Barcelona’s dramatic 2-0 victory in the Estadio Bernabeu last night appeared to confirm what we thought all along: that the Catalan giants are simply unbeatable when they play to anywhere near their potential, and that all the forces of evil have once again conspired against long-time media darling and veteran complainer Jose Mourinho. Yet amidst all the controversy over the red card for Pepe, which just for the record was entirely unjust and should instead have been replaced by a booking for persistent fouling and a final warning, Mourinho’s tactics appear to have been slightly forgotten.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. There’s been more comment on a possible points deduction for QPR this season than almost any other topic in the Championship, with similarly ignorant fans from teams throughout the division throwing their meaningless, ill-informed views into the mix.
The fact is nobody is qualified to comment on the situation apart from the investigators themselves. By leaving the decision so late in the season, the FA have shot themselves in the foot, as deducting QPR points would be greeted by an instant appeal and huge legal ramifications, whilst a fine would bring about immediate derision and cries of injustice from the teams below us. In the end whatever the independent tribunal decides will probably be challenged by either side, but the constant speculation from people who really, with all due respect, have no idea what they are talking about, is starting to grate ever so slightly.
Fewer derby matches have had greater significance all season that the ‘Tractor Derby’ involving Ipswich Town and Norwich City. The passion characterising these occasions, besides any other overriding concerns, is always tremendous and a testament to both sides and their legions of passionate supporters. This time, however, the ramifications of failure are bigger than ever for both sides. Ipswich, thrashed 4-1 by their eternal rivals earlier this season in front of the television cameras at a gleeful Carrow Road, will be looking to avoid definitive defeat in the Old Farm Derby, and an embarrassing reversal. For Norwich, meanwhile, nothing less than a place in the Premier League is at stake, and how Town would love to deny them such a tantalising opportunity.
Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at St. James’ Park followed Monday evening’s drab 0-0 stalemate between Queens Park Rangers and Derby County. As one not attuned to regularly checking facts and statistics, I am ill-placed to comment on whether or not this has happened before, but there are certainly portents as to the future direction of the title race in the Premier League, and the far more enthralling race to join the top flight. Despite the identical score-lines, the games couldn’t have differed more; United and Newcastle playing out a veritable game of two halves, unable to be separated amidst exciting passages of play and the sort of end-to-end action that would ensure it anywhere but last place on Match of the Day. QPR meanwhile, faltered badly, failing to muster any notable chances besides Wayne Routledge’s early effort and a superbly-executed chip from Adel Taarabt which almost caught out County ‘keeper Brad Jones.
The words of Bolton Wanderers captain Kevin Davies say it all, his side having suffered a humiliating 5-0 hammering at Wembley yesterday, at the hands of a Stoke City team with no experience of playing in such a big occasion. It was evident from the start that Stoke had their strategy right; aggressive, competitive and not afraid to shoot from distance, before Owen Coyle’s men had a chance to settle down and get into their stride, the match was more or less over as a contest.
First the rejuvenated Matthew Etherington, a testament to Tony Pulis’ incredible man-management ability, smashed home a sweet volley from the edge of the box, before another shot from distance, this time a tamer strike by towering German defender Robert Huth, curled just too much for ‘keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen. Bolton were understandably shellshocked by these two opening salvos, and quickly Wembley was turned into a Stoke City cauldron by the incredible atmosphere created by the Potters’ fans, as they turned Tom Jones’ 1968 hit ‘Delilah’ into a requiem to victory, and the soundtrack to the afternoon.
Lewis Hamilton drove an exceptional race to come from third on the grid, just starting the race after a fuel problem kept him in the garage until seconds from the off, to his and McLaren’s first victory of the season in the Chinese Grand Prix. Some incredible overtaking moves and exceptional pace ensured the victory for Hamilton, which looked uncertain during the first half of the race. In the end his three-stop strategy gave him the fresh tyres to square up to the more jaded front-runners, namely Sebastian Vettel, and claim victory with just a few laps to go.
Vettel came home in second, having qualified comfortably in pole yesterday, whilst team-mate Mark Webber lived up to his ‘fighter’ tag by battling through the field superbly. Beginning the race amongst the rear markers, Webber looked set for further disappointment after the initial laps, lying in 16th place, but he ended up third after a tremendous drive and momentously quick three-stop strategy. Vettel currently leads the Drivers’ Championship with 68 points, having seen his lead cut by second-placed man Hamilton, 21 points behind. With the next Grand Prix in Turkey in three weeks’ time, the pressure will be on Vettel to ensure that his advantage isn’t further curtailed by the resilient McLarens, or team-mate Mark Webber.
Championship fans appear to be no closer to knowing the identities of this year’s promoted/relegated/play-off bound sides. Wins for Cardiff City and Norwich City have left the race for second wide open, and ensured that QPR cannot win the Championship title this Monday at home to Derby. Meanwhile Reading’s excellent form continued with a 3-1 home victory over Leicester, to bring them firmly into the mix, and – assuming their excellent form continues – able to capitalise on any slip-ups from the Bluebirds or the Canaries in the final four games.
As for the play-off race, defeat for Nottingham Forest at Carrow Road on Friday presented Leeds United with a golden opportunity to cement their position in the final play-off spot, and they nearly blew it, an own-goal from Troy Deeney two minutes from time salvaging a 2-2 draw. This was quite a positive result for Simon Grayson’s side, given that Millwall lost 2-1 away to Coventry courtesy of a Marlon King brace, but Hull City’s 3-1 defeat of woeful Doncaster Rovers sees them and Forest just two points behind Leeds and more than capable of bridging the gap.
The coastal town of Misrata in Libya is, currently, the only pocket of resistance holding out against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s relentless and loyal forces. Suffering sustained bombardment on a daily basis from weapons designed to wreak havoc and cause the maximum number of civilian casualties as possible, being fired indiscriminately at targets with the aim of making life impossible in the rebel enclave, the citizens of Misrata cannot just be sacrificed to the Gaddafi war machine. During the devastating Bosnian War (1992-1995) the international community failed tens of thousands of innocent Bosniaks, and let towns declared ‘safe areas’ fall to a similarly brutal bombardment.
Back then, disagreements over strategy and attempts to remain ‘neutral’ hampered the development of a cohesive, workable strategy. These errors cannot be repeated in Libya. The international community, working through the multi-national military organisation, NATO, must make a choice: back the rebels or let Misrata fall. If it does, thousands of fighters will be slaughtered, and the civilians who bravely held out against the siege will go with them. It’s time for NATO leaders to decide what constitutes a humanitarian emergency, and whether or not we in the West have the stomach for a real fight against Gaddafi. As the days go by without proper retaliation, however, the likelihood of Misrata remaining outside government control falls precipitously.
Congratulations to Graham Alexander, the Burnley spot-kick specialist who is equally renowned for being as prolific from six yards as he is in terms of appearances. Coming on as a substitute in his 1000th professional career game yesterday against Swansea City, Alexander became only the second player in British football history to reach such a monumental milestone, and nearly crowned a very special day with a goal, his free-kick crashing off the woodwork in the second-half. Having scored an impressive 105 goals for four different clubs – Scunthorpe United, Luton Town, Preston North End and Burnley – Alexander also has 40 caps for Scotland. At the age of 39, he is unlikely to amass many more appearances before retirement, but as a servant to the Football League his record is both enviable and unrivalled.