Man City struggles on the road again; Arsenal in rampant form
Five things we learned in Barclays Premier League action Saturday:
In the league at least, City seems immune to nerves at home, which makes its increasingly nervous away form all the more puzzling.
On Saturday, City, which started with the high-priced quartet of David Silva, Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri before throwing on the prodigal son, Carlos Tevez, in the second half, had no spark in attack. Worse it allowed itself to be pushed around in defense.
Indeed, the game's one glint of inspiration came from a man who, over the course of his career has himself cost rather a lot in transfer fees, partly because he moves clubs often. When Peter Crouch put Stoke ahead with a spectacular long-range volley it only raised the usual Crouch question of why, if he can do that, he can't deliver more consistently.
Yaya Touré's fortunately deflected equalizer spoke of desperation. He clearly felt that whacking the ball hopefully from 40 yards was more likely to produce results than passing to a striker. He was right.
City is beginning to look like a team caught in United's headlights. They are in danger of becoming roadkill.
"I'm very excited,'' Ferguson said.
Well he might be. City's draw at Stoke means United can go three points clear if it wins at home against Fulham.
The victory at Lingfield caps a good few days for Ferguson. Patrick Vieira, now a Manchester City coach, rashly stuck his head above the parapet to snipe at United, suggesting that the return of Paul Scholes from retirement had been a sign of desperation. Vieira rather ignored the fact that Scholes has played well. Instead, Vieira's comments suggested a whiff of panic in the City ranks, although it might simply have been personal. Vieira has long struggled to retain his self-control when confronted by Ferguson and United.
You could almost hear Ferguson smacking his lips as he responded that if City wanted to try playing mind games, he was up for it. Then he returned fire with a much more carefully targeted salvo.
"They played a player the other night who refused to go on the pitch, one that the manager said he'd never play again and takes a five-month holiday in Argentina. Could that come under the description of desperation?" Ferguson asked of the return of Tévez.
Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott put the Gunners two goals up in the first 25 minutes. It was all so easy that Arsenal seemed to lose interest until the final seconds when Mikel Arteta put an exclamation point on a 3-0 victory with a thumping free kick.
It was Arsenal's seventh straight league victory. Just five games ago, it trailed Spurs by 10 points, after Saturday, Arsenal is four points clear of its rivals.
Just over a year ago, on March 5, 2011, Arsenal was still in the thick of the Premier League race when it drew 0-0 at home to Sunderland. Arsenal won just two of its last 11 games and was fortunate to finish fourth. The poor form continued this season as Arsenal won just 11 of its first 23 games. It would have been much worse if not for Robin van Persie's astonishing form.
Part of the problem was that the squad was ravaged by injuries and departures. Unquestionably the return of Thomas Vermaelen has restored some solidity to the Arsenal defense. But much of the difference seems to be psychological. Alex Song has stopped losing his head and kicking opponents and stayed calm to deliver killing passes. Walcott is now a chicken who has found his head, and, as a result, is finding the back of the net, as he did with Thierry Henry-like aplomb on Saturday.
Suddenly Arsenal is oozing certainty, yet the last year has shown how fragile and ephemeral confidence can be. Arsenal was going well last season when it exploded. This season has already brought one false dawn. Arsenal won six straight league games in October and November, only to start misfiring again. But the striking thing Saturday was how relaxed Arsenal looked. Perhaps its because now the pressure is off. It cannot possibly catch the two teams above it, and, realistically, needs only to draw its home game against Chelsea on April 21 to be pretty much assured of a top four finish.
The result was better for Tottenham. It has now gone five league matches without a victory but an away draw at a ground where it usually loses kept it comfortably ahead of Chelsea in the race for fourth.
Turning pressure into goals has been a recurring problem for Tottenham in its recent slump. According to Opta it has had 88 goal attempts in its last four completed games and scored just twice. On Saturday, Gareth Bale drew a difficult save from Petr Cech in added time and also hit the bar with a header, but most of his seven strikes were wild and wayward long-range efforts that suggested he simply couldn't think of anything else to do.
The pressure is clearly getting at both team's money players. Didier Drogba, looking the lion of old, muscled a good close range chance for himself but shot like a lamb at Brad Friedel. For Spurs, Rafael van der Vaart, unmarked and with time six yards out shot straight at Cech. Emmanuel Adebayor rounded Cech and then scuffed his shot.
For these two teams, the pressure is clearly on.
It was only on Wednesday morning, with Muamba showing early signs of recovery, that the Bolton players began to talk again of playing, Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager, told the BBC after Saturday's game with Blackburn.
"This week this week has been a source of great strength and very humbling in many ways," Coyle said talking of the outpouring of support for Muamba "not only from the football community but also from the people in the street."
The crucial confrontation Saturday between two neighbors struggling at the wrong end of the table, was preceded by a ceremony in which Nigel Reo-Coker, Muamba's midfield partner last week, seemed on the verge of tears.
When the action started Bolton quickly grabbed a two-goal lead with a pair of strikes by center back David Wheater and held on to win 2-1. For the first time this season, Bolton has won two league games in a row. It also climbed out of the bottom three.
Coyle said he was not sure how his players would react.
"I knew they were all willing to go out and try and do their utmost for their pal and represent him," Coyle said. "Sometimes you're so pumped up to do well and sometimes it's a negative energy, but to a man they stood strong.''
Treading carefully, Steve Kean, the Blackburn manager, agreed that the match had been shaped by emotion.
"I don't think we were like our normal selves in the first half," Kean told the BBC. "Maybe it was the occasion and the atmosphere and that really put Bolton on the front foot and we never matched their intensity."
Judging from what those close to Bolton are, and aren't, saying, Muamba's recovery process promises to be long and hard. There are tough times ahead from him and for Bolton. Saturday's performance though was an apt end to a week that started in darkness but ended with rays of hope.