So the see-saw that is the Premier League lead has swung back the way of Arsenal again after they became the first side this season to leave the City of Manchester Stadium with three league points, whilst their North London neighbours Tottenham apologized for humiliating them in the Carling Cup last month by halting the Manchester Utd Globetrotters with a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane – although the ungrateful souls among Gunners fans may still manage a grumble about Juande Ramos’ side conceding an equaliser with literally the last kick of the match, via a combination of Carlos Tevez & Michael Dawson.
Behind them, Chelsea lost ground in third place as Jermain Defoe’s debut goal for Portsmouth denied Avram Grant’s side a club-record tenth successive victory after Nicolas Anelka had picked up his first league goal for the Blues.
At the bottom it was Fulham who recorded the most significant win, their first under Roy Hodgson, with a Jimmy Bullard-inspired success over Aston Villa at Craven Cottage which moved them to within a win of safety, Bullard curling in a free kick 4 minutes from time to give the Cottagers the points after Simon Davies had cancelled out an Aaron Hughes own goal.
Reading were the biggest losers, a 2-0 home defeat by Bolton leaves them precariously placed just a point above the drop zone, and even that was thanks to Derby pinching a late equaliser through new-boy Emmanuel Villa at Birmingham, who slipped into the relegation places thanks to Wigan’s crucial 1-0 win at home to West Ham on a JJB pitch more suited to rugby, and which must give the error-prone Titus Bramble nightmares.
In the race for European slots it was a good weekend for Liverpool who overcame Sunderland 3-0 at Anfield, thanks to second half goals from the recalled Peter Crouch (assisted by Liverpool’s latest wing wizard, Jamie Carragher), Fernando Torres, and a Steven Gerrard penalty. They moved to within a point (with a game in hand) of 4th placed Everton, who were held 0-0 at Blackburn by a mixture of dogged defending and incompetent refereeing.
Those defeats for Manchester City & Aston Villa allowed Blackburn & Portsmouth to edge closer to the promised land of the top six with their single points, whilst in perhaps the only dead rubber of the weekend (league-wise anyway) Newcastle and Middlesbrough cemented their place firmly in the bottom half with an entertaining 1-1 draw at St James’ Park, Michael Owen scoring the first goal of the Keegan Era (Part III) but not enough to give the “Geordie messiah” his first victory.
Few points of note;
- The officiating at Blackburn. Everton boss David Moyes needs no second invitation to have a go at match officials, but he was well within his rights this time as Alan Wiley and his assistants made a hash of three big decisions to deny the Toffees what would have been a deserved three points.
Firstly, Wiley failed to punish a deliberate handball by the already-booked David Dunn with a second yellow, Dunn would later clear a Phil Jagielka header off the line but that is besides the point. Then he failed to spot Zurab Khizanishvilli’s blatant trip on Andy Johnson in the area, before his assistant joined in the party by wrongly flagging Johnson offside as he collected James Vaughan’s pass to score five minutes from time.
Mark Hughes wasn’t smiling when he claimed the decision was “the only thing the assistant got right all day”, but I don’t know how, even someone as fiercely passionate as Sparky can’t honestly claim Johnson was offside.
- Jermain Defoe scoring on his debut. Portsmouth yesterday revealed that time constraints on deadline day meant that Defoe is only on loan at Fratton Park, and that the deal was reliant on Benjani moving to Manchester City. And whilst Benjani missed the deadline, and at the moment is in limbo whilst the Premier League investigate, Defoe got on with the matter in hand with a well taken goal and an impressive all round performance, which earnt him a call up to the England squad following Gabriel Agbonlahor’s withdrawal. What a difference a week makes eh?
- Six defeats on the spin for Reading and real worry starting to surface at the Madejski. Steve Coppell failed to strengthen significantly in the transfer window, and finds himself in the thick of a relegation dogfight. The goals of Kevin Doyle & Dave Kitson have dried up of late, and their porous defence looks simply incapable of keeping a clean sheet. They were comprehensively outplayed and outfought by Gary Megson’s Bolton, and they will need their big players- Doyle, Kitson, James Harper, Stephen Hunt- to step up, otherwise they could be that team that drops into the bottom three unexpectedly come the end of the season.
- The improvement of Spurs under Juande Ramos. They were literally seconds away from victory over a Manchester United side that actually didn’t play too badly in the second half. So often criticised for a lack of steel throughout the side, the likes of Michael Dawson, and new-signings Jonathan Woodgate & Alan Hutton were superb throughout, and the side has a far more cohesive look to it, thanks in no small part to the improvement of players such as Jermaine Jenas, Tom Huddlestone & Aaron Lennon under the Spaniard.
- Jimmy Bullard is back. Great to see the smiling Bullard’s reaction to his match-winning performance for Fulham against Villa, the former Wigan man was easily the star performer with his usual energetic display, his excellent cross set up Simon Davies’ equaliser, and his 25 yard free kick handed Roy Hodgson a first win at Craven Cottage. After almost eighteen months out with the most horrific of knee injuries, it is good to see a genuinely likeable footballer getting back to his best, and with a smile on his face too.
- Michael Owen back in the goals, but still far from his best. A well taken header means Owen ended his mini-drought of three matches, but he still looks some way off his best form, slicing a further chance well wide after good work from “Last Chance Saloon” regular Joey Barton, who has managed to annoy people further this week by showing what a good player he could be if he could stay out of courtrooms and police cells. Maybe, under Keegan, these two can recapture some consistency.
- First win since Boxing Day in the league for Liverpool. They weren’t particularly fluent, and Benitez managed to baffle once more by playing Jamie Carragher at right back, Lucas Leiva at left midfield, and Steve Finnan at left back in the second half. It paid off as Carragher’s cross from the right set up the opener for Crouch, but Benitez’s side still looked some distance short of the standard expected.