Death by Manchester
You have to hand it to the soccer gods who sit high up on Mount Blatter creating drama, breaking hearts and dreaming up fabulous new hairdos for Mario Balotelli. This Sunday, they brought the thunder with two tense, edge-of-your-barstool games -- unless you're a Spurs or Arsenal fan, in which case the soccer gods just suck, especially since the two players who helped decide those matches arguably shouldn't have even been on the field.
How lucky was Balotelli that referee Howard Webb didn't see his sly Pepe-esque stamp on Scott Parker's well-coiffed head in the 83rd minute of Spurs' 3-2 defeat to Man City? To be fair, it was slightly less visible to the human eye than Nigel De Jong's kung fu job on Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final, another act of studs-first mayhem that Webb also didn't deem worthy of a red card, even though it happened directly in front of him. Maybe he and United's young, error-prone reserve keeper David De Gea, who recently complained of impaired vision, can get a twofer on Lasik surgery later this year.
Speaking of selective blindness, Arsene Wenger, who has made an art form of not spotting his players' reckless tackles, once again experienced myopia but in a far more dangerous way. Not only did he fail to recognize that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was his most dynamic player on the field against United, but when he looked down the bench to replace the 18-year-old tyro, his aging eyes clearly mistook Andrei Arshavin for Cesc Fabregas. How else to explain his decision to put in the waste of Russian space mere minutes after the Ox had laid on Robin van Persie's equalizer? I know that whole Cold War-Boris-and-Natasha espionage thing is supposed to be long over, but is it really? Because I'm convinced that Arshavin seems to be a part of some dastardly Soviet plot designed to destroy Arsenal (and my liver).
To the best of my knowledge, Wenger has no hearing problems, so it's safe to assume that he heard the Gooner faithful's reaction to that move. (Piers Morgan was screaming loudly enough about it on Twitter that the whole world knew his opinion.) The cavalcade of boos that rolled around the Emirates when Andrei the Terrible somehow escaped the confines of the Arsenal bench was Emmanuel Eboue-deafening. It only got worse when Danny Welbeck sealed Arsenal's doom in the 81st minute and Wenger got the full Steve Kean treatment, as chants of "You don't know what you're doing" rained down on the Frenchman.
Hours earlier, Spurs suffered its share of blunt trauma, with a last-kick-of-the-match 3-2 loss to the Blue side of Manchester. The difference, unfortunately, is that any neutral could see that Tottenham's spirited comeback was a good omen for the rest of the Spurs season, while all Arsenal could muster was a painful reminder that Wenger's 14-year, uninterrupted Champions League run is in danger of coming to an inglorious end.
On the bright side, at least the scores this time around didn't trigger any human rights violations.
Le plus ca change at the Emirates...
Did anyone happen to see the wildly condescending shoulder pat that Sir Alex gave Wenger after the final whistle blew on the Gunners' third consecutive defeat? It was as if Fergie was saying to his once bitter rival, "Hang in there, Professor. The Europa League isn't as bad as everyone says."
It is small consolation to Arsenal that with Tottenham's 3-2 loss to City, it looks as if Spurs is also no longer in the title conversation, but the evil ones are a whopping 10 points ahead of Arsenal and very much in position to finish above the Gunners for the first time since 1994-95.
Adding to the anguish is the harsh realization that the Gunners revival isn't a simple fix. No healthy fullbacks, a lumbering German marshalling the backline, an injured Jack Wilshere and a lack of belief that anybody but RvP will ever score again for Arsenal.
Take the entire first half, a stuporific affair during which Arsenal barely threatened Anders Lindegaard and United camped out in the Arsenal end long enough to roast marshmallows. It's not as if Sir Alex's game plan was particularly cunning: exploit the matchups, particularly the one against a certain hapless fill-in right back, Johan Djourou, whose form has fallen off a cliff since a 26-game unbeaten run with the Gunners across three seasons. The Swiss defender was tormented with insulting ease by Nani and Ryan Giggs for 45 minutes. When Giggs found himself in acres of space on the left flank just before intermission, the bewildered look on Djourou's face implied "take as long as you want to cross the ball, mate. I'll be right here watching."
The ageless Welshman's sweet far-post chip picked out Antonio Valencia, who outleapt Tommy Vermaelen to nod a deserving United into the lead. Farewell Djourou, hello Nico Yennaris, an 18-year-old with precisely zero minutes of EPL experience.
Yet a much worse substitution was to come.
The second half was played at a different pace and intensity, as apparently the espresso machines were on halftime hyperdrive. RvP Torres'd an absolute sitter (for him) early on, and Welbeck somehow managed to hit a shot so slowly past Wojciech Szczesny that Brontosaurus Mertesacker was able to clear it off the line. Finally, after a gorgeous interchange between Oxlade-Chamberlain and RvP, the Dutchman crashed home a magnificent, and slightly fortunate, equalizer. RvP celebrated by lifting up his jersey to reveal a birthday message for his 91-year-old grandfather "opa Wim," not exactly a preening Mario Balotelli "Why Always Me" advertisement but entertaining regardless.With the Emirates finally reaching a boil, the game was Arsenal's for the taking -- until Arsene gave it right back.
In the 73rd minute, Wenger threw on the Russian lox for the English Ox. Arshavin has been the biggest underperformer in the Prem yet to be enshrined in the Fernandy Carroll Club. The final sign of his ascendancy? Wenger was forced to defend him with the same testy stubbornness that Andre Villas-Boas and Kenny Dalglish have long mastered in the face of the media's assault.
Within eight minutes, Arshavin waved a red cape as the in-form Valencia ole'd past him. While the Russian pixie gave desultory chase, yapping at Valencia's heel like the runt of a Yorkshire terrier litter, the Arsenal rearguard displayed all the mobility of the Thierry Henry statue outside the Emirates. When the ball finally fell for Danny Welbeck in front of goal, the United striker was able to hammer it past Szczesny with little difficulty.
Heretical as it is to criticize the Belgian lynchpin Vermaelen, fresh from his latest injury/rehab vacation and pressed into action because it was either him or a pair of Gael Clichy's old shorts at left back, was responsible for both goals. Valencia beat him for the first, and he was late flailing out a limb to try and block Welbeck's shot.
Overall, Arsenal missed the creative engine of Mikel Arteta in midfield, with Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey unable to consistently drive the Gunners upfield. When they did succeed in threatening, RvP, of all people, missed a sitter in the 51st minute. If he was upset with himself for that blown opportunity, it was nothing like the displeasure he manifested when Wenger removed the Ox with 20-plus minutes to go. RvP was right to fear the worst when the touchline assistant put No. 23 up on the sub board. Later, a defiant Wenger would defend his substitution by saying that Ox had been ill in midweek and had shown signs of fatigue, but it's pretty damning when his captain and the player he most needs to appease -- especially given the number of clubs already making overtures for his transfer -- is caught on camera looking horrified and mouthing the words "No, no, why?"
A wise question, indeed. Let's hope that Wenger's move doesn't lead to Arsenal's failure to qualify for the Champions League, or it could cost the Gunners something far more important than a loss to United -- the dedicated service of Opa Wim's grandson.
Forget Mario; Why Always Spurs?
I wouldn't normally feel sympathy for the jowly tactician from White Hart Lane, but given the frailty of his ticker, I worry that between the anguish of the final five minutes of Sunday's game and the commencement of his tax evasion trial bright and early Monday morning, Harry Redknapp might well explode.
Unless he is convicted and thrown into the Big House for using a Monaco bank account to launder his paychecks while at Portsmouth, I doubt you'll see him in any more pain than he was when Jermain Defoe hurled himself toward Gareth Bale's cross fizzing across the face of the City goal and came up just short.
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
Defoe, who ignited Spurs' comeback half an hour earlier when he pounced on Stefan Savic's clownish, ill-advised back header, had suffered a cramp just four minutes earlier and, despite straining every millimeter of his 5-foot-7 frame in the direction of the Welsh winger's slightly overhit delivery, could only steer it past the far post with Joe Hart at his mercy. On the Tottenham bench, Redknapp could only wince at the misfortune, no doubt cursing the fact that had Emmanuel Adebayor and his long, gangly, on-loan-from-City frame been allowed to play against his parent club, he would have bundled the ball across the line and Spurs might have pulled off one of their greatest victories in modern history.
Instead, in the 95th-and-then-some minute, Ledley King brought down Balotelli in the box for as easy a PK decision as the normally useless Webb could ever have to make. Even while Redknapp vented afterward that the Italian had no right to be still in the game, the Spurs manager quickly conceded that the penalty was justified.
As with all things Balotelli, he is a lesson in extremes -- an absolute joy to watch on the field because he's always capable of conjuring a brilliant piece of improvisation out of nowhere, such as the opening goal in the 6-1 romp over Manchester United and his slick second-minute finish in the Chelsea defeat, but equally full of Dr. Jekyll-esque recklessness, as evidenced by that ridiculous back-heel to the face of Parker, who, as Redknapp put it, has "a lovely cut on his head".
Once the EPL suits review Sunday's game tape, he will again be missing critical games for City and have plenty of time for his random drop-ins with the locals. Such is life with Super Mario: 15 Prem games, 9 goals, 7 yellow cards and 1 red (that should have been two).
Before the game descended into stoppage time drama, save for the four-goals-in-nine-minutes burst midway through the second half, it was largely a bore-fest despite the "Super Sunday" hype. The first half was dull at best, as Roberto Mancini appeared to have one eye on Wednesday's Carling Cup semifinal second leg at Anfield (carrying a 1-0 deficit up the M62) while Spurs looked for a point from the kickoff. Languid passing, few opportunities and plenty of swarming D at both ends defined the game until a certain Spanish magician, as is his wont, opened things up.
Once David Silva shed Parker's shackles to set up the first goal, you'd have forgiven Spurs for simply playing out the string and hoping to escape back to London with less than the 5-1 beatdown administered in their last meeting. Silva's scarily otherworldly vision set Samir Nasri free with a beautiful dink between Younes Kaboul and Ledley King, and -- God, forgive me for writing these words -- the loathsome ex-Gooner uncorked a sublime first-time finish, curling it past Friedel with his right instep while in full sprint. It would get worse, as within minutes, another Silva mazy run earned a corner, which Nasri curled in for Joleon Lescott to clumsily drag across the line.
Within 60 seconds, the shaky Savic -- only in the side because Kolo Toure is at the Africa Cup of Nations and Vinny Kompany is finishing out a four-game suspension -- inexplicably flicked an innocuous downfield hoof back toward Joe Hart despite being some 40 yards from goal, giving a previously anonymous Defoe the simplest of finishes. Five minutes later, Bale unleashed a stunning equalizer, drifting infield to pick up Aaron Lennon's square pass and bending it into the upper 90 from 20 yards out.
At 2-2, both sides had chances to win. Parker denied Micah Richards from a narrow angle, Lennon forced a fine save from Hart, Dzeko blazed over the bar from 15 yards out and Defoe had an agonizing injury-time lurch that could only find the advertising hoardings just wide of goal.
As much as I always enjoy seeing Redknapp in a lather -- not that I could revel in Spursfreude all that long considering the nausea-inducing result that followed barely two hours later -- he can feel aggrieved that his side's improbable title challenge dissipated in a cloud of controversy thanks to the cue-balled, bat-blind Webb.
While Mancini will take his stroke of good fortune, I doubt that Balotelli's actions will meet with either Redknapp's, or the league's, stamp of approval.
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."