Heroes & Villains: Forrin rascals, rubble and the rustle of paper

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The weekend's goodies and baddies, as assessed by James Maw

RESULTS Sat 4 Dec Arsenal 2-1 Fulham, Birmingham City 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers 3-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea 1-1 Everton, Manchester City 1-0 Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic 2-2 Stoke City, Blackpool P-P Manchester United Sun 5 Dec West Bromwich Albion 3-1 Newcastle United, Sunderland 1-0 West Ham United


Samir Nasri
“Arsenal are a one-man team," they said. “They can’t do anything without Fabregas,” they said. Piffle, bunkum and claptrap. If this season has proven anything about Arsenal – besides the obvious that they need to improve at the back and between the sticks – it's that in Samir Nasri, they have a creative spark more than capable of filling the void left by their Spanish captain. Having inspired the Gunners to an impressive 4-2 win at Aston Villa last weekend, Nasri was again the difference as Arsene Wenger's side scrapped to a narrow win over Fulham.

While the more eagle-eyed football aficionados among you may have noticed that Aston Villa and Fulham aren't quite among Europe’s elite, these are the kind of matches in which the Gunners have dropped points in recent seasons, and indeed months. The mental boost this result will give Arsenal after their recent traumas, particularly against Tottenham, will be emphasised by it sending them top of the Premier League.

Nasri opened the scoring against the Cottagers with a delightful double feint, leaving Brede Hangeland and then Aaron Hughes on their backsides and enabling the 23-year-old to blast past Mark Schwarzer.

And if the Frenchman’s first was a flash of brilliance, his second was an explosion of magnificence – assuming you agree the latter sounds more impressive… Nasri glided onto the end of a Robin van Persie pass, before dancing his way through three Fulham defenders like a very handsome young man in a bar packed with ugly, ugly women before making up for his own heavy touch – improvising by pirouetting and clipping the ball in from a tight angle.

DRAW SPECIALIST Nasri's goal and more weekend action

Leighton Baines
After a superb performance at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Baines was described by David Moyes as the second-best English left-back. That seems like damning him with faint praise. On his day, Baines is one of the best attacking full-backs in the Premier League – and while he’s a level of consistency and a fair few notches of defensive know-how away from Ashley Cole, he certainly has the talent to be involved with the national team on a more regular basis – homesickness notwithstanding.

The highlight of his weekend performance was a dazzling run down the left which ended in a superb hanging cross deep into the Chelsea box for Tim Cahill, the Australian nodding back across goal to tee up Jermaine Beckford for a simple header past Petr Cech.

Jermaine Beckford
A simple header though it may have been, it was still there to be missed – which is something Beckford has done quite a lot of in recent weeks. But this is the Heroes section, and the former Leeds hit-man should be praised for his persistence: despite being largely profligate in-front of goal he has continually put himself in goalscoring positions when players of a weaker mentality may well have hidden.

See, it’s not as funny when we try and be sincere, is it?

Lee Cattermolei

Keeping in the super-jolly festive spirit of praising those we’ve previously mocked relentlessly with little regard for their feelings, a moment please for Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole. The Teesside tyke was back to his vigorous best, dominating the midfield and largely keeping in-form media darling Scott Parker at bay.

Yes, it was 'only' against a woeful West Ham, and yes, he still managed to get himself booked as early as the seventh minute, but his assertive and disciplined display reminded us why the fiery midfielder was bought and sold for almost £10 million before his 22nd birthday.

Paul Robinson
Blackburn’s 3-0 scoreline against Wolves on Saturday may at first glance appear massively comfortable, but that was largely down to Robinson once again being at his best to keep Wolves from the door (wahey!).

Unsurprisingly, this latest in a string of good performances (Old Trafford last weekend aside…) saw pundits clambering over one other to be the first clever dick to announce Robinson should return to the international fold if that ‘orrible forrin rascal Fabio Capello knows what’s good for him, completely oblivious to the fact he was probably playing equally as well for large swathes of last season when nobody gave two tooty hoots.


Phil Neville
While the purpose of this blog is as much to pick holes as to praise, it would be unfair to lament a player for merely under-hitting a pass back to his goalkeeper with an opposition forward lurking in the vast patch of grass between. After all, every day’s a school day and players can only really learn from making mist… hang on *rustling of paper* It was 33-year-old Phil Neville? Phil Neville who has played over 400 Premier League matches, has won six titles, three FA Cups, one European Cup, and has 59 England caps?

Well, stuff him then – he should know better. Villain. VILLAAAAAAAAIN!

Avram Grant
Far be it from us to suggest the West Ham manager should be fearing a phone call from "upstairs", but with his side once again lacking any kind of attacking impetus or spirit in a generally feeble, if narrow, defeat at Sunderland, perhaps he should start looking over his shoulder (So his phone's behind him, then? – Ed).

The Hammers may have ‘saved their season’ (sic) with a win over Wigan last Saturday, and followed it with an impressive League Cup win of Manchester United in midweek, but they quickly reverted to type at the Stadium of Light.

It’s easy to motivate your team for a cup quarter-final against Manchester United; the trick is to get your side hungry enough to battle for points in these kind of away games – and West Ham had nowhere near enough battle on Sunday.

If Grant’s managerial masterplan at Portsmouth last season is anything to go by, we can expect the Irons to further ease off the gas in the league over the next six or seven weeks, with the League Cup semi-finals in January taking priority over actually staying in the ruddy top flight.

And then there’s Carlton Cole...

So yeah, happy Christmas, Hammers fans.

Wigan’s defensive wall

What’s the point in setting up a wall to defend a free-kick if they’re going to dissipate the second the ball is kicked, crumbling like FIFA’s credibility as the ball deflects off the rubble, past the wrong-footed goalkeeper and into the net?

The ‘rubble’ in this instance was French midfielder Mohamed Diamé, who ended up as the man on the end of a three-man Latics wall after two Stoke players, not unreasonably, shifted from their position just to his left to allow the ball to pass. Diamé criminally turned his back and the ball nicked off his ankle before finding the net.

Hendry Thomas

Regular readers of Heroes and Villains will know we like nothing more than kicking a sitter-missing man when he’s down, head-in-hands, being shouted at by his teammates. Step forward Wigan’s Hendry Thomas, who, despite having a name like a 19th-century President of the United States, lacked the authority to find the net from four yards with the goalkeeper all but stranded at the near post.

Alan Hutton
Tottenham’s Alan Hutton shares very little in common with the great Zinedine Zidane. Sure, they both went bald at a ludicrously young age and have both enjoyed some spectacular nights out in Glasgow – albeit probably of a differing nature, but that’s about it.

Or at least it was until the ‘competitive’ Scottish full-back unleashed a truly Zidanesque head-butt on Birmingham’s David Murphy as the clock ticked down on Saturday’s draw at St Andrews. It would seem fairly certain that the former Rangers man will face sanctions from upon high, and with Vedran Corluka waiting in the wings, it’s by no means certain he’ll waltz back into the side following any potential suspension. Well done you, Alan.

Sol Campbell
We don't generally agree with irksome self-centered man-child Robbie Savage, but it’s probably safe to say that Sol Campbell has probably had 499 better Premier League appearances than Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at West Brom, which brought up his top-flight half-grand. The Newcastle defender was utterly obliterated by Peter Odemwingie as Toon slumped to their fifth straight winless match.

Frankly, Campbell looked League One level at best, and while that’s a marked improvement on his ‘form’ during his brief stint at Notts County, it probably won’t be enough for Chris Hughton. The big centre-back has been written off before and bounced back – but he looked so spectacularly out of sorts this time round that it's even harder to see him recovering.

More Premier review: The Draw Specialist