Rants and musings from the magazine team
It Was a Bad Weekend For…Fluffy-haired scapegoatsIt was a brutal moment in an afternoon filled with them for the sour Toffees. As the stadium announcer called out details of Everton’s 67th-minute change – Darron Gibson replacing Marouane Fellaini – jeers rang round Goodison Park in a clear indication of the supporters’ opinion of Fellaini’s contribution to the horror that had been unfolding all afternoon.
It was harsh, as was the sight of home fans flashing V-signs at their Belgian hero as he headed straight down the tunnel. Yes, Fellaini had had a poor game, but then so did at least seven or eight of his team-mates, and there was no such ire directed at Kevin Mirallas when he was removed as the home support indulged in a little misdirected scapegoat-ism.
The angry confusion of the Everton fans spoke of an understandable bewilderment at just who was to blame for their 3-0 home FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Wigan Athletic. Why did Everton freeze when presented with a seemingly straightforward passage to Wembley? Because freeze is what Everton tend to do (think last year’s semi-final with Liverpool)? Because they, like most observers, took Wigan for granted? Or just because they had a very bad day?
Credit must go to Wigan, who were outshining their hosts well before the four minutes that saw them score three times and briefly forget about yet another wretched league campaign. Their reward for some superb running football is their first-ever FA Cup semi-final in their history – and with their opponents being either Blackburn or Millwall, who drew 0-0 yesterday, surely the best chance they'll ever have of an FA Cup final appearance.
Since this tie was drawn three weeks ago, the noise has been incessant that Everton and David Moyes need to win a trophy. But they don’t, and it's ridiculous to suggest that Moyes’ legacy at Goodison will be measured in silverware rather than consistently decent league positions on a comparatively minuscule budget. Beating Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime would be the perfect reminder to the supporters of what a superb manager they have.
Chelsea scapegoatersAs Rafa Benitez watched his Chelsea side endure a terrible start to their FA Cup game at Manchester United, he will have felt aggrieved. Though United raced into a 2-0 lead, their general play was not good and Benitez will have sensed that opportunity would come his side’s way.
However, he will have also seen that certain parts of the team were not performing. Victor Moses was failing to make the most of the space that United’s lopsided formation afforded him, contributing little to the first half. In the middle, Frank Lampard made a hash of the chances presented to him and failed to anchor the midfield to give Juan Mata and Oscar the room they would need to create chances for Demba Ba.
So Benitez took action, seven minutes into the second half, replacing Moses with Eden Hazard (and switching Mata to the right) and Lampard with John Obi Mikel. As the substitutions took place, the chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from the Chelsea supporters were so audible that ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley couldn’t help but mention it.
Benitez, it turns out, does know what he is doing. Interim manager or not, unwanted or not, his changes worked perfectly with Chelsea now able to exploit United’s left (to the point where Wayne Rooney was shifted there) and Mikel joined Ramires in holding the midfield together while Chelsea pressed for goals.
OK, so Manchester United were at times terrible (Tom Cleverley in particular had a rotten afternoon, repeatedly giving the ball away) but now Chelsea were capitalising and drew level within 16 minutes of the changes. By the time the final whistle blew, the only surprise was that the visitors hadn’t managed to win the game with David de Gea making a superb last-minute save to deny Mata.
Benitez knows he's never going to win over the Chelsea fans. But he does know what he's doing, and considering they're all going to have to put up with each other for a couple of months yet, the Stamford Bridge supporters might as well give him some respect.
Endangered Black CatsThe announcement that QPR’s wage bill accounts for a diabolical 90% of their turnover did nothing except confirm football’s perception of the Hoops as a club stuffed with mercenaries, with everybody from manager Harry Redknapp to highly-paid stars such as Christopher Samba and José Bosingwa looking to line their pockets with chairman Tony Fernandes’ money with little or no interest as to whether the club avoid relegation or not.
Which may or may not be true. But in just two games, QPR have transformed themselves from relegation certainties to a side who genuinely appear to have a chance of surviving. It’s not just that they have won back-to-back games in the Premier League (for the first time in 17 years) or the manner in which they achieved the victories – particularly with an energetic and controlled performance at the weekend – but the fact that they are beating the sides around them in Southampton and Sunderland.
Which turns the conversation to the north-east club, who are finding themselves closer and closer to trouble. Martin O’Neill’s side are without a win in six games and although they sit upon a six-point cushion that separates them from the relegation zone, upcoming games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle mean that Mackems could face a more stressful than they expected end to the season. As O’Neill himself has said, Sunderland “need to start winning, really.”
Demolition DerbyUnless you're a Nottingham Forest fan, you’ve got to feel for Derby County. Outside bets for a Championship play-off spot at the beginning of last month, the Rams haven't won in eight after the fixtures computer dealt them a wretched run of games which has seen them play almost half of the top 12 sides in the division in recent weeks.
On Saturday they travelled to Birmingham, hoping to build on Tuesday's impressive showing at league leaders Cardiff (they briefly led and left with a point). At St. Andrew’s, Nigel Clough's side once again took the lead but this time succumbed to three second-half goals to leave with nothing but a 3-1 defeat and half a glance over their shoulder at the teams below them.
Like Sunderland, are six points above the dreaded dotted line, which should see them safe. There is good news too, for Rams supporters: following next weeks’ East Midlands derby with Leicester City, they only face one top-half side in their remaining eight games.
Rock-bottom BuryBy no measurable indicator have Bury, at any point, had a decent season. But on Saturday it got a whole lot worse. Winless in League One until October, Bury were kept away from the very bottom first by the shockingly poor Hartlepool and then, when Pools rallied and clawed their way up the table, by the sorry mess that is Portsmouth.
But even Portsmouth, despite the shovelfuls of bad luck that have been heaped upon them in the last few years, have summoned the strength to put up a fight and so Bury now find themselves at the very foot of the table.
Indeed it was at Pompey that the Shakers finally hit rock bottom as the south coast club ‘pulled a QPR’ and won for a second game in a row (following last week’s incredible 2-1 win at Crewe), easing past their visitors 2-0.
Bury have a game in hand over both Portsmouth and Hartlepool, and are capable of good results: their last two wins were against Swindon and Doncaster. But with the gap to safety now standing at eight points, and with nearest rivals Hartlepool, Portsmouth and (until recently) Oldham in decent form, we could soon hear the death rattle of Bury’s season.
Miserable MorecambeMorecambe endured a dismal day at Barnet, turning a 1-0 half-time lead into a 4-1 defeat and being reduced to 10 men by goalkeeper Barry Roche's dismissal. It was a bad day in an average season for the Shrimps, who before Saturday had won 13 and lost 13.
A squad already down to its bare bones – they filled only five of their allotted seven substitute spots – will now be further stretched during Roche’s suspension, including tough fixtures with Gillingham and Northampton.
Conversely it was a great day for the hosts, who continued their good form under Edgar Davids to climb to the top of the mini-table of seven teams at the bottom of League Two.
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