Heroes & Villains: Men in suits and a cowardly lion

FourFourTwo.com features editor James Maw reveals the (extended) weekend's Premier League goodies and baddies

HEROES

Chris Smalling & NaniThe headlines and highlight reels may have been dominated by Wayne Rooney’s glorious acrobatics (not a sentence we’d ever envisaged writing…), but the bulk of the plaudits should go to Chris Smalling and Nani, both of whom outperformed ‘Man of the Match’ Rooney and inspired victory for Manchester United.

The fact that it's unsurprising to see the Portuguese being the catalyst of a United win in such a crucial match is a testament to his continuing rise from erratic threat to consistent attacking force. His first-half strike – the culmination of an incisive counter-attack worthy of similar adulation to Rooney’s strike – took his league tally for the season to 10. Combined with his 13 assists – the latest also coming on Saturday – the statistics underline the magnitude of his contribution to the United cause this term.

Far more surprising was the disciplined, composed and authoritative performance of young centre-back Chris Smalling. In the absence of Rio Ferdinand the former Maidstone starlet made only his fourth league start for the Red Devils, and slotted in effortlessly alongside Nemanja Vidic as United were generally able to keep City at arm's length.

The 21-year-old’s move from Fulham raised a few eyebrows 12 months back – after all, he'd only played a handful of matches for the Cottagers. But this superb performance underlined exactly why the current Premier League leaders were so keen to quickly tie up a deal for the defender.

Wayne RooneyGiven the performances of the aforementioned United duo, it was galling to see Sky present their man of the match award to Rooney, who by his own admission was largely disappointing over the 90 minutes. Nonetheless – What. A. Goal.

Nikola ZigicLet’s not pretend GiantSerbNikolaZigic has blown us away with brilliant football since arriving at St Andrew’s in the summer, but he’s certainly made a positive impact in recent weeks. Having previously gone over three months without a Premier League goal, Zigic has now scored three in three as Brum have picked up what could be a crucial seven points in matches with Manchester City, West Ham and Saturday’s opponents Stoke City. His Stoke-like scrappy last-gasp close-range header saw Alex McLeish’s side move up to 14th – their highest position since late November.

Demba BaIn a week when the long-term future of West Ham United was decided by a panel of former athletes and men in suits, Senegalese striker Ba ensured there’s still hope that the club’s immediate future won’t be in the Football League, with his second-half brace helping the Hammers claw back a three-goal deficit to earn a vital point in the battle against relegation.

Robin van PersieThe Dutchman continued his superb start to 2011 with another brace, taking his goal tally for the calendar year to 11 in just nine matches. With Chelsea and Manchester City dropping points again in ‘Round 27’, Van Persie’s return to full fitness and top form couldn’t have come at a better time. While the cash-rich duo have drifted away from leaders Manchester United, Arsenal are still well within touching distance, with United still to visit the Emirates.

David LuizWhile the higher-profile of Chelsea’s January acquisitions may have bombed again at Craven Cottage on Monday evening (more on that later), the man who snuck in through the back door when everybody was busy gawping at ‘Nando’ really hit the ground running on his first start for his new club.

That, of course, isn’t a surprise given his pedigree – Luiz has been one of the most highly rated and sought-after defenders in Europe for a couple of years now, and his performances at the back last season were key to the domestic success of a largely attack-minded Benfica side.

Yet things last night could have turned sour at the last when the Brazilian’s mistimed tackle on Clint Dempsey was perhaps harshly punished by referee Mike Dean with the award of a spot-kick. Fortunately for Luiz and Chelsea, Petr Cech saved to preserve the clean sheet.

SandroAnother Brazilian youngster getting to grips with the Premier League, albeit with a less immediate and impressive impact. The Spurs starlet has endured a far from auspicious start to his career in north London, but Saturday evening’s win up at Sunderland could prove to be a turning point.

The 21-year-old completed 90 minutes of Sky League football for the first time, and after a nervy start seemed to grow into the match – quickly adapting to the pace of the game and, for the first time in a Spurs shirt, seeming to show a real appreciation of the players around him. With Jermaine Jenas suspended and Luka Modric still recovering from an appendectomy, it looks likely Sandro will start at the San Siro tonight. Can he continue his progress?

VILLAINS


Mike SummerbeeIt’s not often we’ll bother ourselves with the post-match wittering of pundits, but this week we simply have to make an exception, after Manchester City hero Mike Summerbee made a fool of himself during Sky’s analysis of Saturday’s Manchester derby. Let’s face it, you know things are going badly when you’re being patronised by Dwight Yorke and make Jamie Redknapp look erudite.

Clearly riled by the rest of the panel’s drooling over Wayne Rooney’s winner, Summerbee sulked that his old side had more than matched United, and that the discourse should revolve as much around their chances as United's goals.

“We [City] dominated the game – and I’m talking possession-wise – for probably 60% of the game,” claimed Summerbee, before later explaining the he wasn’t “into stats” when host Ed Chamberlain pointed out United’s 54% share of possession.

Of course, to an extent Summerbee had a point. Sky do incessantly fawn over Manchester United and the rest of the ‘Big Four’, and City were certainly the better side during the early exchanges – possibly even up to United's opener. But Fergie’s team won the game for a reason – they created more decent chances than City and stuck more in the net.

Summerbee was clearly speaking with the passion of a fan rather than the level head of an analyst, and while it was refreshing to see emotion compared to the usual tepid chat, he may want to rein it in a tad next time…

William GallasThe first rule of football is that the team who scores the most goals wins the football match. The second rule is probably some tosh about any thermal vests/shorts have to match the garment worn over the top of it. Someway down the list there’s a passing reference to not trotting off to change your boots while the game is unfolding in front of you.

This was exactly what Silly Willy Gallas did in the opening stages of Tottenham’s eventual victory at Sunderland on Saturday evening – with Asamoah Gyan punishing his absenteeism by turning an over-stretched Michael Dawson and neatly rifling the ball into the bottom corner of the Spurs net.

Fair enough, it was later explained that Gallas had been given a pain-killing injection prior to the game and had subsequently been bandaged too tightly – hence the need for the change in footwear. But surely the Frenchman could’ve soldiered on for a few minutes until there was a break in play?

We can only imagine what Harry Redknapp would’ve said to him at half-time had Dawson not equalised minutes before, although we’d take a guess that it would involve the word "fackin", whatever that means.

Avram GrantIt was perhaps a fairly damning indictment on Grant’s motivational skills that West Ham ‘striker’ Carlton Cole heaped praise on Hammers captain Scott Parker for the England midfielder’s rousing half-time words, completely overlooking his manager. While there’s no denying fire and brimstone are largely overrated qualities in the eyes of some English fans and pundits, sometimes a good pep-talk is what you really need. It’s hard to imagine the ever-gloomy Grant providing that.

As impressive as West Ham’s comeback was – and indeed they could well have ultimately won the match – it shouldn’t overshadow a horrendous first-half showing, particularly at the back, which caused us to wonder why the Irons didn’t sign a defender in January.

Fernando TorresIt’s early days, of course, and the Spaniard’s second Chelsea outing at Fulham was certainly better than his largely anonymous debut showing, but he still looked a shadow of his former self, spurning several good chances. He needs a goal, and quickly.

Clint DempseyPoor penalty, should’ve left the rebound and not tried an audacious bicycle kick. NEXT!

Alex SongA brilliant player, and one whose influence on this Arsenal side is ever increasing, but his hair is getting more and more ridiculous by the week. He currently looks like the cowardly lion in Blaxploitation classic The Wiz.

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