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Title within touching distance for City; Relegation battle heats up

Five things we learned in Barclays Premier League action Sunday and the FA Cup final:

1. The best player for the best team. Few would begrudge Robin van Persie the player of the year award he received last week from his fellow professionals. The Dutchman's brace on Saturday took him to the totemic 30-goal mark for the Premier League season and helped Arsenal save a precious point with a 3-3 draw at home to Norwich.

Yet Sunday's biggest match saw another of the season's titanic performers, Yaya Touré, display his all around qualities as Manchester City won a potentially tricky game at Newcastle, 2-0. Touré started as the holding midfielder. He was dominant in the first 20 minutes as City established an early grip on the game. He outmuscled, outmaneuvered and outwitted another of this season's impressive performers, Cheik Tiote. Newcastle's midfield enforcer is an international teammate of Touré's for Ivory Coast.

Despite the furious efforts of both teams, the match seemed to be heading toward a goalless draw, a result that would have suited neither club. Roberto Mancini, the City manager brought on Nigel de Jong to play the defensive role. Touré became the attacking midfielder. Having shown how good he is at defending, it took him 10 minutes to show just how accomplished he is as attacker. After 70 minutes he calmly curled a precise shot into a corner of the goal Tim Krul could not possibly reach. The men who are paid, and paid well, to score for City -- Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko -- had all squandered chances. Touré did not. With the title in the balance, it was a finish of impressive skill under pressure. With two minutes left, Touré, showing his speed, his stamina and his appetite, surged into the Newcastle penalty area to score with another neat finish.

Touré had taken the game by the scruff of the neck and forced it to end in the result he wanted. It is the sign of a great player.

2. Ferguson's achievement. Last week after the Manchester derby, this column suggested that City is a better team than United. Some went further, Mark Lawrenson, the former Liverpool centerback who is now a BBC pundit said, "In every single position City were better."

So how is that, after its pedestrian 2-0 victory over Swansea on Sunday, United is still level with City on points? United needed to win by an unlikely 11 goals on Sunday to overtake City, but it is still in a position to steal the title should the leader slip up against QPR on the final Sunday.

There were some mutterings from United fans over Alex Ferguson's team selection against City. Yet the inclusion of the energetic Ji-Sung Park, instead of a more attacking player, showed that Ferguson had correctly identified the problem posed by City's midfield and attempted to address it. His players were just not good enough to solve it.

The notion that United should have a substantially weaker squad than a Premier League rival seems to run against the entire weight of human history. That might be why some United fans are struggling with the idea.

Part of the problem is that Ferguson has become very picky in the transfer market. If he cannot have the player he wants, he's not going to settle for second best. There is also the issue of the Glazer family's reluctance to spend United's very considerable income. Over the last three seasons City has outspent United eightfold in the transfer market. Even such middling clubs as Stoke and Sunderland have spent more than United.

Ferguson toed the party line this week when he said: "The transfer market has been insane for a while. I think clubs like Manchester City have created that. They can buy all the players. They can put a marker on all the players they want. It makes it difficult for clubs to be sensible."

That might sound a little strange coming from a man who, when United had more money than anyone else, three times broke the British transfer record. United's purchases were often preceded by leaks about its shopping list which set players agitating for the move to Manchester. The problem now is that City's overtures are more alluring.

Ferguson has gone back to youth, investing more games in young players than in any season since the "golden generation" won his first league title in 1992. Young players make naive mistakes, like Chris Smalling's tiny lapse that led to City's goal last week, or the collective lack of discipline that allowed Everton to salvage a 4-4 draw, But Ferguson has squeezed a remarkably consistent level of performance from his patchwork team. With a game left, United has 86 points.

The fact that their team is probably going to finish second, and second to City, may be difficult for United fans to stomach. But it shouldn't even have run its neighbor close. It is yet another remarkable achievement by United's 71-year-old manager.

3. Good news, bad news for Spurs. Arsenal's home draw on Saturday had put Tottenham in position to take third place if it could win its last two games. It blew the chance with a 1-1 draw at struggling Villa.

Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, had complained in the week that his team didn't seem to be getting any lucky or scruffy goals. On Sunday, Tottenham dominated the first half, but it was Villa who got the break when William Gallas attempted to head Ciaran Clark's long range shot and sent it looping over Brad Friedel.

Things grew worse for Tottenham when Danny Rose, an emergency replacement for injured Benoit Assou-Ekotto, was sent off. He will now miss the final game of the season at home to Fulham.

The good news for Redknapp was that Spurs, already in control with 11 men, rose impressively to the challenge and dominated with 10. The bad news was that the only way they could score was from the penalty spot. Despite Villa's massed defense, Tottenham had some 21 attempts on goal. Yet Shay Given, the home goalie, only had one difficult save to make all afternoon. Time and again, Tottenham players shot when they should have passed and passed when they should have shot. They hurried when they had time and dallied when they didn't. It was the bad decision making of an anxious team consciously fighting its own impatience and nerves.

The bad news is that the draw returned the initiative to Arsenal in the race for third place. The good news is that Newcastle's loss means Tottenham has only to draw its last game to be sure of fourth. Then it would have to hope Chelsea's luck runs out in the Champions League final. Redknapp would probably argue that his team is due a little good fortune.

4. Chelsea's winning general. The good fortune in London seems to running in Chelsea's direction. Napoleon said that he preferred a lucky general to a good one. In his brief time in charge at Chelsea, Roberto Di Matteo has had his share of luck.

There have been refereeing errors: two goals that should not have been in the league against Wigan and one that did not cross the line against Spurs in the FA Cup semifinal. Then there was Lionel Messi's penalty miss, and his shot against the post, in the Champions League semifinal.

On Saturday in the FA Cup Final, with Chelsea defending the goal they had been attacking when they scored the ghost goal against Spurs, Petr Cech clawed Andy Carroll's header against the post. It would have been the equalizer. More of the ball had crossed the line than in the semi. This time the officials rightly ruled that it was not a goal. The similarity of the two incidents increased the feeling that the gods, and officials, have been on Chelsea's side.

Yet Di Matteo has made a lot of his luck. It is true that unlike André Villas Boas, he doesn't have to worry about remaking the team. But he has found a defensive formation that works and he has also managed to coax goals from Didier Drogba, who seemed to be heading for the Stamford Bridge exit, and Fernando Torres, who looked as if he wouldn't be able to find it even with the illuminated sign.

Carroll nearly inspired another unlikely Liverpool comeback, but for most of the game Chelsea was comfortably the stronger team as it won 2-1 to collect a trophy. Even better for Di Matteo, while Chelsea was off winning in the cup, none of the three teams above it in the league could win, keeping alive his team's hopes of finishing in the top four.

5. It isn't over till it's over. With 15 minutes left in Sunday's games, Bolton was winning by two goals at home to West Brom. With QPR, the team above it on goal difference, drawing at home with Stoke, Bolton seemed set to leap free of the relegation places. Then Chris Brunt scored for WBA. In the 89th minute at Loftus Road, Djibril Cisse scored for QPR. And in injury time at Bolton, James Morrison equalized for West Brom. Just as they had seemed poised to escape from the bottom three, Bolton found itself buried more deeply in it.

The good news for Bolton is that it isn't over yet. It plays Stoke away next week while QPR faces a daunting trip to Manchester City. Bolton's draw means Villa is safe, but there are two other teams in the mix: Wigan and Blackburn. Both have two games left. They meet on Monday at Ewood Park. Any result but a home win would doom Rovers and guarantee Wigan's survival. Should Blackburn win, the possible permutations on the final day become too bewildering to even contemplate.

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

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