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Sunday, September 29, 2002

Owenly A Matter Of Time

It's taken him 12 hours and 20 minutes of football but Michael Owen must have delighted Gerard Houllier by scoring from open open play at Maine Road on Saturday. To rehash an old cliché, it's evident that these things are a bit like buses; for it was not to be a solitary goal to cheer his manager, but the forward's third hat-trick for his club he love so much.

What started off looking like a difficult game against a defence that hasn't lost at home all season — and has been particularly impressive of late — was finished off clinically by the young Welshman. Playing centre forward is arguably the most confidence dependant position on the pitch and this brace will no doubt go a long way to restoring his killer instinct. To disagree with Gary Lineker though, I still feel Owen has some serious issues with his game, most notably he lacks a first touch as good as most of his contemporaries.

Dedication's What You Need

Just two all time league records set this weekend by Arsenal, though they also equalled Manchester United's record of going 29 consecutive games unbeaten. No boring one nil at Highbury either, Arsenal put Leeds to the sword emphatically with a 4-1 victory at Elland Road — traditionally a bit of a bogey ground for the Gunners. Arsenal's dominance was so absolute that it's impossible for Leeds fans to learn anything about their team, apart from the fact that Dacort, Smith and Bowyer's fouling feet are in working order.

Anyone claim to have injury problems? How about Pires, Ljungberg and Edu unavailable? How about replacement Kolo Toure causing Leeds no end of problems, scoring his second goal of the season and setting up another. It's worth giving the young Ivory Coast International a mention for his contribution, after all; who apart from some Arsenal fans had heard of him a year ago? Or three months ago for that matter? On top of his considerable talent and the ease at which he's earned the respect of his more senior teammates, Toure brings a boundless enthusiasm for the game and his adopted country (he allegedly carries an English dictionary wherever he goes).

Although United took three points from The Valley, they certainly weren't as easy to come by as the 3-1 socreline suggests. I'm absolutely baffled as to why Ferguson — in the absence of Ruud Van Nistelrooy — decided to play Scholes up front, Forlan on the right wing and Beckham through the middle. It surely doesn't take much tactical nous to take three players and play them in their preferred roles, it's more difficult to put them all out of position.

Highlights of the weekend must include the 2-3 thriller at Stamford Bridge, where struggling West Ham overcame the unbeaten Chelsea with an inspirational performance (and a breathtaking goal) from Paolo Di Canio. Elsewhere, Steve McLaren's Middlesbrough resumed normal service at White Hart Lane beating Tottenham 3-0 and making Spurs fans' top of the table memory fade even further.

It would be criminal not to mention the Sunderland players' first class reaction to the plight of their manager Peter Reid. He couldn't have asked a lot more from his team as they put in a gutsy performance to win 1-0 at Villa Park, they're going to have to dig a little deeper next weekend on their trip to Highbury.

Performance of the Week has to go to Arsenal for eclipsing Leeds at Elland Road. With three or four improbable results this weekend it was difficult to choose just one, but Arsenal's near perfect footballing performance wins the day. Sorry Hammers/Sunderland/Middlebrough fans.

Goal of the Week goes to Paolo Di Canio for his phenomenal strike against Chelsea. Too good for words.

Player of the Week amongst a number of strong contenders goes to Michael Owen for quenching his goal drought with a match winning hat-trick. That's the way to do it.

Team of the Week ;

Paul Jones
Southampton
  David Weir
Everton
Pascal Cygan
Arsenal
Jody Craddock
Sunderland
 
Sylvain Wiltord
Arsenal
Thomas Gravesen
Everton
Paul Scholes
Man Utd
Kolo Toure
Arsenal
  Thierry Henry
Arsenal
Michael Owen
Liverpool
Paolo Di Canio
West Ham
 


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Monday, September 23, 2002

Cheer Up, It's Not All Bad

If one thing's for certain, it's been a better week for Manchester United. After an easy victory over Maccabi Haifa in midweek — though the Israelis still managed to unpick the reds' defence, twice — a hard fought victory over Tottenham was just what the doctor ordered. In the kind of game that just haven't been going United's way recently, a penalty settled the game, tucked away well by Ruud Van Nistelrooy. There's definitely cause for concern for the Dutchman though, for his last goal from open play in the Premiership you have to go back to April.

A tale of another penalty at Highbury as Thierry Henry missed his third in a row. It failed to diminish the strikers overall performance though, on top of his well-taken goal he tore Bolton apart. In his Saturday Telegraph column, Freddie Ljungberg said he felt like he was going to fall apart after playing against Dortmund in midweek — it certainly didn't show on Saturday. Picking up where he left off last season, Ljungberg's textbook defence splitting movement caused Bolton no end of problems and his assist for Henry's goal topped off a superb performance.

It's worth giving a certain Nwankwo Kanu a mention too. I don't know anyone that doesn't love him as a footballer, he's there to entertain and enjoy the game, coupled with his charity work he a throughly likeable character. Which makes his poor form over the last 18 months so sad. He really made an impact against Bolton and his determination (not a word usually associated with Kanu) won Arsenal the game.

Peter Reid has got a lot of questions to answer. Both the fans and the board will want to know how their team approached their biggest game of the season with nothing more than a whimper. Reid was right to ask questions of his playing staff too because as he said, at the end of the day they failed themselves and the fans as much as he did. It would be wrong not to give Bobby Robson's Newcastle some credit too, on the back of an awful night in Kiev a derby win was just what the team needed to lift their spirits ahead of their midweek meeting with Feyenoord.

In a weekend that saw 400,000 countryside protesters march through London, it was a good week for football's rarest of rare breeds as two of England's most promising left footed players had absolute stormers. Lee Hendrie practically won the game for Villa on his own against Everton with two superb goals in the bag to boot and Blackburn's David Thompson was excellent in his team's superb victory over Leeds.

Both players have promised much and delivered little so far in their short careers. Hopefully Hendrie has finally sorted himself out and can bring his talent to the game without the unnecessary attitude and aggression that has characterised him so far. I've always thought Thompson was a bit tasty, I'm surprised he's spent so much time in Coventry (no offence sky blues fans). He really impressed me in his time at Liverpool and Coventry and I wouldn't be surprised if we see him and his Rovers compatriot David Dunn in the England squad before the European Championships.

Performance of the Week goes to Blackburn for conquering last week's winners of this award. After a luke warm start to the season, a deserved three points against a top six team will certainly boost the spirits.

Goal of the Week goes to Franck Querdrue for his cracking match winning free kick against Birmingham. His team needed inspiration and he provided it, simple as that.

Player of the Week is going to acknowledge the unsung hero for once. Kasey Keller was magnificent against Manchester United, it didn't save his team but he certainly did himself proud.

Team of the Week ;

Kasey Keller
Tottenham
  Darren Purse
Birmingham
Richard Rufus
Charlton
Sylvain Distin
Man City
 
Freddie Ljungberg
Arsenal
Lee Hendrie
Aston Villa
David Thompson
Blackburn
John Arne Riise
Liverpool
  Jason Roberts
W.B.A.
Craig Bellamy
Newcastle
Nwankwo Kanu
Arsenal
 


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Monday, September 16, 2002

Apologies

To Newcastle fans. In mentioning the abundance of great European games coming up this week I completely neglected to mention Newcastle's daunting trip to Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday. Though it will probably not be as great a spectacle as the other games involving English clubs, mainly due to the travel, weather and the recent slump in form.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I express my astonishment at the bare-faced cheek of the Football Association regarding Thierry Henry's ‘elbowing’ incident at the Valley on Saturday.

A fortnight ago Andy D'Urso refused to allow anyone to look at Patrick Vieira's second yellow card again, despite the other player involved saying he kicked the Arsenal player and the incident being identical to one for which a player had his card rescinded (against Arsenal) a fortnight earlier. Now, two days after England captain David Beckham clearly elbows Lee Bowyer and escapes punishment, Arsenal's Thierry Henry looks like he'll be charged for an incident that I for one have yet to see any evidence of. I don't care what the rules are for the video advisory panel, they are a shambles and should be disbanded or bloody well sorted out by someone with half a brain (which unfortunately rules out the entire FA staff).

“I think the FA should get on with something else and maybe not worry about an incident that wasn't there.”

— John Robinson (the alleged elbowee)

On a side note I feel compelled to tell everyone that I bumped in to no other than nomadic striker Nicolas Anleka tonight, in the midst of an after work trip to the supermarket. For the interested amongst you he was dressed head to toe in ‘Sean Jean’ (P. Diddys clothing label) and was deep in conversation with someone at the Deli counter who looked remarkably like Patrick Truman from Eastenders (or more like Pork Pie from Desmonds if you can remember that far back).

He scared the life out of me when I looked up from my basket and had this unsettling flash of recognition strike me dumb. He was obviously a little bemused too, as a similar look overtook his face (minus the recognition) and stopped his conversation. Nobody else seemed bothered that a footballer on whom nearly £60m has been spent in his short career was standing about scratching his arse in Sainsburys. No sign of his brothers though — they were probably doing his shopping.


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Monday, September 16, 2002

Blame It On Rio

Well, maybe that's a bit harsh. It certainly wasn't a dream return to Elland Road for the England defender; and that's just the way the Leeds faithful wanted it. You can understand why even the most relaxed Leeds fan would wish unpleasant things on Rio, particularly when you consider his clearly insincere comments about the club shortly before he up and left. Considering this, it doesn't excuse the behaviour of that ever present minority (at all clubs) who fail to put any sort of perspective on things — they're a good four points clear of United aren't they?

On the subject of United (for a change) things do seem to be going from bad to worse. With fresh injuries to Veron and Nicky Butt the midfield looks ever more depleted despite the fitness of Beckham, Scholes and Giggs. This is mainly due to the fact that the esteemed Sir Alex insists on using one of Scholes or Giggs in that mysterious role behind the misfiring Ruud Van Nistelrooy. One of the most apparent trends of the season so far is the poor form of many top strikers.

Van Nistelrooy looks like he couldn't hit the proverbial cow's backside and Michael Owen seems to be missing the banjo in the first place. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was among the prolific hitmen dropped this weekend, only for his replacements to give a masterclass. In Owens' case it was Milan Baros who took his opportunity well; could the forgotten man Diego Forlan be Fergie's saviour?

Hot off the press for all you conspiracy theorists; David Beckham is very unlikely to be chastised for elbowing Lee Bowyer (note the omission of the words allegedly or appearing to). For acting in a way that, had it been Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira would no doubt have led to a red card and serial demonisation in the press — the England captain will escape unpunished by the FA. Now isn't that unusual.

Two strikers not having trouble finding the net right now are Arsenal's Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord. The latter has taken a lot of flak since he joined the Gunners — from home and away fans — but his recent run of scoring must surely put a stop to it. For now. Henry seems to be thriving on a combination of Wiltord's tireless running and Dennis Bergkamp's creative genius. To watch Arsenal's front three at the moment is a lesson in attacking football; and with the ‘tired’ Vieira playing some of the best football of his career the Champions are looking simply unstoppable.

It would be wrong not to mention West Bromwich Albion's achievements over the last three weeks. Not so long ago they'd been hammered by Arsenal and some were predicting (rather pessimistically of course) 0 wins from 38. Three on the bounce makes it a wonderful run for Gary Megson's side regardless of the scorelines and he deserves a lot of praise for the way he's picked his team up and sorted them out (for now anyway).

With the first round proper of the Champions League starting this week there are some hum-dingers on offer to terrestrial viewers. I wish I could watch both of Tuesday's games, with Arsenal taking on Bundesliga Champions Borussia Dortmund at Highbury (ITV2, 7:45pm) and Liverpool travelling to Valencia (ITV1, 7:45pm) there's the prospect for two absolute crackers. Wednesday's match involving English opposition sees Man United take on Maccabi Haifa at Old Trafford in what should be a foregone conclusion, but the way United are playing right now you never know…

Performance of the Week goes to Leeds for taking three points from Old Trafford. If I was to include midweek results (which I suppose I really should) then by heck Bolton deserve a mention for doing the same thing on Wednesday.

Goal of the Week goes to Thierry Henry for the second time this season. His wonderful strike against Charlton at the end of a stunning move was simply breathtaking.

Player of the Week goes to an unusual recipient this week. So well done Jun-Ichi Inamoto for setting up two and scoring one at the Stadium of Light. The young Japanese midfielder tore into Peter Reid's side and could well be part of the ‘reasons for leaving your old job’ on the scousers next application form.

Team of the Week ;

Paul Robinson
Leeds
  John O'Shea
Man Utd
Ivan Campo
Bolton
Jonathan Woodgate
Leeds
 
Alan Smith
Leeds
Patrick Vieira
Arsenal
Jun-Ichi Inamoto
Fulham
Matthew Etherington
Tottenham
  Milan Baros
Liverpool
Eirdur Gudjonsen
Man City
Gianfranco Zola
Sunderland
 


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Monday, September 09, 2002

Premier Passion

Another boring friendly international. Why do ‘they’ always put them just a few weeks into the season, when things are beginning to get exciting again. If I was going to pick any weekend to move house, I chose the right one. Which answers the question ‘why has all things footie been a ghost town?’.

At least the dullness was brightened up by the Faroe Islands' heroic stand against the shockingly poor Scottish side, not to mention Wales' fantastic win against Finland. Oh, and will someone work out what's wrong with Michael Owen?


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Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Calamity Keane

He's really done it this time. Without wanting to dwell on Roy Keane for too long, I think he's crossed a line that he'll find very difficult to retreat from. As Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph wrote yesterday, ‘It's time to debunk the myth that Roy Keane is indispensable to Manchester United’. The truth is that Keane no longer gives a monkeys about Manchester United football club, he resents the supporters, most of his teammates and half of the footballers in the Premiership. Sir Alex Ferguson must now realise that the Irishman is often more trouble than he's worth and a bad defence is not made any better by being treated disrespectfully by the club captain.

He has done as much to undermine the strength of Manchester United on the pitch — despite his own efforts. His push on Phil Neville, his blasts at the ‘Rolex Culture’ among players and the ‘Prawn Sandwich’ brigade and most significantly; his putting petty, small-minded revenge above winning a match. The consummate inspirational winner and ultimate team player that was Roy Keane has gone; only a bitter, selfish and moronic individual remains — and what use is that to a team that need all the spirit they can muster?

Maybe it's the realisation that he'll never play in a World Cup? Or maybe he's still frustrated at missing his team's finest hour in Barcelona? He'll have three months to think about it now while he has his operation. While he's away I suspect that Juan Veron will relish the opportunity to be the man on whom the team is built — that is if Ferguson chooses that path, and I don't see any alternatives at the moment. The Argentine is used to being the centre of attention and though he can't bring the energy and hard work of Roy Keane, he can dictate a game with his distribution and remarkable ability on the ball.

Oh Yes, The Football

Concentrating on the actual football this weekend, it was a mixed day for the midlands with Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion picking up their first three points of the season but Aston Villa folding under a Michael Ricketts penalty. Merseyside fared just as erratically with Everton losing out to an inspirational Nicolas Anelka hat trick and Liverpool throwing away a 2-0 lead to finish 2-2 with Newcastle. The Geordies nearly nicked the game in the dying moments only for Alan Shearer to direct the ball straight at Jerzy Dudek.

Meanwhile Andy D'Urso confirmed his status as the worst referee to ever set foot on a Premiership pitch, completely losing control of an unusually mild (at least until D'Urso really provoked the players) London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea. To compound his incompetence, the man in black has refused to look at Patrick Vieira's two yellow cards again even though the player who got him sent off (Jesper Gronkjaer) admitted after the match that he kicked Vieira, not the other way round. Not to mention that the challenge was identical to the one for which Aliou Cisse was sent off at Higbury for, and had his second yellow rescinded. What more does it take Mr D'Urso?

Aside from the Vieira decision, it was plain to all that Sylvain Wiltord should have gone for raising his hands to Gronkjaer — only for the Dane to attempt a double pike, full twist with a somersault, and get a yellow card for his troubles — I thought that was one of the more black and white rules?

There's a reason that officials often get a bad press, it happens when spineless, weasely, self important little Hitlers like Andy D'Urso refuse to admit that they are human and — like all humans — make mistakes. If I was that bad at my job I would expect the sack and now referee's are professional I, as a fan of the game they control, expect some accountability for their actions (or lack of them).

West Ham United are also beginning to confuse me. One week they're running Arsenal ragged and unlucky to only pick up a point, the next they're losing a poor game away. ‘Poor away form!’ everyone cries; then they lose 2-0 at home and find their selves propping up the Premiership with a measly one point. Charlton now have the best away form in the league (the only side to get 6 points from 2 games), and much of that is down to their outstandingly in form defender Richard Rufus. Over the past three weeks Rufus has been simply superb and will do well to keep it up over the season — one to keep an eye on.

Performance of the Week goes to Birmingham City for inflicting Leeds' second defeat in a week and picking up their first three points in the Premiership. The 2-1 scoreline just about did justice to the graft and craft of Steve Bruce's side and the Brummies can rightly claim to have played the better football and deserved all the points.

Goal of the Week has to go to Birmingham's Damien Johnson for the wonderfully crafted and beautifully finished match-winning goal against Leeds.

Player of the Week is awarded to Man City's Nicolas Anelka. In a week where no one player really stood out it's difficult to look past the contribution of Anelka for this award, a hat trick and a lot of hard work he's back to his best (for now).

Team of the Week ;

Mark Schwarzer
Middlesbrough
  Richard Rufus
Charlton
Sol Campbell
Arsenal
Marcel Desailly
Chelsea
 
Dietmar Hamann
Liverpool
Robbie Savage
Birmingham
Chris Marsden
Southampton
Matthew Etherington
Tottenham
  Alan Shearer
Newcastle
Nicolas Anelka
Man City
Tore Andre Flo
Sunderland
 


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