This Week In: English Football – Bale Keeps Scoring and United Out of Europe
Prior to last weekend’s North-London derby, Tottenham fans expected the game to go one of three ways: either Spurs would dominate the match and overcome their bitter rivals; would be the better team but fail to take their chances and end up dropping points; or Arsenal would take out a season’s worth of frustrations on us and rack up another 5-2 scoreline. However, none of those scenarios played out, as Andre Villas-Boas’ men were outplayed for the majority of the game, but two goals inside two first half minutes, followed by a strong defensive performance after the visitors had reduced the deficit shortly after the break, gave Spurs a crucial win over Arsenal, lifting them back into third place and seven points above the Gunners. Tottenham’s two goals were identical: for the first, Gylfi Sigurdsson played a pass through the defence for Gareth Bale to score for the thirteenth time in his last thirteen matches; shortly afterwards, Scott Parker provided the assist for Aaron Lennon, catching out the Arsenal back line in the exact same way. Despite Per Mertescaker’s header early in the second half, Arsene Wenger’s team were unable to mount a comeback and they have now lost three of their last four Premiership encounters at White Hart Lane, after previously going unbeaten for 11 years on their rival’s turf. (Photo: Aaron Lennon celebrates his goal – Tottenham’s second – in the derby win over Arsenal)
With ten fixtures remaining in the Premiership, the seven point advantage is six more than Spurs had at the same time last season, when they were ultimately pipped to third place by Arsenal and missed out on a Champions League spot when Chelsea won the competition. However, no Tottenham fan will feel confident of our chances of finishing above our rivals this campaign – as the last seventeen years have conditioned us to expect things to go wrong, regardless of how promising things look. With away trips to Liverpool (this Sunday), Swansea and Chelsea still to come, alongside a home match against the champions, there are plenty of opportunities for Spurs to slip up and find themselves overtaken in the league. Nevertheless, something feels different about the club this year – in part because of the presence of Bale, a truly world-class talent whose effect has been maximised by the tactics of Villas-Boas, allowing the Welshman time, space and opportunity to exhibit his skills. But it is more than just this one player, with Dembele, Lennon, Sigurdsson and Parker alongside Bale, Tottenham have one of the strongest midfield lineups in the country – despite injuries to Clint Dempsey and Sandro – and there also seems to be good fortune on their side. In yesterday’s Europa League match with Internazionale, Bale – who had opened the scoring with a header moments before – was (correctly) booked for a dive in the penalty area, meaning he will miss next week’s return leg at the San Siro. At the time, the suspension appeared to be ominous to Spurs’ chances of progressing to the quarter-finals, but the final scoreline of 3-0 means that advancement is virtually confirmed and now the Welshman will have a clean slate heading into the last 8 of the competition. With all that said, Tottenham are still Tottenham – and the game is still the game – odds are that they will just find a new way to let supporters down and throw away the great position into which they have worked themselves.
On Tuesday night, Manchester United were knocked out of the Champions League after losing 2-1 at home to Real Madrid, though the Spanish champions had trailed until Nani was sent off for catching Alvaro Arbeloa with a high boot. Sir Alex Ferguson vehemently protested the decision, but even though the challenge was not malicious and he was going for the ball, the Portuguese winger gave the referee the opportunity to send him off by being reckless. Playing against 10 men, Madrid always looked likely to break through and goals from Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo – on his return to Old Trafford – ensured that Jose Mourinho’s side progressed. Despite the setback, United could still end the campaign as double winners – they meet Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals this Sunday, and last Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Norwich ensured that they maintained a 12 point advantage over Manchester City, who beat Aston Villa 1-0 two days later. The win over the Canaries came courtesy of a hat-trick from Shanji Kagawa – the first by an Asian player in the Premiership – and a strike from Wayne Rooney, both of whom were subsequently left out of the starting line up for the Champions League match.
Elsewhere in the Premiership last weekend: Demba Ba gave Chelsea a narrow 1-0 home win over West Brom, whose best player this season, Romelu Lukaku, was unable to play as he is on loan from the Blues; Liverpool beat Wigan 4-0 with Luis Suarez scoring a hat-trick, meaning Brendan Rodgers’ men have scored 9 without reply in their last two league encounters; and Everton took care of business, prevailing 3-1 in their home match with Reading, moving themselves to within two points of fifth placed Arsenal. Queens Park Rangers won for just the third time this season, as Harry Redknapp enjoyed his birthday and return to his former club, Southampton; Stoke had more than 50% of the possession for only the 11th time in their 180 Premier League matches, but still ended up losing 1-0 at home to West Ham; Sunderland came back from 2-0 down to earn a 2-2 draw with Fulham at the Stadium of Light; and Swansea got to parade the League Cup to their fans prior to a 1-0 victory over Newcastle United in South Wales. In the other midweek European games, Celtic were knocked out of the Champions League with a 2-0 defeat against Juventus, giving the Serie A leaders a 5-0 aggregate success; and in the Europa League, Newcastle earned a scoreless draw away in Dagestan versus Anzhi Makhachkala, while Chelsea were beaten 1-0 in Romania by Steaua Bucharest.
This weekend, the FA Cup reaches its sixth round as Everton host Wigan; Manchester City take on Barnsley at the Etihad; Millwall and Blackburn face off at the New Den; and there is the aforementioned tie between Manchester United and Chelsea. In the Premiership; Spurs travel to Liverpool; QPR play Sunderland at Loftus Road; Norwich and Southampton meet in Norfolk; Reading entertain Aston Villa; Swansea travel to West Brom; and Newcastle have a home match with Stoke. On Wednesday, Arsenal attempt to keep their hopes of a trophy alive, but face an uphill battle as they travel to Munich to play Bayern in the Champions League, trailing 3-1 from the first leg.
John Lally, USA www.politicalfootballs.com
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