It’s not quite as simple as to say that the Premier League championship is headed back to Old Trafford this season, but it’s starting to look that way. Manchester City have now dropped four points from their last two matches against Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool, while Manchester United just keep winning. They have won twelve of their last fourteen Premier League matches and, while they were made to work for it at Craven Cottage yesterday afternoon, the three points won from their win against Fulham – who, at least, put up a bit more of fight than they did at Old Trafford in the FA Cup last week – had something of an air of inevitability about it. Manchester City’s draw against Liverpool trimmed United’s lead at the top of the table back into single figures, but this was a match at which City’s recent nerviness came face to face wit a Liverpool team which – last week’s upset at Oldham Athletic notwithstanding – has been starting to show signs of life again of late. That City managed to rescue a point from the match was due to a combination of a rush of blood to the head from the Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina and the brilliance of Sergio Aguero. Reina might have felt that he had done enough, in tearing out the left-hand edge of his penalty, to force Aguero down a cul-de-sac that wouldn’t threaten his goal, but the striker managed to turn the ball in from a near impossible angle to salvage a point for the home side.
The clubs chasing the other Champions League places had mixed fortunes. The Rafael Benitez edition of the Crisis-o-Meter was set to “deploy banners” after a last minute goal from Moussa Sissoko won the match between Newcastle United and Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur capitalised on this with a one-nil win against a rapidly unravelling West Bromwich Albion yesterday afternoon. An injury to Jermain Defoe – and one which seems likely to keep Defoe out of the team for a few weeks – seemed to further accentuate Spurs’ crisis in the striking department, but a second half goal from Gareth Bale was enough to keep them three points ahead of Everton and four points ahead of Arsenal. Spurs’ day also got a little bit brighter with the news that Emmanuel Adebayor will at be returning a little sooner than we might have expected after Burkina Faso beat Togo in the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations yesterday afternoon.
At the other end of the Premier League table, meanwhile, Aston Villa continue to find interesting and inventive ways in which to crush their supporters. For the first three-quarters of their match against Everton at Saturday afternoon, they put in a performance that their supporters hadn’t seen since winning at Anfield in the middle of of December. Football matches, however, last for ninety minutes rather than sixty-five and an equalising goal from Marouane Fellaini in stoppage-time was enough to ensure that they dropped what would have been two of out of three very welcome points and stay in the relegation places at the bottom of the table. Worse still, they slipped a place as a result of Wigan Athletic’s home draw against Southampton.
Queens Park Rangers were going to stay bottom of the table regardless of what happened elsewhere, but they did little help to their cause of staying up with a goalless home draw against Norwich City. These are the home matches which Queens Park Rangers need to be winning if they are to somehow drag themselves above that dotted line at the bottom of the Premier League table, but a second half missed penalty from Adel Taarabt, saved by the Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn, was as close as they could manage to picking up all three points. The least entertaining match of the Premier League weekend out, as things would turn out, was its first. It is starting to look like three from five at the bottom of the Premier League table, but it remains too close to call definitively.
In the Football League Championship, Cardiff City stay ten points clear at the top of the table, a small victory for those amongst us who value money over tradition and history, but the race for the second automatic place at the Premier League trough is starting to look interesting, with just two points separating Leicester City, Hull City, Watford and Crystal Palace. The unpredictable nature of this division means that this particular race will likely go to the wire, but all four of these clubs won at the weekend. Leicester City beat a Wolves side that is sinking like a stone and might well be heading towards a second successive relegation on Friday night whilst, on Saturday afternoon, Hull City won at Millwall, Watford beat Bolton Wanderers (who are little better off than Wolves at the moment near the foot of the table) and Crystal Palace beat Charlton Athletic.
At the top of League One, nerves are starting to show. Tranmere Rovers have now lost two of their last three matches after a home defeat at the hands of Carlisle United, but they stay top of the table because Doncaster Rovers lost at relegation candidates Bury. Below them, League One is a scrappy, chaotic affair, with sixth placed Sheffield United down to fourteenth placed Crawley Town all more than conceivably in with a chance of snatching a play-off place. At the bottom of the table, meanwhile, Hartlepool United made some headlines with a win by two goals to one against Notts County with their goals coming from Peter Hartley and James Poole, which made considerably more headline than the fact that Hartlepool are now starting to show signs of life at the very bottom of the table. The Notts County owners failed to see the funny side of this, however, and sacked manager Keith Curle yesterday morning. Another manager finding out that there is no room for sentiment in modern football is Paul Dickov who, a week after leading his team to a win against Liverpool in the FA Cup, was also sacked after his team was beaten at Walsall. Oldham have now lost eight of their last nine league matches, and are just one position – and one point – above the relegation places in the division.
Port Vale reclaimed top place in League Two with another win, this time against struggling Accrington Stanley. Stanley find themselves in the middle of a desperate scramble to avoid relegation from the Football League, with just three points separating – deep breath – Bristol Rovers, Accrington Stanley, Aldershot Town, Plymouth Argyle, Barnet and Wimbledon. Below them, the battle to replace two of them is taking a distinctly fevered pace as well. Last weekend was a good one for Grimsby Town, who beat Alfreton Town by four goals to two at Blundell Park, while second-placed Wrexham and third-placed Forest Green Rovers cancelled each other out with a goalless draw, fourth-placed Newport County and fifth-placed Kidderminster Harriers saw their match at Rodney Parade rained off and Luton Town suffered an FA Cup hangover in losing to bottom of the table Barrow. With just six points separating Mansfield Town, who are now just one place below the play-off places, and eleventh-placed Woking, whose home win against Hyde was their fifth in the six league matches they’ve played since losing seven-nil in their away match against Hyde at the start of December. Even this, however, seems orderly in comparison with the Blue Square Bet South, in which just there are just twelve points between Farnborough, who are one place below the play-off places, and Billericay Town, who are one place off the bottom of the table. Far from every division in English football is done and dusted just yet.
And that was the weekend that was.
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