A turbulent week for Rafa Benitez ended with a hard fought point away to Stoke but Liverpool’s performance and the Spaniard’s post-match comments did little to quash the rumours that the he is set to leave the club in the summer should they finish outside the top four.
Devoid of their star players Liverpool ended up battling the hosts for a point in a match of poor quality. Tony Pulis won’t care as he saw his side grab a late Robert Huth equaliser to earn a third draw in four outings against Benitez in the Premier League.
Stoke remain one of the hardest teams to beat on their home patch and if they can improve their away form (just one win in ten games) then a top ten finish beckons.
Gerrard, Torres, Johnson and Benayoun can’t return quickly enough to a side desperately lacking in quality and confidence. Further forays into the January transfer market are unlikely suggesting any available money is being held back until the summer when a new manager may well be at the helm.
Benitez set up his side in an ultra-defensive formation and handled Stoke’s long ball tactics until Huth’s late intervention but with Spurs and Arsenal on the horizon Liverpool will have to up their performances considerably to have any chance of escaping their current malaise.
Manchester United’s mid-winter break in Dubai had the desired effect as the reigning Premier League champions overcame the challenge of a dogged Burnley at Old Trafford. Brian Laws first game in charge ended in a 3-0 defeat despite holding the champions scoreless in the first half. Wayne Rooney continued his prolific season and proved the catalyst for United’s victory.
Rooney scored one (16 for the season now) and created another for Dimitar Berbatov in an otherwise sub-par performance by United at an expectant Old Trafford. All the talk in the press in recent weeks has been centred on the key players missing from Rafa Benitez’s line-up but should United ever lose the services of Wayne Rooney then any chance of regaining their EPL title will disappear.
The United striker has been simply immense this season taking on the mantle of the club’s most influential player since the departure of Ronaldo.
United were far from convincing and a more potent attack than Burnley’s would surely have converted one of the numerous chances they created with the game tied at 0-0. Sir Alex Ferguson will have been delighted to have Edwin van der Sar back between the sticks following a twelve game absence and the Dutchman marked his return with a clean sheet.
On a day blighted by talk of possible financial meltdown United will have been glad to maintain their title push albeit over a Burnley side slipping closer towards relegation. Burnley has only accrued one point from eleven EPL away games this term and Brian Laws must improve on that record – and soon – if he is to keep his side up.
The performance of the weekend belonged to league-leaders Chelsea who thumped an abject Sunderland 7-2 at Stamford Bridge. Twelve goals in their last two EPL fixtures suggest Chelsea are not missing their African contingent currently on duty in Angola. Chelsea displayed their attacking prowess without the presence of ace marksman Didier Drogba’s. Nicolas Anelka has stepped into the role of lead attacker and looks a rejuvenated player under Ancellotti.
The only blemish on an otherwise memorable weekend for the Pensioners was news of a potentially serious injury to Michael Essien whilst on duty for Ghana. Sunderland were dreadful and are beginning to slip alarmingly down the table. Steve Bruce’s side were short a host of first team regulars but take nothing away from a clinical performance from the Blues who will take some beating on their current form.
On Sunday Arsenal kept pace with United and Chelsea thanks to a 2-0 victory away to Bolton Wanderers inspired by the returning Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard is as important to the Gunners as Rooney is to United and scored a cracker to set his side on their way to a sixth Premier League away win of the season.
Owen Coyle’s first game in charge at the Reebok offered hope for the future with a battling display suggesting Wanderers won’t be second from bottom for too much longer. A meagre ten points garnered from their eleven home matches is relegation form but Coyle should inspire Bolton to better things before the season’s end.
A good week for Arsenal ended with news of Nicholas Bendtner’s return to light training. Arsene Wenger commented during the week that he is still searching for a striker to purchase before the end of the transfer window but hasn’t found anyone of sufficient quality yet. Arsenal certainly need to bring in some more experienced players if they are to have a squad large enough to keep pace with the leaders as the league heads into its final months.
Sol Campbell is a useful acquisition but Arsenal will need to spend some serious cash before the end of the month to cover any further injury losses to their first team.
* Hull keeper Boaz Myhill earned Phil Brown’s side a valuable point (0-0) away to Spurs with a magnificent individual display. Another inconsistent performance from the hosts will have no doubt aggrieved Harry Redknapp on his 500th managerial appearance in the Premier League. Spurs continue to frustrate with their lack of consistency.
Two points dropped at home to a side expected to struggle in a relegation battle could prove costly in the scramble for the top four positions at the end of the season.
* Everton’s recent revival continued under David Moyes with an impressive 2-0 win over Man City. Roberto Mancini’s first taste of defeat at his new club also included the introduction and subsequent removal of Robinho which is sure to grab the headlines ahead of the Manchester derby in the Carling Cup later this week.
* Whisper it gently but Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic are on a roll and continued their climb away from the bottom of the table with a competent 2-0 victory at Molineux at the weekend. The performance was a far cry from the humiliation at White Hart Lane earlier in the campaign and an important victory over a potential relegation-threatened opponent.
* Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa failed to breach a resilient West Ham defence on Sunday at Villa Park and had to be content with a 0-0 draw. Three draws and two defeats at home this term may prove costly in Villa’s hunt for a European (or better) qualification finish in 09/10. West Ham will be delighted with only their seventh point on the road this season and Gianfranco Zola’s men will travel to Portsmouth for their next Premier assignment with renewed optimism.
* Blackburn’s 2-0 win over Fulham marked the first three point return for Sam Allardyce’s team for over three months. Rovers’ fifth home victory of the season brought welcome respite for a side who had registered only two points from their previous five league encounters.
Ger McCarthy is the author of Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork League junior footballer.