Soccer

English Premier League Review: Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea

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In an English Premier League weekend lacking a marquee, gold star, look-at-me, fixture it still turned out to be a fairly entertaining weekend, even if we were denied another 6-0 thrashing.

If anything it was a return to normalcy, wherein things aren't as predictable as they seem on paper.

To wit:

a) Tottenham lose at home to seemingly hapless Wigan 1-0.

b) Blackpool overturn a 1-0 deficit at home and end up drawing Fulham 2-2.

c) Chelsea score just two -- yes two -- goals in a win over Stoke at Stamford Bridge.

d) Bolton, down to 10 men after Jussi Jaaskelainen's slap attack, fight back from down 2-0 to draw Birmingham 2-2.

e) Everton earn 18 corners, yet fail to slip one past Brad Friedel at Villa Park.

f) Carlos Tevez misses a wide-open goal, and Sunderland stun Manchester City with a 94th minute penalty by Darren Bent -- where Joe Hart guessed the right way only to see it sizzle under his ankles.

Granted, for all those unexpected events, the top of the table still reads: Chelsea (9), Arsenal (7) and Manchester United (7).

And if you're truly a fan of the status quo, Robin van Persie limped off injured yet again.

Some things never change.

This Week's Topics:
* About that Blackburn/Arsenal match.
* Roberto's Martinez's revenge.
* City can't buy everything.
* Tangerine (Not the Led Zeppelin song.)
* Welcome back Kotters.

No Blackeye for Gunners:

Considering how the Premier League started, how many people waking up Saturday morning expected Arsenal to run riot over Sam Allardyce's Blackburn side at Ewood Park.

Don't be shy. (I can see your hands anyway.)

Turns out, this match isn't going to be sent to the MoMA, yet it was engaging nonetheless, if only for the contrast of styles with Arsenal opting for its would-be champagne football, and Blackburn playing a more direct, aerial/set piece game.

The ironies here were than Blackburn's equalizer, after Theo Walcott broke the deadlock running onto a perfectly weighted pass from van Persie (before his ankle turned into bone dust), was it came via a nice passing movement from El Hadj Diouf, poked in by Mame Diouf.

The Spitting Flying Diouf Brothers(*) Traveling Circus, as it were.

(*) No, they aren't related. Though it's a shame Blackburn can't wrangle Pape Diouf into the mix before the transfer window closes. Think the "Three Bears" puns English headline writers could use!

Better than that, for all the talk of Arsenal assembling a team that "plays the right way," "keeps it on the ground" and all that rapturous stuff, the winner from Andrey Arshavin came off a deflection and the little Russian playmaker being in the right place at the right time. Nothing graceful or wondrous, it.

Not to once again get into this soccer/art debates, but it's a results oriented business. So is it easy or fun to begrudge a team like Blackburn for playing a tough brand of physical ball, lacking the grace-like qualities of Arsenal? Sure. What's a team in this position supposed to do though, lie down and take a beating, getting passed to death in the process? When you have a physical presence like Christopher Samba are you supposed to turn him loose on set pieces in the box, or tell him to sit in the corner so he doesn't hurt Arsene Wenger's feelings?

One takeaway, Blackburn, despite the most galling lack of flair since Jennifer Aniston's character in "Office Space" isn't such a bad unit.

As down as I've been on Wenger and Arsenal, this indeed was a terrific result early in the season. Sure the defense was ripped apart at times and Manuel Almunia exudes about as much confidence as a broken umbrella in a category five hurricane.

Here's the thing, we'll probably point to the same weaknesses displayed by Arsenal all season. Something tells me, though, this year in spite of all that this team might be able to mount a sustained challenge at the title, even if they end up falling short, likely due to the shortcoming rearing their ugly heads vs. the other top five clubs.

Wigan Remains Play Now Sports:

Wigan 1, Spurs 0 at White Hart Lane. Yep, it happened.

In retrospect, this one shouldn't have been all that hard to see coming.

Spurs, no matter what Harry Redknapp could say, were going to be due a letdown after qualifying for the Champions League proper with a win over Young Boys on Wednesday.

And on the flip side, there was probably no way, after being outscored 10-0 at home Wigan could be as bad as they were the first two weeks.

Throw in the lingering embarrassment of losing 9-1 at the same ground last season, and if Wigan were ever going to show they have a pulse, it would be this match.

Having said all that, nobody expected Tottenham to show up flatter than Kiera Knightley's Oscar gowns, now did they?

Spurs never were in this match, or at least looked like they'd win it. Maybe if Younes Kaboul puts a little more accuracy on his late header and it ends 1-1 to pretty up the proverbial pig, but Tottenham never deserved three points from this one.

Credit Wigan for pushing the game, capitalizing on the absence of Gomes(*) in net and making Spurs work for everything instead of rolling over and playing dead. Wigan are going to struggle all season, yet at least unlike Stoke and West Ham they'll see a "3" next to their names instead of a "0" for the next two weeks.

(*) Yep, Gomes is officially past laughingstock status.

And Ali al-Habsi, who knew? Couple great reaction saves to keep it even. Must've seen him listed on the Bolton squad for about five years without ever seeing him play. Looks like Chris Kirkland and his baseball cap might have a date with left bench for the time being.

As for Tottenham? The big issue at the front of attack remains. The team has plenty of "red chip" players, but a glaring lack of "blue chippers." Gareth Bale might be moving toward that position, but right now he's stuck a "purple chip status" as evidenced by his lack of influence Saturday.

What Spurs need is a guy who you can count on for 15+ goals per season. Jermain Defoe is a good player, but ultimately very streaky and can be neutralized. Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane aren't bad players, but not consistent week-in, week-out players in the Prem. (Luis Fabiano re-signed with Sevilla for another two years. Cross him off the list.)

Tottenham still must exert too hard to put the ball in the net on a consistent basis.

And if you're a Spurs fan, I'd be a little worried about Redknapp's juggling of Europe/Premier League. Michael Dawson had nothing in the tank on Saturday. Wouldn't have that match been a perfect place to slowly debut/integrate William Gallas into the side?

Enjoy the San Siro.

Money Can't Buy You Wins:

Well, unless you play in Italy, right?

Joking aside, Sunderland's 1-0 victory over Manchester City Sunday at the Stadium of Light once again showed that City can spend more than every other team in Europe combined, but all those untold millions can't:

1) Offset Carlos Tevez whiffing on a completely wide-open goal mouth.
2) Stop Micah Richard's from rugby tackling Darren Bent in the box in the fourth minute of stoppage time.

Tactically, it's hard to fault Roberto Mancini for playing 4-3-2-1 on the road at the Stadium of Light, one of the tougher away grounds in the league. As the game progressed Yaya Toure did drift a little more up the field, leaving Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry in the holding spots. That said, leaving Tevez all alone to track all over the field -- one time he even kicked a ball out in the City box for a throw -- might not work the best. Sure it was effective at times for Manchester United, but as of now James Milner and Adam Johnson/et al aren't quite Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, along side him.

Mancini eventually brought on Emmanuel Adebayor and David Silva. Adebayor nearly back-heeled a ball out of the air, but Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet turned it away.

If City are going to seriously mount a challenge at the top, games like those are ones they win, not lose at the death. How many times do you see teams like Arsenal or Manchester United finally wear down the opponent and snatch a late winner?

Sunderland, though, aren't pushovers. Despite losing Frazier Campbell to a torn up knee on a non-contact challenge with Richards and Michael Turner to a crocked ankle from a challenge by Jolean Lescott, Steve Bruce's team slowly but surely took it to City as the game wore on.

The addition of Egyptian Ahmed Al-Muhammadi gives Sunderland some needed width, balancing out nicely with Steed Malbranque on the left. Jordan Henderson and Lee Cattermole do their "Ax & Smash" impressions in the middle, so the basic shape of the squad is there.

Fortunately Sir Alex Ferguson saw out of the goodness of his heart to loan out Danny Welbeck to Steve Bruce's team.

Astute readers will remember I tipped Sunderland as my unofficial team of the season. Sunday's win probably cemented it.

Tangerine Dreaming (Cont.):

So what if the camera at Bloomfield Road was tighter than a size medium shirt on a fat guy. It was party time for Blackpool, again.

The Tangerines fought back from Bobby Zamora's first half goal to take a 2-0 lead, only to cough it up late on Dickson Etuhu's late equalizer.

Despite everyone thinking Blackpool would be a 3-point ATM, they've got four points from three and, I'll say it, are actually dangerous.

Ian Holloway is playing an attack-first game and will catch teams on the counter-attack, sort of like Burnley did for a while last year with Owen Coyle in charge.

Throw in the fact teams are expecting to win against Blackpool, and they might get frustrated if they're not up 2-0 within 10 minutes.

Will it last? Probably not, nor on the road. Eventually the small squad is going to tire and injuries will certainly hit. For now, Blackpool is playing with passion and a purpose, which is nice to see.

As for Fulham. Of note, new signing Moussa Dembele set up both goals, including an excellent pass from his own half that Etuhu ran onto and finished. Looks like he may be keeping Clint Dempsey on the bench for a while under Mark Hughes.

Welcome Back, dudes:

Wayne Rooney scored.

Fernando Torres scored.

All is seemingly well with the cosmos.

Okay, Rooney scored from the spot on a penalty resulting from poor Jonathan Spector's clumsy challenge on Ryan Giggs. In essence, that's all we need to know about Manchester United's 3-0 win against free-falling West Ham, which might have the worst defense in the league.(*)

(*) Fabio Capello, you're really recalling Mathew Upson for England? The guy is shot. No joke, Titus Bramble would be a better option at this point. Serious.

As for Senor Torres? His game (and hair cut) remain a work in progress, but he at least saved Liverpool some embarrassment at Anfield vs. West Brom.

Maybe I'll have to take it back. The Raul Merieles, Lucas and Christian Poulsen poo-poo platter stepping in for Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso is a definite downgrade on par with the "X-Files" replacing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson with Mimi Rodgers and T-1000 late in the series run.

Around the League:

Considering Chelsea has been screwed over by the African Cup of Nations in recent years, the Blues are due a break -- the international break as it were -- with John Terry and Frank Lampard each getting injured Saturday. The lack of games next weekend help Chelsea, if not England. ... Glad to see ESPN using Steve McManaman in the studio this weekend. Too bad the host next to him (Kevin Connors) had some inept telepromter writers, including "Roy Hogd-a-son" and "Manny Diouf." ... Jermain Defoe and El Hadj Diouf certainly share the same barber, or should we say, stylist. ... Fun fact, Wigan actually has away fans. More than one fan, too. ... If there was an award for "Biggest Ginger in Hungary," Bolton backup keeper Ádam Bogdán wins first, second and third prizes. ... Joking aside, nice fight back from Bolton, including a doozy of a free kick from ex-Burnley striker Robbie Blake. ... Easiest the oddest signage board of the weekend was the Stadium of Light touting www.visittanzania.go.tz ... Anyone else notice how late in the Arsenal/Blackburn game, Morten Gamst Pederson became Morten Gamst Peterson. ... How'd you like to be Maxi Rodriguez? You leave Atletico Madrid to join the quagmire that is Liverpool. In your absence Atleti wins the Europa League and now the manager who recruited you -- Rafa Benitez -- is in Italy and you're coming off the bench for Roy Hodgson? ... Not worth writing a ton about it, but Wolves/Newcastle was a truly feisty affair with no love lost from either side. In his second year in the top flight Sylvan Ebanks-Blake looks like he's figuring it out. If he can score in the double-digit range Wolves might not find themselves in the relegation maelstrom. ... Fabio Capello attended games at: Blackburn, Blackpool and Manchester United Saturday. Reader Erik Kriebel suggested he used a helicopter. I'd like to think he simply clapped his hands and summoned a magic carpet. ... Didn't watch Aston Villa/Everton all that intently, yet every time I looked up Tim Howard or Brad Friedel were making saves. Is it possible Everton bought into a little bit of its own hype? Sunday perhaps the Toffees were merely unlucky to be beaten by Luke Young's cracker. ... Aston Villa allowed six goals in a loss last week, but now have six total points.

Fantasy Team O' the Week:

Jason Frank's H.B. Cube FC put up 73 points, with 20 from captain Flourent Malouda. Nani and Rooney were his other big guns.

Shame He Never Played NCAA Soccer Player of the Week:

Andy Carroll. The Beast Man.

The growing Geordie legend scored again Saturday vs. Wolves. Could you imagine the damage he'd have done playing in the States as a kid? Oh wait, he'd probably have been too rough and been called for "dangerous plays" every game, so he'd likely have quit soccer for another sport. Shame.

Carroll's overall burliness found him face-to-face and chest-to-chest with American keeper Marcus Hahnemann, who took issue with an aerial challenge from Carroll. In fairness, Hahnemann might have just been a little cranky or had some bad coffee that morning. Not a lot in it, as the Brits say.

Either way, ff the "Moss Mask" exists, I want someone in England to start manufacturing the "Carroll Samurai Wig." Is that too much to ask?

Lookalikes:

Not that I watch "Top Chef" or anything and maybe it was the early Saturday morning sloop-overs, but if you squint, does Cesc Fabregas look like Angelo from this season?

Quick word on, yes, MLS:

Absolutely gorgeous weekend in the Tri-State area. Pops Cardillo wanted to go back to Red Bull Arena, and as a dutiful son, I obliged. Didn't hurt that my old pal Hirshey hooked me up with his season tickets at midfield. A more perfect view of the field you couldn't find.

A lot at Red Bull Arena changed since my first visit in March, mostly with the club culture. There's a lot more actual soccer fans in the stands, not curiosity seekers.

Probably has something to do with that guy named Henry wearing the No. 14 shirt.

Lucky for us, we were in the building for Henry's first MLS goal, mostly set up by Dane Richards, who scored a nice little individual effort himself just before halftime. Or, as Hirshey texted me, Henry has found his new Robert Pires. (I countered that if you squint, Joel Lindpere looks like an Estonian Freddie Ljungberg. Sorry, you'll have to take my word for it. I don't have the Calvin Klein ads to back me up.)

Long story short, Henry even at 33 years old still has a touch that 97 percent of players in MLS can only dream about, or utilize in "FIFA." Every time he touches it, there is magic in his boots, no lie.

Two other takeaways. Bobby Convey is playing left back for San Jose. He got toasted by Richards. Hope Jurgen Klinsmann(*) at least gives him a look in the next World Cup cycle.

(*) Oops. Thought I was dreaming, still. Viva Jon Bornstein!!!

And Geovanni came on late for the Earthquakes. Not much to say there. Not sure where he's going to play, seems like he was dropped back in a 4-4-1-1. Don't want to say the words, "Denilson" here, but hard to see a ton of upside for the ex-Hull City player as a DP.

One Other Thing:

What's the longest any readers have kept a disc from Netflix? I'd been holding onto "Where the Wild Things Are" since May. Blame the World Cup for that one.

Finally got around to watching it this weekend and, well, I'd offer you an opinion but I dozed off twice and wasn't all that interesting in reaching for the remote and rewinding it. So, if you want a movie recommendation, hmmm ... how about "Book of Eli." Thoroughly enjoyed it. The Hughes Bros. need to lay off the weed and get a little more productive, although other than Heather Grahamn's 1890s loose-fitting prostitute-wear, there's not much to look at in "From Hell," which has wormed its way into regular HBO rotation.(An excellent Alan Moore graphic novel, naturally.)

And since Ron Swanson wasn't nominated for an Emmy, I refrained from watching celebrities fete each other with silly hunks of metal, like "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter.

Looking Ahead:

International break. Enjoy it.

Next time we're back, crossing over with NFL Sundays. Football overload.

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