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Sunday, March 4, 2012
Premier League Team of the Week

Christopher Atkins

In what was a fairly subdued encounter between Stoke and Norwich at the Britannia Stadium, it is unsurprising that the one stand-out player on the pitch would be a goalkeeper. John Ruddy in the Norwich net was outstanding all game and had it not been for his crucial interventions, the scoreline could have been much worse than 1-0 for the Canaries. One blemish on the keeper's copybook was a failure to save Matthew Etherington's tight-angle winner, but a confident display of goalkeeping across the 90 minutes more than made up for that slip. Arsenal's Bacary Sagna has come back into the first-team fold in inspired form, in both attack and defence. His most notable contribution to the game against Liverpool was a sublime cross for Robin van Persie's opener, but it must also be remembered that he pulled off a fine last-ditch tackle to deny Stewart Downing a golden chance to score. All game Sagna dealt comfortably with the in-form Downing and his presence alone has given an assuredness to the Arsenal backline that has previously been missing. Gareth McAuley is not always an obvious star, but his performance against Chelsea was nothing short of outstanding. As well as turning in the second goal of his West Brom career - one that saw the end of Andre Villas-Boas' reign as Chelsea manager, to grab the headlines - McAuley was also a giant in defence for the Baggies. Up against Didier Drogba, the Northern Irishman matched his opponent throughout in aerial battles and also showed great composure when dealing with the potentially tricky threats of Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata. West Brom did not back-down to the Chelsea superstars and McAuley epitomised their attitude and performance. It is very rare to see Gael Clichy's name on the scoresheet, and while the left-back didn't quite manage that honour against Bolton, his deflected effort did give Man City the lead. In defensive areas there was very little for Clichy to do, with Bolton mustering little in the way of attacking threat, but the full-back was always an available outlet for the title-challengers as they pushed forward. He will have tougher days at the office, but can be very pleased with his contribution the team's comfortable 2-0 victory. As Chelsea slumped to defeat at The Hawthorns, much of the attention was on the under-performing members of Andre Villas-Boas's side, but it cannot be overlooked that West Brom's midfield were outstanding throughout, dominating proceedings. While James Morrison provided much of the side's creativity in forward areas, it was Youssuf Mulumbu who ensured the Baggies were on top in the middle of the pitch. Mulumbu hassled Ramires and Frank Lampard in the central areas, forcing Chelsea to play backwards or concede possession on numerous occasions. Mulumbu's star has been rising over the past 18 months and more performances of this nature will no doubt see a big team come knocking for his services. Swansea may well feel they suffered at the hands of the referee, following Nathan Dyer's harsh dismissal, but the diminutive wideman can thank Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson for securing all three points for his side. Swansea have impressed many neutrals with their slick passing football in midfield this campaign, but with the addition of Sigurdsson in January the Swans now have added quality in attacking areas and one of Europe's top dead-ball specialists. A fine long-range curled effort and a well-struck free-kick will grab the headlines, but Sigurdsson was a threat all game, trying ambitious through-balls that at times should have led to better rewards. A contender for best business of the January window. As Fulham strolled past Wolves at Craven Cottage, once more it was American superstar Clint Dempsey who provided much of the creative inspiration for the West London side. Two goals were the reward for the player's endeavours, although he must also thank the likes of Moussa Dembele and Andrew Johnson for their contributions to the team's cause. Dempsey is the link-man between the midfield and forward line and played the role to perfection, timing his runs into the box to grab his goals and also at times dropping back to give an extra man in the midfield. The Texan's reputation continues to grow and today was another demonstration of his all-round talents. Manchester United emerged 3-1 victors at White Hart Lane on Sunday despite an under-par performance, largely thanks to two stunning finishes from left-winger Ashley Young. A back-post volley was followed-up with a curled right-foot shot from 25 yards which left Spurs' keeper Brad Friedel helpless. When sides at the top of the league are underperforming, it is often moments of individual brilliance that secure the three points and on Sunday it was the England midfielder's turn to step-up. The technique shown for both finishes was outstanding and left Tottenham shell-shocked in a game where they had been on top for long periods. Top of the list of unlikely heroes is Newcastle's Shola Ameobi, but the local boy came good to continue his fine scoring record against rivals Sunderland and secure a late draw. Having come on for the Magpies with twenty minutes to play, Ameobi made an instant impact, providing an aerial threat that Papiss Cisse had failed to offer his team. Ameobi's knock-downs in-and-around the area were a source of opportunities for the hosts, bringing shooting chances for his colleagues, before winning a penalty for his side with ten minutes to play. It wasn't to be his last contribution, as with just moments remaining, the career-long Newcastle player turned up at the far post to turn the ball home. His manager will be delighted with his contribution from the bench. Robin Van Persie makes his second consecutive appearance in Team of the Week, having once again inspired Arsenal to what had appeared at one stage to be an unlikely victory. A header on the half-hour mark pulled the Gunners level after a beauty of a cross from Bacary Sagna, but it was the Dutchman's second effort that really confirmed his status as Man of the Match. After Alex Song played a delightful chipped through-ball into the area, the Premier League's leading scorer this season showed immaculate technique to side-foot the volley past Pepe Reina at the near-post. An almost perfect campaign continues. There have been several strikers come into the Premier League and make an immediate impact in the past couple of years and it seems Pavel Pogrebnyak is the latest. The Russian forward has been a revelation since his arrival from Stuttgart in January. Five goals in three games has seen Fulham fans' concerns over the departure of Bobby Zamora quickly fade away, as they herald the arrival of 'The Pog'. Against Wolves, Pogrebnyak was at his predatory best to grab a superb hat-trick that saw Fulham on their way to a comfortable victory. An excellent target-man, Pogrebnyak creates the space for the likes of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele behind to exploit, as they did magnificently. Clever movement to find space and sharp finishes with both feet and his head bagged the rewards. A complete performance. West Brom have been in fine form recently and a 1-0 win over Chelsea for Roy Hodgson and his men this weekend sees The Baggies move into the top half of the table. While opposition manager Andre Villas-Boas was toiling, Hodgson had his side set up perfectly and they frustrated the Blues throughout, creating chance after chance. The goal only came late in the game, but it was the least West Brom deserved. In all the criticism that will no doubt be flung Chelsea's way, the Baggies' fine performance must not be forgotten. • The ESPNsoccernet App is available now on the Apple App Store, and is coming soon for Android and Windows Phone users.

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