Heroes & Villains: A silky Cisse, a silly Cisse and an honourable exit

RESULTS (click team name for web-wide club news feed) Sat 4 Feb Arsenal 7-1 Blackburn Rovers; Norwich City 2-0 Bolton Wanderers; Queens Park Rangers 1-2 Wolverhampton Wanderers; Stoke City 0-1 Sunderland; West Bromwich Albion 1-2 Swansea City; Wigan Athletic 1-1 Everton; Manchester City 3-0 Fulham Sun 5 Feb Newcastle United 2-1 Aston Villa; Chelsea 3-3 Manchester United (Mon 6 Feb 8pm Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur)


ArsenalThis was exactly the statement Arsene Wenger wanted from his players, who served Blackburn with a Baltic blast of revenge in the Saturday lunchtime game. Blackburn were a shambles but Arsenal were every bit as good as their opponents were awful in this brutal seven-shade kicking.

We may not have seen too much of the football that made the Gunners so popular in Wenger’s tenure so far this season but this was vintage Arsenal with heroes all over the pitch. Theo Walcott played like a man who knows Gervinho is soon back from the Africa Cup of Nations and Alex Song continued to advance his reputation as so much more than a defensive linchpin with his assist for Van Persie’s first goal particularly impressive.

In a tournament year there’s usually an exciting young player who makes a late charge to the England squad, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might just be the latest. It was a performance of the highest quality from Oxlade-Chamberlain, who looks to have settled straight in to life at the Emirates.

But it wasn’t all about AOC as Arsenal’s fellow triple-initialled frontman yet again proved to be Arsenal’s hero with another hat-trick. What, just the three this time, RVP?

Martin O'NeillFive wins in their last six games for Sunderland – and more importantly, three successive Heroes nominations. It’s the stuff of modern folklore that the Britannia Stadium is a place from which even title-chasers are grateful to escape with a point and their ambitions intact. For Sunderland to go there and take maximum points says so much about the spirit and desire their manager has instilled in his short time there.

The conditions at Stoke were as inhospitable as the atmosphere, making this smash-and-grab win – they had one shot on target – all the more satisfying for the Black Cats’ faithful. Top of the form league over the 10-game period since O'Neill took over, Sunderland have gone from 16th to eighth place under the Ulsterman. Having gained 22 points from a possible 30, they sit just seven points off fifth-placed Arsenal; with 14 games to go, perhaps it’s not even too giddy for Sunderland fans to start dreaming of Europe.

Sir Alex FergusonThree goals down at Chelsea, there was a real danger that Manchester United would lose more than just points. After their September humiliation by Manchester City it took the champions some time to recover their fluency, and it was looking like another period of reflection for Sir Alex Ferguson… until Wayne Rooney’s penalty pulled them back from the brink.

Under the circumstances this wasn't two points lost but one gained. United have their manager to thank for their incredible powers of rejuvenation – these players know phoned-in performances are unacceptable – but also their tactical fluidity: each of his three substitutions subtly but winningly changed their ever-attacking formation.

Although they may have ridden their luck, once the champions had a goal back the comeback always looked a possibility. Ferguson will be delighted to end the week a point closer to the noisy neighbours and with one of his hardest remaining assignments fulfilled in inspiring fashion (no, not the polo-neck).

Manchester CityNormal service resumed for Mancini’s men. Only the wintry conditions separated this performance from one of City’s autumnal annihilations but they were helped on their way by an early penalty which understandably enraged Fulham. Adam Johnson is a better professional than his 10th-minute Bambi act suggested: while Chris Baird did make contact with the winger, he was already on his way to ground before Mike Dean pointed to the spot.

Roberto Mancini will be most pleased with Sergio Aguero, back to his scintillating best after a couple of quiet weeks, and most especially a clean sheet in the captain’s absence. After a shaky spell during Vincent Kompany’s four-game ban, Stefan Savic couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable reintroduction to the City defence: he won all five of his aerial duels, although Clint Dempsey’s aerial prowess is hardly the stuff of legends. Clear again at the top, City need to rack up the points in this, their final gentle run of fixtures before the all-important run-in.

Papiss Demba CisseThe perfect debut for Newcastle's new No.9. It was perhaps not the cleanest of contacts on the volley – a fraction later and it would have seemed a wild slash – but Alan Pardew won’t mind as the competition for places at St James' Park really hots up.

Mick McCarthyThe midweek villain secured three vital points at QPR as Wolves ended a poor run of form. Knives were being sharpened at Molineux after Tuesday's disappointing defeat to Liverpool, giving the Yorkshire Irishman a sleepless night with “McCarthy out” ringing in his ears.

There’s no doubt Wanderers were granted a slice of luck at Loftus Road with Djibril Cisse's 34th-minute dismissal (McCarthy: "You know my sentiments towards football now: that wouldn't have been a sending-off when I played") but Wolves reacted more smartly to the situation. At half-time McCarthy swapped defender Richard Stearman for striker Kevin Doyle, whose winner sets Wolves up nicely for Sunday's derby with West Brom.

QPR have now dropped a league-high 15 points from winning positions while Wolves have recovered 13 points from losing positions – more than any other team. McCarthy out?

Norwich CityEven the most deluded Norwich fans must have been ready to write off Saturday's game against Bolton after losing both centre-halves to first-half injuries. Daniel Ayala and Zak Whitbread have already proved to be canny acquisitions for Paul Lambert, who described this 2-0 win as the best of his three seasons in charge. "That was as good as I've ever seen us play," a delighted Lambert said at full-time. "The effort and the desire the players showed was absolutely brilliant”.

Brendan RodgersIt’s difficult to praise Swansea without patronising, but the side no-one gave a prayer in August – unless of course they abandoned their footballing principles – are now within 10 points of the 40-point safety mark, making a Blackpool-style collapse less likely by the week. Moreover, that's now two wins in three league trips for a team already pretty impregnable at home.

For Swansea’s manager, the Mourinho-protégé tag is also starting to come loose as Rodgers continues to cement a reputation for being his own man with his own footballing philosophy, which is becoming as effective as it is attractive.

Gael GivetIf only every player could react as professionally as the Blackburn Rovers defender when he was given his marching orders. In a time when players and managers are finding it increasingly difficult to take responsibility for their actions, Givet’s lack of protest and resigned apology to Arsene Wenger as he departed was so refreshing, even if it was an ugly challenge that preceded it. Perhaps he just sensed the thrashing coming toward his team like a bank of snow-bearing cloud.


Andre Villas-BoasWhen Chelsea went 3-0 up against Manchester United it looked like Andre Villas-Boas was giving a lesson to a visiting manager twice his age. Sir Alex Ferguson had brought on Javier Hernandez and was readying Paul Scholes when Wayne Rooney made it 3-1 in the 58th minute.

This was no time for Villas-Boas to panic but a United onslaught was inevitable and it was the perfect opportunity to bring on Oriel Romeu to shore up Chelsea’s midfield. AVB dithered and only made the substitution when Rooney struck again, by which point Chelsea had sacrificed their momentum and were made to pay for their manager’s indecisiveness.

Villas-Boas is still very much trying to step out of the ample shadow of Jose Mourinho, whose decisive substitutions are remembered fondly at Stamford Bridge. It’s easy to forget that Villas-Boas has only been a manager for three years; perhaps that inexperience showed on Sunday.

Perhaps the 34-year-old can't be judged fairly until he has completed a very necessary overhaul of an ageing squad. The question is whether he will be given time to complete that job, given Mourinho's PR machine had used the back page of Friday's Sun to offer his special services again next season.

Chris BairdThe Fulham full-back can count himself extremely lucky to miss out on a nightmare hat-trick at the Etihad. As if his concession of a penalty and an own goal weren’t enough, Baird’s scissor tackle on Edin Dzeko was the perfect demonstration of how to beat your buddies to the bathtub. Late, high and from behind, it was generously deemed only cautionable by Mike Dean – just about the only generosity Fulham received on an otherwise miserable evening in Manchester.

Roy HodgsonIt speaks volumes about the division's stragglers that West Brom are still six points clear of the drop zone; it says everything about the Baggies' own form that they might not keep that cushion for long. Having won one and lost four of their seven games since Christmas, Hodgson's side are sliding down the table; down to 15th, they're now the nearest targets for the bottom five.

QPR's heavy investment and new manager could well mean they overhaul the five-point difference between the clubs, while West Brom's local rivals Wolves could cut the gap to two with a home win in Sunday's derby; after that, the Baggies face in-form Sunderland, Chelsea and Manchester United.

After Swansea left The Hawthorns with all three points and West Brom with the joint worst home record, Hodgson spoke worriedly about losing the support of the home fans. Perhaps he'd better worry about losing the support of chairman Jeremy Peace, who pulled the trigger on Roberto di Matteo a year ago this week.

Roger Johnson, Djibril Cisse & Mark ClattenburgIt was probably harsh of Clattenburg to send off Cisse, who has suffered two nasty leg-breaks. However, there’s no doubt that the French striker’s reaction to Roger Johnson’s challenge gave the referee an excuse to dismiss the Lord of the Manor of Frodsham: when you raise your hands and place them on an opponent’s neck there’s always a risk of seeing red.

With the debate on dangerous tackles continuing to rage, Johnson can count himself extremely lucky to escape dismissal himself for what was an ugly two-footed tackle. It was a match-defining red card and the Rs will have every reason to feel aggrieved that Clattenburg may have got the wrong guy.

That white polo-neckSir Alex Ferguson is hardly a fashionista, but the polo-neck shirt he graced upon arriving at the King's Road set Twitter ablaze. Fashionistas up and down the land pondered if Sir Alex was making a late run to be the first James Bond from Govan, or perhaps driving to Dundee in a Vauxhall Vectra loaded with Toblerone. Whatever it was, stick with the grey overcoat in future, Alex.