FREE KICK: Vince Lombardi once said that fatigue makes cowards of us all, and you can tag me “Mr. Meek.” The Christmas holiday schedule included five premiership league games and an FA Cup match, and so many games in such little time resulted in Here's The Pitch taking a well-deserved rest. Unlike the players, your humble scribe is refreshed and rarin’ to go, so let’s kick start our first column of 2013.
MANCHESTER UNITED vs. LIVERPOOL: A delicious matchup involving the Yankees and Dodgers of English soccer, and it was one-way traffic in the first 45 with Man U travelling in the express lane. Robin Van Persie would net his league leading 17th goal of the campaign when he one-timed a Patrice Evra centering pass into the right-corner pocket, and Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa each had an opportunity to pad the Red Devils’ advantage but it was not to be. Early in the second stanza, Evra headed home a free kick and the home team began to make celebration plans. At that point, Liverpool boss Brendan Rogers called on recent acquisition Daniel Sturridge to supplement Luis Suarez, who was starved for attention throughout most of the match, and the investment paid immediate dividends when Sturridge deposited an easy tap-in just three minutes after Evra's tally. Sturridge had a golden opportunity to knot the score late in regulation, but skied his effort when a simple roof shot would have sufficed. United were deserved winners, while Liverpool could take comfort in the tag team pairing of Suarez and Sturridge; they have the tools to become the Hawk and Animal of the premiership. Ohhh, what a rush. Manchester United 2, Liverpool 1.
ARSENAL vs. MANCHESTER CITY: It took just nine minutes for this game to turn on its head. That's when Laurent Koscielny did his best Ray Lewis imitation by tackling Edin Dzeko to the turf; first down City, red-card Koscielny, penalty kick Dzeko. With the naked eye, Mike Dean's ruling appeared debatable, but the replays exposed the play for what it was. The PK decision was fair, but the red-card sending-off was perhaps unjust. Wojiech Szczesny was spectacular in stopping the PK, but playing 10-versus-11 was too much for the Gunners to overcome. James Milner sent a bulldozer past Szczesny to open the scoring in the 22nd, and ten minutes later Arsenal was caught snoozing when City took advantage of a free kick to send Dzeko goal bound. A case of even-steven booking came about in the 74th when Vincent Kompany was dismissed for a two-footed tackle, but this chapter of the rivalry had long been decided by that point, and City remains within shouting distance of Man United with the victory. Manchester City 2, Arsenal 0.
STOKE vs. CHELSEA: Sometimes you're the bug, and other times you're the windshield. In this case, Jonathan Walters was the gnat that just kept on irritating, as he recorded the worst type of hat trick: A pair of own goals to go along with a missed penalty kick. Stoke was in a giving mood and Chelsea was happy to accept the gifts. Chelsea 4, Stoke 0.
SUNDERLAND vs. WEST HAM UNITED: This was a contest involving two teams in desperate need of a victory, but only the Black Cats played with a sense of urgency. Seb Larsson drilled a hole through the back of the net to open the scoring in the 12th minute; the howitzer was partially deflected as it left the Swede's left boot, but it still left a vapor trail as it whizzed past the outstretched hands of Jussi Jaaskelainen. Adam Johnson doubled Sunderland's pleasure two minutes into the second half courtesy of some Laurel and Hardy-like defending from the visitors, and in the 74th, Stephane Sessegnon, who prefers to shoot first and answer as to why later, found James McClean for an easy tap-in. The Black Cats were totally dominant while the Hammers had the energy of a mannequin and the appetite for goal of a model. Sunderland 3, WHU 0.
FULHAM vs. WIGAN: Despite being the better side in the early going, Wigan allowed the home team to open the scoring courtesy Greek international Giorgos Karagounis in the 22nd. Martin Jol's team defended with courage and conviction until the 74th, when Franco DiSanto cut to the inside from the left side of the penalty area and went top shelf past a helpless Mark Schwarzer. A serious knee injury to Wigan fullback Ivan Ramis resulted in six minutes of stoppage time, and in the waning seconds Maynor Figueroa earned a badge of honor for his club, racing to the goal line to head away a certain goal as netminder Ali Al Habsi was out of position. Just a fantastic effort by Figueroa to rescue a point. Wigan 1, Fulham 1.
ASTON VILLA vs. SOUTHAMPTON: “One is the Loneliest Number,” was a popular song in the 1960s, but loneliness has its privileges. A tight, defensive contest was decided by a dreadful if not horrible PK decision against AV defender Enda Stevens; his challenge upon Jay Rodriguez only found oxygen, but somehow referee Mark Halsey put whistle to mouth. AV has been shut out three times in their last four Premiership matches, and they were once again offensively challenged against Southampton, with their forays towards goal were few and far between. It's been that kind of year for the Villans; they never seem to be on the good side of lucky breaks, but as the saying goes, a rich man's prank is a poor man's felony. Southampton1, Aston Villa 0.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS vs. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: The pre-match heat was generated by opposing managers Harry Redknapp and Andres Villas-Boas, as the former and current Spurs bosses engaged in a duel of “anything you can do, I can do better.” Meanwhile, other than QPR keeper Julio Caeser, the players were well below par. The best chances in the match took place in the opening twelve minutes; Jermain Defoe and Emanuel Adebayor had the honors for Spurs, while Shaun Wright-Phillips was served prime beef for QPR only to overcook his drive from eight yards out. This encounter was far from a Picasso; hardly suitable for framing. QPR 0, Tottenham 0.
NORWICH CITY vs. NEWCASTLE UNITED: Newcastle has lost their super striker Demba Ba to Chelsea, they're winless away from home this season, and top player Pappis Cisse is in terrible form. Not a good combo, but they were afforded a huge boost when Grant Holt started the game on the bench. The Canaries’ top dog is rounding into form following a minor injury, but like everyone else, he was unable to find the net in this matchup. Norwich 0, Newcastle 0.
READING vs. WEST BROMWICH ALBION: The most thrilling contest of the weekend was played by two of the Premiership's mighty mites. WBA's scoring firm of Lukaku and Morrison collaborated on a pair of scores to give the visitors a 2-0 cushion entering the final 10 minutes, but Reading gained strength from their home supporters and scored three times in the 82nd, 88th and 90th minutes. The goal in the 88th came via a penalty kick, but that doesn't diminish a brave and gallant comeback. Reading 3, WBA 2.
EVERTON vs. SWANSEA CITY: David Moyes had to have his head in his hands at the completion of this match, as his team was found lacking in the department of killer instinct. Swansea was content to sit back and soak up pressure…mission accomplished. Everton 0, Swansea 0.
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