This week in: English Football – United extend their lead
With 8 games left to play in the Premier League, Manchester United last weekend extended their lead over City to three points. Following their rivals’ draw against Stoke, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team edged out Fulham at Old Trafford on Monday by a single goal – though they were lucky that the visitors were not awarded a late penalty, when Michael Carrick upended his former Tottenham teammate, Danny Murphy, in the box. City being held 1-1 at Stoke might be considered dropping two points, as opposed to gaining one, but Tony Pulis’ men have not lost at the Britannia Stadium to any of the top 5 sides in the league so far this season (with Arsenal still to visit at the end of April). The home side took the lead thanks to a wonder strike from Peter Crouch – a 25 yard volley from the corner of the penalty area – but a deflected shot from Yaya Toure ensured Mancini’s side did not leave the Midlands empty-handed.
Manchesters City and United meet at the Etihad Stadium on April 30th, and that game may well prove to be the title decider, but City will need to improve their away form if they are still going to still be in touching distance of their neighbours by the time they play them. Since they won 6-1 at Old Trafford in October, City have had 10 fixtures on the road in the league – their record in those encounters is an unimpressive W3, D3, L4. Before the end of the season, Mancini’s men have trips to Arsenal, Norwich, Wolves and Newcastle to tackle, any further slip ups are likely to prolong their wait for their first league title since 1968, regardless of how they get on in the derby game.
In the race for the two remaining Champions League spots for next season, Arsenal built a three-point cushion over Tottenham for third place, after they won 3-0 at home to an uninterested Aston Villa team, while Spurs earned only a point with a 0-0 draw at fifth placed Chelsea. On that note, there have been three things that have been bothering me surrounding Tottenham this week. Firstly, in that match at Stamford Bridge, Spurs sat back and defended for the first half and, even when they had slightly more attacking aspirations after the break, they never went all out in an attempt to secure their first win at Stamford Bridge in the league since 1990. With talents such as Bale, Modric and Van der Vaart on the pitch, there is always a chance Spurs will be able to grab a victory thanks to a moment of brilliance, but they will have many more opportunities if the team attacks the opposition rather than plays cautiously. Had Redknapp’s side won the game, the gap between themselves and Chelsea would have been 8 points and the race for the top 4 would be all but over. Perhaps a more positive approach would have left Tottenham exposed in defence, but the club motto is Audere est Facere – To Dare is To Do – we should not be scared of losing, otherwise we will never win.
Secondly, since they have overhauled the 10-point advantage Tottenham had in third place, and now have a cushion themselves, Arsenal fans have been talking as if it is now a foregone conclusion that they will finish above their rivals for the (approximately) 235th consecutive season. Having been silent for so long this season, suddenly Arsenal supporters have found their bravado again and are lauding it over us Spurs fans, preparing for St. Totteringham’s day. Never one to be optimistic about Tottenham’s chances, I am sure that before long they will be proven to be right and Wenger’s men will end up in third place, no doubt with Chelsea in fourth and Redknapp leaving for the England job with a legacy of more Thursday night football for us in next season’s Champions League. However, looking at the remaining fixtures, I know which team’s run-in I would most like to have:
Arsenal: QPR (Away); Manchester City (Home); Wolves (A); Wigan (H); Chelsea (H); Stoke (A); Norwich (H); West Brom (A)
Tottenham: Swansea (H); Sunderland (A); Norwich (H); QPR (A); Blackburn (H); Bolton (A); Aston Villa (A); Fulham (H)
You would expect Arsenal to win five of those games comfortably, with the games against City, Chelsea and away at Stoke the places where they may drop points. For Spurs, Swansea will be a tough game this weekend, but one they should win, and, other than that, only the trip to Sunderland looks particularly daunting. While I fear that once again Tottenham will end up behind their rivals, I do not think it is a certainty just yet. Although, we do have that distraction of trying to win the FA Cup still – the Gunners have no such “problems” as competing for any trophies again this season (sorry Arsenal fans, there is still no trophy being handed out for finishing above Spurs, nor finishing third).
The final issue that is irking me with Spurs, and this has been a frustration for some time now, is their lack of success from free-kicks. It has been about 18 months since Tottenham last scored directly from a set-piece, and the reason for this is not because they do not have the players who can take them. It seems every time one of our players is fouled on the edge of the box, the person who lines-up to take the resultant free-kick is either Younes Kaboul or Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Now, there are plenty of things I do not know – I have no idea what “Pinterest” is and whether or not I should care about; I could not tell you anything about the “Hunger Games” phenomenon – but this I do know: when you have Gareth Bale, Rafael Van der Vaart, Luka Modric and Jermain Defoe in your side, do not let your free-kicks be taken by a central defender or a full back. I am guessing that in training, Kaboul must score from set plays all the time, because I do not remember him scoring from one in a match during the two periods he has spent at Tottenham. It reminds me of when Roberto Carlos used to take every single free-kick for Real Madrid or Brazil, because he scored a cracking one against France in Le Tournoi in 1997, he was given the authority to take them for the next 10 years despite the fact that they would inevitably end up hitting the wall, or end up high in the stands. I guess I should just be relieved that Brad Friedel does not consider himself the new Jose Luis Chilavert – the free-scoring former Paraguay keeper – and have to watch him drag his 40-year-old self 80 yards back to his own goal after he fails to score from a set-piece.
In the fight to avoid relegation, QPR and Wigan were lucky enough to have matches against Liverpool last week, and both capitalised on the malaise that has infected Kenny Dalglish’s side since they won the Carling Cup. Mark Hughes’ men came back from 2-0 down with 15 minutes to play and beat the Reds 3-2 on Wednesday, and then three days later Wigan went to Anfield and earned a 2-1 victory. Bolton, who were buoyed by continuing positive reports that Fabrice Muamba is recovering from his cardiac arrest nearly two weeks ago (the midfielder has got out of bed, eaten some food and watched some of his team’s game last weekend), beat their local rivals, Blackburn, 2-1 at the Reebok Stadium. Earlier in the week, Steve Kean’s men had moved themselves further away from the relegation zone with a 2-0 home win over Sunderland, making Wolves the only side in the bottom five not to get three points last week. Terry Connor’s side are now four points from safety and look the least likely side to survive the drop, with the remaining four teams fighting to avoid being the other two who drop into the Championship for next season.
This weekend, sixth placed Newcastle – who should not be discounted from the race for the Champions League places, given that they are level on points with Chelsea, and only five behind Spurs – are home to Liverpool; Aston Villa, the team just above the bottom five who will need to start looking over their shoulder if they do not start winning soon, host Chelsea; Bolton travel to Wolves; Spurs entertain Swansea; and Arsenal have a trip across London to take on QPR. Manchester City again play first of the title contenders, at home against Sunderland on Saturday, before United travel to Blackburn – who won at Old Trafford earlier this season – for the Monday night game. Everton host West Brom; Stoke head North to take on Wigan; and Fulham and Norwich meet at Craven Cottage.
PredictionsLast week, 4-10; Season 120-149 Aston Villa vs Chelsea – Away win Everton vs West Brom – Home win Fulham vs Norwich – Draw Man City vs Sunderland – Home win QPR vs Arsenal – Away win Wigan vs Stoke – Home win Wolves vs Bolton – Away win Newcastle vs Liverpool – Home win Tottenham vs Swansea – Home win Blackburn vs Man United – Away win John Lally online at Political Footballs
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