When last the Premier League was coming off of a full slate of matches, a couple of managers had to spend the Monday after cleaning out their offices, saying their goodbyes, and rubbing their sore behinds after getting the boot.
This weekend’s (plus Monday) slate of showdowns saw more of what you’d expect right about now – a couple of results affecting the title race and the top four, a couple of impressive performances by sides who needed them, and a couple of depressing performances by sides who didn’t need them.
So, who came out looking good, and who didn’t? Let’s get on with it, shall we?
With an easy 2-0 win over West Brom on Sunday, Fulham are within two points of Wigan for seventh place, with a game in hand. Why does that matter? If Manchester United win the Carling Cup and the FA Cup, or someone else that finishes 6th or higher wins the FA Cup, the side that finishes 7th gets a place in the UEFA
Europa League Cup, which Fulham have participated in, oh, all of once (2002/03, when they reached the third round under the old format). After a trip to Arsenal on the weekend – a trip that doesn’t look as daunting as it used to, the Cottagers host Middlesbrough and Blackburn, and then there’s a trip to Hull City that can produce at least a point.
They’ve been excellent at home this season, and if they can continue that trend and buck a bad trend of being quite the opposite away from Craven Cottage, a place in Europe is well within reach for Roy Hodgson’s squad. And to me, that’s a lot more noteworthy to talk about than a certain star-laden London side moving into third.
It was inevitable that United would allow a goal, and it was about time Roque Santa Cruz scored again, frankly. But, Edwin Van der Sar’s record remains intact, United got three points, and thanks to a little help from their blue rivals, are now seven points in front. Matches in four different competitions over the next couple of weeks might make for a selection headache for Sir Alex Ferguson, but it doesn’t hurt to have a margin to rest some players in next week’s league trip to Newcastle if need be. Think Mark Hughes will enjoy his new wine cellar?
Resting several key players in Thursday’s UEFA Cup defeat away to Shakhtar Donetsk might have helped deal a big blow to their hopes, but Harry Redknapp’s decision paid off, with Jonathan Woodgate popping up with an unlikely match winner, with his 84th minute goal giving Spurs a 2-1 win away to Hull City. That was only Tottenham’s second away win of the season, and it moved them five points adrift of the relegation zone. It’s still far too early for Spurs fans to breath easy, but getting those three points at the KC is massive for their hopes of being able to watch Premier League football at White Hart Lane next season.
Honorable Mention: Chelsea – Winning away from home? Their 1-0 win over Aston Villa is impressive, but at the same time, it’s not surprising. Now if they can only beat Wigan at home on the weekend…
With Aston Villa losing at home to Chelsea in the lunchtime kickoff on Saturday, Arsenal went into their match against Sunderland with a chance to close the gap on fourth to four points. Sure enough, they did close the gap, but instead of four, it’s at six after an inexplicable goalless stalemate. Andrei Arshavin did make his debut, but the absence of several key attacking players, including the seemingly cursed Eduardo, clearly shows. The Gunners aren’t exactly catching any breaks on the injury front, but you still have to expect them to come out the victor at home against Sunderland. I’m no Arsenal fan in the least, but this is sorely disappointing to watch.
Sure, they may still be in a pretty respectable 13th place, and sure, they may still be six points adrift of the drop zone, but Hull City are really letting sure survival slip away by the day. They were in line for at least a point against Spurs, but allowing Woodgate’s late goal consigned them to a defeat and a 10th straight league match without a victory. The Tigers kick off March with a six-pointer at home to Blackburn on Sunday, and there’s also a winnable home match against Newcastle later in March. Come away with six points in those, and you have to feel good about their chances for survival. Come away with zero, one, or two, and the dogfight is really on.
Not to say that they had the greatest chance of overtaking Manchester United in the first place, but after Sunday’s disappointing home draw against Manchester City, Rafa Benitez might be stuck hoping that United somehow get burnt out with all of the matches they’ve had and will have. As if getting a positive result at Old Trafford in three weeks wasn’t imperative already, even a draw won’t be particularly helpful.
Dishonorable Mention: Middlesbrough – Saturday’s home match against Wigan was winnable, but the resulting goalless draw – their 14th straight league match without a win – kept them firmly entrenched in the bottom three. They went through a horrid stretch last season and ended up getting away with it. When are they going to get the memo this time around?