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Apr 27, 2008

Premier League Team of the Week

Yes, he conceded three goals, yes his team lost to relegation odds-on-ers Fulham and yes he's got a silly, spiky haircut that is very circa 2004 but Joe Hart HAS to be our top stopper this week. He made a plethora (lots) of brilliant saves in the face of a Fulham barrage, his point blank stop from David Healy's header the pick of a pretty good bunch. He even saved a penalty, before the ball cruelly rolled back into the path of spot-kick taker Danny Murphy. City's defending was so comical they'd have lost 7-2 had Hart not been on his game.

Question: Can you name another Premier League footballer from New Zealand apart from Ryan Nelsen? No, didn't think so. Ok, so he didn't have a spectacular game at Portsmouth, but he was as solid as ever and you don't get handed the skipper's armband by Mark 'Sparky' Hughes unless you're worth your salt. Marshalling the troops well and never shy to stick his face or foot in where it hurts equals more clean sheets than not and I think I'm right in saying, if Blackburn hadn't earned a shutout at Fratton Park they wouldn't have won the game. Nelsen nearly potted a diving header at the other end too, just for good measure.

Once again I'm bitter at the fact I have to write a congratulatory paragraph about Ashley Cole. One of the most hated footballers since the Premier League's inception he may be, but he keeps putting in the hard yards on the pitch and had he not had the presence of mind to drift back towards his goal line when Cristiano Ronaldo was about to shoot he wouldn't have been on hand to hack a potentially title-deciding goal well away from danger.

Anyone turning up to watch Wigan vs Reading game on Saturday not fully braced for one of the most dull games in Premier League history wants a good talking to. Two desperately average teams, an awful pitch, a half empty stadium and an atmosphere haunted by relegation nerves meant a self-fulfilling prophecy I'm afraid. However, both back-lines emerged with some credit, especially Wigan's and Paul Scharner especially, who has been a bit of a rock for Steve Bruce since his return to the JJB.

First in our five man midfield is Michael Chopra, a Geordie lad who is currently slumming it on Wearside in their battle to beat the drop. Well, he succeeded on Saturday, forcing the corner that lead to Sunderland's first goal before firing home a splendid second after cutting inside and finishing from a difficult angle. He nearly put the game beyond doubt after that, hitting the stands rather than the net when clean through but his reward for a tireless display was three points and an endorsement from the Stadium of Light crowd who sang, 'Chopra's one of us'. Whether he's chuffed with that only Chopra knows.

When the going gets tough the tough largely turn out to be German. In Chelsea's biggest game of the season (they've had a few of those recently) their Deutsch midfielder Michael Ballack produced every last drop of experience and class at his disposal and scored two vital goals that kept the title race alive. Drifting into the box to nod a lovely opener, he then stayed resolute and calm when faced with an 86th minute, match-winning penalty to take. He scored and the Blues are still in it.

Had Jimmy Bullard been fit for the entire season it is a fair bet that Fulham wouldn't be in such a stinking mess at the foot of the table. Such has been the influence of the permed cockney since his return from a long injury lay-off, he may well pull off the great escape after an astonishing game in Manchester. Industrious as ever, never shy of unleashing from distance and devastating with set-plays Bullard didn't stop running at Eastlands. He played a full part in an amazing second half fight back which saw the Cottagers net three goals in 20 minutes to win the game much to the disbelief of, oh, just about everyone on the entire planet.

David Moyes took the unusual step of employing his titchy midfielder Lee Carsley to mark the towering John Carew at Goodison Park. The plan was to let his defenders mop up the second ball when Carew won it. But such was the tenacity with which Carsley embraced his new - and ugly - role; the big Norwegian didn't claim half as many headers as usual. Not content with putting the shackles on one of Villa's most consistent performers Carsley then delivered a cross of dazzling quality to allow Joseph Yobo to smash home Everton's second goal of the afternoon. A true case of beauty and the beast.

Obafemi Martins shares a unique ability with another Newcastle forward, Faustino Asprilla - improvisation. There's no chance of defenders knowing what either of them are going to do because the lads themselves haven't even given it a second's thought. West Ham couldn't handle Martins on Saturday. The Nigerian hauled United back from a two-goal deficit in the space of three Upton Park minutes, peeling off the last defender before a cute lob notched the Toon's first, then firing a shot into the danger area seconds later, allowing Geremi to nod an equaliser.

Architect of Fulham's John Travolta-sized comeback at the City of Manchester Stadium was Diomansy Kamara. Coming on with 25 minutes to go - and with Fulham staring relegation in the face - Kamara seemed the least likely figure to haul them out of their abyss given his peripheral role this season., but that's exactly what he did. First he turned Vedran Corluka this way and that before nut-megging the excellent Joe Hart for number one before showing up City's other full-back (Elano) with a superbly timed run and finish to breathe new life into Fulham's battle to beat the drop.

Last but not least, Roque Santa Cruz has been a joy to watch in his first year of Premier League football, and not just because his name provides headline writers across the land with a wealth of opportunity. So it was fitting that Santa provided a 'present' for all those travelling Blackburn fans as 'Roque' landed a knock-out blow in the 74th minute with a precise left-footed finish allowing his team mates to play out the last 15 minutes in 'Cruz' control. Athankyou.

We thought about handing the gaffer's role to Avram Grant for overseeing a 2-1 win over Champions Manchester United but then we remembered how bitter and miserable he is so we plumped for the very likeable Roy Hodgson instead. Fulham may still go down but if they do, Cottagers fans will forever have the memory of a glorious comeback against Man City when a Hodgson sub, Diomansy Kamara, inspired a three-goal burst in the final 20 minutes to keep their hopes of staying in the Premier League alive. Joyous scenes greeted Kamara's stoppage time winner and even Roy afforded himself a jig of celebration on the sidelines. Great stuff.

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