Despite a dearth of big clubs in action, Saturday's early Prem slate was far from dull
Despite most of this week's plum Prem fixtures being held later -- here's looking at you, Chelsea-United and Liverpool-Spurs, what with your tasty storylines and drama yet to unfold -- it wasn't a dull Saturday morning by any means.
Eruption at the Emirates
So the hilarious trash-bag project, designed to protest the juxtaposition of rising season-ticket prices and declining transfer market spending, came and went early this morning. Dismally. Yes, it was an actual "thing," spread on Facebook and Twitter to highlight the Gunners' frustrating, winless-in-the-Prem start to 2012, but for those large waste sacks fortunate enough to be dumped over a seat, what transpired was a thumping, rousing, spirit-lifting return to form.
Beating Blackburn 7-1 was a restorative elixir not only for a perpetually unhappy fan base, but for the players themselves. We know Arsenal can play keep-ball with the best of them, merrily spreading possession around the field with consummate ease, but Saturday's display was sheer ruthlessness.
Alex Song, quietly rounding into impeccable form, played telling pass after telling pass to shred a struggling, dispirited Blackburn defense. As if they weren't unmotivated enough heading into the game -- losing Ryan Nelsen to Spurs on deadline day and Chris Samba to what threatens to be a season-ending sulk after his transfer request was roundly rejected by the Rovers brain trust -- the sight of Robin van Persie, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott skipping mercilessly around the penalty area to combine for five assists and five goals among them had them pleading armistice.
Walcott in particular impressed, finding room on the right flank time and again, and linking well with both Song and right back Francis Coquelin to tee RvP up for three simple goals, and you sense that plenty of pundits will wax rhapsodic about Oxlade-Chamberlain over the coming months and years. Stationed on the left wing -- you know, that space Andrei Arshavin used to aimlessly inhabit -- AOC was impossible to mark, flitting infield to score the first EPL goals of his career in just his fifth Prem game.
There was even the luxury of dusting off Thierry Henry for a late-game cameo and an injury-time goal, seizing on a loose ball and combining well with his successor, van Persie, for a simple deflected score, merely emphasizing the feel-good atmosphere among those fans who bothered to make the trip.
It would be easy to get carried away by the Gunners' champagne footy and suggest they're back on track for fourth place, but remember: This is Blackburn. Although they shocked Wenger & Co. in September, the side that stumbled into the Emirates this morning was a bleak facsimile, still processing the grave reality of their relegation battle over the remaining 14 games. Full credit to Arsenal for cementing its advantage early -- aided by Gael Givet's first-half red card for a clumsy lunge for a 50-50 ball -- but with back-to-back games against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur sandwiched between a Champions League doubleheader against Milan later this month, it'll be intriguing to see whether the free-scoring Gunners' momentum continues.
Sorry Cisse puts QPR in a relegation-bound bind
Back in the Prem with QPR for barely a week, and already making headlines. Djibril Cisse scored in his new club debut Wednesday -- the third time he's done so in the EPL, following scores for Liverpool and Sunderland -- and added his first red card just three days later in a 2-1 home defeat to lowly Wolves.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
By the letter of the law, Cisse was rightly dismissed, having angrily gripped Wolves defender Roger Johnson's neck as if it were a warm mug of coffee (they were, after all, playing in some frigid conditions), yet referee Mark Clattenburg might have been well served in applying a bit of perspective to the incident.
Cisse's angry reaction was due to Johnson's high-speed, from-behind lunge into the Frenchman, one that must have made the nomadic, crazy-haired striker remember several such challenges that in the past had left him with broken legs. As such, his instinctual bout of self-defense made some sense, although it was ill-advised enough for Clattenburg to reach for the crimson square.
Referees aren't supposed to have such encyclopedic memories of the players over whom they preside -- if anything, possessing such awareness of previous incidents would unfairly bias their ability to call a fair game -- yet one couldn't help but feel for Cisse's moment of madness.
As it turns out, it would get worse, as QPR's 1-0 lead on Bobby Zamora's first goal for the club (a neat left-footed shot set up by Shaun Wright-Phillips) would be swung in Wolves' favor by full time. First, halftime sub Kevin Doyle's right-wing cross fell to Matt Jarvis to curl home the equalizer less than a minute into the second half, and with 20 minutes to play, Doyle finished off a fine move by Jamie O'Hara and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake to give Mick McCarthy's side the win.
With these two sides lingering near the relegation zone, Cisse's dismissal gave Wolves a valuable win that dragged them above the bottom three, but only just. Both sides now sit a point above the drop zone.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Canaries
The plucky attacking play of promoted Norwich City has been one of the Prem's most endearing stories thus far, proved again in a fun albeit profligate 2-0 home win over Bolton. Yes, Owen Coyle's side are more depressing than a Gus Van Sant flick, but Paul Lambert's yellow marauders were full value for their eighth win of the season, one that keeps them in the top half of the table above such EPL mainstays as Everton, Stoke, Fulham and Aston Villa.
Their formula is fairly simple: Press, press, press for the ball; work the flanks; and rely on Grant Holt's savvy in the penalty area. Buoyed by Lambert's game-by-game management and more strong play from Andrew Surman and Anthony Pilkington on the wings, Norwich deserved all three points but took 70 minutes to break Bolton's back. (Blame Holt for that, off target with four of his five shots, including a shanked close-range sitter in either half.)
Despite putting 18 of their 24 shots wide of goal, Surman and Pilkington's late goals assured Norwich's midtable roost and, with 32 points and 14 games to go, every chance that they'll get at least one more season of thrilling the Prem.
Timmy drops the ball
Unfortunately for the erstwhile Everton and U.S. men's national team goalkeeper, Tim Howard's second-half howler against lowly Wigan will linger in the memory just as long as his 92-yard goal exactly a month ago.
(Weirdly enough, it was against Wigan in 2006 that Timmy suffered a similar long-range indignity.)
With the game stuttering toward an insipid 0-all draw, Phil Neville's deflection of a weak Jean Beausejour left-wing cross befuddled Howard enough to let it bounce and spin softly past him, gifting Wigan a lead that neither side honestly deserved. It was a howler of De Gea-esque proportions, although mercifully, sub Victor Anichebe's 83rd-minute header from a typically perfect Leighton Baines cross rescued a point for David Moyes' Toffees.
Just don't show Timmy the game tape.
James Tyler is an editor for ESPN Soccer. He can be found on Twitter at @UFJamesT.
MORE SPORTS HEADLINES
- Ribery, Benzema charged with soliciting minor
- Ex-U.S. coach denies Solo's shoving allegation
- Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta UEFA award finalists
- Kompany: Van Persie would boost any team