Five things we learned from the week's action in the Barclays Premier League.
1. Paul Scholes, he can still score goals. It tells us something about the thinking of professional athletes that teammates and coaches all praise the fact that, apart from his family, Paul Scholes has no interests apart from soccer. The poor man doesn't have a life, and that's a good thing. The fact that he has nothing else to do made his decision to buy into the myth about athletes quitting at the top and retire last season all the more puzzling. Of course an athlete knows his own body, but his manager, Alex Ferguson, had still trusted Scholes enough to play him 33 times. Perhaps the fact that he only scored one goal was a sign that he had lost the ability to make runs into the box.
His returned this month raised eyebrows and drew comment to the extent that Ferguson felt last week that he had to defend the decision. This season United's midfield, undermined by injury, illness and failure to land the right player has been a disaster. Ferguson has never seemed bothered by a player's age and has always been willing to buck conventional thinking. On Saturday he was rewarded for his faith in Scholes.
Some of his passing was rusty and Scholes only lasted 68 minutes. But after United had spent the first half vainly trying to break down Bolton, even wasting a penalty, Scholes struck in typical fashion in injury time. He pounced on a loose ball to score with a coolness that belied the significance of the moment. After he left, United scored twice more and won, easily, 3-0. Scholes still has a part to play.
2. A big gold banana skin. After Spurs beat Everton in midweek to go level with United, it suddenly occurred to all the pundits that they might be title contenders. Their match at Manchester City next Sunday would be the big test. Maybe the talk was premature. On Saturday, Spurs blew their growing momentum by gaining only a 1-1 draw at home against Wolves.
Wolves have been something of a problem team for Spurs in recent years. Two seasons ago, when Tottenham finished fourth, it lost both games to Wolves, 1-0. On Saturday, Spurs had some bad luck. Wolves took the lead from a corner that shouldn't have been given. Just before halftime, Emmanuel Adebayor netted only to be ruled offside because the assistant referee apparently didn't notice a Wolves player on the far side of the penalty area nearer the goal line. But Spurs only have themselves to blame. Once again, their finishing was wasteful. Gareth Bale continued shooting as if he thinks he's playing rugby, putting a string of efforts over the bar. Luka Modric did score, but also squandered a series of chances. Spurs had some 22 goal attempts, but Wayne Hennessey, the Wolves goalie hardly had a difficult save to make.
The 1-1 draw means Spurs have scored just 10 goals in eight league games. For all the praise their play has drawn, that isn't a title-winning strike rate.
3. Pity Fernando Torres. After 13 minutes against Sunderland on Saturday, Fernando Torres levitated to meet the ball and blasted a breathtaking shot at the Sunderland goal. The ball smashed against the bar, flew downward, struck Frank Lampard and bounced over the line for the only goal of the match. The moment of brilliance by the Spaniard had helped earned three points. That's nice. On the other hand, Torres is paid, and paid a lot, to score and has been under constant scrutiny this season because he has only netted four times. Lampard's future at Chelsea is also in doubt, but he's a midfielder. Yet he just stands there and, without even knowing what's going on, scores his 11th goal of the season. Torres could be forgiven for wishing that just once the ball would hit him and rebound over the line.
4.Mising, as seen in London. One man who was not in action on Saturday was Gary Cahill. The center back missed Bolton's visit to Old Trafford because he was reportedly undergoing a medical at Chelsea before becoming the first big transfer of the January window.
When transfer interest from bigger clubs swirled around Cahill in the summer, he stayed quiet as Bolton refused bids that did not match its £13 million ($19M) valuation. Perhaps he was demonstrating a refreshing level of professionalism and loyalty. More likely, Cahill, or his agent, had read the economic research into British soccer which suggests that as a player nears the end of his contract, the fee his club can ask drops sharply, while the wages he can expect climb dramatically. Reports that Bolton had accepted a bid of only £7 million ($10M) from Chelsea while the player was asking for £120,000 ($180,000) a week suggest the latter.
If Bolton was now safely in midtable, the money lost, would have been worth it. As it is, Wanderers are mired in the relegation zone and needs to find a mid-season replacement. Mark Lawrenson, the former Liverpool center back, said on the BBC on Saturday that he felt Cahill had been playing "with the hand-brake on" to avoid injury.
Given Chelsea's spending habits, the fee is tiny. If Cahill becomes a regular starter, it will hardly be a gamble. But is he good enough? While David Luiz represents a gamble on athletic ability and ball flair, signing Cahill is a bet on character. There is a long tradition of ungainly English center backs who have compensated for a lack of pace with intelligence, discipline, toughness, leadership, surprising levels of skill and an eye for goal. Jack Charlton, the World Cup winning No. 5, is one. More recently Terry Butcher, Tony Adams and, the man Cahill is presumably intended to replace, John Terry have all led England. At 26, Cahill has, rather late in life, become an England regular. Yet there have been moments his season when he has appeared less than rock solid. He did a Luiz against Tottenham in December. He was caught in possession in his own half and responded with a foul that earned a red card. He often seems to lack Terry's uncanny knack for being in the right place at exactly the right moment. In the 5-0 home defeat to United in September, Cahill was a step away from where he should have been for every goal. If nothing else, having needles stuck into him at Chelsea, and watching his new team play from the stands, will have been preferable to actually playing in a Bolton defense that was once again put to the sword by Manchester United.
If Chelsea is paying even two thirds of what Cahill asked and he doesn't turn out to be the next Terry, they are going to be stuck with him for four years.
5. Unpredictable Rovers. Maybe Blackburn can only play well when there is a high degree of difficulty involved. Rovers came from behind to beat Arsenal and then did the same at Manchester United, but Rovers lose almost all their games against lesser teams. After the morale building victory at Old Trafford, they lost their next two games. Before Saturday, Blackburn had lost its last three home games to Stoke, West Brom and Bolton. On Saturday, at home to Fulham, Blackburn was reduced to 10 men when Yakubu was sent off after 23 and reacted with a goal either side of halftime. After Fulham hit back, the 10 men rose to the challenge. They scored again and won, 3-1. The victory lifted them out of the bottom three. Manager Steve Kean's endless insistence that Blackburn can be a very good team is clearly right. Why is it that, so often, it's a really bad team?