Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
Now, technically, it wasn't a Premier League match, but it's impossible to ignore how compelling Sunday's League Cup final was -- Birmingham might have beaten Arsenal 2-1 in the penultimate minute, but the match had us hooked from first to last whistle. It was a tussle that hid the 14 places and 26 points that separate these sides in the league -- in other words, Cup soccer at its best.
It hadn't promised nearly as much: This is Arsene Wenger's strongest Arsenal team in years and there was a whiff of destiny about its progression to the final. Birmingham had already lost home and away to the Gunners this season, and when the officials
But that feeling lasted only for a matter of seconds. Birmingham had already grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and it refused to drop it and roll over. Alex McLeish's midfield was uninhibited by the reputations it was up against -- anything Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin could do, Lee Bowyer and Sebastian Larsson matched, producing a satisfyingly even game.
In the final 15 minutes, the men in blue were visibly drawing on their last reserves of energy. Ben Foster's crucial saves would bring extra time, and that surely signaled an Arsenal victory. But a nightmarish mix-up at the back allowed Obafemi Martins, making only his third appearance for Birmingham, to score the easiest goal of his life.
Foster's clunky post-match line -- "We've rid the storm and snuck one at the end" -- charmingly understated his side's contribution to a memorable final. For the first time in almost half a century, Birmingham needs to up its Silvo order.
Aston Villa's 4-1 win over Blackburn Rovers came in such swaggering style that any of a handful of players could have taken man of the match; whatever Gerard Houllier is doing at Villa Park, it's working. Stewart Downing was particularly impressive. It helps that on-loan fullback Kyle Walker is playing so well behind him, but it takes two to tango and Downing danced past Rovers whichever side of the pitch he chose.
His wicked deliveries (no one put in more crosses for Villa on Saturday) caused Blackburn real problems, and there was no stopping his run inside before the left foot shot that put his side up 3-0 just after the hour mark. He set up the fourth, a lovely finish from Ashley Young, with another scything run. Downing has sometimes looked reticent, but this was a confident performance that staked an irresistible claim for a wide berth when England face Wales in a month's time.
It was a good weekend all around for goalkeepers. Foster was heroic for Birmingham, keeping one Arsenal shot out with his face, which was still bee-sting red at full-time. Rob Green's performance in West Ham's 3-1 win against Liverpool was the polar opposite of his famous display versus the United States last June, with impressive saves on shots from Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard. And Tim Howard didn't have a great deal to do in Everton's 2-0 victory against Sunderland, but he managed to get a fingernail to Stéphane Sessègnon's shot as it hurtled toward the net at 100 mph.
Scott Parker might not have carried West Ham to a victory, but it was his goal that illuminated this match. On the edge of the area, he
Avram Grant, who celebrated each of West Ham's three goals as if his life depended on it, may come to wonder how different the season might have been had he had January signings Demba Ba and Gary O'Neil (who combined wonderfully for the second goal) or newly fit Hitzlsperger from the start.
The only conversations involving Wayne Rooney right now are ones about the elbow he applied with some force to James McCarthy's head. And rightly so, because it was mindless thuggery of the worst kind and Manchester United's refusal to criticize the player (instead, Alex Ferguson suggested there was an anti-Rooney campaign in the media) grates further. The real shame of it is that Rooney set up two of United's four goals against Wigan, and scored another; that should be a big deal given the season he's had. Instead, it'll barely be remembered.
Last week, Blackpool defeated Tottenham Hotspur at a canter; this weekend it was on the receiving end of a thumping by Wolves. Without Richard Kingson in goal, the winning score of 4-0 could have been the halftime margin. Wolves absolutely deserved this morale-boosting victory (manager Mick McCarthy will be especially pleased to see his decision to introduce an extra striker for the last half an hour rewarded), and consistency hasn't been Blackpool's strong suit in any case. But Ian Holloway's side is being drawn closer and closer to danger, and DJ Campbell's inexplicable red-card shove on Richard Stearman means a three-match ban for its top scorer.
Whenever Mark Hughes returns to the City of Manchester stadium he seems unable to escape some sort of drama, even when things on the pitch are pretty flat. After a 1-1 draw between City and Fulham, Roberto Mancini offered Hughes a limp hand with his head turned away; Hughes clasped it and threw it away, gesturing that the lack of eye contact had insulted him. The Fulham manager seemed genuinely upset at Mancini's failure to acknowledge that his game plan had successfully contained City, and the theatrical reaction will only keep the focus off that fact.
"He's as important to us as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are to their teams."
Everton's 2-0 win over Sunderland -- thanks to two of the scruffiest goals you're ever likely to see, but no less deserved for it -- takes David Moyes to 502 Premier League points in his managerial career. Only Wenger, Ferguson and Harry Redknapp have also reached the 500 mark.