ALTHOUGH THE CHAMPIONS League is now the most exacting, elite level of world football it seems that England’s last place in the competition next year is going to be settled by errors rather than excellence.
In the extremely tight battle for fourth, the only one of the three main challengers that are showing anything like form are Newcastle United. Although, to be fair, that’s understating it for Newcastle. Their 2-0 win over Bolton marked a fifth win in a row, making them the second most in-form team in the Premier League after Manchester United. And, with Spurs losing at home to Norwich 2-1 and Chelsea just about drawing 1-1 away to Fulham, it moved Newcastle level on points with Harry Redknapp’s side.
In truth, relegation-threatened Bolton made it very difficult for Newcastle but, eventually, class told. Principally, Hatem Ben Arfa’s. With little over 15 minutes left, the attacking midfielder picked up the ball near the halfway, slalomed through the Bolton team before finishing coolly. Moments from the end, then, Papiss Cisse continued his sensational goalscoring form by slotting in Shola Ameobi’s cross.
What Tottenham and Chelsea would give for such incision at the moment. Spurs once again lacked vim and creativity at home to Norwich, and look a completely different side to that which had people purring earlier in the campaign. It seems more and more likely that Redknapp overplayed his first-choice XI earlier in the season. Because, although they were missing Scott Parker, they were still second to everything. Indeed, given that three penalty appeals were turned down, Norwich could have won by more. One of them saw Paul Lambert particularly aggrieved.
Shortly after Anthony Pilkington had given Norwich the lead thanks to some woeful Spurs defending, Grant Holt was bundled over in the box. The protests were waved away, however, as Spurs went straight up the other end and scored through Jermain Defoe. The incident dominated the rest of the half as Holt got involved in a number of spats and Lambert refused to stop badgering the officials over the decision.
Eventually, though, justice was done as Elliott Bennett slammed in a brilliant 25-yard strike for Norwich to win.
Chelsea, meanwhile, were lucky to even get a point at Craven Cottage as they were the inferior side for most of the game. Indeed, they were extremely lucky to go in ahead at half-time as Stephen Kelly was adjudged to have brought down Salomon Kalou just before the break. Frank Lampard stepped up to smash it home but, as the clock ticked down in the second, Chelsea were unable to stem the Fulham tide. Eventually, Clint Dempsey – of course – headed in a corner, with the goal largely thanks to a Gary Cahill deflection and the fact Roberto Di Matteo’s side had no-one on the far post.
The results mean Spurs just about stay in fourth on goal difference ahead of Newcastle with Chelsea two points further back. All momentum, however, seems to be with Newcastle. At the minute, it’s difficult to see where Tottenham will get their next win from while Chelsea may well fall victim to a trying fixture list.
Elsewhere, Stoke ensured that Aston Villa couldn’t completely kill their relegation worries. Robert Huth’s header cancelled out Andreas Weimann’s earlier screamer. Everton, meanwhile, battered Sunderland 4-0 thanks to goals from Magaye Gueye, Steven Pienaar, Leon Osman and Victor Anichebe.