24 March, 2008

Gameweek 31 – ‘White Easter’

Happy Tuesday then readers, and I hope with the passing of Lent finally many forbidden fruits were indulged in over the long weekend. We’ll get to Sunday’s big-4 face-off in a sec but before that, Saturday’s action, and a first league win for Kevin Keegan after an underwhelming start back at Newcastle to say the least. With Viduka, Owen and Martins all firing, they genuinely looked pretty good against an admittedly poor Fulham side who now look condemned to the bottomless pit that is the Real League next season. As the race for those crucial European spots heats up, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Everton seem to be losing their way somewhat, and at the moment, Blackburn look likeliest to book their EUFA Cup spot alongside Carling Cup winners Tottenham. Down at the less-good end of the table, Sunderland, Reading and Middlesbrough seem like they have enough to stay up, and despite a narrow loss this weekend so too do Birmingham, meaning that for our money, three from Derby, Fulham, Bolton and Wigan are certain to be back outside the top flight next year.

Super Sunday then, or Grand Slam Sunday, or whatever else hyperbolic the Sky marketing fellows are calling it these days. Game one offered Manchester United the chance to extend their lead at the top to six points ahead of Arsenal going into the second game of the day, and Alex Ferguson’s men duly obliged, blowing Liverpool off the park 3 – 0. The game was perhaps ruined as a spectacle in the first half however, with the crazy sending-off of Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano, who’s questioning of the referee Steve Bennett’s decision to book Fernando Torres earned him a second yellow card for dissent. There’s little more to be said about this incident, but if you compare his smiling un-confrontational approach to Ashley Cole’s petulant and disrespectful behaviour midweek, then clearly something’s not right. Anyway, United didn’t hang around feeling sorry for Liverpool, but instead pressed on in a decent second half display that completely snuffed the Scousers out, with Torres and Gerrard particularly unable to get their foot on the ball in a frustrating afternoon. A poached header from Ronaldo and a late cracker from Nani added polish to Wes Brown’s first-half opener, but with Reina making several top class saves throughout the game, the clear margin wasn’t any more than United deserved.

The pressure was well and truly on Arsenal then, who have been indifferent of late, and were facing Chelsea on a ground where they hadn’t been beaten for more than 75 league games. After a cagey first half hour both teams then seemed to realize that they had to bring about the win themselves to stay with Man United, so the game significantly opened up. As with the earlier match at Old Trafford, it was the central midfield that both sides battled to control, and with Fabregas and Flamini unusually toothless, Chelsea dominated much of the play after the opening twenty minutes or so. Arsenal took a shock lead just before the hour through a Bacary Sagna header though, and it looked like the Chelsea crowd was getting on their team and management’s back. Having done little of note all game though, who else but Didier Drogba stepped up for the Blues and blasted a ten minute brace past Almunia to put Chelsea well back in the title race, albeit five points behind the league leaders with seven games to go.

Premier League Team of the Week (based on OPTA stats, Fantasypremierleague.com ratings and my own expert eye):

Keeper – Craig Gordon (a rock)

Defence – Jonathon Woodgate (world-class), Andre Bikey (big brace), Gretar Steinsson (impressive again)

Midfield – Tom Huddlestone (powerful), Andy Reid (full of guile…and crisps), David Bentley (near perfect), Stephen Hunt (tenacious)

Up Top – Obafemi Martins (integral), Roque Santa Cruz (charming), Yakubu Ayegbeni (powerful)

Special GRAND SLAM SUNDAY Team of the Week (based on OPTA stats, Fantasypremierleague.com ratings and my own expert eye):

Keeper – Edwin van der Sar (day-off really but did what was required)

Defence – Bacary Sagna (marauding), Ricardo Carvalho (nails), Rio Ferdinand (controlling), Patrice Evra (expansive)

Midfield – Anderson (precise), Michael Ballack (dynamic), Paul Scholes (visionary), Claude Makalele (water carrying)

Up Top – Didier Drogba (deadly), Wayne Rooney (handful)

Weekly Awards:

Goal of the Week – Rising star, and official ‘little scamp’ Nani adds some late polish to Manchester United’s victory with a rocket of a strike past Pepe Reina.

Nutmeg of the Week – Dimitar Berbatov tries to add another zero to his price-tag with a class backheel through Johnson’s legs to find Chimbonda.

Save of the Week – Tim Howard used his legs heroically to somehow keep out a viciously deflected Dean Ashton freekick.

Supersub of the Week - Darren Bent came on with 20 minutes to go against Pompey, scoring one goal and creating the other for O'Hara. That's 5 goals so far for the overlooked hitman, at a thrifty £3.1 million per goal.

Skill of the Week – Niko Krancjar delightfully dances out of pressure from Zokora, Huddlestone and Lennon with some fancy footwork.

Miss of the Week – Michael Owen proves he’s not perfect, despite with Keegan might think, by nodding a free header from 3 yards out straight into Kasey Keller’s grateful arms.

Attempt of the Week – Sean Davis’s audacious 25 yard chip on Paul Robinson, who only just managed to scramble it over.

ASBO of the Week – Andy Todd busts some kind of modified judo throw on Jeremie Aliadiere to hurl him to the ground.

Controversy of the Week – Well, quite obviously the Mascherano red card. We’ll be looking at this current hot-topic in more depth later in the week so stay tuned.

Broken Jinx of the Week – Kevin Keegan celebrates Newcastle’s first league win in 14 matches, and his first in ten games since returning to lead the club. Must’ve been some powerful gypsy magic going on somewhere this Saturday.

Lie of the Week – Andy Gray really can be so naïve some times: “I’m sure he (Aaron Lennon) is staying late after training to work on his crossing.” I think he more than likely doesn’t care that much unfortunately Andy.

Unexpected Acrobatics of the Week – How can a man the size of Bikey do a backflip? It defies physics, he’s more than twice the size of Nani! Kudos though.

Sniper-on-the-roof Moment of the Week – Freddie Sears looked bright again coming on for the Hammers but his face-holding collapse and subsequent penalty claim was seriously shameless.

Quote of the Week – “He makes intelligent runs, he works hard, he’s good looking as well.” David Bentley gives everyone maybe a touch too much insight into his ‘professional’ relationship with Roque Santa Cruz.

Hero of the Week – The man they call Diddles / Dogshit / Drogbacite for almost single-handedly winning Chelsea the match late on against Arsenal. He might’ve been off the boil recently, but two clinical finishes show why he’s playing at the highest level.

Zero of the Week – Steve Bennett for needlessly brandishing a second yellow card to Mascherano for simply talking to him. This kind of inconsistent and plain reactionary refereeing is what frustrates people more than obviously wrong decisions, even firing up the normally diplomatic Andy Gray to criticize him in the half-time interval.

Personal Highlight of the Week – Kind of unrelated to football, but snow! Just about enough to get some dangerous purchase with the old plastic-bag-over-a-broken-chair sledge. In case you didn’t guess, this review is being written from A&E.