arsenal and, as I have already covered, any connection to them is not something that will endear me to a club.  However, their home strip includes a Maple Leaf worked into the front which actually looks cool, so I will just try to forgo my negative feelings towards red and will only consider an away kit should I want to back up my newfound support with a purchase. Read more of this post

Tottenham vs Arsenal – Live Blog

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11:55am (EDT)

I am a complete glutton for punishment to do a live blog on a match that I expect my team (Spurs) to get thrashed by our biggest rivals, Arsenal, but at least it will distract me somewhat from the annihilation.  Since I have not left myself much time before the start of the game, here are the starting lineups and a couple of pre-match bets:

Tottenham starting XI: Lloris; Naughton, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Rose; Sandro; Townsend, Bentaleb, Eriksen, Chadli; Adebayor.

Arsenal starting XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Arteta, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Cazorla, Giroud

To me, Bentaleb and Chadli are two wasted spaces in the team that could’ve been filled by Paulinho and Sigurdsson, but I’m not Tim Sherwood so my opinion does not really count (for more on that viewpoint though, click here)

Pre-match bets:

Tottenham to win: 1,000,000/1

Bentaleb to do anything to make me change my opinion of him being a waste of space: 100/1

Adebayor to do a salute to the Arsenal fans after scoring: 10/1; after winning a throw-in; 4/1

Tim Sherwood to peel off his Spurs sweater-vest and reveal his Arsenal tattoo in celebration at a Gunners victory: Evens

My prediction of a 6-1 defeat for Spurs: 2/1

Bi3d7h1CcAE_rNbGame time:

1:15 – Spurs start lively, give the ball away, Rosicky picks it up, plays a one-two with the Ox and then slams the ball into the net. Tottenham 0 – 1 Arsenal. I hate being right

4 mins - I’m not surprised we are going to lose and I’m not even shocked that it happened so fast either.  It’s going to make for a strange atmosphere at the Lane, the fans are trying to get behind the team now but as this gets messier it could all get quite unsavory and Sherwood might hear real abuse for the first time. Read more of this post

Premiership Roundup: A(nother) Bad Week to Be a Spurs Fan

Spurs players should be used to getting thrashed this season

Spurs players should be used to getting thrashed this season

When your team has only lifted two League cups in the last 23 years; not finished above their biggest rivals since 1994/5; and consistently find a way to fail to live up to expectations, it should not be a surprise when there are bad times to be a supporter of that club.  For us Tottenham fans, last weekend was a particularly disappointing one, starting with the Premiership match away at Chelsea that ended in all too familiar fashion, as we were beaten 4-0 on a ground that we have not won on since February 1990.  In some respects, the final scoreline was slightly harsh on Spurs: just as had happened against Manchester City at White Hart Lane in January, a penalty and red card were awarded against Tottenham with the sending off later rescinded upon appeal, suggesting the original decision had been incorrect.  When Younes Kaboul was adjudged to have fouled Samuel Eto’o in the box, the visitors were already a goal behind after the Cameroonian striker had been played in by Jan Vertonghen’s awful attempted backpass, but the game was all but killed off when Eden Hazard converted the penalty to give Chelsea a two goal edge to go with their man advantage.

Even if there was some decisions that went against Spurs, they could only have themselves to blame for the poor performance, due to individual mistakes from players – both of Demba Ba’s late goals were also a result defensive errors – and a ridiculous lineup that Tim Sherwood had sent onto the field.  Despite playing a 4-5-1 system, five defenders were in the starting lineup, while Vertonghen (at left-back), Kyle Walker (right-wing) and Aaron Lennon (left-wing) were all played out of position.  The inept Nabil Bentaleb was once again started in the middle of the pitch alongside the beast that is Sandro (who was the main reason the score at half-time was 0-0 as he made several important tackles and interceptions) while Paulinho – who has a good partnership in the midfield with his Brazilian teammate, was only introduced after Kaboul had been sent off.

I miss Bale's play, if not his diving and this Bieber-esque goal celebration

I miss Bale’s play, if not his diving and this Bieber-esque goal celebration

A fellow Tottenham supported sent me a message after the game stating that “I hate to admit it, but we really miss Bale” and I could not agree more: when our talisman from last year was sold for £86m last summer, it was claimed that the battery of players who were brought in with that money offered a more balanced side – but where were they against Chelsea?  Paulinho did ultimately come on, but Erik Lamela (who has failed to make any impression at all) and Vlad Chirices were injured, as was Christian Eriksen, though for some reason Sherwood has not been starting him even when he is fit.  Roberto Soldado – who we all cheered finally scoring a goal from open play against Cardiff, but who should be offering more for the £26m fee that was paid for him – and Nacer Chadli were unused substitutes, meaning every single member of the starting XI was in the squad prior to the sale of Gareth Bale.  We could have still had the Welsh wizard at our disposal, all it took was to stand firm, look how successful Luis Suarez has been at Liverpool this campaign, despite him also wanting out last summer, but Chairman Daniel Levy decided to cash in because Bale said he wanted to move to Real Madrid.  Last Saturday, had he been in the squad, the starting lineup could have looked a lot more balanced: Bale and Lennon on the flanks, Walker restored to right back with either Naughton or Zeki Fryers at left back, allowing Vertonghen to play at centre back alongside either Michael Dawson or Kaboul.  The pace and threat of the Tottenham wingers would have forced Chelsea to adopt a more defensive approach…then they would have caught us on the counter-attack and we still would have lost 4-2, but at least it would not have been as bad as the poor showing that actually happened. Read more of this post


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