Sunday, April 14, 2013
Team of the Week
Goalless draws usually mean a dull game, bereft of chances. Reading v Liverpool, however, was far from that. If not for young Alex McCarthy in goal for the Royals, though, this clash could have ended up in a 7-0 loss for his side. And that is no overstatement. Liverpool had a total of 28 shots on goal, with 11 of those being on target, and McCarthy made a string of unbelievable saves to leave Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho wondering what on earth they had to do to open the scoring. Brendan Rodgers called it the best goalkeeping performance he has seen for long time, and few could argue with that.
While Sunderland's abject displays in front of goal this season have been well noted, their inability to keep a clean sheet in each of their last eight games has also played a role in their downward spiral over the past few months. Stephane Sessegnon will receive most praise for his part in the trouncing of Newcastle, but John O'Shea also deserves special mention for inspiring this rare clean sheet. With Sunderland 1-0 up going into the second half, O'Shea's defence faced attack after attack after attack, yet still kept the opposition at bay. It was the skipper who led by example as well as nullifying the threat of substitute Shola Ameobi, setting up the platform for his side to go on and win so convincingly in the end.
Roberto Mancini has made it common practice this season to effectively moan about the lack of quality signings the club made last summer. While the majority of them have not been up to scratch, Matija Nastasic has proved the exception. His display against Chelsea was in keeping with the rest of his excellent campaign; for a man of just 20-years old, he produced a calm and measured performance that belied his years. He was brilliant in the air throughout and refused to falter as Chelsea began to bombard the Manchester City box with crosses. With Joleon Lescott falling out of favour and Kolo Toure not the force he once was, Mancini should count himself lucky to have Nastasic at his disposal.
Millwall were always going to have to sit back and absorb the pressure from Wigan at Wembley, due to their lesser stature in the game, but also because of their reactive style of play. Perhaps they were not expecting to be pegged back as much as they were by a rampant Wigan side full of speed and energy, but for the majority of the game at least, they held it together. The main reason for this was down to the performance of Danny Shittu, with the skipper leading by example at the back. Wigan had an early onslaught of corners but Shittu was always there to help avert the danger until the next one arrived. With Millwall's main attacking threat coming from set-pieces, he was also their biggest danger going forward.
Having been dropped for Aston Villa's last four games, Charles N'Zogbia had a point to prove at Villa Park against Fulham. And that he did. A virtuoso performance saw him at the heart of all that was good that his side created, with the midfielder playing a number of delightful passes that split open the opposition defence. With Mark Schwarzer in top form it was obvious that it was going to take something special to break the deadlock. And N'Zogbia produced just that, with a fine curling effort into the top corner. He would have had a hat-trick against a lesser goalkeeper.
Manchester City can always rely on their Mr Wembley. Yaya Toure scored the winner in their last FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United two years ago, before doing the same a few weeks later in the final against Stoke. And back at England's national stadium, he produced a scintillating performance to carry his side over the line against Chelsea. In a trademark display he was everywhere, box-to-box, and linking up the play for Mancini's side. In what was one of the most end-to-end games you will see all season, he was the perfect player to have on the pitch: breaking up attacks with crunching tackles before bursting down the other end of the pitch in a blink of an eye. Heroic.
He has occasionally impressed there before and he did it again against Stoke. Asked to play in a deeper role, in the centre of midfield, Wayne Rooney played as if he has been playing in that position for his whole career. Dropping deep to pick up the ball, he was at the heart of the majority of United's play, and when the Potters looked like they might start to threaten, it was Rooney who kept his composure, meaning United kept possession. For all the talk of United not really needing him up front these days, perhaps it is in midfield that his long-term career at the club lies.
A player who has always had talent but has not lived up to his potential this season, Stephane Sessegnon turned stale, very much like the whole Sunderland team did, during Martin O'Neill's tenure at the club. Under Paolo Di Canio, however, he looks to have found a new lease of life. Against Newcastle he was a threat all day long. While his side defended heroically, and often for sustained periods, Sessegnon was the perfect outlet on the counter-attack. And on two of these occasions he broke away to score a fine strike and set up another. Not bad.
While there were plenty of attacking masterclasses going on at Wembley over the weekend, Victor Anichebe's performance against Queens Park Rangers perhaps went under the radar. The Nigerian has finally come of age this season, forcing Nikica Jelavic to perform his old role of warming the substitutes' bench. When he is in the mood he can be a real handful for any defence, and that is certainly what he was all game for QPR at Goodison Park. A constant thorn in the side to Chris Samba and Clint Hill, Anichebe's work-rate was second to none and he deservedly got Everton's second goal to kill off the game, as well as the opposition's survival hopes. If not for the formidable Julio Cesar, he would have added a few more to his name.
Before Saturday, if you had mentioned the name Callum McManaman to most people, the first thing to come to their minds would have been his horror challenge on Massadio Haidara that went unpunished a few weeks ago. Following his superb performance against Millwall, however, his football can now do the talking. Along with the excellent Shaun Maloney and Arouna Kone, he tore apart the Lions team with his mesmerising runs down the flanks. In the second half particularly, he haunted right-back Alan Dunne, bursting into the box on a number of occasions, suddenly changing direction and cutting inside or squaring the ball to a team-mate. He was rewarded for his display with a well-taken finish that sealed Wigan's place in a first ever FA Cup final.
Manchester City completed what looks like proving to be a season-defining week with victory over Chelsea, following the win at Manchester United. Just as Sergio Aguero was the match-winner at Old Trafford, he ultimately was at Wembley too. He took his goal with real aplomb, finding the top corner with a deft header from an unlikely angle, and the Blues never truly recovered. Yet that was just the icing on the cake. He was a constant danger to the opposition defence with his intelligent running, causing them all sorts of problems for the duration of the match, while he also teed up Samir Nasri for the opener. Had he been fit more often this season, City would likely be in hunt for the Double now.
There was only one man who was ever going to manage this lot this week after those celebrations. Despite all the furore surrounding his arrival in the Premier League, who can begrudge Paolo Di Canio his side's victory against Newcastle after witnessing just what it meant to him? As each Sunderland goal got better, so too did Di Canio's celebrations. Running down the touchline, sliding on his knees and eventually joining in with the group huddle was sheer entertainment. Politics aside, the English game is surely better for his presence. Sunderland were not bad either, and thanks to their boss they now look like having a real chance of beating the drop.