By Ross Crae
You know it’s nearing Christmas when the midweek fixtures start turning up, and there was a wonderful line-up of matches to brighten up a miserable working week. OK, wonderful may be pushing it a bit.
Tuesday night was awash with strugglers, starting with a t’riffic tussle between ‘Arry’s QPR and Sunderland. Redknapp’s first game in charge ended in a 0-0 draw, which is a vast improvement on recent results.
Djibril Cisse had several efforts on target but failed to convert his chances, while the Black Cats star striker Steven Fletcher couldn’t find the net either as both Julio Cesar and Robert Green thwarted his efforts. QPR showed signs of improvements and look likely to pick up more points under Harry’s guidance. Exciting stuff.
If Paul Lambert is Santa, which is a reasonable assumption, Darren Bent is certainly on his naughty list. The poor England forward wasn’t even in the squad as Aston Villa hosted Reading. Bent is usually deadly in the 18-yard box, but it’s the directors’ box he seems to be confined to these days.
Neither side made a breakthrough in a fairly dull first half and it continued to be abysmal for the majority of the second half. Christian Benteke finally opened the scoring, thumping home an 80th minute header. Three vital points secured for Villa, ninety minutes of life wasted.
On Wednesday night, it was back to the boos for Rafael Benitez as Chelsea entertained Fulham. “Entertain” doesn’t seem to be in Rafael Benitez’s word of the day calendar, however, and the game turned out to be a fairly dull 0-0 draw.
The Spaniard had a better reception in his second game in charge from the home fans, but after a lifeless encounter the jeering resumed. The Blues dominated possession but failed to create many meaningful chances.
The visitors deserved a point and created just as many chances, and could have easily have snatched a win had John Arne Riise made the most of the two he was handed late on.
Arsenal travelled to Everton, and the Gunners were quickly out of the starting blocks. Theo Walcott put them ahead in the very first minute with a chipped finish after a clever exchange with Aaron Ramsey.
Arsenal had most of the possession early on, but when they lost it the consequences were disastrous as Marouane Fellaini equalised for the Toffees. Steven Pienaar hassled Bacary Sagna into losing the ball, allowing Fellaini the chance to fire home a fine 20 yard finish just before the half hour mark.
Everton looked more and more potent as the game went on, with Wojciech Szczesny forced into saves including a fine stop from a Sylvain Distin header. Neither side could add to their tally and it was a frustrating evening for both as they failed to push on to seal a victory.
A somewhat rejuvenated Southampton hosted Norwich in a game which saw the return of referee Mark Clattenburg after he was cleared of racially abusing Chelsea players.
Rickie Lambert opened the scoring, reacting quickly to prod home at a 32nd minute free-kick, but Paulo Gazzaniga’s dreadful attempt at saving Robert Snodgrass’s free kick gave the Canaries an equaliser before half time. The ball looked to have gone straight through the keeper and into the back of the net.
All the goal excitement was confined to the first half, and it ended honours even.
Struggling Newcastle, already decimated by injuries, had the thankless task of going to Stoke and getting home in once piece. They just about managed it, but couldn’t muster any points to accompany them on their journey home.
The Magpies did take the lead early in the second half, Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic spilling a long-range Demba Ba strike into the path of an advancing Papiss Cisse who had an easy finish for his second of the season.
Unlike in the J.K. Rowling novels, the Potters stayed alive and turned the result around in their favour. Jonathon Walters’s flicked header in the 81st minute followed by Cameron Jerome’s powerful finish in the 85th came as the two substitutes combined and Newcastle capitulated.
Swansea welcomed West Brom to the Liberty Stadium. Michu, playing as a lone striker, gave the hosts an early lead with his ninth goal of the season inside nine minutes.
The Swans’ passing was as crisp as a vicar’s laundry and after wonderful build-up play Wayne Routledge added a second just two minutes after the opening goal.
Michael Laudrup’s team were dismantling the Baggies with slick and beautiful football and just over five minutes before half time, a ruthless Routledge put them three up.
Romelu Lukaku pulled one back just before half time from a corner as West Brom finally got going.
The Belgian striker’s effort turned out to be a mere consolation, as the visitors failed to create many openings in a goalless second half and had their stride well and truly broken.
Big Sam’s West Ham trekked to Old Trafford to square up to table-topping Manchester United. Perhaps they needn’t have bothered as Robin Van Persie got the ball rolling in the first minute, or the first thirty-one seconds to be more precise, and the score was to remain 1-0 for the rest of the game.
The lanky Dutchman swivelled past Winston Reid at the edge of the box and his shot took a deflection off James Collins and looped into the back of the net.
The Hammers tried their best as the lead remained slender, with both keepers forced into action but United held out for all three points.
Wigan’s massive fanbase were treated as champions Manchester City came calling. It took a while for a goal to come, 69 whole minutes in fact, and it came from Mario Balotelli. It’s not really been always him recently, despite what t-shirts may suggest, but he got himself onto the scoresheet. Ali Al-Habsi fumbled the ball twice in his efforts to keep City at bay but Mario was on hand to capitalise on the keeper’s second mistake in as many games.
You wouldn’t know it but James Milner has a top drawer, and that was where City’s second came from. To be more specific, it came off his left foot from distance at a vast rate of knots and sailed past poor old Al-Habsi just minutes after his howler.
Mancini’s men deserved the win but Wigan did match them for large spells of the game. But only one Roberto will be smiling tonight, and it’s the man who celebrated his birthday on Tuesday. That’s Mancini, by the way, if you forgot to send a card.
The stand-out midweek fixture was perhaps Liverpool’s visit to Spurs and the battle of the notepad wielding managers. Spurs made a bright start and after seven minutes they took the lead. Gareth Bale burst forward and crossed the ball to give Aaron Lennon an easy finish at the back post.
It was an open start to the game, both sides having good chances, but Spurs made their efforts count. A 16th minute Bale free-kick left Pepe Reina totally helpless and the Reds found themselves 2-0 down and fearing the worst.
In the second half, Bale was to score again, with a clinical finish from close range… into his own net. Lennon tried to clear the ball off the line from a Steven Gerrard header, but only succeeded in booting the ball off his fellow winger’s face into the goal. It’s funny enough to warrant a GIF.
Liverpool pressed on and were unlucky not to leave White Hart Lane with at least a point as they began to dominate possession but ultimately failed to finish chances. And no matter what Brendan says, you need goals as well as possession to win games.