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United shows title-winning mettle; Arsenal, Spurs both stumbling

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

1. Game-changing decisions from referees. It is now an annual Premier League ritual that Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, is banished from the touchline for criticizing referees. The current five match-ban, which he continued to serve in the stands at West Ham on Saturday, is his fourth in four years.

So when Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, said last week that the league was going to take a tougher attitude in protecting referees next season, Ferguson may have been right to take it personally. Scudamore said the league wanted to eliminate "vitriolic abuse toward match officials.'' He also referred to the surrounding or goading of referees by players; and criticism that "spills over into questioning the referee's integrity or his honesty.''

Referees can reply to players that when they can play 90 minutes without making a mistake, they can criticize a referee for making one. However, the broader problem remains that some of the decisions referees have to make every week are game changing.

There were a couple of examples in Everton's 2-2 draw with Aston Villa on Saturday. With the scored tied at 1-1, Jermaine Beckford's shot hit the bar and bounced down. Villa cleared and broke away and Darren Bent scored. Yet replays showed Beckford's shot had crossed the line.

Seven minutes from time, Everton got a break from the referee, Michael Jones, when Phil Jagielka flopped under a challenge from Jean Makoun and won a penalty that Leighton Baines converted.

After the game, David Moyes, the Everton manager, complained about the goal that wasn't given. Gerard Houllier, the Villa manager, muttered about the "penalty incident.''

There were three penalties in the game Ferguson was watching at Upton Park and two more pivotal decisions by the referee, Lee Mason.

The two penalties Mason awarded to West Ham in the first half were nailed on, but that did not stop the victorious Ferguson carping, in his politest voice, that the second was outside the penalty box (it wasn't).

The handball penalty for United, with the game tied at 2-2, seemed a little harsher. Wayne Bridge had his arm by his side when he was hit from close range, but he did seem to lean toward the ball.

The really debatable decisions came when, with West Ham ahead 2-0, Nemanja Vidic brought down Demba Ba, who appeared to have a clear run on goal. Mason only showed Vidic a yellow card. Later Mason showed no card at all when Vidic scythed down Ba. Perhaps he was prudent in keeping his red card in his pocket. Imagine the vitriol Ferguson would have poured on his head if three key decisions had led to a United defeat.

Avram Grant, the West Ham manager, who will himself face a disciplinary hearing on Monday after recent criticism of referees, was unhappy about Vidic's escape.

"If it was a last man foul it was a red card,'' Grant told the BBC. "About the referee, it is better that I not speak. They don't like it very much.''

FIFA and UEFA, the governing bodies of world and European soccer, keep adding officials to games at the highest level -- further distancing the elite game from soccer played by millions round the world on park pitches -- but are still not sure there is a way to introduce video or goal-line technology into their continuous action game. They are unconvinced the technology available is reliable enough.

The truth is, as anyone who has played, refereed or watched soccer knows and Saturday's games again showed, that the system is imperfect but it's all we've got.

2. Rooney roulette. One of Wayne Rooney's problems at 25 is just how good he was at 20. In his first season at Manchester United he looked destined to become one of the greats. He was a fearless young bull, who had mesmerizing ball control and a sudden and thunderous shot. Yet his career arc has not been steadily upward. Maybe it's injuries. Maybe it's the suffocating pressures and demands of stardom. Maybe it's simply emotional immaturity and personal indiscipline. It would not be fair to say he has become mediocre. For long periods in his troubled season he has been quite awful. Yet the poor play has been illuminated with enough flashes of brilliance to give hope to those who still see him as the future of English soccer.

So when Alex Ferguson opted to use his petulant star as a lone striker against West Ham he was playing Rooney roulette. With West Ham, 2-0 up at half time, the manager had second thoughts, bringing on Javier Hernández. El Chicharito immediately threatened. Alongside him, Rooney looked increasingly forlorn. Near goal he posed no threat. When he dropped deep or pulled wide, his passing was uninspired and inaccurate. As he repeatedly gave away possession, his shoulders dropped and his body language suggested the competitive fire was flickering low.

After 65 minutes, United won a free kick. As the wall lined up, Ferguson sent on a third striker, Dimitar Berbatov. Then Rooney took the free kick. It swerved into the net with power and precision, providing a breathtaking reminder of just what Rooney can do, but hasn't done much lately. The goal lit Rooney's flame. Eight minutes later, he rediscovered his dancing feet. He skipped away from a posse of defenders with ball glued to his toes before drilling the equalizing goal from the edge of the penalty area. Six minutes later, United won a penalty. Rooney, of course, took it and buried the ball in the net to complete a 15-minute hat-trick that had turned the game.

He is an infuriating player, and an infuriating man, but he still has greatness in him.

3. Stick or twist for Spurs. Tottenham's surprising roller-coaster ride to the last eight in its first campaign in the Champions League is posing a problem of priorities for manager Harry Redknapp. The London club played in the very different European Cup almost 50 years ago. Its long wait for a return to Europe's center stage ended after it surged to a fourth-place finish in the Premier League last season.

If it wants a repeat appearance next season it needs either to finish once again in the top four or win the Champions League. Since it needs to beat first Real Madrid and then, in all probability, Barcelona just to reach the final, fourth place in the league may seem a more realistic goal.

The effort of competing on two fronts is clearly taking a toll on Tottenham, which has suffered recent dip in form. Spurs are fifth in the Premier League. They remain in the hunt for a top-four finish because the team just above them, Manchester City that plays its 50th game of the season at home to Sunderland on Sunday, is also flagging. Third-place Chelsea, which faces Manchester United in the Champions League this week, is stuttering and rode its luck to gain a 1-1 draw at Stoke on Saturday.

Yet with a visit to the Bernabéu in Madrid coming up on Wednesday, Redknapp made his priorities clear when his team visited last-placed Wigan. Tottenham left one of its wingers, Aaron Lennon on the bench and the other, Gareth Bale, at home. William Gallas, the veteran center back, was absent. Two other key players, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, both came off in the second half, even though the match was still in the balance.

Tottenham did not have a dangerous strike on goal in a game that rarely rose to level of lackluster and ended 0-0. The result means Spurs has not won in its five matches since its 1-0 victory at the San Siro in the Champions League against AC Milan. Those games include a heroic 0-0 draw at home to Milan. The other four have all been against teams struggling near the foot of the Premier League. That run of games gave it a chance to shoot up the standings instead it is three points behind City and five behind Chelsea. Harry has taken a big gamble.

4. Firing blanks. At lunchtime Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, must have felt pretty happy. United was 2-0 down at West Ham and his team was due to face plummeting Blackburn at home in the evening. Surely this was the day his team took a decisive bite out of United's five-point lead. No it wasn't.

Yet again, United played badly for an hour and won. Yet again, Arsenal played well and didn't.

Against Blackburn, Arsenal started as if it would tear its opponents apart. It finished with a 15-minute siege after Blackburn was reduced to 10 men. The game ended, 0-0. Part of the reason was heroic defending -- particularly by center backs Chris Samba and Ryan Nelsen -- part of it was bad luck but part of it was inept finishing. In between, Blackburn created enough chances to again raise questions about Arsenal's defense and, in particular, goalie Manuel Almunia, who committed another basic error when he let a shot squirm through his hands and turned to watch in relief as it skipped narrowly wide.

Once more. It looks as if the only title Arsenal will claim is that of prettiest team in the Premier League.

5. Given the run around. Perhaps the most daunting assignment in the Premier League is playing in midfield against Arsenal. That may be why Steve Kean, the Blackburn manager, opted to play a five-man midfield on Saturday.

The five men took a while to work out what they were doing, but once they did they often wrested the initiative from Arsenal. Two of the men who ran themselves into the ground are sort-of-Americans.

Jermaine Jones played three times for his native country, Germany, before FIFA allowed to switch to his father's country, last year. He has played four times for United States. He fell out of favor at Schalke this season and was loaned to Blackburn. He ran himself into the ground for his new club on Saturday.

The second of Blackburn's North American-qualified players is David Hoilett. Hoilett, who was born in Toronto, has a career that strangely mirrors that of Jones. He arrived in Blackburn in 2007 and was loaned out to two German clubs. He is not as big as Jones but provided the creative spark in several of Blackburn's counter-thrusts. Hoilett has not yet played an international and is eligible for four countries: Canada, Jamaica, England and the United States. ESPN, which broadcast Saturday's match in Britain reported that on Friday, Hoilett met Stephen Hart, the Canadian coach, to discuss playing for the team.

The Premier League may be the most-watched league in the world, but Blackburn is its equivalent of its witness protection program. It's where players go to disappear. But keep an eye on Jones and Hoilett. Who knows where they will turn up next.

Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.

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