This Week in: English Football – United Open Lead At The Top

From left to right - Twat; Joe Hart; Rio post being struck by 2p coin; Goblin.
From left to right – Twat; Joe Hart; Rio post being struck by 2p coin; Goblin Tevez

Manchester United extended their lead at the top of the Premiership to six point over their neighbours, after they defeated City 3-2 at the Etihad last Sunday.  Sir Alex Ferguson’s men started the game on the back foot, but two first-half goals from Wayne Rooney gave them a comfortable lead at the break, before strikes from YaYa Toure and Pablo Zabaleta pulled the home side level heading into the final minute.  United then won a free-kick in perfect territory for Robin Van Persie’s left foot and the Dutch striker found the net, though he was aided by a deflection off his former Arsenal teammate, Samir Nasri, who had turned away from the shot.  Sadly, the goal was followed by ugly scenes, as Rio Ferdinand was struck just above the eye by a missile thrown by the crowd, while Joe Hart had to block one of his own team’s supporters, who had invaded the pitch in an apparent attempt to attack members of the visiting side.  The scoreline matched the Red Devils success in the FA Cup on that ground last season, but it was the first home defeat in the league for City since December 2010, an unbeaten run that had stretched 37 games.

Both Fernando Torres and his club, Chelsea, were able to turn around their poor league form with a 3-1 victory away at Sunderland, with the Spanish striker netting twice, including a first-half penalty.  It was a timely win for the Blues, who are now in Japan competing in the Club World Cup, in which they progressed to the final today with a 3-1 defeat of the Mexican side, Monterrey, with Torres once again on the score sheet.  On Sunday they face Corinthians of Brazil, with Chelsea’s new boss, Rafa Benitez, getting an opportunity to repeat the feat he achieved at Internazionale in 2010 – winning this trophy after taking over from the manager who had guided the team to European Cup success (Jose Mourinho at Inter, Roberto DiMatteo with the Londoners).  The league defeat had sent Sunderland into the bottom three, but they were able to climb out of the relegation zone on Tuesday by beating Reading 3-0 at the Stadium of Light, another defeat for the Royals, who also lost 1-0 at Southampton last Saturday.

Tottenham underlined the reason that none of their supporters will ever accept that a game will end happily until after the final whistle, as they once again managed to lose a match they had appeared destined to win, this time against Everton.  The Toffees had been slightly the better team over the 90 minutes, but trailed to a deflected shot from Clint Dempsey in the 75th minute.  However, Spurs chose to sit back on their lead and withdrew Jermain Defoe and when the equaliser came for the home side, it inevitably came from Steven Pienaar – who could not establish himself in the team during a brief spell at Tottenham.  Even though that goal was scored in injury time, Everton still found the time to win it through Nikica Jelavic and leapfrogged Andre Villas-Boas’s men into fourth in the table, at the same time confirming the worst fears of all of us pessimistic Spurs fans.  If matches lasted just 80 minutes rather than 90, then Tottenham would currently sit top of the Premiership and such is the regularity they throw away strong positions in both individual encounters and seasons as a whole, you can forget the 21st of December of Mayan long count calendars, if the Lilywhites ever have an unassailable lead at the top of the league, that will be the clear sign that the End Times are fast approaching.

Across North London, Arsenal had mixed fortunes this past week: they earned three points with a 2-0 defeat of West Brom in the Premiership last Saturday; but then in midweek they suffered a major embarrassment in the League Cup.  While in the past, Arsene Wenger has treated the competition as an opportunity to blood his youngsters, a seven-year trophy drought encouraged him to send out a strong team away at League Two opponents, Bradford, on Tuesday night.  Despite Arsenal’s almost full-strength starting XI, they still needed a late equaliser from Thomas Vermaelen just to force extra time, then lost on penalties to be eliminated from a competition by a team from the fourth tier of the football league system for the first time since Wrexham beat them in the FA Cup in 1992.  It also marked Bradford’s 9th consecutive penalty shoot-out win and helped soften the blow for them of having been thrown out of the FA Cup this week for fielding an illegible player in the previous round.  Although Wenger will not be sacked by Arsenal and is unlikely to quit, their mediocre recent form at the bare minimum should see them spend some money to strengthen their team when the transfer window opens again in January, something they have appeared unwilling to do in recent years.

Elsewhere last weekend, QPR remained winless – but also unbeaten under Harry Redknapp – as they drew 2-2 away at Wigan; Fulham consigned Newcastle to their fifth defeat in six games, prevailing 2-1 at Craven Cottage; Liverpool won 3-2 at Upton Park against West Ham, despite not having a recognised striker available – their cause was helped by a wonderful goal by Glen Johnson in the 11th minute; Norwich led Swansea 3-0 at half-time and held on to triumph 4-3 in South Wales; and the most predictable 0-0 draw of the season came to pass between Aston Villa and Stoke.  This weekend, with Chelsea in Japan neither they nor Southampton have a league fixture; Manchester City travel to Newcastle; Liverpool host Aston Villa; Sunderland face Manchester United at Old Trafford; there is a London derby between QPR and Fulham at Loftus Road; and Norwich entertain Wigan.  Tottenham will try to return to winning ways when they take on Swansea at the Lane; there is a “West” derby between West Brom and West Ham; Everton have a tough away game against Stoke; and Arsenal return to Reading, where they came from 4-0 down to win 7-5 in the League Cup earlier this season.

Predictions

Last week, 5-6; Season, 71-87

Saturday

Newcastle vs Manchester City – Away win

Liverpool vs Aston Villa – Draw

Manchester United vs Sunderland – Home win

Norwich vs Wigan – Home win

QPR vs Fulham – Away win

Stoke vs Everton – Draw

Sunday

Tottenham vs Swansea – Home win

West Brom vs West Ham – Home win

Monday

Reading vs Arsenal – Away win

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