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
With a manager in charge who does such extensive research into his opponents, it is perhaps not a surprise that Newcastle have dipped into a poor run of form that has seen them lose seven of their last nine games in all competitions and they have failed to score in their last four fixtures. On Wednesday, Tottenham were the benefactors of their struggles, as they recorded their biggest Premiership win of the season, prevailing 4-0 in the north-east, although the result did not tell the full story of how the game went. Spurs once again setup in a 4-5-1 formation, but with four central midfielders (Bentaleb, Capoue, Paulinho and Dembélé) and, as Christian Eriksen was demoted to the bench – perhaps due to his poor performance when he was played out of position against Everton – they did not have anyone on the pitch who is known as a strong taker of set pieces. However, even though it appeared as though Tim Sherwood had overloaded the middle of the pitch, Tottenham adopted an attacking, almost cavalier approach and the presence of Capoue – who had a fantastic game and made some timely tackles and interceptions – freed up Bentaleb to play a more attacking role, which the youngster appeared more suited to than a primarily defensive focus. Indeed, the French-born midfielder was the provider for the opening goal, fending off a challenge by Sissoko on the left-wing before putting in a cross that Tim Krul could only parry into the path of the in-form Emmanuel Adebayor, who stroked the ball into an empty net from eight yards out.
For the rest of the first-half, the match was an end-to-end affair and it was a big surprise that the scoreline remained at 1-0 at the break, with both teams looking capable of scoring every time they had possession, but the main reason that Spurs maintained their lead was the form of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who made several good saves. Early in the second half, Paulinho flicked a pass through to Adebayor, who shot from the edge of the box and although Krul saved the effort, he could not hold it and Paulinho was on hand to stroke the ball home for his sixth goal since joining Tottenham last summer. At 2-0 down, Newcastle finally added some urgency to their play and piled on the pressure for a long spell, with Lloris once again forced into several fantastic saves to preserve his team’s advantage and avoid any nerves setting in should the Magpies have managed to cut the deficit in half. In the 82nd minute, Adebayor scored his 8th goal in 11 games since Sherwood brought him back into the fold, then substitute Nacer Chadli provided the exclamation point to the Spurs performance with a beautiful curled effort into the top right corner of the net. Afterwards, the Spurs manager talked about their chances of catching Liverpool for the final Champions League spot, but the fact is that if they continue to grind out results while teams above them falter, the seven point deficit between themselves and leaders Chelsea is not exactly a chasm. Having said that, I do not have any expectations that we will catch any of the teams above us, let alone all four, especially with tough fixtures at Anfield and Stamford Bridge to come, alongside the third North London derby of the season when Arsenal visit White Hart Lane on March 16th.
Elsewhere in the midweek games, Cardiff hit the woodwork twice in one first-half attack, but never did manage to find a breakthrough against Aston Villa and the match ended goalless, leaving the Welsh side in the bottom three; West Ham secured their third consecutive victory – and fourth straight clean sheet – as they eased away from the relegation battle with a 2-0 victory over Norwich; Stoke took the lead against Swansea thanks to a deflected Peter Crouch shot, but Chico Flores earned the visitors a point with a second-half header; and Southampton were awarded a goal via the Goal Decision System – the technology that determines if the whole ball has crossed the line – and that was enough to give them a 1-0 win at Hull, the first time they have taken three points from consecutive away games in the Premiership since 2001. Like the Manchester City vs Sunderland match, Everton’s fixture with Crystal Palace was postponed due to the weather, which had caused damage to a building near Goodison Park and the police ruled it unsafe for supporters and thus the decision was made to call off the contest.
This weekend, attention once again turns to the FA Cup as the competition reaches its fifth round, with two ties in particular standing out: Chelsea returning to the Etihad less than two weeks after becoming the first Premiership team to beat Manchester City there this season; and Arsenal face Liverpool for the second time in a week, though this time at the Emirates. The other fixtures see holders Wigan travel to Cardiff; Sunderland take on Southampton; Roberto Martinez faces on of his former clubs as Everton host Swansea; Hull travel to the south coast to play Brighton; and the two Sheffield clubs both have home games, Wednesday against Charlton, while United take on Nottingham Forest. Following those games, the Champions League returns next week with two great ties featuring English clubs – on Tuesday, Manchester City host Barçelona, then the next night, Arsenal take on the current European champions, Bayern Munich (Chelsea and Manchester United’s fixtures, against Galatasary and Olympiakos respectively, are scheduled for a week later). Finally next Thursday, Spurs will face their old manager, Juande Ramos, when they play the first leg of their Europa League last 32 tie with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk of the Ukraine; while Swansea face Rafa Benitez’s Napoli.