Alan Pardew's head-butt not unforgivable; more weekend EPL thoughts
Losing our heads over Pardew: On Saturday evening, someone altered Alan Pardew's Wikipedia page to carry a picture of Zinedine Zidane under the heading "Alaine Zidaine Pardaine." It was quickly removed, but it was a valuable corrective to the onset of one of those bouts of National Outrage that English soccer so enjoys.
On Saturday afternoon, with Newcastle two goals ahead at Hull, Pardew was prowling the edge of the painted box that cages managers. The ball ran out of play with David Meyler, a Hull midfielder, in hot pursuit. As the ball arrived at his feet, Pardew, possibly time wasting, flicked it backwards and sideways. Meyler shoved him. Pardew reacted angrily, shoving his face into Meyler's.
Much of the British media called the move a "head butt." In truth, it was more of an Eskimo kiss than the true, nose-breaking, Glasgow variety. But context is everything. In modern soccer, any movement that resembles the behavior of a rutting stag is deemed a butt, no if or buts. Meyler received a yellow card. Pardew was shown red.
Pardew has seen red on the touchline before. While at West Ham, he got into a robust shoving match with Arsène Wenger. Once in 2012, only the prompt intervention of others on the sideline prevented an altercation with Martin O'Neill, then at Sunderland, turning into a fistfight. Earlier this season, Pardew got in Manuel Pelligrini's face, though this time the only thing he aimed at his rival was a stream of angry expletives.
The reaction to the butt was instant, joyous outrage. One Sunday tabloid gleefully bellowed "Sack Him!" across its back page. There was the laughable sight of Robbie Savage, who would be a front-runner in a poll for most despicable player of the Premier League era, declaring on the BBC, just about straight-faced, that Pardew's butt was "disgusting to see." Freddy Shepherd, the former Newcastle owner, called Pardew's actions "unforgivable." Really?
That's why Zidane, sent off for a far more vigorous butt on Marco Materazzi in a World Cup final that France then lost, was such an inspired choice by the Wikipedia hacker. He's still beloved in France and at Real Madrid. How long did Luis Suárez remain unforegiven for chomping Branko Ivanovic? Or Eden Hazard for his assault on a Swansea ball boy? It took only a few media cycles for ennui to set in.
Pardew regained his composure quickly enough to apologize effusively, articulately, wittily and without reservation immediately after the game. His action, as he pointed put, would distract attention from his team's 4-1 victory, one of its best of the season. It was another switch in momentum from a team that, like its manager, is prone to extreme mood swings.
There have been periods over the last three seasons when Newcastle has looked like a genuine contender. There have also been periods when it has been awful. It doesn't help that the club has a bad habit of selling its best players -- Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye --in mid-season.
Newcastle fans tend to measure Pardew by his team's bad days -- particularly the repeated losses to neighbor Sunderland. Late on Saturday, the club announced it was not going to ax Pardew and instead fined him £100,000, or $167,000. Further punishment, and outrage, will surely follow from the Football Association. But by keeping him, Pardew's employers had rapidly started the process of forgiving the "unforgivable".
The Real Danger Man: The Pardew incident was more comic than truly outrageous, but something much scarier was happening at Stoke, where Charlie Adam was up to his ugly tricks.
Earlier this season, Sandro tweeted: "Charlie Adam the Beast is watching you" after a tackle by the Stoke midfielder had left Sandro's Brazil and Tottenham teammate with damaged ankle ligaments. It was the fourth time in recent seasons that Adam had wounded a Spurs player, injuring Gareth Bale twice, and Scott Parker, once.
On Saturday, Adam's display suggested he was not content to be loathed in only one half of North London as he set about planting his studs into Arsenal players. First he caught Mikel Arteta above the knee. Then he stamped on a supine Olivier Giroud. In both cases, the ball was nowhere near the point of contact. Either tackle could have caused serious injury to a fellow player. Both were far less forgivable than Pardew's brush with Meyler.
As in the Paulinho incident, Adam committed his crimes without being spotted by the referee, in this case Mike Jones. Presumably, the Stoke manager, Mark Hughes, no softie as a player himself, had noticed. Four minutes after the Giroud incident, Adam was replaced.
Three minutes after that, Stoke won a penalty. Adam is Stoke's first-choice penalty taker. That left the job to Jonathan Walters, who had missed four of his last six spot kicks. He buried it. Stoke won, 1-0, blowing another hole in Arsenal's title hopes.
Whatever Adam might think, that is the way to truly hurt an opponent.
Tottenham clings on: The one over-riding lesson of Tottenham's tedious 1-0 victory over Cardiff on Saturday is how fear can erode soccer as a spectacle.
The neurotic victory keeps Tottenham just four tantalizing points out of fourth place. Its fans can continue to hope -- at least until it plays Chelsea next week ad Arsenal the week after.
Tottenham won with a neat goal scored by Roberto Soldado, which proves he can, in fact, score. That, judging by his almost disbelieving reaction, was something even he had begun to doubt. It was his first goal of 2014 and only his second from open play in the league this season. Maybe he is the same Roberto Soldado who scored 59 goals in 101 games at Valencia.
The other notable development was the first appearance in a league game of Sandro's new beard. It has a dangly braided bit held together by a blue rubber band hanging down from the middle. It has, naturally, excited much comment in the fashion-crazed British soccer media. The conservative Daily Mail called it "impressive." One soccer Web site called it "amazing." But the most common description was "horror beard."
Sandro is something of a prankster. Maybe he thinks the beard is funny. Or maybe he thinks it strengthens his image as "The Beast." But this is a serious matter. Once again, a professional athlete and role model is taking fashion to a place it really shouldn't go.
Think of the children, Sandro! Cut it off!
The Belgian question: As per usual in the run-up to a World Cup, the English are suddenly growing excited by their chances in Brazil.
Roy Hodgson, the England manager, was at Southampton on Saturday, to watch a host his rising prospects -- Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, Luke Shaw, Alan Lallana and Jay Rodriguez -- and one revived veteran -- Steven Gerrard -- in action. But he might have reflected as Liverpool surged into second place with an emphatic 3-0 victory, that it would be nice to have Liverpool's Simon Mignolet as England's backup goalie.
Mignolet is conducting a long-distance war of words with Thibaut Courtois, the Chelsea goalie on loan to Atletico Madrid and the incumbent in goal for the Belgium national team, over who should start in Brazil. After this weekend, however, this is not the only area where Marc Wilmots, the manager of the suddenly talent-rich Belgian squad, may be facing a dilemma. Wilmots may also have an excess of riches at the other end of the field.
Everton had dropped off the pace by losing its last two league matches without scoring. One reason was the absence, Romelu Lukaku, a 20-year-old who is another Chelsea loanee.
Against West Ham on Saturday, Lukaku started on the bench as Everton huffed and puffed but failed to turn its neat approach play into a goal. After an hour, Lukaku came on and with 10 minutes left, showed a goal-scorer's instinct for a chance and the ability to seize it, pouncing on a loose ball to rifle a shot into the net. It was his 10th goal in 18 league games this season. He has provided the edge Everton's industry and intelligence needs.
Then, Lukaku was trumped by fellow Belgian, 23-year-old rival, Christian Benteke of Aston Villa. Last season, Benteke looked the complete center forward -- strong, fast, skilful, deadly -- as he scored 19 goals for Villa. This season, the force had left him. That was one reason Villa had scored just 27 goals in its first 27 games and was flirting with the relegation zone.
On Sunday, Villa fell behind early on at home to Norwich. Benteke responded with a breathtaking goal that showed technique, power and an eye for a goal. Benteke took a high ball on his chest with his back to the net and then hooked the ball powerfully over his shoulder and past John Ruddy to level the score.
Two minutes later, Benteke treated Sébastien Bassong, a 6-foot-1 Norwich center back, like a rag doll, as he charged onto a corner to head his second goal from a corner.
Benteke was back. Villa responded. It led 4-1 by half time and that was the final score. The victory lifted Villa to 11th, seven points clear of the relegation places.
If Benteke and Lukaku maintain that form, Wilmots will face the sort of problem many of his rivals at the World Cup would envy.
Why Mourinho is smarter than Magath: The statistics suggest that a new manager gives a team a small lift that lasts for about a dozen matches. By that logic, Fulham did the right thing to offer Felix Magath the job with 12 league games to go. Yet there is a Catch 22 here: if Magath is dumb enough to accept an offer to manage the bottom team in the standings, is he really smart enough to be the manager Fulham wants?
If Magath wants to know how to manage his career, he could have looked across at the other dugout during the West London derby on Saturday.
When José Mourinho left União de Leiria in 2002 it was to take over a Porto team that had just finished third in the Portuguese league. When he joined Chelsea the first time, it had finished second in the Premier League. At Inter Milan he inherited a team that was Serie A champion. Real had finished runner up the season before he took over. Last season, Chelsea was third. There is a pattern here. Mourinho wins and wins quickly, in part because he takes over teams that were already winning. That makes it much harder to fail. He keeps getting plum jobs because, for the last decade, he's only taken plum jobs.
At Fulham, Chelsea was poor in the first, scored three times between the 52nd and 68th minutes and won 3-1. The match was proof that sometimes soccer is about the brilliance of the players, not the brilliance of the coaches.
It was a point Mourinho implicitly made after the game when the BBC interviewer, perhaps prompted beforehand by the Chelsea manager, opened by asking what Mourinho had said to his team at half time. "Do you believe me?" he replied with a mischievous smirk. "I told them nothing. Nothing! Not a word! I walk in. I walk out."
André Schürrle, who scored all of Chelsea's goals, had a slightly different recollection. Given his embarrassed reluctance to repeat on camera exactly what Mourinho had said, it seems that the manager came into the locker room, swore at his players for "maybe 10 seconds" and then left.
Magath has inherited some good players. The heart of his midfield is made up of two England internationals, Parker and Steve Sidwell. But both are over 30 and neither was ever good enough to hold down a place in the Chelsea midfield when they were at that club in their prime. The center of the defense on Saturday would have been made up of two more over-30s, Johnny Heitenga and Brede Hangeland, but Hangeland was a late scratch. Dan Burn, a 21-year-old making only his seventh appearance, replaced him.
Burn was embarrassed by Schürrle as the German cut in front of the defender en route to the first goal. But the real problem was that Parker and Sidwell ran out of steam after an hour of chasing Hazard. That allowed the Belgian to set up office around the penalty area. From there he destroyed Fulham, creating two more goals for Schürrle, with delightful touches.
The truth, as Mourinho knows, is that, as long as you swear at them once in a while, great players in their prime will almost always beat good players who are over the hill.
Mourinho makes sure he always takes over teams that already have great players. That's why he is a smarter manager than Magath.