Monday 23 May 2011

A dramatic conclusion - the good, the bad, and the ugly go down

An afternoon of taut, gut-wrenching tension across the country saw fate’s pendulum swing one way then the next, before condemning the most exciting and the most banal teams in the league to relegation alongside West Ham United. Manchester United picked up their 19th top flight title in front of a rapturous Old Trafford, and said goodbye to one of finest goalkeepers of his generation; Edwin Van Der Sar. Chelsea responded to the disaster of finishing trophyless runners-up by almost instantly sacking the man who had delivered the first double in their history in his debut season.

In an incredible final day where 2 of 5 teams could go down, the positions changed 14 times, before the final three relegated teams were the team who won least games; West Ham, the team that scored the least; Birmingham, and the team who conceded most; Blackpool.

Old Trafford saw the best early action, and Keith Southern was lamenting his early jitters, when he passed a  fantastic low cross hopelessly wide with the goal at his mercy with less than a minute on the clock. A devious Charlie Adam cross saw Gary Taylor-Fletcher a fraction away from converting, while Dimitar Berbatov; seeking to pull away as the Premier League top scorer, executed a couple of superb touches to allow him a shot on goal, but he found Gilks equal to the task of keeping it out.

At White Hart Lane, nervy Birmingham had Ben Foster to thank for keeping out a low Sandro effort down at his near post with his boot.

At the Britannia, Wigan had strapped their tin hats on to repel the waves of corners and long throws from Stoke, while they had to survive a heart-stopping moment when a Kenwyne Jones header was touched in on the line by Jonathan Walters, who was clearly offside in practically standing on Al-Habsi’s toes. It then got even hairier for the Latics, when a Rory Delap throw led to Jones again finding room to strike, but this time it was Emerson Boyce in the right place to clear of the goal line.

Blackpool hearts sank at Old Trafford, as two more superb touches from Dimitar Berbatov saw Park Ji-Sung galloping through. Ian Evatt chose the worst possible time to slip on his arse, and Park dinked gorgeously over the onrushing Gilks for the opening goal.

Over at Molineux with the match between the two 40-point teams, the cat was put amongst the pigeons. Some sterling work from Junior Hoilett saw him lay back for Salgado to drive a shot in flicked home by Jason Roberts, and Wolves were sweating.

The frantic action continued at Old Trafford, where some great work from Berbatov saw him wriggle through and force a great save from Gilks, while Park was upended, with Blackpool lucky to escape reprimand.

At the Britannia, Ali Al-Habsi was warming his gloves up, with a great save from Jones, before beating out a Pennant drive that was hammered clear in turn by Alcaraz.

The Molineux faithful were aghast at events, as a Robinson hoof saw three Wolves players all jumping to clear, with Craddock only succeeding in teeing up Brett Emerton for a sumptuous volley from the edge of the box that practically tore the net out of the ground on its way in.

Ben Foster flapped a Younes Kaboul cross away with the greatest of difficulty as Birmingham looked shaky.

Blackpool were dreaming once more, when their talisman Charlie Adam coaxed a delightful free-kick in off the foot of Van Der Sar’s post for a crucial leveller.

Mick McCarthy wore the look of a man about to put a rocket up every one of his players’ backsides when the majestic Junior Hoilett left three Wolves defenders on the floor before crashing a low shot into the net to put Blackburn 3-0 up on the stroke of half-time.

At half-time then, Wolves were joining Wigan Athletic down among the dead men, and one could only imagine the ferocity of McCarthy’s intermission pep talk.

The second periods began, and another deadly Charlie Adam free-kick was batted over the crossbar by a startlingly nonchalant Van Der Sar.

The Tottenham-Birmingham game ground into life, when a courageous run from Danny Rose saw the ball cannon off the retreating Craig Gardner for substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko to curl a delicious effort wide of a surprised Foster, who clutched his head in his hands at the gravity of his error.

At Old Trafford the picture was turned in its head once more, when an inviting low cross from David Vaughan was deftly turned in off the post under pressure by a suspiciously offside-looking Taylor-Fletcher, to give Blackpool the lead and a sight of salvation.

Wigan were finally beginning to stir at the Britannia, and a counter-attack dictated by Ben Watson saw Charles N’Zogbia be perhaps a little too honest, when he shrugged off a wrestling match with Jermaine Pennant to win a corner, when going down would surely have yielded a spot-kick. Wigan finally got a shot on target, when substitute Conor Sammon turned swiftly and cracked in a weak effort with his left foot, dealt with comfortably.

Blackpool’s good work was undone as they continued to leave wide open spaces at the back, seized upon by Park, who crossed for Anderson to sweep home from close-range, leaving Blackpool on the brink once more. A Patrice Evra cross saw Berbatov nip in and head back across goal, only for Gilks to flick an arm up to deny the Bulgarian and keep Blackpool in touch.

Wolves finally rediscovered their bottle and began to mount a comeback, with a cunning free-kick move that saw a Hunt dummy to lay off for O’Hara peeling off his man to find the bottom corner. Stephen Fletcher then saw his fantastic header bring the best out of Paul Robinson to keep the score at 3-1.

At Old Trafford United were taking over. A classic Smalling cross saw Nani rise but somehow put his header back towards the crosser. The pressure told when another superb Smalling delivery saw Ian Evatt swipe at it with his wrong foot, for an agonising own goal. Evatt then bounded forward to make amends, but brought a great reaction from an alert Van Der Sar flying out to block.

So Blackpool were goners, but the team that were joining them was Birmingham, with Wigan precariously safe on goals scored. Soon this scenario became redundant, when the Latics found the strength to seize their own destiny in the 78th minute. Maynor Figueroa glided past two men on his way to dinking in a perfect centre attacked with purpose by Hugo Rodallega, who beat his man to head past a flying Begovic for a glorious goal.

The Latics had lifted themselves well clear with that goal, dropping Wolves back into the relegation zone when Craig Gardner took the ball on his thigh on the edge of the box and crashed home with his left foot to equalise for Birmingham at White Hart Lane.

The news filtered through at an increasingly desperate Molineux, and Wolves had to throw everything at getting back into the game with Blackburn.

Meanwhile at Old Trafford, the game was finally dead and buried as a contest with the Tangerines committed forward. Anderson slid a perfect pass through the chasm between Blackpool’s centre of defence which substitute Michael Owen ran through, before finishing with aplomb one-on-one to seal a near-perfect home record for the champions.

At White Hart Lane, a Lennon cross was volleyed wastefully wide by Sandro as Birmingham clung on by the narrowest of safety margins.

Wigan almost lost their safety cushion when a Glenn Whelan free-kick brushed the crossbar, and nerves were jangling.

Such was the fragility of Birmingham’s situation, one goal from Wolves would have made all the difference, and they duly got it, when a long clout from Hennessey was bravely flicked on for Stephen Hunt in the box. The Irishman took one touch to control before bending an outrageous shot beyond Robinson for a goal that brought the house down at Molineux. Despite still losing, this goal would keep Wolves up on goals scored.

The news filtered through at White Hart Lane, where the usual stoical ten-man defence was forced to go forward, as only a goal would save them. Ben Foster even joined at a corner, but failed to make an impact, and Birmingham’s foolhardy attacking proved their downfall, as Roman Pavlyuchenko strolled forward unchallenged before hammering in a shot that nicked off a defender on its way in off the crossbar.

Cue resignation at White Hart Lane, agony at Old Trafford, jubilation at Molineux and ecstasy at the Britannia. Despite the incredibly tight nature of the goal differences, survival came down to points. Wolves escaped the dreaded drop by reaching the hallowed 40-point mark, while Blackpool and Birmingham were left stranded on 39. We bid a fond farewell to the cavalier Tangerines, and a good riddance to the mind-grinding tedium of Birmingham, who at least have the consolation of a League Cup to soothe their crushing disappointment, while flying the flag in Europe as a Championship club.

Mancitti celebrated their coronation as the new force in town with a comfortable victory at the Reebok, to leave them not only third, but only below Chelsea on goal difference, and with an FA Cup to boot. Unfortunately for Carlos Tevez, the boot he was after will have to be shared with city rival Dimitar Berbatov. With neither of them able to score on the final day, they both finished the season on 20 goals. Bolton’s excellent season finished dismally in 14th; fatally undermined after Stoke wiped the floor with them in the FA Cup. City dominated the early stages, but Johan Elmander, playing his final match for the club, went close after sterling work from Daniel Sturridge, while Gareth Barry earned himself an entry into the ‘howler of the season’ archives, when he headed a deadly cross from Dedryck Boyata against the crossbar from five yards with an open net in front of him. City’s dominance in the first half paid off in ludicrous circumstances, when a corner was leapt at but missed by Vincent Kompany, and struck a completely oblivious Joleon Lescott on the forehead; sending it spiralling into the net. City’s second just after the hour mark came after Tevez brilliantly slipped in Gareth Barry, who crossed for Dzeko lurking in the middle. Gary Cahill intercepted initially, but the ball bounced up invitingly for Dzeko to spin and net for 2-0. Carlos Tevez ran himself into the ground attempting to force the goal that would win him the Golden Boot, but it wasn’t to be. Bolton’s frustration was perhaps encapsulated late on, when the normally placid Daniel Sturridge was red-carded for a shin-high studs challenge on Edin Dzeko. Whether it was his last action for the club remains to be seen.

Chelsea ended their season with a pitiful performance that left them clinging to second place by only goal difference, as Everton saw them off at Goodison Park to finish the season comfortably in seventh position. An early Jagielka header bounced off the crossbar, and Osman went down under a dubious challenge from Alex, though replays showed it was a good tackle. Jermaine Beckford began an interesting afternoon’s work when a brilliant run saw him bearing down on goal, though as Cech narrowed his angles he managed to put an appalling finish so wide it drifted out for a throw-in. In a weak riposte, Nicolas Anelka forced a decent save from Howard, but it looked all Chelsea’s game when Seamus Coleman threw himself into two reckless challenges and got sent off. John Terry almost found the breakthrough when he thundered a shot against the foot of the post with his weaker right foot. Beckford wriggled through for a second time but was denied by Cech. Chelsea thought they had the game in the bag when Ivanovic converted after Lampard was beaten out, but Terry standing offside when the shot came in thwarted their celebrations. They were left lamenting their missed chances when Jermaine Beckford’s steady improvement bore fruit, as he picked up the ball in his own half and motored forward, squeezing through three Chelsea players with a bit of luck and cantering through one-on-one, before executing a magnificent chip over the advancing Cech, whose hand was not enough to prevent the ball bouncing softly in with a clip of the post. Goodison roared, and the sword of Damocles fell on Ancelotti, who was ruthlessly dismissed following the post-match trivialities.

Fulham entered their final league game at home to Arsenal as the only team yet to receive a red card, and, inevitably, this record was soiled before full-time. Another record meanwhile was continued, when Robin Van Persie extended his scoring run in away games to nine matches. Arsenal imposed themselves early on, and a deep Kieran Gibbs cross was returned by Baccary Sagna for Gibbs to send in a header well saved by Mark Schwarzer. Fulham took the lead though, when Clint Dempsey’s excellent slide-rule pass sent Bobby Zamora away down the left flank, and his pull-back was converted by the arriving Steve Sidwell through Szsceszny, but just three minutes later Marouane Chamakh and Abou Diaby played a one-two, before finding Van Persie, who dispatched expertly past the advancing Schwarzer. Before half-time came an incredible moment, as Danny Murphy bundled past Szseszny and prepared to nudge it over the line from a yard out, only to be left flat on his face when Thomas Vermaelen defied physics as he lunged in from nowhere to tackle and send the ball spinning away from danger for surely the clearance of the season. In the second half, Samir Nasri sent in a belting free-kick that required a fabulous save from Mark Schwarzer, but Fulham retook the lead when Jonathan Greening made some inroads down the left flank, and lifted a magnificent cross on his weaker foot which was headed home by Zamora. It looked as if the Cottagers would hold on for a famous result, until Zoltan Gera lunged in two-footed on Thomas Vermaelen; yielding the first red card in the last game for Fulham, and possibly jeopardising Fulham’s Fair Play ranking. The inevitable onslaught from the Gunners led to a last-minute equaliser, as Theo Walcott burst into the box and drove in off the post, with Schwarzer’s hand not quite turning it away.

A barnstorming game at St James’ Park saw an unfeasible comeback from West Brom; coming from 3-0 down to send their travelling fans home happy. The madness began early on, with Stephen Taylor clearing brilliantly off the line as Marc-Antoine Fortune rounded Krul. Taylor’s afternoon then got doubly good, as he took full advantage of cock-up after cock-up inside the Baggies’ box to turn his man and bundle in the opening goal from a couple of yards. Shola Ameobi soon rounded Carson, only for his effort to be squeezed off the line by a combination of three defenders, but it was 2-0 after Lovenkrands bounded through to get in a lob which Carson made a ham-fisted attempt at tipping over and then catching from behind his goal line. Marc-Antoine Fortune was once again foiled by the goal line heroics of Stephen Taylor before Jonas Olsson comically made it 3-0 just after the break; lunging to stab a Luis Enrique cross into his own net with his wrong foot. The Toon fans were lording it, but were to be left with egg on their faces. It wasn’t until after the hour mark that West Brom finally troubled the scorekeepers, when Somen Tchoyi beat a static offside trap to finish Reid’s through-ball one-on-one. Nobody expected it to be more than a consolation, but less than ten minutes later, the Cameroonian midfielder controlled a deep cross, dummied to fool Coloccini as he cut inside, and unleashed a thunderous finish to reduce the deficit to just one goal. Newcastle were on their summer break by now, bar a couple of players standing firm, and the West Brom onslaught was on. Finally, in the last minute the away fans were delighted, when Olsson had Newcastle retreating, before sending in a great cross to the unguarded back post, where Somen Tchoyi arrived and readjusted superbly to send a diving header into the net for the most unlikely of hat-tricks, leaving Uncle Roy toasting a fantastic conclusion to a season that started so dismally for him.

The same of course also happened for Roy’s former club Liverpool, who have enjoyed a sterling renaissance under the stewardship of Kenny Dalglish. From the fringes of the relegation zone, they have risen to sixth place, surpassing all expectations. Dalglish has signed shrewdly, and even Hodgson’s signing Raul Meireles is beginning to look the real deal. Unfortunately for Liverpool fans they could not steal late into the Europa League place, and were condemned to defeat at Villa Park by a blistering finish from Stewart Downing, who chested an awkward cross down before crashing it in off the crossbar. Liverpool were seething later though, as some great work from Luis Suarez saw him lay the ball across for Meireles with an open net beckoning, until Friedel and Dunne threw themselves across to block it. The problem was, both also reached out with both hands, yet incredibly replays proved inconclusive as the shot was so venomous. Villa almost sealed the game late on when Downing lovingly threaded the ball through for the rampaging Bent who turned it away from Reina but a fraction out of the reach of a stretching Agbonlahor. Bit of a damp squib finish for Liverpool, but their fans will surely be excited for next season, while Villa’s fans, though no doubt wishing their boss a rapid recuperation, were just happy there was no repeat of the Houllier love-in witnessed at Anfield, and they can look forward to a new season with a reliable striker in the excellent Bent.

West Ham were booed off after finishing their relegation season with a dire home defeat to strikerless Sunderland. The humiliation began in the 17th minute, when an inviting cross from Ahmed Elmohamedy just cleared its target Asamoah Gyan, only for the diminutive Bolo Zenden to rise like a salmon and power a glorious header over Rob Green. The Hammers almost struck back but for the alert reactions of Simon Mignolet, who foiled a turn and close-range shot from Zavon Hines. The first half petered out somewhat, but the second was only six minutes old when Stephane Sessegnon advanced unchecked for some distance, before unleashing a 20-yard shot in off the post to make it 2-0. Minimal West Ham resistance saw Jordan Henderson come close, before the game was sealed by substitute Cristian Riveros controlling a cross, easily fooling Jacobsen and drilling into the roof of the net. The boos resounded around the Boleyn after a shambles of a season, while Sunderland restored some pride when most thought their complete lack of strikers would leave them winless in the final few matches.

So what do we make of the final tablings?

1st Manchester United – Surely Fergie’s greatest accomplishment yet? With a squad most acknowledge is not the finest, he has guided them to their precious nineteenth title, overhauling Liverpool and taking his side to another Champions’ League final. A poor away record was compensated for by a record of 18 wins and 1 draw at home.

2nd Chelsea – Most people’s favourites to retain their title, and even stronger following their incredible start, it seemed they may run away with the league, yet a series of key injuries and bizarre interventions by owner Roman Abramovich seemed to derail their charge, as they endured an inordinately lengthy run of appalling form. Lost an amazing nine games, and once again knocked out of the holy grail, which spelled the end for a manager who brought home the Double just a year ago.

3rd Manchester City – A triumphant season by anyone’s standards for the nouveau riches kids on the block; not just automatic Champions’ League qualification, but only kept off second spot on goal difference, with their first trophy in 35 years to boot. Biggest challenge may be holding on to Tevez and meeting rising expectations now they have raised the bar for themselves, but they have all the money in the world to play with.

4th Arsenal – A catastrophic season for the Gunners was encapsulated in the final minutes of the League Cup final, when a horrible gaffe lost them a trophy which may have spurred them on to bigger things. Instead, they lost all sense of impetus and confidence, and finished fourth in a two-horse race. Wenger bought once again on the cheap, and it showed: Squillaci and Koscielny were like Laurel and Hardy at the back, while Bendtner, Rosicky, Arshavin and Walcott should all take a good look at their own contributions to this epic failure.

5th Tottenham – Another team whose cup eliminations weighed heavily on them. After the exhilarating displays in their debut Champions’ League season, they went well off the boil and just about clung on to a Europa League place. Harry Redknapp has moved mountains, but surely needs to give Defoe and Pavlyuchenko more game time and Peter Crouch less if he wants a more clinical edge to turn those frequent draws into wins.

6th Liverpool – After their torpid demise under Roy Hodgson, it was clear that a change in direction was needed, and they found the right man clearly. Despite his long absence from management rigours, King Kenny knows his club inside out, he signed shrewdly and seemed to send the team out with a smile; expressing themselves far more and rising to an excellent sixth. A season without Europe may also work to their advantage.

7th Everton – Another season of two halves for the Toffees, who can’t help but be diabolical until Christmas, before going on a run of form that would see them over a season challenging for the title. Moyes has once again struck gold with Jermaine Beckford, a striker who misses many sitters but also scores vital goals, while Osman, Arteta, Cahill and Baines all contribute goals from other areas. Think what he could do with some serious investment.

8th Fulham – Another fabulous season for the Cottagers under a new manager. Mark Hughes proved he has what it takes by shrugging off early season relegation fears caused by crucial injuries to take his team into the higher reaches of the table based on a foundation of typically imperious home form, and, more impressively, fair play. Some shrewd signings and nous will see him potentially take them on a step further next term.

9th Aston Villa – A great finish after a miserable season following the departure of the irrepressible Martin O’Neill. O’Neill seemed to leave when his plea for finance to take the next step was ignored, and he must have raised a wry smile when Randy Lerner forked out £24million on Darren Bent. No money for improvement but plenty to avoid the drop it would seem. With Bent, Villa finally possess a clinical edge, though cynics would argue that Houllier is not the right man to take them forward; healthy or not.

10th Sunderland – A remarkable accomplishment for Steve Bruce to take the Mackems into the top 10, despite a cruel injury list and a horrendous mid-season run of form that nearly took them down. Darren Bent’s departure out of the blue affected them greatly, and it doesn’t help that two of their best players; Wellbeck and Zenden, are leaving in the summer. Still, you sense Brucey may have a bonus or two in the offing for the summer.

11th West Bromwich Albion – After a dire half-season reign at Liverpool, Roy Hodgson completed a tremendous half-season conclusion at West Brom. The Baggies’ board were disloyal in the extreme in sacking Roberto Di Matteo, who had done great work, but Hodgson proved the perfect replacement, losing only two of his thirteen league games in charge to leave them comfortably safe early. Peter Odemwingie was one of the finds of the season, and the Baggies’ tidy footballing style wins them many neutral fans.

12th Newcastle – Another team hideously disloyal in sacking a manager, Mike Ashley should at least go into the history books as beginning the trend of sacking a manager for actually excelling in his post. Ashley’s cronies duly appointed a powerless stooge in Alan Pardew, who would have swam the Tyne with Ashley tied to his back for another Premier League job. Pardew achieved pretty much the same as his predecessor. Newcastle have not got great players, but they are muscular and unpredictable, while possessing goal-scoring midfielders in Barton and Nolan. Chekh Tiote is an outstanding find.

13th Stoke City – Tony Pulis showed us his childish side by refusing to shake hands a couple of times, and his adult side when he bravely attended the end of a game he inspired his side to win following the death of his mother. He abandoned all pretence of flair by jettisoning Gudjohnsen and Tunçay, and guided the club to the FA Cup final and comfortable safety again, with a style that is heavy on predictability, but hugely difficult to deal with. Should get the freedom of Stoke after his achievements with them this season.

14th Bolton Wanderers – A defining season in the making was shattered in the aftermath of an FA Cup semi-final slaughter to Stoke. Like Arsenal, Bolton fell far from where they perhaps deserved to be on the back of a horrible cup elimination, and will reflect much on it in the summer ahead. Coyle has proved adept once again at moulding a team confident of playing expansive and imaginative football, though a worry will be losing both Elmander and Sturridge; stalwarts of the successes of the season.

15th Blackburn Rovers – A ridiculous sacking of Fat Sam and a raft of failed marquee signings led to an inevitable plummet down the table for Rovers. Steve Kean, to his credit, masterminded enough results to keep their heads above water, but many questions are floating over Ewood Park. Can they really evolve their route one style?; and is Kean really a Premier League manager?; would be among the most obvious. Christopher Samba, Phil Jones and Junior Hoilett were outstanding though, and they may struggle to hold onto these.

16th Wigan Athletic – A dignified manager and a supportive chairman make Wigan a very well-run club, but they survived on more than goodwill. When the chips were really down, the Latics pulled through; winning their final three games to save themselves. They play a swift and attractive passing game, but Wigan’s huge problem is lack of a clinical striker. Ali Al-Habsi was the signing of the season, while the maverick brilliance of Charles N’Zogbia and sporadic excellence of Hugo Rodallega kept them up. Martinez’s striking recruits; Scotland; Di Santo; Boselli; leave much to be desired, and this is a gap he sorely needs to plug if Wigan are to stay up again.

17th Wolverhampton Wanderers – Mick McCarthy saw off many brickbats with wit during a tumultuous season at Molineux, and eventually accomplished his brief on the last day, despite a defeat. Wolves, like Wigan, can pull results out of the fire when you think they’re finished, and Mick has made some shrewd signings; Hunt and Fletcher particularly. Wolves particularly suffered during Colin Doyle’s lengthy absence, and they will hope to add dimensions to his indefatigable threat next season.

18th Birmingham – The League Cup winners paid the ultimate price for their negative tactics, but can be somewhat consoled with the consolation of a trophy in the cabinet. A team only based on defence lost one half of their central defensive partnership and fell apart. As the lowest scoring team, they clearly earned their place in the bottom three, and many will be glad not to be bored to tears by them next season.

19th Blackpool – On the contrary, many will be gutted that the carefree bravado of Blackpool will be missing from the top flight next season. They have been nothing short of a revelation, and Ian Holloway is a national treasure. They go down as the highest-scoring relegated team in Premiership history, but the telling fact is that they conceded more goals than any other team, thus they too, sadly, earned their place in the bottom three.

20th West Ham United – Shambolic, disgraceful and a laughing stock. And that’s just their owners! Avram Grant was clearly the wrong man, though the rot had set in since Dean Ashton’s career-ending injury. The Hammers had far too many players; Robert Green; Matthew Upson; Wayne Bridge; who believed their own hype and didn’t back it up with performances. Having won the fewest games, they too thoroughly deserved their place at the bottom of the pile.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Nineteen up for United, any old Irons down

The title and one relegation was confirmed on the penultimate weekend of the Premier League season, as Manchester had the weekend of its life, and Millwall delighted in mocking the demise of the unhappy Hammers.

Manchester United confirmed their status as the most successful English league team of all time with a scrappy draw against relegation-threatened Blackburn. United lost their challenge at Ewood Park last season, and were mindful of the cost of a slip-up. Rovers meanwhile knew that a win would keep them safe, though a loss would be devastating. United started purposefully, and almost took the lead early on, when a cracking Rooney cross was headed against the crossbar by Nani. At the other end, Christopher Samba couldn’t get over the ball as a chance went begging. Tomas Kuszcak began his very nervy afternoon by almost losing possession on the edge of his own box, after he decided at the last minute that he couldn’t pick up a backpass. Nemanja Vidic got him out of jail with a decisive tackle, just as Jason Roberts had outmuscled the Pole. He continued this indecision by tipping an Emerton chip wide, but got caught between retrieving and staying put on his line. Eventually he chose the latter, but when Hoilett took a return from Olsson and crossed, Jonny Evans went to sleep as his man Emerton swept the ball home. Kuszcak then unforgivably dithered over another comfortable backpass, and was forced into belting the ball against Hoilett, as he was upended by the Rovers player. Fortunately for the goalkeeper, the ball was wide of goal. Blackburn incredibly almost sealed the game in the second half, when a lovely Emerton cross was headed against the post by Martin Olsson, but the roof was lifted off Ewood Park by the sizeable travelling contingent, when Javier Hernandez took a heavy touch as he bore down on goal, before nicking it out of play as Paul Robinson stupidly went to ground at the Mexican’s feet and took him down. The rules for penalties seem bizarre when the ball has travelled out of bounds before contact is made, but the only rule that counts is the foul, and Robinson bought it all ends up. Wayne Rooney stepped up and lashed the penalty into the net, to the delirium of the away fans, some who had waited four decades for the chance to see United usurp Liverpool as the most dominant force in the English top division. United almost sealed a win before the end, but somehow Nani couldn’t make proper contact with the most inviting of Rooney crosses, and the final ten minutes were played out in a freakish truce atmosphere, where Rovers dare not attempt to dispossess United lest they counter and win, while United were more than content with the draw that saw them over the line. Rovers now have a do-or-die relegation play-off with Wolves to look forward to, whilst United play another of the drop contenders Blackpool, in a stupendous final day of action.

Wigan Athletic launched a swashbuckling comeback to bring the house down at the DW, and send West Ham crashing down out of the Premiership. West Ham started the day knowing even a win would probably not be enough, while for Wigan, a draw would leave them needing a miracle, but a win would open it right up for the final day. The Latics took the game to the Hammers early on, as Tom Cleverley cleverly found Diame, who blasted over, but from a corner, West Ham grabbed the lead. A goalmouth scramble ensued, culminating in Collison drilling in a shot that was well blocked, but Wigan seemed to believe it was job done, and switched off as the ball was delivered wide, with a great cross swung in for a completely unmarked Demba Ba to fling himself at and score. Mohammed Diame thumped in a shot in riposte that was well dealt with by Green, but from another dead ball the Hammers extended their lead. A free-kick was nodded across at the back post by Tomkins for Demba Ba to poach his second before the half-hour. It was a case of Ba-Ba back post for the Latics, who looked to be taken down with the Hammers, and they nearly surrendered a third goal in their confusion, with Piquionne meeting a free-kick missed by everyone else, but Watson was the hero in clearing off the line. Mohammed Diame continued his attacking intent by nipping onto a through ball round the back of the defender, but Rob Green stood up to block his effort well. Wigan thought they had at last seen the good end of a set-piece when Rodallega stooped to send a diving header at goal from point-blank range, yet Green found himself in the right place as it struck him and bounced away. West Ham came off at half-time with a two goal lead, and salvation a possibility, particularly against a side as goal-shy as Wigan. The Latics took to the field still brimming with attacking intent though, and maverick maestro Charles N’Zogbia began tormenting the hammers backline frequently. As he bore down on the edge of the box, he wrestled with James Tomkins, and both players hit the deck. Seemed a case of two sixes, but the referee awarded Wigan a free-kick, and we were treated to N’Zogbia clearing the wall and the ball nestling in the ‘postage stamp’ for a fabulous goal. West Ham may have been nervous, but they continued to play freely, and Ba found himself set away, but contrived to fluff the chance as Alcaraz caught up and offered enough pressure. Young prospect Conor Sammon had come on for Wigan at half-time, and he made himself a hero on 67 minutes. A couple of meaty West Ham challenges went unpunished in centre mid, and Ben Watson picked up the pieces amid the carnage, finding a moment of clarity to slide a superb slide-rule pass to Sammon inside the box. The striker stepped effortlessly outside Gabbidon and coaxed the ball past Green in the same movement to leave the Wigan fans in raptures, and the Hammers faithful in tatters. Zavon Hines saw two glorious chances at the other end to regain the lead, but he was heroically blocked, first by Figueroa, then by Gary Caldwell. Wigan were calling for a red card minutes later, when Conor Sammon latched onto a long ball, and was left in a heap by Danny Gabbidon, who would have been sent off as last man had it been deemed a foul. A cute Ben Watson effort thudded against the post, while Thomas Hitzlsperger sent in a devious cross that Carlton Cole defied physics in sending wide; replicating the howling Robbie Keane miss of last week. He paid the ultimate price for his incompetence, as Wigan surged forward in injury time, and once again that man N’Zogbia delivered when it mattered; progressing down the right flank, before beating an inept challenge from the criminally overrated Wayne Bridge, and firing a shot under the grasp of the equally criminally overrated Rob Green. So, Rob Green, how d’ya feel? Ending his Premiership season the way he did his World Cup; abject failure, surely ends the arguments over his supposed brilliance, mostly propagated by himself. Apparently, he is considering ‘doing a Ben Foster/Paul Robinson’ and ‘retiring’ from international duty, as he thinks he is better than permanent reserve. Capello must be rubbing his hands together quite frankly.

A scoreline reminiscent of the ‘Stanley Matthews Final’ of 1953 saw Blackpool dare, and win, to leave them with a fighting chance of survival on the final day. In a breathless game of tit-for-tat attacking, the real winner was the neutral, and this match demonstrated more than most why it will be a crying shame for the Premier League to lose the gung-ho bravado of Blackpool. Bolton, who have somewhat lost impetus since their humiliation in the FA Cup also contributed valiantly to the contest, and took the lead in the 6th minute, when a free-kick into the Blackpool box was missed by Davies and bounced off Baptiste for Davies to readjust and flick into the net with aplomb. Before some of the crowd had taken their seats Blackpool were level, with a goal that owed everything to the persistence and strength of DJ Campbell. A long pass was flicked on by Taylor-Fletcher and found Campbell scampering goal-side of Gretar Steinsson. The striker, under heavy pressure, then held off the full-back admirably, before looking up and having the composure to lob the advancing Jaaskelainen for a superb equaliser. The Tangerines thought they may have been in again soon after, but Jason Puncheon was incorrectly flagged. A Charlie Adam corner was then guided up and onto underside of the crossbar by DJ Campbell, before Gary Taylor-Fletcher fired in a rebound effort which struck a defender. Blackpool claimed goal or handball, but replays showed neither to be the case. Some deft footwork and movement in a tight area just inside the Bolton area between Taylor-Fletcher and Campbell saw the ball fed to Puncheon, who lost possession, but instantly regained it, before pivoting to fire in a left-footed shot as he fell, which flew into the corner of the Trotters’ net. However, Bolton found a way back just five minutes later, when a poor clearance was returned to Matt Taylor, who fired across Gilks and in off the post, despite the goalkeeper getting a full hand to it. Gilks atoned minutes later by flying out to block Daniel Sturridge as he ran clear of the Blackpool backline. Sturridge came so close to converting a Taylor cross to give Bolton a half-time lead, while Taylor-Fletcher and Knight had an unseemly spat which earned the two a rebuke and yellow card. Kevin Davies continued his excellent performance by coaxing an outrageous shot onto the crossbar with the outside of his boot, but it was Blackpool who stormed in front on the stroke of half-time, with an excellent close-range volley from DJ Campbell, from a deadly Adam cross. The half still continued to see brilliant chances, and David Vaughan was so close to creating a goal from nothing, but his amazing run and cross was cut out at the last by Jaaskelainen, with Campbell ready to strike. At the Blackpool end, Baptiste cut out a Lee cross brilliantly before the lurking Sturridge could convert, but the equaliser was earned early into the second period. The imperious Davies slid a cute pass inside the full-back for Chung-Yong Lee to run onto. The South Korean deftly put Gilks on his backside before dinking across for Sturridge to convert, leaving Blackpool staring into the abyss once more. Another Davies chip went close, but just after the hour Blackpool seized the initiative once more. Southern won the ball bravely just inside his own half in the process of being clattered, and DJ Campbell advanced with Adam in support. The two exchanged passes before Adam slid Gary Taylor-Fletcher in. The striker held the ball up as Campbell dragged men away, and laid it back for Charlie Adam to lash it into the top corner for a glorious winner. A classic game in keeping with Blackpool’s memorable season so far; a season that could yet end with the ultimate prize of survival.

Wolves gave themselves every chance of escaping the dreaded drop with a priceless victory over Sunderland, bizarrely Mick McCarthy’s first win at the Stadium of Light, despite being manager there for almost a season! The home side fired the first broadsides, with Boudewijn Zenden swerving a 20-yarder against the angle, before Sessegnon tested Hennessey with a strike. Unfortunately for Steve Bruce, his Mackems couldn’t clear a corner, and Hunt swung in a lovely cross that evaded everyone before former Sunderland man Jody Craddock volleyed crisply in at the back post. Jamie O’Hara hit the top of the bar, while at the other end a Zenden corner swung all the way across as George Elokobi air-kicked, and Sessegnon swivelled expertly to steer the ball in at the back post for the equaliser. John Mensah then survived a handball claim, and Elmohamedy defended excellently to deny Stephen Fletcher. Steed Malbranque was only denied by the reflexes of Hennessey, and it looked as if Sunderland were giving as good as they got; that is, until Matt Jarvis came on. The England winger bolted down the flink and floated in a tantalising cross; too tantalising for Mignolet, who clutched and missed as it also drifted over Mensah’s jump, leaving Fletcher to nod into the unguarded net. Wolves were now on course for victory, yet they got away with a penalty claim it is difficult to believe was actually denied, when Stephen Hunt lunged in from behind as Sessegnon was about to shoot. His legs taken away, Sessegnon crashed clumsily to the ground, yet incredibly Mike Jones spotted nothing untoward. Wolves sealed the points with a diving header from powerful full-back George Elokobi, while at the death Sunderland youngster Ryan Noble fractionally missed his attempt at a diving header, to leave a heavily depleted Sunderland well beaten.

An excellent and very rare away win for Fulham left Birmingham right in the mire on the final day. Most assumed, even with their poor post-Cup win form, that this was a home banker, and yet Birmingham were appalling, and now go into the final day with a very real chance of winning a cup and going down in the same season. The fun started when an enormous clearance from Mark Schwarzer was ducked under by Roger Johnson just inside his own box. The bounce was so high it almost caught out Ben Foster, who leapt backwards to superbly make up for his error by tipping it wide. Another goal conceded to a goalkeeper, following his Watford gaffe allowing Paul Robinson to score, would have made an undesirable career statistic. Unfortunately for Foster, his redemption didn’t last long, as Brede Hangeland climbed all over his own player Senderos to head into the net. Bobby Zamora headed a free-kick against the post, and then Jiranek incredibly managed to chest a cross onto the post at the other end. Zamora was presented with, and spurned, some glorious chances as the second half wore on, and Steve Sidwell thumped a great effort against the foot of the post as Fulham looked to kill the game off. They completed this objective in a mad scramble, as a corner was almost bundled into his own net by Jiranek, where Zamora helped it on, only for Ferguson to head off the line, but see the return lobbed into the net by Hangeland again. Fulham almost ran away with it at the end, as some great persistence by the tenacious Andy Johnson won the ball back and squared for Eidur Gudjohnsen, whose shot brought a scrambled save from Foster.

Newcastle snatched a last-minute equaliser to deny Chelsea the chance to close the final gap on champions Manchester United. Chelsea took the lead as early as the second minute, with Branislav Ivanovic volleying in a corner flicked on by Fernando Torres at the near post. Newcastle withered not though, and equalised with a ridiculous goal from Jonas Gutierrez, who deflected a Ryan Taylor free-kick into the opposite corner with his back. The second half saw Chelsea regain control, when a deep Lampard free-kick tempted Krul out of his goal, only to miss at and allow burly centre-back Alex to head into the unguarded net. The Stamford Bridge faithful were celebrating their final home game as a victory as Shola Ameobi’s brother Sammy came on, to a warm reception from the away contingent. With Chelsea seeming to play the game out, Newcastle almost sprung a surprise when Ryan Taylor’s diving header was deflected narrowly wide. If the home fans breathed a sigh of relief at that, they were left frustrated from the resultant corner, which was nodded back by Sammy Ameobi for Stephen Taylor to guide past Cech from close range. There was no time for a response, and Chelsea performed their lap of honour with an air of slight despondency, while Carlo Ancelotti seemed resigned to the fact this will be the last time he will address these fans.

Arsenal finished their Emirates season as they have done many times throughout it: by disappointing their long-suffering fans with a dismal surrender. The victory for Villa owed much to some fine movement and absolutely clinical finishing by Darren Bent, who helped himself to an impressive brace to justify his big price tag, as essentially he has single-handedly saved Villa the £40million it would have cost them to be relegated. A long pass from Kyle Walker was taken on his chest and exquisitely volleyed in with the outside of his boot for a stupendous opener. He then got himself goalside of a sleeping Squillaci to receive a lovely ball from Ashley Young and dispatch past Szceszny with the greatest of ease just four minutes later. Arsenal should feel aggrieved when clumsy lump Richard Dunne got away with scything down Aaron Ramsey inside the box; an offence which could and should have seen the Irish defender add to his impressive collection of red cards. Robin Van Persie was as usual Arsenal’s most potent weapon, and he did all his own work in turning Collins inside out before striking the post with a cracking drive. In the second half Villa almost added to their haul, but Szceszny was alert enough to deal with first Young’s drive, then Downing’s sneaky effort. The game wore on, and Arsenal were aggrieved when a goal was disallowed, though Chamakh clearly pushed Kyle Walker in the back before heading in Walcott’s cross. They finally scored a consolation with a minute to play, as Van Persie gobbled up a close-range chance, but it was too late to salvage a result. How Arsenal could use another Van Persie next season.

Liverpool fans were brought crashing down to earth twice, as they kicked off against Spurs knowing Manchester United had replaced them as the country’s most successful league side, before losing at home to the team who may beat them to fifth place. Tottenham have not shown much form since their Champions’ League adventure ended, but they seized the chance to at least grab pole position for fifth place, as Rafael Van Der Vaart returned a Skrtel clearance with interest, before a Luka Modric penalty for a Flanagan foul on Assou-Ekotto was dispatched. Andy Carroll headed a fantastic chance over, and Jonjo Shelvey swerved an effort narrowly wide, but Spurs always looked in control, and Pienaar led some nice football around the edge of the Liverpool box, before whipping in a low shot that only just went wide. Spurs go into the final day a point ahead of Liverpool in the Europa League placing.

West Bromwich Albion continued their superb form under Roy Hodgson with a hard-earned win over Everton at the Hawthorns. The game was settled as early as the ninth minute, when their star of the season Peter Odemwingie finished some brilliant work by beating Jagielka and crossing low for Youssouf Mulumbu to plunder a goal. Victor Anichebe, looking sharp in Everton’s new gold away kit, turned his man but couldn’t beat Carson, while an excellent run from Jerome Thomas saw him round the goalkeeper, but only hit the recovering Hibbert on the goal line. Odemwingie was rubbing his eyes in disbelief when Tim Howard made a magnificent point-blank save from him, after Jonas Olsson had flicked on a long throw into the box. Anichebe tested Carson again with a header, while Simon Cox was a stud’s length from converting a delicious Odemwingie cross. The most bizarre moment of the game actually came from one of the more curious red cards of the season. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov was red-carded just five minutes after coming on as a substitute, for a challenge that was neither dangerous nor high. Even his ‘victim’ James Morrison could be seen pleading his case to a referee who clearly had already made his mind up. The final big chance came when Odemwingie progressed deep into Everton’s box, but shot and forced a save, instead of giving Chris Brunt a goal on a plate. Still, Baggies fans will be over the moon at the season they have enjoyed, with Odemwingie at the forefront. Di Matteo’s sacking may have shown gross disloyalty, but the West Brom board have certainly been proven to have picked the perfect replacement.

Mancitti, having claimed their first trophy in 35 years against Stoke, proceeded to demolish the Potters for the second time, to snatch third place from Arsenal going into the final round of matches. Carlos Tevez also made a grab for glory with his brace; he is now level with Dimitar Berbatov at the top of the scorer’s charts. Tevez beat two men inside the box before lashing home in the 14th minute, and Stoke showed little in response as City took control. It was early in the second half when Joleon Lescott headed in Adam Johnson’s set-piece, and just after the hour mark Tevez put the icing on the cake with a fabulous free-kick, to leave Stoke down and out, and City dreaming of automatic qualification to next season’s Champions’ League.

And then there was one…

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Chelsea smiles red and buried

It took until well into May, but Manchester United finally reached out to wrench the title firmly away from Chelsea’s possession, with a resounding victory built on a true champions’ display. At the other end, Wolves have made a late break for freedom, while West Ham are slipping away with a whimper.

This was it. Essentially a title decider at Old Trafford; champions elect versus defending champions with the title up for grabs for the winner. A draw would see United favourites, but to all intents and purposes, this was a title playoff. The one thing that neutrals were hoping for from the game was a frenetic pace and opening, and the crowd were left agog at just how fast the contest burst into life. After a Chelsea free-kick from kick-off in their own half was launched forward by Cech and headed clear, old master Ryan Giggs picked the ball up at halfway and darted forward, before feeding Park. With David Luiz napping, Park’s dynamism saw him slide a perfect through-ball which Luiz lunged at and missed, leaving Javier Hernandez to race through, adjust in a second and finish superbly cutely inside Cech’s near post. The crowd erupted, as did Carlo Ancelotti; directing his ire towards Luiz, who played the innocent but must have been pretty nervous when Alex immediately began warming up. United seized the initiative after this catalyst, and Cech had to be at his past to palm a rocket from Rooney wide with both hands. A nice interchange between the architects of the opener saw Giggs again find Park, who dinked an inviting cross in, which first Luiz and then Hernandez missed, when any meaningful contact would have seen the net bulging. Chelsea took a while, but managed to carve out an opening of their own, when a dangerous cross saw Van Der Sar tumble over players, but the Dutchman responded in time to excellently deal with Kalou’s goal-bound shot. The little man for the big occasions, Park Ji-Sung, stung Cech’s fingertips with a belted effort later, and the resultant corner saw the lead extended. With Chelsea again inert, Giggs took the corner short and received the  return from Park. Kalou put in a pitiful challenge as Giggs beat him all ends up and sent in a beautiful delivery that saw Drogba and Luiz get in each other’s way as it fell behind them for a predatory Vidic to beat his Serbian counterpart Ivanovic and head into the roof of Cech’s net. Before half-time, Van Der Sar made certain of a good team talk, when he reacted superbly to tip Kalou’s effort from a scrambled corner away. At half-time, Ancelotti rang the changes, later explaining he felt most of the team should have been changed, and Luiz predictably came off. Each team had a penalty shout denied, before Chelsea finally worked their way back into the game. A Ramires cross was deflected up and into the danger area, where Ivanovic got a flick that Lampard helped into the net. Almost immediately United surged back into attack mode, when a magnificent tackle from Valencia saw an Hernandez cross evade Cech and find Rooney, who was only denied by the most incredible sliding goal-line clearance from Alex. Rooney knocked on the door again, but after being thwarted by Cech, he saw his final effort deflected over by Alex. Hernandez then proved he is human, heading over a glorious chance from a Valencia cross after he couldn’t adjust. Finally, a champions display from United, while Ancelotti will be fearing a p45 as his reward for a season of near-misses.

Arsenal well and truly blew their chances of even finishing runners up, with a display of defending that plumbed new depths in this season of continued failure after bright prospects. Meanwhile, Stoke City head for the FA Cup final in high spirits, after dominating Arsenal for long periods, if not on possession at least goal threat and poise. Despite a ridiculously avaricious share of possession, Arsenal were clueless; constantly attempting to play through a middle more congested than the M25 at rush hour. They had no width, no ‘plan B’, and, as usual, their only clinical finisher was Robin Van Persie. Forget Fabregas, Arsenal could not do without their Dutch striker, the only direct Gunner, who looks for goal rather than players. People who compare Arsenal to Barcelona must be blind. The only possible comparison is the quality of passing, but still Arsenal struggle when really pressed, they do not press enough without the ball, their defence is paper-thin and susceptible to set-pieces time and again, while they do not value goals as much as intricate approach play. This season, even the quality of their approach play has been lacking for long periods, while players such as Andrei Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott have let everybody down with their lack of influence, while Marouane Chamakh really went off the boil. The opening goal for Stoke came after Arsenal had had practically all of the ball, before Arshavin stupidly gave away a soft free-kick at the corner flag. Pennant delivered, Van Persie missed the header at the near post, and John Djorou began his one-man self-destruct mission by falling asleep and nearly tripping over his own player, as he failed to prevent his man Kenwyne Jones from strolling in unhindered to bundle the ball over the line. What Arsenal would give for Walcott to have the deliveries of a Pennant or Etherington. The game was up for Arsenal minutes later, when Pennant ran across their box hardly challenged, before unleashing a drive which was pretty safe until it nicked up off the boot of the hapless Djorou, though Wojciech Szczeszny did not cover himself in glory with his weak hand on the way over him and into the net. Robert Huth then sent a diving header over, injuring himself and provoking Alexandre Song’s face arm to find his face in the subsequent melee. The match then descended a little into a series of hefty challenges, the most amusing when Jack Wilshere upended Pennant, before himself being upended by Wilkinson; leaping up to remonstrate before being challenged for his own sin by a furious Pennant. The handbags were soon called off, and substitute Bendtner found Van Persie in the box, but the Dutchman was smothered by two defenders and goalkeeper. Glenn Whelan thumped in a near post effort that Szczeszny kept out, and it looked an important save when another substitute Chamakh fed Van Persie, who elegantly ghosted past Shawcross and cracked a low shot through Begovic with his weaker right foot. Being Arsenal though, this proved yet again to be a false dawn, and within a minute, Stoke were at the other end sealing the game. Jonathan Walters, who had a magnificent game, held up well inside the box, before laying back to Wilkinson, whose awful effort was returned perfectly for Walters to bury by the inept Djorou, who completed his hat-trick of cock-ups leading directly to goals.

Wolves seized the chance to leap across the chasm and escape the clutches of the relegation beast, at least for a week, by comfortably beating formerly formidable Black Country neighbours West Bromwich Albion at Molineux. From kick-off, Wolves were on the front foot, and Scott Carson had to be at his best to tip a Jamie O’Hara free-kick wide of the post, though he could do little about the resulting corner, which Guedioura helped on for Stephen Fletcher to stab in from close range. From another corner the roles were reversed, with Fletcher nodding back across for Guedioura to swivel and volley home. Wolves strength at set-pieces was proving the difference, and Fletcher later sent another corner narrowly wide, before the Baggies finally showed signs of resistance through an Odemwingie dribble and shot superbly tipped wide by Hennessey before half-time. The second half had only just begin, and surely West Brom had a Hodgson rocket up their arses. This soon became an impending boot for Abdoulaye Meite, whose diabolical error saw any chance of salvation snatched away within minutes of the second half beginning. Kevin Foley played a long pass which was comfortably within interception range of Meite, yet the centre-back decided to attempt to trap a speeding ball with his wrong foot, allowing it to skid under his boot and see Stephen Fletcher through one-on-one. The Scottish striker made no mistake, and Meite didn’t know where to look. It only took ten minutes for the Baggies to finally rouse themselves and seize control, when Jerome Thomas’ trickery in the box saw him scythed down, and Odemwingie notched the penalty to give Albion a fighting chance of a miracle. Wayne Hennessey then had to pull of a superb reaction save, when Simon Cox got on the end of a cross from close-range, and soon after Tchoyi slipped a lovely ball through for Jerome Thomas, who smashed it against the woodwork. Tchoyi could himself have reduced the arrears further, but got it all wrong when he sent a completely free header over the bar with everything to aim at. The Baggies seemed to realise the game was up at this point, and the final flourishes came from Wolves; first from Ward driving a fraction wide, thenEbanks-Blake, who kept Carson busy at his near post. Wolves move two points clear of danger with two games remaining.

Spurs’ faint hopes of Champions’ League football for next season were crushed when yet again they could only draw a fixture they would normally expect to win, though Blackpool were equally as distraught, with the result doing neither side many favours, though every point is better than none for the Tangerines right now. New striker Sergey Kornilenko almost got off to the perfect start for Blackpool, but saw his effort blocked, before an Adam volley follow-up was superbly saved, and the same scramble saw Campbell also thwarted. Kornilenko then ruined a great chance by heading a corner over, and was replaced at half-time. Some great work from Modric fed Bale, and his gorgeous cross was narrowly missed by both Defoe and Van Der Vaart. A Charlie Adam driller was parried, and Van Der Vaart unusually blazed a glorious chance over under pressure from Neil Eardley. Gareth Bale swerved a shot just wide, and a Modric header cleared the crossbar. Unfortunately, Charlie Adam, who had been at the centre of everything good for Blackpool, then sullied his reputation with a horrible moment, as Bale nutmegged his man and was challenged on one side, Adam barged in from the opposite side and scissored him, stamping on the Welsh winger’s ankle at the same time and sending him off on a stretcher. Blackpool went on the attack again, with Vaughan and Puncheon at the forefront, leading to an instinctive effort from DJ Campbell which was somehow kept out by the athleticism of Heurelho Gomes. The Blackpool faithful’s eyes lit up when Michael Dawson claimed a push as he stupidly handled a cross. His pleas fell on deaf ears, and Charlie Adam stepped up, but again Gomes somehow kept out his well struck effort, much to the chagrin of the Blackpool fans. Yet there was a steely determination etched across Adam’s face as he followed the ball out for a corner, and this was well founded, as from the corner Gomes spoiled his good work by spilling at Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s feet, before lunging to recover and taking him down. This time, Adam kept his nerve to drill the penalty in, and Blackpool were dreaming of salvation. They could have sealed the game late on, after Campbell had seized on a William Gallas error and held up, before laying back to Jason Puncheon, who produced an awful finish just when composure was required most. He rued this with just two minutes to go, when  Lukaa Modric worked some space and nudged the ball to Jermain Defoe, who leathered the ball into the bottom corner to break Blackpool hearts.

West Ham fans were forced to accept that they will be watching Championship football next season, after they could only manage a draw in their must-win game against relegation rivals Blackburn. The Hammers set about their task quickly though, and Da Costa was denied only by a goal-line clearance from Morten Gamst Pedersen. Unfortunately for the Irons, Jermaine Jones slid Brett Emerton down the line, and his cross was converted by Jason Roberts, and they were staring down the barrel of relegation. West Ham didn’t wilt, and recovered to test the Rovers backline, led by Freddie Sears and Demba Ba, while Robinson had to beat out a Thomas Hitzlsperger swerver. Junior Hoilett almost carved an opening at the other end, while Stephen N’Zonzi was well saved by Green. Demba Ba sent a header just wide, and the Boleyn faithful were suffering, until Carlton Cole held the ball up inside the box surrounded by Rovers defenders, and managed to lay the ball back neatly for Hitzlsperger to drive between two players and in for a precious equaliser. West Ham had to go for broke now, and they had the one shining beacon of opportunity presented to them wrapped up crisply with a red bow, when Frederic Piquionne sent in a low cross; finding Robbie Keane just six yards from goal. With destiny calling, Keane contrived to open his foot too much and miss a howling clanger of a sitter. The final few minutes featured a superhuman display of heroic defending from Christopher Samba; blocking a Ba shot, intercepting a dangerous Spector cross, and finally lunging to block a certain goal as Cole was about to pounce, to leave Rovers mathematically safe and West Ham all but mathematically down.

Wigan once again squeezed a result out, but not the win they so desperately needed at Villa Park. For the second week in a row they scored early, when they won the ball in midfield, and Victor Moses charged past three players and fed the marauding Charles N’Zogbia, who finished perfectly across Brad Friedel. Lamentably for the Latics, an Ashley Young free-kick conceded some seven minutes later was dispatched perfectly into the corner of Wigan’s net. Ali Al-Habsi will be disappointed, as he took a step to his right which shifted his weight enough for him not to recover to turn it around the post. Emile Heskey then swivelled and saw the best of the Omanian, as he reacted to turn his effort away from no distance. Other than this, the most interesting incident in the first half happened when Heskey went down in an aerial challenge clutching his head. Clearly he had no feelings of forgiveness for his old team mates, as he ranted, raved and rampaged at referee Mike Jones, even barging into him. Jones, for his leniency only showed him yellow, but Heskey was removed at half-time by Gary McAllister for his sins. A goalmouth scramble to end all goalmouth scrambles saw Wigan cursing their luck, as Rodallega was blocked out, his layback to Cleverley was also blocked, there was a claim of hands as the ball was played back in to an offside Alcaraz, who was certain to bundle it in until a heroic lunge from Collins and Richard Dunne sent his effort over the Villa crossbar. At the other end Al-Habsi intercepted a dangerous Young cross, and Di Santo flicked on for Rodallega to swivel and fire an effort a fraction wide. Wigan hands shot to heads in desperate rumination, but they were later in relief, as Darren Bent was sent through, only to lose his one-on-one battle of wits with Al-Habsi. A point closer to survival for Wigan, or two closer to the dreaded drop?

Mancitti blew their chance of sealing the precious Champions’ League place by capitulating at Goodison Park, despite threatening to run up a cricket score in the first half. David Silva flashed an early effort across goal, while a game of ‘headers and volleys’ between Milner, Silva and Vieira saw the veteran Frenchman volley wastefully over from close range. James Milner sprung the Toffees’ offside trap but couldn’t find his man, yet the inevitable happened after 28 minutes, when Distin lost out in a tackle, and David Silva slipped a lovely ball through to Yaya Toure, who dinked over Howard for an excellent goal. Phil Jagielka was then called into action for a last-ditch block-tackle on Aleksandr Kolarov, shaping to shoot. Everton finally offered some threat of their own, and Vincent Kompany had to be at his imperious best to intercept, after former Toffee Joleon Lescott could only deflect a Baines effort towards his own goal. Yaya Toure had another opportunity, but this time Tim Howard won the one-on-one battle, while Edin Dzeko jinked past Sylvain Distin but could only fire wide. City soon regretted their profligacy, when former player Distin rose to meet an Arteta free-kick and send it into the net, though Joe Hart seemed to get a full hand to it and will be disappointed with his efforts. Five minutes later, the game had been turned on its head. Phil Neville was given space to weigh up his options, and sent in a floated cross which little Leon Osman launched himself at and planted a superb header past Hart as he was clattered in the air, for a glorious goal. Substitute Jermaine Beckford then dashed across the front post to get an effort in which was saved, while City’s final meaningful effort came when Milner’s shot was deflected over by Leighton Baines.

Kenny Dalglish was left with a smile as wide as the Mersey, after Liverpool’s trip to the Thames provided a goal-laden away-day victory at the normally tight Craven Cottage. Fulham have been nothing short of formidable at the Cottage thus far this season, but after surprising everyone with a resounding away victory at Sunderland, it was perhaps inevitable that they would do the reverse amid the comforts of home. The game was over as a meaningful contest as early as the 16th minute, by which time the away side were three goals up. Almost from kick-off, a slip from Aaron Hughes let in Suarez, while Salcido and Schwarzer were at sixes and sevens as the striker’s cross was converted by Maxi Rodriguez. Chris Baird then played Glen Johnson onside, allowing the full-back to find Rodriguez, who again dispatched clinically. Mark Schwarzer continued his lacklustre night by fumbling Dirk Kuyt’s near post effort into the net after sixteen minutes and it was goodnight and God bless for the Cottagers. The half-time rollicking from Hughes seemed to work, as Fulham finally came out of the traps in the second half, creating a few chances before substitute Bobby Zamora held up well before teeing up Moussa Dembele for a goal. If Fulham had any thoughts of a miraculous recovery, those thoughts were shot down on 70 minutes, when Maxi Rodriguez completed his second hat-trick in three games in the grand manner; launching a scud missile into the top corner from 25 yards. The Argentinian, who seemed nothing short of peripheral under Roy Hodgson, has clearly found his best position under Dalglish, and looks reborn. Liverpool racked up a fifth when JonJo Shelvey’s through-ball found Luis Suarez, who expertly rounded the goalkeeper and put the gloss on a superb team display. There was still time for Fulham to reduce the arrears, and Steve Sidwell obliged with a crisp half-volley from just outside the box, to give the home fans something to cheer. Strangely, stoppage time then produced a mad glut of action, with Schwarzer saving brilliantly from Shelvey, Jay Spearing seeing a shot cleared off the line, and Kuyt being blocked by Baird at the last.

Birmingham still retain their status as relegation candidates, as a red card contributed to their demise at Newcastle. Alex McLeish was furious early on, when Steven Taylor appeared to lead with his elbow in an aerial challenge; poleaxing Cameron Jerome but receiving no reprimand. Joey Barton then saw a long range effort tipped wide, but from his corner, madness descended on St James’ Park. A header from Shola Ameobi was saved and Foster tipped a follow-up effort from Coloccini onto the post, but as the ball was returned the goalkeeper was helpless. Liam Ridgewell didn’t know much about the ball coming down onto his arm on the line, but he certainly knew about it when he nudged it away with his elbow to prevent a certain Nolan finish, and he was duly red-carded. Ameobi dispatched the penalty clinically, and Newcastle were in control. Foster continued his excellent form though, denying Lovenkrands superbly at his near post, and making an incredible point-blank reflex stop as Kevin Nolan swivelled to pummel Tiote’s mishit effort at goal. Unfortunately for Foster, his hard work was undone from the resultant corner, which Taylor headed in past a hapless Larsson on the line, who miscued his ‘clearance’ over his own shoulder and into the net. Against all odds, Brum were back in the game just two minutes later, on the stroke of half-time. Ben Foster was pressured on a clearance, but for once he stayed calm and dummied his pursuer, before launching a booming kick deep into the Newcastle half which saw Cameron Jerome round Tim Krul. Fabriccio Coloccini made a great last-ditch recovery challenge to prevent Jerome putting it in to the unguarded net, but, as Toon fans breathed a sigh of relief, Lee Bowyer arrived on the scene to guide a shot in, which this time Coloccini was responsible for deflecting past the recovering Krul. In the second half Nile Ranger produced a fantastic dribble and shot which was saved excellently, while Larsson miskicked horribly for the second time, this time with a gaping net, as Krul dropped at his feet. The game ended with Newcastle on the attack. A break spearheaded by Ranger saw the ball delivered in for Barton to help across the box to Ameobi, who stole in at the back post to dink over the onrushing Foster, only to see Roger Johnson clear magnificently off the goal line. Birmingham need another result to be safe, but they are notoriously erratic, so you would be a brave man to bet on it.

Despite possessing no strikers once more, Sunderland grabbed an excellent away win at the Reebok, with Bolton ruing some sterling defending and wasteful finishing of their own. This win came despite Phil Bardsley missing an absolute sitter of a header early on. He then redeemed himself partially, by deflecting Daniel Sturridge’s whipped shot onto the crossbar. Sunderland took the lead in first half stoppage time, as Sessegnon sent a suspiciously offside-looking Bolo Zenden through to round Jaaskelainen and score. Daniel Sturridge seized the game by the throat in the second half, and fired just wide after great work from Ricardo Gardner, before combining with Lee, only to see Bardsley once again thwart them. Rodrigo Moreno saw a great effort parried, but his cross late in the game was deftly headed back across goal and in by potent substitute Ivan Klasnic. There was no time left, yet Bolton almost pressed for a winner, when Moreno volleyed across for Davies to score a certain goal, but incredibly, hero of the hour Bardsley contorted to head the ball over from under his own crossbar. Steve Bruce was prepared to pat his defender on the back for earning his side a point, but it got even better deep into stoppage time, when a fabulous through-ball from Sessegnon saw Sulley Muntari beat Jaaskelainen to the ball in driving it across goal, where Zat Knight could only clumsily help it into his own net, earning the praise of Bruce and rebuke from his own manager.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Bin Laden dead from Heskey miscue

The title race, from being something of a procession, is now on a knife edge again. The Manchester United-Chelsea match has now become a title decider. If United get any result, they will be favourites, but if Chelsea win, the title will be in their hands. Who would have said that ten games ago? Other than that, the teams around the bottom five all picked up points bar West Ham, so the merrygodown goes on.

Chelsea didn’t so much share a kiss with Lady Luck as violate her chastity at Stamford Bridge. Spurs travelled to their bogey ground hoping to derive some kind of result to keep them with a hope of securing a Champions’ League place for next season, and thought they may have got it. After Didier Drogba had pummelled the crossbar with a free-kick, Tottenham took the lead from out of nowhere. Rafael Van Der Vaart expertly took an awkward ball under his spell and flicked it over his head for Sandro to crash a first-time half-volley past Petr Cech. Heurelho Gomes tipped a close-range Essien header over, while Torres couldn’t readjust as another corner was flicked across the box by Drogba. John Motson, in his senility, proclaimed Gomes to be having a good game, thus provoking the Brazilian into his usual disaster. Frank Lampard struck a long-ranger straight into the Brazilian’s body, yet seconds later Gomes was scrambling behind him to claw it away from the line, successfully as it would happen. The linesman, however, despite having an impossible view, decided to use guesswork for a decision that required certainty. If he was certain, then he is blind. Chelsea were unjustifiably level, and it got worse for Spurs. Gomes almost cost them again, when he could only bat another Drogba free-kick out in front of him, only to be let off as Salomon Kalou did his usual comical screw-up in blazing the chance over. Chelsea were livid when Younes Kaboul was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty for a dubious challenge inside the box, but Chelsea snatched victory from the jaws of draws, when a goalmouth scramble saw Anelka and Drogba get in each other’s way, before Drogba screwed a hopeless shot going well wide, until it found Kalou, lurking a half-yard offside, who put it in. Two awful officials’ decisions that will haunt Tottenham next season.

Arsenal stuck two fingers up to their detractors, as Manchester United put in an appalling performance to leave their title charge in the balance. From first to last minute the Gunners bossed this game. Theo Walcott was as wasteful as ever, blazing over from point-blank range when a delightful Clichy cross found him in the middle. A Wilshere cross-shot then almost found the England winger lurking at the back post, before an alert Evra intercepted. United were thanking their lucky stars later, when a Walcott cross was headed right on to the head of Robin Van Persie, before the desperate Nemanja Vidic reached out a hand to divert it with his fingertips. Unbelievably, the linesman did not see that the Serbian defender clearly could not have reached it with his head, and there was nothing blocking the view of his arm stretching in front of him. A Wayne Rooney free-kick was well saved, but Arsenal finally got what they deserved in the 56th minute, with Van Persie dribbling into the box and feinting, before laying back to Aaron Ramsey, who slotted it in nicely. United briefly threatened a resurgence, but Nani greedily took on a shot saved by Szceszny when he had men in the middle. Robin Van Persie could only find the side netting from a deep Walcott cross, and the referee Chris Foy evened up the bad calls when Gael Clichy’s studs on Michael Owen’s calf sent him sprawling inside the box, only to find no penalty awarded.

Mancitti practically sealed their Champions’ League berth with a curious victory over the unhappy Hammers at the City of Manchester Stadium. Curious in that they began like a house on fire, with wave after wave of attacks threatening to sink West Ham for good. Nigel De Jong opened what looked like the floodgates by crashing in from the edge of the box after a corner was half-cleared for his first City goal, and then a beautiful dink through from David Silva found the marauding Pablo Zabaleta, who drilled across Green and in via the boot of Jacobsen and the crossbar. Yet after looking like they’d run up a cricket score in the first fifteen minutes, City suddenly decided to take a nap. Robbie Keane nipped through their slumbering backline to be denied by Hart, but minutes later the Hammers reduced the arrears. Thomas Hitzlsperger’s cross was flicked on and up onto Joleon Lescott’s arm, but before the referee had to whistle, Demba Ba reacted in a flash to the loose ball; swivelling to turn it in. Suddenly, City woke up again. Mario Balotelli was fed on the left-hand side of the box, cut effortlessly back outside his man and curled an exquisite effort which thudded back off the bar. That man almost sealed it again on a lightning break from a save by Hart, when David Silva cantered through, rounded the goalkeeper and left it to Balotelli, whose shot couldn’t beat the three retreating defenders guarding their goal line. Edin Dzeko thumped in a shot that cannoned off the body of Green, but Balotelli was flagged offside as he pounced for the rebound. David Silva came close late on, when his effort deflected up and over off Spector, but in the end Mancitti took what they came for, and West Ham remain entrenched in the relegation zone up to their waists.

Liverpool moved above Tottenham with a resounding victory over a feeble Newcastle side at Anfield. Young full-back John Flanagan sent over a floated cross which was cleared poorly and drilled back into the net with a deflection off Simpson by Maxi Rodriguez for the opener. A dangerous Joey Barton free-kick in response flashed across the face of the Liverpool goal with nobody able to profit. The game was most bizarre for Newcastle’s all-white away strip. First of all, an away kit is surely meant to be a completely different colour from your home kit, and secondly how does red clash with black and white? These questions were not answered, though Barton should have answered his critics, when a delicious low cross from Kevin Nolan fell invitingly for him at the far post, but the humble midfielder could only skew his effort wide from close range. Some great work by Luis Suarez saw his shot deflected wide by Mike Williamson, and Rodriguez saw his mishit cross bounce off the top of the Toon bar. Williamson then made a fool of himself, as he attempted to shield a long Reina kick out of play, only to have his pocket picked by Luis Suarez, who rounded the dozy defender and made the most of the contact to go to ground in the box. Dirk Kuyt slotted in the penalty and Liverpool were coasting. Dirk Kuyt then sullied his afternoon by missing a sitter of a header from close range, but the performance was complete when the crafty Suarez exchanged passes with the Kuyt just inside the box, taking three Newcastle men out of the game before slotting past Tim Krul.

Blackburn grabbed a vital win against neighbours Bolton, at a ground which has been historically bad for the Trotters. Martin Olsson made the difference with a man-of-the-match display at left-back. He had almost set up Benjani for a goal, before dribbling into the box and forcing a goal-line clearance from Paul Robinson. Bolton almost struck a sucker punch, but Rodrigo Moreno, arriving late for a cross, went for a half-volley with his wrong foot, and could only stab onto the post from close-range. Olsson then made him rue the miss, when he took a pass from Salgado, raced past David Wheater and stabbed past Adam Bogdan in the Bolton goal. The left-back had more opportunities too, and had an effort with either foot in the same move, forcing Bogdan to save low at his post. Blackburn’s Plan B almost came to fruition too, when a Robinson clout saw the giant N’Zonzi outjump Bogdan, only to see his header drop the wrong side of the post for Rovers. Mame Biryam Diouf blazed wastefully over after a scramble, and Stephen N’Zonzi missed a glaring headed chance late on, in between Martin Petrov drilling into the side netting for Bolton. Blackburn need just another win to escape the relegation trap-door, while Bolton have slipped back in their challenge for sixth.

Wigan Athletic picked up a vital point against Everton, but may wish they had seen the win out come the end of the season. After a cagy opening, Wigan took the lead on 21 minutes, when Ben Watson dinked a lovely ball through for Charles N’Zogbia. The Frenchman appeared to miscontrol and lose his footing as Howard confronted him, but the winger picked himself up, turned quickly and rifled the ball past the Everton goalkeeper. Wigan’s other star man Ali Al-Habsi pulled off a splendid save from Leon Osman, but minutes later the Omanian goalkeeper was required further. N’Zogbia ruined his heroics by rushing in and attempting to beat Osman to the ball, while the Everton midfielder turned and shielded the ball in time to be taken down and accept a penalty. Former Wigan star Leighton Baines surrendered the duty to Mikel Arteta, but the Spaniard saw Al-Habsi plunge to his left and thrust up a strong hand to parry the ball away for a magnificent save. After this it was Tim Howard called upon, first to deny N’Zogbia one-on-one, then a cracking near post save to deny Victor Moses, after Jagielka had cut out the initial cross from Emerson Boyce. Moses then saw another belter kept out by the in-form Howard, while Al-Habsi denied Jagielka. Unfortunately for Wigan, the resulting corner saw Hugo Rodallega leap like a salmon, before losing his bearings and seeing the ball strike his arm. He was clearly infuriated with himself as the penalty was awarded, and well he might have been, as regular penalty taker Baines stepped up to crash it past Al-Habsi. Seamus Coleman had a deflected effort saved by the Wigan goalkeeper as they attempted to snatch a win, but Wigan’s counterthrust saw a Watson rocket well saved, and a goalmouth scramble that could only see Rodallega blast a presentable chance over. All over for Wigan? Not yet.

Wolves may feel this was a useful point, as they kept Birmingham on the cusp of the relegation dogfight, while at least increasing their own points tally, though after taking the lead they may have wished for more. The opener came when a lovely through ball from Jarvis saw Stephen Ward race through and take a tumble as Foster bought it hook, line and sinker. Stephen Fletcher notched the penalty, and Wolves were where they wanted to be. After this though, Birmingham decided to come out of their shells somewhat, and Sebastien Larsson cracked the crossbar with a superb free-kick., before a horrific mistake from Michael Mancienne gifted Brum parity just before the half-hour. A long pump forward saw the Wolves defender caught in two minds as to whether to duck under it or clear, and in the end he let it be cushioned down off his bonce, leading to that man Larsson galloping through to slide under Hennessey for 1-1. The eventful first half ended with Craig Gardner bizarrely sent off for a second caution, after diving outside the area. Replays showed, although very difficult to see on first watch, the referee had been on-the-ball, as the Brum midfielder ran between two Wolves players and threw himself to the ground with minimal contact. Fans may have been excited to see how the second half would pan out, but unfortunately nothing happened, as Brum deployed the old ‘parked bus’ method to preserve a point that leaves them one win away from salvation.

Fulham earned only their second away win of the season, against a Sunderland side with no strikers to speak of. Starting with the diminutive Steed Malbranque and Stephane Sessegnon up-front, the Mackems started strongly, with Elmohamedy heading a cross narrowly wide, and Malbranque charging down a Philippe Senderos clearance, only to dink wide one-on-one. After this, Fulham were ruthlessly clinical. Zamora found Gael Kakuta in the box, and after brilliantly getting a difficult ball out of his feet, the youngster poked past the goalkeeper for an excellent opener. Sunderland’s ripostes came in the form of a pitifully weak finish from Lee Cattermole and a Muntari shot deflected over. At the other end, forgotten man Eidur Gudjohnsen took down a cross and drilled across the box, narrowly missed by Bobby Zamora. A fine Fulham move saw Zamora brilliantly release Steve Sidwell on the left-hand side of the box, and his cross was converted adeptly by Simon Davies for 2-0. The third goal was a disaster for Sunderland, as Ferdinand ended up tackling his own goalkeeper as the ball eluded them and was nudged over the line by Davies as Elmohamedy barged into him. Sunderland trooped off the pitch to much home chagrin, but they will simply be hoping the season’s climax arrives as soon as possible to avoid more strikerless punishment.

West Brom continued their superb conclusion to the season under Roy Hodgson, with a well-earned win over Aston Villa. Despite an early comical own goal from Abdoulaye Meite, the Baggies retrieved the points with a poacher’s effort from star man Peter Odemwingie and a persistent run and finish from Youssuf Mulumbu, aided by some abject defending from Luke Young. The one blot was a second yellow card for Paul Scharner for a rugby-style foul on Stylian Petrov, but the home fans were too busy relishing their first victory over their neighbours for 26 years.

The biggest shock of the season possibly came at Bloomfield Road, where Blackpool failed to score for the first time in the Premier League, and even more surprisingly kept a clean sheet, as they endured a goalless draw against Stoke, who celebrated a rare away result. There were a few presentable chances, but clearly the defining moment in the game came when Kenwyne Jones found himself clean through, rounded the goalkeeper, but astonishingly fired hopelessly wide of a net left open by covering defender Ian Evatt’s untimely loss of footing. The Tangerines live to fight another day.