Spector Returns in Style

After weeks of being mired on the bench (or not even dressing) for West Ham in the Premier League, U.S. defender Jonathan Spector got a start in the Carling Cup yesterday and made the most of it, scoring two goals in the Hammers’ stunning 4-0 quarterfinal win over Manchester United, Spector’s former team.

The rangy Illinois native, who began his youth international career as a striker, started in midfield last night, and opened the scoring in the 22nd minute, athletically heading home a lob from Victor Obinna.

Fifteen minutes later, he and Obinna combined again, as Spector made a beautiful solo run, laid a ball into the box for Obinna, and when it got away from the Nigerian winger, pounced on the loose ball and buried it from nine yards.

Carlton Cole scored the Hammers’ other two goals on this snowy night at Upton Park, completely skinning Man U centerback Johnny Evans on both.

The victory puts West Ham in the semis with Arsenal, 2-0 winners over Wigan yesterday.

Today, Birmingham City takes on Aston Villa while Ipswich Town hosts West Brom to determine the other semifinalists.

Tracking Back: Weekend Review

A nasty stomach flu overran the Backpost compound on Sunday, flattening everything in its path and shutting down HQ for more than 24 hours. So let’s play catch-up:

Here is the most exciting moment from the first 40 minutes of the loaded encounter between John Terry‘s Chelsea and Wayne Bridge‘s Manchester City:

Oh, snap! But the game that followed was surprisingly dull for almost the entire first half, only coming to life in the 42nd minute when Frank Lampard made a run behind the City backline, took a pass from Joe Cole, and clanged one in off the far post.

Chelsea fans may have thought they were on their way, but just two minutes later Carlos Tevez got on the end of a booming clearance by Bridge (yes), and outmaneuvered Terry (that’s right) before beating Chelsea’s backup keeper Henrique Hilario (Petr Cech is hurt) with the slowest of slow rollers to the far post.

With the game properly heated up, all hell broke loose in the second half. Six minutes in, the pugnacious Craig Bellamy picked up the ball just inside his own half and launched a 60-meter run at Chelsea defender John Obi Mikel before beating Hilario (fairly easily) to the far post.

In the 76th minute Juliano Belletti brushed Gareth Barry in the box, the City midfielder went down, and the ref pointed to the spot, then went to his book for Belletti: straight red for fouling as the last man back.

City probably wouldn’t have protested too loudly if no call had been made—so slight was the contact—but the ref didn’t hesitate, and Tevez buried the spot kick for a 3-1 lead.

Now emotions started to flare, as Tevez got in Terry’s face after the two scuffled on the Chelsea endline. Bellamy joined in, and City fans probably loved it, even if they might’ve preferred the beefy Micah Richards or the 6-4 Vincent Kompany for the job, rather than the two smallest players on their roster.

After Michael Ballack was sent off for a reckless scissoring tackle on Tevez, reducing Chelsea to nine men, Bellamy finished off a City counter-attack, turning in a pass from Shaun Wright-Phillips to make it 4-1. Lampard’s 90th-minute penalty served only to window-dress the scoreline for the Blues.

With Arsenal’s 3-1 win at Stoke City—in which rising Gunners star Aaron Ramsey had his tibia and fibula broken by a horrific challenge from Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross—the top of the table has tightened back into three-horse race. Chelsea leads with 61 points, but Manchester United (60) and Arsenal (58) are very much alive with ten games to play.

Following the Chelsea game, Bellamy was asked about Terry, and offered up the following:

“I know what J.T.’s like and nothing surprises me about it, so I’m not going to comment on that guy. I think everyone in football knows what he’s like.”

Ha. That was a neat trick: Sandwiching, “I’m not going to comment on that guy,” in between withering comments on that guy.

If U.S. players are looking for bulletin-board material on Terry ahead of their June 12 World Cup meeting with England, they can comb through this litany of off-field incidents involving the former England captain, and zero in on his alleged taunting of American tourists at Heathrow airport on Sept 12, 2001.

One of the U.S. players who could be squaring off against Terry in that game, winger Stuart Holden, made his Premiership debut on Saturday, starting and going the distance as Bolton defeated Yank keeper Marcus Hahnemman and Wolverhampton 1-0 to climb out of the drop zone. Holden played well, and challenged Hahnemann—who also had a good game, making six saves—on two occasions. Wolves hit the post twice in this one.

In Saturday’s other games, financially troubled last-place side Portsmouth had a ray of sunshine punch through the gloom in the form of a 2-1 road win over Burnley, and Birmingham gritted out a 1-0 win over Wigan to reach the 40-point mark for the season, all but ensuring survival in the Premiership—something Burnley (23 points, 19th place) and Wigan (25, 16th) will have to fight for during their final 11 games.

Two Yanks took the field on Sunday, and one of them, Everton’s Landon Donovan, would like to have his performance to do over: After coming on as a second-half substitute, LD missed a sitter at the far post with 12 minutes remaining that would have lifted the Toffees into a 2-2 tie with Tottenham. They lost 2-1.

Sunday’s other American in action was Aston Villa keeper Brad Friedel, who got the nod over countryman Brad Guzan as the Villans faced Manchester United in the Carling Cup final at Wembley. Friedel made eight saves, but could not prevent United’s rally from a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 victory. The winner came, in the 74 th minute, from—no surprise here—Wayne Rooney.

Clint Dempsey, who is nearing a return from his knee injury, watched as his Fulham teammates played to a scoreless draw with Sunderland, while at Anfield, Liverpool downed Blackburn 2-1 to keep pace with Tottenham and Manchester City for the fourth—and final Champions League—spot in the table. Fernando Torres notched the winner in his first start since Jan 13.

Up in Glasgow, U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu was the man of the hour for Rangers, scoring in the dying moments to give his team a 1-0 win over archrival Celtic. The victory puts Rangers 10 points clear of Celtic, with a game in hand, at the top of the SPL table. Edu’s countryman DaMarcus Beasley dressed but did not play. 

Here is Edu’s goal:

Premier League: Week 22 Wrap, Carling Cup

Villa won the game, but Guzan had reason to shout at his back four, and himself, in the Carling Cup semifinals at Villa Park last night.

There were two Premier League games yesterday—rounding out the 22nd week of competition—along with a wild Carling Cup semifinal between Aston Villa and Blackburn. The league games involved Arsenal and Bolton at the Emirates in a rematch of their game at the Reebok three days earlier, and Liverpool hosting Tottenham in a key matchup of European aspirants.

The winner and margin of victory in Arsenal v Bolton were identical to Sunday’s game (a 2-0 win for the Gunners), but the actual match could hardly have been different. Owen Coyle’s men stormed to a 2-0 lead after 28 minutes, only to see it slip away in an eventual 4-2 defeat.

Arsenal’s 52nd-minute equalizer came with some controversy after William Gallas went studs-up over the ball and crunched Bolton midfielder Mark Davies’s ankle in a 50-50 challenge. There was no call, and with Davies crumpled on the ground, the Gunners played on in a sequence that ended with Cesc Fabregas slipping the ball between Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen’s legs. 2-2. Arsenal’s Belgian centerback Thomas Vermaelen got the winner 13 minutes later, and Andrey Arshavin sealed it with a nice finish in the 85th.

The Gunners jumped to the top of the table with the win, tied with Chelsea, which has a game in hand, on 48 points.

At Anfield, two Dirk Kuyt goals, the second from the spot in stoppage time, bookended a crucial 2-0 win for Liverpool. The Reds are now within striking distance of the top four, just one point behind Spurs and Manchester City.

In the Carling Cup, Yank Brad Guzan, Brad Friedel’s understudy, got the start, but it may not be one he’ll remember too fondly. Blackburn fired four goals past him, and at least one of those goals—off a corner kick that he waved at—came through an error on his part. Fortunately for him and Aston Villa, though, the Villans put six of their own past Blackburn’s Paul Robinson, and won 7-4 on aggregate.

They will meet the winner of Manchester City-Manchester United in the Carling Cup final on February 28.