By Ger McCarthy
SOUTH Korean international Ji Dong-won became an instant hero on Wearside when the Sunderland substitute scored the only goal (although clearly offside) in the 1-0 defeat of high flying Manchester City. The Black Cats surprise victory over the Premier League leaders was Martin O’Neill’s tenth point from five league fixtures underlining the new manager’s instant impact at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland’s victory was even more impressive as O’Neill was forced into seven changes in his starting line-up due to a bug sweeping the first team squad. The dark days of Steve Bruce’s tenure have been consigned to the history books as Sunderland continue their climb out of the bottom half of the table.
STEVE Kean celebrated the New Year in style by overseeing a shock defeat of Manchester United to take Blackburn’s Christmas haul to four points out of a possible six from visits to Old Trafford and Anfield. The Blackburn fans repeatedly calling for Kean’s removal over the past month were applauding their manager’s effort at the end of Rovers’ memorable 3-2 win but the threat of relegation has not disappeared just yet. The most pertinent point from Blackburn’s impressive Christmas form is the increased effort produced by the Ewood Park club’s players on behalf of their beleaguered manager. If Rovers can maintain their current level of performance into Easter and beyond then relegation to the Championship could yet be avoided, something that was unthinkable just a few short weeks ago.
THE former Republic of Ireland international's week began badly with a photo of the Aston Villa midfielder smoking a Shisha pipe appearing on the Internet just 24 hours after limping off against Arsenal. Ireland responded to some sharp criticism from his manager Alex McLeish with one of his best ever displays in an Aston Villa jersey. He opened the scoring and was involved in the two additional Villa goals during an unexpected 3-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to remind his critics of his indubitable talent. When Stephen Ireland is on form he is as effective as any midfielder in the Premier League. Curbing a chronic lack of consistency is all that prevents Cork native from re-establishing himself as a top class player in 2012.
RELEGATION threatened Wigan Athletic were 2-1 down away to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium when referee Michael Oliver awarded a controversial penalty with three minutes remaining. Roberto Martinez immediately summoned Ben Watson from the substitute’s bench and just like an NFL (American Football) special team kicker the midfielder trotted on to the pitch and coolly converted the penalty. Martinez’s decision to ask a substitute to come on and take a spot kick was strange enough but even more curious when you consider Watson had missed his previous two attempts from twelve yards. Irrespective of Martinez’s eye-brow raising choice, Watson delivered and earned Wigan a valuable point in the battle to avoid the drop. Martinez might yet be responsible for a new trend of substitute penalty takers in the remaining months of the campaign.
ROBERTO Mancini’s expensively assembled forward line failed to score for the second consecutive Premier League game culminating in a 1-0 defeat away to Sunderland. City couldn’t capitalise on Manchester United and Tottenham’s stumbles the previous afternoon and missed a golden opportunity to extend their advantage at the top of the table. Mancini watched his side create nineteen goal scoring opportunities at the Stadium of Light yet fail to convert one of them into a goal on a frustrating afternoon for the Italian manager and his club’s supporters. Liverpool are up next and City need to prove to their detractors that they can live with the pressure of a title run-in with a much needed victory on Wednesday night.
ALEX Ferguson was expected to hog the weekend’s tabloid headlines on his 70th birthday until Steve Kean and Blackburn rolled into Old Trafford and recorded a shock 3-2 win. Even Ferguson’s pre-match comments about wishing to stay in charge for another three years were largely ignored as news broke of the apparent reasons behind Wayne Rooney’s omission from the first team squad. Manchester United moved quickly to deny reports that Rooney was dropped for apparently staying out late with his wife Coleen and Jonny Evans, Darren Gibson and their partners on the night United hammered Wigan 5-0. Whatever the reason, unwanted tabloid headlines have come at a difficult time for the reigning champions. Ferguson’s frustration at losing to a side in the relegation places is especially galling for the Scottish manager considering title rivals Man City managed one point from a possible six during the Christmas period. Six points is now a necessity from the upcoming away trip to Newcastle and home fixture with struggling Bolton Wanderers.
CHELSEA’S third home defeat of the campaign resulted in manager Andre Villas-Boas admitting a title challenge is unlikely this season. Since beating Manchester City the Pensioners have drawn with Wigan, Tottenham and Fulham before losing to Aston Villa this past weekend. That dreadful run of form has come on the back of rumours of dressing room unrest and unless Chelsea addresses their current issues then finishing outside the top four is a real possibility in 2012. Villas-Boas has successfully led his side to the knockout stages of the Champions League but failure to progress beyond the last sixteen will heap further pressure on the young Portuguese Coach. Roman Abramovich is likely to lose patience with his current coach having gotten rid of previous managers such as Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti.
Follow Ger on Twitter: @offcentrecircle