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Catch Me If You Can

Kate Partridge's blog

Published time: January 30, 2012 17:25

January: notable in English football for the start of the reverse fixtures, the FA Cup fourth round, the Carling Cup semi-finals, the transfer window (and, to use the old agenda filler, Any Other Business).

While their manager Harry Redknapp was preparing to appear in court to answer charges of tax evasion, the second week of 2012 began more auspiciously for Tottenham. After its September postponement due to the hopefully unique reason of public rioting, Spurs’ home fixture with Everton finally took place on January 11th. Goals from Aaron Lennon and Benoit Assou-Ekotto gave them a 2-0 victory, putting the north London side level on points with second-placed Manchester United, and just three behind leaders Manchester City. A three-horse race, to use a gambler's term.

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<i>Harry′s Game: Mixed fortunes for Redknapp′s Tottenham with a win, loss and draw in late January to stay third (AFP Photo / Ben Stansall)</i>
Harry's Game: Mixed fortunes for Redknapp's Tottenham with a win, loss and draw in late January to stay third (AFP Photo / Ben Stansall)

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But could it remain so? Three days later, a presumably still tired Spurs could only claw out a 1-1 draw with Wolves. Meanwhile, Chelsea edged Sunderland, thanks to Frank Lampard, and United could afford a Wayne Rooney penalty miss and still put three past Bolton – a result also gratefully received by fellow strugglers Blackburn, who boosted their own survival cause with a 3-1 win over Fulham, despite having Ayegbeni Yakubu sent off early on.

The following day, Arsenal's hopes of closing on the top four took another dashing with a second straight league defeat, going down 3-2 at Swansea. But leaders City regained their advantage with a Monday win at battling but beleaguered Wigan, courtesy of Edin Dzeko. Such are the fine margins.

However, there are always those halcyon days which throw up unexpected upsets, scintillating showpieces and unheralded heroes which either exasperate or enthral the fans, and thrill even hardened pundits. Saturday 21st January produced such a programme – and all the games deserve a mention.

Bolton moved out of the bottom three after winning 3-1 at home to a defensively sloppy Liverpool, picking up their first points over the Reds since 2006. Blackburn deservedly drew 1-1 at Everton, thanks to the memorably monikered David Goodwillie's equaliser, but remained in the bottom three. While Clint Dempsey became the first American to score a Premier League hat-trick as Fulham came from behind to stun Newcastle 5-2 at Craven Cottage.

In stark contrast, Norwich against Chelsea finished with no goals, no cards, and no joy for the Blues' dwindling title hopes. £50-million striker Fernando Torres' scoreless run also unflatteringly reached the 17-game mark. However, Mark Hughes' QPR rose out of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win over Wigan, which left the Latics rooted to the bottom. And Graham Dorrans' late free-kick earned West Brom their first league win of the year as they squeezed out a timely 2-1 victory at Stoke – their first win over the Potters since September 2003.

Sunderland's renaissance under Martin O'Neill continued, and ended Swansea's four-game unbeaten run, with a 2-0 victory at the Stadium of Light. And finally, Robbie Keane's superb second-half double punished his former club as Aston Villa won 3-2 at ten-man Wolves in the Midland derby.

Eight matches, 27 goals, one pivotal late red card. And that was even before four of the top five had kicked-off on a much-anticipated "Enter, the Contenders" Super Sunday. Could they match Saturday for excitement?

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<i>Fine Margins: Mario Balotelli′s stoppage-time penalty gives City a 3-2 home win over Tottenham to stay top (AFP Photo / Paul Ellis)</i>
Fine Margins: Mario Balotelli's stoppage-time penalty gives City a 3-2 home win over Tottenham to stay top (AFP Photo / Paul Ellis)

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Oh, yes. First up was Manchester City versus Tottenham in a title-chasing six-pointer – and four goals in nine pulsating second-half minutes. With 56 minutes on the clock, Samir Nasri opened the scoring, then Joleon Lescott swiftly put City two up. But poacher Jermain Defoe and a Gareth Bale thunderbolt made it 2-2 within 65 minutes. Cue substitute Mario Balotelli. The Italian controversy magnet came on, was quickly booked, then avoided a second yellow for an apparent stamp on Scott Parker before stepping up to net the 95th-minute winning spot-kick: 3-2 to City, who'd done a United.

But could United do a United? After humiliating Arsenal 8-2 in the home fixture, Sir Alex Ferguson's team expected a tougher test at the Emirates, and got it. Antonio Valencia opened for the visitors in first-half injury-time before the prolific Robin van Persie levelled in the 72nd minute. But, with nine minutes left, Danny Welbeck nabbed the late winner as United completed the double over their old rivals – as well as harpooning the Gunners' top-four aims by inflicting upon them a third straight league defeat.

After that, Premier League took a rest for Cup action, but left the top of the table with City still holding a three-point lead over United. Tottenham stay third but are now eight points off top spot, though five ahead of Chelsea, who in turn are five ahead of Arsenal, who are currently looking at the Champions League only from the comfort of their armchairs.

At the bottom, Bolton's triumph over Liverpool moved them to within a point of safety, at the expense of Wolves, who drop onto the trembling trapdoor between rock-bottom Wigan and embattled Blackburn. However, the gap between the bottom five and the rest of the league is starting to widen.

Right, we've dealt with the first of the reverse fixtures; now to the pots. Liverpool are seventh and six points adrift of a spot in Europe but are Wembley bound for the first time since 1996, as well as savouring the pleasure of knocking out both Manchester rivals in two Cup competitions within the space of three days.

On Wednesday, the Reds hung on to set up a Carling Cup final against Championship chargers Cardiff after edging City 3-2 on aggregate. And on Saturday, Dirk Kuyt popped up to score the 88th-minute winner that put Liverpool into the last 16 of the FA Cup at the expense of United.

Victory over the Bluebirds on Sunday 26th February would see the Reds lift the League Cup for a record eighth time, as well as guarantee them a place in the Europa League. In the meantime, they will also host Championship side Brighton in the FA Cup fifth round. It might be a dust-free few months in the Anfield trophy cabinet.

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<i>Spurs′ cramp victim Jermain Defoe – but not in terms of results (AFP Photo / Paul Ellis)</i>
Spurs' cramp victim Jermain Defoe – but not in terms of results (AFP Photo / Paul Ellis)

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That said, Chelsea, Tottenham and comeback kings Arsenal are also in with a magnificent shout of lifting the FA Cup. Though this begs the old question if it is possible, or at least advisable, to concentrate on Plan A: the title and/or a Champions League spot as well as Plan B: Cup glory – a dilemma which divides fans as much as coaches, players, chairmen and pundits.

Whatever the team's prospects, the final categories of the transfer window and Any Other Business could have a significant bearing on the outcome. Roman Pavlyuchenko is staying at Tottenham, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov has swapped Everton for Spartak Moscow, City's Carlos Tevez is still going absolutely nowhere, while team-mate Balotelli can't realistically go anywhere after the FA took exception to his apparent stamp on Parker's head and banned him for four games.

We're still in January. A lot can happen yet.

­The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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