Another busy, extended weekend saw Offside’s team in the thick of the action both in the depths of the Premier League relegation battle at the top level tug of war over Champions League places.
Saturday started off at Stamford Bridge for the team where Marc Atkins was on hand with his camera as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea hosted Harry Redknapp’s QPR.
It was billed as a clash between unstoppable title favourites and incoherent no hopers, but to the surprise of most onlookers (bar those who placed their faith in unexpected narratives and the “bets off” competitive nature of England’s top flight) the R’s were able to trouble their hosts.
After the game Mourinho blasted the home support for their lack of, well, support throughout the entirety of the match, with the flat atmosphere at the game failing the raise his seemingly complacent league leaders.
Oscar opened the scoring with a delightful strike with the outside of his right boot that pinged the ball past Robert Green in the visitor’s goal.
Though superbly well-taken, the effort on goal wasn’t the only bit of quality that helped to break the deadlock, with a nice bit of play by Cesc Fabregas helping to distract and occupy three defenders to create the required space and time.
While many expected that first breakthrough to lead to an implosion for Redknapp’s men, especially given how ruthless Chelsea have looked at times this season, the flood of goals failed to come.
Instead, the follow up to the Brazilian’s first half flourish came from the opposition shortly after the hour mark when Charlie Austin back-heeled a Leroy Fer effort past Thibaut Courtois.
Yet, as the old cliché goes, true champions find a way to win even when they’re struggling to perform, and the Blues eventually retook the lead after 72 minutes through Eden Hazard.
The Belgium converted a spot kick that he won after being fouled in the QPR box by Eduardo Vargas to ensure that all three points would remain in his team’s pocket of West London. In the end, there was to be no leakage over to their nearish neighbours at Loftus Road.
Simon Stacpoole started off his weekend a few miles up the motorway in Stoke to witness the visit of Sam Allardyce’s high-flying Hammers to the Potteries.
West Ham United were without Diafra Sakho, who was unavailable due to a shoulder injury, denying the Senegalese striker the opportunity to further embellish his impressive scoring record this season.
Goals weren’t a problem at the Britannia however, with any pre-match worries about this showdown between two Premier League bruisers turning into a war of attrition proven to be unfounded.
Stoke City played in the more aesthetically acceptable manner that has come to be expected of Mark Hughes’ evolving side, while the Hammers stayed true to their recent, slightly refined style of play.
They needed more than just class to rescue a result however, with the Potters running up a 2-0 lead by half-time through Victor Moses and Mame Biram Diouf.
While his team mates got on with the scoring, it was the host’s much hyped summer signing from Barcelona, Bojan Krkic, who caught the eye with a number of clever touches and passes in the first half.
West ham didn’t slump in the face of their two goal deficit and instead replied in kind in the second half to pull things level by the 73 minute mark.
Goals by Enner Valencia, Big Sam’s other astute attacking signing this summer, and the Hammer’s very own cut-price Pirlo, Stewart Downing, made it 2-2 to set up a tense finale in Staffordshire.
Unfortunately for the punters, neither side were able to find a third, but in truth it was a game in which both teams were worthy of a point.
A little further on down the road at Goodison Park, Everton hosted Swansea City in what was meant to be something of a heavyweight contest between two of the league’s most cultured competitors.
Ryan Smyth’s camera could only capture a stalemate rather than a knock out blockbuster, with the slick play of the Swans cancelling out the technically adept football the Toffees attempt to play at all times under Roberto Martinez.
It wasn’t a clash without controversy. Swansea had a penalty shout turned down after Jonjo Shelvey’s shot appeared to strike the hand of Antolin Alcaraz in the Everton box.
The match also featured a number of bookings, with the visitors picking up five yellows while their hosts collected just two.
A couple of those yellows belonged to one man, with Shelvey receiving his marching orders in the second half to leave Garry Monk’s side down to 10 men as the Toffees sought a late breakthrough.
It wasn’t to be however and the score remained settled at 0-0, leading to goalkeeper Tim Howard declaring, after the final whistle, that the fixture was “a nothing game”.
Given how unstable and volatile the league table looks at present, it’s hard to dismiss a single point as nothing.
At the Emirates, Mark Leech was on duty for Burnley’s visit to the North London where Arsene Wenger’s Gunners were waiting for them.
It looked set to be a turgid, frustrating day at home for the Arsenal until they found life in front of goal with 20 minutes to go, late in the second half.
As ever, Alexis Sanchez saved the day and lead the way for the Gunners, by taking the lead on the 70 minute mark with a header.
The Chilean has been described as a “street fighter” by his new manager, while some pundits have purred over his recent performances, electing to suggest he could become a complete forward at the tip of Wenger’s team.
Seeing him use his head rather than his feet to break the deadlock will only help to convince those yet to be taken in by his form over his ability to scrap for points and find a finish.
Calum Chambers delivered the cross for the opening goal, and he was the player to double Arsenal’s lead with his first senior goal just two minutes later.
The former Southampton utility man was a live wire throughout the contest, which the Gunners dominated, and his goal helped to ensure their control over the game was converted into a suitable margin of victory, however belated the goals were.
Arsenal’s third completed a brace for Sanchez, who this time used his feet to beat Tom Heaton in the Burnley goal.
The Clarets remain in the doldrums while Wenger’s wobbling Gunners look a little firmer in the top half of the table.
Over in La Liga, Barcelona were facing off against Celta Vigo, with Marca transmitting images into the Offside archive direct from Spain. This was to be Luis Suarez’s glorious introduction to life at the Camp Nou, with the ex-Liverpool striker taking his first steps out onto its hallowed turf as a member of the home side.
His home debut was far from glorious however. After the visitors clinched a shock lead early on in the second half, the Uruguayan twice fluffed chances to correct the score line and save his new team from their first home loss of the season.
Lionel Messi was also keen to get on the score sheet in order to finally better Telmo Zarra’s long-standing record as the Spanish top-flight greatest ever goalscorer, but just as Suarez must wait, so must the historically special Argentinian.
Unless he somehow loses all of his ability over the next few days, the issue of who will hold the status of La Liga’s top goalscorer of all-time come the New Year will remain a formality. When not if; sooner rather than later.
Sunday saw two games take place back in the English Premier League. First up was a much hyped Manchester derby between the school master, Louis van Gaal, and the engineer, Manuel Pellegrini.
Offside sent Simon Stacpoole down to take a look and shoot a few pictures from pitch-side.
Manchester City hosted this first clash of the season between these two cross-town rivals, in a fixture that United’s new Dutch manager proclaimed to be the biggest of its kind that he’d been a part of.
Sure, he’d managed the odd El Clasico while in charge of Barcelona, but during his time in Spain, and at Ajax, AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich, he never once had to face the prospect of a proper city derby. All the co-habitants of his previous clubs’ locales were either too timid or non-existent to offer such an occasion.
Even though this was the first game of its type in his career however, the visiting manager seemed to take to the spectacle fairly well.
In fact, for large portions of the first half, the hosts appeared to have been forced to play on the counter at the Etihad with United’s tactics working well to evade the usual strengths offered during this sorts of highly-charged Mancunian matches.
Angel Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj offered dangerous options down the flanks while a rejuvenated Mauroane Fellaini strode through the middle. Wayne Rooney, on his return to action after serving a three-game suspension, looked influential in a midfield role next to the Belgian.
Yet City had chances, as well as a number of penalty shouts for heavy challenges on Sergio Agueo. The referee was having none of it, regardless of the merits of the Blues’ protests.
Chris Smalling managed to make himself the most important player on the field, or should that be off it, with two stupid and reckless yellow card offences that saw him dismissed just after the half-time break.
A man down, United succumbed to the goal-getting instincts of Aguero shortly after the defender’s red card, but Van Gaal’s men didn’t implode as was so often the case under David Moyes last year.
The visitors picked themselves and, perhaps inspired by their late equaliser against Chelsea last week, threw everything they had a levelling the score.
Such was the intensity of their efforts, City appeared to retreat slightly. Had they had the desire, they could have picked off their rivals on the break, just was the case with the high-margin thrashings they dealt out in derbies of the recent past.
This was no 6-1 or 4-1 however. City won 1-0 at home to a Untied side that looked far more like how many would remember them back in the days when they were a team to fear. The results may not be there yet for Van Gaal, but the foundations for future success through skilful play and mental strength appear present.
Attention then turned to Villa Park, where Marc Atkins and Paul Roberts were all set up for Aston Villa versus Tottenham Hotspur.
Paul Lambert’s league stragglers got off to a good start through Andreas Weimann, who made it 1-0 to the hosts after just 16 minutes.
Christian Benteke remains the heart of the Villains’ team, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve floundered while he’s been out injured. But against Spurs, the Belgian turned out to be something of a liability.
Still not at his best, he left a gaping hole in Lambert’s plans after being sent off mid-way through the second half.
Having been granted a numerical advantage, Tottenham soon turned the imbalance in players on the pitch to a lobsided scoreline in their favour.
Erik Lamela swung in a cross for Nacer Chadli to convert on the 84th minute mark before substitute and in-form hot shot Harry Kane arrived on the field to make it 2-1.
Villa were left to rue, and not for the first time this season, what could have been.
The weekend’s action came to a close a Selhurst Park on Monday night where Crystal Palace welcomed the visit of Sunderland. Marc Atkins was Offside’s man in South London.
Having shipped eight goals to Southampton recently, as well as two at home to a stodgy looking Arsenal, a welcome may have been exactly what was extended to the Black Cats.
After all, though Neil Warnock’s Eagles may be doing fairly well this season, no team in the Premier League can do without an easy win against tilting opponents.
Form and records are made to be broken however, and Gus Poyet’s visitors eventually came away with a result that required none of his players to dig deep to re-compensate fans.
Sunderland ran out 3-1 winners on the night, with Steven Fletcher bagging a brace either side of a strike by Jordi Gomez to put the visitors back in front. Palace had equalised at the start of the second half through a West Brown own goal.
The home side’s captain, Mile Jedinak, followed the lead of a few of his fellow professional footballers from the weekend, and managed to get himself sent off for a second yellow before Fletcher double his goal tally for the game and the season.
As they walked onto the field before kick off, he had only two goals to his name. By the time he left Selhurst, that total had swelled to four.
Sunderland now find themselves two points above the relegation zone, three places above the drop in 15th as Palace slip to 17th.
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