PELLEGRINI’S MIND GAMES PAY OFF
Prior to Manchester City’s 3-1 pummeling of West Ham United on Saturday evening, City’s Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini started early on the type of mind games he’ll need in his PL debut season and beyond.
“I didn’t know United had conceded a late equalizer,” Man City defender Micah Richards said. “The manager said they had won, and that Arsenal and Chelsea had won so we thought we had to win against West Ham. Maybe it was a bit of reverse psychology. We just knew we had to win. We couldn’t drop points.”
Clever boy, Manuel, very, very clever.
You see for City’s players, the thought of losing any ground they’d built up over city rivals Manchester United is unbearable, they wanted to keep their foot on the pedal as their illustrious neighbors struggled along. And that’s exactly what they did on Saturday evening in East London, while United struggled against Saints earlier in the day.
With Sergio Aguero latching onto a sumptuous defense splitting pass in the first half and finishing with the refined aplomb we expect, the Citizens were on their way. After the break the pint-sized Argentine popped up with a second as he rose like a salmon at the near post to head home David Silva’s free kick. Speaking of Silva, my word, the swaggering Spaniard was simply sublime. He caressed balls into narrow spaces West Ham’s defenders dare not enter, and Aguero set him up with a cheeky back heel to masterfully stroke home City’s third and final goal after the Hammers had threatened a brief and unsubstantiated comeback.
City’s swaggering panache keeps turning on, almost with a flick of the switch. Devastating displays against Newcastle, Manchester United and now West Ham prove their attacking flair is better than any team in the PL. Dreams of clinching a second PL title in three seasons are starting to return to the Etihad, as they’ll only get better as the season goes on. That thought must be spurring City on and scaring the life out of others. Plus the thought of piling more misery on Manchester United acts as motivation, too.
THE ANDROS TOWNSEND SHOW
Relentless, magical, stunning… whatever word you use to sum up Townsend’s display in Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday probably wouldn’t do it justice. This guy is on fire. After a dream week in which the 22-year-old made his full England debut and scored in a crucial World Cup qualifier to help his country make Brazil, he also signed a new five-year contract for Spurs. And he capped that all off with a dazzling display against Villa on Sunday, scoring the first and giving Ashley Westwood a torrid afternoon.
For Townsend this season has been a dream and after spending time away from Tottenham on nine different loan spells over the past few years, he’s earned his dramatic rise to stardom. Watching him in action for England reminded me of Theo Walcott, full of pace, forward thinking and always eager to unleash full velocity on opponents. Seeing Townsend at his marauding best is quite a sight, plus he has more end product and looks like a more composed winger than Walcott. Plenty of people are jumping aboard the Townsend bandwagon.
I’m one of them.
Tough choice this weekend, but a few guys definitely stood out from the crowd. At Arsenal Mesut Ozil continues to do the business with consummate ease, as this week he dismantled Norwich City in the first half and helped himself to another two goals. Elsewhere, Aguero may have got the goals to seal City’s win but Silva pulled all the strings to make the magic offense sparkle. An in-form Silva spells trouble for the rest of the PL. Southampton’s defense is the meanest in the league, with just three goals conceded after eight games. Savvy Croatian center back Dejan Lovren has been a terrific addition from Lyon, and his last-gasp strike (that was later credited to Adam Lallana) grabbed Saints a point at Manchester United. He’s already scored the winner against Liverpool earlier in the season, talk about clutch. Fulham had a breakout win against Crystal Palace on Monday, with central defender Philippe Senderos bagging a great goal and looking confident and dominant at the back. He’s recapturing the form which saw him star for Arsenal as a youngster. And finally, we’ve already mentioned him but that man Townsend was a delight to watch. How much better can he get, and was the real replacement for Gareth Bale under Spurs’ noses the whole time?
CONCERN GROWS AT OLD TRAFFORD
Okay, this is getting rather serious now. Eight games into the season and it’s turning into a nightmare beginning for David Moyes and Manchester United. The only plus is that they’re just eight points adrift of league leaders Arsenal, it could be much more. United’s troubles don’t stem from having a bad squad. Yes, some of them may be old and prone to injury, as was evident on Saturday as both central defenders Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were out injured. Johnny Evans and Phil Jones were paired at CB for the first time this season and looked disjointed. But Moyes’ substitutions were, and continue to be, extremely bizarre.
He brought on Danny Welbeck, who scored one PL goal all last season, and 39-year-old Ryan Giggs whose beard is getting greyer by the day. They had Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia sitting on the bench, Moyes should’ve finished Saints off rather than settling for what they had. Another case of mismanagement from Moyes, who has to take the blame for United’s poor start.
Recently when I popped into the NBC Sports studios to rank my top five PL teams, United just sneaked in at five due to the goalscoring prowess of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. On Saturday against Southampton it was RVP’s turn to come to the rescue, as his first half strike managed to grab a point for the Red Devils. Their dramatic slide is worrying and no matter how good United’s strike duo are they can’t do it all on their own. In midfield they’re faltering, while at the back thy look shaky, confused and uneasy. They’ve used plenty of defensive combos so far this season, and in the final 20 minutes they keep dropping deeper and deeper to try and preserve a 1-0 lead against Southampton. No disrespect to the Saints, but United should’ve been looking to cap off the win and grab two or three goals, not be happy with what they had. Moyes used to do that at Everton, he needs a more attacking mentality with his United squad.
ARSENAL, CHELSEA MOVING THROUGH THE GEARS
And while Moyes struggles to kick United on through the gears amongst plenty of groans and unrest, two men quietly dismantling bottom half PL fodder are Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger. Chelsea and Arsenal both recorded 4-1 wins against Cardiff and Norwich City respectively, and both showed their class late on. Both the Canaries and the Bluebirds put up plucky fights away to their illustrious opponents, but the class and depth of Chelsea and Arsenal shone through brilliantly towards the end of the game. Aaron Ramsey for Arsenal and Oscar for Chelsea both came off the bench to add gloss to solid performances, as the London clubs set themselves up nicely for massive Champions League clashes.
By the end of the game, Chelsea and Arsenal were hitting fifth gear, even though they didn’t need to, as they’d already smashed the opposition into submission. But the relentless juggernauts and deep squads both teams have bode well for an assault on the UCL, PL and other cups as the season plays out.
CAN ETO’O DO THAT?
One moment changed Chelsea’s Saturday around, and it turns out it may have been illegal. In the 33rd minute Cardiff ‘keeper David Marshall bounced the ball before aiming to dropkick the ball up field. But on the bounce, he committed the cardinal sin which all goalkeepers wake up in cold sweats about… he didn’t check over his shoulder. And Marshall wished he would’ve as Samuel Eto’o pounced like a predatory cheetah to kick the ball away as it bounced up from the glistening Stamford Bridge turf and back towards Marshall’s hands. The ball broke to Eden Hazard, who squared to Eto’o but the Cameroonian striker fluffed his lines, only for Hazard to sweep the ball into the net and make it 1-1.
Time stood still, Cardiff’s bench jumped up from the dugout incensed, Hazard and Eto’o had a laugh and a joke, while referee Anthony Taylor let the goal stand. Malkay Mackay and the Cardiff City backroom staff were livid, and in terms of interpreting the FIFA rules on this one, I have to say I agree with Mackay’s angry demeanor.
It was clever from Eto’o and worth a shot if it came off. If you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win the raffle, right? But referees, fans, players and managers all know the laws of the game are open to interpretation. Chelsea got lucky, Cardiff not so much. ‘Thems the breaks.’ If you remember back to the late 90’s, (watch here) Coventry City striker Dion Dublin hid behind the goal before waiting for Newcastle ‘keeper Shay Given to roll the ball out of his hands. Dublin then nipped around Given and tapped the ball into an empty net. That was different as Given clearly didn’t have possession of the ball. Since then, goalkeepers have made an extra effort to check over their shoulders before bouncing the ball or rolling it onto the floor to kick upfield. Marshall, under FIFA rules, didn’t let the ball out of his possession as the ball was going back to his hands. Eto’o was in the wrong, so was Taylor… and Marshall will now be destined to earn royalties from soccer blooper videos for the rest of his life.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Staying at Stamford Bridge for one more storyline from an eventful game, 17-year-old Sean Buxton From Essex had the time of his life as he spent most of the second half sat next to legendary manager Jose Mourinho. But Buxton wasn’t on the bench, Mourinho came and sat next to him! After remonstrating with ref Taylor, the 50-year-old Portuguese manager was sent away from the dugout and walked into the stands to sit with the fans, much to Buxton’s delight.
Watch it all unfold, right here.
NEWCASTLE, LIVERPOOL DELIVER DRAMA, RIGHT ON CUE
This game is always earmarked for live TV broadcasts and you can see why, it always deliver. The opening half hour was turning into a slightly dour affair, then bam, Yohan Cabaye spanks in a beauty for Newcastle. Wham, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa takes down Luis Suarez for a PK, gets a red card and Steve Gerrard gets his 100th PL goal just before half time. After the break 10-man Newcastle went for it, youngster Paul Dummett put them ahead, before Daniel Sturridge made it 2-2 late on. It was a blood and thunder affair the PL is known and loved for, these two side didn’t disappoint as wave after wave of attack and counter-attack was lapped up mercifully by the baying crowd of over 52,000 fans at St. James’ Park. All of the fans in the vast cathedral of English soccer went home happy, entertained and grateful. A timely reminder of the delight of a PL game, forget sublime defending and tiki-taka, I want more of this. The rest of the PL clearly took note of Newcastle vs. Liverpool in the early kick off, as 34 goals hammered in at a rate of 3.4 per game in week 8. Good job setting an example, guys.
FULHAM BACK WITH A BANG
If you were worrying about the Cottagers, trust me I was, then you should stop that right now. Their comeback 4-1 win against Crystal Palace showed the grit, determination and guile you need to gut out wins in the PL. And oh yeah, it helps if you score two screamers in the first half, and another terrific finish just after the break. Take a bow Steve Sidwell, Pajtim Kasami and Philippe Senderos, absolute beauties. The latter strike is below, while as for Kasami’s screamer, I spoke with Martin Jol about the Macedonian winger after the game against Stoke when he put in an eye-catching display. “He is probably one of the fittest players in the league if you look at the stats,” Jol said. “I am very happy with him.” No doubt the Dutchman was delighted with his goal of the season contender to put Fulham on their to a massive win.