This Week in: English Football – The Season’s Midway Point

Gareth Barry somehow hangs in the air long enough to head in City's winner against Reading
Gareth Barry somehow hangs in the air long enough to head in City’s winner against Reading

Following on from last weekend’s fixtures and those that were played on Boxing Day, all but four of the Premier League sides have now completed exactly half of their matches for the season (the exceptions being due to Southampton vs Chelsea, which was rearranged due to the latter’s participation in the Club World Cup at the beginning of December; and Wednesday’s encounter between Arsenal and West Ham that was prematurely called off due to the threat of a strike by London Underground staff).  Half way through last year’s campaign, the two Manchester clubs were tied on 45 points at the top of the league, but this time around there is seven points between them, as City have struggled in the defence of their title.  United extended their lead during the week, despite being held to a draw in South Wales by Swansea on Sunday, as the Spanish striker Michu scored his tenth of the season to cancel out Patrice Evra’s earlier goal.  Mancini’s men had temporarily closed the gap to three points with a controversial 1-0 win over Reading the day before, which came from a Gareth Barry header in the third minute of stoppage time, but the midfielder was climbing on the back of Nicky Shorey when he connected with David Silva’s cross; and the visitors were also denied a penalty by referee Mike Dean when Jay Tabb appeared to be fouled in the box by debutant, Karim Rekik.

City had no such luck on Boxing Day, as they lost 1-0 at Sunderland for the third consecutive season, with the winning strike coming

Sir Alex tells Mike Dean about the fish he caught at the weekend
Sir Alex tells Mike Dean about the fish he caught at the weekend

from one of their former players, Adam Johnson, whose near post effort squirmed into the net under Joe Hart.  At the same time as the blue half of Manchester was dropping three points, United pulled out a 4-3 win against Newcastle which had looked highly unlikely for most of the encounter.  Alan Pardew’s side took the lead three times, only for the Red Devils to pull themselves level on each occasion, before they finally went ahead for the first time in the match in the 90th minute, when Javier Hernandez connected with Michael Carrick’s inch-perfect pass into the box.  Sir Alex Ferguson had been an animated figure on the touch-line and had been giving the officials a piece of his mind over some of the decisions he disagreed with – most notably the visitor’s second goal, which was allowed by Mike Dean despite his assistant having flagged Papa Cisse offside in the move that led to Jonny Evans putting the ball into his own net.  Ferguson was lucky not to have been sent to the stands for his protestations, but in the end he will have been delighted to see his team show the type of resolve and willingness to fight for a win right up until the final whistle that has led them to 12 titles in the last 20 years.

Chelsea are closing in on Manchester City in the table, as they followed up an 8-0 thumping of Aston Villa last Sunday, with an almost equally impressive 1-0 away win against Norwich, who had won their previous five home league games.  Villa’s form did not improve much either, as they were thrashed 4-0 by Tottenham on the day after Christmas and they were fortunate that it took the visitors so long to open the scoring, otherwise it could have been many more.  After Jermain Defoe had broken the deadlock in the second half with a clinical finish from Kyle Naughton’s clever through ball, Gareth Bale took over and recorded his first Premiership hat-trick, just as the January transfer window is about to open and thus reviving speculation that the Welsh winger could be a target for the richest clubs in Europe.  The previous Saturday, Spurs had been held to a goalless draw at White Hart Lane by a stubborn Stoke side, who themselves had an impressive 3-1 victory over Liverpool on Boxing Day.

Everton extended their unbeaten league run to seven games with 2-1 wins over West Ham and Wigan; David Moyes’ team have now lost just one of their last fifteen Premiership encounters – somewhat surprisingly that came against second-bottom Reading, who recovered from the disappointment of their last-minute defeat at the Etihad to earn a 0-0 home draw against Swansea on Wednesday.  Both the Royals and Queens Park Rangers have just 10 points from the season’s opening half, with Harry Redknapp’s strong start as manager at Loftus Road coming unstuck with back-to-back defeats against Newcastle and West Brom.  QPR and Reading are joined in the relegation zone by Wigan after their 1-0 home loss against Arsenal, which represented the Gunners third consecutive league success and leaves them just three points behind Tottenham in fourth, with the rearranged game against West Ham still to be played at the end of January.  The other matches saw West Brom record their first win in five by beating Norwich 2-1 on Saturday (before adding another with the aforementioned victory over QPR on Boxing Day); Liverpool’s inconsistent season continued as they thrashed Fulham 4-0, before their 3-1 loss at Stoke; and Martin Jol’s men were then held 1-1 at home against Southampton, who themselves had been beaten by Sunderland at the weekend.

There are another two rounds of fixtures in the next five days, before the Premiership takes a 10 day break for the FA Cup to occupy centre-stage next weekend.  This Saturday, Spurs travel to Sunderland for the lunchtime kickoff; Manchester City have an away game against Norwich; the leaders, Manchester United, play West Brom at Old Trafford; Arsenal host Newcastle; Reading entertain West Ham; Aston Villa will try to stop the rot when they take on Wigan; Southampton are at Stoke; and Fulham and Swansea meet at Craven Cottage.  Sunday’s lineup sees Everton face Chelsea, while QPR have a home match against Liverpool, a fixture they won 3-2 last season with three late goals to earn a victory that ultimately helped keep them in the division.  On New Year’s Day, Manchester United go to Wigan, where they lost 1-0 in April; Reading travel to North London to face Tottenham; Southampton play Arsenal at St. Mary’s; West Ham have a home match against Norwich; Fulham are away at West Brom; Swansea take on Aston Villa in South Wales; and Stoke square off against the Champions at the Etihad.  Finally on Wednesday, Chelsea and QPR meet in another London derby; Liverpool entertain Sunderland; and Newcastle are up against Everton at St. James’s Park.

Predictions

Last week, 5-5; Season, 82-95

Saturday

Sunderland vs Tottenham – Draw

Aston Villa vs Wigan – Draw

Fulham vs Swansea – Home win

Manchester United vs West Brom – Home win

Norwich vs Manchester City – Draw

Reading vs West Ham – Away win

Stoke vs Southampton – Home win

Arsenal vs Newcastle – Home win

Sunday

Everton vs Chelsea – Draw

QPR vs Liverpool – Away win

Tuesday

West Brom vs Fulham – Home win

Manchester City vs Stoke – Home win

Swansea vs Aston Villa – Home win

Tottenham vs Reading – Home win

West Ham vs Norwich – Draw

Wigan vs Manchester United – Away win

Southampton vs Arsenal – Away win

Wednesday

Chelsea vs QPR – Home win

Liverpool vs Sunderland – Home win

Newcastle vs Everton – Away win

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