As was the case last year, this season’s battle for the Premier League title is shaping up to be between the two Manchester clubs, with City and United meeting on Sunday for the first time this campaign. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side head across town to the Etihad currently sitting top of the table, but their defensive frailties will be giving their manager much cause for concern. That vulnerability at the back was particularly evident last Saturday against Reading in a crazy encounter at the Madejski Stadium, which United won despite giving up three goals in the opening 23 minutes. For the 10th time in their 15 Premiership fixtures thus far, the Red Devils conceded the opening goal, this time to a Robson-Kanu volley, after Jonny Evans had failed to adequately clear a Reading cross; but a quality strike from Anderson, followed by a Wayne Rooney penalty gave United a 2-1 advantage after just sixteen minutes.
That was far from the end of the scoring, as the home side re-took the lead with two headers from Nicky Shorey corners, converted by Adam Le Fondre and Sean Morrison, but a smart finish from Rooney and a well taken goal by Robin Van Persie – who should have had a second before half-time, but his shot was incorrectly adjudged not to have crossed the line, providing further evidence of the need for goal-line technology – put Ferguson’s men ahead for good. While seven goals in a single half ties a Premiership record, as a final tally it was nothing compared to other encounters in Reading’s recent history – in October they lost 7-5 to Arsenal in the League Cup, having led 4-0 at the interval; and in the 2007/8 season, the Royals lost 7-4 and 6-4 to Portsmouth and Tottenham respectively.
The United manager will be anxious to see his team improve their defensive display in time for the grudge match against City, especially from corners as it was from one such set-piece that Joleon Lescott scored the only goal of the game in this fixture last season – a win that ultimately helped the blue half of Manchester secure their first title since 1968. Although Roberto Mancini’s team remain unbeaten in the league this campaign, they trail their neighbours because they have been held to draws on six occasions already, meaning they have shared the points more times than they did in all of their championship winning 2011/12 season. Last weekend, Manchester City were forced to come from behind to earn a point against Everton, who opened the scoring through Marouane Fellaini; but the Belgian then gave away a penalty shortly before the break, which Carlos Tevez converted. While there will still be 22 fixtures remaining after Sunday’s encounter, a win or draw for United would put them in the driving seat in the title race, heading into the crucial Christmas period.
Below the dueling Manchester clubs, the fight for Champions League clubs looks likely to once again be London centric, with Chelsea and Tottenham currently sitting in third and fourth, both having gained 26 points thus far. Spurs had been 7 points behind the Blues before three wins inside six days propelled Andre Villas-Boas’s men up the table, with the latest success coming at Craven Cottage, as they beat Fulham 3-0, thanks to two goals from Jermain Defoe and a long-range effort from Sandro. The victory did come at a cost, as Tottenham’s talisman, Gareth Bale, was forced off with a hamstring injury after sixty minutes and the Welshman had earlier picked up his fourth yellow card of the season for simulation (although this time he did appear to be tripped, he only has himself to blame for earning a reputation for diving). The loss marked the seventh game in a row for Martin Jol’s team without a victory, but that run of fixtures has included impressive draws at both the Emirates and Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, following two consecutive goalless draws, Chelsea did finally get on the score sheet at the third attempt under the stewardship of Rafa Benitez, but Juan Mata’s early strike and the team’s impressive first-half display ultimately counted for nothing, as West Ham earned a league win over the Blues for the first time since 2003. Sam Allardyce made two tactical changes at the interval, bringing on Matthew Taylor and Mohamed Diame, the latter of whom changed the game for the Irons. The Senagelese midfielder gave the home side a more physical presence that enabled them to disrupt Chelsea’s attacking game and goals from Carlton Cole, Diame and Modibo Maiga gave the Hammers a memorable 3-1 victory, leaving Benitez to endure chants of “You’re going to be sacked in the morning”, little more than a week into his new job. Nevertheless, the problems at the club are deeper than just the Spaniard’s managerial style, as this marked the seventh consecutive Premiership game in which they have failed to secure all three points (matching Fulham’s current run) and they look devoid of the confidence and swagger that they had displayed in the opening two months of the campaign. No player appears more forlorn than Fernando Torres, who has failed to find the net in the league for over 12 hours of game time – some of his efforts at Upton Park last Saturday were evidence of a striker who does not even believe in himself right now.
Another London club whose form has stumbled in recent weeks is Arsenal, who lost 2-0 at home to Swansea last weekend, falling to two late goals from Michael Laudrup’s summer acquisition from Spain, Michu. The defeat leaves Arsene Wenger’s side with just one victory in their last six in the Premiership and, although that came against their North London rivals Tottenham, they benefitted from facing 10 men for the majority of that encounter, after Emmanuel Adebayor got himself sent-off early on. Currently in 10th place with 21 points, the Gunners find themselves as many points (15) behind Manchester United at the top of the table, as they are ahead of bottom-side Queens Park Rangers. Swansea’s victory moved them up into seventh, level on points with Everton above them and three behind the triumvirate of Chelsea, Spurs and West Brom, who lost their second game in succession, this time 1-0 at home to Stoke.
Harry Redknapp’s first home match in charge of QPR ended in a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa, meaning that Rangers have still not won in the league this season, gaining just six points in the process. Traditionally, the points total that clubs aim for to avoid relegation is 40 (although sometimes teams have survived with fewer than that, notably West Brom in 2004/5 when they finished fourth from bottom despite gaining just 34 points) and, in order to reach that benchmark, Redknapp would need to get QPR into the sort of form that would normally be associated with a side on the fringes of European qualification, picking up an average of just under 1.5 points per game. It is little wonder that the former Spurs boss is talking about the need to look beyond this season and building a squad that could compete for promotion back to the top flight in a year’s time, should they not be able to perform a great escape.
Newcastle ended their run of four consecutive defeats by beating Wigan 3-0 at St. James’s Park, Demba Ba struck twice, the first of which was a 12th minute penalty, which also resulted in Maynor Figueroa getting sent off for a professional foul, forcing the visitors to play the remainder of the match with 10 men; while Liverpool earned a narrow 1-0 win over Southampton at Anfield and Norwich defeated Sunderland, 2-1 at Carrow Road. Alongside the Manchester derby this weekend, Spurs have a tricky away game against Everton; Arsenal host high-flying West Brom; Benitez will hope to get a victory on the board at Sunderland, before Chelsea head to Japan for the Club World Cup; and Swansea entertain Norwich. Two of the bottom three meet at St. Mary’s, as Southampton face Reading; Stoke travel to Aston Villa; QPR continue to seek that elusive first win, this time away at Wigan; West Ham have a home match with Liverpool; and Newcastle are in London to play Fulham. On Tuesday, Sunderland and Reading play their rearranged fixture from the end of August, which had to be postponed due to flooding caused by torrential rain.
Last week, 4-6; Season, 66-81
Arsenal vs West Brom – Home win
Aston Villa vs Stoke – Draw
Southampton vs Reading – Home win
Sunderland vs Chelsea – Away win
Swansea vs Norwich – Home win
Wigan vs QPR – Home win
Manchester City vs Manchester United – Home win
Everton vs Tottenham – Draw
West Ham vs Liverpool – Home win
Fulham vs Newcastle – Draw
Sunderland vs Reading – Home win