So close, and yet
Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal missed golden opportunities this weekend
Why is it that -- even though United and Chelsea both won this weekend -- the table seems perfectly set for Manchester City to continue its procession toward the Premier League title? It can't just be the joy that the Citizens experience merely because Mario Balotelli exists. And it certainly can't be that they're still basking in the delight over Joey Barton's judicious use of Twitter (which, I'm sad to report, ended today), or that despite an unusually disheveled performance at the JJB -- and a fantastic 70th minute save from Joe Hart -- City marched on with a 1-0 win over Wigan to remain top.
No, the good vibes emanating from the blue half of Manchester must come from their knowing that nearly everyone behind them in the Prem had a weekend of Huntsman-esque humiliation. Most of the pretenders to the throne (Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool) revealed themselves to be just that. It looks like it's going to be a dogfight between Mancs, and the blue moon sure looks like it's rising. So with that in mind, let's take a moment to perhaps eulogize the failings of the North London duo, and the draw-happy Anfieldians.
Well, their title challenge was nice while it lasted
As much as I'd like to take sole credit for Spurs spurning three points at home against a team mired in the drop zone (after all, I did my best to jinx them by writing how they could win the league), that would be slightly apocryphal. I had help. Even more satisfyingly, my chief co-conspirator Saturday was a fellow Gooner. Though Arsene Wenger may have loaned Emmanuel Frimpong to Wolves knowing full well that the Ghanian enforcer was a red card waiting to happen, he was no doubt delighted to see the studs-first Gunner standing sentry in front of the Wolves defense bearing a sign warning "Thou Shall Not Pass Beyond This Point -- Unless On A Stretcher."
In a gloriously frantic, foul-laden 67-minute shift during which he could have been sent off at least a dozen times, Frimpong was immense for Mick McCarthy's side, a mayhem-inducing presence that gave an agrarian Wolves midfield the steel it needed to stifle Spurs' slick-passing attack. He even threw in a rasping 49th-minute volley that forced Brad Friedel into a stunning save (one of only two he had to make all game). Had Frimpong scored, the Wolves would have gone ahead 2-0, a margin that would have been difficult for Spurs to overcome given how wasteful they were in front of goal: 26 shots, 19 of which landed in a different zip code.
Sadly, mere moments after Friedel's acrobatics, Luka Modric -- finally free of his marking triad of Frimpong, David Edwards and Karl Henry -- lashed home what I will kindly call an opportunistic equalizer (OK, it was a lucky, deflected effort that Wayne Hennessey should have at least parried). After that, it was pure sadistic joy watching Harry Redknapp's men run about seeking the elusive game winner as if 51 title-less years hung in the balance.
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Adding to my fiendish delight were the comedic styling of referee Mike Jones and his sidekick on the far side. First, Jones allowed Wolves to go ahead in the 22nd minute when he awarded a corner on what, judging by replays and common sense, should have been a goal kick. Then, on the cusp of halftime, Abbott & Costello had the temerity to flag Emmanuel Adebayor's goal-scoring toe-poke offside -- at White Hart Lane, no less -- when he was clearly on. It was the third time this season that Adebayor has had a goal called back, and frankly, I had no idea there were so many Gooners running the lines in the EPL.
Spurs are still within two points of the top (at least until City plays its game in hand Monday), but Redknapp will be burning up the bat phone in light of his side's failure to convert 69 percent possession into an emphatic victory. Luckily for them, their next opponent plays a much more open, free-flowing game -- Man City.
You'll never snore alone
Several hundred kilometers to the north, Liverpool and Stoke played a game from the ages -- specifically, the Age of Boredom. It was a display of such offensive anemia that even Andy Carroll was proud not to be a part of it until only half an hour remained. With Luis Suarez on an FA-enforced vacation and Liverpool apparently still on a high from actually scoring a goal in its midweek 1-0 Carling Cup semifinal first leg win over Man City, the Reds immediately went back into survival mode and refused to insult Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen with anything as uncouth as a clean strike on goal.
This was "Downton Abbey" dull, but without the fancy outfits or the satisfying afterglow of feeling like you learned something. So dire and unwatchable was the 0-0 snoozefest that it was best summed up by a brief shot of a fashionably bespectacled female supporter in a Liverpool scarf with her eyes closed and her head resting comfortably on her shoulder. Anfield was once the loudest and most imposing stadium in English soccer. Now it's a good place to take a nap.
While the Kop may draw pride from remaining unbeaten at its Anfield fortress through 11 games, it is conveniently forgetting that King Kenny's soldiers have won only four of them. Which raises the question: What trophy is Dalglish aiming for? The EPL title or the Most Clean Sheets Cup? Given the team he rolled onto the field, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the latter.
After all, the Reds were hosting Stoke City, a team that scores multiple away goals as regularly as I drink nonalcoholic beer. And in both cases, it's usually by accident. With Tony Pulis' juggernaut rolling into town, Dalglish loaded his team with defenders and added even more as the game slogged on (Jamie Carragher was summoned from the Paul Scholes Home for the Elderly for his first start since Oct. 22). Dirk Kuyt, proud owner of zero league goals this season, was the logical focal point in attack. (Spoiler alert: He was awful.)
With Charlie Adam partnering Steven Gerrard, the midfield duo formed perhaps the slowest tandem in Prem history, a fact not helped by Jordan Henderson's dwelling so long on the ball that defenders not only read the path of his pass, they also had time to memorize several chapters of "Game of Thrones."
Then there's Stewart Downing -- signed from Aston Villa for $30 million to provide pace and width in attack, he so far has managed only a single goal against lowly League One Oldham to complement his zero assists. On the plus side, at least he hasn't been questioned on suspicion of assault for hitting his ex-girlfriend. Hang on
Despite the summer spending binge designed to restore the Reds' attacking bite, they simply have no creative players who can deliver that killer pass in the final third. They also lack players who can score if they do get that killer pass in the final third. That, of course, should change when their talismanic captain, Gerrard, finally comes back into the side. Oh.
All hail Swansealona
Unfortunately, the most entertaining game of the weekend was also the last one, featuring my recently resurgent Wengerites. Hasn't Arsenal already made enough history this season? As if its worst loss ever -- the 8-2 roasting at United -- wasn't enough, Wenger topped it by making the Gunners the first EPL club to bring back a player who is already cast in bronze outside the Emirates Stadium. Then on Sunday, in a rarely-before-seen 90 minutes, the Gunners were outpassed, outscored and generally out-Arsenaled by a recently promoted Welsh team composed of mostly lower-league players.
Poor Thierry Henry.
How disorienting it must have been for him to make his first Prem appearance in almost five years and see a side named after a Hungry Man dinner play more like Arsene's platonic soccer ideal. And it had all started so well. The first sip of Stella had barely penetrated the luxuriousness of my mustache when a perfectly measured through ball from Andrei Arshavin (the Russian's first and last positive contribution), found Robin van Persie in stride. After effortlessly bamboozling the last defender with a split-second hesitation move, goalkeeper Michel Vorm was left floundering as RvP drilled the ball inside the near post. One-nil to the good guys in the fifth minute. Clearly, the Gunners would be conducting their usual clinic, teaching champagne football to modest, small-market sides.
On the Arsenal bench, a thoroughly bundled-up Henry smiled and politely applauded RvP's operatic finish, not knowing that by game's end he would look more like his Red Bull incarnation -- scowling, frustrated and feuding with irate fans who made the 200-mile trip to Wales.
Swansea deserved its first major Prem scalp and cemented its standing as the Barca of Wales, but Arsenal, as always, contributed mightily to its own demise. The injury-ravaged back line ran a hilariously ineffective onside trap, while Swansea's wingers Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer had the visiting Gunners supporters pining for ABD (Anybody But Djourou) and worrying that, in the case of 19-year-old Ignasi Miquel, there is such a thing as "too young for the Prem." Then Aaron Ramsey received no love in his homeland when referee Michael Oliver deemed him guilty of tripping Dyer in the box, followed later by a typically casual, I can't-be-bothered-to-exert-myself pass from Arshavin in Arsenal's half that allowed Swansea to conjure the go-ahead goal. At that moment, despite trying to convince us for weeks that Henry was not signed to play savior -- those days being well and truly behind him, as most of New York can attest -- Wenger summoned his slumbering legend-in-residence to, once again, yank a miracle out of his Freddie Kanoute neck beard.
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
Whether the appearance of Arsenal's latest totem was part of the cause and effect, the Londoners equalized within seven minutes when Johan Djourou somehow hit the ball in the correct direction to Theo Walcott, who had so much space that even the half-asleep-in-the-stands England manager Fabio Capello would have scored. Order was on its way to being restored at 2-2.
While the Gunners were giddily savoring their genius, the Swans reclaimed the lead barely 45 seconds later. Swansea super-sub Gylfi Sigurdsson, a revelation in the heart of midfield for the entire second half, slotted a sublime pass between the ponderous Per Mertesacker (whose name coincidentally translates into "neolithically slow") and an out-of-position Laurent Koscielny for Danny Graham to hit the winner inside Wojciech Szczesny's far post.
At the end, Wenger was reduced to his usual aggrieved self on the sidelines, raging at officials for perceived injustices, albeit while sporting a different look. To his trademark below-the-knees puffy down overcoat, he added white tube socks and shiny new sneakers. He could have passed for a lost granny waiting for the bus, and his decision to insert a 34-year-old Henry into a game that was crying for the electricity and pace of 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reeked of the sort of sentiment of which the elderly are so fond. Now he's a man heading a team that will be fighting for its 2012-13 Champions League lives next week against United. All I can do is hope that Sunday was the last of the still-life Arsenal performances I'll be forced to endure.
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."