Van Persie's relief, Di Canio's glee, more EPL/FA Cup thoughts
1. Van Persie Exhales. On an afternoon already marked by over-the-top goal celebrations, Robin van Persie's reaction to his goal for Manchester United at Stoke may have seemed a little extreme.
United was a goal up and plodding towards a victory over a toothless Stoke team when it won a penalty in the 66th minute. Van Persie blasted the kick past Asmir Begovic. It's what you'd expect from a penalty kick. Yet he went crazy -- and understandably so. Van Persie's 10-game goal drought had been attracting headlines, being dubbed the driest spell of his career. The penalty finally ended Van Persie's 751 minutes on the field without a goal.
"The relief of a couple of weeks came out," he told Sky, which broadcast the match, with a grin. Van Persie showed his relief again at the end, pumping his fist and exhaling as he left the field. For players like Robin van Persie, goals are oxygen. He could breathe again.
The 2-0 United victory taught us little. Van Persie's still got it, and United, despite its loss to Manchester City, is going to win the league. It is now just seven points away from doing so. Stoke, on the other hand, is in trouble. It looks like a team without enough good players. Then again, that's exactly how Sunderland looked two weeks ago, and this week, Paolo Di Canio's team took a step forward. We'll see if Stoke can do the same next week.
2. The Energizer. In the last weeks of Martin O'Neill's reign at Sunderland, his team looked flat and uninspired. After Paolo Di Canio arrived, amid a barrage of criticism, he said that his new team wasn't fit enough.
On Sunday, as it traveled to Newcastle and thrashed its hated neighbor 3-0, Sunderland suddenly displayed the energy it had been lacking for so long. Of course, if players do not gain a surge of adrenalin for a local derby, regardless of who is manager, maybe they should hang up their boots.
Perhaps some of the energy came from Di Canio on the sideline. The new manager celebrated the first goal of his era, a precise long-range shot by Stéphane Sessègnon, with a prolonged burst of crazed, leaping, running, fist-pumping, screaming enthusiasm. Di Canio somehow amped up his reaction for each subsequent goal. It is not clear how an excess of energy on the sideline can make the players on the field capable of running further or faster, yet Sunderland did finish stronger. Two of its key creative players, Sessègnon and Adam Johnson, rediscovered their inspiration.
Fitness is relative. If a team outlasts its opponent, it is fit enough. On Sunday, Newcastle fell behind early but dominated possession for most of the rest of the game and wasted a string of chances. But the toll taken by its Europa League game against Benfica on Thursday began to show in the last 15 minutes, when defenders failed to close down first Johnson and later David Vaughan as they took the ferocious shots that turned a narrow victory into a 3-0 rout.
Vaughan's goal was a bonus, but at the start of the season O'Neill may have expected regular scoring contributions from Johnson and Sessègnon. However, the pair had just seven league goals between them before Sunday.
Di Canio's Sunderland also, at last, enjoyed some luck. Papiss Cissé had what would have been an equalizing goal wrongly ruled out for offside. Newcastle also lost its goalie, Tim Krul, to a dislocated shoulder midway through the second half.
With one victory, Di Canio lifted Sunderland to 15th, dragged Newcastle back toward the danger zone and bought himself some time from the fans.
3. The Luck of the Arsenal. This week's official in the spotlight is Richard West from Yorkshire. Take a bow, Richard. Given the way the FA publicly humiliates officials who have made visible mistakes, you will probably be hidden away in a lower division in coming weeks.
West was one of the assistant referees, or linesmen in English, as Arsenal entertained Norwich on Saturday. After 85 minutes, Norwich led, 1-0. Arsenal had been pressing hard. Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski had both hit the bar. Then, with two decisions in a few seconds, West undid Norwich. First he gave Arsenal a corner even though the ball seemed to be out when Richard Snodgrass of Norwich fell on it. Then, after the goalmouth MMA bout that followed the corner, West flagged for a tug by Kei Kamara on Giroud.
Mikel Arteta converted the kick. Three minutes later, Giroud made it 2-1. Then came West's final flourish, or in this case a non-flourish. He kept his flag down as Podolski scored from an offside position. Arsenal had won 3-1.
To err is human. Officials, despite what many fans think, are human, probably. West did not make mistakes on purpose. Indeed, Kamara undoubtedly pulled Giroud, but Giroud pushed Kamara and those weren't the only crimes being committed.
Chris Hughton, the Norwich manager, focused on the fact that West was 50 yards away while the referee, Mike Jones, was 10 yards away, but that doesn't mean the linesman could not have seen something the referee missed. There was a lot going on. The problem is that punishment for such offenses at set pieces seems to be pretty random.
West's decisions have consequences at both ends of the table. Norwich lost the chance of a victory that would have given it more of a safety cushion, as they now only sit five points away from the relegation zone. Arsenal grabbed a victory that lifted it past Chelsea and Tottenham and up to third. With a couple of waves of the linesman, the league table was transformed.
4. The Way Football Was Meant To Be Played. Whenever the cameras panned to the crowd during the second half of the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday, we saw shots of fans who looked like they were clearly suffering. Don't be fooled. The contest they could barely bring themselves to watch was an exhilarating advertisement for all that is good in soccer (with only a little bit of the bad thrown in). The stakes were high. The outcome was unclear until the very end. So it was no wonder why those who had an emotional stake in it found it almost unbearable to witness.
This was not a match with a sudden twist in the tail, nor one with wild scoring swings. City was in control after taking a 2-0 lead thanks to goal by Samir Nasri and Sergio Agüero. After 66 minutes, Demba Ba brought Chelsea back with an acrobatic goal. Despite late pressure from Chelsea, City held on to win, 2-1. What was impressive was that, until Manchester City became a little more defensive in the last 20 minutes, both teams attacked as soon they won the ball. And they attacked with a pace and quality that was breathtaking. The game charged from one end of the field to the other.
The match was a reminder, after the labored encounter between Stoke City and Manchester United earlier in the afternoon, of just how exciting soccer can be. It was also a reminder of just how good Chelsea and, above all, City can be.
City's players suddenly look like champions again. City overpowered United at Old Trafford last Monday. It dominated much of the first half on Sunday. Yet the final 25 minutes also suggested that City has been scarred by its failures this season. Its defense creaked, and towards the end, it looked like Chelsea was going to get that needed equalizer. But City was able to benefit from the laissez-faire attitude of Chris Foy.
Foy is the Premier League referee who gives fewest cards and penalties. He has not sent a player off for fouling an opponent all season. He sent off Mark Bunn, the Norwich goalie, for a handball, and Eden Hazard of Chelsea for booting a ball boy. On Sunday, Foy contributed to the breathless spectacle by letting the two teams bash into each other at high speed all afternoon. That allowed play to flow. For the most part, the players responded positively. They didn't whine or roll around like shot dogs. They simply got up and played on.
As Chelsea pressed and City's nerves frayed, there were two incidents that could have brought significant punishments, though the cameras suggested Foy might have been unsighted for both.
First, after David Luiz blocked off Agüero, the little Argentine pushed the big Brazilian to the ground and then jumped on him with both feet. Foy did nothing, which could be bad news for Agüero because it means the decision can be reviewed. He should receive a ban.
Then, and perhaps most controversially, Vincent Kompany, the City captain, and Fernando Torres tumbled, legs and arms flailing, as the Spaniard chased the ball in front of Man City's goal. Slow motion replays showed Kompany had grabbed a large handful of the Spaniard's shirt on Foy's blindside.
Foul play should be punished. Yet it's hard to criticize Foy for remaining consistent in his determination to let the players play the match. They did so with verve, skill and unrelenting physical commitment.
"I put my body in the way," Kompany said of the incident with Torres. "That is football."
If only that was always football. How Norwich fans must wish Chris Foy has been their assistant referee.
5. The Wrong Crowd. When the FA first broke with tradition and staged an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in 1991, it was because the two best-supported London clubs, Tottenham and Arsenal, had been drawn together and it seemed perverse to make their fans trek up to the much smaller Villa Park in Birmingham. The FA could make everyone happy, and make itself much more money, by staging the game at Wembley.
The semi-finals only settled down permanently at Wembley in 2008, after the stadium was expensively rebuilt. One oddity of the whole business is that the participating clubs receive 7,000 more tickets for the semis than for the final, which is the FA's annual day of celebration when it distributes tickets to its friends, sponsors and members. The semis are parties when the fans take over the palace of English soccer. In general, they attract very large, lucrative crowds. The notable exception was Stokes 5-0 victory over Bolton in 2011, but even that drew 75,064 people to the 90,000-capacity ground.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Wigan and Millwall were drawn together. That is the famed "magic of the cup" -- one small team will reach the final. Yet for different reasons, they are two clubs the FA might not have wanted to invite to the party.
Neither is a big club. Neither is a sexy club. They drew a total crowd of 62,355, which is still a pretty big crowd to see either club play. But 28,000 empty seats look bad on television.
Wigan compounded the problem by returning 10,000 invites. But Wigan is a town of 81,000, so the 20,000 tickets it did sell represents 25 per cent of its population. It is also just 16 miles from Manchester and 17 miles from Liverpool. It only reached the Premier League in 2005, so anyone over 20 probably formed bonds to one of the nearby big city clubs, or to Wigan's highly successful professional rugby club, the world champion three times before the soccer team even entered the football league.
Millwall, a club whose brief two-season spell in the top division ended in 1990, showed that small clubs can sell out their entire allocation. Perhaps the FA might have preferred if Millwall had also returned 10,000 tickets. Some Millwall fans seem to take a perverse pride in their reputation as the most unpleasant in English soccer. Sure enough, as Wigan cruised to a 2-0 victory, the Millwall fans started fighting, first with each other and with the police. There were 10 arrests.