West Ham's Grant finds some relief; Bale proves match-winner again
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:
The most impressive victor Saturday was the Arsenal, team which had faced the most demanding holiday schedule. Arsenal crushed Birmingham, 3-0. Arsenal's holiday schedule was compressed because its big game against Chelsea was delayed a day for television. It won that, 3-1, last Monday. On Wednesday, its fourth game in 10 days, is at home to Manchester City. For each of the two games in between, Arsène Wenger made eight changes to his starting lineup. On Wednesday, Arsenal only drew at Wigan, but the victory Saturday means it is just two points behind the Manchester clubs. If Wenger's tactic of resting players produces victory over City, Arsenal will finish the midwinter sprint having dented two important rivals and very much in contention.
None of the players Alex Ferguson has bought in recent years has developed into consistent contributors. Dimitar Berbatov and Anderson alternate good days with lost afternoons, like Saturday. Antonio Valencia, bought to replace, Ronaldo is a long-term injury casualty. Javier Hernández is developing the dreaded reputation as a player most useful coming off the bench. As for Rooney, he has been hampered for almost eight months by injury. Yet his ankle problems --he ended Saturday hobbling again -- do not fully obscure a suspicion that he is not growing into the all-around attacking colossus he promised to become when he arrived at United.
For much of Saturday, United looked a mediocre team suffering a New Year's Day hangover. It was dominated by a neat and creative West Brom team that ended the game with 68 percent of possession and 17 shots to United's five. Neville was lucky not to concede a penalty and earn a red card. When Rio Ferdinand did give away a penalty, United was reprieved as Peter Odemwingie dragged the shot wide and threw away his team's chance of famous victory.
For all that it has lost, United still has its dogged determination and its instinct for eking out victory. Outplayed and out of sorts it found a way to win. Rooney scored his first goal from open play since May with a gentle but accurate header that displayed the most precious ability of any striker: the instinct for goal. Hernández, yet again, scored as a replacement.
More than half way through the season United is the only team in the Premier League averaging more than two points a game again. It remains the team to beat and so far this season, no one has.
One mark of a great player is that when one door is shut, he will find another way through. In a tight game, Bale made the difference. When Spurs won a free kick after 42 minutes, Bale had a brief chat with Rafael van der Vaart, then trotted forward, leaving the kick to the Dutchman. Van der Vaart smashed the ball toward the far post. Bale, standing near the penalty spot, flicked his head at the flying ball and deflected it past the wrong-footed Mark Schwarzer. It was an impressive flash of courage, reflexes and fast thinking. Bale could have had a second late in the game, but he lashed a right-foot shot over from close range. Even so, Tottenham's newfound defensive resilience, it kept a second consecutive clean sheet meant his first strike was enough.