Heroes & Villains: Balotelli, booing and other less popular things

As the delightfully bonkers 2011/12 season countinues to rumble on in Premier League town, FourFourTwo's James Maw names the super stars and ne'er do wells of match day nine...


Manchester City

Well yes, obviously.
 In his programme notes for Sunday’s game, Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson described City counterpart Roberto Mancini’s handling of Tevezactinglikeadouchebag-gate as "a master class in management". What Ferguson didn’t realise was that the Italian’s tutorial was still in session.

City’s emphatic win at Old Trafford could be the most symbolic result in the recent history of English football – as clear a sign as could be imagined of the much-discussed shift in power. City’s players showed the kind of unity, workrate and relentlessness that have served their city rivals well over the past two decades.
The Tevez affair, which for a brief moment looked like derailing City’s entire ‘project’, has instead galvanised the manager, fans and seemingly the bench-dwelling Argentine’s team-mates. The widely-predicted selfishness and mutiny haven't spread, and instead Tevez has been ostracised, isolated and made an example of. City’s stars know that if they don’t pull their weight and toe the party line, a similar fate will be theirs.
Even Mario Balotelli, long tipped to explode, has kept his head down (on the pitch, at least). Player, team and club are feeling the full benefit – and the rest of the league is looking up at an outfit
 as awe-inspiring yet daunting as the madcap garb Balotelli is likely to don come Halloween...

"Playing without fear", "a breath of fresh air", "Stephen Fry supports them, dontchaknow?"...
Yes, yes, yes – everybody loves Norwich at the moment, just like everybody loved Blackpool in the first half of last season, and Hull in the first half of 2008/09. While Paul Lambert is certain not to develop into as big an attention-seeking irritant as Phil Brown or Ian Holloway, his team are likely to face a similar sticky period to those suffered by the Tigers and Tangerines in their debut Premier League seasons; how they deal with it will be decisive in deciding whether they will suffer their third successive Premier League relegation.
But the signs so far are hugely positive. Unlike Hull and Blackpool, Norwich’s early success hasn’t been built entirely on catching out inattentive rivals with aesthetically pleasing football. Lambert’s side know when it’s time to dig deep and show a little pragmatism, which is exactly what they did at Anfield on Saturday evening.
Having weathered something of a Liverpool storm with only one goal conceded, the Canaries battled back through the power and commitment of Grant Holt, who thumped a header past Pepe Reina to level the scores. Keeper John Ruddy, meanwhile, was superb throughout, though it was his full-stretch 95th minute save from Luis Suarez that made headlines, denying the Uruguayan a certain winner and securing the point for the Norfolk side.

Yoann Cabaye
The midfielder took his tag of Newcastle talisman to the next level by scoring the winning goal in a match his side largely stuttered through and largely looked far from certain to win. The Frenchman’s first Premier League goal was certainly a timely one, and the three points keep Toon’s unlikely push for a Champions League spot rumbling on, for the time being at least. If Alan Pardew’s side are to continue their impressive form, they will need Cabaye to keep performing to the same level for months to come.

Robin van Persie
Arsenal were only able to avoid another Monday-morning inquest by throwing on their half-fit skipper against a Stoke side who have often frustrated the Gunners in recent years. While Arsene Wenger may be concerned his side needed the Dutchman’s intervention to see off a side seemingly suffering from another post-Europe hangover, he should be glad to have the striker at his disposal, as without him the Gunners look a rather average side.

Rafael van der Vaart
Van Persie wasn’t the only Netherlands international to score twice on Sunday, with compatriot Van der Vaart netting both Spurs’ goals in a 2-1 victory at Ewood Park. So it was double double Dutch. Or quadruple Dutch. Or something.


Manchester United’s defence

Roberto Mancini’s side were of course superb, but the margin of victory wasn’t entirely down to their own attacking verve. Was it, Jonny Evans?
It would be harsh to lay full blame for their pummelling at the hands of City at the Ulsterman’s door, but there’s no denying the tide of the match turned on the moment of madness that saw the United defender red-carded for hauling down Mario Balotelli in what can only be described as brainless fashion.

From that point onwards, United’s defence – already missing Nemanja Vidic – was all at sea. Their haphazardness was perhaps best summed up by City’s fourth.
Rio Ferdinand gave away a needless corner, then failed to track Edin Dzeko when Joleon Lescott knocked the ball back across goal, leaving the Bosnian with a simple tap-in. That was the first of four minutes of added time; City created four more clear chances in the time remaining, two of which resulted in further goals.

The most worrying thing for United fans will be the way heads dropped once all hope looked lost rather than battling to the bitter end – they won’t have seen that too often over the last 20 years.

Phil Dowd & Darren Cann

There’s no getting round it, the dismissal of Aston Villa’s Chris Herd was as inexplicable a refereeing decision as has been made in the Premier League all season – and that's no mean feat. The official line is that Herd stamped on West Brom’s Jonas Olsson, though replays appeared to show little if any malice, and even less contact.

Alan Hutton

But Villa shouldn’t complain too strongly about Herd’s red, as defensive cohort Hutton should really have been forced into a premature appointment with his rubber duckie and a bottle of Matey. The Scot unleashed a ‘full-blooded’ tackle – a cute little euphemism for a reckless attack that could have resulted in a serious injury – on West Brom’s Shane Long, before having another nibble at the same player a few moments later.

Bobby Zamora

The England striker’s 89th-minute miss at 1-1 cost Fulham the chance to pocket three points from a match they would ultimately lose. Zamora kept his composure in brushing the ball past Tim Howard, then suffered from a rush of blood to the head with the empty net gaping, bending the ball past the far post. Seventy seconds later, Louis Saha had put Everton back in front.
Given he’s something of a confidence player, it will be intriguing to see how Zamora reacts to his glaring miss.

Asmir Begovic
With the Candian-come-Bosnian making an impressively solid start to the season between the sticks for Stoke, it was something of a surprise to see him beaten by two shots most top flight keepers would expect to gather. Yet both of Robin van Persie’s second-half strikes were relatively tame, and neither was placed out of the keeper’s reach.

Wolves boo-boys

While they could be forgiven for going into Saturday’s clash with Swansea under an ugly cloud of apprehension given their side had just lost five league games on the bounce, the tetchy, impatient and aggressive atmosphere created by a number of Wolves fans during the match was hardly conducive to inspiring a turnaround in fortunes.

Even before Danny Graham’s 23rd-minute opener, the locals were getting on their team’s collective back, pouncing on every misplaced pass and perceived lack of urgency. In reality, Mick McCarthy’s side were merely feeling their way into the game. Quickfire goals from Graham and Joe Allen saw the Welsh outfit surge into a 2-0 lead, and caused the atmosphere outside the away end to turn viciously sour.
The moaning and groaning of the first half was followed largely by silence in the second. Even after Kevin Doyle narrowed the deficit with six minutes remaining, it was the travelling fans that were most audible.
All the more galling, then, to hear the Molineux faithful bate the Swans fans following Jamie O’Hara’s unlikely equaliser. “You’re not singing any more” crowed large numbers of the home support, without a hint of irony. Sigh.