This Week In: English Football – City Thrash United but North London Leads the Way

Aguero celebrates his second and City's third goal against United
Aguero celebrates his second and City’s third goal against United

In the Manchester derby last weekend, City beat their cross-town rivals by four goals to one, but the result did not even tell the whole story of their dominance, as the visitors only got into the game after Manuel Pelligrini’s men had built an unassailable lead five minutes into the second half and then took their foot off the gas.  Sergio Aguero gave the home crowd their first reason to cheer after sixteen minutes, when the he provided a clever finish to Alexsander Kolarov’s cross; then YaYa Toure doubled City’s advantage before the break by diverting a ball into the net that Alvaro Negredo had flicked on from a Samir Nasri corner.  After the interval, United were unable to deal with two more balls swung into the box from the wing and Aguero and Nasri were both left with simple chances to extend City’s lead to 4-0 and leave David Moyes without an away derby victory in the Premiership, as he had failed to win at Liverpool during his 11 year tenure at Everton.  With the result beyond doubt, the home side sat back and it was only then that the Red Devils – who were without the injured Robin Van Persie – showed even a glimmer of the football that saw them win the title last May.  Nevertheless, by the final whistle the only thing they had to show for their effort was a Wayne Rooney free-kick that added only a consolation for the visitors and spoiled Joe Hart’s clean sheet.  So far, United have beaten only Crystal Palace and Swansea, while they were held to a draw by Chelsea at Old Trafford and have suffered defeats at Anfield and the Etihad Stadium, an inauspicious start for Moyes in his unenviable task of attempting to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.  However, a nice run of fixtures between now and mid-November gives him the chance to right the ship for the red half of Manchester – his team does not face any of the sides who finished in the top seven in the Premiership last season until the visit of Arsenal on November 10th.  If United have not picked up close to maximum points from their fixtures between now and then, Moyes could find himself in a scrap to finish in the top four, rather than having any chance of retaining the league title for his new club.

Life is a lot happier in North London than at Old Trafford at the moment, as the top two spaces in the early league table are filled by the clubs from N5 and N17, with Arsenal and Tottenham both on 12 points from their opening 5 fixtures.  The Gunners sit in first place on goal difference, after they defeated Mark Hughes’s Stoke side 3-1 at the Emirates last Sunday lunchtime, with the goals coming from Aaron Ramsey – who has already found the net seven times this season – and headers from set-pieces by the defenders, Per Metersacker and Baçary Sagna.  Spurs had to work hard for their three points away at Cardiff the same day, as it was not until their 29th attempt of the match, which came inside injury time after the 90 minutes were up, that they finally broke through.  When it did come, the goal was a thing of beauty, as Lewis Holtby found his fellow substitute, Erik Lamela free on the right wing and the Argentinian’s cross was met by Paulinho’s back-heel into the net – a late strike that may have seen harsh on the home side, who had been kept in the game by their goalkeeper, David Marshell’s excellent string of saves, but it was no more than the visitors deserved from their dominating display.  It was particularly impressive to see how much energy the Tottenham players had going into the final stages of the match, willing themselves to victory despite having played on the previous Thursday night against Tromsø in the Europa League.

Aston VIlla were exposed in both defence and attack by Tottenham Hotspur
Aston VIlla were exposed in both defence and attack by Tottenham Hotspur

Indeed there was more to come from Spurs – and I know I have been waxing lyrical about them a lot lately – but they concluded a run of three games inside five days on Tuesday night when they took on Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup.  Although only three of the starting line-up had also began the match at Cardiff – Jan Vertonghen, Paulinho and Kyle Walker – the strength of the squad was proven when Tottenham once again put in a commanding performance and progressed to the next round with a 4-0 victory.  Jermain Defoe had opened the scoring with his head just before half-time, when he met a clever scooped pass by Holtby, who provided assists for three of the four goals, but there was a moment of worry for Spurs shortly after the interval.  Vertonghen was caught out by a through ball and found himself trying to chase down Nicklas Helenius in the penalty area, but the Belgian lost his footing and – either deliberately or accidentally, I still am not 100% sure of which – pulled the Villa striker’s shorts down to around his knees, which should have led to a spot-kick but instead went unpunished and just impeded Helenius’s shot.  Nevertheless, even without that incident the cracks in the Aston Villa team were very much on display and Tottenham fully deserved their victory, with the goals being rounded out by a second for Paulinho inside three days, another for Defoe, and Nacer Chadli’s first for the club.  So far this campaign, the Waffles have played nine games in all competitions, won eight, lost just once (but crucially, that was away at Arsenal), scored twenty goals and conceded only one.  They have been impressive, relentless, worked together as a team fantastically well and looked brilliant at times  – yes you heard it, even this disenchanted, cynical Spurs fan is optimistic about his side’s chances for once – that just better not all come back to haunt me this Saturday when Chelsea pay a visit to White Hart Lane.

Back to the Premiership action and Liverpool, who had gone into the weekend on top of the table, saw their unbeaten start come to an end with a 1-0 home defeat against an impressive Southampton side, who just about deserved the three points on the balance of play.  The winner for the Saints came from a corner that was headed in by Croatian defender, Dejan Lovren and it gave the south coast side back-to-back victories over Brendan Rodgers’ men, as they beat them in March at St. Mary’s, the last time Liverpool had lost in the league prior to Saturday.  The defeat for the Reds leaves just one unbeaten side in the 2013/14 Premiership campaign, their local rivals Everton, who came from behind twice to beat West Ham 3-2 at Upton Park last weekend.  A deflected Ravel Morrison goal and a penalty by captain Mark Noble had twice given the Hammers the lead, but on both occasions the Toffees got an equalizer via a free-kick by Leighton Baines, who put one effort into the top left corner of the net and the other into the top right.  The foul that gave away the second free-kick also saw Noble dismissed for a second bookable offence and the visitors took full advantage of having an extra man when Romelu Lukaku – on loan from Chelsea – headed in a cross by Kevin Mirallas.  Worryingly, the Belgian striker did not even know he had found the net, as he was knocked unconscious by a challenge as he rose to head the ball and he had to be told that he had scored.

At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea beat Fulham 2-0, but the majority of the coverage after the game was about the absence of Juan Mata – not just from Jose Mourinho’s starting eleven, but from the matchday squad altogether.  Mourinho has explained that he sees the Brazilian Oscar – who opened the scoring against the Cottagers from close range after some poor goalkeeping by David Stockdale – as his first choice number 10 and that Mata will need to adapt his game if he wants to return.  While Mourinho’s record of success is beyond question, it is hard to work out his rationale for freezing out the Spanish playmaker, who was Chelsea’s player of the year for the last two seasons and whose guile at unlocking defences could be key to helping the strikers start scoring, as Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba are all still yet to find the net in the Premiership this campaign.  The other goal against Fulham was scored by John Obi-Mikel, as the Nigerian midfielder got on the end of a John Terry header and lashed the ball into the net to nab his first Premier League goal in his 185th appearance.  In the League Cup on Tuesday night, Mourinho did give Mata a chance to start away at Swindon – as well as Fernando Torres and César Azpilicueta, neither of whom have been first choice either this season – and the Blues had a comfortable 2-0 win, with goals from Torres and Ramires.

The first Premiership managerial sacking of the season occurred on Sunday, as Paolo DiCanio was relieved of his duties following Sunderland’s 3-0 away defeat the previous day at West Brom, who had only scored a single goal in the league prior to that match.  The Black Cats have picked up just a solitary point from their first five fixtures and are rooted to the bottom of the table and, to add insult to injury, it was a player that DiCanio allowed to leave during the transfer window, Stephane Sessegnon, who opened the scoring for the Black Cats.  At the end of the game, the controversial Italian manager went to the away fans and gestured for them to keep their chins up, but this supposed motivational moment did little to improve the board’s perception of DiCanio’s ability to keep them in the Premiership this season.  Although he had an immediate impact when he arrived at the Stadium of Light – with Sunderland winning two of his first three matches in charge, including a 3-0 victory away at rivals Newcastle – that effect quickly faded and he was reported to have got into an argument with his players on the training pitch the day of his dismissal.  Although the Italian is a controversial figure and a self-proclaimed fascist, he has also been described as “basically a very principled, ethical individual, who was deeply misunderstood” – oh no, wait, that’s how DiCanio described the dictator Benito Mussolini in his autobiography.  We can thank West Brom for getting the result that got rid of such a distasteful man from the Premiership and it was not the first time that a loss to the Baggies has seen the opposing manager sacked – it has also happened to Chris Hughton (Newcastle); Mick McCarthy (Wolves); John Gregory (Aston VIlla); Roberto DiMatteo and Andre Villas-Boas (both Chelsea).

In the other matches last weekend, there was a five-goal thriller at St. James’ Park as Hull came from behind twice to beat Newcastle 3-2, with the former Tottenham midfielder, Tom Huddlestone, impressing for the Tigers; Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa won 1-0 against his old club, Norwich, who missed a first-half penalty before Libor Kozak – who had just come on as a substitute  to replace the injured Christian Benteke, who will miss up to six weeks with a hip injury – scored the only goal in the 30th minute; and Swansea followed up their success in Valencia with a 2-0 victory away at Crystal Palace.  In the other Capital One Cup games that took place this week, Norwich came from 2-0 down to beat Watford 3-2 after extra-time to secure their progress to the next round; Cardiff also clawed their way back from two goals behind against West Ham, but ended up losing 3-2; and Manchester City gained a measure of revenge for last season’s FA Cup final defeat by thrashing Championship side Wigan 5-0.  The holders Swansea crashed out 3-1 away at Birmingham; Newcastle and Leeds honored Gary Speed, who played for both clubs, with a minute’s applause during their tie, which the Geordies won 2-0; Arsenal progressed to the fourth round with via a penalty shoot-out away at West Brom; and Liverpool got Luis Suarez back from suspension, but lost 1-0 at Manchester United through a Javier Hernandez goal.  The draw for the fourth round was also made on Wednesday evening and the biggest tie sees Arsenal host Chelsea, while Manchester City travel to Newcastle; the Waffles entertain the Tigers; Sunderland face Southampton; Birmingham’s reward for knocking out Swansea is another home game, this time versus Stoke; West Ham have a trip to Burnley; Leicester take on Fulham; and Norwich have an away game against Manchester United.

Room with a view - flats overlooking Brisbane Road
Room with a view – flats overlooking Brisbane Road

Although I do not often cover the lower divisions, I did want to give a special mention to Leyton Orient this week, who have started their League One (the third rung of the English league ladder) campaign with eight consecutive victories and are looking very strong under the management of Russell Slade.  The O’s are currently five points clear at the top of the table and have scored 23 goals in their 8 matches, conceding just 5, but their future remains in doubt because of the decision to allow West Ham to move into the Olympic Stadium starting from 2016.  With that ground being in the heart of traditional Leyton Orient territory, there is a big risk that young fans will flock to watch Premiership football instead of their old local club, so the higher that Orient can climb before then, the better their chances of survival.  Brisbane Road, the home of Leyton Orient, was the closest stadium to where I used to live in East London and although I only made it to one game there – being a season ticket holder at White Hart Lane and going to many of Tottenham’s away matches too left me little opportunity to go to other clubs – it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience .  One of the highlights, aside from a decent pie, was because the ground is overlooked by two big residential buildings, the away fans (where I was sitting) chanted “We can see you washing up” (an adaptation of the song “We can see you sneaking out”, which is used when opposition supporters head for the exits to avoid the traffic when their team is being comprehensively beaten).  Leyton Orient are great local club who have been around since 1881 (14 years longer than West Ham), I really hope they continue this great run of form and get themselves into a position that, no matter the sudden proximity of bigger sides, they are able to survive.

Alongside the Tottenham versus Chelsea game in the Premiership this weekend; leaders Arsenal travel to Swansea; Kevin Ball will be in temporary charge of Sunderland for their home match against Liverpool; Cardiff travel to Fulham; Manchester City will be looking for their first away league victory of their season against Aston Villa; and David Moyes will be fearful of his team’s fixture against the managerial grim reapers, West Brom.  The sides who were involved in the two 3-2 matches last weekend switch up this time around as Hull play West Ham at the KC Stadium, while Newcastle travel to Everton for the Monday fixture; Stoke play Norwich in the lunchtime kickoff on Sunday; and Crystal Palace head to the south coast to take on Southampton.

Predictions

Last week, 5-5; Season, 28-22

Home teams listed first

Tottenham Hotspur Waffles vs Chelsea – Home win (Told you I was optimistic about Spurs for once)

Aston Villa vs Manchester City – Away win

Fulham vs Cardiff – Home win

Hull City Tiger Sharks vs West Ham Fan Poachers – Draw

Manchester United vs West Brom – Home win

Southampton vs Crystal Palace – Home win

Swansea vs Arsenal – Draw

Stoke vs Norwich – Draw

Sunderland vs Liverpool – Away win

Everton vs Newcastle – Home win

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