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Van Persie's return, Newcastle's dud, more EPL thoughts

Photo: John Peters/Getty Images

Robin van Persie came back to haunt Arsenal by netting the tying goal at the Emirates on a penalty.

1. The champions' victory stroll. Manchester United's players were given a "guard of honor" by the Arsenal team as they jogged out at the Emirates for their first game since sealing the Premier League title.

United kept on jogging when the game started. Arsenal, meanwhile, tore into its stride and took the lead with a goal by Theo Walcott after two minutes. Walcott was marginally offside, continuing his team's recent good fortune with refereeing decisions, but what was astonishing was the way the United players stood around and admired the buildup.

Arsenal dominated the first 30 minutes, but its adrenaline gradually subsided. United clawed its way back into the game, seemingly kicking itself awake with a string of fouls that earned it four yellow cards in that first half hour.

United remains the most dangerous team in the Premier League and Arsenal's defense is still vulnerable. Robin van Persie and Phil Jones, twice, could have scored with headers before halftime. After 43 minutes, Bacary Sagna gift-wrapped the equalizer for his former teammate. His soft pass gave the ball to Van Persie. Sagna tried hard to correct the error and brought down the Dutchman, who scored from the penalty.

That was that. The 1-1 draw means that United can no longer break the Premier League points record.

Alex Ferguson did not seem to care that much after the game, though he did argue that if his team had taken "one or two of our chances" it would have won. That is almost always the case in soccer. He did try to summon up some indignation at the officials "We had five players booked," he told Sky "We have the best disciplinary record in the country... I don't think it's right that."

Some habits die hard: Ferguson criticizing referees; United finding a way to avoid defeat even after being outplayed for a long period.

2.Robin's return. Arsène Wenger put what could be interpreted as a French twist on the reaction of the Arsenal crowd to the return of Van Persie.

The fans booed their former star every time he touched the ball. That is now traditional. "I think its more disappointed love," Wenger said, "than real aggression."

For his part, Van Persie refused to celebrate after he converted his penalty. That too is now traditional when a player has forced his way out of a club in search of more money and more medals.

Even though his little boy has now grown up and left home, Wenger's attitude reflected a dash of the doting dad. He only smiled benignly on the Sagna errors that presented Van Persie with a penalty.

"Overall it was a day when he was treated well by our defenders."

But then again, in the context of the battle between three London clubs for two Champions League places, the point against United was a very good result.

3. Three into two won't go. The big winner in the Champions League race this weekend was Chelsea. It dispatched Swansea, 2-0, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday with two goals just before halftime that allowed everyone to relax.

The second Chelsea goal. a penalty by Frank Lampard, equalled one arcane record and took him to the brink of matching another, more significant, one. Lampard tied Andy Cole's mark of scoring against 38 different teams in the Premier League. It was also his 201st goal for Chelsea, one shy of Bobby Tambling's club record.

The victory lifted Chelsea to third place. Second-place Manchester City could, in theory, be caught by the three teams below it. But after its comfortable 2-1 home victory over West Ham, City has a six-point cushion on Chelsea and a nine-point edge over Tottenham, which is fifth.

Tottenham, which labored to a 2-2 draw at Wigan helped by a late own goal, was the big loser. A week after its heroic victory over City, it looked nervous and punchless. Before the weekend, all three of the London clubs knew that if they won all their remaining games they would qualify for the Champions League. Now Tottenham knows that it could win all its remaining games, including its game in hand at Chelsea, and still finish outside the top four.

4. Out with a wimper. It seemed somehow appropriate that Reading and Queens Park Rangers relegated each other on Sunday with a goalless draw. The dire match was further proof, if any was needed, that they were by far the worst teams in what has been, in general, a mediocre Premier League this season.

Reading's problem has long been clear. It does not have enough players of Premier League quality. That is always an unknown for teams that are promoted after a long period in the lower divisions. Southampton's attacking players immediately stepped up this season. Its defenders took longer, but they too adapted. Southampton also spent its money well and, unlike Reading, it has a productive youth system. This season's third promoted team, West Ham, has become something of a yo-yo club and is larded with hard-nosed Premier League experience, both on the bench and on the field.

On the face of it, QPR, which survived on the last day of last season, seemed to have the same strengths at West Ham. But neither Mark Hughes nor Harry Redknapp has been able to do what Sam Allardyce has done at West Ham. They could not find a system that worked for their squad or persuade their players to stick to it.

On the face of it, Reading is in a healthier position. It has a manageable wage bill and an owner, Anton Zingarevich, who is the heir to a Russian billionaire. But it will have to improve if it is to escape the highly competitive Championship again.

Tony Fernandes, the QPR owner, is also rich. But he is merely very rich rather than stinking rich. Forbes estimates his worth at $615 million, so he's not even a billionaire. An annual wage bill somewhere above £60 million, or $93 million, and including, among others, Chris Samba who is on £100,000 a week, will bleed that away quickly on Championship revenues.

Fernandes gambled heavily on keeping QPR in the top division. He must decide to stick or twist. He might have no choice but to bet on QPR bouncing back before the parachute payments for relegated teams run out.

On Sunday Redknapp, who had been agitating for further signings to help him build "his" team, talked of keeping this year's squad. He may have no choice.

Players who know they are being overpaid won't be asking to tear up their QPR contracts. The club may be encumbered with a lot of this year's high-priced failures. The silver lining is that many of them are high-priced failures with ability. All Redknapp needs to do is unlock it.

5.An "E" for effort. It is part of the mantra of the Premier League that all of the players give their all, all of the time. Tell that to the 52,000 who filled St. James Park to see Newcastle lose 6-0 to visiting Liverpool.

Newcastle is mathematically still involved in a relegation battle. In practice, its disappointing season is over. After Daniel Agger put Liverpool ahead after three minutes, Newcastle seemed to feel the game was over. Agger's goal was so soft, though, that maybe the home team had no appetite even before that.

Liverpool, staring life without Luis Suárez, dazzled. Philippe Coutinho, yanked at halftime against Chelsea last week, was brilliant. Jordan Henderson suddenly turned into a deadly finisher. Fabio Borini, who has missed much of the season with a broken foot, even came on and scored. Of course, if you are allowed as much time and space as you want, it's much easier to play.

Nothing summed up Newcastle's attitude better than Mathieu Debuchy's reaction to Borini's goal, which put Liverpool five up. The French fullback had received a yellow card in the first half. Almost immediately after the kick off, he fouled Borini. The referee, Andre Marriner, awarded only a free kick. The ball went straight to Coutinho. Debuchy bundled him over. When Coutinho bounced up and collected the ball, Marriner allowed play to go on for the few seconds it took Debuchy to pile in with both feet. The message was clear. Marriner obliged and pulled out the red card. The remaining Newcastle players then stood around and watched as Henderson's free kick sailed gently into the net to complete the scoring.

"It's a sick feeling," said one Newcastle player, Steven Taylor. "It feels like a family member has died." For Newcastle fans it was an even less familiar sensation. This was Newcastle's worst home defeat since 1925.

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