Sunday December 26th, 2010

Five things we learned from Sunday's action in the Premier League:

1. Manchester on top. While other leagues rest, English soccer works harder than ever over the Christmas and New Year holiday period. Every team in the top division was due to play four matches in the 11 days between Sunday and Jan. 5. And while the weather forced two more postponements on Sunday (Blackpool vs. Liverpool and Everton vs. Birmingham) and two of the important contenders, Chelsea and Arsenal don't play until Monday night, still some things seemed to grow a little clearer through the snow. Manchester United, still unbeaten and in first place, is beginning to purr as its attack starts to match the form of the defense. Manchester fills the top two places. City might be a circus, but its comfortable 3-1 victory at Newcastle lifted it to second and suggested it can stick around all season. So too might the erratic but resilient Tottenham Hotspur. It showed its fighting quality as it won 2-1 with 10 men at Aston Villa, although a soft goal near the end deprived it of its first clean sheet since opening day.

2. An England striker? Some West Ham fans like to refer to their center forward as "England's Carlton Cole," a phrase they utter with an incredulous smile. Cole, big, fast, strong and with an eye for goal, has never quite developed into the dominating striker he promised to be as a young phenom at Chelsea. The fact that he has played seven times for his country seems a confirmation of just how thin England's supply of strikers is. Cole has not scored for England. For West Ham, he has scored 29 goals in 124 league appearances -- a poor average. On Sunday at Fulham, Cole's two goals bore the hallmark of a natural finisher. He twice snaked out a boot to guide the ball deftly into the far corner of the net. In those moments Cole, looked an England striker and West Ham like a Premier League team. But it was worth remembering that Cole had never before scored twice in a Premier League game. The feat gave the Hammers only their third league victory of the season, lifted them out of last place, past Wolves, and dragged Fulham into the bottom three. It is a result that might turn around West Ham's season, but the club, like Cole, rather specializes in false dawns.

3. One for the future? Wayne Rooney again glittered. Dimitar Berbatov twice displayed his rediscovered goal touch. Manchester United crushed Sunderland in all but the scoreline, 2-0, to stay top of the league. But the strikers were building on the work of two men immediately behind them who are also finding their form. After three seasons at United, Anderson is beginning to grow into his role in the United midfield. The man alongside him has been there a little longer. Yet Ryan Giggs seized the chance offered by only his fifth league start of the season like a teenager. One criticism of him over much of his 20-year United career was that his pace and skill were not always matched by awareness of teammates. Traditionally, players grow smarter but slower as they age. For Giggs, it seems, only half the equation holds. There were a couple of those frustrating passes to no one when he went down the wing, but when he cut through the middle he consistently drew defenders then found teammates with cunning angled passes. Giggs may have grown smarter, yet when he left the 24-year old Nedum Onuoha flat-footed with that distinctive, easy, upright acceleration to create the incision that led to the opening goal, Giggs does not seem to have got any slower.

4. Not easily pacified. Roberto Mancini last week told one of his sulky stars, Mario Balotelli, to learn to play with a smile on his face. Then he omitted the Italian for the visit to Newcastle, presumably so he could practice his smiling while sitting on the bench. Balotelli's body language on the field makes it clear when he's unhappy -- which seems to be most of the time. Another of Mancini's troublesome talents, Carlos Tevez, is more of an enigma. On the field, he communicates his joy at playing. It just seems to be the people he plays for that he doesn't like.

Tevez and Mancini have had a couple of recent spats, with Tevez blaming the front office staff when he recently threatened to retire if City did not sell him. Events suggested that Tevez's brief time at the club would end the same way that his spells at all his other clubs have ended: in acrimony. The club responded by stating it would not sell Tevez in January and Mancini stripped the player of the club captaincy. Tevez reacted by reversing himself and proclaimed his ''commitment" to City. Maybe the true explanation came in the News of the World, a British tabloid, which reported on Sunday that Tevez would be allowed to leave at the end of the season if he helped City finish in the top four and secure a place in Champions League.

Tevez always tries hard, but at Newcastle he started like a man with extra motivation. After barely 90 seconds he intercepted one of Tim Krul's sloppy clearances, advanced on goal and slipped a clever pass to Gareth Barry who scored easily. In the sixth minute, Tevez scored himself. After Newcastle replied in the second half, Tevez squashed a possible revival with a goal scored with the help of a couple of deflections. After the first goal, Tevez reached into his sock. He pulled out a pacifier and sucked it while celebrating. His younger daughter is less than a year old. Maybe this was the gesture of a proud papa. But after some of the things said recently as the player's relationship with the club creaked, some of those in power at City might think he was laughing at them. Still, Mancini could hardly complain, Tevez, it seemed, was trying to bring a smile to soccer.

5. A little bump and run. Eric Lichaj's second Premier League start ended in defeat as Aston Villa lost, 2-1, at home to Spurs on Sunday. But the 22-year-old American still managed a minor triumph. He kept Gareth Bale quiet. Tottenham played more than 60 minutes with 10 men after Jermain Defoe was sent off, but Bale had plenty of chances to run at Lichaj and got nowhere. Lichaj played deep, leaving Bale little space to operate his fullback-destroying push and chase. When Bale did try to run past, Lichaj, a chunky 5-foot-11, checked him, slowing the Welshman's acceleration. The American then gave chase with impressive pace, catching Bale again and again. The only time Bale did any damage was when he briefly switched wings in the second half. His break set up Tottenham's clinching second goal. Lichaj's physical play did not escape Martin Atkinson, the referee, who pointed to the tunnel, presumably in warning, after Lichaj blocked Rafael van der Vaart, who had scored both Tottenham's goals. A good afternoon could have become a great one when the ball fell to Lichaj during Villa's frenzied final assault. He hit the ball hard and low but unfortunately against the post.

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