Next Port of call
Few of us like Monday 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.
Any Oporto in a storm
An overwhelming success is not how you could describe the relationship between my annual continental jaunt and this column. This is year number five, and so far our travelling party has witnessed three 0-0 draws and only one goal (the other occurred whilst we were still in the bar), but this time we've outdone ourselves, in that I have no actual football to report on. Due to the vagaries of the Portuguese and Spanish leagues and their last-gasp organisational nature, the Lisbon derby due for Sunday was switched to Monday night about three weeks ago. Much muttering, rescheduling and refinancing had to be done.
How anyone ever manages to actually plan accordingly in this part of the world is beyond me - perhaps that's why Portugal no longer rules the world. There is also a unique approach to nightlife, in that both Porto and Lisbon seem to be engaged in a stand off as to how late the action will actually kick off on a Saturday night. No earlier than 3am appears to be the answer. This seems ridiculous to an Englishman who is usually flat on his back by midnight and keen to be in the nearest pub for the early Sunday kick-off. Both are smashing places though, and our new chum Hugo in Porto received a heap of man points for describing me as a cross between John Cleese and Roger Moore.
So, the upshot of all this is that if Monday's action isn't a 14-goal humdinger then next year I think I'll be heading for Fleetwood and not Faro. Pray for us, pray for goals. And that my friends is how you write a few hundred words on football when there is no football to write about.
One in the Eye
There was plenty to pen about in Manchester though, as Hollywood A-listers Robert Duvall and Tom Cruise combined for the most surreal pre-match interview in recent memory. Duvall reminisced about naming his dog after wee Jimmy Johnstone before asking if there would be a shoot-out at the end of the game. Cruise patted some Etihad turf - 'ooh it's incredible, but damp' - and smiled with wild, glazed eyes. It wasn't up there with his sofa bouncing on Oprah, but the hinges were still pretty loose.
High king of the unhinged, Mario Balotelli, was named in the City line up, and Sir Alex resisted his strong instinct of recent meetings to block up the midfield with concrete bollards and named two out and out wingers in his starting XI. It paid off in pulsating style. United sucker-punched City with early counters that saw Wayne Rooney drifting two finishes across that incredible damp turf with an aplomb that had Cruise on the phone immediately to find out if Rooney had a viable sister; preferably one who liked sofa dancing, damp turf and Scientology.
It wasn't even Mario who took the nutter of the day award either, he was nondescript apart from muttering 'your mother smells of lamb chops' at his manager and heading straight for the shower when he was hauled off. The nutter award goes to the lunatic who assaulted Rio Ferdinand with a 2p coin as he celebrated United's winner. We might all want to do it, but that isn't the point. And as for the pitch invader, at least, it gave Joe Hart a chance to actually make a save.
As Roman Abramovich ramps up his £20 million-a-season punt for Pep Guardiola, his interim man has been looking more and more like an over-run waiter. While he has to serve impossible numbers of portions of chicken nuggets to spoilt children booing and jeering at him, the big boys talk in hushed tones in the back room.
As if the situation wasn't farcical enough already at Interim Bridge, Didier Drogba swaggered back to London this week to hand out customised Super Bowl style gold rings to last season's Champions League-winning squad, 'to raise spirits' (by reminding everyone how good Chelsea were under the previous manager). He held the event at a plush hotel in Chelsea harbour; not surprisingly, Fernando Torres missed the boat.
So thank God for the port in a storm that is Martin O'Neill's Sunderland this season. Incredibly, this was already in the 'must win' category for Rafa and his profligate sulk of a star centre forward came back to life with an instinctive volley. He even plucked the ball out of David Luiz's hands to claim a second from the penalty spot.
A world class striker wanting to take a penalty shouldn't be newsworthy, but of course Torres' first ever penalty in English football is being heralded as the second coming and Benitez's direct approach as the magic formula to solve all of his hapless striker's ills. "Obviously, Fernando scoring goals is good for us because he is a striker," Rafa enthused, with all of the insight of a waiter serving chicken nuggets to spoilt children.
Jonjo Shelvey, the false number nine. There's a song in there. No-one so far has really nailed a definition for a false nine. Or is he a false eight and a third? Shelvey's performance for the most part seemed to suggest it was a striker who shins the ball wide and sporadically heads it out for goal kicks, until an altogether spookier reality emerged.
The dark art of the false seven/eight/nine (delete as appropriate) settled on Upton Park in the 79th minute like one of those dreamy bubbles they're always harping on about over there. Shelvey feinted across to finish a wicked cross from the right, clearly failing to make contact with the ball but magically causing James Collins to toe it over his own keeper from a yard out for Liverpool's winning goal. The duplicity of his number nine-dom had become apparent, and what a technique it is. Astonishing.
Another theory on the false nine role was that Liverpool were trying to emulate Spain with revolving multi-talented footballers in a shifting system, but Stewart Downing was playing on the left wing, so that idea is just too ridiculous to entertain.
Maths with Michael
The impending transfer window is straining like Rafa's shirt after overdoing it on the mince pies, and managers are starting to send out their 'hands off' ink jets into the sea of speculation, especially from the league's surprise successes. It is a time that calls for a Premier League maths lesson, so take it away Michael Laudrup.
The £2 million man Michu is worth 'at least £30 million' now after his goalscoring antics for the Swans, according to the manager with the slickest side-parting. He is a £15 million Joe Allen plus the goals you see. What Michael seems to be saying in his world of goal-onomics is that each Premier League goal is worth well over £1 million. Saturday's brace for Michu could then be said to be worth £3 million, or one and a half Michus before he started scoring in this league. Clear now?
Our back room team is still figuring out how Stewart Downing would fit into these complex equations in the Laudrup index system, being neither Joe Allen nor a contributor of any goals, but two more in the net from Michu in a humdinger against Norwich certainly pushed his value up around the £35 million mark.
It takes a panning from Norwich to remind us that football is in fact a team game and one Michu does not make a whole Christmas stocking. Instead, Whittaker, Bassong, Holt and Snodgrass chipped in with as much fuss as a bowl of Christmas sprouts to squeeze out three warm windy points and it is Norwich who are flying up the league.