This week in: English Football – Manchester Rules and the FA Cup Fourth Round

Referee Howard Webb - never knowingly looking in the right direction

Last weekend’s results all but confirmed the Premiership title race would have just the two horses in it for the rest of the season, as Manchester City overcame Tottenham, and United won away at Arsenal.  The first half of the City game was forgettable, with neither side giving the opposing keeper much work, but the second half was the polar opposite.  Mancini’s men struck first, through former Gunner Samir Nasri, and then, when Joleon Lescott bundled home a corner to make it 2-0, they appeared to be out of sight.  However, Tottenham did not just roll over, and a mistake from Stefan Savic allowed Jermain Defoe to convert into an empty net – having gone around Joe Hart – to cut the deficit in half, then a cracking left foot shot from Gareth Bale made it 2-2 with 25 minutes still to play.  Harry Redknapp, who is normally attacking in his team selections, chose to withdraw Rafael Van der Vaart in favour of – the more defensively minded – Jake Livermore, suggesting Tottenham would be happy with the point.  In the final minutes, they still had a great chance to win it when Gareth Bale broke through the Manchester City back line and played a ball across the face of goal that eluded Defoe by a whisker.  Defending a 100% home record in the Premiership, the league leaders did not stop looking for a winner themselves and were able to find one – with almost the last kick of the game.  Mario Balotelli converted a penalty, after he had been felled by Ledley King in the box, but there was a huge doubt about whether or not the Italian should have been on the pitch at that point – as he had stamped on Scott Parker in an earlier incident.  Nevertheless, Spurs were undone more by a failure to convert their own chance to win the game and reverting to negative tactics in the final ten minutes, trying to hold on to a draw rather than going all out to try to win.

Manchester United ensured they were able to remain three points behind their rivals, as they secured a 2-1 win over Arsenal at the Emirates thanks to a late goal from Danny Welbeck.  Arsene Wenger’s team were certainly not outclassed by the champions and, if not for missed chances by Robin Van Persie and Aaron Ramsay in particular, they may well have claimed all three points.  However, when Wenger chose to withdraw youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had provided the pass for Van Persie’s equaliser, and replace him with the Russian enigma that is Andrei Arshavin, there was dissent both from the Arsenal crowd and their captain (Van Persie was seen mouthing “NO” when the substitution was made).  While the supporters may have not liked the decision, it was strange to see such outward dissent against a manager who they have loved and respected for so long.  Perhaps a more damning indictment of the home fans was the fact that, with their side chasing an equaliser against one of their biggest rivals over the last twenty years, the stadium was half-empty in the final few minutes as many rushed to beat the traffic, rather than staying and supporting their team until the final whistle.  It’s one thing to head for the exit when your team is being thrashed – although I never left a game early myself – but in a close match against an old enemy, that’s just not being a good fan whichever club you root for.

The two Manchester teams were the only clubs of the top 9 in the league to win last weekend: Chelsea were held to a goalless draw at Norwich – the home side’s first clean sheet of the season, suggesting what they needed all year was to face £50m striker, Fernando Torres, who cannot buy a goal at the moment; Liverpool suffered a 3-1 defeat away to Bolton, after which their manager, Kenny Dalglish, criticised his players for not giving their opponents enough respect, thinking they could just turn up and win without much effort; Stoke lost at home to West Brom; and Newcastle, who had led 1-0 at half-time, suffered a 5-2 defeat at Fulham – a game which included the first Premiership hat-trick for an American, as Clint Dempsey scored three for the Cottagers.  Aston Villa won the Midlands derby against Wolves 3-2, thanks to two long-range goals from on-loan Robbie Keane – the Irishman scoring against his former club, and for his 6th Premier League team in total (Wolves, Coventry, Leeds, Spurs, Liverpool, Aston Villa).  QPR moved out of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win over Wigan at Loftus Road; Sunderland ended Swansea’s good run of form by beating them 2-0 in the North-East; and Everton and Blackburn shared the points at Goodison Park, with Tim Cahill getting his first goal for the home side in more than a year.

This week sees the return of the FA Cup as the competition reaches the Fourth Round.  Spurs will be hoping Harry Redknapp is not too distracted by his tax evasion court case, which started on Monday, when he returns to the bench to manage the team in their away game with Watford this Friday.  That same day, it is “Donovan vs Dempsey”, as the two US teammates play against each other as Everton play Fulham.  Saturday morning brings a rematch of QPR and Chelsea and Loftus Road, the league game saw the home team win and John Terry be accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand; while old foes, Liverpool and Manchester United, square off at Anfield.  Some of the other fixtures include: League Two’s rich club, Crawley Town, travel to Championship side, Hull City; Brighton host Newcastle; and former West Ham player, Paolo Di Canio, takes his Swindon team to play Leicester City.  Sunday sees a North-East derby as Middlesborough travel to Sunderland; and an all-Premiership clash at the Emirates as Arsenal host Aston Villa.

Friday, 27 January 2012
Watford v Tottenham
Everton v Fulham

Saturday, 28 January 2012
QPR v Chelsea
Liverpool v Man Utd
Blackpool v Sheffield Wed
Bolton v Swansea
Derby v Stoke
Hull v Crawley Town
Leicester v Swindon
Millwall v Southampton
Sheffield Utd v Birmingham
Stevenage v Notts County
West Brom v Norwich
Brighton v Newcastle

Sunday, 29 January 2012
Sunderland v Middlesbrough
Arsenal v Aston Villa
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