Manchester City keeps rolling, a flurry of red cards and more
Manchester City avoided another Fulham comeback with a decisive 3-0 win
Referees handed out nine red cards in the top two English divisions
Arsenal drilled Blackburn 7-1 but manager Arsene Wenger was unimpressed
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:
1. City rolls on. Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, chose to give Adam Johnson a rare start on the right wing. Fulham's Martin Jol opted to drop John Arne Riise and bring in Chris Baird at left back. Mancini got it right. Jol got it wrong. After 10 minutes, Baird tripped Johnson. Sergio Agüero converted the penalty. After 30 minutes, Baird attempted to block a cross and deflected it into his own net. City was two goals up, in control and heading for its 12th straight home league victory.
Earlier in the season, after City built a two-goal lead at Fulham, Mancini took off Agüero and David Silva, his team relaxed and Fulham fought back to draw 2-2. On Saturday, in a second half twice interrupted while the lines were cleared of snow, and doubtless aching for the warmth of the locker room, City did just enough to retain control in the second half, adding a third goal through Edin Dzeko to erase any chance of another Fulham comeback. City won 3-0.
Perhaps the two City players who could be happiest with Saturday evening's work were Yaya and Kolo Touré who were preparing to play for Ivory Coast in an African Cup of Nations quarterfinal in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, where the temperature was a balmy 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
They will almost certainly return from their break in the sun to find City where they left it, top of the standings.
2. A blizzard of red cards. English soccer's traditionalists, who enjoy the manly crunch of a good broken leg, and managers, who don't like to see their players sent off, have been making so much fuss over the way referees having been punishing wild tackles this season that Mike Riley, the general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials, this week sent the clubs a letter. The essential message was simple: Don't tackle with two feet!
Riley released a statement which said, in part: '"If you commit to a tackle at speed and with intensity, typically with both feet off the ground, then you put yourself at risk of being sent off.'
As if to prove the point, the referees on Saturday could barely keep their red cards in their pockets. There were nine reds in the top two divisions. The three in the Premier League all came in the first half of games. Not all were for wild tackles. QPR's Djibril Cissé was sent off for reacting to a bad tackle by manhandling Roger Johnson of Wolves.
But Gaël Givet of Blackburn and Robert Huth of Stoke both slid into tackles with two feet. Both fouls were committed in the center of midfield. Whatever advantage the challenges might have yielded was massively outweighed by the actual cost to their teams.
Givet's tackle was a good example of one frequent ingredient of such moments of madness. He had miss-controlled the ball, an embarrassing moment for a professional player, and as it rolled away, lunged after it and into Robin van Persie. Huth seemed to make an effort to keep at least one of his feet down as he slid through the snow at David Meyler of Sunderland. Huth is a thug but a clever thug. It was his first red card in eight years. His luck was bound to run out eventually.
Stoke lost 1-0 at home to Sunderland. Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, blamed the victim. "Robert skids in but doesn't touch the player,'' he told the BBC. "The player rolls around and stays down. But Robert hasn't touched him. The player tries to get him sent off. It's a disease that's creeping into the game."
Cheating is bad, of course. Yet Stoke is notorious for their robust testing of the laws and the spirit of the game, so Pulis can hardly complain. All the incident showed was that Meyler had read the memo.
3. Turning the corner? Arsenal had gone four league games without a victory and dropped to seventh in the standings. During the week, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal coach, declared that the Gunners needed to go unbeaten over their last 15 games just to finish in the top four. On the face of it, this was a puzzling thing to say chiefly because it's not true. What would have happened if the Gunners had lost to Blackburn on Saturday? Would they have given up?
There was a moment, after Morten Gamst Pedersen hit an undeserved equalizer when Arsenal, briefly, looked fragile again. Earlier this season, Arsenal outplayed Blackburn at Ewood Park, built a two-goal lead and yet contrived to lose 4-3. It wasn't going to happen again. Even before Givet was sent off, Rovers simply couldn't cope with the pace and movement of Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Blackburn was dire. Arsenal feasted ruthlessly and only stopped when it led 7-1 and Thierry Henry had scored a rather ugly goal.
Van Persie and Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular looked unstoppable, but all the result proved is that Arsenal can run up the score against shambolic opponents reduced to 10 men. Wenger wasn't getting carried away.
"It was an emphatic score line but the most important thing was to get the three points today,'' he told the BBC. "The result gives us confidence for rest of season."
4. What a mess. Blackburn has produced some impressive results this season, notably the home victory over Arsenal and an away win at Manchester United. But those have been mixed in with a series of horrible performances. The team has shown fighting spirit on the field, but the recently-closed transfer window revealed some problems off it.
Keith Andrews, who hadn't played for Blackburn this season, moved to West Brom last week claiming, according to the Daily Mail, that his former club was in "chaos". He also said that he did not think the club's newish owners, Venky, knew that teams could be relegated from the Premier League.
More seriously, Chris Samba, the cornerstone of the defense, did not play on Saturday. Samba had asked for a transfer in January. The club refused to let him go. Steve Kean, the manager, said he was absent because he was not in the right frame of mind. It's not clear what frame of mind the defenders who did start were in. Van Persie is the top scorer in the Premier League, yet repeatedly Rovers left him alone in front of goal. Van Persie punished them, three times.
The consolation for Blackburn is that it is not the only bad team in the Premier League. The trouble is that while its rivals could, in theory, hope to improve, Blackburn appears to be in danger of falling apart.
5. What's hot and what's not. In recent seasons, cold weather has provided the Premier League's fashion-conscious players, in cahoots with their sponsors and club kit managers, with a chance to experiment. In good weather self-expression is limited to bad tats, misjudged facial hair and garish boots. The cold, though, provides fashion opportunities. Last season's fad, the snood, has been banned. Tights seem to have fallen out of favor. The question is how to balance warmth, hipness and elegance while still displaying a proper degree of masculine toughness.
On Saturday evening, with the temperature below freezing and sleet and snow falling, some of the Manchester City and Fulham players opted for the latest modish ensemble: short-sleeved club shirts over matching long-sleeved under-shirts. Joleon Lescott of City, however, simply wore long sleeves. He played very well. Others, like the midfield hard men, Dickson Etuhu of Fulham and Gareth Barry of City, advertised their disregard for discomfort by playing with their muscular arms bared.
This blog might be showing its age, but it has always been rigidly opposed to t-shirts worn over something with long sleeves. But it does accept that the double-shirted approach, while looking stupid, is still a better response to the cold than that shown by those fans in Manchester and also, of course, by Sunderland fans in the snow at Stoke who watched the games bare-chested. This is a particularly bad idea when, as so often seems to be the case with fans who take their shirts off, you have a beer belly.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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