EPL race tightens; time to celebrate

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Thanks to Wayne Rooney's hat trick at Portsmouth, Manchester United managed to hang onto the coattails of league leader Chelsea, putting the pressure on Carlo Ancelotti's side ahead of its tricky away trip to Emirates Stadium.

As it happened, Chelsea came away from North London five points clear at the EPL summit after out-muscling its London rival. The Blues combined their physical and direct approach with the quick one-touch passing and moving game in which Arsenal excels. The Gunners, by contrast, lacked penetration, with top scorer Robin van Persie, Abou Diaby and Nicklas Bendtner all out injured. Left looking lightweight, Arsenal crashed to a 3-0 defeat.

That result followed Arsenal's 1-0 defeat at Sunderland the previous weekend, and leaves it with what appears to be an insurmountable 11-point deficit to table-topping Chelsea. However, Arsène Wenger is confident his side is still in the race.

"We are still in a very strong position," he said after the Chelsea loss. "Chelsea can drop points, I am convinced of that."

Yes, Arsenal has a game in hand, but even assuming it wins that, an eight-point gap in December is surely too hefty to bridge in chasing a team of Chelsea's undoubted qualities.

In its present position, the continued pursuit of Chelsea isn't the only thing on which Wenger should be focusing. His side's two consecutive defeats and other results last weekend means the Frenchman should be taking a good look in his rearview mirror at the peloton of teams bearing down on the remaining Champions League qualification places.

The Gunners find themselves amongst a posse of seven teams -- from third-place Tottenham Hotspur to ninth-place Stoke City -- that are separated by only six points. Archrival Spurs are ahead of Arsenal by a point, and were brought crashing back to the real world after their 9-1 mauling of Wigan Athletic with a 1-1 draw against sixth-place Aston Villa.

Liverpool, and in particular beleaguered boss Rafa Benítez, spent the week leading up to Sunday's Merseyside derby being barracked by the press after a disappointing run of results in the EPL and last week's elimination from the Champions League. But Liverpool's fortunate 2-0 win over city rival Everton has taken it from a club portrayed as being in apparent disarray by some quarters of the media to within two points of fourth place.

There are some hugely important "six-pointers" to look out for over the next month that will shape the final standings amongst this group of teams, most notably Arsenal at Liverpool on Dec. 13, Manchester City at Tottenham on Dec. 16 and Liverpool at Aston Villa on Dec. 29.

In its upcoming fixtures, Man. City will hope to end the sequence of draws that has stalled its early-season charge toward the top of the table. The Citizens will not be ecstatic to know they now hold the record for the most successive number of draws -- their 1-1 stalemate with Hull City was their seventh straight.

The celebrations that followed Jimmy Bullard's 82nd-minute penalty equalizer for Hull at Man. City were legendary. From an idea spawned by Irish defender Paul McShane, the Hull players formed a plan over the pregame dinner that they would mimic manager Phil Brown's excoriating speech delivered to his troops on the same field last season at halftime in a blowout loss to City.

"Whoever scored an equalizer or winning goal had to be the one who did the pointing," Bullard told the BBC; the other players would sit in a circle around the finger-wagging Brown impersonator. (Click here to see it, and the original on which it was based.)

Brown's outrage in December last year was thanks to Hull conceding four first-half goals in a match symptomatic of the team's accelerating decline in form. The Tigers continued to slump from that point and only avoided relegation when Newcastle lost its final game of the season. But that incident was a seminal piece of criteria in analyzing Hull's fall, much of it centering on Brown's eccentricities.

Times are happier on Humberside now. Hull's point at City last Saturday was its eighth in its last four games. "It was a fantastic celebration," Brown told the BBC. "Great comedy is about timing. I couldn't deliver my postmatch speech as I was laughing so much. The whole thing was timed to perfection."

Indeed, we reckon that Bullard's jest makes the all-time top five most sensational EPL goal celebrations. In no particular order, here are the four others:

Robbie Fowler: Liverpool vs. Everton, 1998-99Fowler's controversial line-snorting celebration in the Merseyside derby saw him receive a club fine of $140,000 and an English FA-imposed four-match ban. When his penalty leveled the game at 1-1, Fowler, who had repeatedly denied much intrusive speculation about social drug-taking, got down on all fours and simulated snorting the byline in front of the Everton fans. Hilariously, Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier, instead of going for the obvious ploy of arguing Fowler was responding to unwarranted narcotics-related taunting from the Everton fans, claimed it was a grass-eating celebration introduced to Fowler by Cameroonian defender Rigobert Song.

Jürgen Klinsmann: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Tottenham Hotspur, 1994-95Klinsmann arrived at White Hart Lane with a reputation for diving, and self-deprecatingly poked fun at it on his debut when, against Sheffield Wednesday, he celebrated scoring a superb header with a diving celebration that was to become his trademark in England.

Gary Neville: Manchester United vs. Liverpool, 2005-06Man. City's Emmanuel Adebayor made headlines recently when he ran the length of the field to celebrate scoring against his former club, Arsenal, in front of its fans. Adebayor's motive was to avenge the booing he'd received from the Arsenal fans who, thinking him unfaithful and lazy, had turned on him the previous season. The Adebayor celebration came close to starting a riot, and would earn a place in our list of sensations were it not for the antics of Neville.

Just look at the maniacal passion and delight Neville exhibited when he ran the length of the pitch to celebrate uncontrollably in front of Liverpool fans after RioFerdinand's late winner at Old Trafford. You couldn't script something so brilliantly uncool. Plus, Adebayor's selfish aim of seeking revenge for personal upset is surely trumped by Neville, a lifelong United fan, whose actions were driven only by his deep-seeded loathing of near neighbor and archrival Liverpool. Greater Manchester Police told the FA it believed his behavior had contributed to public disorder after the match, leading to an improper conduct charge and a £5,000 fine.

Temuri Ketsbaia: Newcastle United vs. Bolton Wanderers, 1997-98Bullard and Klinsmann set out to amuse, Fowler to cause controversy and Neville to inflame, but what was Ketsbaia's reason for attacking the field-level advertising after his late goal against Bolton? Was he really so angry about being named as a sub that day? Or was it frustration at not being able to remove his boot? Whatever his motive, it worked -- a reputation for being madder than a box of frogs endeared Ketsbaia to the Toon Army.

Last time around, we set out the arguments for not adopting an American-style playoff system to decide who wins the EPL. We contended the league should be won by the best team across all 38 games, and that there's no reason why a team that finishes eighth in the league could have a chance of being league "champion."

John Hurley, a self-proclaimed Paul Scholes look-alike, agrees with us, but says the reason for the playoff system in the U.S. comes down to the greenbacks. "I feel like Americans like the playoff system as it holds out hope for more teams so that their fans watch more games and therefore it brings in more [money]," Hurley writes. "It's all about the Benjamins over here; the fans tend to be fickle."

Fire over your thoughts on the way the top of the EPL is panning out and any other tidbits of banter to the usual address: thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.