Early Doors

Has Hart’s toe won City the title?

Early Doors

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Football really is a game of fine margins. Well, so is every other sport, but Early Doors is in the business of football so let's concentrate on that, shall we?

Manchester City's 1-0 win over Wigan Athletic keeps them top of the table, reopening a three-point gap between them and their nearest and dearest rivals Manchester United.

Edin Dzeko scored the only goal of the game - his first since November - with a fine glancing header in the first half, but it was at the other end where the key moment for City occurred.

With 70 minutes on the clock and City still unable to register a scoreline more befitting of a clash between the top and bottom sides in the table, Wigan's James McCarthy latched on to a through ball and burst into the box. The young Republic of Ireland midfielder hit a low strike across goal that was heading for the far corner, only for goalkeeper Joe Hart to extend a long leg and guide it wide with his toe.

It was a wonderfully instinctive save, if not the most Hollywood, but it kept City's noses in front and confirmed their win.

It could all have been so different, though. When Hart made the save the ball flew across the six-yard box, right in front of the backtracking Joleon Lescott.

The ball could easily have rebounded in off the defender's shins. In that case, we would now be talking about City's tenuous grip on the title slipping away and how Sunday's home clash against Tottenham could be the pivotal moment when defending champions United reclaim top spot.

As it is, we are now talking about the sort of ground-out victory away from home by the odd goal that wins teams titles. See, fine margins.

There is still a long way to go in the campaign yet, but the two points earned by the England number one's big toe could well prove to be decisive in the final reckoning.

Since organised competitive football was first unleashed upon the world in 1992, five of the 19 previous Premier League titles have been decided by such a margin, and it looks very much as though that could become six out of 20 this year. On four of those previous occasions it was just a single point that settled the title:

2009/10: Chelsea by 1

2007/08: United by 2

1998/99: United by 1

1997/98: Arsenal by 1

1994/95: Blackburn by 1

Similarly, Wigan were the beneficiaries of another marginal decision of sorts. With just a minute of normal time remaining, defender Maynor Figueroa raised his arm and clearly handled the ball on the halfway line. Had he not done so, the ball would have flown past him and Sergio Aguero would have had a clear run at goal.

Referee Martin Atkinson took into account the distance Aguero had to run before he would have been presented with the goalscoring opportunity Figueroa denied him. After doing so, he gave the Wigan defender a yellow card when others — for example Stuart Atwell, who sent off Gary Cahill in December for a foul on Scott Parker that was miles from goal and near the touchline — may well have shown a red.

Roberto Mancini, desperate for a victory following a run of just one win in five games, was apoplectic at the decision, but after his team closed out the win he can forget about it. He is done with the Latics for the season.

Wigan, of course, are now relieved that their defender with more minutes on the pitch than any other this season will not be missing for the crucial relegation battle at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.

Again, fine margins.


More than two weeks after a deal with Bolton was first struck, Chelsea finally completed the signing of Gary Cahill yesterday.

It's fair to say that when such a move is one of the biggest stories of the transfer window so far that this has not been a classic January so far.

Aside from the England defender's drawn-out switch, a handful of short-term imports from the US and a 37-year-old coming out of retirement have been the highlights so far, leaving Eurosport's own transfer news-gathering cyborg Eurobot questioning its very existence.

The rise and fall of Cahill's reputation has been the most alarming since that of Reginald Perrin (the brilliant original Leonard Rossiter version, not the luke-warm Martin Clunes reboot). In the space of a year he has gone from being regarded as the future of England's defence to an overrated money-grabber.

A decent defender who is comfortable and adept with the ball at his feet, Cahill's reputation partly grew over the summer without him even kicking a ball. At one point he was marked out as the saviour of the Arsenal back line, only for Wenger to plump for Per Mertesacker instead.

Since then, his standing has plummeted as he has been a key part of the league's worst defence at Bolton.

Go just down the road to Blackburn, and fans of several clubs will be full of hope that Chris Samba will be joining them after once again handing in a transfer request yesterday.

Yet the Congolese man mountain has also been part of one of the leakiest defences in the league, shipping just two fewer goals than Bolton's high mark of 46. Rovers have scored more goals than most teams in the top half, yet they are still scrapping against relegation.

Despite this, Samba enjoys almost universal approval among football fans, yet many have already pegged 26-year-old England international Cahill as a waste of £7 million (£1m less than Mertesacker, roughly 25% of David Luiz's price a year ago).

ED is not necessarily delivering a verdict on either man — although it seems clear that they are both more than capable of playing at a level above that which their current clubs operate - but merely pointing out how easy it is for the general consensus on players can differ to drastically, and how it can veer from one extreme to the other in such a short space of time.

Usually when that is the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. By that reckoning, Chelsea have made a decent purchase.


QUOTE OF THE DAY: "After the final whistle of a very tricky game, I insisted the whole team go and applaud the Arsenal supporters. When I arrived in front of our own fans, I couldn't understand the abuse the team were getting from one of them. I wanted to tell the fan in question that we need their support not abuse. The sentiment was right but in hindsight could have been better expressed. So I would like to first and foremost apologise for using inappropriate language to that particular 'supporter'." — Thierry Henry makes an apology to the Arsenal fan with whom he exchanged heated words after Sunday's 3-2 defeat at Swansea.

FOREIGN VIEW: "Since I had nothing in Europe, why not try something completely unknown? I've never been over there. I am proud to be the first Frenchman to go and play there. And eight weeks is nothing. If my (club) president likes me, it could be 790,000 euros. It is a lot of money. I'm not going to complain about that am I? But I'm not going there as a tourist. It's a new adventure." — Robert Pires reveals his reasons to for signing up to be part of a new football league in India based on cricket's IPL. Pires will be joined by the likes of Paolo Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo and Robbie Fowler for a player auction in West Bengal next month.

COMING UP: The FA Cup is back to spread a little midweek cheer with five third round replays this evening. Follow live updates of every game as QPR and Bolton attempt to avoid elimination at the hands of MK Dons and Macclesfield respectively.

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