It has been an eventful week. League Cup, Premiership and European football has come and gone, and I’m somewhat mystified at the 2006/2007 football season so far. First up, The Premiership. Manchester United lead it, with maximum points and an ominous eight goals scored. There’s no reason to be too despondent, though – Fulham were wretched against them and Charlton weren’t much better on Wednesday night. More importantly, they’ve got a three point head start on Chelsea, whose comedy of errors I brushed over earlier on in the week. Elsewhere, it’s a bit early to start trying to look too deeply into it for any significant patterns but, for the time being, everybody seems to be beating everybody else. With Liverpool and Arsenal in European action (more of which shortly), Spurs were the “big” club of the week with a test, but they needed a result against Sheffield United and got it. More importantly, Dimitar Berbatov scored for them, which may allay fears amongst supporters at White Hart Lane that they’ve bought another Sergei Rebrov. The big talking point of the week, however, was Ben Thatcher’s full-on assault upon Pedro Mendes during the Manchester City-Portsmouth match. Now, I’ve played football, and I understand the strange way in which testosterone works. The red mist and the sudden rush of blood to the head. However, Thatcher is a professional footballer, and any justification for what may well turn out to be the worst tackle of the season would be somewhat futile. We know from Mendes’ history that he is a man of some honour. A couple of years ago, it was his fifty yard shot that Roy Carroll dropped a couple of yards behind the goal in the last minute at Old Trafford for Spurs a couple of years back. Despite having had a perfectly good last minute winner disallowed because the referee and linesmen “missed” it, Mendes chased the length of the pitch at full-time… to shake the referee’s hand. Such acts of sportsmanship are rare in modern football. He deserves better.
In Europe, Liverpool and Arsenal trundled into the group stages of the European Cup, which will mean weeks of dreadful ITV television coverage, with brainwashed commentators imploring us neutrals to get behind teams that, week-in-week-out, we loathe. Liverpool were poor in Kiev against Maccabi Haifa, and were only spared extra-time by Jose Reina’s out-stretched arms. I can’t quite pin down what has been wrong with Liverpool this season, but they’re going to have to improve if they’re going to challenge for the title. Arsenal were similarly lacklustre against Dinamo Zagreeb. I’m getting the feeling that Wenger’s team might be too young to challenge seriously this season. Hearts’ season-long battle to break the Rangers-Celtic duopoly must also seem like a bit of a waste of time now, too. Thrashed over two-legs by AEK Athens, they now go into the UEFA Cup. Across the rest of the continent, it was more or less business as usual. I suppose Ajax losing 2-0 at home to FC Copenhagen was a surprise, but how does one quantify these things? Buggered if I know. The draw for the group stages followed today, with Chelsea-Barcelona being the stand-out tie.
The teams that the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool simply wished didn’t exist were doing battle in the League Cup. Apart from a somewhat surprising crowd of 20,000 at St Mary’s for Southampton-Yeovil, crowds, even at bigger clubs, struggled to make five figures. There, for the want of a better phrase, some “surprises” here, at least. Farewell, then, to Burnley, Wolves, Preston, Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Coventry, Colchester, Plymouth, Stoke, Swansea and Ipswich. All done for teams in a lower division than them. The flotsam & jetsam of the Premiership join next, followed by the “big boys” in the third round. I can feel myself nodding off already.
Finally, spare a thought for Kirkley FC of the Eastern Counties League, who were beaten 8-2 in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round by Mildenhall Town in front of 115 hardy spectators last Saturday. The irony? These two teams both play in the same division of the same league and, at the time of writing Kirkley are four places above Mildenhall. The FA Cup can be a harsh, harsh mistress.