Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
We don't usually start with this category, but this is a big one: There were a record-tying 41 goals in the Premier League over the weekend and, for the first time in the competition's 18-year history, every team scored at least one goal -- some of them significantly more. Of the 10 fixtures, only one or two could meanly be deemed damp squibs.
It feels like a linguistic loophole that there exists no better word than "sublime" for Dimitar Berbatov's performance Saturday. There must be a way to do justice to the level he reached against Blackburn, beaten 7-1 by Manchester United and thankful not to concede double figures (to Berbatov alone), without turning to religion.
Sir Alex Ferguson had said that soccer was all about partnerships, and that the reunion of the Bulgarian and Wayne Rooney was just what both needed. Through gritted teeth, the rest of the league later had to acknowledge that he was right. Rooney may not have scored (Park Ji-sung and Nani topped off Berbatov's five-goal haul), but the interplay between him and his strike partner will have caused a few gulps in the chasing pack.
Berbatov at his best is like a return to a bygone era, with his almost disdainfully insouciant control of the ball. Added to that on Saturday was a work rate that has previously been only intermittently spotted. His hat-trick goal, United's fourth, epitomized the shift: The whole thing starts with Berbatov's chasing down a loose ball on the edge of his own area.
From there, he and Patrice Evra work the ball to the halfway line with a series of one-twos before Berbatov releases Nani, hanging out on the right, with a raking pass off the outside of his right boot. Driving into the area, the winger checks back, leaving at least one Blackburn defender on his backside, and tees up Berbatov, who
Probably the toughest call of all, this one. Only three games had fewer than three goals, and only Fulham's 1-1 draw with Birmingham was so lacking in incident as to be ruled out of the running immediately. On balance, Liverpool's dramatic 2-1 loss to Tottenham deserves closer inspection.
This was without a doubt the best Liverpool has played under Roy Hodgson -- his team could have been up 3-0 by halftime instead of just 1-0. With Spurs having arrived at White Hart Lane in the wake of another energetic European victory, Hodgson was right to anticipate a sluggish start from Tottenham, made worse by first-half injuries to Van der Vaart and Younes Kaboul.
When Martin Skrtel stabbed home his own rebounded header just before halftime, the course looked set for Liverpool to draw level with Tottenham in the table. But cometh the deficit, cometh the Spurs. Five minutes after Jermain Defoe missed a 60th-minute penalty (the fourth Tottenham has wasted this season), Luka Modric's quick burst and cross forced Skrtel's name onto both scoresheets.
At 1-1, with 25 minutes to go, the already tense atmosphere gripped even harder. Liverpool raged at referee Martin Atkinson's failure to give a penalty for Benoit Assou-Ekotto's foul on Dirk Kuyt (even more so after Glen Johnson was booked for a similar assault on Gareth Bale); Spurs felt the moment slipping through its fingers when Defoe's late goal was rightly ruled out for offside; and Hodgson's mood dropped considerably as Jamie Carragher walked off nursing a dislocated shoulder.
And then Aaron Lennon ensured that Liverpool's bus journey back up England's snowy motorways would be one spent in silence. Lennon had a late burst beyond Paul Konchesky, poking the ball beneath Pepe Reina in the second minute of added time. Though it didn't quite feel like more than Tottenham deserved (it has now taken 16 points from losing positions) neither did it feel right for Liverpool to go home empty-handed from such a close tussle.
It's easy to find defenders for this category, especially when Aston Villa's Luke Young and James Collins clash so calamitously to allow Andrey Arshavin to score the first of Arsenal's four goals. Or when Chelsea's Alex plays the kind of back pass that should carry a small custodial sentence (Pascal Chimbonda's was at least as bad, but when it comes in the midst of a 7-1 thrashing, community service is enough).
But it just wouldn't do to let Jermaine Beckford off the hook for his role in Everton's 4-1 loss to West Brom. Everton manager David Moyes has talked about giving him time to find his feet, but it's finding the goal that seems to be the problem, whether he's in space, has time or receives the ball two yards in front of an empty net. Everton became ragged as its defeat to West Brom got heavier, losing Mikel Arteta for a foolish stamp on Gonzalo Jara, but just a hint of composure from Beckford might have changed the course of this match.
Blackpool has been praised for its attacking approach. Manager Ian Holloway acknowledged after Saturday's hugely enjoyable 2-2 draw with Bolton that such a style often comes at the expense of a hermetically sealed defense. Watching Bolton come back from 2-0 down in the final 15 minutes will have left some Seasiders with the taste of defeat in their mouths, which makes it unlikely that the back line will earn the plaudits being lavished on Newcastle's defense after it kept Chelsea to one goal and one point.
But Stephen Crainey worked his bright orange socks off to keep Bolton at bay, making several vital clearances even before blocking Martin Petrov's 81st-minute shot on the line. His deliveries from wide areas caused problems in the opposition box, too. His name barely featured in press reports from the ground, but he could just as easily have been named man of the match.
A brief nod for Chris Brunt's superb free kick, which found the top corner without detour to ease West Brom into a 2-0 lead over Everton, before we get to the main event: How good was Mark Davies' late equalizer for Bolton?
The move starts with Rodrigo Moreno's coming in from the left and passing in the middle to Davies, who slides it to Kevin Davies on the edge of the area. He takes a touch to bring the ball under control and then prods it through to Johan Elmander. The Swede -- surrounded by three defenders -- backheels it into the middle of the box, where Ivan Klasnic spins on his heels to help the ball into the path of Mark Davies, who's continued his run from the halfway line. With his first touch, he sidefoots it home with Richard Kingson going the wrong way. The Reebok quite rightly goes berserk.
It was tempting to think that West Ham had titled Saturday's meeting with Wigan a "Save our season" encounter to preemptively justify Avram Grant's sacking in the wake of defeat. But whaddya know? The Hammers defied even their own expectations by taking the lead, extending it, saving a penalty and thoroughly deserving their 3-1 win. The only way is up.
Aston Villa's Brad Friedel conceded four as Arsenal steadied itself with a convincing road win, but he pulled off a brilliant point-blank save from a Marouane Chamakh header shortly before halftime. He was off his line quickly from first minute to last, thwarting a couple of Chamakh darts, and his long balls forward found a Villa shirt eight times out of 10. It's hard to think of too many keepers guaranteed to have done better against such a clinical outing from Arsenal.
It may seem like he's taking up permanent residence here, but Mick McCarthy definitely earned his place this weekend, with two decisive second-half substitutions. Having absorbed 45 minutes of Sunderland pressure, Wolves unexpectedly took the lead early in that period, before conceding two goals that had the bottom of the table beckoning.
McCarthy's first throw of the dice was to introduce Stephen Hunt, who drew Wolves level in the 81st minute, when Craig Gordon could only parry George Elokobi's header. Then on came Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, bagging a last-minute winner with a delightful finish that Sunderland's defense simply stood and admired.
McCarthy has taken a lot of flak from Wolves fans of late, so he made sure to take the credit for a turnaround that kept West Ham at the bottom and halted Sunderland's march into the European spots.
"I must be a great manager, eh?" he mused, tongue firmly in cheek. "If the substitutions hadn't worked, I'd have been the
Let's just digest this little nugget a bit at a time, shall we?
"Long balls" -- Stoke should have been ahead, having enjoyed the best of the first half. And when it equalized in stoppage time, it couldn't have come from a more delightful move, Tuncay's backheel playing Matthew Etherington in behind the City defense.
"Fantastic performance" -- Huh? This was the pre-Fulham Manchester City, shivering in snoods as the game unfolded around it. Richards' goal was the highlight by some distance.