United stay top, but title rivals maintain pressure

>Manchester United ended the weekend at the summit of the Premier League, but only on goal difference. The Reds went into their clash on Sunday with three games in hand on their closest rivals Manchester City knowing that all three points would end Tottenham’s slim title hopes, as well as put them firmly ahead of the other challengers. At the other end of the league however things remained as they were prior to the weekend.

On a grey, rainy afternoon, the football action brightened things up. Chelsea returned to winning ways with a two nil victory over Blackburn Rovers. Ancelotti had threatened that he would start without Drogba and Essien, but both were present as Chelsea struggled to break down a stubborn Rovers side. Chelsea looked the more dangerous as Drogba went close, but efforts on goal were few and far between from both sides. The second half hour was a different story as Chelsea punished Blackburn from some set play routines. A corner was flicked on my Terry to Ivanovic, who guided his shot past a helpless Robinson to send sighs of relief around Stamford Bridge on fifty seven minutes. The lead was deserved, and Chelsea extended it when Ivanovic rose highest from yet another corner to head goalwards, with Anelka getting the slightest of flicks to send the ball home. Chelsea saw out the game to give them a much needed victory, a win that fans hope triggers the start of a good title charge.

Elsewhere, Manchester City and Wolves played out a rollercoaster of a game as new Bosnian signing Dzeko made his debut. City have been notoriously slow starters, and were punished by an efficient and hardworking Wolves side who took the lead, Milijas prodding home from close range. Wolves were much the better team, and could have made it two had it not been for a crucial block from Kolarov from Jarvis’ goalbound effort. City eventually got their act together, and got the much needed equaliser thanks to a scrambled effort from Kolo Toure before half-time. However, despite much of the pre-match attentions being focused on Dzeko, it was talisman Carlos Tevez who dragged City into the lead once again with a brilliant individual effort. The Argentinian picked the ball up on the left, cut inside and used his quick feet to twist and turn inside three defenders before slotting the ball into the net. Minutes later it was three one as Yaya Toure received the ball, following great link-up play between Dzeko and Tevez, and buried it past the Wolves ‘keeper. It was soon to be four as Tevez then nodded home a Zabaleta cross, and City looked to be cruising their way to the top. Wolves though were not finished. They found a way back into the game through a Kevin Doyle penalty, after Lescott clumsily bundled over Doyle. Wolves then hit the bar, before Zubar’s header was adjudged to have crossed the line, setting up a nervy finale to the game. City clung on though, and the result that leaves Wolves in the drop zone.

Similarly, West Ham remain rooted to the bottom of the league thanks to a three nil defeat at the hands of Arsenal. The Gunners took the lead through a clinical Van Persie effort, and the lead was doubled thanks to Walcott nipping in behind Bridge to tap home. Arsenal’s work was completed when Walcott outpaced Bridge who hacked the England winger down in the box, to bring an end to what was a miserable debut for the left back. Van Persie converted the penalty convincingly, and sealed the three points for Arsenal who lie third. West Ham however face a massive challenge to beat the drop and find some stability, as doubts continue to grow over the future of manager Avram Grant.

On a brighter note, Blackpool and West Brom played out a thriller at The Hawthorns. Vaughn put Blackpool in the lead with a brilliant curling effort, while West Brom turned the game on its head with well taken goals from Odemwingie and Morrison. Taylor-Fletcher looked to have salvaged a point for The Seasiders, only for his effort to be undone by a long ball down the field that was not dealt with by Cathcart, and was punished by a tidy finish from Odemwingie to give West Brom a much needed win.

Slightly further up the league, Stoke gained an impressive win over Bolton. A Matthew Etherington penalty and a Danny Higginbotham goal were enough to see off the increasingly impressive Lancashire team. Higginbotham scrambled home an untidy goal eight minutes before half time, before Knight committed a bad foul on Etherington, and could have no complaints at the decision. Jaaskelainen was unlucky not to keep the effort out as he guessed the right way and got a hand to the ball. The result meant that Bolton and Stoke are now level on points in the league in seventh and eighth, although Stoke do have a game in hand.

The only draw of Saturday came at the DW Stadium. Wigan took the lead against Fulham thanks to a cheeky chip from Rodallega. The Latics seemed to be closing out the game, until Andrew Johnson came off the bench to nick an equaliser and send Fulham back to Craven Cottage with a share of the spoils, with a result that leaves both sides hovering nervously above the relegation zone.

And so attentions turned to Sunday its three derby contests. David Bentley produced a man of the match performance on his Birmingham debut, but could not do enough to help the Blue side of Birmingham go home with all three points. Birmingham took the lead through Roger Johnson’s close range volley, and looked to be in control of the game. Villa looked short of ideas but threw on Bannan and Delfounso, who changed the outcome of the game. Shortly after their introduction the impressive Albrighton lifted a delicate ball into the box which was smashed home by Collins. Richard Dunne produced a brilliant block to keep Villa in the game. Delfounso smacked the bar with an adventurous thirty yard drive, but the game ended all square.

The Merseyside derby also ended in a draw, but was filled with goals. Meireles gave Liverpool the lead at Anfield just before the half hour, but the lead did not last long as Distin levelled straight after half time. Dalglish must have feared the worst when Beckford gave Everton the lead eight minutes later. However, all was not lost for Liverpool as Howard, who had kept Everton ahead with some brilliant saves, brought down Maxi. Kuyt stepped up and converted the penalty, which meant both sets of fans had to settle with a point each, and King Kenny continues to search for his first win back in charge.

Up in the Northeast the points were also shared. Newcastle, minus the injured Carrol, took a second half lead through Nolan, and could almost taste another derby victory as the game went deep into injury time. However, Gyan had other ideas, and in the fourth minute of time added on he netted the equaliser to frustrate Pardew’s men.

With the local derbies now complete, White Hart Lane took centre stage. Former United hero Beckham was in the stands as he seeks to complete his longwinded deal to Tottenham, but all of the focus was on the pitch. The game was a close affair which Spurs arguably shaded. The usual suspects of Van der Vaart and Rooney went agonisingly close for their teams, but neither side could find a way through. As the game wore on United were becoming more tormented, and their frustration was told as Rafael received his marching orders for a second yellow after a cynical tackle on Assou-Ekotto. Tottenham sensed it could be their day, but in the end had to settle for a point as United stretched their unbeaten run to twenty-one games.

By Oli Holmes

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