This week in: English Football – United extend their lead

Crouchy's been having his nachos

With 8 games left to play in the Premier League, Manchester United last weekend extended their lead over City to three points.  Following their rivals’ draw against Stoke, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team edged out Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday by a single goal – though they were lucky that the visitors were not awarded a late penalty, when Michael Carrick upended his former Tottenham teammate, Danny Murphy, in the box.  City being held 1-1 at Stoke might be considered dropping two points, as opposed to gaining one, but Tony Pulis’ men have not lost at the Britannia Stadium to any of the top 5 sides in the league so far this season (with Arsenal still to visit at the end of April).  The home side took the lead thanks to a wonder strike from Peter Crouch – a 25 yard volley from the corner of the penalty area – but a deflected shot from Yaya Toure ensured Mancini’s side did not leave the Midlands empty-handed.

Manchesters City and United meet at the Etihad Stadium on April 30th, and that game may well prove to be the title decider, but City will need to improve their away form if they are still going to still be in touching distance of their neighbours by the time they play them.  Since they won 6-1 at Old Trafford in October, City have had 10 fixtures on the road in the league – their record in those encounters is an unimpressive W3, D3, L4.  Before the end of the season, Mancini’s men have trips to Arsenal, Norwich, Wolves and Newcastle to tackle, any further slip ups are likely to prolong their wait for their first league title since 1968, regardless of how they get on in the derby game.

In the race for the two remaining Champions League spots for next season, Arsenal built a three-point cushion over Tottenham for third place, after they won 3-0 at home to an uninterested Aston Villa team, while Spurs earned only a point with a 0-0 draw at fifth placed Chelsea.  On that note, there have been three things that have been bothering me surrounding Tottenham this week.  Firstly, in that match at Stamford Bridge, Spurs sat back and defended for the first half and, even when they had slightly more attacking aspirations after the break, they never went all out in an attempt to secure their first win at Stamford Bridge in the league since 1990.  With talents such as Bale, Modric and Van der Vaart on the pitch, there is always a chance Spurs will be able to grab a victory thanks to a moment of brilliance, but they will have many more opportunities if the team attacks the opposition rather than plays cautiously.  Had Redknapp’s side won the game, the gap between themselves and Chelsea would have been 8 points and the race for the top 4 would be all but over.  Perhaps a more positive approach would have left Tottenham exposed in defence, but the club motto is Audere est Facere – To Dare is To Do – we should not be scared of losing, otherwise we will never win. Continue reading

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Mad Men Season 5 Episodes 1 & 2

Even in that jacket, Pete Campbell has the temerity to laugh at somebody else…

Mad Men returned to our screens on Sunday night after a gap of 17 months, but in the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, only 7 months have passed in the lives of our favourite characters. The action begins towards the end of May 1966* – just before Don’s fake 40th birthday on June 1st and a few months after Dick Whitman’s actual milestone. The episode opened with a real historical event when workers at the advertising agency Young and Rubicam threw water bombs at nearby Civil Rights Protestors, getting their firm negative press in the NY Times. After only having been hinted at during the first few seasons, the Civil Rights Movement may be playing a more prominent role in this year’s story arc. Following that incident at Y&R, Roger and Don decide to put an advert in the Times proclaiming themselves as an equal opportunity employer, which results in a lobby full of African-American would-be applicants for a role that SCDP cannot afford to be filling. Lane Pryce, who had shown his own bigotry earlier in the episode when he would not trust the black taxi driver with a lost wallet full of cash, realises that not hiring one of the candidates as a secretary would be more costly to the agency than doing so, thus for the first time an African-American will be employed by the firm. How the agency copes with this forced integration will be interesting, since the idiots at Y&R who got them into trouble, seemed no worse than last season’s trouble-making group of Stan, Joey and Harry, who between them could well have ended up throwing water bombs themselves, had they been in the same situation.

*The show did tease the year of the setting before it was made clear – in the Y&R window, someone had put a fake Presidential endorsement sign up of “Goldwater 1968” – but this was to antagonise the protestors outside, since Senator Goldwater (who was defeated in a landslide by President Johnson in the 1964 election) was an opponent of the Civil Rights Act. On the train, Pete is also asked how old his baby is, which could have revealed how much time has passed, but he sidesteps the question – it is only when we see Joan with her young son that the year is clearly 1966.

Don and Megan have been married in the time since we last saw them announcing their engagement, and Draper genuinely seems much happier and cares much less about work than before. Significantly, he wants to make his wife happy, a trait he never showed with Betty, and only argues with her about the surprise party because he does not want to be the centre of attention, nor invite his work colleagues into their marriage. Megan has taken on a new role as a copywriter at SCDP and is now reporting to Peggy Olson, except with Don being her husband, she comes and goes as he pleases, not Peggy. The cynicism Megan now experiences in the workplace may result in her becoming jaded with this opportunity in the long run, but for now she seems to be holding her own with her work. However, her song and dance routine at the party made her the object of derision by Roger, Lane and Harry Crane, and her colleagues are making comments about her existing outside of ordinary rules as she is married to one of the senior partners.

There have been a couple of significant changes within the agency, in particular, Pete Campbell is now the dominant figure amongst the partners, power he has garnered through being the person who has brought in the most business for the firm. Pete has a direct confrontation with Roger Sterling for the entire double-episode – Roger is trying to worm his way into client meetings by snooping at Pete’s calendar, resulting in the junior partner reacting by trying to engineer an office swap. Though Campbell ends up trading with Harry Crane – who is forced into it as he goes in to the meeting thinking he is going to be fired for making fun of Megan Draper, and is also paid off by Sterling – he does get one over on Roger by setting up a fake appointment with Coca-Cola on Staten Island at 6am, setting him up for an early morning ferry ride to nowhere. Pete seems set on putting his all in to his working life, as he does not seem happy at home – he has moved to the suburbs with Trudy and their newborn, leading to him giving a rueful response to the traffic noise at Don’s party. Being a new Dad does not appear to have cheered him either, and he is unwilling to look after Joan’s baby even temporarily in the office – though that interaction did give a wonderful moment of him and Peggy standing over the baby for an awkward moment, a reminder that the two of them have a child out there who will be about 5 years old now. Now that Pete has more power and authority to go with his ruthless ambition = as well as a renewed focus as he tries to spend less time at home – he could become a significant danger to Roger and Bert’s existence at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

A depletion in staffing levels as a consequence of the layoffs at the end of the last season, has resulted in people fighting for secretaries to sit near their offices for periods of the day – but the biggest reason for the drop in efficiency at the agency is the absence of Joan, who is on maternity leave. After being shown the non-job advert by her mother, Joan fears that she is being replaced now that she has a child, but Lane makes it clear when she comes in to the office that without her running things, it is almost impossible for the firm to survive financially. Money concerns appear to be forefront in many of the partners minds: Don scolds Megan for spending money on the party; Lane has yet to pay tuition for his son’s school; and Pete states that his job did not provide the house they now live in. Only Roger seems immune from their micro-recession, as he is handing out $50 to a secretary to sit by his office, and $1100 to Harry to convince him to switch offices with Pete – either his longevity in the industry has given him a comfortable cushion against the bad times, or sales of “Sterling’s Gold” went through the roof in the last seven months.

There was plenty of humour in this double-episode, not least of which was Megan’s performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou”, which may not have been intended as funny, yet was as awkwardly hilarious as David Brent’s impromptu dance in The Office. Also: Pete’s comment to Roger at Don’s party “Roger, I’m surprised to see you here – were you invited or did you just know I was going to be here?”; Joan’s response of “Try me” to her mother saying she was not exactly at “fighting-weight”; and Harry taking the bribe from Roger and then claiming “Well you’re gonna owe me” being rebuked with “No I’m not, I just gave you a lot of money, this was a transaction”.

As always with Mad Men, the early episodes lay the groundwork for plot developments later in the season – but this was a strong opening and, after so long away, it is good to have them back. Having a happy Don Draper, who acts like the clients are right and with kindness, may not be perfect, but it is better than no Don at all.

This week in: Television – Mad Men Returns

Don Draper waits patiently for the cellphone to be invented

After a wait of 17 months, fans of Mad Men will finally get new episodes starting this Sunday (9pm ET, AMC) as we return to the 1960s and the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show, which has won the Emmy for Best Drama Series in each of its first four seasons, had its return delayed in part because of contract negotiations between the creator, Matthew Weiner, and the network – but fans are now guaranteed at least two more seasons, with Weiner remaining at the helm.

Spoiler Alert, I am going to reference events up to the end of season four, so if you are still planning on watching the show, look away now…

Last time we saw Don Draper/Dick Whitman, it was October of 1965 (there are always clues to date when events are occurring in Mad Men – Don had taken Sally to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium – which was August 15th 1965, and then in the finale of season four had told Betty he would see her “the weekend after next, what is that, the 23rd?” – making the only month it could be October) and he had just got engaged to his French-speaking secretary with a big smile, Megan Calvet. Matthew Weiner will never reveal what jump in time there will be between seasons, so fans will be trying to figure out when the action is taking place, as well as what will happen with the characters.

Continue reading

This week in: English Football – Fabrice Muamba

Fabrice Muamba and his son, Joshua

The Spurs vs Bolton FA Cup quarter-final fixture last weekend had become a crucial game in Tottenham’s season, after three straight defeats had seen their cushion in third place reduced to just a single point over their North-London rivals, Arsenal.  With Arsene Wenger’s side having re-discovered their good form, coupled with Chelsea’s renaissance since the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs were in danger of not only losing third place, but also a top four finish and with it, a spot in next year’s Champions League competition.  The FA Cup – which Tottenham have won 8 times, but not since 1991 – is likely to be the last chance for Harry Redknapp to win silverware during his tenure at White Hart Lane, prior to his inevitable departure to become England’s next manager.

I was concerned about Redknapp’s team selection again forcing one Tottenham’s best players to play out of position – this time it was Rafael Van der Vaart, who had been stuck out on the right-wing.  Spurs fans anxiety levels increased after Bolton scored early in the match, when Gareth Bale inadvertently diverted a corner into his own net past Carlo Cudicini – but the Welshman atoned for that mistake when he setup the equaliser with a cross from the left flank, that Kyle Walker headed in at the far post.  Leading up to half-time, Bolton had regained the initiative and had put Tottenham on the back foot – I feared we might concede again before the interval.

Suddenly, none of that mattered.  Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton central midfielder, fell to the ground and was clearly in great distress on the pitch, suffering from a heart attack.  The medics rushed to help; players and fans looked on stunned and in tears; a cardiologist in the crowd made his way forward to offer his assistance; everyone was stunned.  Referee Howard Webb, a former police office, clasped his hands together and looked, on while contemplating the appropriate action he should take, as the official in charge of the match itself.  After what seemed like hours, but was in fact 10 minutes, of CPR being administered and a defibrillator used on Muamba whilst he still lay on the ground, he was carried off on a stretcher while the medical team continued to work on him and transported him to the London Chest Hospital.  Thankfully, his heart is now working by itself and he has been able to recognise his family, as well as say a few words in both English and French – hopefully this recovery continues. Continue reading

This week in: English Football – Arsenal sponsored by Lastminute.com

Vermaelen's late winner is a Krul blow to Newcastle

In three of their last four Premiership games, Arsenal have secured a win thanks to a goal in injury time at the end of the match.  Without those extra six points, the Gunners’ season would be looking a lot bleaker, as they would be outside the Champions League places.  Instead, thanks to their persistence and unwillingness to settle for a draw, they sit just a single point behind their North London rivals – cutting that gap from ten points just a few weeks ago.  On Monday, Arsene Wenger’s side had been battering the Newcastle goal for the majority of the game, and did not cease until Vermaelen forced home the winner in the 95th minute.  The visitors had actually taken an early lead from a left-footed strike by Ben Arfa, but Arsenal’s talisman, Robin Van Persie, equalised within 60 seconds to record his 44th goal in his last 45 Premier League games.  After that, the home side dominated and fully deserved the victory, even if it arrived very late in the night.

Tottenham suffered their third straight defeat, this time at Goodison Park against Everton, though once more they were unlucky not to have gained at least a point from their performance, having dominated the game in the second half.  Chelsea won their encounter with Stoke – putting in a performance that suggested that the exit of Villas-Boas was exactly what the squad needed – ensuring the race for the final two Champions League places has three contenders.  With Newcastle’s defeat at the Emirates – combined with Liverpool losing away to Sunderland – Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs will be competing not only to finish London’s top club, but also for the prize of automatic qualification to next season’s top European club competition.  The way they are playing, Tottenham are the team most likely to drop into 5th place, and thus the Europa League, next year, but there was good news for us fans of the White Hart Lane club – with 10 games remaining they are now 31 points clear of the relegation zone, so even if this poor form continues, their Premiership status is assured for at least one more year. Continue reading

This week in: English Football – AVB sacked

Abramovich called time on Villas-Boas' reign after just 256 days

The last two Premiership managers who have been sacked – Mick McCarthy from Wolves, and Andre Villas-Boas from Chelsea last weekend – received their marching orders following a defeat to West Brom.  The 1-0 away loss at the Hawthornes last Saturday, saw the Blues slump to their seventh league defeat of the season and fall three points behind fourth place in the race for qualification for next year’s Champions League.  With a divided dressing room and having fallen out with senior players including Lampard, Essien and Ashley Cole, Villas-Boas could not afford any more slip-ups if he wanted to retain his job – defeat to Roy Hodgson’s side was the final nail in his coffin.  Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, has spent tens of millions of pounds in compensation to managers he has taken from other clubs and then subsequently terminated with severance.  The Russian was perhaps feeling in a frivolous mood – the same day as Villas-Boas was fired, Vladamir Putin was elected to return for a third term as President of Russia – Abramovich and Putin have a close relationship and the businessman may expect more favourable energy contracts in his homeland will be coming his way.

Chelsea have appointed Roberto DiMatteo as their manager for the remainder of the season and the Italian led them to a 2-0 win in his first match in charge, an FA Cup replay against Birmingham.  DiMatteo is highly unlikely to get the manager’s position full-time – high-profile names such as  Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have been linked with a move in the summer – but he will be hoping to get his team back into the top four in the league and continue their cup run to improve his own future job prospects.  During the match, when Chelsea had their two goal advantage, they were awarded a penalty – the taking of which normally falls to Juan Mata.  With the victory nearly beyond doubt, the Spaniard offered the ball to his compatriot, Fernando Torres, giving him a chance to end a long goalscoring drought – but Torres refused, suggesting his confidence has gone.  Mata then missed the penalty, but Torres – not long ago one of the most feared strikers in Europe and a player Chelsea shelled out £50m for last January – has now gone 23 games without finding the net. Continue reading

This week in: English Football – Spurs vs United; and Liverpool vs Arsenal

Dalglish wins his first trophy as a manger since the Scottish League Cup with Celtic in 2000

Last Sunday, Kenny Dalglish led Liverpool to their first trophy in six years, as they overcame Cardiff on penalties at Wembley to win the Carling Cup.  The Welsh side had taken a surprising early lead through a Joe Mason goal, but were pegged back when Martin Skrtel equalised for Liverpool on the hour mark.  In extra time, Dirk Kuyt’s strike appeared to have clinched the trophy for the Merseysiders, but Ben Turner forced the game to penalties with a late goal for Cardiff.  Cousins Steven and Anthony Gerrard both failed to convert penalties for their respective teams, and the latter’s miss sealed the cup for Liverpool, who won the shootout 3-2.  Dalglish and John Henry, Liverpool’s American owner, will be hoping this is a catalyst to further success – starting with this season’s FA Cup, a competition in which the club has reached the quarter-final stage.

In the Premiership last weekend, Manchester City secured a routine 3-0 home win over Blackburn, while their rivals United kept up their challenge thanks to a last-minute strike from Ryan Giggs that gave them a 2-1 victory at Norwich.  Chelsea’s troika of trouble-makers – Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole – were reinstalled to the lineup for their clash with Bolton at Stamford Bridge and they were able to prove their value to Andre Villas-Boas as his team ran out 3-0 winners.  However, this was against Bolton, at home – a game that most teams would expect to win, let alone one with Champions League aspirations.  In March, Chelsea face an FA Cup replay away to Birmingham; the return leg of the Champions League tie with Napoli, which they currently trail 3-1; and a home Premiership encounter against Tottenham.  It will be these three matches, rather than the victory over Bolton, that will be the true test of both Villas-Boas’ stewardship and the value of his aging squad.

Terry Connor, who has been appointed as Wolves manager until the end of the season, saw his team show some fight as they came back from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw away at Newcastle.  Martin Jol sent out a very attacking lineup for Fulham’s trip to QPR and, although it was not a resounding victory, they did pick up all three points thanks to an early goal from Pavel Pogrebnyak, who converted Moussa Dembele’s fantastic through ball.  Rangers have now lost four of the six league games they have played under new manager Mark Hughes – winning just once – and are outside of the relegation zone solely on goal difference.  Wigan remain bottom, but picked up a valuable point with a 0-0 draw with Aston Villa at the DW Stadium, inching them closer to the three sides directly above them (Bolton, Blackburn and QPR), who all lost.  West Brom surprised everybody by beating a previously rampant Sunderland side 4-0 at the Hawthornes; Stoke earned a 2-0 win over Swansea; and there was one other match last weekend also, but I can’t quite remember who was involved in it…oh right…this.

There was also a round of international friendlies in midweek:  England, led by Stuart Pearce for the first (and probably only) time, came from 2

Welsh fans hold up a tribute to their former manager, Gary Speed

goals down against the Netherlands to draw level in injury time – only to lose 3-2 after Arjen Robben’s wonder strike.  Wales paid tribute to their former manager, Gary Speed, during their match with Costa Rica – the Central Americans ran out 1-0 winners, but the result was incidental to the occasion.  Spain beat Venezuela 5-0 at home, in part thanks to a second half hat-trick from Valencia striker, Roberto Soldado, who may end up replacing the misfiring Fernando Torres in the squad for the European Champions – and France recorded an impressive 2-1 win in Germany.

This weekend’s Premiership slate is bracketed by games between four sides that have at various times dominated the English game: Saturday’s first fixtures sees Liverpool, who were the team of the 80s, take on an Arsenal, who won five league titles between 1989 and 2004; then the last game on Sunday has Manchester United, now the most domestically successful English league club, travel to Tottenham, who apparently were really good once back in the 60s…in black and white…long before I was born.  Pessimism after last weekend’s loss to Arsenal aside, this is a crucial game for Spurs, who need to maintain their position of third place in the Premiership and not be dragged back into a fight with their North London rivals, Chelsea and Newcastle to secure a berth in next season’s Champions League.  United also need to keep winning, as they do not want to drop any further behind Manchester City, who just keep on winning.  This weekend, Mancini’s side host Bolton, thus are likely to have stretched their lead at the top to five points prior to kick off at White Hart Lane.

Elsewhere, two struggling sides meet at Ewood Park, as Blackburn entertain Aston Villa; Everton travel to south-west London to face QPR; Stoke are at home against Norwich; Chelsea have an away game against West Brom; and Fulham and Wolves clash at Craven Cottage.  The other big game of the weekend is the North-East derby on Sunday between Newcastle and Sunderland.  Both sides suffered poor results last weekend and will be looking to get their season back on track.  Alan Pardew’s team is challenging for a European place for next year, while Sunderland have endured a revival under Martin O’Neill and hope to continue their push up the league.

Predictions

Last week, 5-4; Season 100-129

Liverpool vs Arsenal – Home win

Blackburn vs Aston Villa – Draw

Manchester City vs Bolton – Home win

QPR vs Everton – Away win

Stoke vs Norwich – Home win

West Brom vs Chelsea – Draw

Wigan vs Swansea – Away win

Newcastle vs Sunderland – Draw

Fulham vs Wolves – Home win

Tottenham vs Manchester United – Away win