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Aleksandar Kolarov barely missed the upper left hand corner, his curling left-footed shot going high and out of play as the clock read 94:20. The exhaling crowd at St. Andrews barely heard the whistle that followed, City's near-miss proving the match's last action. Manchester City with the two teams above them having secured three points on Tuesday, were drawn at Birmingham City, 2-2.
While few teams have gone to St. Andrews and won since the Blues earned promotion in the summer of 2009, the result will still seem points missed for Roberto Mancini. His side had a lead after four minutes and regained it after 40, only to give up a second equalizer when Patrick Vieira gifted his hosts a penalty kick. Craig Gardner gave Joe Hart no chance to salvage three of City, leaving the Citizens eight points behind their cross-town rivals in the title race.
More concerning for City: both Chelsea and Spurs got three on the road. City's draw leaves them only two ahead of fourth place, four ahead of Tottenham in fifth, the Citizens the only team in the top five to stumble mid-week.
Early on, it looked like it would be an easy day for Manchester City. A simple build-up saw David Silva feed Carlos Tévez for a fourth minute goal, the Argentine beating Ben Foster from a tight angle to give the visitors the lead. In the minutes that followed City exhibited why they were title contenders and Birmingham relegation battlers, though as the first half progressed, the home team was slowly allowed to come into the match.
Just past the period's mid-point, the home side pulled even, a simple piece of dead ball execution leading to Nikola Zigic's goal, the Serb redirecting David Bentley's cross past Joe Hart. A lapse on the play by normally stellar Vincent Kompany allowed Zigic space, pulling City back into a contest.
Before half, it was Birmingham City's turn to err. Only five men in their wall tried to deter Kolarov from 20 yards out. The ensuing shot was too easy, with the City left back given too much of the goal's left side to miss. Opening his left foot onto a ball he curled inside the left post, Kolarov sent City into half up 2-1.
The second half was nondescript comeback to its three goal predecessor, giving the impression City could bleed the match to a winning conclusion. Unfortunately for Roberto Mancini, his halftime substitution of Patrick Vieira for Nigel de Jong, who knocked heads with a hospitalized (but reportedly fine) Miach Richards in the first half, proved costly, with the veteran French midfielder graciously knocking Kevin Phillips to the ground late in the match. The given penalty converted by Garnder, Birmingham City had their comeback.
The draw moves the Blues one point clear of Wigan above the drop, underscoring the missed opportunity for Manchester City. Against the league's 17th place team, they were unable to preserve a late lead. As a result, they're close to a Europa League place that first.
Tottenham Hotspur notched a 1-0 win over Blackburn Rovers this evening at Ewood Park, but it was hardly because of a stellar defensive effort. While Sebastien Bassong made numerous errors, William Gallas limped his way through the match, and Vedran Corluka committed multiple silly fouls, the midfield held strong for Spurs while Gomes put in a spectacular performance to lead his team to all three points. Blackburn had numerous opportunities to score, especially at the end of the game, but failed to break down the door.
Jermaine Jenas got a start in the center of midfield for Spurs thanks to a variety of injuries, and the out of favor Englishman did not disappoint. Often the subject of criticism from Spurs fans, Jenas put in his best performance of the season, helping his team to keep and win back the ball in the center on a number of occasions.
Gomes stole the show from Jenas at the end, though, with a number of great saves. The Blackburn attack forced him into a lot of work, mostly on set pieces, but the Brazilian's efforts were enough to keep Blackburn from hitting the back of the net as Spurs recorded a rare shutout.
Blackburn put in a good performance, and they'll be left wondering how they managed to avoid getting a point. However, despite the loss, Blackburn still sit in ninth place, seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Spurs have matched Chelsea's win from Tuesday, while gaining on Manchester City, who drew against Birmingham City on Wednesday. They still sit in fifth place, three points behind Chelsea and five points behind Manchester City.
Luis Suarez got his debut and probably notched his first Premier League goal to boot, although the dubious goals panel will be along to figure out whether Liverpool's rather odd second should go to the £22M striker or to Stoke City's rather less expensive Andy Wilkinson, who made a right mess of the clearance and only succeeded in booting the ball in off his own post. Either way, Liverpool won't care - that's three vital points in the bag and a hugely impressive first match in the post-Torres era. Kenny Daglish's 3-5-1-1/3-5-2 worked wonders against a visibly bemused Stoke, who simply couldn't get anything going int he attack for most of the game.
Although it was 0-0 at halftime, Liverpool were obviously the better side and were just lacking a cutting edge from striker Dirk Kuyt. Raul Meireles made up for the lack of an end product from the hard-working striker, smashing home following a Steven Gerrard free kick early in the second half. Suarez was introduces with 25 minutes to go and performed as one might expect of such a high-pedigree acquisition, tormenting Stoke's defence before having a vital role in the second goal.
It's definitely 2-0 at Anfield but it's a little bit unclear as to who's actually scored. Luis Suarez was released into space, rounded a stranded Asmir Begovic, and rolled the ball goalwards. However, Andy Wilkinson had gotten back in plenty of time and should have made the clearance as the shot crept towards the net. He made solid contact, but somehow contrived to score in off his own post. It's unclear whether the goal will be credited to Suarez or ruled an own goal - Suarez's shot was going in anyway but Wilkinson really ought to have cleared that. No matter who gets the goal, Stoke are down by two with less than ten minutes to go, so it's probably game over.
Stoke's response was twofold. The first and least surprising element was Danny Collins getting booked for wiping Suarez out the next time the Uruguayan touched the ball. The second was nearly scoring after John Carew chested down a long ball in the box, only for Jonathan Walters to hammer a shot right at Pepe Reina, whose first real action in the game involved nearly being decapitated by the football.
You can't get more emphatic than Craig Gardner's 77th minute penalty kick against Manchester City, rocketing over the diving Joe Hart and until the upper 90, evening Birmingham City's match with the Citizens at two. The goal comes after a lackluster second half which looked destined to end 2-1, the visitors seemingly content to let the air pass out of the match. Then, in the 77th minute, the Blues were given their lifeline.
That's when the referee pointed to the spot, substitute Patrick Vieira looking old and reckless while sending Kevin Phillips to ground. There was little objection over the call and little doubt over the shot, with Gardner, one of the league's best strikers of the ball, giving Hart no chance.
It could prove a big goal allowed for City, who saw all of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea win yesterday, while Tottenham Hotspur lead at Blackburn today. City came into today's match nine points behind Manchester United at the top of the league and only one point ahead of Chelsea for third. If Roberto Mancini's men drop this match, they're likely to be only five above the fifth place position they occupied at the end of 2009-10.
We've seen a decent chance squandered by John Carew for Stoke City as well as Rory Delap come on for Salif Diao, but the real news right now is the introduction of Luis Suarez, Liverpool's new £22M striker. Suarez comes on for Fabio Aurelio, who was playing in the centre of midfield. Presumably they'll retain three at the back and go to a straight 3-5-2 with Raul Meireles dropping deeper and Suarez partnering Dirk Kuyt. Suarez, wearing #7, walked onto the pitch to rapturous applause, and why not? This, after all, is the striker with 81 goals in 108 Eredivisie games with Ajax.
Stoke have more problems than Suarez's introduction as Abdoulaye Faye limps off with a hamstring injury. Tony Pullis has had to rejuggle his entire team, and what he's come up with is Tony Fuller for Marc Wilson, with Danny Collins coming in for Faye and Danny Higgenbottom moving to centre back. Will they be able to claw their way back into this match with 25 minutes to go?
It took Stoke City three attempts to successfully kick off the second half, which I suppose speaks volumes about Stoke City. So does the defending on that goal by Raul Meireles. Steven Gerrard rolled in a free kick, Sotirios Kyrgiakos picked it up, and the ball popped free to Meireles to slam past Asmir Begovic. No wonder-save there, and Liverpool are 1-0 up at Anfield right at the beginning of the second half. Who needs Luis Suarez?
John Carew and Salif Diao have both been booked already as Stoke take their frustrations out on Liverpool, but their response to the goal hasn't exactly been promising for the Potters' hopes. Tony Pullis will have to try to figure out a way to score, and with the way his team is playing, that will be... somewhat challenging. The immediate priority, though is stopping the hosts from scoring again at Anfield - Liverpool aren't going to stop at one goal, from the looks of things.
Tottenham Hotspur have a 1-0 lead over Blackburn Rovers, but it's tough to say that they deserve it. Harry Redknapp's makeshift side hasn't been communicating too well while Blackburn are obviously superior in communication and organization, but noticeably lacking in the skill most Premier League teams possess to go along with it.
The goal came early, thanks to a brilliant combination between Rafael van der Vaart and Peter Crouch. Playing on the right wing instead of his preferred central attacking position, van der Vaart hit a great floating cross towards the head of Peter Crouch in the box. Crouch rose up over Christopher Samba and hit a great header into the back of the net to make it 1-0. It would be the only score of the first half, but Blackburn had plenty of opportunities.
Wilson Palacios and Sebastien Bassong, in particular, have made a number of mistakes for Tottenham. Fortunately for them, Blackburn have not had the skill and instincts to capitalize on them.
And that's that for a decent first half of football. Stoke City have goalkeeper Asmir Begovic to thank for going into the interval on level terms, but Liverpool haven't been too much of a threat yet so far. While they're definitely edged things, Liverpool have only had two real scoring chances - the Glen Johnson header that Begovic did so brilliantly to keep out, and a low drive from Dirk Kuyt that the Bosnian keeper smothered as it skimmed towards the bottom corner. Liverpool have picked up the pace a bit in the last ten minutes, but while Kuyt's doing a decent job as a lone forward in terms of holding play there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to score goals for this side. Will we see Luis Suarez at some point in the second half?
There's definitely no obvious way for Stoke to score goals - their most lively attacking option has been Jermaine Pennat. Striker John Carew is playing against three centre backs, all of whom he'd have trouble beating by themselves. Unless something freakish happens, the visitors definitely don't look like scoring anytime soon. I'm not sure there's an obvious solution for Tony Pullis here, but he'll need to do something about how isolated Carew is up front if he wants to grab a goal, which isn't necessarily his intent.
You don't often see Glen Johnson score with his head, but this time it wasn't for lack of trying. Dirk Kuyt received the ball inside the area and immediately flicked it wide to Martin Kelly, who was sprinting down the right flank. Kelly slammed a perfect first-time cross back into the mixer, where Johnson beat three defenders to get his head to the ball. It looked a certain goal, but Asmir Begovic got his left hand up and somehow kept the ball out - the rebound was cleared with some venom by Andy Wilkinson. I believe that that was the first save of the match, something like 35 minutes in.
I'd say that raised the crowd, but the Anfield faithful had already been cheered up by the sight of a certain Luis Suarez doing warmups on the touchline. Either way, Liverpool are doing a touch better now, with that fantastic Johnson header and then a half-chance which Kuyt looped over the bar. Robert Huth has earned himself a booking for a silly two-footed lunge on Kelly near the edge of the area, but Liverpool can't make the subsequent free kick count.
It was too easy for Aleksandar Kolarov, who curled a shot from 20 yards out just inside Ben Foster's right post, restoring Manchester City's one goal lead in the 41st minute. The Citizens left back made Birmingham City pay for giving up a foul in such a dangerous spot, just outside the arc, right-center of goal. With the foul was given, though, the question becomes what else City could have done to prevent the goal, because the conversion was just too easy.
The obvious answer is a better wall. Kolarov's shot started so wide left of goal before curling in that the wall was irrelevant as it concerned blocking the shot, but with goalkeeper Ben Foster only putting five people in it, you wonder if a seven man wall would have allowed the `keeper to be better positioned to challenge the shot at the far post. While committing too many men to the wall would have opened Birmingham up to other attacks from that spot, it would have at least given Foster a chance to contest Kolarov.
But the easy goal for the City defender is likely to send the visitors into half up one. Now moments before first half stoppage time is drawn to a close, Birmingham City trails the Citizens, 2-1.
Steven Gerrard isn't known for his defending, but he's just put in a phenomenal tackle at the edge of the box to break up a good chance. The only problem was that it was the edge of Stoke City's box, and the man that the Liverpool captain robbed was none other than his own right wing-back, Martin Kelly. Meanwhile, Stoke have their first meaningful chance after Jermaine Pennant crossed for John Carew, but the big Norweigian glanced his header well wide.
Stoke have pulled Jonathan Walters very deep and are now playing Carew up front as a lone striker, presumably to render the hosts' third centreback completely extraneous. It seems to be working, but since they're not getting the ball out of their own half very often, it's hard to say just how effective this tactical tweak will end up being. Both teams are having major difficulty generating true scoring chances, with Carew's header and Sotirios Kyrgiakos' earlier effort the pick of a rather weak bunch.
Micah Richard's lunging clearance of a bouncing ball led to a head-to-head collision with teammate Nigel de Jong, bringing a stretcher onto the pitch for the 22-year-old defender. Kolo Touré, City's normal first choice right center half, is warming up along the sideline, almost assuredly to be brought in, with oxygen administered to Richard as the young England international is carried from the pitch.
Richards is conscious, and the measures look precautionary, but with Richards previously writhing on the ground in pain, there is a visible fear on the faces of the players, gathered around the stretcher, as trainers steady the defender's head. Thankfully, there is little urgency in their countenances - no sense of panic or emergency - but the uncertainty underlying their discomfort, the players seemingly unclear how to react, only gave way when the staff lifted Richards from the pitch, taking him straight down the tunnel.
Touré is on, and de Jong continues, with his head wrapped. Now in the 39th minute, the match has restarted, even at 1-1.
Nikola Zigic has equalized for Birmingham City, his near post run in the 23rd minute meeting the end of a David Bentley cross, the dead ball play leading to a redirection past Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, evening the score at one. But just as on the first play an error in judgment saw Roger Johnson play a major part in Carlos Tévez's opener, another normally stellar center half, Vincent Kompany, was beaten for the hosts' first goal.
The opportunity came when City was whistled for a foul along Birmingham's left flank, 32 yards from goal. Right wing David Bentley came across and swung a ball in at the far post, the service dipping to drop just before the six yard box. Nikola Zigic had changed the angle of his run, originally moving straight for Hart's right post, to move out and meet Bentley's ball. Kompany failed to adjust his route, giving Zigic space to redirect the ball past Hart for a surprisingly easy equalizer.
The goal comes after Birmingham City, having been on the back foot for the match's first 10 minutes, had steadily come into the contest. Now approaching the 30 minute mark, Zigic's goal has led to an evenly played match, one of the league's relegation battlers hosting an aspiring Champions League qualifier.
It's been an eventful opening fifteen minutes at Anfield, where Liverpool are indeed playing with a 3-5-1-1 against Stoke City's 4-4-2. Liverpool have had the better of the opening exchanges, too - Stoke might have gone behind if not for the crucial intervention of Salif Diao, who managed to get himself in the way after Sotirios Kyrgiakos flicked a header goalwards, Martin Skrtel just hit a shot well wide after winning possession in the Stoke half, and Robert Huth handled the ball in the box only to see the referee wave play on. Liverpool really might have had a penalty there.
Anyway, the real story so far is Liverpool's shape. Yes, they really are playing Glen Johnson as a left wing-back with Fabio Aurelio as a central midfielder. The defensive experiment seems to a be success so far, with Stoke failing to threaten much if at all, but it's early days yet. Will Liverpool be able to forge any real openings with just Dirk Kuyt up front?
Blackburn Rovers got off to a bright start against Tottenham Hotspur, but it was the visitors who struck first through Peter Crouch. Spurs are without a number of their first choice players, and as a result, they're playing more direct than they have in previous matches this season. Harry Redknapp's approach has paid dividends.
Playing on the wing as opposed to his normal central attacking spot, Rafael van der Vaart sent in a long ball into the box. Crouch got onto the end of it, rising above Christopher Samba, and nodded it into the back of the net past Paul Robinson.
Spurs are playing Crouch and Jermaine Defoe up top, with two central midfielders and Rafael van der Vaart out on the wing. It's a slight alteration for a Spurs team that has played a different style this season due to Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, and van der Vaart all being in great form, but with the latter two injured, Rednkapp has reverted to his old style. So far, it's working.
Liverpool begin life without Fernando Torres by shaking up their whole system for their match against Stoke City. New signing Luis Suarez makes the bench for the Reds, who appear to be playing with a three-man back line and Dirk Kuyt as a lone striker. Kenny Daglish is pretty obviously going for three centre backs to combat Stoke's preferred 4-4-2, and if that experiment goes horribly wrong Liverpool can simply introduce Suarez and shift to a more traditional system. Anfield will be itching for the Uruguayan striker to make his debut.
Tony Pullis' side won't just role over though. Loan acquisition John Carew leads the line (yes, in a 4-4-2) alongside Jonathan Walters, and Jermaine Pennant and Dean Whitehead will look to exploit space on the wings. Stoke beat Liverpool in the reverse fixture earlier this system, and the removal of Torres from the Reds' lineup may make them even more confident that they can come away form Anfield with a result.
This should be a fascinating tactical battle. We don't see three-man defences nearly often enough in the Premier League...
Liverpool (3-5-1-1): Reina; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Agger; Johnson, Lucas, Gerrard, Aurelio, Kelly; Merieles; Kuyt.
Subs: Gulacsi, Suarez, Maxi, Carragher, Ngog, Poulsen, Shelvey.
Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Wilkinson, Faye, Huth, Higginbotham; Pennant, Wilson, Diao, Whitehead; Carew, Walters.
Subs: Sorensen, Collins, Whelan, Jones, Fuller, Delap, Etherington.
How did that just happen, is what Alex McLeish is undoubtedly asking himself after four minutes at St. Andrews. Birmingham City's defense was in position to stop the Manchester City attack, but while the shape was right, none of the individual players' decisions were. That explains why David Silva was allowed to dribble into the box, find Carlos Tévez, who beat Ben Foster at a sharp angle for the match's first goal.
The movement started with the ball played to Tévez's feet, the Argentine striker with his back to goal, just short of 30 yards out. One touch wide right to Silva and the Spanish attacker was charming at Liam Ridgewell. The Blues left back, with his back to the center of the park, tried to coax his opponent to the line. Instead Silva cut back on his left foot and looked for a teammate in the box.
There was Tévez, given too much space as Roger Johnson misread the play, allowing the league's second-leading scorer to get behind him. Silva threaded a ball between Ridgewell and Johnson, wide to the right of goal, for Tévez to come onto. Martin Jiranek, from the right center back position, came to cover for his partner, but Tévez was still able to get off a shot from the right edge of the six yard box, near its elbow.
Fortunately for City, the shot seemed to catch Ben Foster either unprepared, ill-positioned, or both, because what would normally be a low-percentage chance easy found the side of Foster's net, putting City up 1-0.
We're minutes from kick-off at St. Andrews, where Manchester City will look to keep-up with Manchester United and Arsenal, both clubs winning yesterday, raising the prospect of the Citizens losing ground, should they slip today against Birmingham City. Roberto Mancini's team comes into today's action nine points back of league-leading Manchester United and, as important as it concerns their hopes for securing Champions League, only one point ahead of fourth place Chelsea.
Mancini's lineup sees David Silva return to the starting XI, thought Manchester City is without Yaya Touré, replaced in the middle by James Milner. Kolo Touré is also out of the starting lineup (but at least on the bench), with Micah Richards getting the call in defense.
Today's teams, as relayed by the BBC:
Birmingham, Starting XI: Foster, Carr, Johnson, Jiranek, Ridgewell, Bentley, Ferguson, Bowyer, Gardner, Jerome, Zigic. Subs: Doyle, Larsson, Phillips, Fahey, Hleb, Beausejour, Davies.
Manchester City, Starting XI: Hart, Boateng, Richards, Kompany, Kolarov, Milner, De Jong, Barry, Silva, Tevez, Dzeko. Subs: Given, Zabaleta, Lescott, Vieira, Jo, Toure, Guidetti.
If Tuesday's four matches are any indication of things to come, Wednesday's six should prove an entertaining distraction to your midweek blues. Eight Premier League clubs provided a total of 17 goals which witnessed traditionally bigger teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea hold serve over Aston Villa, Everton and Sunderland respectively.
The Manchester United of Tuesday were far more reminiscent of a champion through the fine control, finishing and attacking play of Wayne Rooney while Chelsea proved their attack, soon to be augmented by Fernando Torres, still has plenty of spark left in it to at least have a say in the title race. Remember, Chelsea and United still clash twice before the engraver can be phoned as well as a mouth watering tie still left to be played between the Red Devils and Arsenal in North London.
Speaking of the Gunners, Arsenal fought back at home on Tuesday to claim three points against a determined Everton side while the comeback could prove to be another feather in their title-winning cap. Tuesday's display was a fine example of a team effort and even had Arsene Wenger waxing poetic post match:
"Tonight was a victory of a team with fantastic spirit and a never say die attitude rather than our usual game, but that is needed in the Championship".
Arsenal and Manchester United are still separated by five points while Chelsea are currently ten back of league leaders United. While Tuesday provided enough entertainment to last a week, spoiled Premier League fans again find themselves with a full day on Wednesday. Before a host of SB Nation Soccer caffeinated intellectuals present Wednesday's live coverage, here's a quick look at which teams will clash on Wednesday to end Gameweek 25.
Birmingham City Vs. Manchester City, St Andrew's, Birmingham, 2:45 PM Eastern - Manchester City will look to get back within a point of Arsenal away from home and in doing so will face a Brum side who have scored the least amount of goals at home in the league this season. With a tight defense and the ability to score at will when on, Manchester City should be favored for three points but don't count out a tough-to-defeat-at-home Brum.
Blackburn Rovers Vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Ewood Park, Blackburn, 3:00 PM Eastern - Under Steve Kean, Blackburn are quietly compiling a nice little European resume in the form of league points. Rovers have amassed nine points from their last six matches, not title-challenging form but form enough for eighth spot. Spurs are seven points ahead in fifth, should be favored, but have failed to win a league match in their last three attempts.
Blackpool Vs. West Ham United, Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, 3:00 PM Eastern - The Tangerines thrive at home in front of their home faithful yet they're a side in 19th in the current league form table. That bottom dwelling stat has come about from five losses out of six and placed Blackpool in 12th. West Ham have enjoyed the better form over the course of the last six weeks but still find themselves rooted to the bottom of the table. If the Hammers are to avoid the drop, they'll likely have newly acquired Robbie Keane to thank as the Spur, now on loan Hammer, recently completed a deal that will allow the Irishman the chance for regular first team football until the end of the season.
Bolton Vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers, The Reebok Stadium, Bolton, 3:00 PM Eastern - Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge, recently acquired on loan by Bolton, is in line to make his debut for Bolton who are on a run of five games without a win. The slip has seen the Greater Manchester club slide from fourth to the bottom half of the table all while the league's worst away side, Wolves, comes to town on Wednesday.
Fulham Vs. Newcastle United, Craven Cottage, London, 3:00 PM Eastern - The Toon travel South to London for the first time without Andy Carroll and would love nothing more than three points to ease the pain of losing their leading goal scorer. Fulham will approach the game buoyed by their impressive FA Cup victory against Tottenham last weekend and have just added Gael Kakuta and Eidur Gudjohnsen to their lineup allowing both the chance to feature in some capacity on Wednesday.
Liverpool Vs. Stoke City, Anfield, Liverpool, 3:00 PM Eastern - New signing Luis Suarez is expected to make his Liverpool debut on Wednesday against Stoke City. The Uruguayan scored an impressive 81 goals in 110 appearances in the Eredivisie with Ajax yet Stoke will be looking to complete their first league double over Liverpool since 1957. Stoke's Ryan Shawcross will be out due to suspension and Danny Higginbotham will miss with a hamstring injury.
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