Archive for the ‘Football: Premier League’ Category
When you get to watch a lot of football over a long period of time, you do learn something, even if it’s only what you like. Watching Wigan at Carrow Road on Sunday was a really enjoyable experience.Norwich City 1 Wigan Athletic 1: Victor Moses saves a point for wasteful Wigan Athletic at Norwich City
Richard Rae at Carrow Road
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 11 March 2012 18.10 GMT
This was a match Wigan Athletic probably had to win, and it is a match they unquestionably should have won. That they did not do so, despite dominating for long periods, is likely to prove terminal to their chances of remaining in the Premier League, because included among their next six opponents are Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
At the same time their performance summed up why Roberto Martínez’s side appear destined for the Championship. Taking only one of at least six outstanding chances represented profligacy of an almost unforgivable order, though having publicly questioned his manager’s selection policy following the poor performance in defeat against Swansea City last week the Wigan owner, Dave Whelan, is likely to be more sympathetically disposed at this week’s meeting.
“It’s been a difficult week, we’ve been a little bit out there in the media, but in the Premier League every week is difficult,” Martínez said. “We were disappointed that we lost the game at home but we had been travelling all over the world and the players were put in a position where they couldn’t compete.”
To go on and describe the pugnacious Whelan as “a joy”, as Martínez did, may have been over-egging it a little, but there is little doubt the relationship between them remains strong, and is likely to remain so even if the Latics do go down, not least because if they play like this in the Championship they will surely come straight back up.
The manner in which they fell behind in itself spoke volumes. Instead of hoofing a backpass back upfield, the Wigan goalkeeper, Ali al-Habsi, was trying to pick out one of his players when he side-footed the ball into touch. Norwich then simply reacted more urgently than their opponents, Simeon Jackson running on to Adam Drury’s quickly taken throw-in and crossing for Wes Hoolahan, having got in front of his marker Gary Caldwell, to somehow steer the ball over the desperately reaching Habsi.
Wigan’s reaction was impressive, and as always under Martínez, measured. At times their passing had Norwich chasing shadows and they created enough shooting opportunities to have drawn level well before the break. Jean Beausejour shot straight at John Ruddy, as did Hugo Rodallega soon afterwards, and Emmerson Boyce saw a cross deflected on to the Norwich bar. Rodallega’s miss two minutes before the break was a bad one. Ruddy could not hold Jordi Gómez’s shot but although Rodallega was first to the rebound, the Colombian spooned his attempt to turn the ball past the men on the line high over the bar.
The visitors continued to pile on the pressure in the second half and, with just over 20 minutes remaining, it told. The man who made the difference was a substitute, Shaun Maloney, whose threaded ball between the Norwich centre-halves put Victor Moses clear. The former Crystal Palace winger dribbled around Ruddy and turned the ball into the empty net.
Both sides then had great chances to win the game, Wigan twice through Mohamed Diamé, Norwich twice through Steve Morison. Diamé missed the target both times, once from no more than six yards, while Morison at least forced Habsi to make one outstanding save.
“It was always going to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest game, because of the expectancy,” said the relieved Norwich manager, Paul Lambert, whose starting XI included nine of the players who started the Championship game against Portsmouth last season which secured them promotion.
“I’ve always thought that if you can’t win a game, don’t lose it. We showed great resilience and we had to, but it’s another point towards safety. I don’t think you can switch off. The league is too big, too demanding. Until someone shows you are mathematically safe you keep going.”
That sought-after status may already have been secured. Most managers seem to think that 36 points will be enough this season, and Norwich, in 12th, have already amassed that total. Wigan, on 21 points, remain at the foot of the table.
“The belief is always there that we can stay up,” Martínez said. “From the outside the first team to go down is always Wigan Athletic but that’s never affected us, you learn to live with that.
“We are bottom of the league but we don’t play like a team at the bottom of the league. That makes me very proud and there are 30 points still to play for. We are ready for the rest of the season.”
Man of the match James McCarthy (Wigan Athletic)
It was a genuine shock to see what Aston Villa, customarily a top eight club, have been reduced to. Or to be exact, what their manager Alex McLeish has reduced them to. Surely, surely, you have to trust your creative players enough to have a bit of a go. After all, if he’s sacked he’ll have a great severance deal — I well remember him telling us it was the first thing in any contract he sorted out.
And another poor headline, given the piece is all about Villa.
Wigan 0 Aston Villa 0: Wigan peer into the abyss
Richard Rae at The DW Stadium
The Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, signed off his programme notes with the Spanish phrase Sin Miedo, meaning he intends his side to play without fear. It is a concept that seems alien to Aston Villa’s manager, Alex McLeish.
To the increasingly noisy frustration of the Villa supporters, the Scot’s caution in the way he sets up his team is reducing once creative players to frustrated, gesticulating ciphers of their former selves, their instincts stifled. “We want our Villa back,” chanted the away fans after 70 sterile minutes, once McLeish, with Charles N’Zogbia and Stephen Ireland also on the bench, turned first to Emile Heskey.
To make matters worse, shortly afterwards McLeish lost Darren Bent to an ankle ligament injury. McLeish expressed fears he could be out for a lengthy spell. The striker is almost certain to miss England’s game against Holland on Wednesday.
That Villa left the DW stadium with a point, however, against a side who have won once at home all season, was justification enough for McLeish. “Our concentration was good today, I don’t think Wigan really penetrated, and we had the best chances,” he said. “The fans expect Aston Villa to come to Wigan and win.”
Wigan played neat, thoughtful football but made relatively few chances and still remain in with a chance of avoiding relegation. They dominated possession but it was Villa who went closest to scoring, first when Keane’s shot was turned around the post by Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, and then when the Irishman put Bent clear on goal.
Again Al Habsi came to Wigan’s rescue, blocking the shot with his knees, and he was once more in the right place to save when Carlos Cuellar had a free header on the six-yard line. Wigan’s best chances came in the second period, Franco di Santo forcing a good diving save from Shay Given, and then Mohamed Diame setting up Hugo Rodallega to shoot over the bar.
“The performance was something to be extremely pleased about,” said Martinez. “We tested them enough to get three points but we needed a little lucky bounce.
“But to be able to play against a team like Aston Villa and be as dominant as we were suggests a big scoreline for us is just around the corner.”
Wigan Athletic: Al Habsi 8, Alcarez 7, Caldwell 7, Boyce 6, Figueroa 7, McCarthy 7 (Diame 78min), McArthur 7, Beausejour 7, Di Santo 7, Moses 7 (Crusat 89min), Gomez 6 (Rodallega 65min)
Aston Villa: Given 7, Hutton 6, Collins 7, Cuellar 7, Warnock 6, Albrighton 5 (Heskey 70min), Gardner 6 (Ireland 74min), Bannan 5, Agbonlahor 5, Keane 7, Bent 5 (N’Zogbia 78min)
Originally published in The Sunday Times
Norwich’s £400k striker is proving he can hold his own with the multimillion pound men
Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they are irresistible, and 12.45pm at Carrow Road today is surely one of those times. On one side will be Fernando Torres, the former Atletico Madrid and Liverpool striker for whom Chelsea paid £50m, who has scored two Premier League goals in 16 appearances this season. On the other will be Grant Holt, the former Barrow and Shrewsbury forward for whom Norwich paid £400,000, who has scored seven in 20.
Unfair? To Holt and to his team-mates, definitely. The Cumbrian’s return for the Canaries is impressive, but if there is one thing the Premier League considers it has learned about Norwich this season it is that the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Less readily acknowledged seems to be the fact that those individual parts are of a considerably higher quality than many people were prepared to admit.
Holt is a pretty good example. Given the quality of the goals he has scored and the assists he has provided this season, one of these days people might stop referring to him as “old-fashioned”. Not many who were at The Hawthorns last Saturday to see him sprint down the left wing before curling in a perfect cross for Steve Morison to head home City’s second-half winner against West Bromwich Albion would continue to place him in that category.
“Well, I’m certainly old, but I know what you’re getting at,” the 30-year-old smiles, a little wryly. “A lot of people have put me in a bracket where they think all you get from me is, ‘Stick it up in the air and Grant Holt will knock it about.’ I think people are slowly starting to realise I’m much more than that really. Those who saw my turn of pace down that left wing last week… it took a few people by surprise.”
As he quickly points out, however, hoping he has been value for money is not the same as saying he has been better value for money than Torres.
“You’re only worth what someone wants to pay for you, so if someone wants to pay £50m for him that’s what he’s worth, and someone pays 400 grand for me, that’s what I’m worth. Actually, with the club just having been relegated into League One [in July 2009] I was a big investment, but I’m hoping they think I’ve been good value for that.
“Of course I’m happy I’ve got more goals than him, but I’ve got more goals than a few. I’m not going to get drawn into that [comparing my record with Torres], because if he wants to he can bring his World Cup winner’s medal to the table. I’d have that.”
Of rather more interest to Holt is why and how he and Norwich continue to out-perform expectations this season, so much so that even those pessimists who cite Blackpool’s late collapse last season have begun to go quiet. As their manager, Paul Lambert, said yesterday, Norwich could still undergo a similar slide – but it has to be accepted that the two clubs are very different animals.
For Holt, Lambert is one of the reasons why. Like his players, the Scot has learned with every game, and in terms of tactics and systems has made City into arguably the most flexible side in the division.
“The thing we’ve got at the minute is I don’t think any opposing manager knows what team we’ll be putting out until the team-sheet goes in, and when you do that it’s very difficult for the opposition to work on through the week on the basis we will come with a 4–5-1 or 4–4-2, because they just never know,” said Holt.
“Against Chelsea, we ourselves won’t know who is starting until the morning of the game. From Monday to Friday you train on the basis you’re going to play, so that whichever formation he goes with you’re ready for the challenge. It gives you that belief that if your name is written up there, he knows you are ready for that game, and that’s what he’s going with.”
It helps, says Holt, that Lambert clearly trusts in the ability of every member of the squad.
“A lot of lads travel [to away games], he keeps the squad really tight-knit, that’s the way we’ve done it for the last two years now and it’s worked. But it doesn’t matter whether you play five minutes or 90 with the gaffer, he expects the same level of performance.
“When he tells you something you listen, and if you don’t listen you’re out. He doesn’t need to say anything to me – he knows, and I know, what he expects from me, and when he puts me in the team he knows what he’s going to get, and if I drop from that he’ll be the first to jump up and tell me.”
At the same time, he says, it has helped that Norwich’s players have learned what to expect from each other. “I think that’s what has started to happen over the last six or seven weeks – everyone knows what Anthony Pilkington is going to do, that if Elliott Bennett gets the ball wide he’s going to put it in. I know if I get the ball wide Stevie [Morison] will be at the back stick.”
The likelihood is that whatever formation Lambert decides is likeliest to confuse Andre Villas-Boas, at some stage in the afternoon Holt and Morison will be matched against John Terry and Gary Cahill. “You want to test yourself against the best, and when you look at them two they won’t be far off being England’s two centre-halves this summer,” said Holt. “We played against Cahill at Bolton and ‘Moro’ gave him a good game, and I gave John a good game at Chelsea, It’ll be a good battle.”
Rather better than many people predicted, in fact.
by Richard Rae
That Liverpool would win this game was, given the teams’ respective form going into the match, very much to be expected. Less expected was the comfort with which they would do so. Managers may constantly insist there are no easy games in the Premier League but this was as straightforward a victory as the Reds will enjoy this season.
The only downside, from the point of view of Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, was his side’s failure to take more than two of the many chances they created against a Villa side that looked bereft of confidence, as well as their two England strikers. In the circumstances their failure to test the visitors’ defence was understandable: their manifest defensive frailty was not.
Already missing the suspended Gabby Agbonlahor, Villa manager Alex McLeish could have done without losing his other England international forward, Darren Bent, to a hip problem. In their absence McLeish gave Emile Heskey a start against his former club, playing up front alongside Nathan Delfouneso.
The Liverpool line-up was also changed, Dalglish bringing in Craig Bellamy and Jonjo Shelvey for Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt, a selection that was amply justified after just 11 minutes.
It was already apparent that the extra man in midfield was giving the visitors more options when Stewart Downing, the manner of whose leaving Villa for Liverpool last summer ensured he was booed by the home fans from the start, won a corner on the right. Downing took it and his low, swinging delivery was flicked towards goal by Shelvey. Luis Suarez’s attempt to touch the ball home was blocked by Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan but the rebound was turned in by Bellamy.
It was a poor goal to concede from a defensive point of view — three times in the Villa penalty area, Liverpool players had been first to the ball — but not as poor as Liverpool’s second four minutes later. Again Bellamy was involved, this time taking a corner from the left that Martin Skrtel, whose simple run towards the near post was enough to confuse both Richard Dunne and Alan Hutton, to glance a header neatly beyond Guzan and into the top corner.
The reaction of the home fans was one of resignation as much as anger, but the response on the field was a little more positive. Charles N’Zogbia, drifting into a central position, drove a clean shot a foot over Pepe Reina’s bar before again making the Liverpool goalkeeper scramble with a shot into the side-netting. Delfouneso then met a Marc Albrighton free kick on the six-yard line only to fail to keep his header down, but Villa were up against the team with the best defensive record in the Premier League this season and as half-time approached, Liverpool’s sense of comfort was obvious.
With a relatively inexperienced bench highlighting his club’s lack of playing resources, McLeish made no changes at half-time and almost saw his team go three down within less than a minute of the restart. Bellamy’s firmly driven cross from the left cleared the final defender but the stretching Daniel Agger, arriving in at the far post, could not get his header on target.
Villa’s defending did not improve. First Hutton gave the ball away to Bellamy, and then Dunne, having apparently got to the resulting pass into the penalty area ahead of Suarez, allowed the Uruguyan to steal it back. Suarez then cut easily inside James Collins, but with only Guzan to beat, smashed his shot against the underside of the bar.
Stephen Warnock was the next Villa defender to give the ball away, and again his side was lucky not to be punished, Guzan diving to his right to keep out Glen Johnson’s shot. Suarez, who compared with his teammates had been looking a little out of sorts from the start, produced an outstanding piece of skill to chip Guzan only to see the ball come back off the inside of the post. It was the 17th occasion Liverpool had hit the woodwork this season.
With the game in danger of becoming a procession. Shelvey brought another diving save from Guzan, and Charlie Adam, with Shelvey unmarked to his right, saw a goal-bound shot deflected just wide.
Aware of many tougher battles to come, Liverpool eased off. Villa’s third defeat in four home matches, lifting their visitors to sixth in the league table, had been long since assured.
Aston Villa: Guzan, Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Albrighton, Delph (Weimann 80min), Petrov, N’Zogbia, Heskey (Bannan 56min), Delfouneso
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique, Downing, Adam, Shelvey (Carragher 83min), Henderson, Bellamy (Kuyt 88min), Suarez (Carroll 73min)
Originally published in The Sunday Times on Sunday 18 December 2011.
by Richard Rae
When three of a club’s former players start for the opposition, the odds against what Italians refer to as ‘the immutable law of the ex’ coming into effect are long indeed, and sure enough, two goals from Matthew Etherington, the first created by Peter Crouch, duly brought Spurs’ winning run to an end.
Not, however, before Stoke survived a period of pressure made all the more remarkable by what had gone before. For an hour, the Potters had produced a performance which appeared to have put talk about Spurs being serious contenders for the Premier League title firmly into context. That the visitors responded, and in the end were desperately unlucky not to take a point from the game after being the victim of several clearly incorrect refereeing decisions, suggested that talk may not be quite so far-fetched after all.
“The decisions were incredible,” shrugged Spurs manager Harry Redknapp. “We didn’t play well in the first half and they deserved to be in front, but we changed completely in the second half, we really got after them and really deserved something from the game. I never complain about referees, but it was disappointing today.”
Etherington very nearly worked the oracle within a few seconds of the start, with a crisp, low volley which Spurs goalkeeper Brad Friedel had to be at his best to save. That Spurs were rattled was evident when full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto lost possession to Jon Walters only a few feet outside his penalty area: he was fortunate that the Stoke forward pulled his shot across the face of the goal. The pressure continued as Ryan Shotton’s long throw was then glanced on by Crouch for Walters to head just over.
With Jonathan Woodgate’s lack of pace at right-back, Spurs’ game plan must have involved getting Gareth Bale on the ball as much as possible, but it was ten minutes before the Welsh flyer finally got a run down the left. When he did so he left Woodgate trailing, but Robert Huth cleared the cross.
Otherwise Stoke’s dominance was remarkable, and it paid off on 13 minutes. Shotton’s deflected cross was nodded on by Walters, and though Crouch’s initial attempt to control the ball saw it run away from him — having appeared to strike his arm — the tall striker’s persistence saw him somehow retain possession before turning the ball back across goal, leaving Friedel out of position and giving Etherington the chance to side-foot the ball joyfully into the empty net.
It was no more than Stoke deserved. Rafael van der Vaart’s tame shot after 23 minutes, easily saved by Thomas Sorensen, was not just their first effort on target, it was their first effort on goal of any kind, and they continued to look shaky at the back, especially in the air.
Two minutes remained in the first half when Stoke extended their lead, and there was nothing surprising about how the goal came about. Shotton’s long throw from the right was glanced on by Walters — who had won just about every ball in the air he had contested — and Etherington, this time slightly fortuitously, again swept the ball past Friedel.
Redknapp made changes, bringing on Sebastien Bassong to give the defence more aerial presence, Jermain Defoe to give the attack more focus, and switching to a 3–5-2 formation. Gradually Spurs’ share of possession began to increase. A series of crosses were repelled by Stoke, but on the hour Luka Modric tricked Glenn Whelan into fouling him the penalty area. Emmanuel Adebayor sent Sorensen the wrong way from the spot, and suddenly the visitors began to hit their straps. Scott Parker brought a flying save from Sorensen and Adebayor curled a shot just wide.
Now it was all Spurs, and Stoke were twice fortunate not to concede another penalty, most obviously when Younes Kaboul, coming in at the far post to meet a Modric cross, clearly hit the ball against the elbow of Ryan Shawcross on the line.
To rub salt in the wound the ball was returned into the penalty area for Adebayor to beat Sorensen, only for the striker to be ruled offside. When the pass was played, he was a good yard onside.
The harsh dismissal of Kaboul in the 82nd minute for a second yellow card stemmed the purple tide, and thereafter Stoke held out without too many problems. Indeed Shawcross almost extended their lead, first bringing a fine save from Friedel, and then heading the subsequent corner against the top of the bar.
After four consecutive defeats, three wins in a row have lifted Stoke to eighth. “Against a team that have been flying, we showed what we were about,” said Crouch. “I think Spurs are going to go very close this season, so this is a massive result for us.”
Stoke City (4–4-2): Sorensen 7: Woodgate 6 (Delap 84), Huth 7, Shawcross 7, Wilson 6: Shotton 7, Whitehead 6, Whelan 6, Etherington 7 (Palacios 89): Walters 8, Crouch 7. Not used: Begovic, Upson, Jones, Fuller, Jerome.
Tottenham Hotspur (4–4-2): Friedel 6: Walker 6, Kaboul 6, Gallas 5, Assou-Ekotto 5 (Bassong 46, 7): Lennon 5 (Defoe 46, 6), Parker 6, Modric 6, Bale 6: Van der Vaart 4 (Giovani 88), Adebayor 5. Not used: Gomes, Corluka, Sandro, Pienaar.
Originally published in The Sunday Times Online on Sunday 11 December 2011.
Richard Rae at the DW Stadium
December is a month to enjoy, said Wigan’s manager, Roberto Martinez, before this match, but there were no smiles among the home supporters as they left the DW stadium having witnessed humiliation on a grand scale.
So much so, in fact, that it was hard not to feel sorry for Martinez in the final few minutes of the game, as he stood unmoving on the touchline in teeming rain. His theory is that with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United among the Latics’ opponents during this last month of the year, Wigan could play without the burden of expectation, but on this evidence there is little hope for them.
The Spaniard’s crumb of comfort is that few teams are likely to come here and pick his team apart in the manner that Arsenal did, once Wigan had given them a two-goal start. “We had too much for Wigan today. We looked solid at the back, we didn’t lose too many fights, and we saw some outstanding combinations,” said Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, before pointing out with a smile that the pitch, of which he had been critical in the past, has improved.
Yet of the two managers, Martinez must have been the happier after seeing his team enjoy much the better of the opening quarter hour. In the sixth minute Jordi Gomez looked certain to score after David Jones’ cross was palmed straight to him by the diving Wojciech Szczesny, and the Arsenal goalkeeper must have been relieved when Gomez’s shot deflected wide off Andre Santos.
Arsenal were patient, however, and Wigan’s initial surge had not long subsided before the visitors started asking questions of their own. Gary Caldwell was fortunate that his botched attempt to clear Theo Walcott’s cross rebounded into the hands of his goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, but not long thereafter the visitors took the lead. Mikel Arteta’s shot from about 22 yards was hit firmly and moved in the air but it should have been saved by Al Habsi; the goalkeeper dived and mistimed the flight of the ball so badly that it went straight through his hands.
Barely 90 seconds later, Arsenal were two ahead. Again Wigan’s defence had cause for embarrassment, in that Gary Caldwell and Conor Sammon allowed Thomas Vermaelen to meet a corner from the Arsenal right with a header which, while well placed just inside the post, might again have been saved by Al Habsi.
Wigan fans who believed all was not entirely lost, given that Arsenal had let slip two-goal leads at this ground in each of the two previous seasons, were quickly disabused of the notion after the break. Although Martinez made changes after an hour, Gervinho, on hand after Robin van Persie’s shot was saved, made it three, and from that point on Wigan saw little of the ball.
Amazingly, Van Persie shot over with only Al Habsi to beat but just when it looked as though Arsenal were going to win a game in which the prolific Dutchman did not score, Walcott’s pace left Caldwell gasping and the England winger unselfishly pulled the ball back for Van Persie to register his 14th Premier League goal of the season.
It could have been more, but Wenger’s triple substitution took the rhythm out of Arsenal’s attacking game. That said, Yossi Benayoun should have made it five when put clear, but his attempt to lob the ball over Al Habsi lacked power and was cleared off the line by Caldwell.
“After a good start we conceded two really soft goals and giving them that cushion helped them to use their experience and take control,” said Martinez. “We have to give them credit for taking advantage of the strong lead we gave them but we have to learn not to be affected by conceding goals. There are ways to lose and today we lost a little bit too easily.”
Wigan: Al Habsi 4, Stam 5, Gohouri 5, Caldwell 4, Figueroa 5, McCarthy 5, Diame 5 (McArthur 88min), Jones 6, Sammon 5 (Di Sato 59min, 5), Gomez 5, Moses 6 (Crusat 59min, 6)
Arsenal: Szczesny 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 7, Santos 6, Walcott 7 (Benayoun 79min) Song 7 (Arshavin 79min), Arteta 8, Ramsey 7, Gervinho 7 (Coquelin 79min), Van Persie 7
Originally published in The Sunday Times on December 4th, 2011.