Return to mix after magical midweek
The Barclays Premier League can, from time to time, cast you into gloom — but it sure knows how to lift you out of it.
Over just the first week of December, we encountered quite a range of emotions. First the Premier League declared that clubs had spent around $160 million on agents during the past year, representing an increase of nearly 20 percent in this often dubious expenditure.
But we had only a few days to digest this — and to imagine how well such a sum could have instead been spent on youth coaching or community soccer — before the players of the same clubs came up with a magical midweek of entertainment.
Not just plenty of goals, excitement and the rough-and-tumble often associated with the English game. Sheer quality too. In places quality so breathtaking as to suggest that the best of Spain would have struggled to compete.
Liverpool‘s Luis Suarez led the way with four goals against Norwich, who must wonder what they have done in a previous life to deserve the punishment the Uruguayan imposes on them — his total for Liverpool against the club from East Anglia is now 11 in four games — but Eden Hazard also delivered a sublime performance for Chelsea in the seven-goal thriller at Sunderland.
Leaders Arsenal laid on some glorious stuff at home to Hull; Manchester City dished up a passable imitation of their sumptuous home form at West Bromwich; Everton went boldly to Manchester United and won. Those were the highlights. I could go on, but the point was the sheer class displayed on various grounds on the same night. I’m still pinching myself and wondering if the brilliance of Suarez and Hazard in particular could have been exceeded by the players rightly accepted as the world’s best: Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.
You wouldn’t put anything past the Clasico rivals (even if Messi and Ronaldo are injured at present). Their rivalry, in conjunction with that between their clubs, has been one of the most enthralling phenomena of my life on the fringes of soccer, which is into its fifth decade, and Barcelona’s Xavi and Andres Iniesta are also sometimes cited as exponents at a higher level than the English game can conjure.
But the contributions of Suarez and Hazard — not to mention Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil of Arsenal and City’s Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero — to the most recent round of Premier League games did suggest that La Liga might have a fight on its hands if it is to retain a claim to world supremacy.
It also left me counting the hours to this weekend. One amazing aspect of Wednesday’s extravaganza was that it came so soon after a pretty good weekend programme in which Tottenham and United had come up with a rich draw at White Hart Lane. So can the League do it again, starting just 63 hours on from Wednesday’s final whistles when Newcastle take on United at Old Trafford?
This is the Newcastle who, after four straight wins, just succumbed to a lovely exhibition of Swansea’s passing game. Coach Alan Pardew was upset with referee Howard Webb’s decisions at the Liberty Stadium, and understandably because not only had his team been denied two penalties; Swansea might have been reduced to 10 men had Jonjo Shelvey, who forced the second goal and scored the third, been spotted thrusting his forehead at Mathieu Debuchy.
Bewilderingly, the FA has taken no retrospective action on the incident and so Shelvey will be available at home to Hull on Monday. By then we shall have an even better idea of whether Arsene Wenger’s latest creation can go on to take the title last brandished in front of Arsenal’s supporters when Highbury was their home.
That was in 2004. And Wenger’s men are better placed now than at this stage a decade ago. Then, they entered December second in the table, behind Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea. Now they will be striving at least to maintain a four-point lead over Jose Mourinho’s side, albeit in what could be very difficult circumstances, for the visitors to the Emirates are an Everton bent on showing that the victory at United was less a one-off than a statement of top-four intent.
Roberto Martinez is doing a magnificent job at Goodison Park so far and the form of Romelu Lukaku, on a season-long loan from Chelsea, is a threat to everyone. Everyone except Chelsea, as Mourinho mischievously pointed out the other day, for under Premier League regulations he can’t play against his parent club.
If he makes the difference against Arsenal, the Chelsea boss will again be able to make light of jibes that young Lukaku is doing better than any of the strikers – Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, Demba Ba – who remain at Stamford Bridge.