Chelsea continues limp form; "Snood" fashion craze takes hold
England was plagued by freezing conditions, with Blackpool postponing its game
Latest fashion craze for players are neck warmers called Snoods
Chelsea's poor run of form continued with a draw at home to Everton
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:
1. Shall we talk about the weather? We English like to joke that we talk about the weather so much because the country have so much of it. It also appeals as a subject of conversation because it allows us to avoid the potentially embarrassing pitfalls of politics or, worse still, our personal lives. The same, of course, applies to sport. So when the weather hits sports, as it did across Britain on Saturday, it provides an opportunity for a cacophony of joyous moaning.
The problem with imitating continental leagues and taking a break is that the English weather is so unpredictable that many winters pass with barely any snow, and if freezing conditions hit, it can be as late as March or as early as the start of December. The traditional thinking has been that a long league season allows ample flexibility for rescheduling. The problem for the big clubs is that the open dates in the long season have been filled with other moneymaking competitions.
The only Premier League game called off on Saturday was, predictably at Blackpool. Before this season, Blackpool had spent almost 40 years pottering around the English lower divisions and had never been able to afford the cookie-cutter flat-pack stadiums that many medium-sized clubs have erected in the last two decades. The club remains at Bloomfield Road, its home since 1901. While Blackpool hastily erected a temporary, East Stand in the summer, the ground remains, in some eyes, ramshackle and outdated. To others it is a quirky and atmospheric reminder of what English grounds should be like. Crucially it still has no undersoil heating. The frozen ground on Saturday deprived the club a chance to celebrate its surprisingly bubbly start to its first Premier League season with a televised game against mighty Manchester United.
Ian Holloway, the Blackpool manager, said a cancellation would be "embarrassing," but rescheduling should not be a problem for his club. For Manchester United it is another matter. The English league season has to end on May 22. Between now and then, United must play 23 league games and also, potentially six Champions League and five FA Cup matches. Suddenly the embarrassing 4-0 loss by an understrength United team at West Ham on Tuesday in the League Cup looks like a blessing -- wiping two and perhaps three more games off the schedule. Even so that's a lot of games for a club, which has already had a series of injuries to key players this season, and now there's another one to squeeze in. The cancellation was also badly timed for United whose attack finally clicked into gear in a 7-1 victory over Blackburn last week. That victory took it to the top of the table for the first time this season. Blackpool may well have been the team Alex Ferguson would have chosen as the next opponent and the chance to confirm that good form and cement his team in first place.
2. So what ails Chelsea? Manchester United was deposed as leader, but not by Chelsea. Chelsea led the league by four points at the start of November but won only one of its league games in the month. The return Saturday of two of its talismans, Michael Essien, after suspension, and John Terry, from injury, promised a stiffening of the team's spirit. Maybe they are still short of fitness, but they made little difference. Chelsea did not impress in the first half but took the lead with a penalty kick. Tim Howard, the Everton goalkeeper, was perhaps a little fortunate to stay on the field after upending Nicholas Anelka and could do nothing about Didier Drogba's blasted spot kick. Yet that was all Chelsea had to offer. Everton dominated the second half. Jermaine Beckford, who had come on in the 58th minute, leveled with a close-range header with four minutes left. Beckford, a striker who moved up the divisions from Leeds in the summer, had only scored one goal all season. His penchant for missing chances had brought grumbles from Everton fans. But his goal earned Everton a fifth consecutive league draw at Stamford Bridge. His team deserved even more. As for Chelsea, it has, as Carlo Ancelotti, the team manager, said to Sky television, lost its way.
3. The hot fashion item. When the late Keith Weller, a sometime England midfielder, played in a pair of his wife's white tights for a game on a freezing day in January 1979 he was roundly mocked. The fact that he danced through the Norwich defense to score for Leicester in a 3-0 cup victory did not quiet those who asked about his fitness to play a man's game.
The same questions were asked when goalkeepers started to sport sweatpants and outfield players gloves. Now English soccer is agog over the latest fashion trend. Some have suggested calling it a scarfetta. The rather ominous word "cowl" has been mentioned. The consensus seems to be "snood" even though that short-lived fashion disaster involved, as the same suggests, a hood. This thing is a neck warmer, for goodness sake. The trend reached England in January when Carlos Tévez and Martin Petrov wore them while playing for Manchester City. It spread across the league as temperatures fell last weekend. And it wasn't just effete foreigners: one Englishman, J.D. Campbell of Blackpool wore a neck warmer -- thus depriving fans of the sight of his rather fetching neck tattoos.
Tony Cascarino, once a bruising Ireland center forward, dutifully stood up for the real men. He told the BBC that he never remembers having a cold neck and dismissing neck warmers as a mere fashion accessory. "I would see it as a weakness, slightly, that they're not a real man, " he obligingly added.
British bookmakers gleefully started offering odds on how many Manchester City players would wear neck warmers on Saturday and how many Arsenal players would wear gloves.
One player who ticked both boxes last weekend was Samir Nasri who sported the puzzling combination of a neck warmer and gloves with a short-sleeved shirt at Aston Villa.
On Saturday, Nasri abandoned the gloves but still wore the neck warmer with his short-sleeved shirt. It didn't slow him down as he scored twice, the second with a balletic spin move that opened up the goal for a right-foot finish. That goal gave Arsenal a hard-fought 2-1 victory over visiting Fulham and lifted it a point above Manchester United.
Maybe warmth is not the issue for Nasri, whose neck warmer bears a prominent Nike logo.
4. Can anyone exploit the wobbly form of the top three? Manchester City beat Bolton, 1-0, to cement its hold on fourth place. Tévez scored the winning goal after just four minutes. City had chances to score more. David Silva hit the crossbar. Mario Balotelli twice had just Jussi Jaaskeleinen to beat but hit one shot against the post and the second straight at the keeper.
Yet all is not rosy in Roberto Mancini's garden. During the week there were photos of Balotelli and Jerome Boateng taking swings at each other in training. On Saturday, Boateng was absent while Kolo Touré went off injured after half an hour, with Aleksandar Kolarov was sent off. When Mancini responded to the red card by removing Tévez, the goal-scorer responded with a gesture as he reached the bench. But while its players might be unhappy and undisciplined, City is still winning and has cut its deficit on first place to three points whole opening a three-point gap on fifth-placed Tottenham.
As for Spurs, Harry Redknapp's men dominated the first hour at Birmingham. It took the lead with a goal by Sebastian Bassong. But Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch, who have only one league goal between them this season, squandered a series of chances. Spurs, which has not kept a clean sheet since opening day, duly gave away a goal, scored by Craig Gardner, and drew, 1-1. Maybe it needs to play Inter Milan or Arsenal every week.
5. The rewards of idleness. West Ham did not kick a ball on Saturday. Weather permitting, it will play at Sunderland on Sunday. Yet it still completed a good seven days by climbing out of last place. It is level on points with Wolves, which lost, 3-0, at Blackburn, more than erasing the two-goal edge it had held over the Hammers.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.