This week in: English Football – City & United Falter, and the FA Cup Semi-Finals

Why always Balotelli?

After Arsenal defeated Manchester City 1-0 last Sunday at the Emirates, pundits were ready to hand the title to United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had built up an 8 point gap over their rivals, courtesy of a controversial 2-0 win over Queens Park Rangers earlier in the day.  In the 15th minute of that game, Sean Derry was adjudged to have pulled down Ashley Young in the area, resulting in a penalty for Manchester United and a red card for the QPR captain.  Despite replays showing that there had been virtually no contact and Young had dived (as well as being offside when the ball was played through), the FA upheld the dismissal, meaning Derry will be suspended for one match in his club’s fight against relegation.  One player who did fully deserve his sending off was Mario Balotelli.  The City striker saw red in the closing minutes of his team’s loss to Arsenal, but he was lucky to have stayed on the field for that long, as he raked his studs down Alex Song’s leg in the first-half.  Mancini’s men were second best throughout the match and eventually succumbed to a Mikel Arteta goal in the 87th minute, but the two title challengers had a reversal of fortunes on Wednesday night.  City secured a comfortable 4-0 home win over West Brom, while United were beaten – and outplayed – by a feisty Wigan side at the DW Stadium.  Those results mean the gap at the top of the table is 5 points, in favour of the red half of Manchester, meaning that, with City having the better goal difference, any further slip ups by United would make the derby match at the end of April a potential title decider.

That win for Arsenal, coupled with their 3-0 victory away at Wolves in midweek, meant that they were able to fully exploit Tottenham’s failings to move clear in third place.  Because of the Cup semi-finals this weekend, and the timings of fixtures next weekend, the Gunners could be 11 points above their rivals by the time Spurs next take the field for a Premier League game.  I fear St. Totteringham’s Day is just around the corner – continuing Arsenal’s streak of finishing above Tottenham for at least another season.  The single point Harry Redknapp’s team picked up in their two Easter victories, also allowed Newcastle to draw level with them in the race for fourth place, as Pardew’s men gained 2-0 wins over Swansea and Bolton.  Papiss Cisse scored three of those four Newcastle goals (the other was a wonderful individual run from the half-way line by Ben Arfa against Bolton) and the Senegalese striker has now scored 10 times in 9 games since he joined the club in the January transfer window.

Chelsea’s own quest to return to the Champions League next season may be hampered by the fixture congestion they face due to their progress in this season’s competition, as well as their continued involvement in the FA Cup, but Roberto DiMatteo’s side picked up four points from their two fixtures over the weekend.  A 2-1 victory for Chelsea over Wigan came thanks to an offside goal from Branislav Ivanovic, and an injury time winner from Juan Mata, but on Monday they were held to a 1-1 draw by neighbours, Fulham.  In the fight to avoid relegation, the defeat for Wigan and QPR’s loss at Old Trafford, combined with Bolton’s 3-0 reverse at home to Fulham; Blackburn’s 3-0 thrashing at the hands of West Brom; and Stoke beating Wolves 2-1; meant that the bottom five failed to pick up a single point in the weekend’s fixtures.  On Wednesday, QPR moved themselves out of the relegation zone with a 3-0 win over Swansea at Loftus Road, as did Wigan with their unexpected success over Manchester United.  Wolves loss to Arsenal leaves them 9 points from safety with only five games remaining, and Bolton’s loss to Newcastle saw them saw back into the bottom three.

The most entertaining match of the two rounds of fixtures that were played, was Liverpool’s trip to Ewood Park to take on a Blackburn Rovers side that had lost their previous three games.  The encounter appeared to be decided early on, when Liverpool struck twice through – the underused -Maxi Rodriguez, giving the visitors a 2-0 cushion before the 20 minute mark.  However, half an hour in, Kenny Dalglish saw his side reduced to 10 men when goalkeeper Alexander Doni was sent off for upending Junior Hoillet in the box.  With Doni being dismissed and regular goalie, Pepe, Reina, serving a suspension for his own red card against Newcastle, it was left to third-choice keeper, Brad Jones, to face the resulting penalty – which he saved from Yakubu.  Blackburn’s Nigerian striker did make amends when he pulled one back for the home team minutes later, and then equalised from the spot in the second-half, after he had been pushed to the floor by Jones (who escaped with a yellow card).  Nevertheless, Steve Kean’s men could not grab a winner themselves, nor hold on for the draw, as Andy Carroll’s stoppage time header gave Liverpool a 3-2 win and all three points – leaving Blackburn second-bottom in the table.

Highlighting this weekend’s fixtures are two local derbies in the FA Cup semi-finals – both being played at Wembley – between Merseyside rivals, Liverpool and Everton on Saturday, and London sides, Chelsea and Spurs, the following day.  Tottenham have not made the final of this competition – which they have won 8 times – since 1991, losing at the semi-final stage five times since then. By contrast, the last time Spurs lifted the trophy, Chelsea had only one FA Cup success in their history, but since then they have won it five more times – most recently in 2010.  Liverpool have been usurped in the league table by Everton and will not want the blue half of the city to also have a cup victory to celebrate.  The two sides last played against each other at Wembley in the final of the FA Cup in 1989, just a month after the Hillsborough disaster – the anniversary of which is this Sunday.

In the Premier League fixtures this weekend: Manchester City can temporarily close the gap at the top to just two points if they win their game at Norwich on Saturday; while United take on Aston Villa on Sunday.  Arsenal host Wigan; Blackburn will try to end a run of four straight defeats in their game against Swansea in South Wales; Wolves travel to Sunderland desperately needing a win if they are to have any chance of avoiding relegation; and West Brom entertain Queens Park Rangers.

On a side note, I do not watch enough Spanish games to write regularly about La Liga, but I do try and watch Barcelona and Real Madrid games from time to time.  In yesterday’s Madrid derby, Cristiano Ronaldo scored two incredible goals – a 35 yard free-kick which seemed to break the laws of physics in its movement, followed by a shot from the edge of the box that flew into the roof of the net.  A penalty from the Portuguese star completed his hat-trick and took him to 40 goals in the La Liga for the season.  In this campaign, Ronaldo has now individually scored more league goals than: 12 teams in La Liga; 10 in the Premiership; 9 in Serie A; and, probably most importantly to him, 1 more than Messi.

Predictions

Last week, 10-10; Season 137-162

Norwich vs Manchester City – Away win

Sunderland vs Wolves – Home win

Swansea vs Blackburn – Draw

West Brom vs QPR – Away win

Manchester United vs Aston Villa – Home win

Arsenal vs Wigan – Home win

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