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United lives dangerously, Stoke's treat, more EPL thoughts

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Manchester United has not been making life easy for manager Alex Ferguson.

Five English Premier League thoughts that are loaded with Christmas fun:

1. Breathless in Manchester: Alex Ferguson, so irate a little while earlier, could afford to smile when he faced the microphone after Manchester United had beaten Newcastle on Wednesday, aka Boxing Day.

"You would have to do an interview of an hour to analyse the whole game," he said. He was, as so often, right. Today's blog could be more than filled with items salvaged from the Manchester rain.

Let's start with yet another United comeback. The Reds have won eight league games this season after trailing. This does not mean that they have come from behind eight times. Oh no, that would be too easy and simple. On Wednesday, for the second time this season, United came from behind three times before winning, 4-3. At Reading earlier this month, the scoring was over after 34 minutes. This time, United went for a far higher degree of difficulty, Javier Hernández scored the final goal in added time at the end of the second half.

Kids, do not try this at home. If you fall behind you might lose. (Or, as Rafa Benítez might put it, if you don't fall behind, you cannot lose.) Clearly Ferguson thinks it's a habit his kids should try to break.

"It does put us under tremendous pressure, continually losing goals," he said.

The victory increased United's lead over Manchester City to seven points. City had run into a twin hex in the other half of the Manchester-Northeast double header. First, Sunderland was its bogey team last season, taking four points against the eventual champion. Second, the Black Cats then signed a City player in the summer. Sure enough, Adam Johnson scored the only goal as Sunderland won, 1-0.

Fergie could afford to smile. Yet as United waited in the rain at the end of half time for Newcastle to emerge, he had been channeling his Mr. Angry -- a character who had re-emerged last week when Fergie accused Ashley Williams of Swansea of attempting to murder Robin van Persie with an errant clearance. This time, Fergie lectured referee Mike Dean, Neil Swarbrick the fourth official, and Jake Collins, one of the linesmen in turn. He continued to prowl the touchline, pointing to his watch, waving his arms and utterly ignoring the limits of the coaching area. Swarbrick, no doubt chastened, stayed away.

So one thing we did learn: Where does Fergie stand at Old Trafford? Wherever he wants.

2. The offside puzzle: One of the causes of Fergie's anger was the own goal by Jonny Evans that put Newcastle ahead for the second time.

When Danny Simpson shot, weakly, the man Evans was marking, Papiss Cissé, was offside in front of goal. Before the ball could reach Cissé, Evans lunged to intercept and deflected it into his own goal. Collins raised his flag. Dean went over for a chat and then allowed the goal.

Graham Poll, a former referee who works for a British tabloid, quickly tweeted that the "Position of offside not an offence," adding that FIFA's rule-making committee, the International Board, has ruled that it can be "interference only when playing ball."

If that is the law, the goal should stand. Poll should know. Yet The Blog is confused. FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, has a helpful guide to Law 11 (offside) on its website, it appears to say something else: interfering includes "making a gesture or movement which...deceives or distracts an opponent." Maybe Evans was simply trying to block a shot. But he must have known Cissé was behind him. Indeed he attempted his clearance from a bad angle because he was holding his line to ensure that Cissé was offside. Evans was distracted and pulled into a false position.

Fergie went further accusing Cissé of more than distracting. "He's grabbed Evans arm," Fergie told the BBC. "If that's not interference, I don't know what is."

Again, FIFA appears to back him up, referring clearly to "interfering with an opponent." In any case, if Cissé did grab Evans' arm, it would be a foul. So the question then becomes: in matters of interpreting the laws of the game, who are we going to believe: biased, mind-gaming, bullying old Fergie or objective veteran referee Graham Poll?

Fergie, of course.

3. Stoke's Christmas treat: The traditional English soccer fan works hard all autumn looking forward to a few days of play at Christmas. No Premier League team more clearly embodies the idea that work and play are different things than Stoke City.

Before Wednesday, Stoke had the meanest defense (13 goals allowed) in the Premier League and only Aston Villa had scored as few goals (15). Of Stoke's first 18 games, five had ended 0-0 and five 1-0, and every league game was a grind for everyone involved: players, opponents, referees and fans.

On Wednesday, the men in red and white stripes morphed into 11 Santas, giving their fans the unexpected gift of entertainment and turning their stadium, normally a grim fortress, into Yule Britannia.

Stoke teased its fans. Luis Suárez is a man that Stoke, following a rant on diving by manager Tony Pulis earlier in October, loves to hate. After just 30 seconds, Ryan Shawcross, famous for his penchant for what Sepp Blatter once called "textile testing", grabbed Suarez's shirt. The Uruguayan went down, he could no nothing else. Steven Gerard converted the penalty.

Yet Stoke hit back. Jon Walters, an all-work no-score striker leveled after eight minutes. Kenwyne Jones added a second. Stoke had not scored more than two goals in a league match this season. After half time, Walters, incredibly, added a third. Stoke won, 3-1. Stoke was playing soccer.

4. This year's turkey: The British eat their turkeys at Christmas. And everyone in England knows that turkeys come from Norfolk. That's where Aston Villa also went to find a new manager last summer, plucking Paul Lambert from Norwich. This Christmas, Villa is getting stuffed.

After a good run in which it won at Anfield in the league and also reached the last four of the League Cup (or whatever it's called this week), the wheels came off on Sunday, as Villa lost, 8-0, at Chelsea. On Wednesday, it lost, 4-0, at home to Tottenham.

"Things can happen," Lambert told the BBC after the game. They can.

The irony is that Villa was battered in the first 45 minutes but reached half time at 0-0. Part of the reason was Tottenham's chronic lack of imagination when faced with a mass defense. Spurs won 15 corners in the first half. The most any Premier League team has won in 90 minutes this season is 16. In the second half, Spurs won only one more, but they did score four goals.

Villa's troubles started when it became a little more adventurous. Stephen Ireland and Marc Albrighton replaced the younger and more defensive Nathan Blake and Ashley Westwood, and Villa began to nudge forward. Maybe that explains why Jermain Defoe finally found a couple of yards in the home penalty area. He scored.

Villa could no longer mass in defense. Gareth Bale was suddenly able to find space and quickly exploited it to fill his stockings and score a hat trick. The good news for Villa is that the only team in the bottom half of the table to win on Wednesday was Sunderland.

5. Some yellow cards are worth it: Regular readers may find it hard to believe, but the Blog has been known to shout at its television in fury while watching soccer games.

One phrase that is guaranteed to light the blue touch paper is the solemn announcement by some morally challenged ex-pro that some trip or push or other assault was a "good foul" because it prevented a shot on goal. No it wasn't. It was cheating. Don't praise it!

However, on Wednesday Dimitar Berbatov did something after only eight minutes of Fulham's game with Southampton that guaranteed him an instant yellow card and left him in danger of expulsion for the rest of the match. It was worth it.

After eight minutes, Berbatov put his team ahead. Then he whipped off his shirt to reveal (who'd have guessed?) that he has a sense of humor. He was wearing a t-shirt on which was scrawled: "Keep calm and pass the ball to me." That's far more sophisticated, and funnier, than another self-mocking effort from an egocentric striker: Mario Balotelli's "Why always me?" Part of the reason is that it's also a humorous way for Berbatov to criticize his teammates. It's true. If they passed to him more, Fulham would win more.

It didn't work on Wednesday. Southampton came back to draw, 1-1. Still, it was funnier than a Christmas cracker joke.

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