It was a weekend that saw some stunning team performances, Liverpool, Fulham, Tottenham and Barcelona all produced excellent displays and there were some potentially season-defining results in the Premier League. It is unlikely to be just Rafa Benitez ruing the upcoming international break as the relegation picture is also starting to look a little clearer.
If the Reds do go on and win the titleÂ through an incredible comeback, the statistics building up in recent weeks will go down in Anfield folklore. Nine days ago they were 20/1 with the bookies to win the title, they were 11 goals behind Manchester United on goal difference and most crucially of all, seven points behind having played a game more.
Crucially, they now have momentum whilst United are in the midst of a major wobble. Yesterday, Benitez played his best team and there were some standout performances from the likes of Reina, Gerrard and Riera. The Spanish goalkeeper made two impressive saves from John Carew at 1-0 and for the second Premier League game running provided an assist. Albert Riera, who this author has been critical of in the past, was exceptional, scored a cracking goal and produced a display which suggests he is good enough to be part of a championship winning side.
Liverpool’s performance was reminiscent of their match at home to Real Madrid in that it was bursting with energy, determination and belief.Â Although Torres failed to have a major impact on the game, such is now the state of Liverpool’s title challenge that with just eight games to go, it is now possible that “only” having two match winners could secure the title to Anfield in May.
Earlier on this season the Liverpool fans were edgy and twitchy when top of the league, chasing from such an improbable position may be the way to win it. And, although the desperation for a league title is great, the fact they are still challenging is a major achievement for Rafa Benitez.
Nevertheless, never rule out United and beware the international break, an injury to Torres or Gerrard and the league title race could look very different.
Premier League odds here: Manchester United: 4/11, Liverpool 5/2, Chelsea 14/1.
It was fitting that the Cottagers hit the 40 point mark that Roy Hodgson has been talking of all season in their most high profile victory of the season. Fulham were undoubtedly assisted by the first goal leaving United down to ten men but they had set aboutÂ their oppositionÂ during the opening twenty minutes and bar a spell in the second half were well worth the win.
This time last season Fulham were deep in the mire and Hodgson, who lest we forget was underrated in his home country before returning to the Premier League, has done an incredible job, not only keeping them up but rebuilding the side as well. Mark Schwarzer was an inspired signing and his double save could be a crucial moment in the title race.
It has also barely been mentioned how Fulham have continued without their former talisman Jimmy Bullard. And Clint Dempsey has been impressive this season and the strikeforce of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson has looked Premier League class. Next season won’t be easy for Fulham and Hodgson but they are an easy club to admire and if they can get in amongst the top teams like they did on Saturday then they will win a lot more admirers.
Pompey’s south-coast rivals used to have a player who would almost keep them in the Premier League single handedly and whilst they couldn’t be more different in style, Peter Crouch is resembling Matt Le Tissier in saviour status at Fratton Park.
Having failed to score in the league since early December, the former robot dancer has secured a crucial four points with three goals in two games. Like the legend that was Le Tiss, Crouch doesn’t just score crucial goals but against Everton he also provided a telling contribution in defence.
Looking around the otherÂ strikers in this Portsmouth side (e.g. Nugent andÂ Kanu), Crouch is looking like the main man and the most likely player to secure the eight more points Pompey need to stay up.Â (Odds on relegation here.)
There were many that felt that keeping Spurs in the Premier League wouldn’t be that difficult, despite the fact that they only had two points from eight games on ‘Arry’s arrival. In truth, this has been proven correct, especially as now talk is turning to a Europa Cup position. The fact is that the true test of Harry Redknapp’s greatness will come next season when Spurs challenge to position themselves within the unbreakable top four, but there is a lot to admire about what he has done at Spurs.
The signing of Carlo Cudicini appears to have been the making of Heurelho Gomes, the Brazilian keeper made a wonder save from John Terry’s header and could well position himself as one of the best keepers in the division. Wilson Palacios was a fine signing from Redknapp, the Honduran provides balance throughout the side and enables the likes of Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon to wreak havoc.
There are many who deride Redknapp for being a wheeler-dealer but over the last few games he has shown his man-management skills with Aaron Lennon. Pre-Chelsea, ‘Arry said Lennon had never been “trained to be a winger,” in successive games the diminutive wide man has set up goals from crosses from much wider positions than usual. On Saturday, Lennon’s cross for Modric came before he beat his man, perhaps this is what sets Redknapp apart from other managers?
The Gunners are now unbeaten in the league since losing to Manchester City at Eastlands in November. In this time they have lost just two games in all competitions, to Roma and FC Porto in the Champions League, two defeats that did not hamper their progress to the quarter-finals where they are the dark horses to win the premier competition in Europe.
Andrei Arshavin was again sensational at St. James’ Park and did Abou Diaby’s goal remind anyone of a former French Arsenal number four who used to rampage through the center of opposition teams?
The “Delapadator” was again the difference as Stoke’s incredible record at the Britannia continued. The news that Rory Delap expressed his desire to play until he was 40 this week must have been welcomed by Stoke supporters.
The Potters’ next three games could see them stay up and leave other teams deep in the mire: West Brom (a), Newcastle (h), Blackburn (h).
This season the Nou Camp is hosting a masterclass in incisive attacking football to die for. Malaga, a decent side shocking the rest of La Liga, have conceded 10 in two games. Guardiola’s side probably received the toughest draw in the Champions League but if will be incredible to see if they can play this football against the very best Europe has to offer. (Primera Division odds here.)
The former West Ham and Tottenham striker is in a rich vein of form, seven goals in his last four Primera Division games.
The former Ajax striker now have five goals in three games.
Undoubtedly a stunning goal, just a shame he can do it against Reggina but not when it counts, in Europe versus Manchester United.
Is the Jermain Defoe of Italian football. Joined Sampdoria in the January transfer window for nine million euros and has now scored eight goals in his last eight league games. The 24-year-old may still make it as a top class striker.
Sir Alex Ferguson
At least week, SAF conceded United deserved to lose. He did have one gripe though, theÂ Wayne Rooney sending-offÂ (which he only informed MUTV): “The ball was thrown to where the free-kick was being taken – did it hit the referee? No.” Surely Ferguson knows that Rooney didn’t need to hit Phil Dowd to get sent off.
UnitedÂ were poor on Saturday and even before the Scholes sending off they looked jittery and aÂ shadow of the side that had swept all before themÂ just a few weeks ago. Ferguson’s tactical decisions were not the best with the likes of Carrick, Rooney and Tevez demoted to the bench after the 4-1 defeat to Liverpool, when all these three players would have provided the energy that could have made a difference against a determined Fulham side.
Ferguson did predictably addÂ that “I’m hoping we come back from the internationals back to our best.” The home game with Aston Villa and then away match at Sunderland are looking huge.Â
It was no surprise that Chelsea failed to capitalise on United’s slip up since the Blues have not quite been good enough this season. Considering how they usually pummell Spurs, one point from two matches this season is a poor return.
Guus Hiddink’s side are short of quality, starting Juliano Belletti on the right wing is a sad indictment of aÂ club that is now saving the pennies. The midfield at White Hart Lane was also seriously disjointed, Frank Lampard struggled to get in the game and not for the first time this season, Michael Ballack did little of note. The strike pairing of Anelka and DrogbaÂ also failed to function.
Whoever is in charge this summer, a major overhaul is needed.Â Chelsea must build there team around Michael Essien and look to the future.
The north east (Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Sunderland and Hull)
Excuse the pun, but it is looking grim up north. If West Brom could turn it around it is quite possible that all three north east Premier League teams could go down.
Middlesbrough are of course looking the most vulnerable and are now four points from safety. It was a bitter pill to swollow to concede a goal six minutes from time at the Britannia but Boro haven’t scored away from homein the league since December. It could now be the time to sack Gareth Southgate, he isn’t going toÂ keep them up and Steve Gibson’s loyalty could cost the club big time.
Newcastle are swiftly becoming the big club going down, which in the coming weeks will start to be celebrated by opposition fans and teams will revel in playing this struggling side. It will be difficult for the Toon army to stomach looking at the table for two weeks but things may not get any easier after theÂ international break with a home game against Chelsea followed by a trip to Stoke.
SunderlandÂ have now picked up two points from five games and despite being close to redemption for weeks now are slipping into the mire. Ricky Sbragia is not looking like the man to keep them up.
Finally, it has been a miserable week for Phil Brown. Compared to John Prescott by Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail is about as bad as it gets. All the good will built up earlier on in the season is disappearing and the Tigers are in real danger. TheÂ real truth is that even if they stay up, they will be red-hot favourites to go down again and they won’t have any momentum if they do startÂ 2009/2010 in the Premier League.Â (Odds on relegation here.)
Hertha were the only team in the top four of the Bundesliga to lose over the weekend and their lead is now cut to just one point from a chasing pack of three. If there was a title race like this one in England the hype would be in overdrive.
Special mention should also be made of Paolo Guerrero, the 25-year-old Peruvian striker who scored four goals in two games for Hamburg in four days.
OM went top of the French Ligue 1 for the first time in 10 years and less than 24 hours later Lyon finally won a game to topple their southern rivals. French football fans are praying that Marseille can challenge in the coming weeks.