Rants and musings from the magazine team
The English leagues' weekend woe-sufferers, compiled by Simon Carter
Manchester UnitedIt’s difficult to judge exactly the effect that losing the Premier League title in the dying moments of last season had on Manchester United, though the general consensus throughout the summer seemed to be that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were a wounded animal, desperate to regain supremacy.
Judging by their league performances this season, injured stars notwithstanding, United are still licking their wounds. A surprisingly toothless opening day defeat to Everton was followed by four straight victories, but only the 4-0 home win over Wigan was anything like convincing.
Following a template first set last season by sides such as Basel, Ajax and Athletic Bilbao, opposition sides now see the Red Devils as a team that can be chased and harried – and as a team that are not too difficult to score against. Both Fulham and Southampton scored twice against the 19-time champions and only a lack of quality finishing prevented Liverpool from scoring more than once last weekend.
In short, Saturday teatime’s 3-2 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs’ first victory over United since 2001, and their first at Old Trafford since 1989 – had been coming (though credit must go to Spurs for putting United to the sword where others have failed).
There's no doubt that with the likes of Paul Scholes, Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Robin van Persie, United are a formidable attacking force – as demonstrated by their second-half siege of the Spurs’ goal – but a lightweight midfield and a porous defence seem certain to undermine their offensive strength.
Next up for Manchester United is a trip to Newcastle, where they were soundly beaten 3-0 in January, and they must also travel to league leaders Chelsea before the month is out. United fans will certainly hope that their team soon show the kind of form that took them to within three minutes of the title last season.
Papiss CisseTo the casual observer it would seem that there’s an unwritten rule that Newcastle’s Senegalese attackers, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, cannot both enjoy good form at the same time.
Demba Ba started last season in scintillating form, scoring 15 goals before the end of the year (including two Premier League hat-tricks) before international teammate Cisse joined in the January transfer window. It has been well documented that Ba’s form dipped as Cisse’s star rose, with the former only scoring one further goal last season while the latter hit 13.
Of course, it would be rather simplistic to say that the two of them can’t play together – Ba’s goalscoring drought should largely be attributed to his manager’s decision to play him on the left wing whenever Cisse was present – but with Ba once again starting the season in great form, Cisse has struggled to find the net, scoring only once, in the League Cup defeat at Manchester United.
On Saturday, Ba and Cisse started together against Reading with Ba scoring twice (the first a magnificent strike, the second via his hand) and Cisse drawing another blank. To underline how poorly Cisse performed, Alan Pardew withdrew the target man after 69 minutes when Newcastle were 2-1 behind and needing a goal. After playing every minute of Newcastle’s opening three fixtures, Cisse has now been hauled off in each of the last three games.
Cisse has shown throughout his career that he is too good for this drought to continue (scoring 52 goals in just 81 games in his last four seasons) but if he wants to avoid many more weekends like this one, he’ll have to find his magic boots sooner rather than later.
Everton’s opponentsMomentum is second only to luck as the major mystical force that decides a team’s fate, and all eyes were on Everton this weekend to see how they would react to a shock League Cup exit to Leeds during the week. When The Toffees fell behind after just six minutes at home to Southampton (who had won their midweek tie), it seemed as though momentum had won again.
But by half time, Everton were home and dry at 3-1 ahead, after a goal from Leon Osman and two from Nikica Jelavic ensured the Goodison Park club’s impressive start to the season continued apace. While Liverpool were busy at Carrow Road proving that talk of a shift in power in Merseyside may be a little premature, there’s no doubt that any club facing David Moyes’ boys in their current form can expect to have a bad weekend.
A listless defeat to West Brom early in September is the only blip for Everton who, but for some dreadful refereeing decisions in their 2-2 draw with Newcastle, would only be a point off pacesetters Chelsea.
Playing terrific football, with an unleashed Marouane Fellaini particularly impressive, Everton threaten to fill Newcastle’s place as everybody’s second favourite team. Moyes said after the win against Southampton that he would have paid to watch his side, but the way Everton are playing, even he might struggle to get a ticket for their next home game: a genuinely mouth-watering derby with Liverpool.
Bolton WanderersIt’s fair to say that things are absolutely not going to plan for Bolton. Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace leaves the preseason promotion favourites languishing in 18th spot in The Championship.
Over the summer, Owen Coyle was allowed to clear the players he didn't want and keep the ones he did, brusquely turning down a £4m Swansea offer for Mark Davies. Bolton seemed to be the best bounce-back bet of the three relegated clubs, given Wolves’ terrible campaign and the farce at Blackburn (which may end following Steve Kean’s departure – but may not). However, despite Coyle's claim that his side are “playing at a high standard”, The Trotters have found goals, clean sheets and wins hard to come by.
With three away defats in four, Bolton need to make the Reebok a fortress but the fans are staying away – only 16,000 saw their side outpassed, out-shot and ultimately outscored on Saturday – and Coyle is facing increasing calls for his dismissal; although he will never be as unpopular with Bolton fans as predecessor Gary Megson, he needs swift and strong action to regain their belief in him.
Tomorrow’s visit of Leeds would be the perfect place to start, but with Phil Gartside having repeated that Bolton's finances require promotion and Coyle's side woefully below his pre-season target of two points per game, it's not beyond belief that another goalless home defeat could signal the end – and Kean may not be only Scottish manager to leave Lancashire this week.
Basement BoysNo manager likes to mention the ‘R’ word, and October 1st is admittedly early to be talking about relegation, but every league table shows a dotted line of doom above the drop slots and it’s hard not to be drawn into early speculations.
In the Premier League’s basement this weekend, Norwich suffered a demoralising 5-2 home defeat while Reading were twice pegged back to be denied their first win of the season.
In League One, Bury remain rooted to the bottom despite a decent 2-2 draw at Stevenage while the four teams above them all played each other. Oldham will know they should have done much better than to lose 1-0 at home to Coventry and Hartlepool will no doubt be disappointed to have been rolled over so easily by Colchester.
It’s not all doom and gloom in the drop zone. Peterborough’s surprise win at Hull, thanks to a wonderful hat-trick from Emile Sinclair, meant that The Championship’s bottom three enjoyed an unbeaten day (Millwall and Ipswich earned draws at Burnley and Barnsley respectively) – but in League Two, the story is very different.
With only two relegation spots available, Barnet and Wycombe have spent the opening weeks making those places their own. Saturday afternoon was familiarly unpleasant for Wanderers, who sacked manager Gary Waddock last week, as they were walloped 3-0 at fellow strugglers Dagenham & Redbridge.
Barnet will consider themselves unlucky, having lead at Fleetwood before having goalkeeper Graham Stack sent off on 29 minutes, but with only two points on the board and games imminent against promotion hopefuls Exeter and Southend, the permanently drop-dodging Bees seem set to stay Basement Boys for some time.
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