Heroes & Villains: Two cheers for Swansea, Mancini's mistake, Liverpool languish

As things get all the more interesting at the top and bottom of the Premier League, Mark Booth names the do-gooders and evil-doers of the latest round of action...

Heroes

Manchester UnitedThe big winners this weekend. For the first time in five months, United are top of the Premier League outright as their neighbours stumbled in Wales. This was the comfortable afternoon one would have expected against a West Brom side that were unable to replicate their 2-2 draw at Old Trafford of  last season. It was a low-key win for United, entirely in keeping with their successful running down of City and the afternoon’s two biggest cheers were reserved for news from South Wales. They have been relentless in their snapping at City heels and finally have the opportunity to build a lead of their own, which will only be aided by their talisman Wayne Rooney coming into goalscoring form at the right time. Rooney has now netted in each of his last four matches and notched seven in his last seven to take him over the 20-goal threshold in the Premier League for the second time in his career. If United do seal their 20th league title in May, unlike last season it won’t have been handed to them, especially when you factor in the long-term injury to their best centre-back and the wealth of talent in City’s playing squad. Number 20 might just be the sweetest one yet for Sir Alex Ferguson.

Swansea CityNormally if a newly promoted team pulls off a surprise win over the league leaders you picture a smash-and-grab performance founded on defensive discipline and plenty of running – but Swansea’s win over City was so much more than that. For the first half an hour you would have thought it was Swansea who spent half a billion on their playing squad, as they had City chasing shadows. There’s so much to admire in the way in which the Swans go about the game, keeping the ball and forcing mistakes with their oppressive harrying when out of possession. The subdued performances of David Silva and Samir Nasri, City’s expensive playmakers, was testament to the Swansea midfield – in particular, Joe Allen, who has been a huge part of the Welsh side’s impressive first season in the Premier League. These three points practically assured another season in the top flight, which is good news for fans of good football everywhere. They’ve been a breath of fresh air for the league since their promotion (though unlike similarly oxygenating Blackpool, they look guaranteed to stay up), and have put one in the eye of those who have said that only physicality will see newly promoted teams survive.

David MoyesA perfect anniversary for the Scot, who has now been at the helm for a decade at Goodison Park. Everton’s 1-0 win over Spurs demonstrated all of the characteristics that have made Moyes one of the most respected managers in the league. Spurs followed Manchester City and Chelsea into the trap of underestimating the Toffees’ grit, and if this was an audition for the likely vacancy at White Hart Lane this summer, Moyes can expect a call back from Daniel Levy at the very least. Everton have been defying gravity for as long as Moyes has been at the club and the only thing more pleasing than a clean sheet and three points will be that it was Jelavic who scored the only goal – certainly not the first wise piece of business the managerial supremo has been responsible for in the past 10 years. 

Blackburn RoversSteve Kean’s detractors have gone awfully quiet in Lancashire as Blackburn continued their decent run with a significant win in their fight against relegation. Rovers looked dead and buried earlier in the season but now sit three points outside the relegation places after winning 2-0 away at fellow strugglers Wolves. It was their first clean sheet in 31 games, and not for the first time this season it was Junior Hoilett who inspired Blackburn to the win. There will be a quite a queue for the Canadian’s signature this summer.

Didier DrogbaThere was little to savour in Chelsea’s grinding win on Saturday afternoon. This was a workmanlike performance from Roberto Di Matteo’s charges, but after looking so porous at the back this season a second successive clean sheet is just the tonic for the Chelsea faithful. There was something Mourinho-like about this win, particularly as it’s still Didier Drogba that Chelsea look to for inspiration. Drogba’s winner brought up 100 Premier League goals for the Ivorian, who is yet to agree a new deal at Stamford Bridge. If he does depart in the summer, Chelsea will be losing a striker as ingrained in the fabric of the club as the likes of Peter Osgood and Jimmy Greaves.

Villains

Roberto ManciniThere were tears in the away end, whispers of Jose Mourinho’s name in the media and desperate City fans ready to welcome outcast Carlos Tevez back to the fold after a miserable afternoon in South Wales. City would do well to gather their thoughts and apply some perspective to their situation after surrendering top spot on Sunday. With 10 games to play, including one Manchester derby at Fortress Etihad (14 league games, 14 wins), a one-point margin in March is no reason for City to think they’ve blown it so early in the campaign. In this match, however, Mancini got it wrong from the outset. Not for the first time this season, his decision to start Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong together in midfield cost his side the initiative, leaving Mario Balotelli an isolated figure for the first half an hour and convincing Swansea that there was nothing to fear from the league leaders. City’s manager rectified his mistake 35 minutes in and brought Sergio Aguero on for a despondent Barry. The impact was immediate and City started to meet Swansea much higher up the pitch. But if City don’t score early away from home, too often they look like they won’t score at all – and so it proved.The injuries to Kompany and Lescott proved decisive too, with Stefan Savic undoing his prior good work to gift possession to Swansea, which Luke Moore punished in the most definitive manner. City are getting a reputation for being poor on the road and with trips to Stoke, Arsenal and Newcastle still to come, this is a reputation that needs addressing or their title bid is likely to end in tears. More of them.

Gareth Bale & Harry RedknappAs FourFourTwo’s very own James Maw recently pointed out, Gareth Bale would be better served in returning to the left side of midfield as he yet again failed to influence the match from a more central position, once again cutting in from the right with Luka Modric curiously shifted out left. Tottenham look top-heavy when starting with two strikers and it seems to be a shocking oversight from Redknapp, who is either daydreaming of a summer in Eastern European or too stubborn to accept that his 4-4-2 is simply not complimentary to the make-up of his squad. Bale’s directness from wide areas was probably the most threatening element of Spurs’ ascent up the league table, and it’s unclear whether his and the team's sudden drop in form is a result of the Welshman’s delusions of grandeur or a lack of direction from the man who would be king on Tottenham’s bench.

Steve MorganMorgan’s decision to show Mick McCarthy the door wasn’t Abramovic-like in its prematurity. There was an undeniable sense that things had turned stale at Molineux and an airing out of the dressing room was needed; a fresh voice to provide a charge to battle-weary limbs. With the greatest of respect to Terry Connor, he probably doesn’t possess the voice fans were hoping for (in fact he seems to have very little voice at all), and the games are running out for a team that has failed to keep a clean sheet in 13 matches. Morgan’s decision to fire McCarthy without an experienced replacement lined up looks like it might cost his club its Premier League status and is a cautionary tale for any other Premier League chairmen with itchy trigger fingers.

Kenny DalglishDalglish’s men can forget about a return to the Champions League next season. Liverpool have now failed to score in nine Premier League matches, and their need for a top-class striker is obvious when you consider that 16th-place Blackburn have scored 10 more goals than them this season. This is the first time the Reds have lost three games in a row since 2003, when they were managed by Gerard Houllier and Michael Owen was their top scorer with 16 goals. In 2012, Craig Bellamy leads the scoring charts with a paltry six. More worryingly, if the Premier League had started on January 1st, Liverpool would be in the bottom three. Should Kenny be trusted with John Henry’s money again after splurging £56m in the summer on Messrs Adam, Henderson and Downing? 

Bob PollockThere haven’t been too many better adverts for the introduction of video technology in football than in QPR’s 2-1 defeat to Bolton. It may be one of the game’s more tedious talking points but that’s only because the solution is so obvious, easy to implement and inevitable. Clint Hill’s header was a yard over the line before it was clawed back – brilliantly – by Adam Bogdan but assistant referee Bob Pollock failed to spot it and QPR never really recovered. The R’s have a gauntlet-esque run-in, and if it will take all of Mark Hughes’ cunning for them to avoid an immediate return to the Championship. We’re guessing this wasn’t part of the four-year plan but there are some decisions that are impossible to account for.

Mario myth makersIf Noel Gallagher’s interview with Mario Balotelli taught us anything, it was not to believe everything we read. He’s entertaining enough on the pitch without these increasingly tedious and fictitious sideshow stories. The interview simply conveyed what most rational people already knew: that he is a thoughtful, shy and intense young man. Unfortunately, you still get the impression that the nation’s tabloid journalists had their fingers in their ears as Super Mario dismissed all of the mythical headlines, from confronting schoolyard bullies to handing out wads of cash to tramps, as baseless lies.

Topics