This weekend marked the last round of Premier League fixtures before the close of the transfer window, and understandably the 10 games played were – on the whole – cagier affairs. Players were keen to avoid mistakes for fear of being replaced by trigger-happy managers before tomorrow evening, and thus took fewer risks.
Such an attitude led to more tentative displays from the likes of Tottenham, who failed to pierce Wigan’s sieve of a defence as they fell to a 1-0 defeat. Perhaps distracted by Thursday’s Champions League draw - which paired them with holders Internazionale – Harry Redknapp’s side lost focus and lacked the attacking vigour of last week’s win over Stoke.
After beginning the game looking to avoid defeat, Roberto Martinez’s Latics soon realised they had a chance to get all three points from the visit to White Hart Lane. Spurs failed to heed a very visible warning shot in the form of Antonio Alcaraz’s embarrassing miss, and minutes later Hugo Rodallega (below) notched his first goal of the season.
The Colombian’s winner will give Redknapp cause for concern, and he will be keen to avoid similar slip-ups after the Champions League ties in Milan, Bremen and Enschede. With margins of error smaller than ever this season, just one European hangover could be the difference between Champions League qualification and a season in the Europa League.
One team looking more comfortable at the moment is Arsenal. Spurs’ North London neighbours saw off a stubborn Blackburn outfit and could have easily added to the two goals scored by Andrey Arshavin and the resurgent Theo Walcott.
This is exactly the kind of game Arsene Wenger’s side have dropped points in in recent years, but even when their forwards were squandering chances at one end, the Gunners’ back-line limited Rovers to few clear-cut chances at the other. Despite picking up a red card on his competitive debut for the club, Laurent Koscielny looks like a smart acquisition by Wenger.
That 2-1 victory leaves Arsenal on seven points, the same tally as Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men brushed past basement side West Ham with Dimitar Berbatov starring in a 3-0 win. The watching Fabio Capello will be relieved the Bulgarian has retired from international football, with Berbatov’s fellow countrymen taking on a weakened England back-line in Friday’s European Championships qualifier.
As important as Berbatov’s flair was the performance of Nemanja Vidic at the back. After a poor World Cup the Serbian is quickly getting back to his best at Old Trafford, and West Ham’s forwards barely got a touch on the ball, let alone a clear sight of goal.
But Arsenal and United are still chasing champions Chelsea, who kept up their 100 per cent record with a stroll in the park against Stoke. The Potters’ negativity left them playing a game of damage limitation even before Florent Malouda netted the opener, but Tony Pulis’ side know these are not the games from which they should be looking for victories. Still, with Stoke still yet to record a point this season, their home game against winless West Ham in September is already looking like a relegation six-pointer.
The top four is rounded off by Aston Villa, who bounced back from last week’s humbling at St James Park with a hard-fought 1-0 triumph over Everton. A well-taken goal from Luke Young may see Fabio Capello start to regret the full-back’s retirement from international football, while another impressive performance from Marc Albrighton made the £26m sale of James Milner look smarter by the day.
Milner’s new employers Manchester City slipped to a shock defeat at Sunderland, who are quickly turning the Stadium of Light into a fortress. Micah Richards, so impressive last week against Liverpool, was the villain of the piece this time round as he brought down Darren Bent for the decisive penalty kick.
Not so long ago, the thought of Birmingham against Blackburn on Sky would have encouraged the casual supporter to turn off the TV and get a headstart on their work for the week ahead, but not any more. Blues boss Alex McLeish has recognised the 1-0 wins of last season will not be so easy to come by without Joe Hart on the club’s books, while Bolton manager Owen Coyle has brought a fluid passing system with him from Burnley.
He has also brought Robbie Blake with him, and the veteran striker was the Trotters saviour, firing a late free-kick into the top corner of Ben Foster’s net to complete a comeback after goals from Roger Johnson and Craig Gardner had given Birmingham a 2-0 lead. Foster’s opposite number Jussi Jaaskelainen, meanwhile, had a game to forget – a needless slap on Johnson saw the Finn dismissed before half-time.
Another ground which witnessed a 2-2 scoreline was Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road. Luke Varney’s profligacy in front of goal contributed to Sheffield Wednesday’s relegation from the Championship last season, but the former Crewe man enjoyed a more fruitful debut with Ian Holloway’s team. Opponents Fulham will have impressed manager Mark Hughes to some degree after coming from behind for the second week running, but there remain question marks over their defensive solidity.
Aside from Blackpool’s fairytale start to the season, perhaps the biggest surprise this term has been the form of Mick McCarthy’s Wolves. They kept up their unbeaten record with a 1-1 draw against Newcastle, in a game which turned into a physical battle between the two midfields. A series of crunching tackles from Wolves captain Karl Henry silenced Newcastle hard-man Joey Barton but the Toon Army picked up their game in the second half to earn a deserved point.
On the subject of combative midfielders, Christian Poulsen enjoyed an impressive debut as Liverpool saw off the challenger of West Brom. Fernando Torres may have grabbed the headlines with the only goal of the game, but Poulsen showed a good understanding with Steven Gerrard, giving the Anfield faithful reason to be optimistic despite the departure of Javier Mascherano. The visitors can also be relatively happy with the performance, suggesting defensive collapses like that suffered against Chelsea are a thing of the past.
Team of the week (4-4-2):
Mignolet (Sunderland); Luke Young (Aston Villa) Vidic (Man Utd), Vermaelen (Arsenal), Baines (Everton); Al-Muhammadi (Sunderland), Poulsen (Liverpool), Mikel (Chelsea), Nani (Man Utd); Berbatov (Man Utd), Varney (Blackpool)