Premiership Roundup: Chelsea ride their luck again

Last updated : 15 January 2006 By Aidan O'Byrne
...notwithstanding a bit of encouraging news that the Arsenal board had managed to find some spare change down the back of the sofa (or even down the back of the new stadium's advance sale cashflows) and somewhat unexpectedly turn up some new signings.

Admittedly, if the average family has 2.4 children, it was nice to hear that Arsene Wenger had got as far as two and a half.

But then I was feeling very gloomy in general on Friday, given the malice of the flu/cold bug with which I'd been inflicted, and which had in fact forced me to retire early from the office. So, as evening arrived and I supped my second lemsip in front of the fire, I thought ahead to what I might expect from the weekend's fixtures. I reckoned the best that City would manage in the Manchester derby was a draw, that Spurs might well get a point at Anfield considering how porous the Liverpool defence had been against Luton, thus extending their improbable if shrinking lead in the table, that Arsenal would find Middlesbrough, who'd after all had already beaten us once this league campaign, tougher visitors to Highbury than Cardiff had been the preceding weekend, and that Sunderland had about as much chance of coming out on top in their match against Chelsea as a whelk would if it found itself in a supernova.

By half one on Saturday, however, things were looking up (albeit that the whelk's chances had not improved). Not only had the kleftico ordered for me by the rest of the prematch lunch club to make up for my late arrival near the ground proven to be very tasty indeed, but a quick check on the wap phone had shown City to be 2-0 up at half time. Moving on to watch the second half live in the pub, where petulant Ronaldo's red card was cheered almost as loudly as Fowler's injury time coup de grace, I began to think that things might not be so bad after all, even if the efficacy of Stella Artois as a cold remedy was as yet unproven. Thence to the turnstiles...

It was 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, then, finally that most appropriate of times for Arsenal to kick off towards the Clock End in a light drizzle, and I reflected on the fact that the previous season's Arsenal-Boro match, earlier on in the fixture schedule, had seen Arsenal come back from 3-1 down to win 5-3 and extend the then record sequence of unbeaten games. At the time, in the full knowledge that anything I attempted to write about the performance would fall short of what it deserved, my weekly commentary comprised a substantially shorter than usual 7 words in all – "and that's why they are the Champions" – well, I did tell you it was a while ago!

With two close chances in succession almost from the kick-off, albeit against a much weaker Boro side than we'd faced in those halcyon days, I wondered if some of that swagger and self-belief, so tarnished by the ongoing Chelsea juggernaut, might have returned. By the time the eponymous clock above the stand had progressed to show half past, we'd scored three times and my mind had been made up for me. It was in particular a delight to see what sort of display Thierry Henry can put on when he's playing to justify a new contract, his brace either side of Senderos's bulleted header showing a balance between brutally efficient power and sharp thinking. Robert Pires, obviously thinking to himself that he'd better do something special to nab some of the board's salary kitty as well, chipped in (literally) with a skilful fourth and it was game over at half time. Lehmann turned to applaud the North Bank before trotting into the stands for the half-time team talk, no doubt pleased that the most potent threat on his goal in the afternoon so far had come from the mascot's penalty practice during the warmup.

Cygan's enforced withdrawal through injury part way through the first half had meant an earlier than planned introduction of his understudy for the day, one Ashley Cole, and such was the bonhomie engendered by the performance (and scoreline) that there was not even a hint of reserve about the crowd's applause for his return.

Boro did a bit better after the restart, holding out for almost a quarter of an hour before Gilberto's header squirmed through their keeper to give the North Bank their first officially sanctioned goal of the afternoon – though Pires's disallowed header was in line rather than offside and Thierry had proven he had elements of mere humanity about him by shanking his first chance at a hattrick. Released by the lively Reyes, Henry duly notched a hattrick with a drilled finish that puts him equal with Cliff Bastin on 150 league goals for the club, and somewhere either just before or just after Hleb bundled the seventh in, Boro had their first real chance of scoring, as Lehmann tipped out the follow-up to a Riggott shot which came back off the crossbar. They'd also had Doriva sent off during the second half, but in truth it hadn't made much difference, and I was just left wondering if at one point I'd really seen Thierry play in an overlapping winger with a flick of the heel of his standing foot while dummying a shot. Yup, according to video machine of that nice Mr Lineker that's been the death of Golden Wonder, I had indeed.

For the mathematically inclined, having the two teams ahead of you in the table draw, thus both dropping points, is the ideal result, but it was all the same so much more satisfying to hear, while heading for the North Bank concourse, that ten man Spurs had fluffed it at Anfield. On this occasion, Spurs were undone by a Harry Kewell smash that is the best anyone has seen from him since he kept Leeds in the Premiership and denied Arsenal a title. So some small instalment in repayment there.

Elsewhere, West Ham reprised their cup performance of the previous weekend, again coming from a goal down to win 2-1, this time beating Villa, Charlton had something to cheer after a goal in each half sank Birmingham City, Fulham's 1-0 win poured more misery on Graeme Sourness's shoulders, and Everton won away at Portsmouth by the same scoreline (in which match it was nice to see two of 'Arry's new signings from Spurs making an immediate impact – by getting booked). Blackburn v Bolton ended goalless, and was predictably more of a wrestling than a football match, though Nakata was the only player to actually walk, and will therefore miss a game, presumably to return against Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round.

Sunday's games proved to be a bit topsy-turvy also. Despite facing a tough trip to the JJB, and seeing their task made tougher by the first half dismissal of Darren Moore, West Brom scored and held tight, meaning that Bryan Robson got his first away win of the entire season. And when Sunderland took the lead against Chelsea with a drilled Lawrence shot after around ten minutes, it brought a whole new meaning to the phrase "suspension of disbelief".

Normal supernova service was resumed shortly thereafter, however, Crespo poaching an equaliser from a Joe Cole header which may or may not have been from behind the goal line, and Chelsea going on to win the game with a deflected Robben shot which wrongfooted the otherwise impressive Mackem keeper. The ref looked dimly on Arjen's celebratory dive into the crowd and issued a second yellow and consequent marching orders to the incredulous Chelsea player. But, no matter how anal you think the ref was, how pathetic of Robben to claim he had no idea there was a rule saying you can get booked for over-celebrating – if that were actually true, then I'm (also) a Dutchman. In the end, Sunderland yet again got nothing for their spirited performance, the ref maybe worrying about the assessor's view of the red card when deciding to ignore Carvalho and Terry's respective tugs of red and white shirts in the box, which could have granted the whelkish Black Cats a chance of a spot-kick equaliser.

Off the pitch, this week's football press has been taken up with the twin-track stories (a) that there are a lot of backhanders in football transfers and (b) that Sven is a shifty money-grabber who cannot be trusted any further than you can throw the pair of shoes he leaves outside other women's bedrooms. Personally speaking, I am amazed that either of these is considered either surprising or particularly newsworthy, though I have much enjoyed the looks of attempted innocence from certain managers – Redknapp and Allardyce in particular – when denying at press conferences that they'd ever been approached with, let alone been party to, a dodgy deal. If Beckham, Owen or anyone else ever thought they could trust Sven with a confidence, then they're bigger fools than he is a charlatan. Nevertheless, he'll get a knighthood if Beckham raises the trophy in Berlin in July, and quite right too – while I may be one of those fortunate to have benefited indirectly from football's last big bung scandal, since it indirectly led Arsenal to the Wenger wonderland, shady business dealing have long been part of the English football tradition, and in a sense it would all be quite dull if there was nothing left at which to throw up one's hands in horror, no?

Speaking of English football tradition, the week ahead sees the return of FA Cup replays, notably with Man U hoping to do better this time round against Burton Albion – I guess this time, and unlike against City, they have at least got home advantage (but I can't help wondering whether the Stretford End food outlets sell white hankies along with the prawn sarnies?), and with Millwall travelling to Goodison in the hope of "firming up" a tie with Chelsea in the fourth round. Could be tasty, that one, and not a prawn in sight...