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Jan 3, 2012

In with the old

Few of us like getting back to work in the New Year, but The Fifth Official does, for it brings with it a chance for him to point the finger and laugh. Here he pulls out the pretty, the puzzling and the downright pig-ugly from a week brimming with potential victims.

New Year, same old story

I trust Steve Kean made the most of the single finest moment his managerial career will ever produce because his win over Manchester United was a brief respite from the gloom that has followed him all year as determinedly as a tail follows a horse. How Kean must have wished 2011 could hang around for a little longer, because 2012 brought with it that inevitable sound that I imagine is constantly ringing in his ears - that of an air raid siren.

Rovers' inexplicable, glorious win at Old Trafford took absolutely everyone by surprise, especially the away fans, who hastily stuffed their 'Kean out' banners down their trousers as they treated those players they've hurled nothing but contempt at all season like conquering heroes. But then Stoke turned up at Ewood Park, Rovers got Crouched and Kean was back to taking the positives rather than banging the drum.

No wonder Fergie labelled the defeat a disaster - he's only the third manager to be bested by Kean and Blackburn this season. All the pomp and ceremony to mark his 70th birthday, which included a gaggle of spotty teenagers serenading him on the bench, clearly went to his head as his septuagenarian brain decided that Rafael and Ji-Sung Park was an acceptable midfield pairing. Fergie, old man, that's what you get when you treat the bottom side with contempt.

It never rains - it sleets

In Manchester's monsoon conditions, City finally punctuated their 226-minute goal drought thanks to a belated Christmas gift from Spain's third-choice goalkeeper, Pepe Reina. As Liverpool's stopper dived casually over Sergio Aguero's shot, all thoughts of City's delicious last-minute mugging at Sunderland were forgotten, along with all those hastily contrived 'Ji whizz' headlines (yes, yes, glass houses and all that).

Liverpool announced prior to the game they were finally swallowing Luis Suarez's eight-match ban, so it was perhaps surprising they didn't take to the field in T-shirts that read "Suarez is innocent, but we grudgingly accepted the thorough and watertight findings of the FA's independent panel because we didn't want to make even more of a misguided fuss". In Suarez's absence, King Kenny, who should be downgraded to a prince after his handling of the whole affair, will be forced to rely on the ponytailed totem pole of timidity that is Andy Carroll, and the signs do not look good.

The trouble is that Liverpool, still drunk on their high and mighty complex, refuse to lower themselves to the tactics that saw Carroll prosper at Newcastle and made Liverpool want to buy him in the first place. With no service, he floundered like a haddock on a sun lounger and City strolled to victory. Still, Roberto Mancini found cause for anger as Gareth Barry was sent off for two attempts at aping Shakira's 'Hips don't lie' video, while Bob saw fit to flash an imaginary card after Martin Skrtel was adjudged to have fouled Yaya Toure. Oi, Bob, back in yer box.

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before

It's been a while since Sir Joseph of Barton darkened these pages. His torturous existence didn't even warrant a mention when he named his first child Cassius Joseph Barton - though I was bursting to opine that, with a name like Cassius, what are the chances he is swinging for other kids at nursery as soon as he can walk? The rest of his name is Joseph Barton for crikey's sake.

Barton's misguided pop philosophy (proof that you can't polish an intellectual turd) convinced the odd malleable pundit that he has grown up, but his contretemps with Norwich's Bradley Johnson made that notion as absurd as some of his ideas for cultural utopia, most of which revolve around using Morissey lyrics as an all-powerful doctrine for social hegemony. That looked the furthest thing from his mind on Monday when he shoved his face into Johnson's and was promptly dismissed.

Ironically, Johnson then taunted Barton with a lament of his bad breath while taking in that highlight of the social calendar, the world darts tournament at Alexandra Palace, where a room full of sweaty men get lagered up and watch rotund chaps throw arrows at a dartboard. Ironically, just the sort of occasion you get the feeling Barton would have revelled in when he was a slip of a lad.

Joey responded with a sneer and a suggestion that football's leaders should take their lead on how to officiate the game from rugby, which adds to the irony, given that most rational people could reasonably opine that rugby is precisely the game Barton seems to think he's been playing for years now.

Back to the future

It's been a while since we've been able to laugh at Arsenal, but just hours into the fledgling year they provided a pertinent reminder that they remain as brittle as a wafer-thin biscuit when their backs are pinned to the wall for a sustained period. In the first half at Fulham, they appeared like a fleet of Rolls-Royces, purring effortlessly over the turf at Craven Cottage; in the second, they coughed and spluttered along like a fleet of bashed up Ladas that had been pumped full of vegetable oil.

Enjoying a lead handed to them by a cool Laurent Koscielny header, Arsenal emerged from the second half intent on abandoning their crisp passing style in favour of floundering around at the feet of Danny Murphy and Steve Sidwell. But it was the dismissal of Johan Djourou, and the subsequent introduction of the pariah that is Sebastien Squillaci, that really sealed their fate.

Both Fulham's goals were laid on by Arsenal players, as Wojciech Szczesny's flap allowed Squillaci-lite Philippe Senderos to set up Sidwell before the man himself teed up a sweet volley for Bobby Zamora with a misguided flick of the bonce. Arsenal's haplessness was summed up by their manager, who was caught fumbling for the pocket of his oversized Puffa jacket a good five times before giving up and stroking his chest instead.

Wenger's one-eyed rants, which we so enjoyed last season, returned and his claim that Djourou's first yellow - a scything tackle from behind - wasn't a card and that his tug on Zamora's shoulder should have been a free-kick to Arsenal provided much hilarity, as did his whining that Fulham used that revolutionary tactic - a substitution - to exploit Djourou's weaknesses. Welcome back, Arsene. We've missed you.

Mick gets Lamped

He might be young but it appears Andre Villas-Boas has already signed a watertight pact with the officials in the English game to offer him a helping hand or two when he really, really needs it. First Mike Dean bottled sending off David Luiz in the fifth minute at Newcastle, allowing Chelsea to win 3-0 and reinvigorate their season. For a bit. But Peter Walton outdid himself in donating to AVB's benevolent fund at Molineux on Monday.

Both Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole went about trying to get sent off in completely different ways, adopting the good-cop-bad-cop technique after putting in bone-crunching tackles on opponents so late it's a wonder the floodlights were still on. Lampard tried determinedly to snap Mark Hamill's leg, but was saved by an unreserved apology - stunning Walton, who was no doubt expecting his very parentage to be vigorously, and swearily, questioned as is usually customary in such situations.

Then as Mick McCarthy stood aghast on the touchline in the wake of Fat Frank's yellow, no doubt muttering to himself that it was far uglier than the challenge that saw Nenad Milijas see red at Arsenal, Ashley Cole embarked on a one-man Bruce Lee impression, even going so far as to kick Kevin Doyle in the lung from behind. Inexplicably, Cole escaped a booking, despite launching his usual petulant volley at the official, yet Doyle was carded for chucking the ball at his attacker.

By this stage, Mick's forehead had grown so red I was expecting an imminent excretion of lava to pour onto the field. An eruption must have occurred, then, when in the 89th minute a certain Mr A Cole crossed to a certain Mr F Lampard to seal victory. Ref justice indeed.

Don't forget, you can follow The Fifth Official on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fifthofficial

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