This is somewhat of a test post as I move over to the new blog – so anyone who has already read the predictions for this week, sorry to be a bother. Do take note however, this will be the new site for chrissmithfootballblog.wordpress.com – though I will send out a confirmation post if all goes well. Fingers crossed.

If this week’s predictions prove correct, the Premier League title will be all but secured as a Manchester United victory at home to QPR would pile tremendous pressure on rivals City to match their result at Arsenal.

Even if Roberto Mancini’s side triumph, I wouldn’t back them to mount much of a challenge, such is the unimpeachable nature of United’s dominant form.

A rare Friday game affords us the opportunity to watch the league’s best two over-achievers Swansea and Newcastle square off in a contest which showcases the top flight’s two most in-form players, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Papiss Cisse.

On to Saturday, we have an absolute must-win for Liverpool at home to Aston Villa. It really should be three points for Kenny Dalglish and his team, but I do remember saying the same about the Wigan game (it’s still funny).

Hot on the heels of Fergie versus Kean on Monday, Paul Lambert and David Moyes square off in one the Premier League’s frequent Glasgow on Glasgow managerial bouts as Norwich host Everton. Defeat to Stoke could prove Wolves’ dying cry if results go against them, and a resilient Sunderland entertaining a resurgent Tottenham promises to be one of the more exciting attacking fixtures of the weekend.

Last week’s score: Eight (17 in the last two weeks – not bad I reckon)
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Friday March 6, 2012

Swansea 1-1 Newcastle (16:30)
Two great sides, two managers who have earned masses of respect by establishing sides with both mettle and flair – as hard-working as they are entertaining. Though Rodgers will rightly be named manager of the year, Pardew really deserves credit for drumming up the sort of dedication and enthusiasm to enable consistency at St James’.

This match could go one of two ways: an end-to-end goal fest or a rather dull tactical battle. I fear the latter. Both teams can play but they can also break up and prevent, and given the afore-mentioned respect that follows each side around the country, I expect to see plenty of prevention in this one.

This game features two of this year’s top three performing goalkeepers in Michel Vorm and Tim Krul. Great keepers tend to raise their game against their own kind, so it will be interesting to see which one comes out on top.
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Saturday April 7, 2012

Sunderland 2-2 Tottenham (12:45)
Saturday’s early game pits Sunderland who got back on their feet impressively at Manchester City after the hefty blow of the FA Cup exit, against Tottenham who themselves look to have overcome being brought back down to earth and fourth place by Arsenal.

Last week against Swansea, Spurs finally scored the goals their fine general play has warranted to gain a 3-1 win – just the scoreline Sunderland seemed to have earned but for City’s late comeback. Both sides should be in confident mood which is perhaps the defining characteristic of the respective managers’ successful styles.

Tottenham are still looking a bit lax defensively and should give away a fair few chances, though the return to form of Gareth Bale, Emmanuel Adebayor and Rafael van der Vaart should earn them at least a point.
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Bolton 2-1 Fulham (15:00)
Owen Coyle was named Manager of the Month this week for a number of reasons, not least because his side won three of their four March Premier League games. That those victories came against QPR, Blackburn and Wolves, and have left Wanderers 15th as opposed to 20th, means you can hardly argue with the decision.

You would think that form would steer Bolton clear, but you’d be wrong. Such is the congestion at the bottom that Wanderers could be breathing down 16th-placed Aston Villa’s neck on Saturday night, a point behind as they’ll be with a win – or even staring bewilderingly at the table to find only stranded Wolves beneath them. Depending on results of course.

Victory is paramount and certainly possible. Though Fulham played well at Old Trafford in their last away match, they tend to take their foot of the pedal for this type of encounter. Bolton, the opportunists of this year’s relegation battle, should live up to that mantle with a tight victory.
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Chelsea 2-1 Wigan (15:00)
I sound like a broken record, and what is more, one of these new-famed Chelsea-haters, but despite Roberto Di Matteo’s impressive return since taking over as interim first-team coach manager, I do not rate his team at all. ‘The table never lies’ – yeah but the Champions League obviously does. Chelsea were fortunate to make it out of the group stages, fortunate to beat Napoli and yet more fortunate to beat Benfica.

The real test will come later this month when the Blues attempt to settle scores both at home and abroad with domestic and European semi-finals, whilst also making up five points to overhaul either Arsenal or Spurs in the race for fourth place. Personally, I’d give them no chance.

That is of course with the exception of winnable fixtures such as a home game with a relegation side like Wigan. The Latics are four unbeaten however and have won their last two. Though a trip to Stamford Bridge will inevitably be tough, it is frankly Wigan’s easiest of the next three with Manchester United (h) and Arsenal (a) to come, and so with Chelsea playing in midweek, Roberto Martinez could well be looking for three points. Chelsea. Just.
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Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa (15:00)
Part of Liverpool’s success has always been the power of reputation – winning only a third of home games has calmed the impact. Kenny Dalglish has overseen Liverpool’s lowest ebb in my lifetime.

I won’t twist the knife however as history tells us Liverpool bounce back well, and whilst Dalglish has come in for justified flack, the difference between him and the players is that he’s won it all, and they still have to prove themselves.

If they have any strength of character and real value to a club like Liverpool, now at long last they must show it. Step forward one of the worst sides in the league. The similarity between Birmingham’s unthinkable slide towards the drop last season and Villa’s own must be galling in the minds of Villa supporters, particularly the (justifiedly) anti-McLeish ones.

I thoroughly expect a fairly comfortable Liverpool victory here, and depending on results beneath them, Villa could well be in the mire come Saturday evening.
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Norwich 0-2 Everton (15:00)
Everton’s last three games away at Swansea, Sunderland and then at home to West Brom have been incredible. In light of the fact that each of these games finished 2-0 to Everton, you may consider my prediction lazy journalism, and, well, fair comment I suppose, but I just have one of those feelings.

Norwich have struggled to find consistency in recent weeks but that really is the biggest criticism you can throw at them after an excellent season in which relegation has been a non-issue for them. From the bottom of League One to the middle of the Premier League in three years? Absolutely brilliant.

By normal standards, Everton have a huge squad to choose from, and even more in their favour, both the players in the starting 11 and those on the fringes are desperate to earn a place in the Wembley team to face Liverpool. This sort of attitude has enabled Everton to control every minute of the last three – I expect that to continue.
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West Brom 2-2 Blackburn Rovers (15:00)
Hodgson’s men were poor against Everton last week, but as I’ve mentioned, came up against a side at the peak of their powers. They usually bounce back well however so expect a decent showing from them here. Nine home defeats from 15 however reveals that Blackburn have a chance.

Steve Kean’s men looked safe a few games ago but the relegation renaissance that has seen victories earned left, right and centre for Bolton, QPR and Wigan, has pulled Rovers right back into the fold, and the drop zone after Monday’s defeat to Man Utd. There is a lot of goal scoring potential for either side, but also the occasional spate of defensive ineptitude. I’ll say 2-2.
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Stoke 3- 0 Wolves (17:30)
I really can see only one result here, the only issue is the margin. I’ll go for a bit of hammering given that Wolves are about as hopeless as hopeless can get just now.  The nosedive since Terry Connor took over is one thing, but the fact the side were pretty woeful before that just compounds their plight. There really is no way back.

Last week’s defeat to Bolton however cruel was decisive, and the psychological damage of such a loss cannot be underestimated. The last thing you need is a team like Stoke getting in your faces, not giving you an inch, and challenging all over the park from start to finish.

Though Pulis’ men have little to play for, they do have pride in their work, particularly at home. All anyone needs to beat Wolves at this time is a bit of momentum, and Stoke are well capable of producing that.
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Sunday April 8, 2007

Manchester United 3-0 QPR (13:30)
You just can’t argue with Alex Ferguson and Man Utd. A win here would mean an eight-point lead at the top with City having to win at the Emirates to give themselves even a cat in hell’s chance of the title. In the 12 games since losing to Newcastle, the only time United have dropped points was the 3-3 draw with Chelsea. Say what you like about City bottling it, that form is outstanding.

I have given lots of plaudits to Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck this season but to be fair, it appears to have been Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young who have risen to the top of late. United are at the stage where they may as well work up a decent goal difference just in case, and these two players seem to offer the best hope in that regard.

Given their opponents are QPR, and yes, admittedly buoyed as they are by recent victories against bigger sides, United should have no trouble in achieving all of their objectives. Easy win.
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Arsenal 3-2 Manchester City (16:00)
This will be the nail in City’s coffin in terms of the title despite Arsenal’s defeat to QPR. I expect the game to be reminiscent of the Chelsea/ Arsenal, Arsenal/ Spurs matches from earlier in the season when you really thought there would be a goal from every attack.

Some of City’s self-styled efficiency has broken down and will continue to continue to do so in the desperate battle for points – so the game should open a bit. Which is precisely what you are looking for as an Arsenal-tilted neutral. City’s attack has looked pretty ragged in recent weeks but in fairness, this is that their first title push and that takes adjustment.

Arsenal’s defence has looked stable and secure of late except for at the weekend. The combination of Arsenal losing a seven-match winning streak’s confidence and City’s need for three points, means there will be chances for Roberto Mancini’s men and they have quality to finish. But so too do Arsenal and a victory would provide perfect fodder for Arsene Wenger’s pre-season pep talks next year. Should be a classic.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789


Victory for Manchester United away at Blackburn on Monday will not only condemn their North West rivals to the relegation zone for the first time in a month, it will intensify the pressure on an enemy much closer to home.

If last week’s 1-1 draw with Stoke represented a point gained, then Saturday’s 3-3 with Sunderland connotes two dropped, given Manchester City’s 20 consecutive previous league victories at the Etihad.

The facts explain that City were fortunate in getting anything at all, such was the application and co-operation of a Sunderland side that bounced back impressively from Tuesday’s FA Cup quarter-final replay defeat to Everton.

Nicklas Bendtner, for the first time in serving memory, gave the sort of performance that showcases not only his ability to dominate a defence, but his much more remarkable inability to dominate a defence consistently.

The Dane, a figure of pure frustration at times, showed his value with a deft header from Sebastian Larsson’s cross to retake the lead on the stroke of half-time, before returning the favour with a precise assist for the third.

Inadequacy

Five months ago, City’s defensive inadequacy may have been described as ‘careless’. Now it will inevitably form the basis of ‘clear sign of inexperience’ critcisms, and doubt in the minds of City’s players – such is the fever of the hour. Every mistake from here on in will strike hard – affirmation of the whispered fear that perhaps City’s valiant tilt at league triumph is doomed, at least for this year.

At a time when efficiency, consistency, the ruthless application of wisdom, and maturity is required, City are reactionary, hopeful and desperate, clearly guessing at a formula for success.

They are currently unable to cope with the pre-requisite obstacle-surmounting demanded of title challengers.

Even the latent structure of City’s believable dream – the unquestionable home form – has now been laced with doubt. Sunderland were a credit to themselves for getting both back in the saddle and firmly on the front foot after Tuesday’s collapse against Everton. Even so, they represent opposition a team with City’s ambitions and resources should be beating at all costs.

For the impact of the last two draws cuts far deeper than just four points dropped. During the critical moments of both games, City have been behind, in search of a lifeline – not exactly the sort of habit you want to form having surrendered not only the Premier League lead but three-quarters of a season’s momentum to their rivals.

Comeback

Victory in the next two matches against admittedly rejuvenated relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers and QPR would afford United the opportunity to strike the most forceful psychological blow so far.

The obligatory nature of the Red Devils’ late-season comeback does not make it any less impressive.

Just minutes after full-time at Old Trafford next Sunday, City could find themselves preparing to face Arsenal at the Emirates knowing that a victory would merely close the gap to five points with six games remaining.

Amidst the journalistic frenzy that characterizes this time of year, it is important to try to maintain perspective, and 46 home points from a possible 48 hardly smacks of a crisis. The point is about mood however – something far meaningful and tangible than statistics.

Weakness

From Patrick Vieira’s constant stream of nonsense, and Saturday’s on-field spat between Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov, to the yet more unfathomably daft injury to Sergio Aguero which now threatens to bring Carlos Tevez right back into the fold, City express weakness and inadequacy with damning regularity at the minute.

Mancini, himself coolness personified so often this year, appears erratic, uncomfortable, verging on angry just now.

He is a man caught between the necessary critique and perhaps more necessary, subsequent defence of his under-performing players.

Victory at Blackburn would relinquish some of the psychological baggage of United’s trip to the Etihad, rendering City’s title push more hopeful pursuit than genuine challenge.

As Ferguson has cranked up the pressure with his carefully-chosen moments, and his side has backed that up with nine wins and a draw from the last 10, the wheels have certainly come off for City.  The next two fixtures will decide whether their title bid has been derailed completely.
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By Chris Smith


If this week’s predictions prove correct, my beloved Blues will be above those wretched Reds in the table. Everton take on West Brom at home, whilst Kenny “I’m here all week” Dalglish’s confidence-drained side travel to Newcastle – a team with precisely the opposite experience just now.

Elsewhere, Manchester City have a real chance to turn up the pressure on Manchester United, by defeating Sunderland, and after the Black Cats’ gut-wrenching shambles of a non-performance against Everton, that should not be too difficult.

Arsenal should make it eight consecutive league wins as they face QPR which really would make next weekend’s home game with City that bit more exciting if that is possible.

As always, play along. Now that I have scored nine, the goal really absolutely must be 10, so you must aim for that as well. One for a correct result, two for a correct score. Like I mentioned previously, this score system is not just some meaningless thing I have invented to differentiate myself from Mark Lawrenson – oh hang on, I’ve read that wrong, it is precisely that.

Last week’s score: 9 (best ever)
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Saturday March 31, 2012

Aston Villa 0-2 Chelsea (15:00)

Aston Villa could really do with the season ending immediately – the atmosphere of the whole club is total negativity. They have enough quality to survive but require a galvanising team spirit to raise them further up. So dreadfully bereft of that as they are, Villa will inevitably struggle.

Roberto Di Matteo was fortunate to be handed four winnable games to start life at Stamford Bridge. That said, a draw at home to Spurs, late defeat at the Etihad, and victory away at Benfica since then ain’t too shabby. Chelsea have shored things up defensively conceding just five goals in seven games under the Italian, though up top, they really could with being a little more composed and clinical. Decent enough to beat a poor side. 0-2.
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Everton 2-0 West Brom (15:00)

Everton have lost only four of the last 21 games and though that record is impressive, the last two away performances against Swansea and Sunderland were better than the rest put together. Everton look rock solid defensively, and really threatening going forward.

The mood around Goodison has not been right all season. Expect that to change on Saturday. There’s no more special feeling for me as an Evertonian than clapping the boys onto the pitch after a week like this. The crowd will boost the players, we will be back to our old selves.

West Brom are an excellent side, and Roy Hodgson is one of my favourite managers. His balance between criticism and praise of players strikes me as complete honesty. Despite that, I don’t see them having much of a chance here even if David Moyes rotates his side as expected.
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Fulham 3-1 Norwich (15:00)

I hope Fulham strengthen the squad in the summer, not that they particularly need to – just because they are a really good side at the minute and Martin Jol has a fantastic eye for a player. A few good signings could really push them on. In Dempsey, Dembele and Pogrebnyak, Fulham have one of the most skilful, powerful strikeforces and I love to watch them play.

Jol’s men showed real steel against Manchester United which is not something you would readily associate with them, and so expect some residual confidence from that performance. As for Norwich – what was Grant Holt playing at getting sent off against Wolves? After my big build-up last, he looked all set for a hat-trick and then that? You daft sod!

I respect Paul Lambert’s men even as an away side – they will definitely compete in this game. Ultimately however, Fulham’s craftier types will earn the win.
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Manchester City 3-0 Sunderland (15:00)

This will be a deceptive result in the title race I think. The wheels are coming off for City at the moment. A fortunate draw away at Stoke, Patrick Vieira’s constant stream of nonsense, Aguero’s new injury, Tevez now appearing their main striking hope – not exactly the plain sailing you would expect of champions.

In spite of that, they will hammer Sunderland. Why? Because Martin O’Neill men are a team of average to decent players at best (Stephane Sessegnon apart) who improve their standards with co-operation, confidence and momentum. Well the balloon burst on Tuesday, and as a dominant Everton side ripped them to pieces, you could see the Sunderland players crumbling before your eyes.

With that game behind them, Sunderland have no hope this season, and psychologically, will look at breaking City’s great home record as something far beyond their means. City to win, Tevez to score.
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QPR 0-3 Arsenal (15:00)

QPR have no chance of staying up. They would if only they allowed themselves to compete, but the toxic combination of awful defending and an astonishing disregard for discipline, will expose Mark Hughes’ men for what they really are: a Championship side.

Arsenal on the other hand are brilliant at the moment. Seven consecutive league victories is good enough to reflect a team’s standing, not just their form. Wenger’s men have re-overtaken Spurs – I’m not talking about third place, I mean in terms of being the Premier League’s best attacking side. Nothing comes to mind in the way of a warning against tipping Arsenal, so I’ll tip them heavily. 3-0.
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Wigan 1-2 Stoke (15:00)

Credit where it is due, I have written Wigan off for a while, but five points from the last three games has given them the opportunity to survive. They have deserved those points too, passing well, attacking in numbers, and defending with more sense.

They do however give away a fair few chances and it seems like all it would take for the Latics to be punished is a confident striker with some decent service. Cue Peter “Jesus christ, what a goal!” Crouch and his merry band of supply-merchants. Wigan to play well but carelessly, Stoke to nick it.
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Terry Connor must think: ‘if we don’t win this one we’re doomed’. I say ‘Terry Connor’, I really mean myself. Defeat would leave Wolves effectively eight points behind Bolton, whereas a victory would close the gap to just a point.

I expected a Bolton defeat last week but it seemed that the Fabrice Muamba situation helped them gain a vital victory. I was not particularly impressed with them, but that wasn’t really the point of the day. As for this one qualitywise – don’t hold your breath. That shouldn’t stand in the way of a good game however, and with both sides’ as deeply-plunged into the relegation abyss as they are, expect a real battle.

Wolves to claim a valuable first three points for the boss.
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Sunday April 1, 2012

Newcastle United 0-5 Liverpool (13:30) (April Fools!)
Newcastle United 2-1 Liverpool

I frequently sing the praises of Alan Pardew and his team, so they could at least have the decency to beat Liverpool, and give Everton a chance to go above them in the table. Newcastle’s last outing at West Brom showcased why they are such a dangerous side. Cisse, Ba, and Ben Arfa mean chances and goals, simple as that.

How Liverpool have lost to perhaps the worst two Premier League sides in recent weeks is mystifying – it’s bloody hilarious and mystifying. The Reds will respond, no doubt about that, but a tough game against a Newcastle side overflowing with confidence and “champagne football” as Pardew put it, will come just a bit too early. Narrow victory earned by Cisse.
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Tottenham 2-0 Swansea (16:00)

Spurs really need to get back to winning ways. A season that has started so promisingly could yet end miserably, though they can to remedy that with some consistent league form and an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea. Redknapp’s men have been really unlucky of late and are much better than their lull suggests.

Swansea were second best in every department at home to Everton last week and really did not look like threatening at all. Though the Toffees were on top form, Brendan Rodgers will have expected more of his players. Superior quality with previal in this one as Spurs will dominate the game and buck their wasteful trend.
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Monday, April 2, 2012

Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Manchester United (20:00)

Considering they have fought relegation all year, Blackburn are a really decent side. They have two great strikers in Yakubu and Junior Hoilett, and there has been an evident spirit there throughout

Even though Fulham defended well, Manchester United should have scored more last week to reduce the goal difference. That said, the performance was encouraging. For the first time this season, United are the best side in Manchester.

Victory rather than defeat to Blackburn back in December would see United six points clear – the least they can do is amend that. I expect a mechanistic win, not particularly impressive, but a vital three points all the same.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith 789


As Sunderland shrunk in front of stunned home supporters, a dominant Everton took full advantage to progress to the FA Cup semi-finals, setting up the biggest Merseyside derby in years.

The replay was both sides’ most important game this year – the occasion galvanising Everton and robbing Sunderland of their lifeblood confidence.

On Saturday, I lauded David Moyes for the tactical mastery which enabled our best performance of the season against Swansea. Without detracting credit from him – because the same system worked even more impressively against Sunderland – the bulk of my praise will be directed at the players.

From back to front, Everton were incredible. The only player who was not outstanding was Tim Howard, and well, the Sunderland attack was responsible for that.

Put simply, there was absolutely no chance of Everton losing  – a remarkably cohesive, brave defensive performance made sure of that. The biggest compliment I can pay Johnny Heitinga is that he really is almost as reliable as centre-back partner Sylvain Distin these days.

The momentary flash of panic that accompanied the ball heading towards the Dutchman in his early Goodison career has been replaced with complete confidence in his ability.
Guaranteed clean sheet

The pair guaranteed Everton’s clean sheet along with Leighton Baines whose astounding tackle to deny Nicklas Bendtner a certain goal (Bendtner, certain goal, same sentence?) was crucial, and Phil Neville who defended James McLean as he defended Gareth Bale so well last year.

Horses for courses? Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Whatever – hats off to manager and captain for a perfectly-executed plan. McLean was Sunderland’s best hope and he didn’t get a kick.

It might have taken nearly two years Davey, but we now know what you mean by calling Magaye Gueye your ‘secret weapon’.

What a performance! Everything I roared at the television for the youngster to do, he did and more, demonstrating the maturity, confidence and strength that is essential to complement his clear talent.

Contrary to Roy Keane’s erroneous analysis, Gueye’s ball in for Everton’s opener was a decisive moment of quality.

On the right, Leon Osman’s ball-control throughout was a pleasure to behold – regularly drawing in a couple of defenders to create space for a pass, then beating them anyway and passing to someone else. Superb.

Central dominance

Marouane Fellaini demonstrated that he is working harder to cut out silly free-kicks. Going forward however, he really is beginning to use his strength, and finally his brain. The powerful run and excellent through-ball to allow Jelavic to almost score Everton’s second was just what the Belgian should be doing week in week out so let’s hope it continues.

(On that note, god I felt sorry for David Vaughan scoring the own goal – cracking little player, didn’t deserve that)

Yet for all Fellaini’s class, it is Darron Gibson who is really making the team tick just now.  The Toffees have been blighted for too long by a reluctance to take risks in terms of passing, moving, and shooting.

Consequently, the players stand still, move the ball sideways and back, sideways and back, before eventually losing it. Gibson has changed the impetus by seeking to release his teammates, finding the space, taking defenders out of the game; moving the play forward to put the opposition under pressure. He plays with the sort of urgency and aggression that we have missed for so long.

His powerful shots from distance really are an added bonus and when they start going in on a regular basis, I see Gibson making the seamless transition from dubious signing to Everton stalwart in no time.

Exciting strikeforce

As for the cherry on the cake: finally, FINALLY, Everton have an effective, exciting strikeforce. Nikica Jelavic finished brilliantly to open the scoring and should have added at least two more. His work-rate is excellent, and his quality is improving though for me, he was our second best attacker on the night.

I knew Tim Cahill would benefit from Nikica Jelavic’s arrival. Unfortunately, Ian Snodin beat me to it in terms of an article but I have no problem admitting he is right. Cahill was brilliant against Swansea and he was brilliant again on Tuesday. He is much freer than he has been for months, as if he has rediscovered the simple formula to his game which makes him so effective.

Almost scoring with two great headers, assisting Jelavic to fire just wide for 3-0, and contributing impressively to all areas of the team, Cahill was the Man of the Match for me, but believe me, there really were seven or eight candidates.

Like Moyes said, to a man, the team were outstanding. From the start of the game to the end of the night, my emotional response was pride.

Roll on Wembley for the semis; roll on that sorry side from across Stanley Park. If we play like that, all the moaning and mumbling and post -match grumbling won’t save King Kenny from the Blue Boys’ humbling!
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789
To read ‘Everton hark back to Moyes’ heyday with dominant victory over Swansea’, click here.
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This is the third of my regular ‘And another thing…’ section in which I like to give you some of my more more brief reactions to the weekend’s football. Consider this a snippeted collection of thoughts which may not grab headlines but will hopefully reflect/ contrast/ stir up your own. Get in touch if you think of any of your own – otherwise, enjoy!
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* Manchester City’s Gareth Barry was fortunate to avoid giving away a penalty at the weekend but this point is regarding Tony Pulis. The Stoke manager has a tendency to run up to the edge of the pitch, often out of his technical area, to bellow at officials. Why is this acceptable?

If a player did that, the very least they would receive is a yellow card. If they did it with the regularity of Pulis, they would be sent off and banned. Stoke and their boss get away with far, far, far too much, and it is about time this was addressed.

Grow up, accept that you don’t win every decision, stop prancing up and down like a spoilt child and concentrate on what you do best. These sort of issues really do sully what is an otherwise impressive reputation for both manager and club.
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*Another week and yet another ‘Luis Suarez is a cheat’ update. The Liverpool striker bundled home a disallowed goal with his hand in the 2-1 defeat to Wigan – let’s do a brief status report. So far in Suarez short career, we have diving, biting, hand-balling, and racism. His obvious talent aside, what a scumbag, what a source of shame for supporters.

A brief point: what sort of prat using his hand from a yard out? He could have chested, shouldered, headed, even faced that ball into the goal. Instead, the vulgar inclinations of one of world football’s biggest cheats robbed Liverpool of the lead and probably three points.

Of the famous ‘This is Anfield’ sign, the great Bill Shankly once said: “It’s there to remind our lads who they’re playing for, and to remind the opposition who they’re playing against.” Next time you take to the field in front of your home supporters, Mr Suarez, you might want to lift your head a few inches.
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* For years, Joey Barton has taken stick about practically everything from everybody in football. I often defended him believing him a decent player, though an undoubted moron. Well Joey, consider that support taken away – you’re rubbish!

If such a volatile egotist cannot contribute on the pitch,  he has nothing to offer. His presence takes on only detrimental significance. QPR’s impending relegation ought to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Barton’s Premier League career.
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* How strange is it to view a Newcastle United side as being a real figure of respect? For so long after Andy Carroll’s departure, I lambasted Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias (editorial note: I decided that ‘Llambiasted’ was too weak a pun to include) for not spending the money to push the club on.

Well, look at them now. In Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle have three of the best attackers in the Premier League to complement an impressively solid defence and midfield. So, despite my natural dislike of Ashley, you have to say fair play.
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* Glenn Hoddle for England? Surely, not. Has it really got to the stage where a manager can simply suggest that he should be the England manager in order for him to be considered? Hoddle has done nothing since leaving the post to warrant a second chance, though of course the conditions of his exit were dubious to say the least.

The job has to go to Harry Redknapp, but if not, then Roy Hodgson is absolutely the man for the job. Hodgson’s credentials are unmatched in the English game – his experience would give him a huge advantage over all other candidates.

Though I would anticipate a fairly defensive English side – just the sort that has really turned me off the national team in recent years – I would expect a solid, hard-working, fully capable one a- la Hodgson’s Fulham and West Brom who serve as excellent references for his application.
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* Manchester United really surprised me against Fulham. A night match at Old Trafford with the chance to not only steal back the Premier League lead but claw back what was a humongous goal difference and they win 1-0? Not the performance of champions.

United’s home displays may have been poor of late but they will win the league away from home as I see it. Stripped of the adrenalinized fervour  of home support and habit, champions must win their away fixtures with character, strength and solidity – something which is wholly absent from City’s away record (two wins in the last nine). That will be the difference.
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Anything I’ve missed? The point of this ‘And another thing…’ section is to hopefully stir up debate about the smaller talking-points of the weekend in order that they not be overlooked in favour of title-chasing and relegation-fighting. Comment/ email any of your personal reactions – I find them really interesting, and quite often, these sorts of things are the raw materials from which I construct my article.
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By Chris Smith
 Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789 


Everton’s 2-0 victory over Swansea was not only the side’s best outing of the season, it was the timeliest possible reminder of the Moyes-era heyday when guts and determination allowed quality to flourish.

Without hyperbole I can state that Everton should have beaten the scintillating Swans by at least four. Nevertheless, David Moyes responded to recent criticism with a tactical masterclass to create tremendous momentum heading into Tuesday’s FA Cup quarter-final with Sunderland.

Leaving the Arsenal game in midweek, disappointed, I turned to my dad and said: “You know what the difference is: they used to play every game like a cup final, every single game – I don’t believe that they care the same way any more”. His response: “It’s not that they don’t care, I think they just had hard lines.”

And as Everton chased Swansea down from minute one and occupied the spaces on the Liberty Stadium pitch which so-often enable the slick passing that has characterized the Welsh side, I have to say humble pie has never tasted so good.

When the time was right, the Toffees switched gear and overpowered their opponents with a dominant attacking display, becoming the only side to outclass Swansea on their own patch this year – a considerable feather in the cap.

Quirk of fate

It really was the sort of dumbfounding quirk of fate that makes you just love football. Brendan Rodgers’ form side had won the previous three Premier League’s games without conceding a goal. Everton inversely, seemed to have surrendered the initiative with back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.

Yet all the gut-wrenching flaws in Everton’s poor showing this year were amended in a flash as if by magic. Recent problems with concentration, intensity, movement, ball retention, end product, and finishing were all eradicated magnificently.

The shackles of passing-for-the-sake-of-passing and Moyes’ natural reservation were cast off as Everton outperformed their high-quality opponents all over. As skill backed up strength, cohesion set the tone.

The Evertonian prayer for Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar to rekindle the most productive of partnerships was answered beyond the boundaries of all genuine hope. In the way of a summary of the pair’s poor showing at Arsenal: very wasteful in possession. Well that was then and this is now because both were sensational against Swansea.

With a bit of luck in the next few games, Baines’ strike will be remembered as ‘the goal that won the cup’ such is the lift it could give the side. For the duo to combine so effectively so quickly is both testament to their understanding and a source of real hope for the rest of the season. Well actually, it is and it isn’t.

Confidence

The Toffees’ hopes this season are invested solely in the FA Cup. This Tuesday’s replay with Sunderland arrives at the perfect time in terms of the confidence this win will breed. But the fact is Pienaar is cup-tied and this could be crucial. Though probable replacement Royston Drenthe has performed well – or at least been less frighteningly erratic in the past few games – I’ll draw upon the meta-analysis of Evertonianism to explain the difference.

When the Blues are on top form, there are momentary nuances of sheer brilliance that send us into raptures. For instance, when Baines threads a through-ball back-heel having played a one-two,  you know he’s on his game.

Similarly, when Pienaar nonchalantly stands still for five seconds waiting for the right pass, there is a feeling in your bones. The South-African was man of the match in Everton’s match of the season – his value cannot be understated.

Although his absence will hit Moyes’ side hard, that is frankly the only negative they take into Tuesday. Those ‘momentary nuances of brilliance’ were visible throughout.

A case in point: Maruoane Fellaini (who let’s not forget arrived as a substitute – which is a tangential bonus in itself regarding the state and size of the squad) so often frustrates with carelessness. Forcing his way past Swansea’s Ashley Williams in a typical fashion, this time creating the opportunity for victory – so often his shortcoming.

In handing Nikica Jelavic the simple chance to kill the game off, the Belgian vindicated what has been a thoroughly decent run of form. As an aside, the Croatian’s clear desperation to receive Fellaini’s bears all the mark of a goal scorer.

Satisfaction

Mixed in with reactionary joy at the win was the added satisfaction of feeling as if everything is finally as it should be – we know what this side can do and at last they have shown us. Victories over Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham of late were impressive, but make no mistake, the Swansea performance made me feel proud again.

One particular moment struck me as Johnny Heitinga absolutely tore down the touchline late on to secure possession in the final third – gaining around five yards on his marker to do so.

To see a player of Heitinga’s previously-dubious commitment really busting a gut for the side put me in mind of my dad’s comment, and well, the old man must know a thing or to.

Against Spurs, Phil Jagielka was brought on to play as a third centre-back and secure the game. Heitinga was introduced to similar effect against Swansea, though I read Moyes’ substitution as practice for the possibility of leading late against Sunderland, and therefore, a real savvy move from the boss.

Righting the wrong

The team selection against Liverpool will forever be remembered as the only time Moyes really gave in as far as I’m concerned, but the manner of Saturday’s victory will go a long way to righting that wrong.

The squad looked tip-top on Saturday – Phil Jagielka’s excellent performance  complementing fellow centre-halves Heitinga and Sylvain Distin who are in the form of their lives for the club. Also, Darren Gibson’s positive return will bolster resources.

The key for Everton over the next few weeks will be Nikica Jelavic, who, though careless at times against Swansea, fulfilled a vital role – one that stands Everton in great stead for the replay.

The Croatian’s sharpness up-front will offer essential solace from the inevitable Mackem onslaught. His ability to finish, refined after Saturday’s heroics, could just about get us to Wembley.

So hats off Davey, it was one of your best.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter@cdsmith789 or click here to return to the homepage.


The season for psychological warfare is upon us at the top of the Premier League and Manchester City have blinked far too early by my watch. Alex Ferguson’s response to Patrick Vieira’s criticism of United’s decision to re-sign Paul Scholes was to lay down the gauntlet – I know who my money’s on.

First and foremost , you don’t knock Paul Scholes. Vieira’s suggestion of “weakness” really was unfathomable in light of the all-smiles-for-the-cameras Tevez spectacular on Wednesday night.

Both players were brought back for the same reason: to secure the title. The difference being that Scholes never lets you down.

St Carlos returned to save the day against Chelsea, and whilst a topless Samir Nasri, arms out-stretched with joy, is not exactly my idea of positive reinforcement, let’s not forget the power of a good hug to a man home from exile. Tevez’s talent is beyond reproach, his attitude is the problem, though both of those factors deal with cause when we should be talking effect.

Disruption

The issue here is disruption. For all the benefits of having such a player in your midst, his presence in the squad is potentially incendiary. Throw that in the mix with Mario Balotelli and well, there’s a Roman candle joke in there somewhere. Nervous energy will flicker in the pit of Mancini’s stomach and on the tip of Ferguson’s tongue – like he said: “ammunition”.

Which is why City have been so foolish to continue to attack especially after Mancini’s excellent ”United will win because they are strong’ opening shot regarding the Red Devils’ trip to Spurs. Vieira has destroyed an impressive foundation in trading the cryptic for the crude.

Everything is about to explode, and whether or not Mancini feels he and his side are capable of withstanding the mental intensity, he knows beyond all possible doubt that Fergie and his men can.

It will be the imposing figure in opposition rather than the lofty heights of success that will cast a shadow over City’s push to the summit.

Vulnerable

What is more, Mancini is incredibly vulnerable. A thoroughly impressive reputation now sits at least partially staked in two of the Premier League’s most unpredictable characters, Balotelli and Tevez. Not exactly Mount Vesuvius but dodgy ground you’d have to say. Balotelli is his man, Tevez his problem; both potentially ‘Mancini’s biggest mistake’ and a tarnished name.

The difference between first and second in football essentially boils down to ruthlessness. Ferguson, Mourinho, Guardiola, exhibits A, B and C. Which brings us to Scholes: calmness personified. Not only has he been there and done it all, he probably scored a screamer in the final. He adds vital composure to a team packed with youthful exuberance.

Scholes’ return was a no brainer for one simple fact: you just cannot buy that combination of technique, consistency, will and experience.

Not only that, United have another two of these priceless commodities: Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney. All three have not only proven they can win decisive games in an instant, but they can do it over and over.

In the last nine league encounters since losing 3-0 to Newcastle, Ferguson’s men have dropped points only to Chelsea, and the plus 14 goal difference in that time reflects United are getting back to their untouchable best.

Picked up the mantle

Rooney, a la Giggs and Scholes before him, has picked up the mantle of dictating the team’s more dynamic attackers – Hernandez, Young, Welbeck, Nani, and Valencia – and reaped the benefits of their boundless creativity in goals. It’s tried, it’s tested, it works. Just-press-play football.

United now have six games to secure the title before the Etihad derby. Of the teams they face, Everton, in 10th position, are the highest-placed side, and even that one’s at Old Trafford. The perfect sort of games to apply a formula: to contain, control and defeat sides one by one.

The point being that for Mancini and co, this is all uncharted water and rocking the boat is frankly the last thing they should be doing. What speaks loudest is performance on the park and Tevez-assisted late shows will go no way to destabilising the United machine.

There is an old notion that he who shouts the loudest believes the least in his cause and in light of this, I read Vieira’s comment ironically.

Drawing attention to the supposed “weakness” of one of Alex Ferguson’s decisions has simply exposed the difference in strength and stability between the two clubs.

City had to bring Tevez back and now they have to win the league; their weakness is defined by their desperation.
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By Chris Smith

Follow me on Twitter@cdsmith789 or click here to return to the homepage.