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United escapes as rivals fall farther back in Premier League race

Five thoughts from Saturday's action in the English Premier League ...

1. Manchester United doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. The club has become so used to coming from behind to win this season, maybe it has grown blasé. On Saturday, United came from behind not once but twice, in the first 34 minutes, as it won 4-3 at Reading.

All seven goals came in a first half in which it looked as neither team knew how to defend. There could have been an eighth, but the officials did not spot that a shot from Robin van Persie had crossed the line. Now that United has been cheated, expect the chorus for goal-line technology to swell.

Even as United's attack banged in the goals, Alex Ferguson responded to the shambles at the back by bringing on defenders who can defend. When Rafael, who had been humiliated by Jodie McAnuff, was replaced by Chris Smalling, he seemed to be about to burst into tears. When Anderson, who had scored a thunderous goal, started limping, Ferguson quickly replaced him with another natural center back, Phil Jones.

United was still shaky at corners, but the changes did drain the entertaining frenzy out of the game. The second half was scoreless. On a day when none of the next five teams won, Ferguson had the victory he needed.

United clearly has problems. "Really bad defending," Ferguson said after the game. "We need to sort that out."

It also has a three-point lead.

2. Manchester City slips. After the two Manchester clubs opened a six-point gap on the teams behind them in mid-week matches, the British media was quick to declare the Premier League a two-horse race even though almost two-thirds of the season was still to play.

On Saturday, City, the reigning champion, looked anything but a title contender as it was outplayed for almost the entire first half in a 1-1 draw at home against Everton. City was outrun, out-passed, out-thought and out-muscled for 43 minutes. Everton's chief bully, not for the first time, was Marouane Fellaini. He put his team ahead after 33 minutes. When his thunderous header was saved by Joe Hart, Fellaini charged after it, collided with Hart and thighed the ball into the net. He came close to adding to the lead. But Fellaini handed City the chance to level when he threw his weight around in his own box, hurling Edin Dzeko to the ground. Carlos Tévez buried the penalty.

City dominated the second half, but Everton came closest to scoring when Hart almost made a mess of a free kick from Nikica Jelevic.

City's league success has been built on its physical power and its dominant home form -- and winning Manchester derbies (the next coming Dec. 9). It had won 30 and drawn two of its previous 32 home league matches. The way it was bullied in its own backyard in the first half is another warning sign in a season that has offered quite a few of them.

3. A game of two halves. Forty-five minutes is a long time in soccer.

In the first half at Upton Park, Chelsea looked like a generously oiled machine. West Ham looked a well-drilled park team. By the end West Ham looked like Brazil as it scored twice in the last four minutes and galloped to a 3-1 victory. Chelsea looked like an utterly disorganized park team.

After 16 minutes, Chelsea fans sang the praises of Roberto di Matteo, their recently departed manager. In the last 15 minutes, West Ham's fans were telling his replacement, Rafa Benítez, "You're getting fired in the morning."

In the first half, Fernando Torres set up Juan Mata to give Chelsea the lead with a sharp run and smart pass. In the second half, Torres wasted two golden chances with timid finishes straight at Jussi Jääskileinen. Referee Martin Atkinson disallowed a West Ham goal for an imaginary push by James Collins on Branislav Ivanovic.

In the second half, Atkinson saw nothing wrong when Carlton Cole leap-frogged Ivanovic to head the equalizing goal. Although, Ivanovic seemed to be trying to block Cole rather than head the ball.

One difference was the appearance in the second half of Mohamed Diamé. The midfielder is, by some measures, the leading tackler in the Premier League. He started on the bench because his manager, Sam Allardyce, felt he looked tired at Manchester United on Wednesday. In just 45 minutes Saturday, he managed as many tackles as anyone over the whole match. A man who arrived on a free transfer from Wigan was able wrest control of the match from Chelsea's high-priced midfield. He also scored what turned out to be the winning goal with a ferocious drive.

All Benitez could do was shrug in disbelief and say that soccer games have two halves.

4. The return of Clint Dempsey. Ahead of his first match at Craven Cottage with his new club, Tottenham, Clint Dempsey tried to explain himself to the Fulham fans. He might have stayed, he said, if it hadn't been for "situations" which made him feel he wasn't getting enough respect with the club. He specifically excluded the fans and the owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed. Fulham manager Martin Jol was quick to read between the lines. He retorted that he had always shown Dempsey the love. Indeed, Dempsey played in all but one of Fulham's league games last year.

Fulham fans seem to have taken umbrage at Dempsey's refusal to train or play at the start of this season. They conveyed their disapproval by booing Dempsey's every touch in a 3-0 Spurs win, while remaining silent when Moussa Dembélé, who made the same switch at the same time, was in possession. Yet they are realists. Dembélé did not agitate for a move. He left the right way. His move is, if not forgiven, accepted.

Neither Dempsey nor Dembélé was the star Saturday though. Instead, Sandro broke the tie with a speculative 30-yard shot that took a funny bounce. Fulham had to press a little more. Jermain Defoe punished the home team twice on the break. Dempsey did set up the third goal, again by Defoe. Spurs rose to fourth. Fulham dropped to 12th.

5. Jeers and cheers. Miguel Pérez Cuesta, better known as Michu, did not make his debut in top-flight soccer until last year. He was already 24. After a career spent working his way up from the lower reaches of the Spanish league, he finally got to play in La Liga with little Rayo Vallecano. On Saturday he scored twice in the last three minutes as Swansea won 2-0 at Arsenal to take his tally for the season to 10, tied for most in the Premier League with Luis Suárez and Van Persie.

In a way, Michu is the classic late developer. Like the man he has replaced in Swansea's starting lineup, Danny Graham, who made such a splash when he arrived in the Premier League at the age of 26 last season, Michu doesn't check many of the scout's boxes. In particular, like Graham, he's slow. But put him in front of goal with the ball and, on the evidence of his 14 league appearances this season, he has the mysterious knack of putting it in the net. One thing the Swansea system is good at is putting a striker in front of goal with the ball.

The victory lifted Swansea to seventh. That's two points and three places above Arsenal. The Gunners have fewer points after 15 games than in any of the 16 seasons Arsène Wenger has been in charge. Wenger repeated after the game that he believes he can turn it around. He has led Arsenal to three league titles and four FA Cups, but the natives are getting restless. Wenger was booed by the remaining fans in the Emirates at the final whistle Saturday.

Maybe if Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is prepared to show a little patience (maybe as much as a week or two), Wenger could be available to replace Benítez.

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