Rants and musings from the magazine team
It Was a Bad Weekend For…
Brendan Rodgers' hubrisComedy is, as we know, all about the timing. On Saturday afternoon, media outlets from the BBC website to Sky Sports News, not to mention countless radio stations and Twitter feeds, indulged themselves in Brendan Rodgers-related schadenfreude.
See, just 24 hours before his Liverpool side hosted (and were well beaten by) a revived Aston Villa side at Anfield, Rodgers was spending his time speculating that The Reds could, with a bit of consistency, finish this season as high as second place. Well, sort of. What he actually said was that Liverpool were “11 points off second and that can all turn around rather quickly”.
Whether you interpret that as a wildly over-optimistic prediction (something of a tradition at the club) or as a slightly misjudged attempt to boost his players' confidence, there’s no doubting that Rodgers will have wished he could swallow his words come 5pm on Saturday.
If Rodgers did need a reality check, this game was perfect as it clearly demonstrated how far his side are from challenging for the title. Dominating the early exchanges without taking advantage has become the Liverpool way in recent times but this, coupled with their capitulation after going behind, will leave nobody in any doubt as to the League Cup holders' position in the Premier League hierarchy.
Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke was clearly the difference between the sides, scoring two and making the other with an ingenious back-heel. A player of the Belgian's ilk may be exactly what Liverpool are missing, but Rodgers will have despaired at the sight of Benteke strolling through the home defence for his second goal.
Liverpool face Fulham next. Whatever happens, you can be sure that Rodgers will choose his pre-game words more wisely in future.
Wigan's durabilityJust as Arsenal fans grow tired of the annual early season struggle and post-Christmas revival into the top four, supporters of Wigan must be weary of the yearly relegation battle (though it does usually end with improbable salvation). Season after season, the Lancashire side find themselves ‘in the mix’ for one of the bottom three spots before rallying come springtime.
In recent times the club have been forced to spend the early stages of the season regrouping following notable departures such as Antonio Valencia, Lee Cattermole, Wilson Palacios and Charles N’Zogbia but with Victor Moses as the only big name out of the door, and with the highly regarded Ivan Ramis and Arouna Kone coming in, this season was set to be different.
When playing well, Wigan can cause problems for anybody (see Manchester United and others at the end of last season, and back-to-back autumn wins over West Ham and Tottenham) but there is growing frustration at the DW Stadium over the lack of consistently good performances this term.
The latest defeat came on Saturday when they lost 2-1 to the impressive Norwich through goals from Anthony Pilkington and a header from the smallest-man-on-pitch Wes Hoolahan. The result keeps Wigan in the bottom three and as one of a group of four teams who seem likely relegation candidates – if Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland don't also get involved.
The Latics have conceded two or three goals in each of the seven games since Bonfire Night, and Christmas may not bring glad tidings with fixtures against Arsenal, Everton, Villa and Manchester United to come before twelfth night. Lose them all, and they could finish with the same fate as those perennial survivors of the 1990s, Coventry and Southampton.
The Life of RyanIt seems unlikely that Stoke centre-back Ryan Shawcross will ever in his life have been described as the victim of bullying. But anybody who saw the treatment doled out to him by Everton’s Marouane Fellaini on Saturday afternoon will have felt a pang of sympathy for the England defender, whose bruising afternoon also included an unlucky own-goal.
It all started with an Everton corner in the second half of the 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium. Although referee Mark Halsey missed the incident, TV cameras caught Fellaini sneaking a glance at the officials before, happy that the coast was clear, launching a headbutt at Shawcross. The Stoke man crumpled in a heap and will have been no doubt surprised to see no punishment for his aggressor.
Emboldened by getting away with it, Fellaini followed his headbutt with an elbow to Shawcross’ face at a later corner and a right hook minutes later. Post-game Fellaini’s manager David Moyes said that he had seen the headbutt and that “it was a terrible thing to do” and that he “expect[s] him to be punished”. The Belgian himself has also released a statement apologising to Shawcross.
By the time you read this, the FA and Premier League may have already viewed video of the incidents. Expect Fellaini to have Christmas off this year.
Championship NosebleedsThe top of the Championship is somewhere that nobody likes to be. Each time Crystal Palace or Cardiff – or even, for a few brief moments earlier this season, Middlesbrough – drag themselves to the summit, gravity intervenes and succeeds in pulling them back down.
On Saturday afternoon, Cardiff welcomed the seemingly hopeless Peterborough to the Cardiff City Stadium – where the Bluebirds had garnered 30 points from 30 this season. Peterborough, the bottom side in the league, had lost seven of their previous eight league games and had scored only nine away goals all season.
In a statistically even game, Peterborough enjoyed large spells of dominance and found themselves 2-0 ahead just after half-time. The home side did pull a goal back in the dying minutes but that wasn’t enough to rescue even a point from the game.
Elsewhere, second-placed Palace were cruising at St. Andrew’s, leading Birmingham 2-0 thanks to two goals from, who else, Glenn Murray. As things stood, Peterborough’s heroics in the Welsh capital meant the Eagles were heading back to the top of the league.
Once again, the curse of first place struck and Palace fell apart, first allowing substitute Nikola Zigic and then Papa Bouba Diop to strike for the home side to leave the tie all-square.
With the top two doing their level best to keep the title race interesting, both third-placed Boro and fourth-placed Hull won to leave just three points separating the top four.
Whatever twists and turns the race for the Premier League throws up this term, one thing’s for certain; come May, somebody will have to be top.
Henning BergThis season, Blackburn were managed for eight games by Steve Kean, then spent six games without a manager and have now been under Henning Berg for nine games. Things haven't worked out particularly well so far for the Norwegian: they did better when they were managerless, losing only one of those half-dozen games.
As if it wasn't bad enough for Berg to lose to an empty chair, his tenure has been statistically far worse than that of the deeply unpopular Kean. Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Blackpool was Berg’s fifth in his nine games (and his fourth in the last five), with some onlookers already questioning his position.
The result leaves Rovers seven points off the play-off places – surely a minimum requirement this term – and 11 points above the relegation zone, in 15th place. When Kean resigned they were third.
While this run isn’t yet a crisis, Berg – and the Blackburn fans – should perhaps thank Steve Kean that they’re not in a worse position.
League One NosebleedsThe Championship isn’t the only league where teams at the top have struggled this weekend, as nosebleeds also afflicted those at the top of League One. League leaders Tranmere played out their fourth successive draw (two of which have been 0-0) in a top-of-the-table clash with Sheffield United.
The Blades have really struggled to grab this league by the scruff of its neck and Saturday’s impotent performance by the side in third is typical of this term so far.
Doncaster suffered the worst defeat of the league’s top sides, losing 4-1 at home to Coventry (who are in excellent form with six wins from their last eight fixtures) while Stevenage fared little better, throwing away a lead to lose 2-1 to Crawley in front of their own fans.
All of which was good news for Brentford, who continued their remarkable form with a 2-1 victory at Notts County (that’s seven wins from nine) and MK Dons, who limped to a 1-0 victory over hapless Hartlepool.
So where does that leave the table? With just six points separating first from tenth, it leaves the table in a very exciting state.
League Two NosebleedsThe theme continues as we reach League Two: remarkably, only two teams in the entire top half were able to carve out a victory.
However, with first-placed Gillingham drawing with eighth-placed Fleetwood, Port Vale and Cheltenham (second and third respectively) playing out a 1-1 draw, fifth- and sixth-placed Bradford and Southend finishing 2-2 and Burton and Chesterfield (ninth and tenth) also finishing all square, there wasn’t much room for anybody in the top half to have won.
Devonshire sides Exeter (seventh) and Torquay (eleventh) both drew with sides in the bottom half, so will perhaps be disappointed with their day’s work but all of this means that while only two top-half sides (Rotherham and Dagenham & Redbridge) managed to win on Saturday, not a single one of them lost.
The Football League looks set to continue to thrill us all as we enter the Christmas period and it’d take a brave soul to bet on any title winners, promotion candidates or relegation fodder. Well, except Hartlepool.
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