The premiership Weekend Highs and Lows

April 27, 2009 | Filed Under: Blog, UK Box Update 
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premiership-highlights Manchester United
Was that the decision that secured Manchester United a third successive title? From the moment that Howard Webb ignored obvious physics – the direction of the ball was the clue that Heurelho Gomes’s intervention was fair – the outcome of penalty and game was inevitable. To United, another title and awe at their subsequent destruction of opponents who had had their stuffing knocked out. To Webb, the bitter recriminations.

The former policeman’s billing as the nation’s top whistle-blower owes a huge debt to his physical prowess and just a couple of Zimbabwean dollars to the accuracy of his decision-making. Who still believes he can be trusted? His credibility as the nation’s number one has become untenable because he has become particularly unreliable in matches involving the nation’s number one team. It was Webb who missed Vidic’ professional-foul shirt-pull on Samir Nasri in November, it was Webb who missed Rafael’s tug on Morten Gamst Pedersen in February and it was Webb who facilitated United’s comeback on Saturday with what Harry Redknapp generously called “a terrible decision”.

Having also dismissed Emmanuel Adebayor in ridiculous circumstances when Arsenal met Liverpool in December and become a figure of ridicule on the continent when he responded to a blatant trip on Lionel Messi in their Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich two weeks ago with a booking for the Barcelona forward, one conclusion – since made vociferously by Jermaine Jenas – is that Webb has a problem with big matches and big occasions. And given his status in the game, that’s quite a problem.

The Hosts At Old Trafford
In 17 games on home soil this season, the champions have dropped just five points. In total since August 2006, they’ve failed to win just eight of the 55 matches played in the Premier League at Old Trafford.


Cristiano Ronaldo

Now two goals clear at the top of the scorers’ charts. His headed effort against Tottenham was yet another reason to wonder just how effective he’d be as a centre-forward. He has every attribute a striker could want.

Liverpool
Since their defeat at Boro on February 28, they’ve dropped just two points.

Frank Lampard and Xabi Alonso
The outrage of the PFA awards is not the victory for sentimentality but the omission of both Xabi Alonso and Frank Lampard from the nominations.

The Chelsea midfielder’s consistency and longevity is phenomenal. The under-appreciation of his perseverance, commitment, fitness and hard work by his PFA peers is an inexcusable oversight that only serves to partially explain why, of the league’s absolute elite, only Lampard has exceeded his natural talent. His success is the product of graft rather than craft and the revelation that the 19 or so saves made by Edwin van der Sar during Manchester United’s run of clean sheets made a greater impression on his league peers is a depressing explanation for why the majority of Premier League footballers outside the big four are no better than average. They don’t have to possess the outstanding talent of a Fernando Torres or a Cristiano Ronaldo, but they should at least be able to match and appreciate Lampard’s dedication. Instead, they’ve opted to laud a player who has started just 12 league games.

It is equally disconcerting that the quality of Xabi Alonso’s passing has been passed over. His nomination would have been a nod of encouragement to a facet of the game that should be encouraged and it is little wonder that England continue to struggle on a world stage when our nation’s footballers cannot spot a class act at the top of his game – what a lucky escape Rafa Benitez had in the summer – when he is pulling the strings right under their noses.

And still the fixation with promoting footballers past and present to punditry in the deluded confidence that participation guarantees the power of perception.

Ryan Giggs
The back-handed-compliment winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement award.

Fulham
Good luck to Fulham. The Cottagers are heading for their best-ever finish in a Premier League season and could even be travelling across Europe next season as a result. A welcome side-affect should also be the removal of Lawrie Sanchez for the list of pundits working in the media on account of him being shown up by another reminder that management need not be a young man’s promotion. Experience counts for far more than a recent retirement from a successful playing career.

Fulham, Man City And Whoever Else
Is there any hype in sport at the moment quite as duplicitous as the ‘Race For Seventh’? How stupid do they think we are? Do they really think that we don’t all know how this story generally goes? Team qualifies for Europe; team is lauded; team slags off playing in Europe; team says it would prefer to concentrate on the Premier League anyway. It is an annual event as regular as the leaves falling.

The only change this year is likely to be that the process towards denouncement and withdrawal will be accelerated once it is spotted that the team that wins the extended Europa League next season will be required to perform in 19 matches.

Ashley Young
Young’s goal at Bolton courtesy of an over-hit cross was his first since his manager described him as ‘world class’ in December.

Andrei Arshavin
Six goals and six assists in his first nine Premier League games, but not good enough to play ahead of Abou Diabolical in a FA Cup semi-final after a week’s rest. Clever, Arsene, real clever.

Blackburn Rovers
One more win should be sufficient to secure their status for another year.

Manchester City
Only their second away win of the campaign.

Losers

Aston Villa
Progress? Villa may not have won a game since early February but they’re winning the battle of the spin. Their collapse – Last 11 games: Won 1, Drawn 5, Lost 5; Previous 11 games: Won 9, Drawn 2, Lost 0 – has barely been remarked upon by the national press that was lauding them as the next big thing of English football just a few months ago and fifth place has been talked up as progress without dispute.

True enough, fifth spot in the league would represent a year-on-year step forward after finishing sixth in 2007/08. However, Villa still require another six points to overtake their haul of the last campaign and on present form they will fall short. If places are swapped with Everton then the Toffees will have the consolation, and excuse, of a FA Cup final, while Villa will still have their decision to effectively withdraw from the UEFA Cup to rue as the turning point of the campaign. Three days after fielding a weakened side in Moscow in order to concentrate on the Premier League, they capitulated against Stoke. Momentum sunk, they’ve been sinking ever since. It is a familiar story: they also only won three games after March last year and just four after Valentine’s Day in 2006/07.

“Would fifth place be progress?” asked Gareth Barry last week. “I think it definitely is.” Nice try, but he’s expected to provide an entirely different answer in a couple of months when his future is on the agenda. This season is Villa’s missed opportunity and it is unlikely to come again next year. Both Tottenham and Arsenal have shown enough in recent months to convince that they’ll be far tougher propositions in 2008/09 and so, in all probability, will be moneybags Manchester City. With the career of the hugely-influential Martin Laursen in doubt and the club’s manager indicating on Monday that Villa would not spend big in the summer, it would take a brave man to bet on Villa finishing higher than seventh in 12 months’ time.

To appreciate the scale of Villa’s decline, however, we should look back rather than forward. Rewind to January and Villa were being depicted – foolishly, of course, by observers who hadn’t spotted the size of their squad – as title contenders. ‘Villa emerge from off the radar to mount a genuine title threat,’ wrote The Guardian’s football correspondent Kevin McCarra on the penultimate day of that month. ‘Often overlooked, Martin O’Neill’s astutely assembled cast at Aston Villa are ready to pounce for the Premier League title…We ought to be glad that someone is striving to smash the cartel at the top of the table.’

This weekend, when Arsenal all-but secured fourth spot, the Villa manager described his side’s failure to “break through into the top four” as “a morsel of disappointment”. No further comment.

Nicolas Anelka
Following Saturday’s reports that Chelsea will make Anelka available for sale in the summer, his inclusion in the team to go through the motions against West Ham ahead of Tuesday’s encounter in the Nou Camp was a clear message that he is now surplus to first-choice first-team requirements. Quite the irony, really, given that twenty-four hours later the striker – who has scored just one league goal since December 14 – was named in the PFA’s ‘Players Who Played Well Before Christmas Eleven’.

Mikael Silvestre
It’s not gone well. When the long-awaited day comes that the causes of Arsenal’s costly injury record is given proper examination, the signing of Silvestre from Manchester United should be offered as an example of how the Gunners foolishly contribute to their own misfortune.

Bought on August 20 even though he was carrying an injury, it was then subsequently confirmed that his ailment was worse than first reported. Only on October 18 did Silvestre finally make his debut. Two months later and he was out again. Having returned at the start of this month, Silvestre had completed just three full matches before suffering a back spasm against Middlesbrough this weekend. The Frenchman is now rated as doubtful for the Champions League semi-final with his former employers and once again the Gunners are without defensive cover.

Even if their occasional performances warranted their retention, and they do not, it has to be asked whether Abou Diabolical and Silvestre can be weighed in ahead of next season as first-team squad members when their availability is so unreliable. The answer should be in the negative because the lesson that has to be learnt from twelve months ago, when Wenger declined an invitation to bid for Arshavin in the apparent belief that Tomas Rosicky would return in September, is that, to progress, Arsenal need players they can rely upon more than anything or anyone.

Everton
Careful now. The Toffees can’t afford to go off the boil in the league just because they have reached the FA Cup final. The matter of momentum has been a consistent theme throughout the season and Everton ought to heed the warning of Pompey and Tottenham last year after they both lost their way in the league after their own cup final progress. After finishing the season with a casual whimper, both clubs paid a steep price at the start of the current campaign and have been suffering ever since. Cup finals really should come with a health warning attached.

Fortunately, motivation is close at hand. The difference between finishing fifth and finishing sixth is that while the former provides direct entry to the play-off stage of the rejigged Europa League, the latter only guarantees a place in the third qualifying round. That’s approximately the difference between two additional weeks on a sun-soaked beach and an early return for pre-season training in early July.

Middlesbrough
With their four remaining games featuring dates with Manchester United and Aston Villa as well as trips to St James’ and Upton Park, that should be it. And with just 25 goals from their 34 games to date, and an almost-as-bad 58 from their last 70, they won’t be missed.

Sunderland
Falling back into deep trouble.

f.365.

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