Every week I play in a social game of football that ranges in size from four to twelve a side. It is a straightforward setup with the only limitations being barefoot play and the goals are small like in ice hockey. It used to be that we would play first to ten, but then it got to the point where even after over two hours of non stop play the score would barely sneak past three each. Sitting exhausted in the grass of Hagley Park I wondered how can so much effort go so unrewarded.
Thoughts which I am sure were echoes of what the players of Barcelona and Valencia had had the day before. Their clash on Sunday morning (NZT) was the best game that I watched this weekend. A frenetic ninety minutes of exquisitely skillful, counter thrust football. Unbelievable though, was that when Alfonso Pérez Burrull blew time the scoreboard at the Mestalla still sat unchanged at 0-0.
This biggest and most obvious story at the beginning of the season was about which of the traditional big four teams would be replaced by the inevitable return on investment at Manchester City. It would not be a stretch to posit that near universal opinion was that this team would be the spendthrift Gunners. The stellar start that Spurs and now Aston Villa have made has expanded this story some which can only be a good thing for the competitiveness in the league.
That is unless you are a Liverpool fan. In finishing second by four points last season, the Reds only lost twice all year. In less that a quarter of their 09/10 effort they have already doubled that tally. If you know one remind them that no team has won the title losing more than five games. I wonder whose Scouse branded beach ball (now a hot item for rival fans) it was that deflected Darren Bents fifth minute shot and how they are feeling today? A sinking feeling no doubt, mirroring the movement of the team on the table dropping four places to below victors on the day Sunderland.
How many points are earned or dropped against clubs in the lower half of the table is a fairly simple measure of a team’s mental fortitude. It is this area that perennial disappointments like Tottenham fail at and so finish ninth once again. Or the difference between fourth for Arsenal, who gave away fifteen points to those bottom ten teams last year, and winners ManUre who only dropped two.
Or, if you are a team like Aston Villa, it is those eight games a year against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and United that scupper your challenge. In their last forty two encounters with these opponents that have won a mere three times. For all his exuberance on the sideline Martin O’Neill does seem to have added a layer of resilience to his squad this year. It is surely no coincidence that both centre halves are new to the team and both are playing with huge points to prove.
Richard Dunne, cast aside by Abu City one year shy of his testimonial has started the season in a classic ‘screw you’ style. By contrast is James Collins who is playing to prove that he is capable of the higher aspirations that Villa have compared to West Ham where he came from. Both scored in inflicting Chelsea’s second straight away loss and the Villains have conceded the least goals in the league. Not to get too Bill Simmons on it, but this is a team perfect for a Ewing Theory season after Gareth Barry’s departure in the summer.
There was quite a strong symmetry in the games that Arsenal and Manchester United played. Both clubs took early and easy leads against Birmingham and Bolton respectively looking all set for stylish demolition jobs. Only for these traditionally scrappy clubs to fight back through hard work, earn a goal and really make those in red shirts grind out the second half.
There were two great moments in the game at the Emirates. My favourite came when Arsharvin netted the clinching goal and in his celebratory slide it looked as though he was wearing mesh undershorts. The type that I used to see hairy, overweight truck drivers wandering round the carriages of the trans-Siberian in. The other was near the end when the camera sought out new Birmingham owner Carson Yeung. His bored wife sitting next to him, wearing a look that said something like “so this is what weekends are going to be from now on.”
365. That is the number of minutes it took Burnley to score an away goal this season. Amusingly they managed this at the closest goal in the country to their home at Turf Moor. Just fourteen miles separate the participants in the ‘cotton mill derby’ that was won by Blackburn Rovers. “Good God, that one’s mad” is how New Zealand and Blackburn captain Ryan Nelsen sums up the rivalry. (further descriptions here) I am glad some people cared about this game as even fifteen minutes of highlights was near unwatchable, almost as bad as an A League game.
For those with a sadistic bent be sure to watch the Champions League this Thursday (7:30am ESPN) when AC Milan travel to the Bernabeu. Anything but a win will surely be the end of new manager Leonardo after their home loss to a team only there to make up the numbers in FC Zurich on Matchday 2. Then there is the inexcusable eighth place on the table and the sure sign of impending doom of a vote of confidence from the chief executive of the club.