Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Premier League:
1. Northwest fortunes -- There must be a few smug-looking Manchester City fans around today. It hadn't seemed credible that the hundreds of millions spent since Sheik Mansour's arrival would produce a title challenge so soon, but it was the moneyed men of Eastlands who closed the gap on Chelsea over the weekend while others in the northwest sputtered (Manchester United) and croaked (Liverpool).
City enjoyed a fair slice of fortune in establishing a lead over Blackpool (see below), but once David Silva had replaced Emmanuel Adebayor on 66 minutes, Roberto Mancini's side clicked into gear with such well-oiled slickness that Chelsea will look over its shoulder with some concern.
The distance between the reigning champion and City is down to just two points, but United -- edged by a solitary point last season -- is now five points back, sandwiched between Arsenal and Tottenham, all on 14 points.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team hadn't conceded a two-goal lead at home in 10 years, but West Brom's rally to earn a 2-2 draw means United has lost a two-goal head start twice in the first eight games this season. The Baggies' relentlessness deserves applause, and Edwin van der Sar's nightmarish howler is unlikely to be repeated. But there's still no hiding from the pallor of United's gray performance.
The unfamiliar sound of boos buzzed around Old Trafford after the game, and to cap off the club's woes, Wayne Rooney has reportedly said he won't sign a new contract with his current deal up in 2012. Some have called it posturing for cash, but if it's true he's been offered a club-record £150,000 per week ($238,000), that seems unlikely.
Others have pointed out that in current form, he will hardly be missed. Fair enough, perhaps, but the bigger problem for United is the lack of emerging talent comparable to players like Rooney at his best. Even if Real Madrid was frivolous enough to spend $95 million on the striker, there's little if any guarantee that the cash would find its way into the transfer kitty.
2. And then there's Liverpool -- Sunday's energetic, pulsating Merseyside derby dumped Liverpool in 19th place and on a heck of a comedown after former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett had been chased out of town.
Everton was terrific, starting exactly as expected (though Liverpool's play showed little anticipation), teasing its neighbor down the flanks and, crucially, taking its chances before Liverpool recovered some semblance of composure and started to thread a few passes together.
The Reds were still mediocre rather than marvelous, however. Steven Gerrard played a dangerous ball through Everton's back line with eight minutes left, but that was one of few moments of real quality, and Fernando Torres didn't get on the end of it. The real Joe Cole appears to be hiding out with the real Rooney, leaving a clueless facsimile in his place.
Manager Roy Hodgson's postgame appraisal suggested a rapid reversion to head-in-the-sand tactics.
"I refuse to accept that we were in any way inferior," he said. "The second half was as good as I saw a Liverpool team play under my management."
Hodgson might have been well served by admitting that Liverpool should be better, and able to take the initiative before being two goals down. Instead, that statement may have hammered another nail into his coffin.
3. Even the officials aren't sure about the offside rule -- Time was when understanding the offside rule was what separated the true soccer fans from the fair-weather supporters (or women, as they were popularly known). But its interpretation is fraught in the days of the concept of "interfering with play."
Officials at Craven Cottage initially decided that William Gallas, just offside when Tom Huddlestone drove a shot through a crowded penalty area and beyond Mark Schwarzer, was interfering with play, then decided he wasn't because he hadn't touched the ball. The goal stood, Spurs won, Fulham seethed.
At Bloomfield Road, Blackpool looked to have taken the lead against Manchester City when Gary Taylor-Fletcher lobbed Joe Hart, but had the goal disallowed because Elliot Grandin was offside when Charlie Adam played the ball through. In this instance, neither Blackpool player was even in the penalty box, and Grandin was never likely to reach it.
Gallas was only off by a shoulder when Huddlestone struck the ball, and given that Schwarzer still dived the right way, his interference is arguable. Spurs were reasonable value for their win, but the rule's haziness was especially harsh for Blackpool, seeing as Carlos Tevez then scored his first goal from an offside position and his second after fouling Ian Evatt in the buildup.
"We're getting absolutely bo diddly squat, week in, week out," said Blackpool manager Ian Holloway, who has now orchestrated a good enough start -- 10 points from 24 -- to have eased fears of immediate relegation.
4. Peas in a pod: Heskey and Drogba -- It was hard not to crack a smile when Gerard Houllier likened Aston Villa's Emile Heskey to Chelsea's Didier Drogba last week. Really, Gerard? Really? Heskey's purple patch since the Frenchman arrived was entirely unexpected, and is thus impressive, but that's a rather stretched likeness.
Or is it? The two sides played a goalless draw on Saturday with both players absent through injury or illness. In their respective places, John Carew and Nicolas Anelka looked like men who'd gone hunting with butter knives instead of spears.
There was thrust to both teams' play as Villa enjoyed the better of the first half and Chelsea the second, but the lack of cutting edge was telling. For Villa to look threadbare with a list of absentees almost as long as the team sheet is no real surprise -- but to end up questioning Chelsea's strength in depth is.
5. Manager of the month -- These things are usually handed out for crafting excellence on the pitch, but there really ought to be some recognition for Wolves boss Mick McCarthy, whose tetchy-but-dry humor makes him a postgame must-see.
Fulham midfielder Danny Murphy attracted his ire last week after saying that managers were sending their teams out "so pumped up" that reckless tackles were inevitable, mentioning Wolves specifically.
After Wolves negotiated 90 minutes against West Ham without being shown a single card, McCarthy said: "No yellow cards, and I asked all the lads to go out and knock seven bells out of everybody as well, like I normally do. Shame that, isn't it? They went out and played free-flowing football and were rampant for 45 minutes. What the heck were they playing at?"
6. Arsene Wenger misses a beat -- The Arsenal manager has been at the forefront of this tackling debate, arguing, like Murphy, that certain teams play a certain -- i.e. dirty/reckless -- way. He too has called on managers to encourage their players to master the art of tackling.
In fact, he did so again in the program for Saturday's match against Birmingham City. So when the otherwise excellent Jack Wilshere was sent off for a studs-up challenge on Nikola Zigic (not long after teammate Emmanuel Eboue had been cautioned for a scissor tackle on Liam Ridgewell), he had the perfect opportunity to practice what he preaches.
Instead, he accepted that Wilshere deserved a red card but insisted that it was a mistimed, not a malicious, tackle.
"He did not want to hurt the player," Wenger explained. "He did not spend the whole game trying to kick people."
Questioned by reporters about the Eboue challenge (his program notes had specifically mentioned the danger of scissor tackles), he snapped back: "Write what you want."
It's symptomatic of the siege mentality that has built up at Arsenal, where it's us against the world, and that has its uses on the pitch. Off it, Wenger could have backed up his own arguments by acknowledging that Arsenal players are just as capable of making the odd poor challenge as those directed by other managers -- and that those managers may have a point when they too claim their men meant no harm.
7. Irony has a bigger field day at the Reebok -- Bolton Wanderers won at home for the first time this season, with Ivan Klasnic swiveling with the poise of a ballerina to turn in a 90th-minute winner against Stoke. Oh, the irony: The chance came from a long throw that the Potters -- long-throw specialists -- failed spectacularly to clear.
It's a good time for Bolton to find winning ways on home soil, with the pick-and-mix challenges of Liverpool, Spurs and Newcastle to come in the next few weeks. Having scored, been booked and then sent off in an 11-minute appearance, Klasnic -- who hadn't featured since the opening day of the season -- will miss Bolton's trip to Wigan next weekend.
8. Busy weekend for the woodwork -- But for five inches of reinforced aluminum, the weekend's final scores might have looked much different. Manchester City hit the woodwork three times -- James Milner curled a shot perfectly on to the bar, which also denied Tevez's hat trick, and Silva thwacked the ball against the post shortly before scoring City's third.
Chelsea hit the frame twice as it looked to beat Villa, which also saw a Ciaran Clark header come back off the post. Stoke's Jermaine Pennant flighted a free kick to the top of the crossbar, Frederic Piquionne slammed a fierce shot into Wolves' bar as he sought to put West Ham level, and Rafael van der Vaart set up Roman Pavlyuchenko's goal for Tottenham by chipping the ball over Schwarzer and off the bar.
Note: A mailbag column is coming soon, so send in your questions on the Premier League.