Last weekend in the Manchester derby, United defender Chris Smalling got himself sent off shortly before the break and seriously dented his team’s chances of getting anything out of the match. His first offense was particularly stupid: attempting to block Joe Hart as he kicked the ball out from his hands, something that always results in a booking; then he clattered James Milner on the left-wing to ensure that his colleagues would have to attempt to keep out the remaining champions for the last 52 minutes of game time with one less player on the pitch. To United’s credit, they were never over-run despite their inferior number, but they were also fortunate that Michael Oliver seemed determined not to give a penalty, no matter how many handballs or fouls they committed inside their own area. City were able to grab all three points – and thus win their fourth consecutive derby match for the first time since the 1970s – thanks to a brilliant finish from the league’s top goalscorer, Sergio Aguero.
Had Manuel Pelligrini’s men not managed to claim the win, their hopes of catching Chelsea in the title race would be all but finished, even at this relatively early stage of the season. That is because last Saturday the Blues racked up their eighth win in their first ten Premier League fixtures this campaign, overcoming a stubborn QPR team 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea took the lead after half an hour of play, thanks to a beautiful strike by Oscar, but Rangers equalized in the 62nd minute when Charlie Austin brilliantly redirected a shot with a backheel and found the bottom corner. However, a penalty converted by Eden Hazard maintained a 100% home league record for Jose Mourinho’s men and also ensured they stayed four points ahead of the team in second place, which is currently Southampton. The Saints overcame Hull 1-0 thanks to a first-time shot by Victor Wanyama from 40 yards, punishing goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic’s poor clearance. On Twitter, I commented that Mauricio Pochettino’s move to Spurs did indeed turn a team into title contenders, but that team was Southampton – something Saints fans loved and they have every reason to be happy. After being written off by so many (including myself) before the season, they’ve now won nine of their last ten games and are Chelsea’s closest challengers, while they sit eight points above the clubs that have their former manager (Tottenham) and three of their star players from 2013/14 (Liverpool).
As for Spurs, they finally managed to win in the league again, coming from behind to beat 10-man Aston Villa, who had Christian Benteke sent off for raising his hands and pushing Ryan Mason in the face midway through the second-half. One thing has become clear at Tottenham: their best option in attack is local boy Harry Kane, who scored the winner at Villa Park, albeit from a heavily deflected free-kick. On BeIN last week prior to the Capital One Cup tie against Brighton, Tim Sherwood was bemoaning the fact that Kane was not being given enough opportunities and claimed that the Spurs faithful would rather see a foreign striker in the shirt than a product of the youth academy. For someone who has claimed to know the club inside out from his time there, Sherwood really misrepresented the Tottenham supporters in that statement. In fact, players that come through the ranks have always been willed on to succeed and during my time as a season ticket holder, much of the talk before and during games was about who looked good in the youth ranks. I’ve been a believer in Lee Barnard, Mark Yates, Dean Marney and even Jamie Slabber (if you just said “who” to any of those – and I’m guessing at least three for non-Spurs fans – then you’ll get my point). Up until this season, Kane had looked like someone with potential and lots of energy, yet not quite the finished product. However, this campaign he has clearly proven himself to be the best option up front for Spurs, though there is little in the way of competition. Emmanuel Adebayor is back to being anonymous in games and does not do much closing down of the opposition; while Roberto Soldado, good though his link-up play may be – is now completely incapable of putting the ball in the back of the net. Pochettino’s best team should now feature Harry Kane, the fact that he is Tottenham through-and-through just means us supporters will be even more excited if he can succeed.
Elsewhere last weekend, Newcastle’s renaissance continued with their fourth consecutive victory, as they beat a reeling Liverpool team 1-0; high-flying West Ham came from 2-0 down to earn a point with a 2-2 draw away at Stoke; Arsenal moved into the top four with a 3-0 defeat of bottom-side Burnley; West Brom won 1-0 at Leicester; Everton and Swansea finished goalless; and Sunderland won on a Monday for the first time since 2002, beating Crystal Palace 3-1 to end a run of 20 consecutive games without a victory on that particular day of the week.
In the Champions League, Manchester City had two men sent off and saw their hopes of progressing to the knockout rounds suffer a huge blow, as they lost 2-1 at home to CSKA Moscow; Arsenal somehow gave away a 3-0 lead and ended up drawing 3-3 with Anderlecht at the Emirates (though the Gunners will almost certainly still make the last 16); Chelsea were held to a 1-1 draw away at Maribor; and Brendan Rodgers left both Steven Gerrard and Rahim Sterling on the bench for the first hour of Liverpool’s trip to the Bernabeu to play Real Madrid, when the two came on in the second half they could not help the Reds get anything as they lost 1-0 to Karim Benzema’s early strike. Both Tottenham and Everton are on the brink of qualifying from their respective groups in the Europa League, though Spurs were lucky that their opponents wasted some glorious opportunities in the second half as they held on to beat Asteras Tripoli 2-1 in Greece, despite having Fazio sent off (harshly) late on as he gave away a penalty.
The highlight of this weekend’s round of fixtures in the Premier League is the early kick off on Saturday, which sees Chelsea head up north to take on Liverpool at Anfield. It was in this fixture last season that Steven Gerrard famously slipped in the midfield, gifting Demba Ba the chance to give the Blues the lead and ultimately ended Brendan Rodger’s team’s title chances. There is a good chance that the Chelsea fans will adopt Manchester United’s song about the incident “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he slipped on his f***ing ar$e, he gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard.” Elsewhere – and enjoy these games because there is yet another round of international fixtures which sees England play who cares and Gibraltar travel to Narnia or something – Manchester United host Crystal Palace; Burnley will hope they can finally get a win when they entertain Hull; second-placed face third bottom at St. Mary’s as Southampton play Leicester; and Arsenal head to South Wales to play Swansea. Newcastle will look for their fifth consecutive victory as they are away at West Brom; West Ham have a home contest against Aston Villa, scorers of just five goals so far; Tottenham come back from Greece to take on Stoke; QPR face the champions, Manchester City; and Everton are in the North-East to play Sunderland. This weekend also sees the F.A. Cup reach the First Round stage (AKA “the first round proper”, to distinguish it from the preliminary rounds) and minnows such as East Thurrock United, Hemel Hempstead Town, Weston-Super-Mare and Port Vale* will be hoping for their moment in the spotlight and maybe even a feature on Match of the Day.
*Just kidding, Larry.
Last week, 5-5; Season, 44-56
Home teams listed first
Liverpool vs Chelsea – Away win
Burnley vs Hull – Draw
Manchester United vs Crystal Palace – Home win
Southampton vs Leicester – Home win
West Ham vs Aston Villa – Home win
QPR vs Manchester City – Away win
Sunderland vs Everton – Draw
Tottenham vs Stoke – Away win (As always, after a Europa League game)
West Brom vs Newcastle – Home win
Swansea vs Arsenal – Away win