By Andi Thomas & Alex Netherton
The bottom, with Paul Lambert
Terrible people often describe good games of football as excellent adverts for the Premier League. Leaving aside the hilarious notion that the Premier League should ever need to do anything so crass as advertise, let’s assume that bad games are also adverts. Bad ones. And bad adverts, well, they’re terrible things. Take Aston Villa-West Ham, which for the first half was on a par with this piece of work…
…and, as West Ham began to put themselves about in the second half, looked as though it was going to have the same effect on Paul Lambert’s career as the above did on Duffy’s.
Not a huge surprise, of course. This was a meeting between the 18th worst home side and the (joint-)17th worst away side in the league. Add to that the latent confusion caused by the claret-and-blue/blue-and-claret colour schemes, Andi (who spells their name like that anyway?) Weimann’s atmosphere-killing early miss, and West Ham’s noble attempts to satirise their manager’s reputation by playing even more so than usual, and it’s a miracle that Barclays weren’t bankrupt after 60 minutes.
But then something remarkable happened: things went Aston Villa’s way. Two moments of Charles N’Zogbia-inspired West Ham daftness, two goals. Then they conceded a delicately precise own goal shortly afterwards, which not only perked the game right up, but made the eventual victory much, much better. Because being the kind of team that can pick up three cheap points from insipid visitors is one thing. Proving to your fans and yourselves that you can concede but not collapse, that vulnerability doesn’t always lead to defeat, despair, and the destruction of all hope, is quite another.
For the first time since dinosaurs roamed the earth (or January), Villa are out of the bottom three. If they can kick on, or even just hang on, then Ashley Westwood’s own goal and their response to it might go down as the moment Paul Lambert’s side began to reinforce their youthful brittleness with something vaguely approaching fortitude. (For balance, we should note that it could also go down as an irrelevant footnote; West Ham were dreadful, after all.) If you’re reading, Duffy, and Diet Coke, that’s what your advert was missing: a bit of peril. Next time, fight a tyrannosaurus or something.
(All these words aside, you have to wonder, would a Premier League without Aston Villa be any less complete than a world without Rufus Hound?)
The top, with Alex Ferguson
On Friday night, Alex Ferguson looked at the big league ladder he keeps in his underground lair. Nine points, he thought, which will be six by the time we play Everton on Sunday. But Real Madrid on Wednesday. After dismissing the notion that failing to beat Everton could affect a title race in any way, he cranked up his beloved tombola and started rotating like mad. Five changes, he thought. No, six. No! Seven…yes, seven beautiful, beautiful changes. Bliss swept through his frame.
On Saturday night, all change. Noted scarf-wearer Roberto Mancini’s cunning tactical gambit—“We need to lull them into a false sense of security. Joe, drop one in front of an opponent. The rest of you, look terribly and embarrassingly unarsed. If it starts to look like we might get back into it, even by accident, Gareth, you know what you have to do. Mess with their minds, boys!”—had backfired, Southampton had won 3-1, the country had convulsed in giggles, and Manchester United were still nine points clear.
At this point, you might have expected Operation Rotation to proceed with even more fervour. An unprecedented 12 changes, perhaps (that joke goes out to the LOL TEH REF PLAYZ 4 UTD LOL boys, keeping it delusional since 1876). But that’s not how title races work, apparently. Sunday morning, a chance to put a foot on a throat; Sunday afternoon, a surprisingly strong team; Sunday evening, helped by Everton not really turning up, and Ferguson was able to chuckle to the press about his change of plans: “I was going to make seven changes…Then when I got the [City] result I thought this would be a more important game for us.” For once Ferguson, who always claims that “We make it hard for ourselves,” when he means “I make it hard for myself by making bloody silly tactical decisions before games,” had done himself, and the club, a favour.
Naturally, anything Ferguson says to the press should be taken with several pinches of salt, which is why he’s so bad for the nation’s blood pressure. And there will doubtless be a few changes for Wednesday game in Madrid, with Anderson, Shinji Kagawa, Rio Ferdinand and Danny Welbeck all potential candidates for the crucial looking-ruefully-at-Cristiano-Ronaldo-before-trudging-back-to-the-halfway-line role. But assuming that there is a least some truth tucked in there, it’s a fascinating insight into the rhythms of a title race. Winning your own games: good. Jumping all over the failures of your rivals: much, much better. And luckily for Ferguson, there’s no way a modern Manchester United side could ever throw away a commanding lead at the top of the table in risible and desperate fashion.
Obligatory Pope joke
Devout Catholic; has experience of working for thumpingly rich organisations and a hands-off, all-powerful boss; enjoys pilgrimages; wears elaborate and unnecessary neckwear; associates with individuals who occasionally disappear to South America. If Roberto Mancini does need another job any time soon …