Saturday April 30th, 2011

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

1. The blue tide creeps up. Alex Ferguson cannot seem to make up his mind. His Manchester United squad is on the verge of clinching the Premier League title. No, actually it is in danger from Chelsea. Or Arsenal. On the eve of a potentially crucial the match at Arsenal, Ferguson went across London, to watch Chelsea play Spurs. He left 20 minutes from the end, with an utterly uninspired Chelsea team tied at 1-1 thanks to a rather lucky goal.

In the end, Chelsea did again what it has done repeatedly over the last two months and scored late to squeeze out another unimpressive victory. It has now won eight out of nine. Ahead of Sunday's big game, it is just three points behind United with an almost identical goal difference. Defeat for United at the Emirates on Sunday, will put Chelsea in position to grab first place if it wins at Old Trafford next Sunday. As recently as March 1, before Chelsea beat United, 2-1, at Stamford Bridge, the gap was 15 points.

Chelsea took the gamble before the season of trying to win with veterans and paid the cost when John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and David Drogba all missed games and lost form because of illness or injury. Even now, at close to full strength, the team has not come close to recapturing its devastating form of the first month of the season. Yet those veterans are finding ways to win, however ugly. It's a valuable quality, unfortunately for Chelsea; it is one United also has.

2. Goal-line technology anyone? With Tottenham leading Chelsea 1-0 and a minute to go to halftime, Lampard tried a long-range shot. The ball flew straight at Heurelho Gomes. The goalie stooped to catch but allowed the ball to squirm between his legs and roll toward the line. Gomes lunged and dragged the ball back, but Mike Cairns, the assistant referee, flagged and the referee, Andre Marriner, awarded a goal. Almost at once, television was able to show replays from a host of angles. Those replays are denied to match officials because FIFA, the world governing body, despite pressure after Lampard's disallowed goal for England and against Germany in last summer's World Cup, has refused to introduce goal-line technology. So what the replays showed was not only a trial of Marriner's decision but also of FIFA's stubbornness.

One of FIFA's reasons for refusing to introduce goal-line technology is that it has not yet seen a method guaranteed to give the right answer. The striking thing about the replays was that cameras at different angles gave different answers.

The laws of soccer state that all of the ball has to be over the line, either in the ground or in the air. In practice, the convention tends to be that when the ball is on the ground, if grass is visible between the ball and the line, it's over. From some angles, the ball did not appear to be touching the line. From others it did.

While Cairns might have made a mistake, Gomes most certainly did. His performance -- a fabulous save from Drogba followed by the awful error, mirrors his display in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea earlier in the season when he let a shot from Drogba squirm through his grasp but later saved a penalty from the striker. It raises the old question with goalies of how many brilliant saves outweigh one basic error.

The goal Saturday, seemed to deflate Spurs. They played the second half in a daze but still held out until the 88th minute. Replays suggested Salomon Kalou was offside when he scored the decisive goal. But that's altogether a different can of videotape.

3. Going through hoops. One thing we definitely learned on Saturday was that Queens Park Rangers will be joining the Premier League next season. Maybe.

QPR won, 2-0, at Watford on Saturday with goals by Adel Taarabt (of course) and Tommy Smith (a former Watford player). That ensures it will finish first in the Championship. The top two teams in the standings are promoted from the Football League to the Premier League.

The Premier League needs to approve the club. Blackpool had to do some desperate work on its ground last summer. But while Loftus Road only holds 18,000 it's a neat, modern stadium.

For QPR the potential problem lies with the third governing body in English soccer. In March, the Football Association charged Rangers over the 2009 signing of Alejandro Faurlin, an Argentine midfielder, who has since made over 80 appearances for the club. Faurlin, it seems, was bought not from another club but from three agents. Third-party ownership of a player's rights is banned in England, though the Football League only introduced rules after the Faurlin transfer. It supposedly means clubs cede control of the players to the agents -- which may seem odd given how powerless clubs often appear even against accredited agents who do follow the rules.

The most celebrated case followed West Ham's purchase of two Argentines, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, from agent Kai Joorabchian in 2006. Nine months later, Tevez's goals kept West Ham up at the expense of Sheffield United, managed at the time by Neil Warnock who is now in charge at QPR. A string of inquiries and court cases determined that, Joorabchian had kept control of Tevez's registration. The league fined West Ham £5.5 million ($9.2M at current exchange rates). A court then awarded Sheffield United £15 million ($25M) in compensation. That's a large enough sum, even in English soccer, to focus the attention of the governing bodies. QPR might have a problem.

4. They all count. A week ago, West Brom drew, 2-2, at Spurs in a game in which all four goals were works of beauty. On Saturday, the Baggies beat Aston Villa, 2-1, in which all three goals were ungainly and two were downright ugly. The worst was an own goal by Abdoulaye Méïté of West Brom after four minutes. Peter Odemwingie leveled with a neat close-range finish after Villa, awful defending set pieces, had allowed a free kick to pinball around its penalty area. With West Brom down to 10 men, Youssouf Mulumbu, a star in the making, burst through one tackle and scored, without even swinging his boot. Ciaran Clark's attempted clearance struck the Congolese midfielder on the shin and ballooned into the goal. The goal secured West Brom's first league victory over its local rival since 1985. It also ensured it will be in the Premier League next year. For the delirious fans at the Hawthorns, Mulumbu's goal was a thing of beauty.

5. Wait for next year. The five afternoon matches Saturday, involved a host of teams becalmed in midtable. Blackburn took a step away from relegation by arresting its recent decline with a 1-0 victory over neighbor Bolton. Wigan and Blackpool both trod water with home draws.

For other fans it was time to bask in the sun and start dreaming of next season. West Brom gave a full debut to a Mexican youngster, Carlos Vela. He looked promising. Fulham started teenager Gael Kakuta, a Franco-Congolese striker. He scored to set his team on the way to a 3-0 victory at Sunderland. One of Aston Villa's most impressive performers in its loss at West Brom was Kyle Walker, a 20-year old fullback already on the fringe of the England squad. Young players like these, gaining experience in meaningless spring matches give fans hopes to nurture over the summer. Except that Kakuta is on loan from Chelsea, Walker belongs to Spurs and Vela, something of a poster boy for the hit-and-miss nature of a youth-first program, has been at Arsenal since 2005. In that time he has been loaned out to four different clubs. Who knows where he will be next year.

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

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.