Bad Weekend: Rafa, Pilgrims and the North-East generally

It was a Bad Weekend for…

Poor Old RafaIf you’re a Chelsea fan who was at the Bridge for your side’s 0-0 draw with Manchester City yesterday, chances are that you woke up this morning with a raw throat.

As Rafa Benitez, the European Champions’ latest interim manager (whatever happened to caretakers?), was introduced to the faithful yesterday, a prolonged boo shook the old stadium to its foundations.

The source of the supporters’ ire has been well documented and Benitez hasn’t really helped himself this week by suggesting that Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard could be out of the door by the end of the season, but this protest was notable as being the first real occasion where Chelsea fans have turned on owner Roman Abramovich.

Hostilities were sidelined for a wonderful minute’s applause for the sadly departed Dave Sexton, but the supporters were back on message as the 16th minute ticked around with a vocal celebration of Roberto Di Matteo (who wore the squad number 16 as a Chelsea player).

The match itself didn’t help the atmosphere, as the torrential downpour that has taken residence over the UK this weekend meant that both sides found consistent quality hard to come by.

As for Rafa? He needs to take Roberto Mancini's advice: "Win, win, win, win, win" – starting with three points on Wednesday in the derby against Fulham, if he is to get the fans on side rather than let a spontaneous complaint becoming an ongoing campaign. 

The Black CatsIt may seem somewhat harsh for a weekend review to focus on the plight of Sunderland. After all, they scored twice against the team now in third, and despite the 4-2 loss to West Bromwich Albion there were several positives.

They showed plenty of spirit to fight back from 2-0 and then 3-1 behind, with only a last-minute sucker punch restoring the Baggies’ two-goal cushion. Stephane Sessignon appears to be interested again, they've scored five goals in two games, only one of them by Steven Fletcher, and scored twice in a home league game for  the first time since April.

Throw in a freak goalkeeping error for West Brom’s second goal and a penalty-that-never-was for their third and you could argue that the Black Cats have a lot to take away from the defeat.

But after last week's trip to Fulham brought a long-awaited victory – their first in seven attempts – the loss at home to West Brom hurt the home fans deeply. Most Mackems will believe their club to be above Saturday's visitors in terms of prestige, support and history; they certainly have a healthy financial situation, a great stadium with a dedicated support, a talented playing staff and a highly respected manager. They should be pushing for a top six place rather than languishing just three points above the relegation zone.

Normally, the phrase ‘papering over the cracks’ is used to describe a victory won despite a side’s weaknesses (see Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham last week); it is indicative of Sunderland’s plight that a defeat could inspire the same words.

The Black Cats’ next two games, at home to Harry Redknapp’s QPR followed by a trip to Norwich, could define their season.

The ToonA Bad Weekend for North-East clubs (see Sunderland above and Middlesbrough below) wasn’t lightened by Newcastle's defeat at Southampton.

Though it would be overly simplistic to blame the defeat on the Magpies’ midweek European adventures, the stats show that of the seven league games that have followed Newcastle’s Europa League commitments, the Toon have only won two. More to the point, four of Newcastle’s five league defeats this season have come on a weekend following a European midweek.

For the sake of balance, we should point out that two of those defeats came at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester United and that there is no guarantee that a fresher squad would have beaten either West Ham earlier this month or Southampton, who dispatched them yesterday.

And focusing solely on Newcastle’s third consecutive league defeat would be unfair to a Southampton side who, in playing some wonderful football, completely dominated proceedings and kept their first clean sheet of the season.

It’s far too early to start speculating whether the "man with the eight-year contract", Alan Pardew, may be in danger of losing his job but there’s no doubt he could do without a midweek trip to Stoke, where the Potters haven’t lost in the league since early last season.

UnsackabilityThe campaign to get "unsackability" into common parlance (which, er, started last weekend) came to an abrupt halt late last week after the unsackable Mark Hughes was sacked.

OK, so it wasn’t "bouncebackability" but it’s not a bad word.

The Chasing PackCongratulations must go to Cardiff, who once again leapfrogged their way to the top of the Championship following a hard-fought 2-1 win at Barnsley. But a lot of the credit for the rise of the Bluebirds (Redbirds?) has to be directed towards the generosity of the chasing pack.

Crystal Palace’s return to their early season away form (they suffered back to back road defeats in August) saw the former league leaders go down 2-1 at Leeds – the Eagles’ first loss in 14 league games and the first for new manager Ian Holloway – with a midweek trip to high-flying Hull next up.

But Hull have their own problems after a surprise home defeat to Burnley. While sitting in fifth position with the halfway point of the season approaching may be more than the Tigers would have hoped for, the loss, their second in three league games, leaves them just three points above 10th position.

However, the shocker of the weekend award is on its way to the Riverside Stadium – the scene for Middlesbrough’s hopeless 3-1 loss to a Bristol City side who hadn’t won in 11 games. Boro had stormed into Championship contention on the back of five consecutive league wins, briefly topping the table, but back-to-back defeats have seen them slump to five points off the pace.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the chasing pack: of those chasing the chasers only Nottingham Forest and Derby County recorded victories.

Deja WolvesIn what must be a prolonged avant-garde homage to the 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day, Wolverhampton Wanderers continued their repetitive behavioural patterns of losing the lead, this time allowing Nottingham Forest to inflict another home defeat.

Up next for Stale Solbakken's men is Tuesday's visit of Millwall, who won at Blackburn this weekend. Expect Wolves to take the lead and lose the game, before travelling to Bristol City next weekend where they will take the lead…

October’s BoysSheffield United and Doncaster Rovers were October's League One pin-ups, but while Donny seem to have gotten over their early November blip, the Blades continue to stutter with just one win since Halloween.

Unbeaten all season until a 1-0 loss at MK Dons earlier this month, Danny Wilson’s men fell 2-0 at the home of play-off challengers Brentford on Saturday afternoon after a terrible first 45 minutes. For Brentford, who have been accused of over-relying on Saturday’s goalscorers Clayton Donaldson and Harry Forrester, the win moves them to within one point of their opponents.

Crawley Town shook off an early October defeat to embark on a four-game unbeaten run which included three consecutive victories. November, however, has not been as kind. After opening the month with a 3-1 loss at Coventry, the Reds played out back-to-back draws before losing once again, at home to Yeovil. On Saturday afternoon they visited Gresty Road clearly short on confidence and were lucky to lose just 2-0 to Crewe.

The other October success story were Colchester, whose form exactly matched that of Crawley. Since the turn of November they have fared a little better than the boys from Broadfield Stadium, picking up a win over Bury, but their 5-1 defeat at MK Dons this weekend proves they’re yet to shake off their November blues.

Leyton Orient, meanwhile, will be hoping this month never ends. After suffering a horrifying October, Orient have now won four league games on the bounce, the latest being an impressive 2-0 home win over Preston.

Thanksgiving PilgrimsLast Thursday was Thanksgiving Day in the USA, the day where families throughout the country get together and give thanks and spend time with one another. The centrepiece of the day is a feast of turkey and trimmings, reminiscent of the meal that the Pilgrims ate on the very first Thanksgiving, way back in the 17th Century.

But, in the tenuous link of the weekend, one group of Pilgrims, Plymouth Argyle, won’t be giving thanks to anybody today.

The team suffered another narrow League Two defeat on Saturday, 1-0 at home to Chesterfield. The loss was the fifth time in 10 games that Argyle had recorded a single-goal defeat and leaves the West Country boys perilously close to the bottom two.

With no fixture next weekend due to the FA Cup, the Pilgrims may at least be thankful for a chance to regroup before they face fellow strugglers York on December 8th.

Ali Al-HabsiThe yellow winter ball, greasy with rain water, spooned up into the air, spinning all the while. As the blazing floodlights bounced playfully off the sphere, a thought fleetingly entered Ali Al-Habsi’s brain: “Go on… drop it… just for a laugh…”

OK, so that might be taking poetic licence a bit too far – I’m sure the Wigan goalkeeper’s thoughts are in Arabic as opposed to English – but all playground goalkeepers will surely have had the above scenario play out for real.

As it happens, Al-Habsi let the dropping ball slither through his grasp, hitting his head as it dropped into the goal – but the look on the Oman No.1’s face afterwards said that it was anything other than amusing.

Luckily for him, his teammate Jordi Gomez was busy at the other end of the pitch compiling a perfect hat-trick (left foot, right foot, header) to earn his side a 3-2 victory over Reading in a thumping game. Thank heavens for skilful Spaniards.