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.
Arsenal’s good run of form continued last weekend as they soaked up a lot of Liverpool pressure at Anfield, before grabbing all three points with a winner in injury time. Both of the Gunners’ goals in the 2-1 victory were scored by their talisman, Robin Van Persie, who has now found the net 22 times in the league this season. Yet it was the Dutchman’s failure to convert a simple chance from close range against AC Milan, that prevented his side from coming all the way back from the 4-0 first leg deficit in their Champions League tie on Tuesday – Arsene Wenger’s side fell a single goal short in the end. Van Persie should avoid any criticism for the miss, as he is the main reason Arsenal are back into fourth place in the Premiership and have cut the gap to their rivals, Tottenham, to just four points.
Spurs were unlucky to lose last weekend, but it was a familiar story from previous seasons, as they dominated possession and much of the play against Manchester United, yet succumbed to lethal finishing from Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young, in a 3-1 loss. England’s next manager, Harry Redknapp, should take a large portion of the blame for his team selection – Saha and Adebayor started up front for Tottenham, while Jermain Defoe was on the bench. The diminutive England striker is lethal from the edge of the box and, against a central defence of Johnny Evans and Rio Ferdinand, space was always going to be available from that range rather than inside the penalty area, where the United pairing tend to sit back and smother the play. Redknapp has said before that he does not prepare his team for the opposition, rather gets them ready to play their own game, which perhaps led to his selection of the players he considered in form (Adebayor and Saha both scored in the 5-2 loss to Arsenal, though the former converted a penalty, while the Frenchman’s goal was courtesy of a big deflection) rather than consider who would be the best matchup against Manchester United. Jermain Defoe has been excellent when he has got the opportunity to play this year and is the club’s top scorer despite not being first-choice. When he did come on, Defoe exploited the space given to him to score Tottenham’s goal – though it was so late it was nothing more than a consolation – and then grabbed two more with excellent strikes against Stevenage in the FA Cup replay on Wednesday. With Spurs’ league season threatening to de-rail, Redknapp needs to focus on tactics as well as man-management for the next two months to ensure that the great first 25 games do not go to waste – failure to qualify for the Champions League would be ridiculous, missing the opportunity to finish above Arsenal for the first time in 17 years would be frustrating.
Manchester City fans have long-since had a reputation for being loyal and passionate for their team – when they dropped down to the third tier of English football for the 1998/99 season, City still regularly attracted crowds of more than 30,000 to their home games. However, in last week’s home fixture – playing against a local rival, Bolton, and knowing that victory would take them to five points above United at the top of the league – when Gael Clichy opened the scoring half way through the first-half, the home fans did not go wild in celebration, just rose to their feet and politely clapped. The crowd and their applause was something you would expect to see at Augusta when a middle of the leaderboard player found the back of the green with his second shot on a par 4, rather than supporters at an English football game who had just seen their side make the breakthrough which could help them win their first league title since 1968. City fans have already lost some of their identity because of the move away from Maine Road and the takeover by the Abu Dhabi investment group, now it looks like their passion and hunger for success has been replaced with complacency and expectations.
Perhaps the most exciting game last weekend was the Tyne-Wear derby between Newcastle United and Sunderland. The match finished 1-1 thanks to a late equaliser by Newcastle’s Shola Ameobi, which cancelled out Nicklas Bendtner’s earlier penalty for the Black Cats. Challenges were flying in throughout the game and Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole managed to get booked inside the first minute for a foul on Cheik Tiote, before being sent off after the final whistle for dissent. Stephane Sessegnon was also dismissed for the visitors – though he only made it to the 58th minute before seeing red – as he swung an arm at Tiote right in front of Mike Dean, who looked genuinely exasperated by Sessegnon’s blatant elbow and had no choice but to send him off for an early bath. On the touchline, Newcastle’s manager, Alan Pardew, was guilty of over-celebrating when his team was awarded a penalty, believing his side should have been awarded two prior to that – but the Sunderland boss, Martin O’Neill, did not take kindly to the exaggerated fist pumping, and the two had to be held apart by the fourth official. Demba Ba subsequently missed the penalty, but Pardew was again theatrical when Ameobi earned his team a point late on. Martin O’Neill was not amused by this behaviour, and did not have a customary drink with his opposite number after the game.
Elsewhere last weekend, Fulham thrashed Wolves 5-0 thanks to two goals from Clint Dempsey and a hat-trick from Pavel Pogrebnyak – the Russian has now scored five goals in the three games he has played since joining from Stuttgart for £4m at the end of the January transfer window. The man Pogrebnyak replaced at Craven Cottage, Bobby Zamora, scored for his new club, Queens Park Rangers, to earn them a 1-1 draw at home to Everton. Wigan remain rooted to the bottom of the Premiership after a 2-0 home defeat to Swansea; Stoke climbed up to 8th thanks to a 1-0 win over Norwich at the Britannia Stadium; and Blackburn gained a share of the points against Aston Villa, thanks to a late equaliser from David Dunn to cancel out Charles N’Zogbia’s first-half goal for the visitors.
This weekend sees four of the bottom five teams play each other – Bolton host QPR in the lunchtime kick off on Saturday, while Blackburn travel to Wolves later that day. The other club threatened with relegation, Wigan, travel to Norwich for the late game on Sunday; Aston Villa are at home against Fulham; Spurs have an away game against Everton; Chelsea and Stoke meet at Stamford Bridge; and Liverpool make the trip to the North-East to take on Sunderland. Title challengers Manchester City go to Wales to take on Swansea, while their rivals, United, are at home against West Brom – though Sir Alex Ferguson should be safe in his job even if his side loses to the Grim Reapers of Premiership managers. The Monday night fixture sees a rejuvenated Arsenal team take on Newcastle at the Emirates, with Arsene Wenger hoping that the disappointment of falling short in their comeback against Milan, will not outweigh the great recent form they have been showing in the league.
Last week, 7-3; Season 107-132
Bolton vs QPR – Home win
Aston Villa vs Fulham – Draw
Chelsea vs Stoke – Home win
Sunderland vs Liverpool – Home win
Wolves vs Blackburn – Away win
Everton vs Tottenham – Draw
Manchester Utd vs West Brom – Home win
Swansea vs Manchester City – Away win
Norwich vs Wigan – Home win
Arsenal vs Newcastle – Home win