Five thoughts off English Premier League action Sunday ...
1. Same old, same old for the Reds. Manchester United's breathless 3-2 victory at Chelsea on Sunday proved that as long as Alex Ferguson is the manager at Old Trafford, some things don't change. It's not that Ferguson has a particular flair for winning the big games, though he does win his share. Before Sunday, United had not won away in the league against its No. 1 rival in a decade. It's not that United always plays good soccer. It has played awfully at times over the last couple of seasons. A Ferguson team is always competitive. When it has an edge, United usually punishes opponents. When things aren't going well, Ferguson teams cling and let their opponents make a mistake. That's what happened on Sunday.
This was never Ferguson's most talented or best-balanced squad. There are too many old players, too many young players, too many mediocre players and, now, too many injured players. Yet Ferguson keeps on patching up with scraps of tape and bits of string from the bottom of his bag of tricks. He also keeps shuffling his cards in a way that bemuses his rivals. On Sunday, he surprised Chelsea with his two-card monte, starting away from home with two wingers, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. The trick bought United 30 minutes of dominance and a two-goal lead, as Valencia tortured Ashley Cole.
Chelsea adjusted. It penned United back. It drew level. It looked as if its greater quality must tell. Although "greater quality" really means Juan Mata. A week after conjuring the comeback at Spurs, Mata scored one goal and played the key role in setting up the second as Chelsea again fought back.
But Chelsea made the key mistakes. Branko Ivanovic earned a justifiable red when he brought down Young. Just outside the penalty area. Fernando Torres then earned a second yellow and was sent off. Against nine men, United was able to reassert a measure of control. Javier Hernández won the game with an instinctive finish, every bit as good as the one with which Robin van Persie had put United two goals up in the first half. Ferguson's team had once again taken its chances. His teams usually do.
2. Getting mad and getting even. When Torres received a the yellow card for diving, he was bemused while his teammates, Chelsea's coaching staff and the club's ever-angry fans were outraged.
They blamed Mark Clattenburg, the referee, when really they should have been blaming Luis Suárez.
In defense of Clattenburg, it should be said that just because a defender made contact, as Johnny Evans did, it doesn't mean the player didn't dive. Torres took a full stride after Evans clipped his shin before tumbling like a shot moose.
Conversely, just because a player falls over without being touched, it doesn't mean he dived. Just ask Phil Neville, who made the error of trying to dribble for Everton against Liverpool -- something he wasn't designed by nature to do -- fell flat on his face and, to his surprise, received a yellow card. That was simply one irony among many in a Liverpool derby dominated before, during and after by Suárez and his reputation.
Suárez is not the first and far from the only diver ever to appear in the Premier League. But he has made it a hot, hot topic. David Moyes, the Everton manager, tried to influence the referee before Sunday's game even started by whining about Suárez during the week.
Suárez took his revenge after rather luckily putting Liverpool ahead, when he ran over to the Everton bench and dived in front of Moyes. He may also have chuckled when Neville was booked.
Suárez is a man who expresses a clear worldview every time he goes near the ball. He believes fair play is a con, that all opponents are cheats and all referees can be cheated. He is a man who gives 100 per cent in every way. He never stops trying to score and trying it on. When he gets possession, the only outcomes, it sometimes seems, are Suárez celebrating or Suárez appealing angrily. Like a lot of cynics, he thinks he's working the system. In practice he is so unrelenting and transparent, that he turns the system against him.
Suárez also muddies the waters around him. The game at Goodison, in which Everton fought back to draw 2-2, was in the image of Suárez. There was brilliant attacking play, but so much kicking, tripping, flopping and diving that Andre Marriner was largely guessing as he blew for 37 free kicks and gave out seven yellow cards.
Suárez mixed the brilliant with the obnoxious. His deflected shot was Liverpool's first goal. His deft header scored its second. He ran his studs down Sylvain Distain's ankle, an incident which, typical Suárez, looked far nastier than he probably intended. He clapped sarcastically when Marriner gave him a free kick, which can hardly encourage the referee to rule in you favor again. Sure enough, with the game on the line, the officials refused Suárez the benefit of the doubt. As he lashed home what should have been the winner in added time, the flag went up. Suárez had been onside. He'd been behind the ball. In the face of was proof of his evident belief that all officials are blind, he did not scream or leap up and down, as he does when he is the victim of an imagined crime. In the face of this genuine injustice, he merely smiled ruefully and jogged away.
3. How to win ugly and be unhappy. This blog tends to take a historicist approach. It doesn't matter how bad a team looked or how lucky it seemed to be; if it won, then it deserved to, its coach got it right. We mere mortals simply need to adjust our views to explain the reality.
That has very much been the position of this blog all season as Manchester City has played badly in the league but won.
This week it has become clear that some at City clearly don't think the league results prove the team is healthy. One player, Micah Richards bravely stuck his head above the parapet and took a pop at the famously feisty Roberto Mancini, the coach. More significant was the news Sunday that City has appointed Txiki Begiristain, who formerly ran football operations at Barcelona to do the same job in Manchester. He may be the aggressive shopper Mancini wanted, or he may also be paving the way for the club to hire Pep Guardiola as coach.
So what did we learn from City's fortuitous 1-0 home victory over Swansea on Saturday? We learned that City's Joe Hart is a very good goalkeeper.
4. Dempsey has the knack. Clint Dempsey finally got his chance at a big(gish) club this season. He's looked slow and sloppy and out of his depth. Yet on Sunday he showed again that he hasn't lost the simple but valuable talent that made him so attractive to Tottenham (and Liverpool too). Last month he pounced on a rebound in front of goal to score what proved to be the winner at Old Trafford. On Saturday, after Jermain Defoe and half the Southampton defense had missed a ball, Dempsey was again perfectly placed to score from a yard. The goal put Spurs two ahead. They stopped playing in the second half and desperately clung on for a 2-1 victory. Spurs were again poor but got the win. Dempsey was poor but again got the winner.
5. And so does Ba. Last season, Demba Ba arrived in Newcastle at the start of the season and scored 15 goals by the end of December. He looked unstoppable. But after returning from the African Nations Cup, he stopped, scoring one more goal all season. Papiss Cissé arrived at Newcastle in January and scored 11 goals in just 12 league appearances. He looked unstoppable. But after returning from the summer break he stopped. Before this weekend, Cissé had not scored a goal all season.
On Sunday, Newcastle entertained one of its key rivals in the battle to stay on the coattails of the big boys. Ba, who had already rediscovered last autumn's touch, put Newcastle ahead. Romelu Lukaku levelled for the Baggies.. But in the 90th minute, Cissé showed he hasn't lost the knack. He wasn't even looking as the ball struck his back and deflected into the net. But he now has that precious goal by his name. As a result, Newcastle has a precious 2-1 victory.