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Apr 13, 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.

Justice for the 96

Rivalries, media, hype, and even football clubs rightfully paled into the background before Saturday's early kick off. People far closer to the tragic events of nearly twenty years ago at Hillsborough have recalled the horrific events of that day. Musicians, ex-players and families have recorded a version of 'The Fields of Anfield Road' to raise funds for those still affected to this day, and who will remain so for the rest of their lives.

Hillsborough remains the ghastly and defining 'Do you remember where you were when?' moment for people of a generation who weren't directly affected - its seared into our memories. Pre-match tributes, the laying of a simple wreath before the Kop by Rovers (and ex-Liverpool) full-back Stephen Warnock, and a spiritual minute's silence, gave way to a surging roar and the focus panned back to the small matter of Premier League aspirations.

Lest we forget the capacity of this game for pantomime, Roque Santa Cruz conspired to injure himself while passing a fitness test, and so that man Chris Samba was handed the role of lone big man up front. Benni McCarthy was left nonplussed on the bench. Big Sam's game plan was clear.

Within a minute-and-a-half Samba had been long bombed four times and the scraps mopped up without drama. Benni McCarthy sat nonplussed on the bench. Samba caused an occasional ruckus in the Liverpool box, but the game was effectively over when Torres added to his sublime first by beating the big man at his own game to force home a power header on 33 minutes. The game ended with Liverpool racking up four. And Benni McCarthy sitting nonplussed on the bench.

That's pretty arrogant, I like that in a pilot

A strange thing happened mid-week. Liverpool v Chelsea in the Champions League caught fire. Rafa's men don't sit back but leave the blocks with frightening tempo these days; but surely this was the night that defined a new force that Guus Hiddink has brought to Chelsea, so recently maligned as flouncy adolescents flicking chewed up paper at Uncle Phil Scolari.

Take a look back at warrior Guus ten years ago, can you not see Commander Mike 'Viper' Metcalf about to deliver the Top Gun Flight Orientation Briefing to a room of mighty egos? That moustache may have gone, but the aura remains. On day one at the Bridge Peter 'Jester' Kenyon may have introduced him, "Gentlemen... You will not find a finer manager anywhere in the world, Commander Hiddink, call sign: Winner."

Guus talked about the Chelsea dressing room, 'having the smell', at Anfield. Not of Jon Obi Mikel's designer aftershave, but that Liverpool were wounded, and could be taken out, right now. Missile lock, victory. Before the late 'schloppiness' Chelsea were on fire again on Saturday.

Hiddink's of an era; he can say 'I flew with your father' in a way Gareth Southgate can only dream of. He's coached the top one per cent, the best of the best. Commander Hiddink is a man of principal, and will return to the Russian job, with love. Ance-lotto winner waits in the wings.

Stoked Up Local Heroes

For those of you who don't know Newcastle United saunter onto the field at St James Park to the strains of a ditty penned by Toon fan and Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler. For ten years it had the Geordie Nation bursting with particular pride as Toon captain-turned manager Alan Shearer led the black-and-white troops into battle.

On Saturday at Stoke we saw the latest pretender to the crown as Andy Carroll saved Shearer from his second defeat on the spin. Ask any Toon fan if Shola Ameobi has ever come close to bagging the title and you'll get your answer by way of a short-arm jab to the face with a baked bean and cheese stottie.

Shearer dictated to his beleaguered troops a bizarre 3-5-2 formation, but centre-backs David Edgar, Habib Beye and Sebatien Bassong spent the afternoon so close, and so isolated, you could have thrown a handkerchief over them. Yet another fateful linesman's decision went against them, allowing ex-Toon centre-back Abdoulaye Faye to register his second goal against them this season. Heads hanged in shame in the away section.

Stoke operated inches from the law, their crowd baying for blood all afternoon, and with all the space afforded them on the flanks they should have put the game to bed and consigned the Toon to their fate.

The Toon fan in our company delivered the last rites, while his Everton-supporting girlfriend screamed "oh f**k off Delap," at the tele anytime Stoke won a throw-in 40 yards from goal (he later told me he fell in love with her all over again). But then Carroll flexed his lanky neck like a Bison and powered a header into the corner. Will this point in the cauldron end up saving Newcastle? Probably not, but it won't be for lack of effort on the part of their Local Heroes.

Jokers in the Pack

When Chorlton Villa played International Manchester FC in a crunch Sunday league encounter, a Villa player thought of a cunning plan to avoid his team going the way of Martin O'Neill's at Old Trafford last weekend. As a Manchester player took a penalty (Sunday league's very own Mike Riley officiating it seems) the Chorlton man trumped loudly. The referee wasn't having any of it, ordered a re-spot and issued a yellow card for ungentlemanly conduct. A club spokesman has since said they are struggling for sponsors for next season, arousing interest from an unnamed producer of Baked Beans.

It brought to mind the eyewatering caution in 2004 for Paolo Diego who left a finger behind after jumping on fencing to celebrate with the Servette fans; as he dismounted his wedding ring caught in the wire and ripped the unfortunate lad's finger off. This wasn't quite good enough for the whistleman, poor Paolo's expression a rare mix of pain and disbelief, disbelief and pain, as the little man with the big whistle brandished yellow for over celebration.

At Boro, the unlucky recipient of referee blunder was Hull skipper Ian Ashbee. Quite rightly pointing out to a linesman inches away from the incident that the ball hadn't crossed the line for a corner, Ashbee was booked. Never mind salt, fresh chilli was then rubbed into the wound as young Matthew Bates swooped to toe-poke the corner home - his first ever Premier League goal.

George Boateng had been blowing his own trumpet loudly in the face of Southgate and Co this week, suggesting the club will go down directly as a result of selling him; he rammed the point home by dawdling a la Collocini and gifting Marlon King Boro's game killing third. He might be less prominent in the newspaper columns this week.

Restwin Van Der Sar

Resting a keeper? You'll have to ask Sir Alex. It nearly cost United dear as Sunderland ran them close at the Stadium of Light. Another back four but the same janglings of indecision for the Champions elect, for whom Wayne Rooney was the stellar performer.

The problem with being Manchester United is that everyone has a reason for wanting to stick one on you. You'd be forgiven for not even knowing David Bardsley was playing Premier League football this season but the ex-United man was driven to show Sir Alex what he had let go, as was Kenwyne Jones, a failed triallist with the reds as a youngster. Both were catalysts for Sunderland's spirited showing.

Bardsley is from a large stock of United players that come through, feature in the shop window of the Carling Cup, and then go on to forge careers elsewhere, providing pocket money for one of Fergie's big signings. Elsewhere in the Premier League Jonathan Greening soldiers on at West Brom, Danny Pugh provides late bursts for Stoke and a journey through the divisions unearths Luke Chadwick, David Jones and plenty of other not-quite-good-enough-for-United's.

Talking of exploiting the free market, remember 'Kiko' Macheda? Call it luck, call it instinct, call it whatever you like, a new Golden Balls is born. The young lad somehow looks older than Paul Scholes but he's well on course to eclipse the ginger whippet as a United legend at this rate.

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