Ready! Aim! Draw!
Life at the top of the EPL is rarely boring, but it's seldom as weird as it was this past weekend.
Everywhere you looked -- expect perhaps at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea decimated Wolves to the surprise of no one and kept Andre Villas-Boas out of Roman Abramovich's managerial gulag and Guus Hiddink out of work a little longer -- the alpha dogs were throwing away points in three 1-1 draws that featured own goals, blown calls and Mario being Mario. Oh, and Spurs were decent too.
Let's break it down.
Liverpool 1, Man City 1
Have you noticed lately that when a top team slips up in the Prem, the first card the manager plays is Champions League Fatigue? What I don't get is if that's the case, why are United, City and Chelsea so desperate to remain in the leg-wearying, energy-sapping competition? Maybe in these troubled economic times, everyone covets the kind of frequent flyer miles you rack up traveling to Otelul Galati?
It's even more laughable in City's case, because while I'm sure losing to Napoli away midweek was physically and psychically taxing on the nouveau riche Sky Blues, it's not as if they don't have $120 million worth of talent who didn't run themselves into the ground in that deflating defeat. For starters, Roberto Mancini could rely on Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri, Gareth Barry, Micah Richards and Gael Clichy to bring their fresh legs to Anfield. Neither that not-too-shabby quintet nor the likes of David Silva, Yaya Toure, James Milner and the rest of the rampant unbeaten league leaders could open up Liverpool in the first half when the Reds were willing to sit back and soak up whatever pressure City could exert. It wasn't much, although the Sky Blues did take the lead in the 31st minute when Vincent Kompany shouldered in Silva's corner kick. (Why is this goal being reported in so many places as a "glancing header"? I know Kompany has a large cranium, but surely it doesn't extend all the way to his shoulders.)
Perhaps City thought that another one of its trademark onslaughts was about to ensue -- it had scored a Real Madrid-esque 42 goals in 12 Prem games and managed fewer than three goals in a game on only two occasions -- because City relaxed just enough to let Liverpool back into the match with a piece of uncharacteristic slapstick defending by Joleon Lescott. Charlie Adam let a speculative shot fly from about 25 yards out that was heading for the outskirts of Bootle until Lescott got a foot on the ball and changed its direction so dramatically that not even Joe Hart, who was enjoying a Gordon Banks-worthy day in goal, could do anything about it.
It was a goal as ugly as Carlos Tevez -- and I'm referring to his soul, not his looks -- but the Reds celebrated as if it was Istanbul all over again, and rightly so. Against the Prem's best team, you take what you can get, and in the Reds' case, that meant an inspired second-half performance that at times made their billion-dollar opponents look like relegation fodder. Adam and Lucas Leiva -- dare I say the next Alonso/Mascherano duo in the middle? -- pinged passes to all corners and helped Daniel Agger & Co. keep the devastating duo of Silva and Aguero firmly muzzled. Meanwhile, Suarez, Dirk Kuyt and Stewart Downing passed and moved with the brio of Kenny Dalglish the player, challenging Lescott and the normally unflappable Kompany, who couldn't match their pace.
Such was the energy and enterprise on display by King Kenny's men after intermission that you had to wonder what kind of beatdown they might have laid on City had they bothered to turn up in the first half.
Liverpool would have almost certainly bagged the three points had Hart called in sick. His string of acrobatic saves with the score at 1-1 showed why the blond Taylor Twellman lookalike is England's No. 1. Hart showcased it all: the sprawling, off-balance toe save to deny Adam's 37th minute piledriver; the falling backwards tip to thwart Downing's dipping second-half volley; the breathtaking parry of a close-range Suarez salvo; and finally, in injury time, the heroic lunge to his left to keep out a bullet Andy Carroll header. I think the Kop would have spontaneously combusted had the Big Ponytail finally paid back Dalglish's faith -- and some of New England Sports Ventures' $50 million -- with a last-minute winner. As it is, the Liverpool faithful can take comfort that Carroll actually got a shot on target and, on any other day against any other keeper, would have scored his third Prem goal in 13 games this season.
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All that was left to complete a rousing day at Anfield was another classic by Mario Balotelli. Amped-up blond fauxhawk? Check. Brief 18-minute cameo in which all he did was crunch Glen Johnson for one yellow card and clumsily fall into Martin Skrtel, elbow raised, for a second yellow barely 10 minutes later? Yep. Arguing with Mancini on the touchline after being dismissed? Priceless.
Reds Nation will be pleased to have pushed the de facto league champion to the brink of its first Prem loss this season, and yet all Liverpool has to show for its dominance -- 56 percent possession, 15 shots to 7 -- is a measly point. Most frustratingly, it can't even blame dropping the deuce on Champions League Fatigue. Dalglish's players will have to pick up their home form -- two wins, five draws in the league -- if they want the privilege of complaining about CLF in the future.
Manchester United 1, Newcastle 1
There was a time when teams would come to Old Trafford -- or as I like to refer to it, the Theatre of Leveraged Dreams -- and hope to leave with their pants dry and dignity intact. That was back at the start of the season when United was coming off its record 19th league title and playing the kind of crisp and flowing football that gave it an aura of invincibility at home. But in the past week, not one but two opponents strolled around the hallowed ground refusing to be cowed by its 76,000-strong grandeur.
First, the Portuguese side Benfica came from behind to draw 2-2 and leave the host needing a point from its match in Basel to ensure qualification for the Champions League knockout round. If that result didn't provide the requisite heartburn to ruin Sir Alex's Friday night bottle of $300 merlot, he looked as if he had swallowed the cork when assistant referee John Flynn equalized for Newcastle on Saturday to steal a point for Alan Pardew's top-four interlopers and take two away from United.
Ferguson's normally bright-red face took on a radioactive glow as he launched into a spittle-flecked harangue at the game's fourth official when Rio Ferdinand was mind-bogglingly penalized for his tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa in the box.
Since my certified lip-reader friends were still busy trying to decipher the toxicity levels of Luis Suarez and John Terry's alleged racist remarks -- it's only been six weeks, so I have to assume these mime detectives get paid by the vowel -- I can't vouch for exactly what Sir Alex said, but no doubt he pointed to the stand with his name emblazoned on it before explaining that:
A) It was a hard but clean challenge by Ferdinand, and Ben Arfa simply tumbled over the defender's outstretched leg after the ball had been poked to safety; and B) The EPL rulebook-within-the-rulebook clearly states that if a dodgy penalty is to be given at Old Trafford, it's never to go to the visiting team.
Still, for all the Magpies' resolute defending, especially when they went down to 10 men in the 79th minute thanks to Jonas Gutierrez's second yellow card, United should not have found itself in the kind of desperate position where one brain-dead call was able to decide the game. After all, Wayne Rooney was back, recovered from his hip injury that caused him to miss the Benfica match and restored to his natural position in attack. Plus, United's ever-rotating back line had kept three straight Prem clean sheets. A fourth would have narrowed the gap on City to two points and cranked up the pressure on its extremely loud and incredibly rich neighbor to beat Liverpool this weekend.
Indeed, for the first 10 minutes or so, the Red Devils played with the kind of swagger they haven't exuded at home since those halcyon days before Man City tore them a new one. When Sir Alex opined to the English press that "we slaughtered Newcastle," he must have been thinking of United's opening siege that saw Chicharito, Ryan Giggs, Nani and Ashley Young play a game of "who can create and then waste the best chance?"
Though the main United talking point all season long has been that it's one creative midfielder short of being an unstoppable force, its problem against Newcastle was not so much the absence of a trequartista but of a clinical striker. Simply put, United couldn't finish a sandwich on Saturday, let alone 29 goal attempts, including one that was stopped on the line by Danny Simpson inside the final 10 minutes and two others that Tim Krul's staggeringly quick reflexes kept out.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Remember when goal scoring was supposed to be Rooney's primary raison d'etre? Sir Alex didn't anoint him "The White Pelé" for his raking 30-yard crossfield passes, right? Yet with an overabundance of strikers to choose from -- Chicharito, Danny Welbeck, Dimitar Berbatov, Federico Macheda and, I suppose, Michael Owen -- Fergie decided that Rooney was more valuable to United as a deep-lying midfield fulcrum. The result has been a barren goal-scoring run of eight games for the United talisman and a sharp spike in Rooney's frustration.
On Saturday, Wazza was fortunate not to be booked for the tepid re-enactment of his grapple and stomp that he first performed in the Euro qualifier against Montenegro, leading to a ban that should cause him to miss the entire group stage. The unfortunate victim this time was Fabricio Coloccini, who did not take nearly the offense to Rooney's bludgeoning approach that Ben Arfa did. Not only did the French winger run 20 yards to shove Rooney away from his Argentine teammate, he also pointed at him and mimed the international sign for "crazy person on board." I guess word had gotten around that Rooney had changed his phone and forgotten the password to his Twitter account.
All that aside, Rooney was still the trigger man for United's goal, which came on a set piece that isn't designed on the training ground. When his free kick rebounded back to him off the wall, he drilled a low fizzing volley that Newcastle's Steven Taylor blocked, but the ball ricocheted around the penalty area until it bounded off the chest of Chicharito and over the line.
It was a freakish goal but looked to be enough to give United another of its just-do-the-bare-minimum-to win-1-0 Sir Alex specials. Then 11 minutes later, the aforementioned assistant referee Flynn interceded and handed Newcastle an early Christmas present in the guise of a spot kick that Demba Ba calmly tucked in the far corner.
Ferguson stopped short of saying that Flynn was an excellent candidate for Lasik surgery, but he did call the penalty decision "an absolute travesty."
That it was -- but no more than United's inability to convert so many scoring chances at home.
Arsenal 1, Fulham 1
You have to hand it to the two Tottenham fans squatting in the corner at my local pub, Kinsale Tavern, on Saturday. Outnumbered 20 to 1 by Gooners who had returned from the holidays stuffed full of giddy talk about the "New Arsenal" -- you know, the one that had won six league games on the trot and was, astonishingly, the first Prem team (how funny would it be if it were the only one?) to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages -- the intrepid Spurs duo somehow made themselves heard above the Gooner din.
"We're gonna win the league," they chanted after Spurs (without Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart, no less) made it nine wins and a draw from their past 10 EPL matches with a rousing come-from-behind 3-1 thumping of West Brom. "We're gonna win the league." Did I mention that Tottenham supporters aren't renowned for originality?
This being the season of charity and love toward your fellow man -- and last I checked, Spurs fans are human -- I resisted the urge to shout back, "Listen, you deluded dimwits. There are still 26 games left to play, including Man City away, Liverpool away, Newcastle home, Arsenal away and Man United home, all within a six week stretch starting on Jan. 22. (Yes, I looked it up on my Blackberry when Spurs took the lead against the Baggies.) Let's see where your sorry asses are then."
The problem with issuing these types of mature verbal salvos is that your side has to be able to back them up, and an anemic 1-1 draw at home against Fulham, a team that began the game three points above the relegation zone and whose record at your place over the past 25 years is an almost imperfect 0-23-2, doesn't make for a convincing argument.
Nor, for that matter, did Arsene Wenger's contention that Arsenal is not a one-man team. That's why all through Thanksgiving dinner I kept saying, "Thank you, Lord, for Robin Van Persie's health and please pass the gravy."
Whether Wenger wants to admit it, Arsenal is one Karl Henry-esque launch away from mid-table mediocrity. If RVP were to repeat his usual injury form, the best the Gunners could hope for is to be playing European soccer next season -- on Thursday nights.
As it is, when Van Persie simply plays well without scoring, as he did Saturday, Arsenal is destined to struggle. To fully comprehend the depth of the Gunners' overreliance on RVP, you need look at only one number: Of their 26 league goals, RVP has accounted for half (as well as 60 percent of this season's Arsenal goals against Chelsea).
Fulham frustrated Arsenal by slowing the tempo to Mertesackian levels of torpor, denying the Gunners their usual Barca-like share of possession and leaving the prolific Dutchman marooned up front. RVP's best chance came in the 60th minute when he squirreled his way into a yard of space between Fulham defenders Brede Hangeland and Philippe "Worse than Squillaci" Senderos and lashed a shot that beat keeper Mark Schwarzer -- but not his well-placed fullback, Chris Baird, who stopped the ball dead on the line and hoofed it clear. (What's with all the goal-line clearances this past weekend?) Theo Walcott had his now usual couple of electric runs, but since he wasn't playing against Ashley Cole, they largely came to nothing while Aaron Ramsey worked on perfecting his wild swiping technique in the box. Arsenal's attack was so moribund that Wenger exhumed the carcass of Marouane Chamakh from the Tomb of the Non-Scorer and threw him on for the final 14 minutes. The only thing more depressing would have been if the French manager had moved the Battleship Mertesacker up front, as he did in the Tottenham debacle earlier in the season, but mercifully the German had already been subbed.
Amazingly, Wenger's gamble worked, as Chamakh forced the Fulham rearguard to mark the big Moroccan in the box, leaving space for Thomas Vermaelen to ghost in behind him and powerfully head in Walcott's cross (thankfully, he did get one right) with eight minutes left. That tied the score at 1-1 because, 17 minutes earlier, Vermaelen had also scored for Fulham, inadvertently sliding the ball into his own net in what is by now the obligatory moment of defensive confusion in every Gunners game.
So Arsenal continues to ride its luck as a one-man team. Only on Saturday, the name changed from Van Persie to Vermaelen.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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