On Wednesday, Chelsea defeated Barcelona – a side that many consider to be the best in the world – 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, by defending their goal with all 11 of their players. Last Sunday, in their victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final, Chelsea had the help of a 12th man – referee Martin Atkinson. For the second time in two seasons, Spurs conceded a goal against their London rivals that did not cross the line.
In the league match at Stamford Bridge last year, Frank Lampard took a long-range shot that was fumbled by Gomes, but the Brazilian keeper scrambled back and stopped the ball on the line – yet the goal was given. On Sunday, John Terry barreled through three Tottenham players as a corner was swung in (no foul given) and, in the ensuing melee, Juan Mata took a shot, only for Benoit Assou-Ekotto to clear off the line. Some of the Chelsea players appealed for a goal, yet John Terry, who was lying on the ground right next to the action, did not and was visibly disappointed to see that the chance had gone begging, before realising that the referee had awarded a goal. Adding on to these injustices to the Pedro Mendes goal that was not given at Old Trafford in January 2005, and there seems to be a theme of Spurs being screwed over by a lack of goal-line technology (although they did get the benefit of one decision – against Stoke last season – but even then video evidence was inconclusive one way or the other).
In a 5-1 loss, it may seem trite to blame one flawed refereeing decision, but the goal came at a crucial time, when Spurs were just 1-0 down. The lopsided scoreline was a reflection of Tottenham’s need to attack to try to recover a two-goal deficit, at the expense of defending – had the Mata shot not been (incorrectly) adjudged to have crossed the line, it would have been a completely different game. There was also an element of misfortune to the equaliser for Spurs – Cech upended Adebayor in the box and, if Bale had not been following up and converted into an empty net, the Chelsea keeper would have been dismissed and a penalty awarded. Tottenham are far from sure things from 12 yards, but playing against ten men for the remaining half-an-hour – and taking the chance from the spot – would have been more advantageous to them than just the guaranteed goal that was given. However, that is how the rules of the game state the referee should have handled it, so Bale’s efforts of keeping up with the play ended up being a hinderance to Spurs.
It is important for Harry Redknapp and his team to note that, just as the thrashing they took does not excuse the poor officiating, nor do the bad decisions hide the fact that Tottenham’s own performance was deeply flawed. The first half was dominated by Spurs and they should have been at least a goal up by the interval, but,once again this season, their finishing was wasteful. At the start of the second forty-five minutes, Tottenham sat back and allowed the Blues to attack them – it was only after the (correctly) perceived injustice that they appeared to have the desire to fight their way back into the game. The biggest weakness in the side was the centre-back pairing of William Gallas and Ledley King. Gallas was a fantastic player for both Chelsea and Arsenal before his move to White Hart Lane – but age appears to have got the better of him and he can not be relied upon to hold the line, nor prevent a player with the strength of Didier Drogba from turning him. King is the saddest case – when he was healthy, Ledley matched up favourably with the best central defenders in the country and his pace and timing of tackles was second-to-none. However, chronic knee injuries over the last half-dozen years have been reduced his abilities and it has reached the point where King is now a liability when he is in the team, not an asset. I am a big fan of Ledley King and it pains me to say it, but it is time for him, and Tottenham, to move on.
The big question now is whether Redknapp can motivate his players to avoid a continuation of the collapse that has been happening over the last three months. With five games left to play, Spurs remain in fourth place and on target to qualify for the Champions League next season – but they are only ahead of Newcastle on goal difference, Chelsea by two points, and they trail Arsenal by five. The surprise defeat to Wigan on Monday for the Gunners means that, should Roberto DiMatteo lead his team to a victory at the Emirates this Saturday lunchtime, Tottenham will have their fate in their own hands for finishing above both of their London rivals. For their final five games, Spurs face: QPR (away); Blackburn (home); Bolton (away); Aston Villa (away); and Fulham (home) to finish off. Last Sunday must be the nadir – the low point of a season that once held so much promise – 15 points has to be the target and, despite all of my usual pessimism, I’m going to believe we will get exactly that.
One final note on the all-London semi-final – for the majority of the game, the Chelsea fans could hardly be heard, all of the singing was coming from the Spurs end of the stadium. Despite having nearly 40,000 supporters at Wembley, they were making so little noise, I imagine that Stamford Bridge was probably louder in the late 1980s, when Chelsea were drawing home crowds of little more than 8,000 each week. Sadly, the only time they did seem to make any sound was when a minority of them chose to boo the minute’s silence for the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. I also have a criticism of the Tottenham fans – for vacating the stadium when their team went 4-1 down. Just like the Manchester City supporters I railed against for doing the same, you should stay and support your team until the end – seeing so many empty seats in the Spurs end during the final five minutes was very disappointing.
In the other semi-final, Liverpool came from behind to beat their rivals from across Stanley Park, Everton, 2-1 – thanks to a last-minute backwards header from Andy Carroll. Everton had been ahead at half-time, after Nikica Jelavic capitalised on poor defending from Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher; but they returned the favour in the second half, when the Toffees’ Sylvain Distin played a woeful backpass into the path of Luis Suarez, who converted the chance easily. Carroll’s late winner, from Craig Bellamy’s free-kick, setup the 10th cup meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea in the last 8 seasons. It also makes for the most ethically dubious FA Cup final in recent history – Chelsea’s captain, John Terry, awaits a summer trial on charges of racially abusing Rio Ferdinand, while Liverpool’s Suarez has served an eight game suspension for the same offence against Patrice Evra.
For the second week in succession, Manchester United emerged victorious at Old Trafford after they had opened the scoring through a dodgy penalty decision “won” by Ashley Young. Just as he had done against QPR the previous Sunday, last week against his former club – Aston Villa – Young fell down in the box despite minimal contact from the defender – the referee again pointed to the spot. Ferguson’s men went on to win the game 4-0 and restored the five-point lead they had held over Manchester City at the top of the table going in to the weekend fixtures. The blue half of Manchester also had a comfortable win – 6-1 away at Norwich – thanks in part to a hat-trick from Carlos Tevez, who is back from his “sabbatical” in Argentina. This weekend sees United host Everton, while City travel to Wolves – should the Red Devils do no worse than match Mancini’s side’s result, then they will have an opportunity to clinch the league title on their rival’s home turf in the derby match at the Etihad on Monday week. As someone who was in the stands to see Arsenal win the Premiership at White Hart Lane back in 2004*, I can assure City fans that this is not something you want to experience.
*Though for the record, we did come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2, with a last-minute penalty from Robbie Keane giving us a share of the points. I still had to sit on the train at Finsbury Park when an Arsenal supporter chose to stick his head into my carriage to inform us Spurs fans that they had won the league at our “f*cking sh*t, cabbage patch ground”. Classy.
The only team in the relegation battle who actually have the semblance of a side fighting for their lives, is Wigan Athletic. Monday’s 2-1 win at the Emirates means that they have won 4 of their last 5 games, with the sole defeat being against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, when they were the victim of a very poor offside decision. Victories over Arsenal, Manchester United, Stoke and Liverpool have lifted Roberto Martinez’s men to 16th in the table, five points above the relegation zone. The other three games last weekend all featured clubs who are in danger of being demoted to the Championship for next season: Blackburn lost their fifth consecutive match, 3-0 away at Swansea; QPR fell to a 1-0 defeat at West Brom; and Wolves earned a single point with a 0-0 draw at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland, though they did lose their keeper, Wayne Hennessey, for nine months to a knee injury sustained in that fixture.
Terry Connor’s Wolves team could be the first side relegated from the Premiership this on Sunday, should they lose against Manchester City and other results have gone against them. In their place next year will be: Reading, who won promotion this week; one of Southampton and West Ham; and the winner of the Championship playoffs (likely to be contested between: Southampton or West Ham; Birmingham; Blackpool and Cardiff). Elsewhere in the Premiership this weekend: Chelsea, on a high from their wins over Barcelona and Tottenham, travel to North London to take on Arsenal; Spurs head in the opposite direction across the capital, to face Queens Park Rangers; 5th place Newcastle are at home against Stoke; Roy Hodgson takes his West Brom side to Liverpool, to face his former employers; Wigan hope to carry on their good form in their trip to Fulham; Aston Villa host Sunderland; Blackburn will try to stop their run of defeats in their game against Norwich at Ewood Park; Swansea travel to Bolton; and Everton will be hoping that Ashley Young stays on his feet when they visit Old Trafford to play Manchester United. There is also a Tuesday night game with, Aston Villa playing Bolton, a game that was postponed in the wake of Fabrice Muamba’s collapse and at a time that his condition was still critical.
With Muamba’s recovery still ongoing and, thankfully, appearing to be very positive, there was another tragic incident of a player collapsing on the pitch last week. Udinese’s Piermario Morosini, who was on loan at Livorno, fell to the ground during his side’s match against Pescara and sadly was declared dead on his arrival at the hospital – he was just 25 years old. Rest In Peace, Piermario Morosini.
Last week, 2-4; Season 139-166
Arsenal vs Chelsea – Away win
Aston Villa vs Sunderland – Draw
Blackburn vs Norwich – Home win
Bolton vs Swansea – Draw
Fulham vs Wigan – Away win
Newcastle vs Stoke – Home win
QPR vs Tottenham – Away win
Manchester United vs Everton – Draw
Liverpool vs West Brom – Home win
Wolves vs Manchester City – Away win