Heroes & Villains: Calamity, consistency, Campbell and Carroll
The (elongated) EPL weekend's goodies and baddies, evaluated by James Maw
RESULTS Sat 11 Dec Aston Villa 2-1 West Bromwich Albion, Everton 0-0 Wigan Athletic, Fulham 0-0 Sunderland, Stoke City 0-1 Blackpool, West Ham United 1-3 Manchester City, Newcastle United 3-1 Liverpool Sun 12 Dec Bolton Wanderers 2-1 Blackburn Rovers, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 Birmingham City, Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Chelsea Mon 13 Dec Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic
With Wayne Rooney yet to start firing and Dimitar Berbatov running hot and cold like your bathroom tap when the boiler is knackered (mental note: ring landlord about broken boiler), itÃ¢ÂÂs all the more important that Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs daring defensive duo a) actually manage to string a few games together without losing body parts, and b) recapture the old magic of 2006-2009 and make UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs backline largely impenetrable.
Fortunately for Sir Alex Ferguson & Co. that's slowly and surely what has happened, with the pair both starting all of UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs last 10 Premier League matches, during which time the Red Devils have conceded eight goals Ã¢ÂÂ comparing favourably to the nine in seven conceded before their reunion at Stoke just under two months ago.
In this period the Old Trafford side have gone from Ã¢ÂÂcrisis clubÃ¢ÂÂ to league leaders by two clear points with a game in hand Ã¢ÂÂ although that rise has coincided with ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs own calamitous spell.
On Monday evening, Ferdinand and Vidic kept the intricate attacking force of Arsenal at arms' length for the majority of the match, once again reaffirming the notion that they are the Premier LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs best defensive pairing. Consistency is now the key, and the next test is perhaps the biggest of all at Stamford Bridge; another solid performance could see United take a massive step towards the title before Santa has even popped down the chimney.
Maturity and cool-headedness. Not characteristics one would traditionally associate with Joey Barton, but those were the attributes the Newcastle midfielder generally displayed during a match in which it would have been easy for he and his team-mates to shirk their responsibilities and hide behind Ã¢ÂÂthe occasionÃ¢ÂÂ.
Barton capped a superb performance by reacting quickest to Andy CarrollÃ¢ÂÂs ball into the penalty area, maintaining his composure and firing past Pepe Reina to put Newcastle back in front as the game approached its climax.
The only black mark came when he appeared to make an unsavoury gesture towards Fernando Torres, although that was in the face of quite severe provocation from the Spaniard and Lucas Leiva, who for some reason appeared hell-bent on blaming Barton for David NÃ¢ÂÂGog being elbowed by his own teammateÃ¢ÂÂ¦
ItÃ¢ÂÂs important to highlight the brilliance of Manchester CityÃ¢ÂÂs performance at Upton Park, which was to some extent overshadowed by the petulance of Mario Balotelli and the apparent discontent of Carlos Tevez, and Toure the younger was head and shoulders above everybody else on the park Ã¢ÂÂ and was also Man of the Match (just a little height joke for you there Ã¢ÂÂ Happy Christmas).
Toure set City on their way to a fifth away win of the league campaign with a perfectly struck shot from the edge of the penalty area, having been teed up by David Silva. He also forced the second goal, barging his way through the West Ham box from a tight angle and blasting the ball into the net via the back of poor old Robert GreenÃ¢ÂÂs head.
But the goals were only the start of his input. There was also a lot of what we had been expecting from him when he arrived from Barcelona in the summer Ã¢ÂÂ strong, athletic, simple and direct midfield play, while some of his team-mates appear to be more interested in having public tantrums, Toure is a key cog in a steadily improving City machine. And with the Ivorian able to find the net with such new-found ease, do Manchester City even need Carlos Tevez? Yes. Yes, they do.
Sure, he may have missed a penalty and sure, he may have handled before the goal he actually did score, but there can be no doubting that the introduction of Didier Drogba at the interval of ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs derby clash at Tottenham was the game-changing moment. The Ivorian looked some way towards being back to his best, imposing himself of TottenhamÃ¢ÂÂs defenders and regularly dropping deep to get his hands dirty in the midfield melee, albeit to mixed success.
The aforementioned rejuvenation of Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs first-choice central defenders will require Drogba to up his recovery another notch next Sunday if the champions are to gain a vital win.
A member of the Twitterati on Saturday night questioned whether the Aston Villa youngster was already the best crosser in the Premier League. At first this may seem a bit spurious, but on current form, itÃ¢ÂÂs actually hard to argue there are too many, if any, players in the Sky-league getting quality deliveries into the box from wide areas on as consistent a basis.
The winger was at it again on Saturday, whipping a dangerous cross into the West Brom area that was knocked in at the back post by Stewart Downing after a near-post flick from Ashley Young. ItÃ¢ÂÂs hard to imagine he wonÃ¢ÂÂt be involved in Fabio CapelloÃ¢ÂÂs next England squad for the friendly against Denmark in February, fitness permitting.
CampbellÃ¢ÂÂs goal sealed an amazing fourth away win in 10 road-trips for Blackpool Ã¢ÂÂ encouragingly for the Tangerines, five teams who avoided the drop last season won away on fewer occasions.
Also, a word for what is rapidly becoming one of the most divine minimalist-moustaches in world football. Proof, if it were needed, that size doesnÃ¢ÂÂt count for everything.
As has quite often proven to be the case over the course of this season, the label Ã¢ÂÂvillainsÃ¢ÂÂ is a trifle harsh here, but there were certainly very few Ã¢ÂÂheroesÃ¢ÂÂ on display in the GunnersÃ¢ÂÂ side at Old Trafford last night, bar perhaps Ã¢ÂÂrookie stopperÃ¢ÂÂ Wojciech Szczesny.
On a night when Arsene WengerÃ¢ÂÂs side were supposed to prove their worth in the title race, the North Londoners failed to ever really impose themselves on the match, failing to create clear cut chances and often struggling to even retain possession Ã¢ÂÂ two criticisms that havenÃ¢ÂÂt often been aimed at the Emirates Stadium side this season.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs not often youÃ¢ÂÂll see a goalkeeper who has saved a penalty to help win his team a point against the champions among our Ã¢ÂÂbaddies', but there is probably no player in the Premier League quite as adept at flip-flopping between heroism and villainy as TottenhamÃ¢ÂÂs Brazilian shot-sometimes-stopper.
Speaking after a match in which he failed to deal with a shot hit straight at him, albeit it very powerfully, and conceded an injury-time penalty, the former PSV keeper proclaimed that Spurs conceded too many goals to keep up with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, which is sort of like Ronald McDonald complaining that kids these days are too fat.
His childish, foot-stomping reaction to not getting his way with either referee or manager may have been slightly overplayed by some sections of the media, but still doesnÃ¢ÂÂt do much to quell suggestions the Italian is a bit of an enfant terrible.
Over the past three years, mocking Lucas has been as fashionable as zoot suits were whenever zoot suits were fashionable. However, the upturn in his performance levels over the past 12 months has been markedly steep Ã¢ÂÂ which really served to highlight the inadequacy of his performance at St JamesÃ¢ÂÂ Park.
On a night when tensions were high and feathers rufflable, LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs defensive midfielder failed to get into the faces of his opponents, bar the one occasion when he really shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt have.
With David NÃ¢ÂÂGog caught by team-mate Sotirios Kyrgiakos and, unbeknownst to Barton, left bleeding on the floor, play continued until Lucas saw fit to front up to the ever-popular Barton, presumably assuming the former Man City man mustÃ¢ÂÂve done something wrong "because he always does" Ã¢ÂÂ but not this time.
Fortunately (for everybody bar Liverpool), Lucas reverted to type in backing off and backing off again as Andy Carroll shaped up to stroke home NewcastleÃ¢ÂÂs third from 25 yards. Not the best dayÃ¢ÂÂs work, all things told...
When youÃ¢ÂÂre getting tied in knots in the penalty area by the generally rather agricultural Fabrice Muamba, you know youÃ¢ÂÂve got problems...