A midweek Premier League matchday provides some late stunners as well as a managerial exit.
Lambert’s Last Hurrah
Aston Villa’s woes continued on Tuesday as they fell to Hull 2-0 at the KC Stadium. Goals from Nikica Jelavic and Dame N’Doye catapulted the Tigers into 15th place, while cursing the Villains to 18th.
I was in on Paul Lambert as Aston Villa manager when he was hired during the summer of 2012. After leading Norwich to back-to-back promotions en route to Premier League life, Lambert had his Canaries flying high in their first season back in the top-flight. In fact, though they only managed a 12th place finish that campaign, Lambert’s 2011/12 Canaries tallied 52 goals; more than every team outside of the top-six. It’s perhaps fitting for the narrative that this season’s Villa side can’t score to save their own tails, or at least not their manager’s.
It was announced on Wednesday that Aston Villa had parted ways with Lambert effective immediately. The firing was long overdue, even the Scot himself would struggle to find suitable evidence otherwise. Villa now sit in the dropzone, largely due to the fact that they’ve only managed 12 goals this season, the lowest total this far into a season (25 games) in PL history. At the moment, they’re riding a five game losing streak in the league with their last win coming in the beginning of December. Conversely, their defense has been fair, giving up 34 goals, which comes out to about average for the bottom half of the table. Of course, given their terrible goal record, their -22 goal-differential is still worst in the league.
Saying all of this, Villa can absolutely stave off relegation with the right leadership. On an interim basis, it looks like that’ll be first-team coach Scott Marshall and goalkeeping coach Andy Marshall. The good news, for the caretakers, is that there are some truly awful teams surrounding them. Leicester City, Burnley, QPR, Hull City, and Sunderland each have their luggage packed and ready for the drop (which three get their tickets stamped will simply be a matter of who sucks less, and that’s anyone’s guess due to the bulk of suck being touted by each). It’s clear that Lambert wasn’t savvy enough in the transfer market — one of the other main reasons Villa are who they’ve become — but he was quite adept at inspiring his players in the championship months. It’s now on the Marshall brothers-from-another-mothers to find that spark, if it indeed exists.
Super Mario Returns for the First Time
Liverpool edged Tottenham in a 3-2 on a Tuesday night thriller at Anfield. Lazar Markovic opened the scoring in the 15th before the piping hot Harry Kane equalized in the 26th. A Danny Rose foul on Daniel Sturridge in the 53rd minute led to a Steven Gerrard penalty which was cancelled out by Mousa Dembele eight minutes later. An unlikely hero then came in the form of Mario Balotelli, who slotted home the winner in the 83rd. It was Balotelli’s first Premier League goal for Liverpool.
Always a convenient target for criticism, Balotelli’s Liverpool league duck-breaking celebration was as Balotelli-esque as could be, meaning it probably upset some people. His patented stone-faced-glare-meets-stonewall-stance served as grounding for the frantic horde of teammates climbing atop him in jubilation. Though the relief in finally scoring after 13 PL appearances was surely there, Mario acted as if he’d been there before.
During the US/NBC Sports broadcast, commentator Phil Neville made sure to voice his opinion of Balotelli’s muted reaction to scoring the winner: “If you’re looking at reasons why Mario Balotelli doesn’t endear himself to the watching public, I think it’s moments like that, when you’re scoring a goal that you’ve been waiting for for so long, and you don’t smile, don’t celebrate.”
Now, Neville may simply be rehashing a purveying notion in his “analysis,” but his words are obviously a natural reaction to something that he — and we all — just saw. However, if you’ve watched any amount of Balotelli at any point in his career, particularly when he’s scoring goals, you’d know that this is par-for-the-course for the Italian. He just doesn’t celebrate jovially when he scores goals. The most he’s ever given us as viewers is a Euro-flex and, of course, “Why Always Me?” I always thought that was okay, even charming. But I’ve discovered that, to the culture that bore the terrace-hopping “Get in!” lads, it might not be.
Neville, and critics like him, would seemingly rather Balotelli conduct himself in ways they can identify with. Fair enough, but that line of thought should only ever exist as an ideal, not a rule. This isn’t cinema, and these aren’t characters being played. Balotelli is a real man with real sensibilities. Specifically, he’s a black Ghanaian who grew up in Italy, identifies as Italian, and now lives abroad in the UK. He should never act like an upper-class white man who’s never left the North of England. And if Neville or any other tightly-wound supporter demands he do so, then that’s quite perfect — because those people don’t deserve his celebration anyway.
Willian Sinks Toffees
A late winner from Willian stole all three points for Chelsea as they defeated Everton 1-0 at home on Wednesday. Just moments prior to the strike, Gareth Barry was sent off for a second caution. The win keeps the Blues seven points clear of Manchester City in first-place.
This encountered showed just how far clubs can rise or fall in one year’s time. Just last year, Chelsea were reignited by the return of Jose Mourinho, yet an admitted unfinished product. Left to his own devices for a full offseason, the Special One managed to acquired the likes of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, who’ve become the two most significant figures in this year’s campaign; a campaign that feels destined to end with a West London victory parade in May. Good for them.
Then there’s the Toffees.
Watching the first-half against Chelsea, I couldn’t help but revile at how easily the Blues were bossing Everton, particularly in midfield. Aaron Lennon, Everton’s brand new loanee, was perhaps the biggest culprit, misplacing the simplest of passes throughout his 74 minutes and repeatedly stifling his own team’s attack in the process.
Lennon was hardly the only offender, but he’s the one worth focusing on because of what he represents, and that’s Roberto Martinez’s apparent weakness at identifying prospective talent, or at least the necessary talent. With his squad devastated by injuries (Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar, Leon Osman, and Aiden Mcgeady), January was the chance for the Spanish boss to find some answers in the market. I’m afraid they ultimately failed in doing so. Though they’ve allowed more goals than Aston Villa, Hull, West Brom, and Crystal Palace, Martinez didn’t address these defensive needs. This is a problem. After all, Everton are in the midst of a relegation scrap.
Additionally, without even mentioning Romelu Lukaku (who’s had his share of problems finding the back of the net this season), some of Martinez’s higher-profile purchases in the last year include Mcgeady, Muhamed Besic, Antolin Alcaraz, and Arouna Kone. Each of these players have proven to either be injury-prone or simply not good enough for the Everton we were all expecting to see — the solid unit that Martinez inherited from David Moyes and managed to make even better. Someone needs to remind him that he’s no longer managing Wigan.
The sunny-side remains, however: Martinez is a good manager despite his operational deficiencies, and Everton have a stellar spine of talent. The club is doing a supreme job of longterm buying and then developing, as seen with the likes of Seamus Coleman, Jack Stones, and Bryan Oviedo. Even with the sides’ recent struggles — one win in last ten PL games — relegation seems unlikely. But, as we saw with Paul Lambert, young and stylish will only get you so far as a manager.