Feb. 28th – March 6th: Drugs, Knives and Guns

A round-up of all the latest headline-grabbing stories from this past  week…

Drugs, knives, record breakers, referee abuse, flying elbows and even flying bullets. This week had everything you could imagine. The beginning of the week consisted of the media using up column inch after column inch bashing Wayne Rooney for intentionally elbowing James McCarthy during Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Wigan. Referee Mark Clattenburg witnessed the incident but let Rooney off with a warning. By now the rest of the world has seen the incident and berated the Football Association for failing to ban the United striker, who later went on to score that game as well as against Chelsea three days later. By no coincidence, the infamous elbow was still being talked about in the press even after the defeat to Chelsea.

Staying on topic, Sir Alex Ferguson was not so lucky to escape punishment from the FA this week. His comments to MUTV about referee Martin Atkinson after his side’s 2-1 loss at Stamford Bridge gave the FA the opportunity to give him a fifth impoper conduct charge in as many years. Ferguson is no stranger to this type of controversy, however, and it is somewhat of a surprise that the newspapers chose to focus more on his punishment than Chelsea’s victory.

As for Chelsea, they too ended up in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Or at least a certain Ashley Cole did (not for the first time either). Reports surfaced early Saturday morning claiming that Cole shot and injured a club intern with an air rifle. And considering who the culprit was, who could really be surprised? Plenty of media outlets focused heavily on the incident and a few days later plenty of fans at Stamford Bridge were sarcastically yelling “Shoooooot” every time Cole had possession.

As if that hadn’t given us enough to talk about, Manchester City defender Kolo Toure went and got himself suspended by his club for testing positive for a “specified substance”. The length of his ban remains to be seen, although former manager Arsene Wenger has defended the Ivory Coast defender and claimed he took his wife’s dietary pills. Regardless of what the truth may be, Toure has probably forced his name into more newspapers than anyone else this week.

Over in Spain, Jose Mourinho managed to escape a knife attack that saw his body guard stabbed in an effort to attack the ‘special one’. Apparently this man has a huge adhorrence for the Real Madrid boss… either that or he just wanted Spain to grab a few headlines of its own this week too.

Controversy aside, plenty of media focused on Ryan Giggs, who on Wednesday marked his 20th season playing for the Manchester United first team. The night before also saw him equal Bobby Charlton’s club record of 606 league appearances. Lastly, Birmingham City stole the headlines with their unlikely 2-1 triumph over Arsenal in the League Cup final.

So… quite an uneventful week, eh? One can only wonder what the upcoming week can possibly have in store for us!

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Premier League Preview: Week 29

Saturday

Birmingham City vs. West Bromwich Albion

What a week for Birmingham City. After waiting 48 years for another piece of silverware, Alex McCleish’s men pulled off the impossible by defeating Arsenal 2-1 in the League Cup final at Wembley. Six days later and Birmingham are back in action against West Brom and will be buoyed by their cup success. The mood around St. Andrew’s could change dramatically if the Blues fail to get a result, however. Birmingham sit in 16th place, just one point ahead of the Baggies and just one point separating the two sides. A loss could see Birmingham slip into the relegation zone. Roy Hodgson will have his work cut out for him though as West Brom haven’t won in seven matches dating back to January 15 (3-2 vs. Blackpool) and have only won two away matches all season (vs. Arsenal and Everton). Kick-off at 7:45 ET

Form guide: Birmingham – LDWWL          West Bromwich – DLDDD

Prediction: 2-1

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

After blowing the chance to win their first major trophy since 2005, Arsenal bounced back with a 5-0 demolition over Leyton Orient in Wednesday’s FA Cup fifth round replay. Following Manchester United’s defeat to Chelsea in midweek, the Gunners can close the gap on the league leaders to one point. Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas are both injured but don’t be surprised if Nicholas Bendtner builds on his hat-trick from Wednesday night. Sunderland’s injury problems are even more serious as Steve Bruce will hope to see his side end a four-match losing streak. A draw would be a bonus for Sunderland, but the odds are firmly stacked in Arsenal’s favor. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Arsenal – WWDWW              Sunderland – WLLLL

Prediction: 3-0

Bolton vs. Aston Villa

Gerard Houllier made eight changes ahead of Aston Villa’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup on Wednesday claiming “We have a big game against Bolton on Saturday.” Well, he’ll be inviting heavy criticism if his side can’t earn a result against Bolton. The last meeting between these two sides ended in a 1-1 draw but Bolton will be looking for a win to keep their Europa Cup hopes alive. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Bolton – LWLWD     Aston Villa – WLDDW

Prediction: 2-1

Fulham vs. Blackburn Rovers

Level on 32 points in the standings, both clubs desperately need a win to push themselves further away from the relegation zone, which is anybody’s guess as to which three teams will face the drop this season. Fulham are coming off a positive result at Manchester City last weekend while Blackburn are still reeling after their 4-1 defeat to Aston Villa. The last meeting between both sides ended in a 1-1 draw, but with Dempsey in good form and Andy Johnson playing well up front, Fulham will most likely be favorites. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Fulham – LWDDD    Blackburn – WLLDL

Prediction: 2-0

Newcastle United vs. Everton

Jermaine Beckford’s brace last weekend has given David Moyes some renewed hope of a top 10 finish in the league. His side will need to bounce back from the disappointment of exiting the FA Cup at the hands of Reading, however, and they face a difficult test at St. James Park. Everton have only lost three of their last 12 league games and are more than capable of making amends for a 1-0 loss to Newcastle earlier in the season. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Newcastle – LDDWD             Everton – DLWLW

Prediction: 0-1

West Ham United vs. Stoke City

At last West Ham find themselves off the bottom of the league. But for how long is the question? West Ham was buzzing on Thursday after the announcement that their bid for the Olympic stadium has been approved by the government and mayor of London and they will be on cloud nine if they can gather all three points on Saturday. Scott Parker has been in inspiring form of late but Stoke City will be no pushovers. This one has a draw written all over it. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: West Ham – DWLDW            Stoke City – LWLLD

Prediction: 0-0

Manchester City vs. Wigan Athletic

With Manchester City’s title hopes already appearing bleak, at best, the news of Kolo Toure facing a two year ban for taking an illegal substance will have sent shockwaves through the blue half of Manchester. Failure to gather all three points against Wigan will only make matters worse as it will all but end any dreams of a league title. Wigan, meanwhile, now find themselves at the bottom of the table and will be desperate to lift themselves off the relegation zone as quickly as possible. Judging by their form against bigger clubs, however, they might have to wait. Kick-off at 12:45 ET

Form guide: Manchester City – LDWLD  Wigan – LDWDL

Prediction: 3-0

Sunday

Liverpool vs. Manchester United

A hat-trick and stunning overhead kick by a brilliant Bulgarian, a game-deciding penalty decision in the FA Cup third round followed by this picture on twitter… this season’s fixtures between these two bitter rivals has already provided plenty of talking points. With so much on the line, the latest clash between both sides will most likely be no different. Still reeling after a contentious loss to Chelsea in midweek, Sir Alex Ferguson will be viewing this as a must win match – and not just because Liverpool are the opponent. United’s lead at the top of the league could shrink to one single point if Arsenal win on Saturday and Liverpool are the very last club willing to do the Red Devils any favors. Kenny Daglish has Liverpool finally climbing the table, mainly behind Raul Mereiles match-winning performances. Another match-winner could be on the field for Liverpool too in the form of 35 million pound Andy Carroll. The former Newcastle striker could not ask for a better platform to announce himself at Anfield and make himself an instant hero. Kick-off at 8:30 ET

Form guide: Liverpool – WWWDL             Manchester United – WLWWL

Prediction: 1-2

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Out of the top four and with a gigantic Champions League tie next week, how will Harry Redknapp treat his side’s trip to the Molineux on Sunday? Spurs will undoubtedly have one eye on Wednesday’s clash with AC Milan but can ill-afford to underestimate Wolverhampton. Mick McCarthy’s team have already beaten Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United at home this season and will be desperate to add Tottenham to that list in order to boost their survival chances. Redknapp has already claimed it will take a ‘miracle’ for his side to finish in the top four and if Spurs don’t come away with a victory against Wolves, he may end up being right. Kick off at 11:00 ET

Form guide: Wolverhampton – LWLDW Tottenham – DWWWL

Prediction: 1-3

Monday

Blackpool vs. Chelsea

Finally back in to the top four and buoyed by a vital win over Manchester United, Frank Lampard insists Chelsea can still reclaim their title. Carlo Ancelotti is slightly more realistic, focusing his attention on Champions League qualification but whichever their ultimate aim, they will need a win at Bloomfield Road. Blackpool will also bode well with a win after suddenly finding themselves just four points off the drop zone. With Chelsea showing signs of returning to form, a win will be a big ask for Ian Holloway though. Knowing Blackpool, however, they will play as if they have nothing to lose and will look to push Chelsea all the way. The Tangerines will be boosted by the return of Charlie Adam, but even that will unlikely be enough to offset Chelsea. Kick-off at 3:00 ET

Form guide: Blackpool – LLDWL Chelsea – WWLDW

Prediction: 0-2

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Carrick Criticism Unwarranted

Following the news of Michael Carrick signing a three-year contract extension for Manchester United, a substantial amount of criticism has been directed towards the former West Ham and Tottenham midfielder. But why? ‘He doesn’t score enough goals’ or ‘he only passes sideways and backwards’ are some of the complaints I’ve heard, mainly from Manchester United supporters.

Purchased for 16 million pounds from Tottenham in July 2006, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say he has justified his price tag. I’m also willing to somewhat boldly claim that Carrick has been a key figure in helping United win three consecutive Premier League titles, a Champions League and World Club Championship title, as well as a League Cup trophy. He also has a pivotal role to play if United are to finish the season with another trophy or two in their cabinet. Carrick may never end being considered a world-class midfielder, but he certainly deserves credit for being a reliable figure in United’s midfield. If you don’t believe me and prefer to think of Carrick as an unnecessary member of the United squad and a midfielder incapable of having an influence on games, let the statistics tell you otherwise.

Carrick has completed 830 out of 959 attempted passes this season for a pass success rate of 86.5%. He also has the highest amount of interceptions for a midfielder in the Premier League with an average of 4.38 interceptions per game. These two statistics alone indicate that he can pass and he can win back possession, two key traits of any center midfielder. His ability to win back possession is even more remarkable when you consider that the player at Manchester United with the second highest interception rate is Anderson with 1.9 interceptions per game.

United’s style of play depends so much on retaining possession and being able to pass the ball. Carrick may lack speed in his game and he may not be a goal scoring threat, but he gets the job done in his assigned position. After all, he’s not an attacking midfielder but plays more as a defensive midfielder. You never saw Claude Makalele banging in the goals, did you? What you did see in Makalele was a tendency to pass the ball sideways and backwards more than forward, similarly to Carrick. And for a player whose role is to retain possession and protect the back four, nothing is wrong with having to pass the ball back. I can already picture Sir Alex jumping out of his seat if Carrick was to constantly attempt the type of long ball we are accustomed to seeing from Paul Scholes.

The truth is, Carrick does his job and he does it effectively. In his 15 league starts this season, United have only conceded 10 goals. In the other 13 matches he didn’t start, United have conceded 15 goals. Ferguson sees Carrick as an ideal cover for the back four and it shows in the position Carrick has played this season. He’s the perfect man for the job, too, especially when considering he has had a tackle success rate of 70% this season.

Ferguson is well aware of the quality Carrick brings to his squad and it shows in his decision to keep him at the club until at least 2014. We all know that Carrick lacks the flair and aptitude of Xavi and Iniesta, but it has been somewhat strange to hear the criticism surrounding the deal. After all, wasn’t Carrick partly responsible for keeping those two players at bay in United’s Champions League semi-final victory in 2008? Also, how often has Ferguson been in the wrong when it comes to extending a player’s contract? Sure, he’s had a few miscues, but don’t expect Carrick to be one.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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La Liga Preview: Week 27

Barcelona has the chance to stretch their lead at the top of the La Liga standings back up to 10 points on Saturday if they can win at home against Real Zaragoza. And who would bet against them? The Catalonians have won 19 out of their last 20 league matches and are firm favorites to capture a third consecutive league title.  In the days other matches Valencia travel to Mallorca while Athletico Madrid host Villareal. Both Valencia and Villareal have a chance to strengthen their hold on a Champions League birth with a victory and all but end Athletico Madrid and Mallorca’s top-four aspirations.

Jose Mourinho recently called former Real Madrid and current Malaga manager Jose Pelligrini the ‘best loser’ for missing out on the league title last season with 96 points. If the Los Blancos fail to win at Racing Santender, however, Mourinho will be in severe danger of earning the same title as his predecessor. His side destroyed Malaga 7-0 on Thursday though and will be hoping to make another statement of their title intentions this weekend. Other highlights from Sunday will see Hercules host Almeria in a relegation battle while Athletico Bilbao and Sevilla attempt to stake their claim for a spot in the Europa League next season.

Saturday

Mallorca vs. Valencia (12:00 ET)

Form guide: Mallorca – DWLLW                 Valencia – WWDWL

Prediction: 1-2

Barcelona vs. Real Zaragoza (14:00 ET)

Form guide: Barcelona –WWWWW         Real Zaragoza – DLLDW

Prediction: 3-0

Athletico Madrid vs. Villareal (16:00 ET)

Form guide: Athletico Mardid – LLWDD  Villareal – LLDDW

Prediction: 2-1

Sunday (all games at 11:00 ET)

Hercules vs. Almeria

Form guide: Hercules – LWLDL   Almeria – WLDLD

Prediction: 1-1

Levante vs. Espanyol

Form guide: Levante – WWLWD                                Espanyol – LLLWL

Prediction: 0-1

Malaga vs. Osasuna

Form guide: Malaga – DDDWL    Osasuna – DLWLD

Prediction: 1-2

Sporting Gijon vs. Getafe

Form guide: Sporting Gijon – LDDDL        Getafe – WDLDD

Prediction: 1-1

Athletico Bilbao vs. Sevilla FC

Form guide: Athletic Bilbao – WLLLL         Sevilla – DLWDW

Prediction: 2-2

Racing Santander vs. Real Madrid

Form guide: Racing Santander – DWWDD             Real Madrid – WWWDW

Prediction: 0-4

Monday (15:00 ET)

Deportivo de la Coruna vs. Real Sociedad

Form guide: Deportivo de la Coruna – LWDDD         Real Sociedad – LWWLD

Preiction: 2-2

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David Luiz: Abramovich Gets It Right This Time

Roman Abramovich is anything but shy when it comes to the transfer market. After all, here’s a man who paid a combined 48.43 pounds for Didier Drogba and Michael Essien and most recently splashed 50 million pounds for the purchase of Fernando Torres from Liverpool. Drogba and Essien have been integral figures in Chelsea’s recent success, and despite his stuttering start, few will be betting against Torres to have a similar impact.

Abramovich’s money has not always been well spent, however. In May 2006, Chelsea bought Andriy Shevchenko from AC Milan for 30.8 million pounds. Soon later Shaun Wright-Phillips arrived from Manchester City for 21 million pounds. Both players failed to live up to their price tags and both players returned to their previous clubs with a sense of disappointment hanging over their heads, as well as that of the Chelsea owner. Who could blame him though, especially after great things had been promised, particularly for the Ukraine forward.

“I think Shevchenko is the type of player we would like. At the end of the day to improve what we have got, it has to be a great player and Shevchenko certainly comes into that class.” These were the words of Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s Chief Executive.

Fast forward to January, 2011 and similar things were being promised for another mega signing by Abramovich.

“He is one of the great defensive prospects in world football,” Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay said. “I am sure he will prove a valuable addition to the Chelsea squad.”

Also adding to the hype was Chelsea Chairman Bruce Buck, who claimed: “It is a delight to have completed this transfer for a fantastic young footballer who we have admired for some time and will hopefully serve us well for the rest of this season and going forward.”

This time, however, Chelsea appears like being spot on in their assessment of their latest acquisition: David Luiz Moreira Marinho.

The 23-year-old Brazilian international, purchased for 21 million pounds from Benfica, already looks like being a bargain buy for Chelsea. His performances for the reigning champions have already caught the eye and few players have managed to justify their price tag as quickly as Luiz has. In the short span of a month he has proven that not only can he handle the demands of the Premier League, but he can excel as a strong defender who is a big danger going forward. Simply ask Manchester United.

Luiz has demonstrated an admirable work rate and impressive ability and composure with the ball at his feet. It has quickly become apparent how much the former Benfica centre-back enjoys bringing the ball forward from the back and setting up attacks for his side. Luiz may have only scored four goals in 72 appearances for the Lisbon club, but he is more than willing to get forward and is fairly capable in front of goal, especially for a defender.

Judging by his three performances so far, Luiz may be exactly what Chelsea need to finally turn the corner. His debut consisted of a half-hour substitute cameo in a 1-0 loss to Liverpool and although he conceded a last minute penalty in his next match against Fulham, Luiz was still awarded with the Barclays Man of the Match award. His performance against Manchester United, which included the equalizing goal, was worthy of a second Man of the Match – although some will argue he was slightly fortunate not to be sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on Wayne Rooney.

Luiz’ performances certainly haven’t been flawless, but they have been more than enough to prove his quality. With the more games he plays, the more experience he’ll gain and learn how to cut out the mistakes in his game, such as an over eagerness to dive right in and a tendency to stick too close to his man. Overall, Chelsea has found themselves a top notch defender and a real difference maker, not just on the defensive end.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Michael Bradley: Treading the American Path

American footballers are often forced to take the long route before playing for a big European club. Michael Bradley is no exception. But once many players do reach that point, they are not always as successful as hoped. Michael Bradley, who is currently on loan at Aston Villa, is one American who is an exception.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Bradley has added his name to a growing list of American players who have moved to small European clubs before climbing the ladder. After making 30 appearances for the New York Metro Stars, now known as the New York Red Bulls, Bradley set off for Europe in hopes of furthering his development. His transfer to Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen in January, 2006 made him the youngest MLS player to ever be sold. The amount of the transfer remains undisclosed.

After making four starts for the Dutch club and helping them earn a spot in the UEFA Cup in his first season, things would only get better for the American midfielder. The following season saw him earn a permanent starting role in central midfield and in his third season with the club Bradley scored sixteen goals, including 21 in all competitions. His goal tally broke Brian McBride’s record of most goals scored by an American in a European first division.

On the penultimate day of the summer transfer window in August 2008, Bradley signed a four-year deal with Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach. In two and a half seasons Bradley has made 81 appearances and scored 11 goals. His biggest highlight thus far has been a match-winning free-kick against Hannover 96. Bradley found himself on the move once again in January 2011, this time on the final day of the transfer window. Aston Villa agreed a deal with Monchengladbach to loan the American midfielder for the remainder of the 2010-11 season.

Bradley has made his biggest impact on the pitch for the United States National Team, earning 50 caps and scoring eight goals. His influence during the 2010 World Cup was a key factor in helping the US advance past the group stages. His late run into the penalty area to poke home Jozy Altidore’s knock-down gave the US a 2-2 draw and provided the platform for a dramatic win against Algeria. Bradley won more second balls than most of his teammates and his work rate throughout the tournament was second to none. Age the young age of 23, Bradley has already established himself as a key figure in the US National Team. One of the biggest compliments to Bradley is how much he was missed by the US in its 3-2 loss to Brazil in the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. Having greatly impressed for the team coached by his father, Bob Bradley, the former Metrostars midfielder was suspended for the final after receiving a late red card in his side’s 2-0 win over Spain in the semi-finals.

Time will tell if Bradley can translate that same influence onto the club scene. One thing is for sure, and that is the fact that Aston Villa is the perfect platform for him to do so. After finishing in the top six of the Premier League for three consecutive seasons, the Midlands club is currently in 12th place and just five points clear of the relegation zone. Gerard Houllier’s side is in need of some help and Bradley has the opportunity to be the answer they are in need of.

After all, it was only five years ago that another American by the name of Clint Dempsey made the move to a relegation threatened Fulham and helped save them from the drop. Fast forward five years and Dempsey is Fulham’s leading scorer and integral part of a team who finished runners up in the UEFA Cup last season. And although a completely different type of player than his compatriot, Bradley is facing a very similar prospect.

Aston Villa’s new number 13 made his first start for the club in Villa’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday. Despite the loss and failing to really cope with City’s mega-rich midfield, Bradley still has plenty of time to demonstrate his influence for Aston Villa and prove that he really is an exception to the Americans who have gone before him and disappointed on some of Europe’s biggest stages.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Chelsea Comeback Halts Manchester United

Another Chelsea and Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, another big occasion between these two sides marred in controversy. Wayne Rooney fired United ahead midway through the first half, but a first Chelsea goal by David Luiz and a Frank Lampard penalty, courtesy of a questionable decision by referee Martin Atkinson, gave the home side a 2-1 win to propel Chelsea into fourth place ahead of Tottenham and leave United four points clear of Arsenal with an extra game played.

United will feel hard done by the result after an impressive first half display which saw Rooney score in his third successive league game. The Reds dominated much of the half’s proceedings and could have been 2-0 up had John Terry not gone unpunished for what appeared to be a hand ball in his own penalty box off a rasping shot by Nani.

United failed to build on their lead, however, and Chelsea started the second half determined to level proceedings. They did just that on 53 minutes when Luiz volleyed home at the far post. Buoyed by the equaliser, the home side continued to threaten and with 13 minutes remaining Stamford Bridge was in ecstasy. Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot after Chelsea substitute Yuri Zhirkov went down under a seemingly soft Chris Smalling challenge, leaving Lampard to step up and smash Chelsea into the lead from 12 yards out. United provided little response and from then on only one team looked like being a winner.

To make matters worse for United, Nemanja Vidic was sent off for a second yellow card in the dying minutes and will now miss United’s next big match against Liverpool on Sunday. His suspension, and particularly the loss, will come as a big blow for Sir Alex Ferguson – who was adamant Luiz should have also been sent to the showers for an off the ball foul on Rooney with the score still locked at 1-1.

Controversy aside, it was a thrilling match that involved plenty of end-to-end football. All too often big matches fail to live up to the hype but the latest crunch meeting between these two sides was a pulsating match and a spectacle that even the neutrals could appreciate. Despite the controversy, United only have themselves to blame for not building on their solid first half performance and instead allowing the reigning champions back into the game. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team still sit on top of the table and you can be assured that the fiery scot will be the last one to press the panic button. United played well for large portions of the match but will need to translate that over 90 minutes it they hope to keep Arsenal at bay. Chelsea, meanwhile, will be confident of building on this result and earning a top-four finish after leapfrogging Spurs in the standings.

Man of the Match: David Luiz

Big time stats:

  • Chelsea extended their unbeaten record against United at Stamford Bridge to nine games (6 wins, 3 draws).
  • Seven of Chelsea’s league goals this season have been scored by defenders (3rd highest in EPL)
  • Wayne Rooney became the first United player – barring Nani – to score from outside the box in 23 league games.
  • The loss snaps a 33 game streak in which Manchester United have won every time Rooney has scored.
  • Ryan Giggs equaled Bobby Chalrton’s record of 606 league appearances for Manchester United when he came on as a substitute in the second half. Ironically, Giggs surpassed Charlton’s record of overall appearances for Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League Final against Chelsea.
  • Sir Alex Ferguson fielded an unchanged side in consecutive games
  • Martin Atkinson has awarded the most penalties in the Premier League this season (11) and given out the most red cards (10)

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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