Chicharito sparks United; Arsenal sends a message with win over City

Publish date:

1. "Little Pea" keeps United in the hunt -- It's not often that a slim victory over Stoke City can be described as an important result for Manchester United, particularly so early in the season. "Routine" would be a more typical description, but having drawn its last four away matches (and been pegged back to 1-1 by Tuncay's delicious 81st-minute strike), United's 2-1 win bucked a trend.

And it ensured that United finished the weekend rubbing shoulders with Arsenal and Manchester City, rather than Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion, in the Premier League table. After a week in which Wayne Rooney's contract negotiations left all concerned looking grubby, the caliber of the company was important.

"Hopefully we can now kick on," said Sir Alex Ferguson, having to brush off his Middling Managers' Phrasebook. Stoke was not considerably outplayed, and United's defense was aided by the reluctance of referee Andre Marriner to show Gary Neville a deserved second yellow card in the first half.

But the result keeps United "only" five points behind Chelsea and saw Javier Hernandez, one of the acquisitions Rooney seemed to have questioned in his outrageous brinkmanship, score twice. The first -- a ball that he maneuvered to send home with the back of his head -- suggested the club's cheap and cheerful striker, known as Little Pea, could be the one to watch this season.

2. Winning the default setting for Chelsea -- It's a cliché so tired it could barely get out of bed this morning, but if winning without sparkling is the habit of champions, Chelsea looks in perfect form to retain its title after a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers. In place of the vim, the zip, even the usual bullishness of the Blues' play was the steady hum of a machine programmed to win.

Wolves, whose fans would have considered this a nothing-to-lose jaunt to the capital, played a neat passing game that produced twice as many shots on target as the home side (10-5). The same performance by Mick McCarthy's men will win them games against less clinical sides this season.

But it didn't cause too many jitters in the Blues' contingent, even before Salomon Kalou added a second Chelsea goal inside the last 10 minutes. Though Carlo Ancelotti's men have become the Premier League's great entertainers, they showed they could still get the job done with just the occasional flash of star quality.

Several of those came from Jose Bosingwa. Back in the side after a year out with knee ligament damage, Bosingwa instantly mirrored Ashley Cole's pacey jaunts down the wing. And of course it helps when your defense of John Terry and chums is so stingy. Chelsea hasn't conceded a league goal at home since March.

3. The fall and rise of Flappyhandski -- The final kickoff of the weekend promised a tantalizing encounter between two polar opposites, big-spending Manchester City and penny-pinching Arsenal: a chance to test, in the thoroughly unscientific way of a Sunday afternoon, the efficacy of both approaches.

Then City's Dedryck Boyata went and got himself sent off five minutes in, filling any conclusions drawn from Arsenal's 3-0 win with ifs, buts and maybes. Particularly for City: All we can really say is that it went down fighting. (By comparison, Eredivisie club Feyenoord went down to 10 men with less than an hour to play against PSV over the weekend and ended up losing 10-0.)

Such is the Gunners' reputation for featherweight soccer that it was tempting to think that even with an extra man, they might succumb to the determination of Carlos Tevez or at least fail to puncture City's defensive lineup. Cesc Fabregas was over-exuberant in his postgame claim that "even if [City] were 15 and we were 11 we would still have won," but Arsenal played an accomplished game and Samir Nasri continued his impressive form.

The north Londoners -- now second in the table ahead of United on goal difference -- deserved to win, but perhaps the most conclusive statement to be made is that Arsene Wenger was on to something when he backed Lukasz Fabianski in goal.

The keeper, usually known as "Flappyhandski," produced four great saves. The first two were especially crucial, keeping David Silva out in the opening minutes of the match and then again with the score at 1-0. If the 3-0 score line flatters Arsenal at all, it has Fabianski's first clean sheet of the season to thank.

4. Torres ends torrid spell -- Fernando Torres on Sunday scored his first league goal since August, and it won Liverpool three valuable points against Blackburn even if it didn't quite get the club out of the relegation zone. It had a lot to do with Rovers' defensive ineptitude, and Roy Hodgson was sensible enough to state that one good performance does not mean "everything is suddenly hunky-dory." But that old lethal twinkle looked to be back in the Spaniard's eyes.

5. Crouch floored -- There were a number of questionable refereeing decisions in Everton's 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, not least the one that earned the free kick that Leighton Baines flighted into the top corner as if his shirt said Leightinho: Ayegbeni Yakubu's tumble looked to have been caused by the tickle of Younes Kaboul's breath on the back of his neck.

But most disconcerting for Spurs fans, in the long term, is the difficulty Peter Crouch -- manager Harry Redknapp's first pick to play in front of Rafael van der Vaart -- has in getting the referee's whistle. Referee Mike Jones halted play for several low-impact comings-together outside of the box but shook his head on both occasions that Crouch found himself sandwiched between two Everton players and dumped on his backside inside the box.

Crouch's gangly awkwardness makes it easy to believe that he'd be felled by lighter touches than Phil Neville's first-half shove, which propelled the striker in to the back of Phil Jagielka and on to the ground. If he's not going to get those decisions (and Spurs would have a penalty every week if he did), then Crouch needs to come up with something more to beat defenses.

On the two occasions that he evaded the well-marshaled attentions of Everton's back line, he put a header straight into Tim Howard's arms and poked a weak shot at him from the edge of the area. Robbie Keane, who spent his third successive league match watching from the bench, may not set up van der Vaart so frequently, but he knows how to lash a shot if given the chance.

6. Sharing the burden -- When manager Steve Bruce said he needed to find a way to take the burden off Darren Bent (who has scored five of Sunderland's eight goals this season and bagged half of all its league goals last season), getting the opposition to put the ball into the back of the net probably wasn't what he had in mind. But Richard Dunne obliged to consign Aston Villa to an unlucky defeat with his eighth career own goal. No one has scored more own goals in the Premier League era.

7. Hammers in trouble -- "We didn't press well, we gave them too much space to play, we didn't pass the ball well, we gave away almost every ball and the movement was not so good," said West Ham manager Avram Grant, who struggled to find anything nice to say about his side's performance after a promising opening spell against Newcastle gave way to a master class in submission. A 2-1 defeat left West Ham rooted to the bottom of the table with the worst goal difference in the league.

Despite the quiet tick-tock of the Scott Parker-Mark Noble combination in midfield, West Ham's forward passing was susceptible to navigational problems and interception by Newcastle players always on their toes. Its defensive play was no better organized.

Not for the first time this season, Newcastle's Joey Barton ran the game from midfield. His mustache appears to be regrowing, as are the first green shoots of a positive reputation. He had acres of space on the right to put in the finest cross of the weekend -- a first-time ball that whipped around the first defender and then back on to Andy Carroll's forehead with forensic precision.

8. And finally -- Fulham unveiled a new third kit against West Brom on Saturday, designed to mark its 10th consecutive season in the top flight. Fulham had yet to win away this season and the dark green kit, somehow more reminiscent of full nappies than olives, didn't help. The Baggies won 2-1 to leave Fulham on the brink of the drop zone.