Goals, rain pour over Premier League slate; more thoughts
Five thoughts from Saturday's Premier League action:
1. The deluge. It was a day when the twists and turns in the Premier League came with such bewildering speed that even The All-Seeing Blog had some difficulty keeping up.
It rained goals. When Sylvain Marveaux scored Newcastle's second equalizer against Arsenal at the Emirates it was the 1,088th goal scored in the Premier League in 2012 -- breaking the previous record for a calendar year since the league was reduced to 20 teams in 1995. Unfortunately for Newcastle, there were still six more goals to come.
It also rained rain, again. This has been the rainiest year ever in England. One thing we have learned, as much of the country has subsided beneath the floods, is just how good the drainage is at the Premier League stadiums. Good old English mud, and the style of soccer it breeds, is a thing of the past.
Amid the chaos, Manchester United, this season's master of the madcap, maintained its seven-point lead with a rare routine victory. It scored at the start and at the end as it beat visiting West Brom, 2-0. The drama was elsewhere, yet the shadow of Manchester United, and its manager, Alex Ferguson, hung everywhere.
The fallout from Ferguson's halftime performance in the match against Newcastle three days earlier has allowed the old rogue to again seize control of the Premier League agenda.
In that game, Ferguson accosted the referee, Mike Dean, the fourth official and one of the linesmen. Pundits dusted off all the angry Fergie clichés and condemned his rage-crazed eyes and spittle-filled screaming. That's not how it looked to this writer. The waving arms and flapping coat certainly created good footage, and also fired up the home fans. But Dean said Fergie was neither abusive nor out of control. Of course the critics respond that this is only proof of Fergie's ability to scare officials into subservience.
Dean did not mention the incident in his report, which meant the Football Association had to let the matter drop. It did however act on two comments made after other games on the same day. Roberto Mancini of Manchester City had suggested that referee Kevin Friend had eaten too much Christmas turkey. Harry Redknapp, a man who knows that old jokes are best, suggested a linesman should go to SpecSavers, an optician.
Naturally, a lot of Ferguson's peers howled about the apparent double standards. Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, Arsène Wenger, an ancient adversary, and Mancini led the charge. Even Redknapp, life president of the Fergie fan club, took a swing at his hero, saying: "I got frustrated the other day. I didn't chase the referee onto the pitch."
So what did Fergie do? He moved at once to provoke his enemies to even greater fury. He called Pardew a hypocrite and labeled Newcastle a "wee club," for which, he must know, its fans can never forgive him. It's not just that Fergie won't admit he's wrong or back down from a fight. It helps Fergie that foes believe he has special power over referees.
2. Mancini's paranoia. It was Manchester City's turn to gain a breathless, 4-3, victory as it bounced back from defeat at Sunderland with victory at Norwich.
City had seemed on course for an easy victory when Edin Dzeko scored twice in the first four minutes demonstrating that he can score goals as a starter. Indeed, The Blog is rather puzzled by the idea that sitting on the bench for 60 minutes should make anyone more likely to score.
Norwich hit back with a fortuitous goal, but the match became a true contest when Samir Nasri was sent off before half time. Sébastien Bassong had booted Nasri into the air. Nasri then tried to show how tough he was by going eyeball to eyeball with the much bigger center back.. Neither turkey cock would back down. Both craned forward and started rubbing foreheads. It was a provocative game of chicken. Nasri lost. He flexed his neck muscles, making an upward motion that wouldn't have hurt a fly, if one had been glued to Bassong's face. The linesman saw it as a butt. Off Nasri went.
Norwich, in its plodding way, besieged the City goal, but Dzeko banged a third, off the post and Mark Bunn, the goalie. Agüero was quite brilliant. City clung on for a victory.
Mancini started his postgame interview with the BBC reading from the script Fergie had written for him.
"I don't know why," he said of the sending off. "We saw the video, both players touch their heads."
Then Mancini moved from the particular to the general.
"I don't understand the football," he said. "I saw in the last four or five games incredible things."
He couldn't be referring to Fergie could he?
3. Going potty in the potteries. After offering its home fans a four-goal feast in its last home game, the dreariest team in the Premier League, Stoke City, served up a heart-stopping 3-3 draw with Southampton on Saturday.
Stoke had not conceded three goals in a home game since October 2011. On Saturday, it allowed three in 36 minutes. Maybe, it was missing Ryan Shawcross, but some of its defending was comic. Robert Huth slashed the ball onto his own the bar to set up Jay Rodriguez for the second goal. Andy Whitehead sliced the ball straight into his own net for the third.
In the second half, Stoke had a good penalty appeal turned down by referee Mark Clattenburg. Then Calttenburg sent off Steven Nzonzi. With 10 men, Stoke fought back, Cameron Jerome smashing the equalizer in added time.
Yet the highlight came when Tony Pulis faced the microphone after the game. The Stoke manager is one of the Premier League's great whiners. After the events of recent days he opted for deadpan humor.
"He's not touched Cork at all," Pulis said of Nzonzi. "I just hope and pray Mark looks at it and looks kindly on us and rescinds it. It would be really nice of him if he did."
"For me it was a handball," he said of the penalty. "I don't want to get into it", he added before doing just that. "The disappointing thing for us is that we thought Mark was in a good position to see it. If he's not that's fine that's not a problem and I understand that."
Maybe Pulis is simply infected by the Christmas spirit and his profound affection for Mark Clattenburg. Or maybe he takes the view that, unless you are Fergie, criticizing referees is a mugs game. Somewhere in Manchester, the old rogue was no doubt grinning.
4. Thierry Walcott and Patrick Wilshere. After Theo Walcott burst clear of the Newcastle defense, sprinted into the penalty area and guided a shot just inside the far post, the television cameras panned to the stands where Thierry Henry was celebrating. The British tabloids have been agog with the news that Henry, a winger who became a goal-scorer, had been coaching Walcott, who is determined to make a similar switch.
The impressive hat trick Walcott scored in a 7-3 victory over Newcastle on Saturday will only draw more headlines. Walcott also set up two goals for Olivier Giroud with crosses from wider positions.
Yes, Wenger might have allowed Henry to leave a season or so too soon. Yes, Arsenal needs to replace Robin van Persie's goals. But the lesson, yet again, as Newcastle hung close until the last five minutes, is that the former player Wenger most needs to clone is Patrick Vieira.
This season, Arsenal is not dominating the midfield as it always has under Wenger. Newcastle, the away team and missing three-quarters of its first-choice midfield, had 56 percent of possession.
The only bite in its midfield came from Jack Wilshere. At just 5-foot-7, the Englishman will never bully opponents the way Vieira did, but his speed of thought and sharpness in the tackle convert meant he was the one Arsenal midfielder who regularly broke up the Newcastle play. He made more tackles than any other Arsenal player.
When he wins the ball, Wilshere has the ability to break quickly. All to often his final pass or shot is wayward, but on Saturday he did end one burst with a devilish floated cross that set up the second goal.
Walcott caught the eye, but Wenger and Arsenal most need what Wilshere offers.
5. Bouncing Freund. Tottenham climbed to third, for now at least, with a 2-1 victory at Sunderland almost in spite of itself. Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe seemed to be having a contest for worst miss.
Spurs were saved by an own-goal by Carlos Cuellar, the first of a record-equaling four on Saturday, and a strike from Aaron Lennon that mixed blazing speed, brilliant cheek and blind luck.
It was a nice goal, but the highlight, once again, came from the Tottenham sideline. Steffen Freund, who rejoined Spurs this summer as an assistant coach, is rapidly turning into one of the Premier League's great celebrators.
Freund, in boots and tracksuit, reacts to goals by exploding off the bench, bursting crazily past Andre Villas Boas and leaping into the air fists aloft. It's one reason the Blog hopes the FA does not clamp down on coaches running onto the field.