The Manchester Derby
In their last two matches, Manchester United have scored late equalizers to earn draws and extend their unbeaten run to four games. Last weekend, they got a big helping hand from the referee (not for the first time, but it has become less common since Sir Alex Ferguson retired) when Phil Dowd awarded a questionable free kick to the Red Devils in stoppage time, then inexplicably showed Branislav Ivanovic a second yellow card and sent off the defender. Had Ivanovic still been on the field, he may well have been the one marking Marouane Fellaini for the free-kick, but instead the Belgian had a free header that was saved well by Thibaut Courtois, but fell to Robin Van Persie who drilled in the equalizer. On the balance of play, it was a fair result for United to get a point from the game, but they were fortuitous that Chelsea had only Didier Drogba available up front (though the Ivorian did score his first Premier League goal since March 2012), with both Diego Costa and Loic Remy missing the fixture through injury. Jose Mourinho’s men remain unbeaten and have a healthy five point lead at the top of the table, but a victory really felt like it might have ended the title race as a meaningful contest, even at this early stage.
A big reason for that was the fact that Manchester City were beaten the day before, 2-1 by West Ham at Upton Park. Sam Allardyce has done an impressive job with the Hammers this season – they currently sit fourth in the table, two points clear of Arsenal in fifth and just one behind the reigning champions, City – and they were once again propelled to victory by a goal from Diafra Sakho, who has scored in the last six Premier League matches. Manchester City were simply outplayed and find themselves slipping further behind Chelsea in their hopes of defending the league title, a quarter of the way through the campaign. Things got worse on Wednesday night, when they were beaten at home by an under strength Newcastle United team and eliminated from the League Cup, another competition in which they triumphed last season. To compound the defeat, David Silva was taken off injured and is now expected to miss the Manchester derby.
With the game being played at the Etihad, City will be considered huge favorites to beat United, but the visitors do come into the derby with an impressive array of attacking talent at their disposal, since Wayne Rooney returns from suspension to join Van Persie, Falcao, Juan Mata and Angel DiMaria as options for Van Gaal. However, the Red Devils still have a very shaky back line and Sergio Aguero could find himself with as much space, time and opportunity in front of goal as he enjoyed against Tottenham two weeks ago. Talking of which…
Tottenham, Bloody Tottenham
There was a story doing the rounds this week from Roy Keane’s autobiography: apparently there was a home match that United faced against Spurs and Keane recalls thinking that he hoped Ferguson would not make too much of a deal about them in his pre-match team talk. Instead, the manager came in to his players, told them “Lads, it’s Tottenham” then walked out. I do not think the last 30 years of being a Spurs supporter could be summed up more succinctly than that brief anecdote. Last weekend, when Spurs dominated the first half and took a 1-0 lead into the break, only to give it back seven seconds into the second half and then ultimately lose the game, all I could think was “it’s Tottenham”.
Every year, there’s a point in the campaign when I realize that Spurs are going to flatter to deceive and end up somewhere between 5th and 9th, any previous hopes that anything else could be achieved banished with poor home defeats and thrashings in away matches. This time around – and given that I started the season ignoring my misgivings about Mauricio Pochettino and predicting we would top the table – I have decided not to completely give up until next year, but instead just forgetting about the Premier League for this campaign. Since we are only three points above 18th place, there is still a real danger that Tottenham could be dragged into the relegation battle, but I am going to assume that there are worse teams in the top flight than Spurs and ultimately we should be safe. To be sure, I am going to do a countdown of the number of points Tottenham need to be assured of their place in the Premier League for next year – which I am taking as 43, one more than the highest total to ever be demoted in a 20 team league. So at this point, Spurs have 11 points from 9 games – on pace for 46 in total – and need 32 more to avoid relegation…that seems a lot.
While I am giving up on anything positive from the league campaign, I am going to focus all my supporting energies on the cup competitions Tottenham are involved in this year. On Wednesday, they overcame Brighton to move into the last eight of that tournament – the last major trophy won by Spurs back in 2008 – and have a rematch against Newcastle in the quarter-finals. With City out, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool are the only other Premier League sides left in the competition, all of whom face away fixtures in the next round. Basically it has come down to this, I am rooting for as easy a route as possible for Tottenham to make the final, then hope they can pull of an upset should they face Chelsea or Liverpool…or Southampton. Aside from the Capital One Cup, Spurs also have the Europa League – from which they should at least progress from the group stages – and they will enter the F.A. Cup Third Round in January. Success in Europe has not come for Tottenham since 1984, while we have not lifted the F.A. Cup – on which so much of our tradition was built – since 1981. This year, those three competitions are where they should be focussing, since any hopes of finishing in the top four of the league are long since gone.
One final note on Spurs: Pochettino this week blamed the dimensions of the White Hart Lane pitch on the team’s poor home form. I’m going to give that as much credence as it deserves…none.
Rest of the Action
Elsewhere last weekend, Southampton followed up their 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland by beating Stoke 1-0 at St. Mary’s to move into second place, then eliminated the Potters from the League Cup four days later at the Britannia Stadium. The Black Cats were once again beaten, but at least they managed to restrict Arsenal to just the two goals, although both of those – scored by Alexis Sanchez – came from bad mistakes by Sunderland players, Wes Brown for the first, goalkeeper Vito Mannone for the second. Liverpool were held to a goalless draw by Hull at Anfield; Everton won away at Burnley 3-1; West Brom and Crystal Palace were the latest teams involved in a 2-2 draw; and two goals from Wilfried Bony gave Swansea a 2-0 victory over Leicester. On Monday night, QPR earned just their second win of the season by beating Aston Villa 2-0, relieving the pressure on manager Harry Redknapp for just a little while at least.
This weekend, the early kick off on Saturday sees Newcastle try to extend their three match winning sequence with a home match against Liverpool, who will have one eye on their midweek trip to the Bernabeu in the Champions League. Arsenal can expect to get back-to-back victories in the Premier League for this first time this season, as they host winless Burnley; there is a south-west London derby between Chelsea and QPR at Stamford Bridge; and an all-Midlands contest as Leicester entertain West Brom. Second place Southampton travel to Hull; buoyant West Ham are away at Stoke; Roberto Martinez faces one of his old clubs as Everton host Swansea; Aston Villa can turn around their poor recent form when Tottenham pay a visit; then the Monday night clash is between Crystal Palace and Sunderland.
Last week, 5-5; Season, 39-51
Home teams listed first
Newcastle vs Liverpool – Draw
Arsenal vs Burnley – Home win
Chelsea vs QPR – Home win
Everton vs Swansea – Draw
Hull vs Southampton – Away win
Leicester vs West Brom – Draw
Stoke vs West Ham – Away win
Manchester City vs Manchester United – Home win
Aston Villa vs Tottenham – Home win
Crystal Palace vs Sunderland – Home win