Under-pressure Houllier and Hodgson both gain late reprieves
Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
Blackpool's never-say-die road show pulled up at Manchester City and laid on a spectacle, playing with such vim that poor old Aleksander Kolarov was substituted by Roberto Mancini before he could endanger City's lead -- or really embarrass himself. But the six-goal thriller at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Aston Villa pips City's 1-0 win over Blackpool for a series of plot twists that would baffle even the makers of
By the end of an increasingly frantic 98 minutes, Chelsea had taken the lead, lost it, gone behind, equalized, gone ahead again -- in the 89th minute -- and
This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. Villa arrived with a bottom-of-the-table road record of 0-2-4. Manager Gerard Houllier, who only took charge this season, is under pressure from the media and fans if not his own board. Villa hadn't won at Stamford Bridge in more than eight years -- its last visit ended in a 7-1 hammering. Yet here was Emile Heskey, no less, scoring with discomfiting ease. Who cares about picking up seven yellow cards?
Terry's 89th-minute goal, which looked for all the world to be the winner, elicited one of two responses: expletive-strewn jumping about (Chelsea fans), or pursed lips and a muttered "typical" (everyone else). Ciaran Clark's 92nd-minute equalizer? A unanimous raised eyebrow. While the defense played musical statues, Clark plundered a deserved point for Villa and Chelsea was bumped back into fifth place. Is it really so far off title pace at this stage in proceedings?
How was James Morrison's
Sunderland's Jordan Henderson was excellent in the middle of the park against Blackburn, intercepting loose balls and driving forward at every opportunity -- even tickling the bar with a chipped effort. His crossing wasn't always very good, but he was involved in two of the Mackems' three goals, setting up Asamoah Gyan for the third with a delightful pass down the center. Small surprise that he's being linked with a move to Manchester United.
Brian Clough always said a great goalkeeper was worth his weight in gold. Whether he'd have put Robert Green in that category, we can only guess, but he was as pivotal to West Ham's victory over Wolves as the outrageously good fortune that saw Ronald Zubar put the ball into his own net after Carlton Cole (normal service very much resumed) swung a leg at fresh air. Wolves may have put more than twice as many shots off target as on, but Green made point-blank saves from Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Christophe Berra before West Ham took the lead.
Unless they lead to spectacular goals, beautiful passes tend to pass us by. But Fulham's Chris Baird deserves a moment in the spotlight for his raking 50-yard cross-field pass to Damien Duff -- even if he did later play one of the worst balls of the weekend. David Beckham, who reportedly could be on his way to join opponent Spurs on loan, would have been proud.
City's Joe Hart made several excellent saves on Saturday, including a late stop from Neal Eardley as Blackpool pressed. But, despite eventually conceding three goals, Brad Friedel offered a goalkeeping master class at Chelsea. Throwing himself in the path of shots as if blocking a bullet aimed at a fair maiden, he kept out Frank Lampard, Florent Malouda, Salomon Kalou and Drogba in the second half.
Gary Neville was extremely fortunate to stay on the pitch without even conceding a penalty after bringing down West Brom's Graham Dorrans mid-shot, using up all the day's good luck in one ill-advised lunge. There certainly wasn't much left in the pot when Peter Odemwingie stepped up to take the penalty Manchester United did later concede, in the second half, and dragged it well wide of the post. Still, the Baggies striker was in good company this weekend -- among the handful of opportunities Carlos Tevez fluffed was a similarly missed penalty.
Arsenal cruised past Birmingham City, whose previously rock-solid defense has responded to high praise from the soccer world by making talk of England caps sound ridiculous. Even Birmingham's habitual roughhousing of the Gunners didn't work in a 3-0 loss, and Lee Bowyer could find himself serving a ban after the FA investigates a couple of clashes with Bacary Sagna. Alex McLeish took him off to avoid a red card but a stamp and a studs-first tap of Sagna's heel didn't escape the television cameras.
A moment for the beleaguered: Houllier's decision to opt for experience against Chelsea paid off -- and it was by no means a no-brainer that Richard Dunne, who hadn't featured in almost a month; or Nigel Reo-Coker, who's been missing out to youngsters like Barry Bannen and Jonathan Hogg; or even Heskey (two appearances in the previous two months), would strengthen the team. And, after months of lambasting (which has by no means abated), Roy Hodgson has finally earned some credit. Liverpool's winner against Bolton may have been a last-gasp tap-in, but the performance was a vast improvement over Wednesday's abject defeat to Wolves. The team's shape made for better passing and movement, and Fernando Torres' goal, a first-time strike from a piercing Steven Gerrard ball, transported Anfield back to old times. Shame 10,000 fewer people than usual were there to see it.
0 -- Blackburn Rovers' shots on target during an emphatic 3-0 defeat to Sunderland, despite caretaker-manager Steve Kean's best efforts to get the team playing anti-Allardyce soccer. To add insult to injury, Sunderland boss Steve Bruce dedicated the win to Sam Allardyce, an old friend, as a show of solidarity.
"I might put in a cheeky bid for him."