An alternative title to this piece could easily have been Stumbling Block. Right across Europe teams that either had to win to maintain pressure on the league leaders bottled it or table toppers suddenly looked as though they don’t like the limelight anymore and just want to spend some time in mediocrity. Perhaps the most astounding of these was Middlesbrough looking fairly convincing in a 2-0 win over Liverpool at the Riverside, the first time they have managed this for five years. To put some perspective on how long it has been since Gareth Southgate’s boys managed to do anything right I was watching their away win over Aston Villa while in Shanghai, over 8,000kms of land travel ago. If you are reading this at the end of a day’s work think that you’ve just spent that whole time playing football and not scored a goal in that whole time, that being the time between Alfonso Alves putting the ball in the net against Sunderland and Xabi Alonso statuing the ball in for an unfortunate own goal.
Here are some other things that were going on the last time Middlesbrough won:
– UK #1 single they would be listening to – X Factor Finalists – “Hero”
– New Zealand were not yet rugby league World Cup winners.
– Australia were still the best ranked one day team in the world.
– Liverpool were top of the table.
Two weeks ago Adelaide lost 4-0 to Melbourne Victory in some sort of knockout game that didn’t actually knock them out and let them meet up again in the Grand Final of the A League. Lou Piniella or Ozzie Guillen would have been proud of the post match press conference where Adelaide coach Aurelio Vidmar called his place of employ a ‘piss ant town.’ I have never really watched or followed the A League but it was on and I tried to watch trying to decide whether the quality of play was so poor because of the terrible officiating or vice versa. An errant elbow in the 10th minute does not a straight red warrant, especially in the emotionally heightened atmosphere of a final. Maybe the referee is one of those people who has their senses mixed up and sees smells or something, he really should sit down and watch Chris Foy’s performance at letting a final play out from the Carling Cup.
A few years ago the Carling Cup was regarded as a bit of a piss ant competition itself, but has somehow turned itself into a valid piece of silverware. Spurs fans definitely seem to think so with a solid flag waving effort on their side of the stadium for most of the game. Both the result (Man U 4-1 on penalties) and manner were a little disappointing after such an absorbing and free flowing match. It was fun to watch Benoit Assou-Ekotto turn Ronaldo into an ineffectual, pouting, overly gelled, supposedly worth £200k a week but can hardly get a cross in, git. The real star wearing the number 7 jersey was Aaron Lennon who made that favourite of groundskeepers everywhere, Patrice Evra, look decidedly ordinary by skipping round him every time he got the ball. Someone should have had a go at the Wembley groundskeeper for producing a pitch that ripped up as though the grass had been stuck on with a glue stick. One quick United note from the other week when Blackburn’s Roque Santa Cruz finally managed to break the clean sheet record, 105 days after Samir Nasri scored against them. But it was against Thomasz Kuszczak and I wonder how pissy van der Sar was at him after the game.
It was a very good football watching day yesterday. After the Carling Cup Final came Inter-Roma from the San Siro and then the other great upset of the weekend with Athletico Madrid helping their neighbours with a 4-3 win over faltering Barca. Two weeks ago the Primera Liga was done, boring, over but that 12 point lead has now dropped to 4 in a fortnight. Probably the player who represents this turn around the most is keeper Victor Valdez who once upon a time was challenging Casillas for the national spot but now looks indecisive at just about every moment. To win a league you can’t let 2-0 and 3-2 leads turn into 4-3 losses, all the more odd as in the three previous meetings this year Barcelona and won all with an aggregate of 11-4. One really odd thing about these recent weeks that have seen Real Madrid claw back into contention for a third straight title is that whatever team Barcelona does badly against one week, Real play the same team the next. Surely being the two of such a one-two punch helps Los Merengues.
Jose Mourinho knows how to lead from the front. Sometimes you think that managers get too much credit/blame for how things play out on the pitch but a pat on the back is surely deserved when all three of your substitutions work to claw back from 0-2 and 3-1 down and earn a draw that preserves your seven year unbeaten record at home. Especially when one of those decisions is to look past your talismanic top goal scorer to an aging player who hasn’t netted in the nine appearances he has made so far, who then comes on to imperiously head home the equaliser with his second touch of the ball. Also how’s this for “most cocky penalty of the year” nomination (about the 2:30 mark). You can’t really tell on this video but Balotelli has the most intricate cut ins into his number 1 cut. Worth checking out if you are an NRL star looking for the edge this season.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLsPn5lrn7c%5D
Roma have to feel desperately unlucky. They dominated the first hour and, unlike midweek against Arsenal, looked like a competent team who could do things like pass the ball into the attacking third and run. They then scored two outstanding goals around one freakish one from Riise and still only came away with a point which leaves them in sixth.
How about some quick notes from the other Premier League games I watched to round things out? Firstly a big thanks to the ground announcer at Stamford Bridge for ruining the Liverpool game by announcing the score at the end of Chelsea’s home game against Wigan. A game that looked like a pack of Stabilo highlighters let loose on a one page essay on ways Chelsea needs to learn to rely less on Frank Lampard who once again played the role of saviour. John Terry must have watched Karate Kid during the week and executed the crane kick perfectly to lodge his 35th goal for the club making him the highest scoring defender in Chelsea history.
John Terry Practises Midweek.
A surprisingly good game was the one between Aston Villa and Stoke with The Potters scoring twice in the last three minutes to secure a draw. For one of the deftest goals you’re likely to see scored from outside the area check out John Carew’s delicate volley. West Bromich Albion have to be given credit for continuing to play attacking, stylish, passing based football despite being lodged firmly on the bottom of the table. But when you let three and a half of the opposition run in completely unmarked for a free header for the opening goal, working your way up off that bottom place is quite a lot harder. Still, last season they managed a Great Escape From Relegation starting with five fewer points than they currently have and Hull in 13th place are only an extremely reachable seven points ahead. And they have only a moderately difficult fixture list to the end of the season, well compared to Newcastle anyway whose next four weeks go Manchester United, Hull, Arsenal then Chelsea.
This week will be the fifth time in a row where I have looked at the fixtures and thought that Arsenal should be able to get back on track. With Villa’s late lapse against Stoke the Gunners desperately need to break their goal scoring jinx when they meet West Brom on Wednesday. It’s really getting beyond a joke, five successive draws and four in a row 0-0. Where is the player who in his own mind thinks like this.
‘But it does not really matter to me who is fit and available. I should start every game, I should be playing every minute of every match and always be in the team.’
The answer, putting the ball wide of an open net from the six yard box. Better be careful Nicklas, after you failed to put Roma away in the Champions League the fans might start thinking of you in the same way as that embarrassment Eboue. At least the club has had some success.
– Teeth Benitez