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Fifth Official: Hughes bites the bullet

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 weekend full of shocks.

Look Hughes Talking

Our cup runneth over this week, dear friends, but there is only one place to start, and that is with another typically quiet day at Manchester City on Saturday. Mark Hughes wiped the sleepy dust out of his eyes in the morning to be met by newspaper tales of his demise whatever the result against Sunderland. This wasn't a stab in the back, it was a stab in the front, in full view of the entire country.

The way City handled it was truly disgusting. If they'd have sacked him after the thumping at Spurs there wouldn't have been half the hysteria. Then I could have happily laid into him a few days later when the dust had settled. But how can I put the boot into the poor chap after he's been treated like that? Heck, they might as well have had him in stocks in the technical area, with one of Micah Richards' sweaty socks stuffed down his gob for good measure.

City say he was axed for failing to meet their targets - a finish in the top six, with 70 points - but City are sixth at the minute, and if they win their next two games will have 35 points at the halfway point in the season. Lob in a Carling Cup semi-final against Fergie's mob and that is a decent return for a side assembled at auction over the summer.

I may have missed out on sending Sparky off to pasture with a few verbal volleys but I've no doubt his replacement, Roberto Mancini, will offer plenty of opportunity over the coming months. After all, this is a fella who hasn't worked for over two years and can barely speak the lingo, but who apparently 'fell in love' with English football after turning out four times for Leicester City in 2001. I've heard some whoppers in my time, but falling in love with football at Leicester? In four games? Bah humbug to that one.

It's such a perfect day

From one manager who has bitten the dust prematurely, to one who is hanging about like the rotten stench emanating from the fridge in Soccernet's office. The last thing you need when you foolishly "guarantee" your beleaguered side will finish in the Premier League's top four is a humiliating defeat at the team currently staring up everyone else's backside from the foot of the table.

But with Liverpool entrenched in a run of form so bad it'd have seen Desert Orchid shot, it was no surprise to see them defeated by plucky Pompey, who seem to have rediscovered their joie de vivre, just at the exact moment the man who has precisely none at all shuffled into Fratton Park.

After the game Benitez performed admirably - for a man intent on proving what a bad-losing, spoilsport, responsibility shirker he is by sarcastically saying, "The referee was perfect. In everything." Oh, that old chestnut again. Rafa must know, as well as we do, that that if the owners had a half-decent sized pot to pee in, he'd have been packing his bags and heading for John Lennon airport back in October.

Zoltan Gera for England

If Fulham carry on turning in performances like this, a giddy Roy Hodgson (who is already lobbying for Bobby Zamora to make England's World Cup squad) will one day stagger into his post-match presser and declare Zoltan Gera is the right man to solve the national team's left-sided conundrum.

Roy's muse did give Manchester United's defence a right roasting on Saturday, but given that he ruffled the feathers of a rearguard that included two midfielders and a young Belgian who has started three games in three years - one of those coming in the Conference - perhaps we'll lay off the 'Zamora for South Africa' gas for now.

Fergie's men were rotten, truly rotten. Yes, they have fewer fit defenders than straggly hairs on Stephen Ireland's bald head but they are still well stocked in the front half of the field. It is at times of crisis when your experienced players are supposed to step up, but after his first-half contribution, United's bench were imploring Paul Scholes to step away from the ball whenever it veered towards his general direction.

And fear not, I still have the Louis Armstrong montage I made in the wake of United's mauling in west London last season (see TFO March 23) so I can happily bunt those three goals on to it and end with a lingering shot of Fulham's players exuberantly celebrating their opening goal, with the glum face of the ginger ninja poking through the crowd. If United carry on like this, I may even have enough material to enter it at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mad Mick

Another person who I thought might be deserving of sympathy this week was Mick McCarthy, after the stick he got for resting ten players against Manchester United on Tuesday. But the fury of Wolves' travelling support at Old Trafford was entirely justified, and given United's meltdown at Craven Cottage, who's to say Wanderers wouldn't have got something from the game had they played their, and I use the phrase extremely loosely, 'big guns'?

Anyway, when Mick's luxuriously rested also-rans were victorious in their relegation 12-pointer with Burnley at Molineux on Sunday, he went all Phil Brown, by keeping his players on the pitch at full time, not for a ticking off, but for a fist-pumping, chest-bumping 'it's us against the world' pep talk.

Mick was obviously still in UFC mode when he strode out to meet the post-match cameras and came across as impossibly arrogant, when he turned inquisitor on the poor chump holding a microphone and asked: "I'm amazed no one's mentioned I made nine changes today. Nobody's bothered." Said chump replied, "Well, you just put the same team back in didn't you?" Mick blathered on, in slightly misguided fashion: "Nine changes. Do you pick my side now or do I pick it?"

A very Harry Christmas

When 'Arry piped up a week or so ago to decry the modern longing for Christmas parties at football clubs he insisted his pampered stars at Spurs would be indulging no such thing. What a big shock it must have been then, when 'Arry discovered that Spurs had ALREADY had a party, and accepted an invitation from club captain Robbie Keane to charge to Ireland for a Guinness-fuelled tear-up quicker than Tiger Woods does to a party at the Playboy Mansion.

The lads tried to dress it up as a pre-Christmas golf trip but Harry shot that particular birdie down in flames in his own, cheeky Cockney style: "I don't think the lads from Cameroon know what a golf course is, so they definitely weren't going to play golf."

He insisted he was just upset they hadn't told him, his pride no doubt being dented a little by forbidding something that had happened over a week earlier, but a solid win over Blackburn lifted his mood ever so slightly before he added, with a glint in his eye, "We will sort them out on Monday."

All that and there wasn't even room to mention Frank Lampard's penalty hat-trick, or John Terry's late entry for the ideal Christmas present: a tour of Chelsea's training ground that involves watching Joe Cole have a massage for the princely sum of £10,000. Er, no thanks John, but Merry Christmas all the same.

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