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Mar 2, 2009

The last look at the weekend

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 five-star weekend.

Two down, three to go

The aftermath of Anderson's defining penalty at Wembley said it all. You all know how the drill usually goes; the nano-second a successful conclusion to a final shoot-out is settled, the winning players muster a sharp intake of breath before hurtling towards their goalkeeper like a sprinter, smacked up to the eyeballs on amphetamines.

But a measure of how Manchester United's playing staff viewed triumph in the careless cup can be judged by the gentle trot Rio, Giggsy, Ronaldo et al embarked upon when Anderson slotted the decisive spot kick against Spurs. It was as if they were meandering towards the FA drug tester after a heavy night out on the Stella's. That's because, out of the four remaining trophies in their sights, this is probably the sixth most important.

As it was they were fortunate to come away with anything more than a limp handshake from a passing dignitary and a warm glass of milk after a pretty listless display in a pretty average final, but as usual, favour seems to side with the big boys when the lesser lights desperately need it and probably deserve it.

Villa make a right meal of it

With five minutes left at Villa Park all was going swimmingly for chirpier-than-thou boss Martin O'Neill. His side were cruising towards all three points against Stoke and he was preparing to let vindication wash all over him.

After effectively deciding to bow out of the UEFA Cup on Thursday in Moscow by leaving seven of his first team stars at home - much to the chagrin of Villa's travelling fans - a hard fought and fluid 2-0 win over the Potters would have underlined the fact that he knew best. End of. Plus, he'd invited the 300 or so fans who braved the iron curtain to watch their reserve side eliminated at CSKA for a slap up meal on him.

But then Stoke deployed Plan Z and wanged long ball after long ball into Villa's box hoping something would stick and, guess what, it did. First Ryan Shawcross displayed the kind of clinical finishing Emile Heskey could only dream of, before Glenn Whelan smashed a late volley into the net seconds later.

Stoke's three-minute goal blitz ensured a rather tasty atmosphere in whatever sticky-carpeted function room at Villa Park plays hosts to a few hundred disgruntled Brummies - one set of fans who are never backwards in coming forwards. It leaves one wondering, and I'd like to apologise in advance for this one, whether humble pie will be on the menu somewhere. Sorry.

We're a cup team anyway

Sitting up here on my lofty perch surveying the wreckage of Liverpool's Premier League ambitions it would be easy to kick a club when they are down. After all, the owners are ravaged by debt, the club is riven with internal factions, the manager is mental and form on the pitch is nose-diving just at the wrong time. Don't forget going into this one Middlesbrough hadn't won since November the 9th or scored in their last five games.

But before I buck the normal trend and offer you Koppite's a few reasons to be cheerful, I have to point to irrefutable evidence that you can't win the Premier League crown with average players. Step forward Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt and Nabil El Zhar. Steven Gerrard tried to carry the side on his own in the absence of Torres but despite creating two gilt-edged chances he sadly hasn't discovered how to be in two places at once so he can finish them off as well. The skipper threw his hands up in repulsion twice as El Zhar and Kuyt both contrived to spurn chances Harry Redknapp's missus would have snaffled. And when Ryan Babel pulled out of a 50-50 the Scouse section roared in disgust.

Look on the bright side though Liverpool fans - now the title dream is over you can concentrate on the cup; Real Madrid are so abject you're pretty much guaranteed a Champions League quarter-final and even if the 'Boro performance were to be repeated on a regular basis, you may already have enough points in the bag to call yourself the number one team in Merseyside come the end of the season.

Little Sam, Shrinking Phil

Sunday's clash between Hull and Blackburn at the KC Stadium pitted Sam Allardyce against former assistant boss Phil Brown. Not quite pupil and master, more a case of the blind leading the blind. Brown is definitely a manager in the Little Sam mould; proudly sporting headset, furiously chewing gum, cranking up the blood pressure to dizzy heights and generally making a right royal mess of things.

Brown's team mirrored Minature Sam's during his Newcastle reign – namely a side bereft of confidence, gleefully handing out goals as if they were sweets, all played out against the backdrop of an angry crowd questioning the boss's every move.

Brown's decision to remove Geovanni seemed perfectly reasonable to me, after all the Brazilian had repeatedly surrendered possession, ran directly into trouble on the rare occasions he managed to retain the ball for more than 30 seconds, and took one of the most horrendous first touches the top flight has ever seen when put clean through on goal.

Quite why the crowd took issue with his extraction is beyond everyone outside Hull, but Sam will have afforded himself a wry smile to hear an angry crowd chant: "You don't know what you're doing," and realise they weren't aiming it at him.

Groundhog Day at the Emirates

Saturday brought with it another fine example of the depths to which Arsenal's spoilt fans will stoop. Booing their side from the pitch after a 0-0 draw against Fulham displayed staggering arrogance and a bewildering lack of understanding from a set of supporters who can be described as fair-weather at best.

They battered Fulham for most of the game - reflected in the fact that Mark Schwarzer was man of the match - while Walcott, Fabregas, Adebayor, Rosicky and Eduardo were all missing. Yes they may be fifth in the league but there are still 11 games to go and Aston Villa are having a superb season. And don't forget Arsenal are still in the FA Cup and Champions League.

So, Gunners fans, while you are wedged into your luxury seats inside your gleaming new stadium watching your array of world class stars and a manager with a reputation for re-inventing sides, think of the 87 clubs below you struggling and scrapping for an ounce of what you have - and doing so by getting solidly behind their team. You have no divine right to finish in the top four and while you may be going through a mildly sticky patch but spare a thought for Leeds, who were in the Champions League semi-finals eight years ago but now find themselves permanently entrenched in despair-and-humiliation-infested quicksand. Seriously, get over yourselves.

I speak as a fan who has become bored to tears by the recent dominance of the Big Four in the Premier League, not to mention disgusted at the default attitude of many Premier League followers who believe whatever happens outside that bracket matters not a jot. So come on Aston Villa, on you go Everton - let's get that top four cracked and broken up as soon as possible.

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