The first meeting between two members of the “Big 4″ provided plenty of fireworks over the weekend as three-time defending champions Manchester United came back to beat Arsenal at Old Trafford, 2-1. The game was not without dramatics as the Gunners took a 1-0 lead into halftime thanks to a rocket goal from Russian Andrei Arshavin in the 40th minute – his first goal of the season.
The second half was a different story as Arsenal literally gave the game away by first conceding a penalty in the 59th minute when goalie Manuel Alumnia brought down Wayne Rooney, who in turn buried the well-deserved penalty. Later on it was a disastrous moment for the Gunners when Abu Diaby headed in an own goal off a Ryan Giggs pass and all of a sudden Man U were ahead. The final minutes were frenetic but the most drama came deep into stoppage time.
The fourth official indicated five minutes of added time and Arsenal seemingly scored a crucial equalizer just 15 seconds before time ran out as Robin Van Persie took a William Gallas header in the box and buried it past Ben Foster for what looked like a famous goal at the death. However, Gallas was correctly ruled offside but not before Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger kicked a water bottle in disgust nearly 30 yards down the sideline. His actions led to the fourth official telling the referee to send Wenger off, even though there were only seconds left in the match. Wenger was rather miffed at this notion and proceeded to walk up the Old Trafford steps and stand in front of crowd goading the official if he was far enough away. A comical scene to be sure and today an apology came from the referee union for the incident. Either way, Manchester United secured three massive points and Arsenal have to wonder how they let the game slip away in the second half.
The other exciting finish from the EPL this weekend was Liverpool-Bolton and was another episode of Steven Gerrard transforming into Captain Fantastic. Liverpool went behind twice at the Reebok Stadium and their title hopes looked lifeless even when Fernando Torres equalized in the 56th minute. With just seven minutes left of normal time Stevie G made sure Liverpool took all three points as he took a deflection off Torres and unleashed the fury on the Bolton net with a wondrous volley which gave Liverpool their 3-2 victory. Though Liverpool secured three road points it still was a little too difficult for the reds and they needed a Bolton sending off to get them kick started.
Five Things We Learned
- It’s good to be in London. Chelsea and Tottenham each entered the weekend with 100% records and left the weekend each with three points, though they played two very different matches. Chelsea hosted giant killers Burnley at Stamford Bridge and after a contentious first 40 minutes, Nickolas Anelka finally put home a goal from Didier Drogba right before half and Chelsea poured it on the second half to smother the clarets 3-0. Over at White Hart Lane it looked as though Spurs would be held by Birmingham City but right at the death of stoppage time Aaron Lennon found some space in the box and the England winger buried a shot which sent boss Harry Redknapp and the fans into delirium. Combined, Chelsea and Spurs have taken 24 points from a possible 24 and have a +15 goal difference. Not bad.
- The Manchester derby will be must see TV. As if the battles between Manchester United and Manchester City aren’t worth watching anyways, this year we could see two of the top four teams square off for northeast supremacy. Man U hasn’t played up to their ability yet but still have taken three wins from four including the big win over Arsenal. Across the city at the Eastlands it’s been nothing but victories for Mark Hughes’ Manchester City as once again Emmanuel Adebayor scored a goal to give them a 1-0 victory at lowly Portsmouth. Man City may not have many goals this season but their defending is much improved which will make the derby that much more competitive. Mark Sept. 20 on your calendars.
- Stoke are quietly putting together a good start. With all the talk of Burnley’s giant wins and Chelsea’s dominance most people have failed to see Stoke City now sitting in fifth in the EPL. With just one loss in four – a 4-0 drubbing from Liverpool – Stoke can boast a quality start to their sophomore EPL campaign, something that many times eludes teams who have survived the drop. They also were winners in the second round of the Carling Cup in midweek. While wins against Burnley and Sunderland don’t look sexy, those are the types of games minnows like Stoke have to win to stay in the top English division. However, goal scoring must improve as they have a -1 goal difference.
- Promoted clubs came to play.
As I’ve said before, usually there is one promoted club which comes to the EPL and takes a few top teams by surprise in the early season (see Burnley). On the flip side, there is usually one (or two) promoted teams who obviously don’t have what it takes to be a Premier League team and who’s campaign to remain up is dead on arrival (see Derby County). Not so far this year, however. Burnley, Wolves and Birmingham City all are in the top 13 in the EPL and have 14 points combined from 12 games. There’s plenty of time for one, two or all three of them to collapse into the relegation zone but so far these teams seem to have a chance to compete with some of the mid-class EPL teams on any given day. Plus, Portsmouth look dead and buried already.
- Aston Villa may be the Jekyll and Hyde team of 09-10. No team has been tougher to figure out than Villa so far this season. After getting embarrassed on opening day at home against Wigan, Villa beat Liverpool. After crashing out of the Europa League on goal difference to lowly Rapid Wien, Villa comes back and beats Fulham comprehensively 2-0. There is no doubt they have the tools to contend for Europe again this season, but will they be able to consistently put forth the effort required? Only time will tell.
- Rafa Benitez: Two losses from three in the Premier League couldn’t have sat too well with the Spaniard. Benitez rightfully called out his veteran players for the embarrassment against Aston Villa, even singling out Steven Gerrard for his mediocre play. The result was a character-showing comeback against Bolton which may have saved their season. The play of new signing Albert Aquilani (when he is fit) will go a long way in determining Benitez’s place at Liverpool.
- David Moyes: It’s only fair to give the Everton manager a little love after the blues finally got an EPL win under their belt. Everton went down 1-0 to Wigan and it would have been easy for them to call it a day but a goal by Louis Saha squared the match in the 62nd minute. Later on, Everton needed a penalty in the last minute of stoppage time to score the winning goal. It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.
- Peter Crouch: One of the most recognizable and funny looking players in all the world had a pretty good week coming off the bench for Spurs. After scoring his first goal for his new club in a 5-1 midweek Carling Cup win, Crouch scored Tottenham’s opener against Birmingham on Saturday. The tall, lanky striker nearly scored twice from his head before finally finding the back of the net in the 72nd minute. Crouch has been coming off the bench for the most part so far but has shown why he’s a danger on the pitch at any moment.
- Eduardo: The “Croatian” striker caused quite a ruckus in midweek as he made a blatant dive which earned a penalty against Celtic in Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier win. Not only did the resulting PK give Arsenal a clear cut path to victory over their rivals to the north but will most likely earn Eduardo a ban from UEFA for two games. Take a look at the video, it’s pretty ridiculous.
- Champions League group stage opponents: The world’s best club competition had the important group stage draw in Monaco last week and English teams lucked out for the most part. All four clubs managed to avoid the other big teams in Europe, including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan. Chelsea play Athletico Madrid and FC Porto, Liverpool play Lyon and Fiorentina, Manchester United face CSKA Moskow and German champions Wolfsburg while Arsenal get the easiest group consisting of AZ Alkmaar, Olympiacos and Standard de Liege. All four EPL teams should have no problem progressing to the knockout phase.
- Portsmouth: Another week, another loss for Pompey. Four losses from four games and still just one goal scored in league play. Yes, they did beat Hereford United in Carling Cup action, but most Pompey fans can already see the light at the end of the EPL tunnel and it leads right to the Championship.
How Americans Fared
- Jozy Altidore (Hull City): Altidore followed up his magical debut last weekend for Hull with a goal against Southend in the Carling Cup. It was a heck of a goal. Altidore came on as a second half substitute in Hull’s 1-1 draw against Wolves over the weekend. Grade: A-
- Clint Dempsey (Fulham): Two more starts for the American forward, who has been playing up front more often than not for the Cottagers. Unfortunately, Dempsey and the rest of the Fulham attack was unable to get anything going against Aston Villa over the weekend. Grade: B-
- Tim Howard (Everton): Howard and Everton finally got their first victory of the season over the weekend. Howard did concede but the blues held on for the 2-1 win. He’ll need to be on top of his game this week for the U.S. World Cup qualifiers. Grade: B+
- Jonathan Spector (West Ham): Spector will feel lucky to come out unscathed after the violence during the West Ham-Millwall Carling Cup game – a West Ham win. Over the weekend Spector started and played 90 minutes and saved at least one goal for West Ham in their 0-0 draw. Grade: B
The Premier League has a week off for World Cup qualifiers and returns on September 12. The best match of that weekend will be Arsenal vs. Manchester City!