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Emphatic victory, captaincy, an agonising anniversary and a get well soon

Stoke City sent out a crisis what crisis message with the impressive 4-0 defeat of Newcastle.  We were feeling decidedly edgy before the game.  Nervous glances at the league table led us to believe we could easily get dragged into trouble.  While there are still many points to be won and lost, and we need to stay focused on reaching safety… we blew away the cobwebs with a win every bit as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests.  The result was never in doubt from the moment Jermaine Pennant sneaked in to put us 2 up straight after the interval.  From that point we played with renewed viguor and refreshing confidence.  Fuller’s late goal simply gave the socreline a more realistic complexion.  Surprisingly three of our goals came from open play.     It’s pleasing that after a season of wasted  free kicks we score two in two games.  At the final whistle the Geordies looked totally demoralised.  I don’t doubt that this emphatic win is partly due to the bout of cup fever the city is currently absorbed in.  The whole idea  of a cup run being at the expense of league form has never seemed a valid  notion.  For a club like us it injects the season with fresh impetus and generates excitement.  Premier league safety and a possible cup final.  What else could we want from our football team?  What a difference two wins can make.

That Stoke are yet to take part in a goalless draw  is one of the quirkier statistics of the season.   If we got our first 0-0 of the season in the next game against Chelsea few Stokies will be complaining!

Our win was crucial because it’s unlikely we’ll get much from our next two games against Chelsea and Spurs.  It’s a relief to have the points in the bank.  Wolves victory over Aston Villa was a surprise as was WBA drawing at home to Arsenal, a game in which both teams can reflect on two points dropped.  Wigan’s  win over Birmingham keeps them alive and West Ham will be delighted to leave White Hart Lane with a point.  There are many twists and turns ahead and it’s getting complicated.  Gerard Houllier must be starting to suffer sleepless nights as will Alex McCleish.  When the season climax arrives we can hope our sleepless nights are because of the hullabaloo surrounding our first FA Cup Final appearance!

Sunday March 27th marks the 40th anniversary of our first FA Cup semi final against Arsenal.  Back in 1971 the cup held nearly as much prestige as the league did.  As a result the semi was a huge game.  In his excellent autobiography, Denis Smith describes the game in detail.  Smithy states that  for much of the game we felt we had reached the final.  We were seconds away from one of the most memorable moments in our history.  To have a seemingly unassailable lead snatched away at such a late stage is agonising even now.  Whatever happens on April 17th I hope none of us feel the agony Smithy and his teammates felt 40 years ago.  On the subject of this years  Semi final I’d have preferred to play on the Saturday, but after waiting 39 long years another day is tolerable!

David Luiz was colossal for Chelsea against Manchester city.  He ran the defence and initiated moves, using his heading prowess to give his team the lead.  The one big black mark was the avoidable yellow he recklessly acquired in injury time.  One question which must be asked is why were Manchester City so inexplicably negative?  Whilst understanding the need for a contingency plan against a side of Chelsea’s undoubted quality, couldn’t they have been just a bit more adventurous?  Given the money spent on the team they should have been able to go to Stamford Bridge with plans to attack and try to win the game.  Another noticeable aspect of the match is that Fernando Torres still hasn’t scored for Chelsea. 

Attention turns to international fixtures now, in particular England’s European Championship qualifier against Wales.  Reaching tournaments is a no win situation for England.  Qualification is expected and quickly forgotten but failure incurs the wrath of a nation.  Combine this with the fact that there are still many people who, mind bogglingly, expect us to win each tournament we participate in.  While my English feet are firmly on the ground, Wales is game we can confidently expect to win.  Should we fail to do so our presence at Poland and Ukraine in 2012 will be jeopardised and it’s hard to imagine Capello surviving the fallout.

 Does John Terry’s re-appointment as England captain really justify the media interest?  Fabio Capello must feel bewildered by the  pandemonium surrounding the decision.  The primary responsibility of a captain in football is to step forward at the start of the game to call ‘heads’.  Or perhaps ‘tails’ as the case may be.  Good teams have 11 captains (football cliche 231) so why the irrational level of interest and analysis?  It’s just another episode in the bloated hyperbole drenched soap opera that the England team has become.

It was a shock to learn that Bryan Robson, an England captain of an earlier vintage, had undergone an operation to remove a cancerous tumour on his throat.   Few could doubt that he was the heart and soul of both Manchester United and England for several years.  He was the only England player to emerge from the calamitous 1988 European Championship campaign with any credit.  Roy Keane, his successor in the Man Utd engine room, was never the all round player that Captain Marvel was.  Get well soon Robbo. 

It was sad but not so much of a shock to read that Ex Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti has undergone lung surgery.  One of  the abiding memories of the 1978 and 1982 World Cups was Menotti anxiously sucking  cigarette after cigarette.  This familiar image overshadows the fact that he built an exciting team.  His Argentina  were filled with flair that was balanced with a sturdy defence.  Perhaps the biggest testament to his management is that he was strong enough to omit a stroppy youngster named Diego Maradona from the squad…. much to the distress of Maradona himself and the Argentinian media.  Daniel Passarella holding the trophy aloft in the River Plate Stadium vindicated Menotti’s decision, and ensured his place in history.   Good luck Cesar Luis Menotti. 

Milan’s defeat at Palermo gave both Inter a priceless opportunity to get within touching distance of Milan.  They seized that opportunity by edging past Lecce 1-0…. a lacklustre performance but at this stage of the season you ask how not how many.  Despite the lethargic showing you can be assured that Inter are delighted to be only one point behind their neighbours.  Their next league game is the Milan derby.  Each team will know that victory will provide pole position in the struggle for the Scudetto.  It’ll be a huge occasion.  It was a good week for Inter.  In knocking Bayern Munich out of the Champions League they emerged victorious from a thrilling encounter.  Leronardo’s hyperactive touchline presence added to the spectacle.  The Brazilian has rejuvenated his team.  So impressive is the turnaround it’s hard to believe it’s the same club that Benitez left with  abject indignity.

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