Five thoughts from Saturday's Premier League action:
1. The Manchester two-step. As Chelsea's early season spurt begins to sputter; the top of this season's table is beginning to look a lot like last season's table. There is daylight between the two Manchester clubs and the rest of the league. And Saturday ended with an even stronger sense of déjà vu. City, who ended last season on top, is back in first place.
Both Manchester clubs answered the questions they have faced most often in recent weeks.
City's form this season has been erratic and unimpressive. It has clung onto the coattails of the leaders because the losses have tended to come in cup competitions. That's not necessarily a good thing. City wanted, above all, to do well in the Champions League. And it meant that when City's army of strikers finally started to march in unison again on Saturday, beating hapless Aston Villa 5-0, putting the club in position to seize first place. Carlos Tévez and Sergio Agüerro each scored two. David Silva hit the other. City showed that it still possesses the firepower to blow other Premier League teams out of the water.
Meanwhile United showed that it cannot keep conceding the first goal and expect to escape. At Norwich, United yet again started flat. This time it stayed flat even after the shock of a goal, losing 1-0. The only player who came close to scoring for United in the 30 minutes it trailed was Sébastien Bassong, and he's a Norwich defender. John Ruddy, the home goalkeeper, pushed away Bassong's misplaced header in the dying seconds to preserve victory.
The defeat was a reminder that United, like City, has often been mediocre this season. The standings are a reminder that, even so, the two Manchester clubs are better than everyone else in the division.
2. Adkins can exhale. One British newspaper dubbed Saturday's meeting between the Premier League's bottom two teams "El Sackico." Mark Hughes of Queens Park Rangers and Nigel Adkins of Southampton were the two favorites for the dubious honor of becoming the first manager fired this season. Adkins can probably stop updating his résumé this weekend. His team won, 3-1, but that doesn't mean his problems have disappeared.
QPR's scouting seems to consist entirely of whether a player has a famous name (even if it's actually a relative who made it famous) or has played for a famous club. Since that is the only explanation of why Hughes was hired, he can hardly complain. Given the chances he keeps being handed as a coach, maybe he's brilliant at job interviews. It could be a skill he has to employ again quite soon. His celebrity squad is winless and four points adrift at the bottom
Adkins may be a victim of his own success. After leading Southampton to two successive promotions, he started the Premier League season with a squad loaded with players who played for the Saints in the third tier. Yet last year Norwich followed two straight promotions by hitting the ground running. On Saturday, four of Southampton's starters had played for Adkins in third division. None of the others had played a single Premier League game before this season.
Yet Southampton's strength is an attack, which on Saturday contained three of those holdovers -- Rickie Lambert, Jason Puncheon and Adam Lallana. Both Lambert and Puncheon scored as Southampton, even though it was playing away and was winning, pushed forward throughout. One reason could be that the Saints often can't defend. Southampton allowed Junior Hoilett, just 5-foot-7, the freedom of the penalty area to head QPR briefly back into the game. If a team lacks attacking talent, there's not much a coach can do about it. If the defense is a shambles he can expect to take the blame. Adkins shouldn't throw that résumé away.
3. Rising without a trace. The writer has been ignoring West Brom's strong start to the season. Part of the reason is that it is hard to figure out how the Baggies are doing it. Since Roberto Di Matteo was fired in February 2011, West Brom has pottered along under Roy Hodgson and then Steve Clarke, a long-time Chelsea man, alternating scrappy victories with plucky defeats. This season the Baggies seemed simply to have bunched all their scrappy victories together at the start of the season.
On Saturday, as both Di Matteo and Clarke faced their former clubs, West Brom eked out its most significant scrappy victory of the season. It beat Chelsea, 2-1.
Chelsea had twice as much possession and twice as many shots. It had 12 corners; West Brom, at home, had none. Boaz Myhill, West Brom's backup keeper, was brilliant. Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie took their chances. It was a real underdog's victory but it means WBA is running with the leading pack. It is fourth, three points clear of Everton and just one behind the Blues. Maybe we should start paying attention.
4. The best formation is 11 men. Having been criticized by fans and pundits for his reluctance to play two strikers, Andres Villas Boas opted to weaken his midfield and to start both Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor at Arsenal on Saturday. When Adebayor appeared in front of goal to pop in the rebound from a Defoe shot after 10 minutes, it seemed to provide impressive evidence of why two strikers work better than one.
Yet the excitement of scoring as he started for the second straight week against one of his former clubs seemed to push Adebayor's adrenaline level out of control. Seven minutes after the goal, Adebayor lunged at Santi Cazorla and was sent off. By halftime, Arsenal was three goals up. AVB tried switching to a 3-4-1 formation in the second half, but he was shuffling a 10-card hand. His team showed pluck, but it lost 5-2.
That was the same score that Tottenham lost by at the Emirates back in February, one of the results that cost Harry Redknapp his job. This defeat dropped Tottenham below Arsenal. But all it proved is that whatever formation a manager can adopt, playing with 10 men short for 70 minutes is at the bottom of the list.
5. The best goal in the whole world... ever. This writer's favorite goal is the one headed by Anthony Pilkington for Norwich in the final Premier League game of the day. Why? Because it is the last goal I saw.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic final goal for Sweden in a 4-2 friendly victory over England on Wednesday allowed the BBC to revive the old debate about the best goal in the history of soccer. There is no doubt that Zlatan's long-range overhead kick was a moment of genius. But it was still surprising how many of those who wrote in thought it was the best ever. Was it because it was the last goal they had seen?
In a way great goals are like great pop records which make us go "wow" the first time we hear them and lose their appeal after we've heard them a hundred times.
There is the added thrill that sport brings of seeing a moment of brilliance as it happens. There was the dawning realization as the ball dropped to Zlatan that he was going to try a shot and the unfolding amazement as the lob looped through the air that it would hit the target and beat the last defender. Still, it was a trick shot into an empty net in the dying seconds of a friendly that Sweden had already won.
Greatest goals tend to be ones we watched live. They are often for, or against, a team we follow. Another popular nominee in the BBC debate, largely made up of British fans, was Diego Maradona's first goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. One comment raised the question of whether it was better than Maradona's goal against Belgium in the semis, a match fewer English viewers watched.
There is another issue, suggested by the nomination of a goal by the great Ferenc Puskas against England, of course, in 1953. Relatively few goals from that long ago are preserved on film. The greatest goal might have been scored away from cameras by one of the greats in the pre-television age or by a banker enjoying himself in a recreational game on municipal park in Paris.
Context probably counts. Even if we restrict the choice to really big games, there's the question of taste. Do you prefer a long-range pile driver, like Arie Haan's? Or maybe individual trickery, like Dennis Bergkamp's goal to beat Argentina? How about Brazil's passing against Italy?
In the end, beautiful goals are like beautiful works of art. There are so many of them and in so many different styles. Ranking them, amusing though it might be, is pointless. The debate is really an excuse to look at many of them again. That's why this writer, as a supporter of neither Norwich nor Manchester United, feels safe sticking with Pilkington.