City shows its title mettle; Pavlyuchenko saves Spurs
Man City's win over Arsenal was a wide-open affair despite the 1-0 scoreline
Little-used striker Roman Pavlyuchenko salvaged a win for Spurs
Welsh international Craig Bellamy is looking like a bargain signing for Liverpool
Five things we learned from the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League.
1. Breathless. The showdown between resurgent Arsenal and wounded Manchester City generated only one goal, scored by David Silva for City after 53 minutes, but it was a pulsating, thrilling match. Part of the reason is that both back fours started the game playing deep. That, in theory, denies speedy opponents space to run into, but on Sunday it left huge empty areas in midfield through which play ebbed and flowed at exhilarating speed. Another reason was the willingness of the two managers to use the attacking talent they have. At one time or another City had Mario Balotelli, Sergio Agüero, Edin Dzeko, Samir Nasri and David Silva on the field. Arsenal used Theo Walcott, Gervinho, Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and Robin van Persie. Both teams created a host of chances. Both goalies made good saves. Both sets of defenders were impressive in the face of unrelenting pressure. The decisive goal, when Silva was left alone in front of goal, came just a few minutes after Arsenal had reshuffled its entire defensive alignment when Johan Djourou went off injured.
The victory was important for City, which had lost at Chelsea six days earlier and been pushed out of first by Manchester United earlier in the day. It showed the courage to try to win like a champion. But Arsenal's performance might have been more significant. Last time it was in Manchester it lost, 8-2, to United. On Sunday, Arsenal, despite its horrible injury problems at fullback, went toe-to-toe with City and created enough chances to gain a result. Arsenal looks like Arsenal again.
2. Mr Angry of Loftus Road. It's an immutable law of sport that there are always fans in the crowd who come to the match to work out their frustration with life. Maybe they are having problems at work. Who knows? Many years ago, so many in fact that Luton Town was still in the top division, I was at Kenilworth Road covering a truly awful goalless draw with Everton. The blessed relief of sleep was only prevented by an apoplectic old man behind the press box who spent the afternoon bellowing obscenities at the officials. At one point, an assistant referee, sprinting to keep up with a rare burst of attacking play, fumbled as he went to signal a throw to the defending team. "Linesman, you idiot," the old man yelled, "you had the flag in the wrong hand." Well, I bet that got the poor official struck off the referees' list. On another occasion, Arsenal kicked off at Highbury and lobbed the ball wide for the winger to chase. He collided with the fullback, the ball went out, and the linesman gave a throw against Arsenal. Less than 10 seconds into the game, a fan leapt to his feet, already in a rage, and hollered: "Arsenal throw. Linesman, you'll feel a total fool when you see that on TV tonight." Well, probably not. When QPR plays, the angry man was not in the crowd but on the bench. With Rangers losing, being outplayed and clearly doomed to defeat against Manchester United on Sunday, Howard Webb, the World Cup final referee, waited to see if the Reds would gain an advantage before whistling for offside. When the ball fell to a QPR player, Webb gave the free kick to United. It was hardly a game-changing decision, yet Neil Warnock, the home manager, not for the first time, flew into a rage. He spent almost a minute on the sideline yelling, miming putting a whistle to his mouth and, incomprehensibly, spinning his hands. Clearly Warnock was having problems at work. His team could not cope with United's verve and creativity in attack as it lost, by the rather flattering score of 2-0. Of course it's part of Warnock's act. Nevertheless, one would hope that, for once, he feels like a total fool when he sees the replay on TV.
3. Roman holiday. One worry for Spurs is their lack of like-for-like cover at key positions. On its recent surge up the standings, Tottenham have killed with speed, but on Sunday, for the home match with Sunderland, one of their flying wingers, Gareth Bale, was missing injured and the other, Aaron Lennon, tweaked a hamstring after 27 minutes and limped off. Harry Redknapp had several wide payers on the bench, although none offers the same deadly combination of pace and skill. Instead he sent on a lumbering central striker, Roman Pavlyuchenko. The Russian has chafed at being the fourth-choice striker. He has muttered about wanting away in January and in his rare recent appearances he has looked uninterested and lethargic. For most of his 70-odd minutes on the field on Sunday he was so invisible he might already have been on a winter vacation. His very occasional touches were, almost all, distinguished by clumsy ineptness. In the second half, Spurs abandoned the idea of keeping Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric on the wings. They wandered inside into the already crowded central midfield. Yet so good is their close control that, along with Scott Parker, they began to pick Sunderland apart. Yet Emmanuel Adebayor and, worst of all, Modric facing an empty net, could not convert the chances Spurs made. That is what Pavlyuchenko does. When Van der Vaart's clever pass presented the Russian with an opening inside the penalty area he suddenly awoke and rolled a precise shot into the corner of the net. It was the only goal Spurs needed to win, 1-0, and revive its momentum after a loss at Stoke. It was the only contribution the Russian made, but Redknapp, shoes hunch paid off, is unlikely to complain.
4. Who is that masked man? The padded helmet that followed the cracked skull has acquired a face mask following a broken nose earlier this season. One British tabloid said it made the wearer look like Batman. Yet the man in goal for Chelsea at Wigan on Saturday looked nothing like a super hero. Indeed, he bore little resemblance to Petr Cech, once a contender for the title of best goalie in the world. How can we be sure it really is him? There were limp punches at corners. There was one tremendous tackle; more centerback than goalie, but that was immediately followed by a terrible clearance and a bizarre wrong-way dive. On that occasion, only a brave goal-line header by José Bosingwa prevented a Wigan equalizer. In the end though, the masked man came to Wigan's rescue, fumbling a soft, mis-hit pass and presenting Jordi Gomez with the goal that earned the home team the 1-1 draw that took the air out of Chelsea's recent mini revival. Rumors are that Cech, like Frank Lampard, Alex, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba is on André Villas-Boas' Christmas wish-you-weren't-here list. The problem is that the masked man, whoever he is, apparently remains Chelsea's best goalkeeper. But maybe he isn't Cech.
5. Cheap at the price. Back on Aug. 31, on a frantic transfer deadline day, Liverpool picked up Craig Bellamy, a spiky wide midfielder who had already had a fairly unhappy one-year stint at the club, for nothing from Manchester City. Two other veteran deadline-day signings, Parker at Spurs and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal have been instrumental in the recent revivals of their new clubs, but it is possible that Bellamy was the best signing. Even at 32, he gives Liverpool's attack something it lacks: speed.
On Sunday, he was the spark as Liverpool ripped Villa apart in the first 15 minutes. Bellamy seemed to be involved in every attack as Liverpool poured forward and won a string of corners. From one, Bellamy pounced to score the first goal. Then he took the corner from which Martin Skrtel headed the second. From then on, Liverpool seemed to settle into counterattacking mode, which is Bellamy's forte. The game ended 2-0 because Liverpool wasted a string of chances. Luis Suárez managed to hit the underside of the bar and the inside of the post and still not score. According to Opta, he has hit the woodwork five times this season, more than any other player and Liverpool 17 times, more than any other team (and also more than 15 of the 20 Premier League sides did in the whole of last season). Despite the continued wastefulness, Bellamy and Liverpool looked very good.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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