Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
Well it's not going to be Manchester City's attempt to bore Birmingham City (and the crowd) into submission, is it? And let's not be so unimaginative as to highlight another incredible defeat for Chelsea (more below, fear not) as the weekend's best watch -- not when West Ham and Blackpool's goalless draw was so enthralling.
"Goalless draw?" you may scoff, but this was no average stalemate: each side fired off 24 shots at goal. That's 48 goal attempts in 90 minutes! All right, a mere five of them were on target, but this was a good old-fashioned end-to-ender that had everyone in the stands rapt -- even inside the last 10 minutes the score might have gone to 3-3, if only anyone had brought their scoring boots.
Blackpool's Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Marlon Harewood (who had a goal disallowed for the second weekend running, and this one was definitely wrong) competed for miss of the match with embarrassing swipes, but that didn't wipe the grin off Ian Holloway's -- who opted to make 11 changes to his team -- face. "That was a fantastic game, which I would have been happy to pay to watch," he chirruped afterward.
West Ham manager Avram Grant was, understandably, slightly less enthused after being booed off the pitch. The Hammers are now five points from safety and have failed to beat all three promoted sides. Just four percent of West Ham's shots worked Blackpool's keepers on Saturday. "You need that first win," Grant explained, batting away questions over his future at the club. "After that we will win."
If you know anybody who put money on Sunderland beating Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge yesterday, now might be a good time to arrange those catch-up drinks you've been putting off -- they would have got odds of 250/1.
Chelsea had notable absentees in John Terry, Alex, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, and the signs were there, against Liverpool the previous weekend, that something was amiss. But one of the most lavishly built squads in world soccer would have been expected to cope with a Sunderland side that had managed one away win in the last 12 months.
But its performance at Stamford Bridge -- fast, neat, relentless -- will do much to erase the memory of that 5-1 humbling away to neighbor Newcastle at the end of October. Sunderland's midfield dictated the play throughout; Kieran Richardson marshaled Ashley Cole (one of Chelsea's least jaded representatives) superbly.
Were it not for Petr Cech, Sunderland could have scored double, becoming the second team this season to put more than six shots on goal at Stamford Bridge (nine to Wolves' 10; no team did it last season); Chelsea failed to put a single shot on target from inside the area. The Mackems are now up to sixth spot -- their highest league position at this stage since 2001, when Sunderland finished seventh under Peter Reid.
Johan Elmander showed off some incredibly fancy footwork to score Bolton's second as it beat Wolves 3-2, but he was outdone for Lionel Messi-esque audacity by Chinedum Onuoha. The Sunderland midfielder, on-loan from Manchester City, slalomed through John Mikel Obi, Jose Bosingwa and Branislav Ivanovic and into the box, then calmly sidefooted past Cech for Sunderland's first.
It's hard to look past Sunderland -- Onuoha was superb, Asamoah Gyan took his goal with an appealing cool, and Danny Welbeck's movement had Chelsea's makeshift central defensive partnership of Paulo Ferreira and Ivanovic at sixes and sevens. Phil Bardsley wasn't far off faultless in his handling of Nicolas Anelka on Chelsea's right.
A word, though, for some exceptional wing-play: not just from Tottenham's Gareth Bale, who tortured first Michel Salgado and then Pascal Chimbonda as Spurs beat Blackburn Rovers 4-2, but also from Aston Villa's wide pairing of Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton. Each worked the line with pace and directness as Manchester United stumbled after them and -- perhaps most significantly for Villa -- found each other with crosses in the final third on several occasions. If it were not for United's late comeback to level the scores at 2-2, these two would have been the topic of many more conversations.
"You have to say it was a triumph for Stoke's way of playing... [It is] a very difficult team to beat here" -- Roy Hodgson attempts to pass off Liverpool's miserable 2-0 defeat to the Potters as somehow inevitable. It was Stoke's first win over Liverpool in 26 years.
A veritable herd to choose from ... Ashley Cole won't want to see replays of his disastrous back-pass, which gifted Sunderland its third goal, and Lucas Leiva's kick out at Matthew Etherington in the final seconds of Liverpool's meeting with Stoke, which got him sent off, was ridiculous and needless.
Hodgson must take a lot of the blame for his side's third defeat of the season, especially as he's still playing Steven Gerrard in a central partnership with Lucas, but Gerrard's penchant for attempting unlikely Hollywood passes in the thick of a messy defeat didn't help.
Last week it was Bolton's Stuart Holden, who certainly hasn't gone unsung this week, after a busy performance that included a neatly taken goal. This week it's his teammate Chung-Yong Lee, who set up two of Bolton's three goals. Though he struggled to win possession, once he had it, his short-to-mid-range passing always found its intended recipient.
As Fulham and Newcastle sparred to a goalless draw, Mark Schwarzer and Tim Krul both pulled off some impressive saves -- the Fulham keeper dealt with a couple of real stingers from Andy Carroll.
But hats off to Lukasz Fabianski, who helped Arsenal to survive a late onslaught from Everton. Tim Cahill pulled one back at the death, but Fabianski had already kept Jermaine Beckford and Louis Saha out to preserve Arsenal's advantage -- it was the only top-four side to win this weekend, closing the gap on Chelsea to just two points. It's too early (and, knowing recent history, more than a little risky) to be talking up the Gunners' title chances, but they're on the right trajectory.
The home fans at Eastlands have been waiting nearly five hours -- and counting -- to see their side score a goal, so you can't really blame them for getting a bit hot under the collar as Manchester City played out another goalless draw, this time with Birmingham City, apparently designed to facilitate a pleasant afternoon nap.
Roberto Mancini's side were easily restricted to shots from range for most of the match, prompting fans to chant the name of Craig Bellamy, the striker loaned to Championship side Cardiff City for the season. And how they howled when the manager replaced striker Carlos Tevez, who never seems to stop moving, with defensive midfielder Gareth Barry, who rarely seems to start.
"Do you think if you play four strikers, it means you will score four goals?" asked Mancini afterward, taking a decent run up at the point but missing badly. "If football was that simple, I would put on 10 strikers." That might actually attract fewer complaints ...
#grandstandfinish -- the weekend's 10 fixtures included 13 goals scored in the final 20 minutes.