The August Riots

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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Premier League weekend – Spurs led 1-0 at half time?

After Saturday’s games produced a rather unsurprising array of score-lines, today’s action at White Hart Lane transformed the weekend, with Tottenham Hotspur securing their biggest ever win in the top flight. Whilst you’d imagine the main casualty of this game to be Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, having scored an own-goal and conceded eight others, it was in fact my fantasy league points total that suffered the most damage. Having removed Jermaine Defoe for netting just once in the Premier League since September 12th, little did I know he would produce the goal-scoring performance of his career and equal the record held jointly by Alan Shearer and Andy Cole of five goals in a game. Yet the humiliation for Wigan didn’t end there, as whilst they were able to net in the 57th minute through Paul Scharner and give themselves a chance of getting back into the game, it was hardly legitimate. Despite the performance and the Hollywood score line this victory may not be enough for some Spurs fans. Whilst putting nine goals past Wigan would be a hugely impressive result for even Manchester United and Chelsea, no amount of inconsistency can be solved by thrashing a team destined to finish in the bottom half. Harry Redknapp can only hope his side avoids their usual second half of the season collapse, and uses this victory as a springboard for a top four finish. For Wigan and Roberto Martinez it is essential to draw a line under this humiliating defeat and move onwards and upwards; viewing it any differently to just a ‘bad day at the office’ would be unwise for morale to say the least.

In terms of the weekend’s other results it was pretty much business as usual. Chelsea managed to put four goals past a hapless Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge, extending their run of clean sheets at home to ten games. French winger Florent Malouda opened the scoring, smashing the ball into the roof of the net following Jody Craddock’s poor clearance. A two-goal salvo from Michael Essien followed before Joe Cole made it four with a cool finish. The result leaves Chelsea five points clear at the top of the table, whilst Wolves remain in the bottom three with difficult trips to Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United coming up. Second-placed United comprehensively defeated struggling Everton at home by three goals to nil, one of these a sensational strike from Scottish international Darren Fletcher, the others courtesy of Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia. Sir Alex’s team were rarely troubled by Everton, who set their stall out to frustrate the champions from early on, with the possession statistics confirming United’s dominance.

Third-placed Arsenal suffered a shock defeat at the Stadium of Light against this season’s over-achievers Sunderland, with recent England starter Darren Bent grabbing the only goal of the game. The result sees Sunderland become the first side this season not to concede against Arsenal, and is indicative of the excellent job Steve Bruce is doing. If Sunderland were able to bring this form into the New Year a European place would certainly not be out of reach. Rich-kids Manchester City survived one of their biggest tests this season, and could have emerged with an invaluable win away at Anfield were it not for Yossi Benayoun scrambling home a late equaliser. The draw will be of little use to either side, with the pressure on Rafael Benitez set to increase as Liverpool attempt to salvage their Champions League campaign in mid-week. Whether Manchester City can still finish in the top four is unclear, but Liverpool’s position remains hugely precarious, with the potential loss of Champions League revenue a distinct possibility for this and next season. Pretenders to the top four crown Aston Villa shared the spoils with this season’s surprise package Burnley at Turf Moor. Steven Caldwell’s header had given the home side the lead before Emile Heskey converted in-form winger James Milner’s cross in the dying minutes of the game. The result leaves Villa well-placed in fourth, level on points with big-winners Spurs albeit having played a game more.

Burnley remain ninth and may go into the Christmas period in the Premier League top ten, an unthinkable feat at the beginning of the season. Tony Pulis’ Stoke City won 1-0 at home to bottom-of-the-table Portsmouth, with goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen preserving the home side’s clean sheet, saving a tame penalty from Pompey midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng. Ricardo Fuller scored the winning goal on 74 minutes, ending a well-worked team move with a curled finish. Blackburn scored an impressive away win at the Reebok Stadium, winning by two goals to nil thanks to a curled effort from David Dunn and an excruciating own-goal from Bolton defender Sam Ricketts, heading over Jaaskelainen into his own net. Hopefully if his error makes it onto a ‘Footballers do the Silliest Things’ DVD his Mum won’t buy it for him at Christmas, as I doubt he could stomach seeing it again. Birmingham gained a priceless victory against last season’s overachievers Fulham, with Lee Bowyer scoring his fourth goal of an impressive season so far. Last but by no means least, Phil Brown’s Hull came out fighting at home to also struggling West Ham United, coming back from 2-0 down after 11 minutes to lead 3-2 at half time. Mercurial midfielder Jimmy Bullard netted twice in twenty minutes, first with a hugely deflected free-kick and then from an emphatic penalty just before the break. With performances like these it should be possible for both sides to extricate themselves from the relegation places after Christmas, although Zola and Brown ought to teach their teams how to hang onto leads.

Naturally this week’s awards are dominated by the Tottenham and Wigan game, with the most prestigious award, Player of the Week, going to winger Aaron Lennon following his sublime efforts. Whilst Defoe will steal the headlines tomorrow morning Lennon’s starring role as a three-goal architect shouldn’t go unnoticed. With a performance like that it’s almost inconceivable and completely illogical to pick Shaun Wright-Phillips as England’s starting right-winger. We can only hope that Capello was at the game, or at least watching Match of the Day Two. The award for Team of the Week is a similarly easy decision; nobody this weekend came anywhere near close to matching the tenacity of Tottenham’s midfield, its willingness to chase down the ball even when 5-1 up at home and coasting, the passing of Kranjcar and even his international team-mate Corluka, and Defoe’s lethal finishing. Although Wigan had almost given up once they were 4-1 down, for any team to score eight goals in one half is a monumental achievement. Goal of the Week was a slightly more difficult title to award, with Florent Malouda’s stunner for Chelsea a worthy candidate, along with David Dunn’s curled effort at Bolton. In the end on the basis of technique and the unexpectedness of the source, Darren Fletcher’s goal for Manchester United takes this week’s award.

We ought to give a quick mention to the Pass of the Week, which can often be a difficult decision to make unless Arsenal are playing at home, but this week is a remarkably simple one. Niko Kranjcar’s delivery to Defoe was simply stunning, especially when taken alongside the skill with which he brought down the ball beforehand. Finally the ‘bad’ awards must be dished out to the unwilling winners, and few times before has a team ever been so deserving of the ‘Worst Team of the Week’ award. Wigan defenders will probably see today’s goals in their dreams for quite a while, but the sloppy nature of the team’s passing and lack of closing down mean nobody in the Wigan first eleven ought to shoulder the blame alone. Miss of the Week has to be Boateng’s weak penalty miss at Stoke, with Sorensen having enough time to sign for another club and make his debut before the ball trundled into his waiting arms. I dare say Paul Hart will be looking for anyone else at Portsmouth Football Club to take the next one, perhaps he may deputise himself following his look of utter disbelief at Boateng’s failure to provide an invaluable goal earlier. Finally we have the most prestigious of all the aforementioned ‘bad’ awards, the Mistake of the Week. Sam Ricketts will never be able to live his ‘sometimes all you can do is laugh’ moment down, and I dare say he and Jussi Jaaskelainen will be communicating an awful lot more from now on.

Friday, 20 November 2009

World Cup controversy – Should there be a replay?

Following Thierry Henry’s blatant handball in the match between France and Ireland on Wednesday night calls for a replay have come from members of both sides hoping to remedy the injustice of the result. The French equaliser was netted by Arsenal defender William Gallas after Thierry Henry ‘assisted’ in the build-up; unfortunately this assistance amounted to what appeared to be early Basketball practice, with the referee failing to notice Henry essentially 'holding' the ball. Having dominated the game in the first half and levelled the scores on aggregate through the talismanic Robbie Keane, Ireland were just over fifteen minutes away from penalties until their efforts were rendered pointless. Justifiably upset, the criticism has flowed from the Irish quarters. Robbie Keane led the calls from the players today, asking for a reply “in the interest of fair play so that whichever team qualifies, can do so with their heads held high”. Although he has been painted as such by many newspapers, both in the British Isles and across the rest of Europe, Thierry Henry is certainly not the villain of this piece. I sincerely doubt that had any Irish players had the opportunity to commit the same offence as Henry, they wouldn't have done the same. Indeed many probably wouldn’t have owned up to doing so, or been brave enough to call for a replay as the only ‘fair’ option. As Keane acknowledged “to make such a statement took courage and honour, and all of us recognise that”. If only similar qualities could be shown by FIFA, allegedly bastions of ‘fair play’, ‘correctness’ and ‘equality’. Although such an accusation can only be made devoid of any supporting evidence, I highly doubt FIFA would have been satisfied had France failed to equalise and Ireland gone through. Whereas for many fans the absence of Ireland and the atmosphere its fans normally create from the tournament will be a huge disappointment.

The reaction of the French football authorities is a typically selfish and stubborn one, sycophantically backing FIFA’s refusal to call a replay. As far as I am concerned the use of the phrase ‘s*** happens’ in the response of the French Football Federation to the calls from the Irish FA shows the type of moral compass it possesses. Obviously I’m not trying to suggest that the FFF ought to act against French interests, but by supporting the calls from the FAI it could portray itself as an organisation that cares about the image of the game, and wants the next generation to grow up seeing football as a 'fair' sport. I’m sure the FFF would be the first to complain had France been denied a place in the World Cup in similar circumstances, although perhaps the potential revenue the World Cup will create for France has slightly distorted its thinking; how unfortunate. At least the Federation’s Vice President and Head of UEFA, Michel Platini, will be satisfied as I doubt he possesses sufficient intelligence to realise that Ireland and England are different countries. I would imagine he's taking great pleasure in finally 'getting one over' the English as he has attempted to do many times before. The involvement of French and Irish politicians in this, a dispute about a football match, is possibly a step too far but who are FIFA to tell others they ought not to involve themselves in a debate which has essentially become one of justice and fairness. Comments from the FFF that “not even the English would take it so far as to replay” are ridiculous and hugely out of context, and prove my aforementioned point about the ignorance of Platini and company of the socio-political situation within the British Isles. The “refereeing mistakes in qualifying” that have tragically blighted the French campaign, according to FFF president Jean-Pierre Escalletes, I very much doubt were of similar magnitude to the aberration on Wednesday.

Some have called for the re-opening of the debate on video technology, one which has been very much over-discussed, but this is not the central issue. This is a question of morality and fairness, and whilst the final decision ought to be with FIFA as the governing body, it would be nice to feel that the protestations of the ‘right-minded’ aren't just being ignored. For me it sends out a terrible message to youngsters hoping to get involved in the game, that no matter how hard you try and how fairly you play the game at any time you can be cheated out of deserved success. I sincerely hope the French Federation is unable to regain any sort of credibility after this, and that Irish football can recover, as the 2002 World Cup seems like a very long time ago now. Allegedly Damien Duff is suffering hugely following Ireland’s defeat; we can only hope he feels a game in which the interests of the 'top ten in the FIFA rankings' nations are served is still one in which he wants to participate. Liam Brady’s solemn assessment that “if the game’s going to survive, its got to be an equal playing field” will resonate with many who wish for football’s ‘integrity’ and ‘dignity’ to survive. As far as I am concerned, although he may still be sacked due to the abysmal qualifying performance, Raymond Domenech ought to be given the chance to ruin French chances in the World Cup, in the interest of ‘fairness’.