If you are like me and decided last semester that it was time to become a die-hard soccer fan and religious follower of the English Premier League, then all I have to say my friend is, “Well played.” If you are still on the fence, you are in luck. There is still time, although you might have already missed one of the most exciting weekends of EPL soccer in recent memory. The truth is, as exhilarating and unpredictable as the Premiership season has been so far, this past Saturday and Sunday’s slate of games may have been the best to date. They included everything from huge upsets and improbable comebacks to outstanding individual performances. Perhaps the best part about last weekend, however, was that it left the teams at the top of the table just that much closer to each other, meaning the good stuff is still very much to come.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the weekend was an instant classic between Arsenal and Newcastle United that featured one of the most improbable finishes in EPL history. Arsenal had been playing some great soccer going into the game and were not showing any signs of letting up against Newcastle. The Gunners raced out to an early and dominating 4-0 lead inside of 25 minutes behind goals by Theo Walcott, Johan Djourou and two by striker Robin Van Persie. Arsenal were well on their way to a comfortable win and remained in control of the game, even after going a man down on an Abou Diaby red card. However, just as the fat lady was warming up to sing, Newcastle got on track and decided to make a game of it. Shortly after a Joey Barton penalty made it 4-1 in the 67th minute, Newcastle’s Leon Best cut Arsenal’s lead in half with a shot from close range in the 75th minute. Just seven minutes later, Barton converted from the penalty spot again and the comeback was fully on. The best was saved for last, however, as with time ticking away, Newcastle’s Ismael Chiek Tioté hit a beauty of a volley after Arsenal failed to clear following a corner, tying the score at 4-4 in the 87th and completing one of the most improbable comeback’s in league history. It was Tioté’s first goal in English football since the Ivory Coast international came to Newcastle from Dutch team FC Twente. The tie left Arsenal players and fans gut-wrenched and heartbroken, especially when they would later find out that they had missed out on a great opportunity to close in on their fellow title contenders. The draw provided some much needed energy and excitement to the Newcastle camp after the team saw the departure of star striker Andy Carroll to Liverpool earlier in the week.
The weekend’s drama was far from over, however, as Manchester United, who came into it with a record of 15 wins, nine draws and no losses, would suffer their first defeat of the season. What was perhaps most surprising, however, was how United lost, falling 2-1 to the Wolverhampton Wanderers. Prior to facing Manchester, the Wolves had only managed six wins this season and remain very much in the relegation battle. Like Arsenal, United found themselves up 1-0 only four minutes into the contest behind a goal from Portuguese winger Nani, but failed to hit the back of the net again in the match. Wolverhampton on the other hand would equalize just seven minutes later thanks to a headed goal by defender George Elokobi before Kevin Doyle scored what proved to be the deciding goal in the 40th minute, flicking on a Nenad Milijas free-kick. Manchester United’s loss on Saturday ensures that the 2003/2004 squad from Arsenal, nicknamed “The Untouchables,” remains the only team to ever go undefeated through their entire league campaign.
On the other side of town, Manchester City fans witnessed one of two great individual performances from the weekend as striker Carlos Tevez hit a first half hatrick on his 27th birthday to lead City over lowly West Brom by a final score of 3-0. Perhaps the weekend’s most impressive individual feat came courtesy of Everton forward Louis Saha, however, as the ex-Manchester United player found the back of the net on four different occasions, leading his team past Blackpool, 5-3. After a slow start to the season, Saha has been in outstanding scoring form of late, netting eight goals in his last six games. The weekend’s last fireworks came Sunday afternoon from Chelsea and Liverpool’s much awaited matchup, which saw the highly anticipated Blues debut of former Liverpool striker and wonder boy Fernando Torres. It was Liverpool’s Raul Meireles that stole the show from Torres, however, scoring the game’s only goal from close range in the 69th minute after a questionable play by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. The loss all but knocks Chelsea, a team that has failed to find their rhythm all season long, out of the title race. Liverpool’s victory only adds to their already impressive second half resurgence, which sees them back in the top six of the table after a disastrous start to the year.
Now before you lock yourself in your room and cry all day because you missed all of these great games, let me repeat myself and say that the best is still very much to come. In fact, this coming Saturday has a few pretty decent games on tap, including one a few of my friends and I like to call – wait for it – The Manchester Derby (Manchester United vs. Manchester City). Probably a good place to start if you feel like making up for lost time. Of course the best part about English soccer is that the games are on ESPN at 7:45 a.m., so make sure you get lots of sleep Friday night, and I’ll see you out there.