So, the Premier League title race isn’t quite over just yet, after all. With the full-time whistle looming at White Hart Lane yesterday afternoon and Manchester United leading thanks to the only goal of the match, Tottenham Hotspur launched one final ball into the visiting penalty area, David De Gea – who had previously put in an excellent performance – failed to deal successfully with the looping ball, which was turned back for Clint Dempsey to rescue a well-deserved point from a match which had already reinforced the fact that Spurs aren’t in a Champions League place by chance alone. There had been some speculation that this match might not even take place – the inclement conditions led to a final pitch inspect just an hour and ten minutes before kick-off, and the match itself was played with enough snow blowing around to cause owners of a high definition set-top box to likely feel the need to give it a good, hard thump in order get rid of that accursed interference – and after the match Alex Ferguson spoke, as he is wont do, as if he rather wished that it hadn’t. To listen to him speaking, it’s almost difficult to believe that his team is five points clear at the top of the Premier League table with fifty-six points from just twenty-three games. Manchester City now trail them by five points after a routine win against Fulham on Saturday afternoon, but that five point gap still looks large, especially when we consider that Manchester United have now played all of Manchester City, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton away from home. As we found out last season, however, stranger things have been known to happen.
Arsenal, meanwhile, continue their season of inconsistency, and this skittishness now seems to have extended itself to within matches as well as between them. They were as poor as they have looked all season during the first half of their match against Chelsea, but they rallied a little in the second half against a home side which continues to play without most of the swagger with which it swept to its Champions League title last season. Chelsea, for their part, are now four points clear of Spurs in third place in the table, but if such results offer something approaching an air of detente in the fractious atmosphere between the supporters of the club and manager Rafael Benitez, it remains fragile, to say the least. Arsenal, for their part, stayed in sixth place in the Premier League table, level on points with both Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion, and now only one point above ninth-placed Swansea City. Liverpool put in their best performance of the season so far in thrashing Norwich City by five goals to nil at Anfield on Saturday, while Swansea City recovered from the disappointment of their early FA Cup last week by beating Stoke City. Everton travel to Southampton tonight for what is likely to be a volatile St Mary’s Stadium this evening.
At the other end of the Premier League table, meanwhile, the heat was turned up on Alan Pardew while it continued to simmer under Paul Lambert. If Newcastle United’s match against Reading was an acid test of the extent to which their season has melted away to nothing over the last three months or so, then the outcome of this test can only be regarded as a failure. Two goals in six second half minutes from Adam Le Fondre was enough to send the gloom crashing back down upon St James Park on Saturday afternoon, a defeat which meant that Newcastle have now won just one of their last eighteen matches in all competitions. The fragile truce that has existed between the club’s support and its owners over the last couple of seasons is starting to looked frayed again already. Aston Villa, meanwhile, looked as if they may even have turned a corner in rushing into a two goal lead at The Hawthorns on Saturday evening, only to be pegged back by two goals in the second half. It’s difficult to say how this result can be interpreted, other than to say that the first half performance was a sign that perhaps Aston Villa’s imminent relegation isn’t quite the foregone conclusion that many had assumed it would be. The other club showing signs of revival at the bottom of the table, Queens Park Rangers, managed yet another draw on Saturday, this time at West Ham United, for whom Joe Cole scored his first goal for the club since his return after almost ten years away. That number of draws, however, remains QPR’s achilles heel. They need more than one point per match if they are to stay up this season at the moment.
At the top of the Football League Championship, meanwhile, it is starting to look as if the title is now Cardiff City’s to lose after they won by two goals to one at Blackpool while Crystal Palace and Hull City could only manage underwhelming draws, against Bolton Wanderers and Peterborough United respectively. Leicester City, who beat Middlesbrough on Friday night, are the latest club to take second place in the table in what is starting to resemble a game of musical chairs amongst the chasing pack. This tendency to throw points away seems to be contagious amongst these clubs. A last minute mistake by goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak cost Brighton & Hove Albion two points away to Birmingham City, whilst Millwall were beaten at home by Burnley and Nottingham Forest were held to a one-one draw at home after a feisty East Midlands derby match against Derby County. Still, one Championship manager who will be sleeping a little more easily this evening will be the Leeds United manager Neil Warnock. His team’s one-nil win against Bristol City at Elland Road was Leeds’ fourth in the league since their home thrashing at the hands of Chelsea in the League Cup this time last month.
Below the top two divisions, the number of matches that managed to avoid the icy grip of the winter starts to tail off a little. Tranmere Rovers and Doncaster Rovers remain tied at the top of League One after wins against Brentford and Leyton Orient, while Swindon Town didn’t carry the recent uncertainty that circled concerning its financial position affect it on the pitch, and Swindon’s two-nil win against Shrewsbury Town at The County Ground on Saturday afternoon saw the club move up to third place in the table. In League Two, meanwhile, only three matches managed to avoid the cut and these could only muster two goals between them. Northampton Town jumped into the play-off places with a win against Burton Albion at Sixfields, while Wycombe Wanderers continued to pull clear of the relegation places at the foot of the table with a win against Dagenham & Redbridge. Finally, in the Blue Square Bet Premier, three of the top six – who are separated by just seven points – played on Saturday, and all three of them lost. Kidderminster Harriers stay fifth after losing at Macclesfield Town and Forest Green Rovers stay fourth after losing by the odd goal in three at Stockport County – for whom the win was enough to end a spell in the relegation places at the bottom of the table. The result of the weekend anywhere, however, came at Rodney Parade, where Barrow moved off the bottom of the table by beating second placed Newport County by two goals to nil. Now then, Mr Pardew and Mr Lambert: that’s how you do it.
And that was the weekend that was.
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