Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday Morning Keeper - EPL Week 24

Courtesy of talksport.uk.com
I know when I woke up on Sunday morning the only sporting event on my mind was the Chelsea v Manchester United match on Fox. Come on, who am I kidding, everyone in America was jacked up for the SuperBowl and little if any focus was put on Fox's second attempt to show a live EPL match on network television. For the general viewing public, if you happened to tune into the match at 11am you were in for a real treat. For the die-hard soccer follower, you were left scratching your head as to how United always seem to recover from self-destruction in the course of ninety minutes. In either case the match made for good television and hopefully provided enough motivation for Fox to continue showing matches on their network.

The match was a test for both teams, with United winning the previous match-up at Old Trafford 3-1 back in September. Both teams made very few changes during the January transfer window, so the squads taking the pitch in September and February were very much the same with one exception, Jonathan Evans for United. Evans has been on the wrong side of penalty calls and poor defending on more than one occasion this season, so it was a bit of a surprise when Sir Alex decided to have the young defender start the match. The inevitable happened in the thirty-sixth minute when Daniel Sturridge cross the ball in front of the net and it bounced off Evans and in for an own-goal and a 1-0 Chelsea lead. Some would say it was bad luck on Evans' part, but he was out of position and should have been out further defending Torres or Mata who were coming in for the cross. The teams would go into the locker room at the half with Chelsea still holding the only goal of the match, but you had a feeling the gloves were going to come off in the second half. I'm not sure what Sir Alex drew up for United coming back onto the pitch for the second half, but whatever it was I am pretty sure it didn't involve Juan Mata drilling a roof top shot past a motionless David De Gea for the 2-0 lead just thirty seconds into the half. The ball would continue to bounce in favor of Chelsea just four minutes later when David Luiz headed a ball into Rio Ferdinand's shoulder and deflected past De Gea to make it 3-0 Chelsea. It looked like a lock for Chelsea, a much needed 3 points in their effort to maintain position in the top four of the league; but the soccer gods act in mysterious ways. It's almost like the phone came down from the EPL front offices to referee Howard Webb saying, "Chelsea can't win this match, they lost to Aston Villa you know." The circus commenced ten minutes later as Patrice Evra fell in the box from either a soft touch by Daniel Sturridge or a strong breeze from the south to earn a penalty which Wayne Rooney converted. After another ten minutes of shots on goal from both sides it was Howard Webb injecting his influence again by calling for a second penalty due to Welbeck tripping over himself in the box while in close proximity to Branislav Ivanovic. Rooney switched it up and went to the right with his penalty kick, easily converting it and pulling United to within one goal of Chelsea. However United did earn the final goal of the match when 87-year-old Ryan Giggs lifted a fantastic cross onto the 6-yard line where Chicharito headed it home for the equalizer. The crowd at Stamford Bridge was left in shock, Chelsea have never lost a EPL match at home after leading 3-0, but it just happened. Chelsea are not as good as year's past, everyone knows this, but for them not to able and dig in and defend a 3-0 lead for 30 minutes in unimaginable. At this point the Blues are simply looking to make Champions League, they are 14 points out of the lead and have Newcastle and Arsenal within 3 points of them for fourth place. United on the other hand knew they made a statement in their comeback, but realized they left two valuable points on the pitch which increased the lead for their cross-town rivals Manchester City.

A number of matches on Saturday were impacted by a rare snowfall that hit across most of north and central England including at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester where City looked to clear one of the blemishes on their season, avenging the tie with Fulham earlier in the year. City were up 2-0 in the match at Craven Cottage in September before Fulham came back and tied the match to split the points; no lead would have been enough for City to take their foot off the gas. From the start it looked like the Cottagers were content with hunkering in on defense and waiting out the storm from both the snow and the City offense. However, a slight bit of trickery by Adam Johnson in the box in the first ten minutes won City a penalty, a gift which Sergio Aguero converted for the early lead. The offense from both sides was limited through most of the first with the snow requiring the match to be stopped for the lines to be cleared at times. Aguero was the catalyst for City's second goal of the match when he crossed a ball to Adam Johnson that was intercepted by Chris Baird by mistake who deflected the ball into his own net in the thirtieth minute. City went into the half for a very similar 2-0 lead like they had in their previous match with Fulham, but the biggest factor in the second half came from the sky and not the benches. The snow fell at a rapid pace in through much of the remainder of the match limiting visibility and offensive opportunities. The final goal of the match again came from the work of Aguero who dodge two weak tackles in the box to go one-on-one with the keeper. In a sign of his maturity he elected to roll the ball to a charging Dzeko who was unmarked and finished the goal to put City up 3-0 and secure the victory. Fulham has been playing fairly well recently, but they continue to hang in the bottom half of the table and just 7 points clear of the relegation zone. For City they victory coupled with the United draw meant a two point lead in the league standings.

The other big match of the weekend had to be Arsenal hosting Blackburn where the Gunners basically said, "we have Robin Van Persie and you don't." I hope for the sake of the league that Blackburn is relegated, they are worse than awful and results like Sunday make the league as a whole look bad. After RVP scored in the second minute the match was rather dull until Blackburn equalized in the thirty-first minute off a Morten Pedersen free-kick that was a gem. I don't think there was a single Blackburn fan on the planet that thought the 1-1 result would hold... and they would be right. RVP would score his second goal in the thirty-eighth minute followed two minutes later by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to push Arsenal ahead 3-1. A two-footed tackle by Blackburns Gael Givet was stupid in the best sense and rightfully earned him a straight red and an early trip to the showers. After the half it was all Gunners with goals from Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, RVP, and MLS-loaner Thierry Henry. 7-1 and a complete domination by Arsenal definitely helped the squad in their effort to move back into Champions League.

With American Football over for the season you can now focus your weekends entirely on Association Football, or your family, whichever is more important to you. Here is a look at the top and bottom of the table after twenty-four matches, keep in mind Liverpool hosts Tottenham today.

1. Man City - 57 pts, +44 GD (18-3-3)
2. Man United - 55 pts, +35 GD (17-4-3)
3. Tottenham - 49 pts, +19 GD (15-4-4)
4. Chelsea - 43 pts, +15 GD (12-7-5)
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17. Wolverhampton - 21 pts, -17 GD (5-6-13)
18. Bolton - 20 pts, -21 GD (6-2-16)
19. Blackburn - 18 pts, -20 GD (4-6-14)
20. Wigan - 16 pts, -28 GD (3-7-14)

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