Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
This wasn't a bad weekend to watch Premier League soccer, from Sunderland's controversy-laden 2-0 victory against Stoke, to the lively 2-2 draw between Blackpool and Everton, to Arsenal's 1-0 loss to Newcastle at the Emirates.
But Anfield hosted the most absorbing 90 minutes of play. Liverpool started Sunday at 11/4 to beat the reigning champion -- the longest odds on a home win in the 18-year history of the Premier League - but played as well as it has for quite some time, with Chelsea correspondingly anemic. The role reversal was compelling as Liverpool reached halftime leading 2-0 -- a score that would hold up as Chelsea lost for only the second time in 11 matches this season.
Fernando Torres, perkier than we've seen him since before the World Cup and fed by excellent forward play from Dirk Kuyt and Raul Meireles, scored both. The first heralded the return of that penalty area deadliness everyone knows and fears, and the second -- a beautifully flighted curler from the left of the area -- showed his confidence and vision. The future must feel so much brighter on Merseyside for that performance.
Liverpool sat deeper in the second half, opting to defend the lead and only occasionally attempt to add to it, but this didn't feel like a case of survival: Chelsea just wasn't with it. There was little creativity in midfield and the combination of Salomon Kalou and Nicolas Anelka took a while to really exercise Pepe Reina. When Jamie Carragher somehow got between second-half substitute Didier Drogba and an easy tap-in, the striker could only pound his opponent's back before helping him up, frustrated and impressed in equal measure.
Tempting as it is to select the rejuvenated Torres or another of the two-goal heroes -- Kevin Davies (Bolton), Park Ji-sung (Manchester United) and Asamoah Gyan (making his first Premier League start for Sunderland) -- the pick is Newcastle's Cheik Tiote, who had Cesc Fabregas in his pocket throughout Sunday's match.
The Ivorian -- who cost United less than $6 million from FC Twente over the summer -- commanded the central channel, winning virtually every tackle and completing 98 percent of his passes. He shielded a defense that coped admirably with the intermittent threat from Arsenal and helped to knit together forward moves with surges over the halfway line. More than a handful of Newcastle's players could have picked up Man of the Match honors, but Tiote was the key to frustrating Arsenal.
It seems unfair that either William Gallas or Benoit Assou-Ekotto of Tottenham should be excused this ignominy, but they were at least consistently poor against Owen Coyle's superb Bolton side. Mario Balotelli made the bigger goat of himself. He scored a first-half brace against West Brom that eased Manchester City's anxieties, but then got sent off in the second half to demonstrate exactly why Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho had warned that he "sometimes does not know how to use his brain."
Balotelli's performance, following his two strikes, was marked by ludicrous dives, temper tantrums, dissent and then a pointless swipe at Youssouf Mulumbu that will force him to miss Wednesday's Manchester derby unless City's appeal to the FA is successful.
Even amid the fanfare for Torres, the Liverpool trio of Kuyt, Meireles and Lucas Leiva received due credit for its industry in the middle of the pitch. No such luck for Stuart Holden, whose contribution to Bolton's 4-2 victory against Tottenham seems to have dipped under the radar. There's nothing spectacular about Holden, and he was rarely a threat going forward. But he mopped up defensively and allowed Luka Modric very little space to create. It was Holden's challenge that dispossessed Gallas as Spurs seemed about to score a late equalizer.
Roman Pavlyuchenko's cool left-foot volley for Spurs was perfectly taken as it dropped out of the sky, and Morten Gamst Pedersen's 58th-minute free kick for Blackburn wasn't bad either.
Tim Krul's one-handed, diving save from Samir Nasri's fierce drive just moments before Newcastle took the lead was as crucial as it was impressive. Krul, making only his seventh Premier League start, looked comfortable in his area, even if he did have the bar to thank for keeping out a couple of other Arsenal efforts.
Owen Hargreaves played a single minute of soccer last season, and made it only five minutes into his debut this season -- Manchester United's characteristically fortunate win over Wolves on Saturday -- before pulling up clutching his hamstring. Hargreaves has cost United $1 million per appearance since signing from Bayern Munich, and there have been suggestions that his anxiety at finally playing may have contributed to the injury -- not good news for someone whose contract is up at the end of the season.
#goalsthatneverwere -- Stoke, among other injustices of the referee's whistle, was denied an equalizer when Sunderland's Lee Cattermole met a Kenwyne Jones header with his arm on the goal line; Blackpool's Marlon Harewood had what would have been a winning goal against Everton chalked off for an invisible infringement; and Wigan was unhappy that Charles N'Zogbia had a goal disallowed for a minimal brush with Blackburn's Pedersen in the build-up.
No manager of an unfathomably wealthy club can rest too easily, but Roberto Mancini has had a particularly uncomfortable few weeks at Manchester City, which barely escaped Blackpool, fell to Wolves and Arsenal and lost to Polish club Lech Poznan 3-1 in the Europa League. He did everything right Sunday, however, even if the return of Carlos Tevez accounted for a fair proportion of City's improvement. If Mancini is brave enough to welcome a depleted Manchester United on Wednesday in a similar formation (eschewing his previously preferred trio of defensive midfielders), he'll be firmly back in fans' good graces.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy was forced, once again, to watch his side perform like victors -- particularly after he threw on Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Steven Fletcher -- but emerge with nothing thanks to a stoppage-time game-winner from Manchester United's Park. Fashioning so impressive a Wolves side and getting no reward is sticking in McCarthy's craw.
"It's going to taste like vinegar," he said, contemplating Sir Alex Ferguson's traditional postmatch tipple.
Everton's Tim Cahill reached 50 Premier League goals with his 13th-minute equalizer against Blackpool. He's scored 28, including Saturday's, with his head.
A few minutes into Birmingham's draw with West Ham, two of the in-pitch sprinklers popped up and drenched everyone before disappearing underground again. It was the most exciting moment of the first half, though the second made up for it with four goals and a Birmingham comeback that resulted in a 2-2 draw.