English Football Roundup – United’s Struggles Continue and the League Cup Final

Distraught United players in Greece…and Robin Van Persie
Distraught United players in Greece…and Robin Van Persie

After last weekend’s 2-0 Premiership victory away at Crystal Palace, there was a feeling that Manchester United may be able to get themselves back on track if they could go to Olympiakos in the Champions League and gain a good result.  However, the trip to Greece only added to David Moyes’ woes this season, as they not only lost 2-0 – putting them on the brink of elimination from the competition – but the manner of the defeat left little optimism for United’s fans.  This was not a smash and grab performance by Olympiakos, they fully deserved the victory and it could well have been worse, as the reigning Premiership champions did not register a shot on target until the 88th minute, the only one they managed during the whole match.  Having failed to find the net in Athens, United will need four goals to stay in the competition if the Greek side score once at Old Trafford, something that looks very likely given the fragility of the Red Devils back line on Tuesday night.  Elimination would all but guarantee that Manchester United, who have not missed a Champions League campaign since the 1995/6 season (back when you still had to win your domestic league in order to qualify) would not be playing in Europe’s top club competition next year, since they are 11 points behind Liverpool in fourth place.

The board at Manchester United have been making all the right noises that Moyes would want to hear surrounding his job security – apparently they are impressed with a new scouting system he has introduced to the club – and they have said they expect that the team will not only be back in the top four next season, but able to challenge for the title once again.  However, what may just have saved the Scotsman’s job from coming into severe scrutiny this weekend is a penalty shootout back in January – one that United lost to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final.  Had they won, the Red Devils would be heading to Wembley on Sunday to face Manchester City in the final of the competition and, given that Sergio Aguero will be back for Manuel Pelligrini’s side, a potential thrashing to their biggest rival on the back of the loss in Greece could have been too much for the board to accept.  Instead, United will get a 10 day rest this weekend – their scheduled Premiership fixture was the Manchester derby this weekend – while Sunderland will face Manchester City in the League Cup final.  The Black Cats, who have not won a trophy since lifting the FA Cup in 1973, have a relatively good record against City, having beaten them 1-0 the last four times the two teams have met at the Stadium of Light, but of course this fixture will be played on a neutral pitch.  The Citizens have struggled to find the net recently – YaYa Toure’s match-winning goal against Stoke on Saturday was only the third they have scored in their last five games – but the return of Aguero to the strike force should give them confidence that they can avoid losing another final they are expected to win, as they did against relegation-bound Wigan in the FA Cup final last May. Continue reading

An Open Letter to Tim Sherwood

You're picking on me!?
You’re picking on me!?

Dear Mr. Sherwood…oh who needs formality..Dear Tim,

Let me start by saying that I do understand what you are trying to do by playing Nabil Bentaleb for every minute of every single game: if you bring through a player from the youth system who proved to be a success ahead of big money, more illustrious names, you will be hailed as a genius in your early days of management.  However, there is a big issue: Bentaleb is not as good as you think he is and your persistence with making him your most relied upon midfielder is proving detrimental to not only our club, but also your career.

Something I should clarify there: I referred to Tottenham as “our club”, meaning the supporters, those of us who are die-hard fans who have spent our time, money and energy following the team.  I was a season ticket holder for five years, going to every home match and many away ones; and continue to watch every fixture one the edge of my seat (as I did from the Paxton Road End, Block 19, Row 11, Seat 82 from 2002/3 until 2007), willing Spurs on to victory and it ruining my mood when they lose.  As you have stated before, you grew up as an Arsenal fan and not only does your Dad still have a season ticket at the Emirates, you publicly stated a couple of months ago that you still hope that they do well.  Now, it is of course perfectly acceptable for you to support whoever you like – but forgive me if I will never consider you a Tottenham man because of your express desire that our chief rivals will do well.  I do not have any personal issue with supporters of the Woolwich club either, I have many friends who have that failing, but I could never hope that they do well.  If Arsenal had been the team playing the Nazi prison officers in Escape to Victory, I would have been rooting for the Germans, that’s what it is like being a Spurs fan – hell two times a year, I even end up rooting for Chelsea just so to see the other lot lose.

Continue reading

Cup Roundup and Premiership Weekend Preview

He did not get the penalty, but Luis Suarez will walk again after this challenge
He did not get the penalty, but Luis Suarez will walk again after this challenge

FA Cup 5th Round

At the beginning of February, Manchester City lost their 100% record at home in the Premiership when Chelsea beat them 1-0 at the Etihad, but last Saturday they progressed to the quarter-final of the FA Cup when they defeated Jose Mourinho’s men 2-0 on the same ground, with Stevan Jovetić and Sami Nasri scoring the goals.  There was also a measure of revenge for Arsenal in the tournament, as they overcame another shaky start against Liverpool – who had beaten them 5-1 at Anfield less than two weeks before, but could not take their chances early on at the Emirates – to progress with a 2-1 win over Brendan Rodgers’ side.  While Daniel Sturridge had missed a couple of clear-cut chances before there were even ten minutes on the clock, the Gunners good fortune continued in the second half when Howard Webb, who had already awarded Liverpool one penalty, did not point to the spot for a second time when Luis Suarez was check to the ground by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

For their tie against Sunderland, Southampton made six changes to their normal starting XI and were subsequently beaten 1-0 by the Black Cats.  Afterwards the Saints assistant manager, Jesus Perez, said they were not unhappy to be out of the competition – but why on earth would they think this? They had no European football to contend with in midweek, they sit in no-man’s land in the table – 15 points above the relegation zone, 14 below the top 4 – what makes them think they should not try their best to win a trophy?  It makes no sense why they rested players and expressed relief to have exited the FA Cup – if I was a Southampton fan, especially one who had paid to make the long trip to the northeast to support the team, I would be absolutely lived with that type of thinking.  If the Saints think they are too good for the FA Cup, maybe they can return their winners’ medals from 1976, the one time in the club’s history they have lifted a major trophy.

In the other ties, I am not sure if Wigan’s 2-1 win at Cardiff counts as an upset – they are a division below the Welsh side, but are the current FA Cup holders – but the Lactics progressed to the quarter-finals, where they will meet the team they beat in last year’s final, Manchester City.  League One’s Sheffield United beat former European Champions, Nottingham Forest 3-1 and, if Sheffield Wednesday can overcome Charlton in their re-arranged match on Monday, there will be a Steel City derby in the last eight.  Elsewhere, Brighton and Hull will require a replay after the Premiership side salvaged a 1-1 draw with a late equalizer from Yannick Sagbo; and Everton’s reward for knocking out Swansea is a trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal in the quarter-finals.   Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 11 – 13

This is either Xander Feng or Kim Kardashian
This is either Xander Feng or Kim Kardashian

Although it took us slightly longer than some who binged on the entire second season of House of Cards in the first weekend it was available, my wife and I still got through all 13 installments within five days of its release – not bad with a toddler who still dislikes sleeping.  The reason we got through it so fast is because of how compelling this show remains in its second year, combined with the fact that knowing that the next episode is readily available is a good motivating factor to watch another installment each night.  Coming up are spoilers for the last three chapters (previous reviews: 1-3; 4-6; 7&8; 9&10) of the season, so look away now if you are not yet up to date, otherwise mind your hands as you help me pick up a broken wine glass…

Episode 11

Both The Sopranos and The Wire had a tendency to save their best and most action-packed installments of each season to the penultimate episode, but in its second year it was the third from last chapter of House of Cards that was the peak of the run.  At the opening of this hour, Francis Underwood is forced on the defensive as, during his testimony to the Special Prosecutor investigating foreign funds being channeled into a super PAC, Heather Dunbar reveals that they have proof that the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper, had made a trip to both Kansas City and Beijing on the very day that the Democratic leadership had been discussing the GOP attack ad.  When questioned about Raymond Tusk and Xander Feng, Underwood pleads ignorance and claims that he has only heard about that latter through newspaper stories, thus he is as familiar with the Chinese businessman as he is Kim Kardashian.  As he negotiates the group of reporters waiting to quiz him as he leaves the hearing, Frank speaks to the audience and tells us that he has gone from the lion’s den to a pack of wolves, now he will need to throw them some fresh meat to survive.  That meat will come in the form of the President of the United States.

Like a wild animal, Underwood is at his most dangerous when he is backed into a corner and this proves to be the case once again, as he uses the revelation that Stamper had been looking into the super PAC money to his own advantage.  With the claim that it will help prove their innocence, the Vice President turns over his official travel records (his sojourn to Cathedral Heights metro station to meet Zoe Barnes is presumably absent from that data) since the time he had become Whip and encourages the President to do the same, telling him that he should not be worried about the counseling sessions – before informing us that is exactly the thing about which Walker should be concerned.

Underwood also confesses to the viewer that he feels isolated and exposed and one of the main reasons for this is the slipping in performance of Doug, who had previously been such a reliable and formidable ally in executing the Vice President’s dirty work.  Stamper is attending AA meetings more frequently than before, not because he is drinking again, but rather his obsession with Rachel makes him feel the same way as alcohol does.  A showdown with his boss jolts Doug back to reality and he is grateful when the Vice President gives him a third chance (the second came when he got sober 14 years earlier), vowing that things will be different going forward.  In order to achieve this, Stamper attempts to control his addiction to Rachel by deleting her from his phone, before destroying his Blackberry (something he should have done in about 2008 – though his replacement is the exact same phone model), which also stops Gavin the hacker from being able to track him.  It does seem like Doug is back on his game – he embraces assistance from Seth Grayson, while in his testimony to the special prosecutor, he dismisses his trip to the casino as just an investigation during which he found nothing, since he did not have the same resources as the Department of Justice.  However, at the very end of the episode we see Stamper return to Joppa to check in on Rachel, witnessing her and Lisa in the throes of passion when he peeks in through the window.  Underwood’s Chief of Staff might be formidable, but like Achilles – whom Frank references a couple of times – he has a serious weakness that could be his undoing.

Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 9 and 10

Unknown-1If rumors are to be believed, the Winter Olympics have been continuing, there was a new episode of True Detective on Sunday night, and there were things to do in the evening other than watch House of Cards.  As neither my wife and I are that interested in such rumors, we have been continuing to plow our way through the second season of the Netflix show at a pace that will make us soon regret that we have no more new chapters to watch until next year.  Nevertheless, it is so hard not to take advantage of the entire season of House of Cards being available at once, as the plot is gripping and each installment seems to fly by in no time at all.  If you have not yet watched episodes 9 & 10, look away now (perhaps to the previous reviews covering episodes 1-3; 4-6 and 7-8, 11-13), otherwise, come with me to a BBQ restaurant in the suburbs with faux peeling linoleum…

Episode 9

I consider it a bad sign if a minor character whom I like in a show is prominently featured prior to the opening credits, since it means there will be a focus on them in that episode and that could spell trouble.  So was the case in this installment of House of Cards – which was directed by Jodie Foster – as it opened on Freddy the barbecue man going through his morning regime…clearly far too much attention being paid to him…why can’t they just leave him alone and let him serve breakfast ribs to the Vice President?  Alas, Freddy will not be spared and so we have to watch him make the walk down the street (which for fans of The Wire – or those who just know Charm City – is very clearly Baltimore) to his BBQ joint and watch him as he burns the newspaper story about Claire Underwood reportedly having had an affair with Adam Galloway.  We watch the representative from the company who wish to franchise his restaurant describe how he wants to give an “authentic” feel to the new locations by not making them “too nice”, but still locating them in the suburbs so white people will go to them. Oh, and he is offering Freddy a guaranteed $95k just for signing the deal . . . consider me doubtful.

To pile on to the inevitable downfall, Freddy is shown going to visit his son and grandson, offering to give his boy, Darnell, a job and buy a house of them both, now that he finally had something he could give.  However, the “no matter what” of the $95k is unsurprisingly not actually guaranteed, since there is a “morality clause” in the contract and the company pulls out when Remy – acting for Tusk to get to Frank Underwood – leaks that Freddy had served time for vehicular manslaughter.  The situation is exacerbated as Darnell then pulls a gun on a member of the paparazzi who is trying to get photographs of his Dad in the street and, when Francis makes a special secret trip to see Freddy, he learns that not only has he lost the franchise deal, but also he has to sell his restaurant in order to put up the bail for his son.  The barbecue man is philosophical about the downturn of his luck and, while he clearly still has an affinity for Underwood – he tells him that those out to get him will learn that “they done stepped on the wrong damn motherfuckin’ rattlesnake”. Freddy also states that even though the Vice President had been a great customer for 20 years, that did not mean the two were friends.  I’m really sad that this part of the show will no longer be there – in my review of the first season, I stated that I would be excited for the second season even if all 13 episodes just involved Frank going to the BBQ joint. I blame the reporter who got the restaurant known and started this whole thing (played by Jeremy Bobb, coincidently a college classmate of my wife’s), but allow me to believe that Freddy’s skills in making ribs are still second-to-none and he opened a food truck, finding success selling his barbecue from New York City to Portland . . . Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 7 and 8

House_of_Cards_title_cardBefore I get into the reviews of the latest two episodes of House of Cards season 2, a reminder that my thoughts on episodes 1-3 can be found here; 4-6 here, 9-10 here and 11-13 here; while you can also follow Political Footballs on Twitter @politicalftball and like us on Facebook here.  Spoilers for chapters 7 and 8 of season two are coming up, so if you have not watched those yet do not read on, otherwise join me on a flight to Kansas City…

Episode 7

This installment starts with the Democratic leadership of the Executive and Legislative branches of government watching an attack ad that the Republicans have made questioning their ability to lead, noting the trade war with China, and the failings of Congress, pointing out that Francis Underwood was taken from that badly functioning (according to the commercial) body to be made Vice President.  The ad is paid for by Friends of a Better America, which sounds about as far removed from the real world Americans for Prosperity – the right-wing SuperPAC with ties to the Koch Brothers – as the People’s Front of Judea is from the Judean People’s Front.  Having heard the criticisms, the President and Vice President think about better ways they can lead, while Congresswoman Sharp discusses ways to make sure Congress is more effective…wait, no they decide to find out where the money has come from to finance the cost of running the ad and how they can get funding to launch a response.  Politics, eh?

When everyone else has left the room, President Walker turns on Underwood and starts blaming him for all the things that have gone wrong, most notably the negotiations with the Chinese, which leads to Francis angrily telling him that if he needs to continue using him as a punching bag to carry on, but it would be better if he was allowed to do his job.  The fraught nature of this discussion suggests that the relationship between the pair is dissolving, but the Vice President wins himself back into  his boss’ good graces by sending him an actual punching bag with a note advising him that this one does not come with a loud mouth attached.  It is just as well the pair are getting on better, since President Walker and his wife Tricia are to be dinner guests at the Underwoods that night, with the hosts bringing in Freddy to make his delicious ribs for the meal. Claire’s previous efforts to ensure that the First Lady would be paranoid about Christina working too closely with the President came to fruition during the Walkers’ car ride to the meal, as Tricia tells her husband that she suspects his assistant is attracted to him and points out, as evidence, that she has a history of such behavior.  The President is annoyed that his wife even raised such an issue and during dinner he is hostile, so when Francis takes him to see the miniature Civil War model he has been working on, Claire gets back into Tricia’s ear, suggesting the Christina fight is just a symptom and recommends the First Couple should consider seeing someone who could provide some therapy. Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 4-6

Go on, you can watch one more episode…

I do love Netflix’s method of releasing all the episodes of their original series at once, but it does result in the dilemma each evening of whether or not to watch one more chapter, when really it is time to go to bed.  So far, my wife and I are two-for-two on opting to view an extra installment of the second season of House of Cards, so below are reviews of episodes 4 to 6 (my thoughts on 1-3 can be found here; 7-8 here, 9-10 here and 11-13 here ) and to avoid spoilers look away now, (you can safely ready episode 4 without anything from being 5/6 being mentioned and so forth).  Otherwise, come closer to the door so you can talk to your spouse through a walkie-talkie…

Episode 4

After getting an appropriations bill through the Senate in the previous installment, Vice President Underwood now finds himself back involved in his old job of Democratic Whip, as he attempts to assist his successor, Jacqueline Sharp, to get the House to pass it and ensure there is no government shutdown.  Unfortunately for Francis, this means he has to try to convince Congressman Donald Blythe – whom he screwed over in the first season by shredding his education bill – not to vote against the special amendment, with Blythe holding a lot of power as he has a block of 28 Representatives who intend to vote with him.  Before the meeting, which Frank manages to hold in his old office to give himself as much home field advantage as possible, he turns to the audience and tells us that with time he has always been able to convince Blythe, but on this occasion he only has 2 hours and 17 minutes before the bill is taken to the floor of the House.  With Underwood, when circumstances turn in his favor it tends to be with the guiding hand of Doug Stamper, but on this occasion it is seems to be good fortune that allows him more time trying to convince Donald to change his mind as a staffer in the Whip’s office opens an envelope and is covered in white powder, forcing a shutdown of the Capitol (due to a potential terrorist threat rather than an economic one) while men in HazMat suits investigate the substance.

claire2I would not be at all surprised if it is later revealed that it was the Vice President who orchestrated that chain of events in order to win himself more time with the vote – after all, he does turn to the camera and tells us that “good things happen to good people”, but the delay also means that he will not be able to appear alongside Claire on a television interview they are set to record that evening.  With Frank in quarantine, his wife prepares for the inevitable question of why they did not have any children, preparing with her communications guy, Connor, a rote answer that she has given many times before.  At the start of the interview – which ends up being only with Claire and broadcast live to due Francis’ delay – Claire shows her prowess in how she deals with a range of questions about her childhood to whether or not the Vice President had been primarily interested in her for her father’s money, which helped him win his first campaign.  The interviewer – CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, who follows Rachel Maddow as the latest journalist to make an appearance as themselves on House of Cards – asks for Claire’s most vivid memory from her childhood in Texas and she recounts a time when her father took her to Dealey Plaza to show her where President Kennedy had been assassinated, then told her that “he made the world a better a place and sometimes that comes at a price”.  It was a really poignant memory that seemed so personal and important to Mrs. Underwood, I could not help but think it was also completely fictitious.

Claire is forced to alter the truth once more when Ashleigh will not accept her standard answer to the question about why they did not have any children and she brings up a rumor that had surfaced during one of the campaigns that Mrs. Underwood had an abortion, though we learned in the finale of the first season that she has in fact had three during her life.  When asked directly if she has terminated a pregnancy, Claire recognizes the delicacy of the issue, but does say that she has before asking for a break, which allows her to consider her options and she decides to not only talk about having been raped – stating that was when she had the abortion – but also naming her attacker as General Dalton McGinnis.  While the VP’s wife is putting herself in a position where it could be her word against a General’s, during another intermission the network receives a call from a Private who had also been assaulted by McGinnis and Claire convinces her to tell her story so that others will be protected.  The corroborating evidence also ensures that the big headline from the interview will no longer be the abortion, but sexual assault by a commissioned General.  A big problem for Claire will now be keeping her own truth about the timeline of events and the number of terminations she has had a secret, something that she needs help with from Connor, played by the guy who raped his own wife, Joan Harris, in Mad Men.

Back in the Whip’s office, Francis had shifted from a campaign of calling Donald Blythe “no better than the Tea Party” for his unwillingness to even negotiate, to sympathizing with the Congressman over his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and at times does not remember him after thirty years of marriage.  Underwood being Underwood, it is of course all a tactic to try to get Blythe to forget his convictions and vote for the appropriations bill, in exchange for one that provides more funding for research into Alzheimer’s, but when Donald figures out that it is just a ploy, he gets angry with the Vice President and refuses to talk to him any more.  However, after watching Claire’s interview he hands Frank a drink and tells him that his wife is a brave woman, a compliment that Underwood reciprocates, before rushing home as the all-clear has been given since the substance was just talcum powder and wheat (again, the fact that the wheat gave a false positive suggests whoever sent it knew what they were doing and how to provide the longest possible delay, so it appears to have Francis’ fingerprints on it).  The final moments of the episode provide a nice moment of intimacy between Claire and Frank as they share a cigarette – a real one he had hidden under the lamp – and, at her request, he sings to her, though the choice of song is not quite so sweet: the ballad of Pretty Polly, about a young girl who is murdered and buried in a shallow grave.

Elsewhere in the episode, Jacqueline Sharp proves herself more than capable of whipping up the votes for the bill without her predecessor’s help, as she both uses and then ignores advice from Remy, Tusk’s lobbyist, to convince some of her party to change their mind and support the super amendment, before guilting Blythe into getting four of his bloc to change their votes to avoid the looming shutdown.  Also, Lucas Goodwin continues his search into the Deep Web as he attempts to uncover Zoe Barnes’ phone records to prove a relationship with the Vice President that could implicate him in her death.  Goodwin goes to the lair of a hacker, Gavin, who appears to be a James Bond style villain with his multi-screen setup and habit of stroking a pet while he talks (though in his case it is a guinea pig, not a cat).  Instead, we discover that Lucas is being set up as a law enforcement agent meets with Gavin and discusses how they will get him arrested on cyberterrorism charges, with the hacker providing assistance as he attempts to avoid jail time for his own crimes.  Finally, my favorite part of the episode was the exchange at the very beginning between Francis and the returning Remy, as they exchange quotes at each other impressing Underwood as he says “you know your Churchill”.  The lobbyist tells the Vice President that in fact it was inscribed on a watch that he given him, but Frank assures him that he would have had no knowledge of that, since Nancy – his assistant – handles all of the gifts. Continue reading

House of Cards Season 2 Episodes 1-3

house-of-cardsWhile some people will have already plowed through the entire thirteen episodes of House of Cards, my wife and I will be taking it at a slightly more leisurely pace – which involved watching just three episodes on Valentine’s Day night, starting from the moment our daughter fell asleep.  Because of our more judicious pace to watching the show – which I loved the first season of here and placed fourth in my top 10 of 2013 here – I thought I would cover a few episodes at a time in a review.  So if you have not yet watched any of the second season of House of Cards and do not wish to be spoiled, look away now, otherwise you can step a little closer to those train tracks. Continue reading

Premiership Midweek Roundup and FA Cup Fifth Round Preview

Robin Van Persie fails to convert an early chance against his old club
Robin Van Persie fails to convert an early chance against his old club

The headline fixture of the midweek action was struggling Manchester United’s visit to Arsenal, who were hoping to recover from their 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool last Saturday.  However, except for two chances for former Gunner Robin Van Persie – the first of which came inside the first 90 seconds when he dispossessed Mikel Arteta on the edge of Arsenal’s area, while the second was a close-range header brilliant saved by Wojciech Szczesny – there was very in the way of goalmouth action in the contest at the Emirates and the game ended up scoreless.  In the end, the draw simultaneously suited both clubs and did little to help them, as the Gunners showed resilience after their thrashing, but failed to regain top spot in the table; while United will consider the result good in isolation, but they also slipped to 11 points below the top four and virtually out of contention to qualify for the Champions League next year, unless they can win this season’s competition.

It actually ended up being a winless midweek for the top three in the Premiership, as Chelsea were held to a draw away at West Brom, who earned a point through a late Victor Anchibe goal that cancelled out Branislav Ivanovic’s strike just before the interval; while Manchester City’s fixture against Sunderland was postponed due to inclement weather.  For much of the second half, the Blues had looked comfortable, but they could not take any of their chances to extend their lead and the dropping of two points frustrated Jose Mourinho, who complained after the match that his team had lacked the personality to cope with the pressure and kill off the game.  Those results played into the hands of Liverpool, who recovered from going behind twice to beat bottom side Fulham 3-2 at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night, with Steven Gerrard converting a penalty in the last-minute to move Brendan Rodgers’ men to within four points of league leaders Chelsea.

Prior to their match with Tottenham in midweek, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew had stated that their opponents did not travel well and thus he hoped that his team would be able to get back on track after losing their last three Premiership games at St. James’ Park.  It would be interesting to know where Pardew came up with this notion that Spurs had troubles away from White Hart Lane, when it has actually been their home form has been their Achilles Heel this season.  In fact, this is how the top half of the league table would look taking into account only away fixtures for clubs (including midweek results):

1. Tottenham – played 13, points 29

2. Arsenal – played 13, points 26

3. Chelsea – played 13, points 22

4. Manchester City – played 13, points 21

5. Manchester United – played 13, points 21

6. Liverpool – played 13, points 19

7. Southampton – played 13, points 19

8. Newcastle – played 13, points 19

9. Everton – played 13, points 18

10. Aston Villa – played 13, points 17 Continue reading

Premiership Roundup – Liverpool Thrash Arsenal as Chelsea Go Top

It only got better for Liverpool and worse for Arsenal after this first minute goal by Skrtel
It only got better for Liverpool and worse for Arsenal after this first minute goal by Skrtel

Heading into their weekend fixture against Liverpool, Arsenal had not lost in the league at Anfield since 2007 and had efficiently taken care of Brendan Rodgers’ team at the Emirates in November, enjoying a comfortable 2-0 victory.  However, less than a minute into Saturday’s encounter, the Gunners found themselves 1-0 down when Martin Skrtel applied the finishing touch to Steven Gerrard’s whipped-in free-kick and, by the 20th minute, Arsene Wenger had to completely rip up any pre-match plans he might have had as Liverpool had raced into a 4-0 lead and the new aim for the visitors was simply damage control.  To some extent, Arsenal managed to do that, with the final score reading 5-1, but it could have been much worse as the home side were rampant – especially in the first half – and made a mockery of their recent failings in this fixture.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about the result was not so much that Liverpool put five past Arsenal, but they did so without Luis Suarez ending up on the scoresheet – though the Uruguayan did have a cracking effort that bounced back off the post – as Skrtel and Rahim Sterling both scored twice, while Daniel Sturridge claimed his 15th goal in 17 Premiership appearances this season.  Although it will be very hard for Liverpool to usurp all three of the teams above them to claim their first league championship since 1990, they are only six points off the top of table and they are looking like strong contenders to at least claim the fourth and final Champions League place.  Arsenal, on the other hand, desperately need to put this thrashing out of their minds as they have a run of fixtures that could make or break their season – although Wednesday’s home match against Manchester United is not quite the daunting task it was in previous campaigns, they follow that up with another game against Liverpool in the FA Cup, then the first leg of the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.

With that defeat for the Gunners happening in the lunchtime kick-off on Saturday, both Manchester City and Chelsea were hoping to overtake them in the table when they played later in the day, against Norwich and Newcastle respectively.  City, who had beaten the Canaries 7-0 in the return game at the Etihad last November, failed to score for the second time in a row and as Norwich frustrated them and held on for a 0-0 draw, leaving Manuel Pelligrini’s men in third place.  Chelsea were not so forgiving to their rivals, as they claimed their 11th victory in 13 Premiership matches at Stamford Bridge this campaign with a 3-0 defeat of Newcastle, with Eden Hazard scoring a hat-trick – the first two coming from nice moves and finishes from the Belgian, with a second-half penalty giving him the match ball and moving the Blues to the top of the table.

One of the most exciting games of the weekend was at Old Trafford, where Manchester United were hoping to improve on their recent failings at home as they took on the bottom side, Fulham.  The Cottagers appeared not to have read the script, however, as they took an early lead when Lewis Holtby – inexplicably allowed to leave Tottenham on loan during the January transfer window – played a perfect ball in to Steve Sidwell, who directed it past David De Gea.  For the next hour of the match, United threw everything that had at Fulham but were unable to find the breakthrough, until finally doing so in the 78th minute when Robin Van Persie converted a pass from Juan Mata, then within two minutes the home side were ahead courtesy of a deflected shot by Michael Carrick.  The game was then winding down, with Fulham looking beaten after holding out for so long, until the fourth minute of the minimum of five that had been displayed for injury time when the visitors went on a break, Kieran Richardson took a shot that De Gea saved, but it fell perfectly for Darren Bent who headed into the net to give Rene Meulensteen and his charges a much-needed point.  The inability to beat a team bottom of the table at home only adds to the pressure that is on David Moyes in his first year in charge at Old Trafford – actually I should correct that from first year, since that implies they will be a second.  It is perfectly possible that the Glazers will not even wait until the end of this campaign to make a change of manager, should they lose to Arsenal on Wednesday night, then failure to progress from their Champions League tie with Olympiakos – something I thought unlikely when the draw was made, but their Greek opponents are stronger than both Stoke and Fulham, who have taken four points off the Red Devils in the last week – could be the final straw for owners who require revenue from Europe’s top competition to fund their debt-based control of the reigning champions. Continue reading