As a blanket of snow engulfed England, eighteen Premier League teams stepped out in the chill, looking to draw the warmth of victories in one of the toughest conditions out there for football. It was an important weekend for the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal while at the bottom of the table, Reading and Wigan were looking to get out of the relegation zone. In addition, it was a weekend of Premier League debut for a host of clubs, good enough reason for fans to step out and for global viewers to switch on their television sets.
Theo Walcott signing a three-and-a-half year contract extension seems as nothing more than a silver lining in Arsene Wenger’s pressure pile. The Professor has had to bear brunt of the blame as Arsenal are slowly fading away from Champions League realm. The match against Chelsea was therefore important to ensure that the Gunners are committed to the cause of European football next season and to prove that they are not in an inconsistent form and can definitely come out as the better side when it comes to the other big guns.
The game began at a good pace at both ends, with Walcott feeding in a crisp through ball for Olivier Giroud only for the Frenchman to strike wide of the Chelsea goal. The Blues however, were not going to make any such mistakes. Soon after Giroud’s miss, a questionable tackle by Ramires on Francis Coquelin was ignored by the referee. The ball incidentally fell to Hazard, who only needed one look to know where to place the next pass. In came a cross towards Juan Mata. The former Valencia man took the ball down with a feather touch and smashed it into Wojciech Szczesny’s net, breaking his duck of six games.
The goal sure did irk Wenger but the same could not be said for his team. Chelsea bagged this opportunity to unsettle Arsenal with some swift movement upfront. Ten minutes from the first goal, they got their reward as Ramires once again was involved in a tackle, this time with Diaby. The Brazilian continued his run as Torres picked up the loose ball, passed it to Mata who cut in from the right and finished the move by returning the favour to Ramires inside the box. The No.7 was clear on goal but chose to tease Szczesny who fell for the trick and gave away a penalty. It was Super Frank who stepped up once again to score from the spot; his 6th goal in nine games in what could be a fitting end to his Chelsea career.
Wenger was clearly angry at the lack of resilience from his team which was evident from Arsenal coming out early on the pitch in the second half. This time, the intent was there. Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott took charge initially as Cazorla chipped a cross to Walcott but the striker’s shot went straight to Peter Cech. A few minutes later, Cazorla found Walcott again, except this time he gave a defense-splitting pass which was finished off exquisitely by Arsenal’s No.14. Chelsea started to panic as the game was now completely open.
Arsenal stepped on the pedal and gave Chelsea a taste of their own (first half) medicine as players started to move forward and got more involved around the Chelsea box. But time was running out and in the final quarter, Chelsea were just looking to hang in there and not let in a second goal for Wenger’s team. The Blues did have a great chance to finish things off when Demba Ba came on for Fernando Torres and was at the end of another open goal after going past Szczesny just outside the box but his shot was blocked by a last second tackle from Thomas Vermalean.
Chelsea ran out winners, Benitez can breathe a sigh of relief and the Blues are slowly cementing their place in the top four. Arsenal on the other hand do not have much time to brood over this loss with a midweek fixture against another London rival, West Ham, one that will prove to be a tough one to crack.
Over at White Hart Lane, Tottenham were looking to do the double over Manchester United with a win at home against the Red Devils for the first time in 12 years. The match was confirmed to kick-off just an hour before, but that didn’t dither the air of excitement around the Lane. United began the game with a sense of calm and patience. Spurs, on the other hand were looking to leverage the pace of their wingers – Lennon and Bale, to draw first blood. Indeed, both the players did come close on two separate occasions but failed to finish off their chances.
Michael Carrick has been instrumental in United’s play this season, commanding the whole game from a single vantage point. And once again, he used this power to engineer a fantastic move by United that led to the first goal. With an eye-catching pass to Danny Welbeck, who cut in and forwarded the ball to Tom Cleverly to the far right, giving him ample time to find Robin van Persie at the end of a pinpoint cross. It has been one of United’s commendable feats this campaign – finishing off their chances to the letter.
Spurs did come out with a little more intent in the second half – Clint Dempsey had the best chance to level the game for Spurs with a clear shot on goal but was well blocked by De Gea, who is known for his sharp reflexes with close shots. Defoe too was denied in a similar fashion. Gareth Bale tried something out of the ordinary with a zero-runup, outside-the-boot shot, only to see it flying over the bar. As the game entered extra time, Spurs finally scored the leveler with their 25th shot on goal. Clint Dempsey finished off an Aaron Lennon cut-back in what was the last kick of the game. United missed out on a chance to maintain the seven point lead at the top but Sir Alex was showed his displeasure at the officials over a supposed clear penalty that Wayne Rooney was denied, stating that it was a bad game from the linesman’s behalf.
While the United players were running around in the snow hoping to see off the Spurs game, their neighbours, City were at ease with Fulham at the Etihad. David Silva’s brace ensured the Mancini’s team was in the hunt to defend its title. The little Spaniard was at the end of an Edin Dzeko shot just ninety seconds into the game and finished off some great interplay between Clichy, Tevez and himself in the second half to keep Fulham at bay. Manchester City had plenty of chances to increase their lead, the easiest one falling to Dzeko towards the end of the game but turned into more of a high-flying miss. Nonetheless, City clinched three points and have now closed the gap at the top to just five points.
Manchester’s north-west neighbours, Liverpool, bounced back from a 2-1 away loss at Manchester United last week with a 5-0 thumping of Norwich City at Anfield. Plenty of positives from this game for the Reds – Luis Suarez continues his splendid form in a Liverpool shirt while showing signs of a promising partnership with Daniel Sturridge, who has now scored three goals in three games since joining Liverpool this winter; Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson have shown a vast improvement in their gameplay and have emerged as strong contenders for the midfield positions amongst a plethora of options for Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool’s home form has improved over the last seven games (five clean sheets). And above all, the Reds are slowly growing in strength and are proving to be a formidable force for the opposition.
Elsewhere, it was a flurry of Premier League debut goals for different players – Michael Owen scored his first for Stoke City but in a 3-1 loss to Swansea while Loic Remy and Joe Cole scored their debut goals to deliver a stalemate at Upton Park.
Over at the Hawthorns, West Brom and Aston Villa fought out a 2-2 draw which kept the Baggies in the top half of the table and lifted Villa out of the relegation zone. Wigan Athletic failed to overcome an in-form Sunderland side and remain in the relegation battle after their 2-3 home loss against the Black Cats.
As they clear the snow off the streets of England, the teams will brace themselves for a testing period in the coming weeks as it will require a strong sense of will, determination and rigorous training to climb up the Premier League table.