Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
It won't be often that Bolton plays so well -- waltzing past Newcastle, which managed one goal to Bolton's five -- and doesn't make this spot, but the weekend was all about the north London derby, a schizophrenic affair that left dizzy Arsenal and Tottenham fans asking the same question: "Did this really just happen?"
Arsenal took the lead after just nine minutes, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri brushing Spurs aside with aristocratic disdain, and the tone was set for an impoverished 45 minutes from the visiting team. By halftime, Arsenal led 2-0. Was this going to be humiliating for Tottenham, or merely embarrassing?
But Harry Redknapp's switch to 4-4-2, throwing the recovered Jermain Defoe on for the first time since September, put Spurs back in the match within minutes of the restart, and the roller coaster hurtled into a loop-de-loop; Arsenal's cheeks bulged, and its queasy attempts to apply the brakes simply offered Tottenham more momentum. Younes Kaboul's 86th-minute goal gave Spurs a 3-2 victory and ended a long wait.
After 17 years without a win at Arsenal, there was a distinctly psychological theme to
Morten Gamst Pedersen struck another
Birmingham City has been difficult to beat at home (just three defeats in its last 26 league matches), and Chelsea had faltered badly since the calendar hit November. But few would have predicted another defeat for the defending champion here. The home side went ahead early through Lee Bowyer, and goalkeeper Ben Foster preserved the lead with a handful of athletic saves and decisive interventions. (Foster did so almost single-handedly, though defender Roger Johnson deserves credit for a perfectly executed tackle on Ramires as the Brazilian stormed into the area in the second half. He wafted a foot at the ball like a lizard's tongue aimed at an unsuspecting fly.) The best of Foster's stops was a quick-fire, diving left-handed save from a first-half Didier Drogba header that looked every inch an equalizer.
William Gallas hasn't impressed since moving down the Seven Sisters Road from Arsenal to Tottenham last summer, but Saturday's return to the Emirates proved a tonic. Wearing the armband, Gallas answered the booing from the home crowd with a captain's performance, hooking passes off toes, getting his body in the way of danger and his head to aerial threats. At the final whistle, he looked as if he had just staggered out of a cage fight.
Stoke's 3-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion has rightly been hailed as a team effort, but when people haven't been talking about the two soft penalties the Potters were awarded, they've been focusing on the England credentials of defender Ryan Shawcross and winger Matthew Etherington.
A word here, then, for midfielder Dean Whitehead, who rarely finds himself in the spotlight but who was a vital cog in the Stoke machine Saturday. His distribution was varied and thoughtful, he took up some great positions when Stoke got forward, and he was immediately in attendance when West Brom tried to do the same.
Fabricio Coloccini struggled to handle Bolton's Johan Elmander from the start on Saturday, eventually resorting to a foolishly blatant elbow to fend him off. Hugo Rodallega engaged even fewer brain cells when opting to leap two-footed at the ball and Manchester United's Rafael da Silva.
But Newcastle was already down 4-1 when Coloccini was red-carded; Wigan was down to 10 men and dwindling when Rodallega was sent off. Neither incident was quite as bemusing as Fabregas' decision to wave his (and Marouane Chamakh's) arm above his head to block Rafael van der Vaart's free kick.
Tottenham had come back but, trailing 2-1, was struggling to create clear-cut chances -- and Fabregas literally handed Spurs the chance to level from the penalty spot. It's also worth noting this was no accident. Fabregas did exacty the same thing against Liverpool last season, but went unpunished that time.
Everything was cued up for Fulham boss Mark Hughes to deliver a cacklingly smug riposte to his former employers. And not just because he'd devoted a news conference to criticizing Manchester City for sacking him and running down his successor, Roberto Mancini -- City had also contributed by playing mediocre, uninspiring soccer for weeks.
Instead, City showed up looking like the group of swashbuckling cavaliers we'd all given up on seeing. You could almost hear the swoosh of metal through the air as the men in blue cut Fulham's defense open. Panicky on the ball and overrun in midfield, the home side frequently resorted to long, hopeful balls that didn't reach their man. Not quite the point Hughes would have wanted to make.
"On their performance today, certainly they're [title] contenders. If they have belief and there's some forward thinking, and maybe they're a bit more attack-minded as they were today on more occasions, there's no reason why they shouldn't be. They've got as good a chance as anybody." -- Hughes, even as he backpedals furiously, can't resist getting in a dig at City's previous defensiveness.
England fullback Glen Johnson returned to the Liverpool lineup after a public spat with manager Roy Hodgson that appeared to signal the end of his Anfield career. Perhaps it still does, but he had a great game against West Ham and opened the scoring with an impressive shot on the turn.
While their team made Liverpool look like world-beaters, conceding three first-half goals, West Ham fans decided to make their own mischief by chanting: "You're getting sacked in the morning" (a song usually reserved for hapless opposition dugouts) at manager Avram Grant. Light relief from the reality of the Hammers being five points off safety and apparently dependent on the fitness of the absent Scott Parker (chest infection) to be anything more than a punching bag.
1: Number of shots that Birmingham City fired at Petr Cech's goal in its 1-0 victory against Chelsea.