Heroes & Villains: Loyalty, levellers, lunacy and livestock

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Roberto Martinez
Loyalty in football is a rare thing, so it’s heartening to see it pay off so comprehensively in Roberto Martinez’s case. It’s impossible to give former Swansea boss enough credit for what he has accomplished at the DW Stadium this season. On Monday night his side clinched safety with a game to spare and leapfrogged Alec McLeish's Aston Villa, which vindicates the Spaniard’s decision to turn down the manager’s job there. What the Villa faithful wouldn’t give to see Martinez instead of McLeish in the dugout.

Wigan have subverted all of the clichés of what it takes to survive in the Premier League, as it is their expansive, inventive football that has catapulted them out of harm’s way this time around. Their wins over Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have earned the headlines, but there was something equally impressive about the manner of their performance at Ewood Park.
There was a relaxed patience about their businesslike approach, an enjoyment about their football that was all the more obvious when contrasted against the grim ashen faces in the home end.

Wigan may not have started the season well but they've finished with 18 points in eight games, a total unmatched by anyone except fifth-placed Newcastle. Next time a queue forms for Martinez’s signature, Villa will find themselves far down the pecking order.

Yaya Toure
The introduction of Nigel de Jong in place of Samir Nasri on the hour may well be heralded as the most significant substitution of the Premier League season. The Dutch bull terrier was neat and tidy enough in breaking up Newcastle’s attacks but it was the effect the switch had further up the field that settled matters at the erstwhile St James’ Park.

City’s lack of a Plan B if their little fleet-footed forwards failed to puncture defences was responsible for their springtime slump, but in pushing Yaya Toure up behind Sergio Aguero, they have a one-man alternative that the Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle have been unable to resist. 

The former Barcelona midfielder is City’s big man for the big occasions: he’s now scored in three of City’s biggest matches in recent history – the FA Cup semi-final against United, the final against Stoke and in this almost-but-not-quite title decider. Surely now the only team that can stop City are City themselves, which is a staggering turnaround after that miserable Sunday afternoon at the Emirates Stadium.

If they do finish the job, it’s the team’s spine that has sealed their title. In Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, they have six players that have delivered eight-out-of-20 performances all season long. Three more home points, or the final act in the “typical City” tragicomedy? Next Sunday will decide.

The pitch invasion at the climax of QPR’s last-gasp win against Stoke might have been premature but you could forgive the Rs fans their overexcitement after the stars aligned for them at Loftus Road and the Reebok Stadium.

Djibril Cisse’s late winner and James Morrison’s late equaliser against fellow strugglers Bolton have ensured that victory against the champions-elect isn’t as mandatory as it had seemed for long periods of this match. Now two points clear of the relegation zone, Mark Hughes's side know if Bolton don't win at Stoke, all three newly-promoted sides will have escaped the drop for the first time since 2002, when the three survivors were Fulham, Blackburn… and Bolton.

Roy Hodgson
Baggies supporters wore England shirts in honourt of the national team’s new manager, and the good-natured atmosphere in the Reebok's away end radiated onto the pitch as West Brom fought back from two down to snatch a point.

The level of desire shown by West Brom was heartwarming for Bolton’s relegation rivals, not to mention England fans: Hodgson's men had little to play for compared to their opponents, but never gave up and in the end outplayed their hosts. James Morrison netted on his return from injury to level matters in the dying seconds after Chris Brunt had rifled home with 15 minutes to go.


Owen Coyle
At 2-0 at the Reebok Stadium and 0-0 at Loftus Road, things were looking rosy for Owen Coyle’s men. Then came two questionable substitutions (replacing the relentless David Ngog with the paceless Ivan Klasnic and the game's key creator Martin Petrov with the barely fit Chung-Yong Lee), two lapses in concentration, two points dropped – and 200 miles away, QWPR’s last-gasp winner – have left Bolton staring into the abyss. A trip to the Britannia Stadium might have been overhyped as the ultimate gauntlet but it’s still a pig of a fixture for a team needing all three points to have a hope of survival.

Bolton’s woes have been one of the biggest surprises in a season littered with shocks. Optimism was in ready supply going into the new campaign in August thanks to Coyle's progressive, aesthetically-pleasing football but a combination of costly injuries, poor signings and disastrous defending have caused Coyle’s stock as one of the brightest young British managers in football to collapse.

Perhaps the Scot can take some solace in the fact that QPR are travelling to a team with 17 home wins this season aiming to wrap up the title – and that their own away record is relatively decent: no team in the bottom half has won more away games than Bolton, who have won at every team below Stoke in the league. He's certainly upbeat, as he usually is.

"We knew we were going to have to go to Stoke anyway and earn a result so maybe it's a good thing that a draw won't be enough,” said Coyle. "We have to earn the right to get in front and make sure we don't give up soft goals. If we do that I'm convinced we can win a very tough game."

Steve Kean
All the talk from Ewood Park this season has centred around the notion of the players believing in their beleaguered manager. Are the players playing for the shirt? Is Steve Kean the right men to lead them? Are Venky’s running the club into the ground?

Who cares? They’re just not very good. Save for one or two decent results at the turn of the year, it’s never looked like Steve Kean was going to prevent Blackburn ending their 11-year top-flight stay.

The only moment of relief for Blackburn came in comic form, when a chicken in a Rovers flag was unleashed onto the Ewood Park pitch. The bird showed all the neat footwork and invention lacking in Blackburn's players, easily evading Yakubu before Ali Al-Habsi finally brought the pitch invader into custody, presumably to be sent to a factory in India.

The removal of Sam Allardyce remains one of the more bizarre and masochistic boardroom decisions in recent Premier League history, especially when his replacement was unproven and lacking the charisma required to change dubious minds.

The Blackburn fans' default chants this season have been “Kean Out” and "Venkys Out", but with the manager insisting he'll stick around and the owners unlikely to find a buyer for their damaged goods, it’ll be interesting to see if the baying hordes’ thirst for blood is sated ahead of a season where this particular club currently deserves to be: the Championship.

Mario Balotelli
Still yet to return to the pitch after his impression of a walking red card at the Emirates Stadium, Mario Balotelli has had plenty of time to sit on the naughty step after being left out of the squad altogether at Newcastle. With John Guidetti returning to the Etihad Stadium after a hugely impressive loan spell at Feyenoord, the odds are shortening on Super Mario kicking off 2012/13 elsewhere.

Sir Alex Ferguson
Perhaps it’s disrespectful to Swansea to criticise United for failing to win by the kind of margin that would have put them back in control of the title race. If all hope is lost for United, it’s surely the away defeat to Wigan and their most un-United-like failure to see out their 4-2 advantage at home to Everton that have done for them.

There was a flatness at Old Trafford for their final home match of the season that barely lifted even after Ashley Young put them 2-0 up with a special finish. Sir Alex’s attempts to summon up the club’s famous never-say-die spirit after the team completed a lap of honour to a half-empty stadium sounded like a public clutching of straws.

However, this is Manchester United, and it’ll take someone braver than this correspondent to write them off completely, even if this looks like a bottling job that few thought a Sir Alex Ferguson team capable of.

North London
Does anybody actually want these Champions League places? First Arsenal pass up the chance to all but guarantee their berth, by allowing Norwich a third goal through Steve Morison’s late leveller. Then 10-man Tottenham failed to overcome lowly Aston Villa, ensuring the fight will go to the final day. Both clubs have had far more opportunities to wrap up qualification than they would have had in previous years, but time after time the North London sides have stuttered at the crucial moment.

It could continue. Arsenal face Roy Hodgson’s farewell party at the Hawthorns and Spurs have a dangerous-looking encounter with in-form Fulham; both teams will be looking anxiously over their shoulders at the much more in-form Chelsea and Newcastle.
Perhaps if the more brainless factions of both team’s support would stop the tedious “mind the gap” sentiments and concentrate on more than simply getting one over on each other, they could hope to go on and challenge the Manchester order as both have threatened to do at times this season.