Monday, August 24, 2009

Villa Upset Rounds Out Weekend

It looked as though it might be a ho-hum weekend in the EPL this weekend, with most of the favorites (United, City, Arsenal, Chelsea) having won comfortably. But the storyline was re-written this afternoon with Aston Villa's stunning 3-1 victory at Anfield. Indeed, the hosts were so befuddled they seemed to quit in the last ten minutes, managing only an odd chance here or there and finding no real urgency.

Villa came into the match in terrible form. They opened the campaign with a loss to Wigan and lost away to Rapid Vienna in midweek in the Europa League. For the first ten minutes, a repeat of last year's 5-0 thrashing at Anfield seemed a good bet. In the ninth minute, both Gerrard and Torres failed to convert on golden chances. But that was the last of Liverpool's momentum for the half, as the pace of the match slowed to a crawl, and Liverpool seemed content to possess without mounting real pressure. Villa caught their break on a free kick Lucas headed past Reina into his own net. Villa responded with superior play, and Liverpool responded by complaining to the referee. Into extra time in the first half, Villa were awarded a corner on a shot that did appear to be deflected. Reina kicked the ball away angrily and was booked, but worse yet for the Reds, they failed to properly defend the corner and Curtis Davies' glancing header made it 2-0 going to halftime. Though Carragher and Torres were both near Davies, neither tracked the opposing man on his crisp run toward the front post. The ESPN commentators at halftime are correct: zone marking often is really no marking at all.

The Kop found its voice for the beginning of the second half, and the pressure on the Villa defense continued to mount. The breakthrough finally came when Benayoun found Insua breaking into the box, who found Torres for the volley tap-in. But Liverpool's momentum didn't last long. Nicky Shorey's pass broke down the Liverpool defense and played Nigel Reo-Coker into a dangerous position, and Gerrard panicked and brought him down in the area. Since the ball would have been claimed by the defender anyway, it was a particularly poor decision for the captain. Ashley Young's penalty ended any remaining drama.

One never knows if one match will turn a season, but Villa certainly hope so. Martin O'Neill's side seemed destined for mid-table (at least) if they continued their current form throughout the season. Perhaps this will be the spark that get Villa going. The backline was superb today, doing the hard work of cutting off crosses and making timely tackles. Something to build on going into next week (and the home Europa leg). For Liverpool, today was a disaster. The Reds have now equalled their two defeats from all of last year. Unlike the previous away defeat, today's loss to a struggling side at home is not acceptable for a team that aspires to win the Premier League. There's a long way to go, but a few more results like this one and Liverpool's title dreams may die early.

Elsewhere this weekend, United did put on a show in the second half against Wigan, as ARF mentioned. It was a breakthrough for Man U, which spent the first half doing what they'd done the first two matches: failing to convert on chance after chance. Such lack of precision won't be enough against Arsenal, who come to Old Trafford in the premier contest of next weekend. Arsenal rolled on with another four goals against Portsmouth, now compiling ten in their first two matches. Getting a true read on the strength of the young Gunners will be easier after next week. Meanwhile Andrei Arshavin tried to dampen in feel-good early season vibes in North London, saying that Arsenal need to make further signings in order to compete. Arshavin is likely correct of course, but a) no sense saying it publicly and throwing the rest of the team under the bus; b) Wenger's likely not going to spend any more money no matter what Arshavin says.

Manchester City continue to convert just enough chances, winning at home 1-0 against Wolves. They will drop needless points if they don't put more balls in the back of the net. At least Lescott is finally on his way. Looking more impressive is Chelsea, who were throughly convincing in 2-0 victory at Fulham. This writer still has Chelsea as the early league favorites, thanks in no small part to a willingness to play Anelka and Drogba at the same time. Likewise, Tottenham won an important match 2-1 at West Ham. Could Tottenham threaten not only for a European spot, but for the top four as well? Their current form would certainly make them dangerous for fourth place, but it's a long season. And I should mention Burnley defeating Everton, which leaves Burnley with six points and Everton with zero (and a -6 goal difference, which leaves them bottom of the table). Anyone who predicted those point totals should head for Vegas straightaway.

Finally, a word about the arrival of the EPL (and la Liga, when it begins) on ESPN. It was impressive to turn on ESPN2 Saturday morning and find the Wigan-Manchester United match, shot beautifully in HD (and the same with Liverpool-Villa today). When I was watching the ESPN EPL opening, with faces from around the world glued to the television watching the Premier League, I couldn't help but think of HalaMadrid's post on the importance of league marketing. But having ESPN show the EPL and la Liga both increases potential viewership and represents the continual growth in popularity of football in the United States. When a match is on FSC, only those who seek it out will watch it, because FSC is not widely carried the way ESPN is. I remember trying to find somewhere to watch a Manchester United-Liverpool match in Lansing, Michigan, and calling a couple of bars listed as "soccer bars" on a website. None of the bars were opening until 11 am (after the match had begun), and when I asked specifically if they were carrying the game, no one had any idea what I was talking about. For people that don't live in big cities, having ESPN coverage makes EPL and la Liga matches so much more accessible. It also means they will get shown at airport bars, TGI Friday's, and other places where it's possible soccer has never regularly been shown before. Of course the only reason ESPN is expanding their coverage is because of the constant growth over the last decade. More of you out there are like us here at FutbolNation: you love the game, and you want to see more of it. I expect football coverage in the United States to increase further as the game's popularity continues to ascend.

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