By Paul Gardner
Those who have been slagging off the English Premier League, who have been condemning it as over-hyped, a league of mostly boring games hardly worth watching -- well, they’ll have to shut up for the moment. Because on Saturday the EPL produced 41 goals in 8 games -- that’s over fiveper game!
Actually, when I said “those who,” I meant me. I stand before you in sackcloth and ashes, not my favorite garb, to beg forgiveness and to offer nothing but praise for this utterly extraordinary day of soccer. Absorbing, gripping, frustrating, entertaining, exciting, thrilling, amazing! I really can’t recall anything like it.
A day on which Newcastle United came back from 0-4 at halftime to tie Arsenal 4-4; in which unbeaten league-leaders Manchester United went down 1-2 to Wolverhampton, the bottom team in the league: in which seven penalty kicks were turned into goals and one was missed; in which Abou Diaby became the umpteenth Arsenal player to get a red card during Arsene Wenger’s reign; in which Carlos Tevez got a hat trick, and Louis Saha hit four ... well, you get the message. It was a day devoted to attacking play, a day on which goals were all that mattered. A day on which the sport seemed to have shaken off its defensive shackles and to be reveling in its freedom.
And what a difference that made. Suddenly the ostensibly unappetizing Wigan vs. Blackburn game turned into an enthralling 4-3 barn-burner. Even Stoke vs. Sunderland, in truth a pretty crude game, had its moments, with a 3-2 scoreline.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that goals are not vital to this sport, don’t even listen to those twerps who go on about the beauty of a 0-0 tie. Saturday showed -- maybe it even proved -- that when the goals start pouring in, you’re going to get memorable games. You’re going to get fans on the edges of their seats, trying to keep up with the changing fortunes of their teams, fans swinging wildly between hope and despair ... and what is wrong with that?
Absolutely nothing. If only we could get more of it, if only this wonderful game were allowed to present itself in this sparkling way every week. This was, according to the BBC website “the day English football officially went nuts.” Well, madness is madness, not much point in trying to work out logical reasons for its onset. Maybe it was the weather, which was wet and windy -- a swirling, slippery ball, and you know how easily our highly trained goalkeepers get upset these days.
Except that I beg to differ with the BBC, because I’d like to think this was the day that the EPL came to its senses and realized that goals are what matter. That seems unlikely now that I think about it, so -- if not the EPL, then maybe those soccer divinities or demons or whatever they are that occasionally take a hand in the game -- maybe they decided to give us a rare glimpse of the fun we’ve been missing.
But -- you’ve been waiting for the “but,” haven’t you? -- of course, alas, alas, neither the madness nor the sanity, whichever it was, could last. My penitence in sackcloth and ashes lasted only 24 hours. On Sunday, it was back to normal.
We went from Sizzling Saturday (over 5 goals per game) to Stodgy Sunday -- on which we got two games -- but we didn’t get 10 goals. Just two tense and not particularly eventful 1-0 games. Chelsea vs. Liverpool was a vital top-of-the-standings clash, while West Ham vs. Birmingham was also vital, but at the bottom of the standings. Two rather dull games, both of them. And both featuring too much coaching, with a capital K.
If there’s one thing we do know about modern Koaches it is that goals scare them death. So you knew (well, listen, I knew) that Carlo Ancelotti, Kenny Dalglish, Alex MacLeish and Avram Grant, having witnessed that obscene and frightening explosion of scoring on Saturday were going to make damn sure it didn’t happen on Sunday. That is the way it always is -- when the goals start to flow, the Koaches quickly reimpose their version of sanity on the sport.
The first thing they will have noticed was that in all eight games on Saturday the opening goal was scored early in the first half. Theo Walcott put Arsenal ahead in the first minute, Kieran Richardson scored after two minutes for Sunderland, Nani got ManU on the board after three minutes -- in fact all the opening goals came within the first 23 minutes.
So you could bet that the Sunday Koaching quartet wasn’t going to allow any first-half goals. Correct. Liverpool got their goal at 69, Birmingham’s came at 65. After that, nothing. Which meant, among other Koaching niceties, that the much-vaunted debut of Fernando Torres for Chelsea was bound to be a bust because Ancelotti preferred caution. So not much support for Torres up front. Dalglish didn’t exactly exude the attacking spirit, either -- sending out his team without a real center forward (Kuyt? Do me a favor -- all grit and work rate -- but a striker? Perrrrlease!). So Liverpool’s goal came from midfielder Raul Meireles. A forward did manage to score for Birmingham -- the giraffic Nikola Zigic -- but he needed a set play to do it.
To complete a thoroughly bizarre weekend, the goalscoring madness or bug or virus or whatever it was, may have faded out quickly in England, but it made a what is probably a farewell appearance on Sunday in, of all places, Italy. You saw that scoreline ... Inter 5 Roma 3?
Permit me to say it again: Never let anyone tell you that goals are not what matter most in this sport. Saturday February 5, 2011. The day the EPL went mad. We could do with a lot more of this madness.