Rooney, Nasri and the changing face of English soccer
Wayne Rooney isn't a great player, but he's good, which he proved again Sunday
Samir Nasri's failure to block Robin van Persie's game-winner cost City severely
The reaction to the coin thrown at Rio Ferdinand shows how soccer has changed
Five thoughts from Sunday's action in the English Premier League ...
1. The genius that is Rooney. Let's start with Wayne Rooney. This blog has, more than once, suggested that Rooney is overrated. He isn't a good enough athlete to merit the frequent comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. But that doesn't mean he isn't a very good player.
Above all, when he keeps his adrenaline and temper under control he has a great football brain. His first goal in the Manchester derby on Sunday was not a product of unusual individual skill. Any park player would be capable of the little change of direction that briefly wrong-footed three City defenders, or the soft little shot that bisected two of them and left Joe Hart rooted to the spot as it rolled gently into the corner of the net. But how many players, at any level, would have seen those possibilities? It had the gasp-eliciting quality of genius.
The second goal was, by comparison, merely an excellent striker's finish. It put United two goals ahead and took Rooney to the landmark of 150 goals in the Premier League.
Rooney had one more contribution to make. When United won a free kick on the right in the 91st minute with the score tied, Rooney, on the brink of a hat trick and with the chance for glory beckoning, walked away. The angle suited Robin van Persie, who is left footed. The Dutchman scored and could bask in the spotlight as United won 3-2.
2. Nasri's moment of fear. Two goals down at halftime, City was primed for another comeback. When Carlos Tévez joined Sergio Agüero in attack after 52 minutes the two pint-strikers tore at the much bigger United defenders.
Agüero had already shown his appetite for the physical battle when he drove through Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Rafael in the first half before shooting just too close to the excellent David de Gea.
The tenacity of Tévez and Agüero set up Yaya Touré for City's first goal. When Mario Zabaleta, another player ready to run through barbed-wire covered walls for his team, leveled with four minutes ago, City seemed poised for another great escape at the expense of United.
Then came Van Persie's free kick. At the end of the wall Samir Nasri's courage failed. It cost City the game. As Van Persie struck the ball, Nasri, turned away, tugged the man inside him Edin Dzeko across and ducked behind the big Bosnian. As he did so, Nasri stuck a foot in the direction of a ball he could no longer see. He got enough of a touch to deflect the shot a few inches away from Hart and into the goal.
Taking a hard-hit soccer ball in the face is no fun. But Nasri's moment of fear means City is six points behind United in the title race. And Samir, it's not as if you're that pretty anyway.
3. The changing face of English soccer. In 1981, the blog went to the ramshackle Vetch Field to see Swansea, enjoying an earlier moment of glory in the top division, entertain Tottenham. A large section of the home support spent the evening attempting to insult Chris Hughton, at the time a Tottenham defender. They called him "Chicken George" after a mixed-race character in Roots, a television miniseries popular at the time. At the time, racial abuse, like violence, was considered an unpleasant but ineradicable part of the terrace culture. Non-white players, like Hughton, were simply expected to get on with it.
On Saturday, Hughton was in Swansea again. The team he now manages, Norwich, was playing at Swansea's shiny new home, the Liberty Stadium. During the game, Sébastien Bassong, a Norwich defender and Cameroonian international, complained to officials that one fan had made a racist gesture at him. By the end of the game, Swansea was able to release a statement saying the offending fan had been identified and arrested by police. Players are no longer expected to put up with racial abuse.
On Sunday, after Van Persie scored the winning goal, at the Ettihad, the home fans were angry and they expressed it with more than noise. It has become a convention that fans are so sensitive and volatile that the very sight of opposing players celebrating is an unacceptable affront that will unavoidably push them over the edge.
As Rio Ferdinand jumped up and down before the home fans he was struck in the face by a coin. The camera panned to the crowd who were gesturing angrily and indignantly, as if to suggest that they, not Ferdinand, were the victims and intended to get the revenge that was their due. One fan even squirmed through security to confront the bloodied Ferdinand. Hart stepped in and waved a large fist. The fan, wisely, backed down.
There was no suggestion that this incident had anything to do with the color of Ferdinand's skin. It was all to do with the color of his shirt.
That may be why Ferdinand could afford to joke on Twitter: "Whoever threw that coin, what a shot! Can't believe it was a copper 2p ... could have at least been a £1 coin!"
Within minutes, City released a statement apologizing to Ferdinand. It said it was examining video and hoped to identify the fan.
The message from the weekend was clear. English soccer has changed its spots.
4. Torres scores again ... and again. Fernando Torres scored twice and his shot against the post set up the third as Chelsea won 3-1 at Sunderland on Saturday. Is this the Rafa Benítez effect?
In 214 games at Atletico Madrid, his first club, Torres scored an average of one goal every 2.6 games. In the six months he stayed with Liverpool after Benitez left and in his 18 months at Chelsea , Torres has scored at average of once every 3.6 games. With the Spanish national team, where lately he has been used primarily off the bench, Torres has scored once every three games. But in four seasons under Benitez at Liverpool, he scored once every 1.52 games. He's now scored four in the five games since Benítez arrived. The question is whether he was simply at his peak or Benítez knew something other coaches did not.
On Saturday, the first Torres goal was an excellent first-time finish. The second was only the third goal Torres has scored from a penalty in the Premier League. His reluctance to take spot kicks, he passed up two in the Champions League against Nordsjaelland in midweek, has raised eyebrows. There are suggestions that it could signal a lack of confidence. It might simply be that Torres is too nice, willing to defer to bigger egos like Stephen Gerrard, Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard.
Indeed, part of the change under Benítez is that Torres is no longer being asked to put others first. On Saturday, he didn't drop back or pull wide to link up the play. Torres stayed on the last defender all afternoon. Simply spending more time in front of goal should yield more goals. That system also has other attractions for Benítez. It allows coach to adopt a more cautious, counter-attacking style. But the question remains whether Torres can still race onto balls curled over the central defenders, the sort of pass Gerrard played so well, and out-run them to the goal.
Torres also scored twice in Denmark on Wednesday. Four goals in two games is a good return. But Sunderland is bad and Nordsjaelland is worse.
5. The trouble with Harry. Harry Redknapp is a door-to-door salesman operating in a town of fewer than 100 households. Of those, only 20 or so can afford whatever it is he is selling. Nobody is quite sure exactly what that is.
One thing Harry sells is protection against relegation. He likes to say he pulled both Portsmouth and Tottenham from the jaws of Championship soccer. In truth, Portsmouth was not in the relegation zone the second time he took over (the first time, it was already in the Championship). Tottenham was at the bottom, but it had only played only eight games, had money to spend in the transfer window and had a solid Premier League squad. Harry had time to sell that idea to the players and buy some more in January. Harry's failure to save Southampton is in the small print on the back of the tin.
Perhaps Harry should have thought twice when Queens Park Rangers knocked on his door. In such a small community, one dissatisfied customer can be put down to bad luck, two can seriously damage your reputation.
On the face of it QPR looked ripe for a sprinkling of Harry's magic dust (or snake oil, depending on your point of view). It's a collection of veteran players who just needed a little organization and a lot of motivation. The 2-2 draw at Wigan on Saturday meant QPR is unbeaten in the three games since Harry started sitting on its bench. On the other hand, QPR still hasn't won under Harry. Indeed it set a Premier League record on Saturday for games from the start of the season without a victory: it has played 15, drawn 7 and lost 8.
On Saturday, against the first team it has to catch to escape the bottom three, QPR was outshot almost 2-1. It's becoming clear that despite the high name recognition of its squad, QPR isn't very good. It's now eight points behind 17th place and Wigan. Although its only played 40 per cent of the season, it feels as if time is already running out. The next six months will provide a true test of whether Harry can deliver on his advertising.