Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
If Newcastle 1-3 Manchester City sounds conclusive, don't be fooled: this was a real contest. It hadn't promised much when Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul played a weak pass toward Joey Barton in the second minute, only to see it intercepted by Carlos Tevez and rolled across to Gareth Barry, who knocked it past Krul with his first touch. After Cheik Tiote's aimless pass found its way into the Newcastle net via Tevez and James Milner a few minutes later, shivering spectators could have been forgiven for heading home.
Yet Newcastle drew on impressive reserves of bouncebackability -- Tiote had his work cut out for him against Yaya Toure (whose snood seems to get a little bigger with every game), but it was the home side that threw most punches. After Newcastle manager Alan Pardew switched to 4-4-2, bringing on Nile Ranger after an hour, his side finally landed one through Andy Carroll. Carroll's continual harassment of City's defense won't have escaped Roberto Mancini -- the City manager is apparently keen to sign him.
There were 18 minutes left to play when Carroll halved the deficit and City didn't look sure of itself. The odds on Newcastle bagging an equalizer shortened dramatically -- but not long after Kevin Nolan poked a shot just outside of the post, the visitors secured the win when Tevez's shot ricocheted off not one but two defenders and past Krul. If they say you need a generous portion of luck to challenge for the title, the signs are good for second-placed City. Tevez even cracked a smile.
The second of Tottenham's two goals against Aston Villa (in a 2-1 win) started with a nonchalant flick by Rafael van der Vaart out to Gareth Bale on the right. The winger galloped forward, carving a path toward the D, then slid the ball across to Aaron Lennon, on the left. Ignoring his own desire to plant the ball into Row X, Lennon rolled the ball across for van der Vaart -- who'd made up 50 yards since starting the move -- to put the ball into the far bottom corner with a firm sweep of his left boot. Spurs' movement made winning with 10 men (Jermain Defoe was harshly sent off after half an hour) look straightforward.
Van der Vaart had an excellent game, but for sheer surprise factor we must highlight Carlton Cole's performance in West Ham's 3-1 win over Fulham. Cole had dropped down the pecking order at Upton Park after some labored appearances that suggested whatever has happened to Emile Heskey is catching, but Christmas appears to have had a Geppetto effect. Gone was the wooden, lumbering penalty box roam, replaced by unpredictable -- almost excitable -- movement and uncharacteristically slick finishing. His two goals represent the first brace he's ever scored in the Premier League. Even better, they pulled West Ham off the bottom of the table.
The partnership of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov is (for the opposition at least) scarily good. Rooney might still be seeking a goal but together they're finding a real groove -- Ryan Giggs was quick to credit the pair for the ease with which Manchester United cast Sunderland aside 2-0. But Giggs himself had a lot to do with United's neatness in possession and its early incisiveness. Within the first 20 minutes or so he had started the move for Berbatov's first, played the Bulgarian in again with a terrific pass, and tested Craig Gordon' reflexes himself. Not too bad for a 37-year-old midfielder making his first league start since the middle of October.
There was stiff competition for Boxing Day's worst miss -- Stoke's Matthew Etherington managed to sidefoot the ball right across the goal line from less than a yard out, and Andrew Johnson's scuffed shot summed up Fulham's luck having gone a goal up against West Ham. But West Bromwich Albion's Peter Odemwingie was a repeat offender -- at one point shaping up to slam the ball home from close range but somehow managing to send the ball straight out, six yards wide of goal -- as the Baggies contrived to lose 2-0 to Bolton despite plentiful chances.
Mick McCarthy took charge of his 500th league game as a manager yesterday, but watched his side struggle once again to recover after going a goal down. He had his habitual moan about "non-decisions" (Wolves probably should have had at least one penalty, when Wigan's Steve Gohouri hauled Stephen Ward down) but admitted that his team simply wasn't up to fighting back from 2-0 down. Will McCarthy see in 600 at Wolves?
Wigan's Ali Al-Habsi made a terrific save with his feet to stop Wolves feeling their way back into the match, and the woodwork made sure Sunderland conceded only a respectable two to Manchester United, but Brad Friedel deserves a nod for his fingertips save -- the very tips of his fingertips -- from Wilson Palacios. Aston Villa struggled, before halftime, to wrest the ball from Spurs and Friedel's full-stretch nudge kept his team in the game.
#fancy dress -- it wouldn't be Christmas without a few costumes in the stands. Most went for a seasonal Santa suit, though there was a big bunch of bananas supporting Wigan.
Manchester United is only the seventh team to reach this point of the season unbeaten -- and only one of the previous six didn't go on to win the title. It beat Sunderland with plenty to spare yesterday, heaping the pressure on Chelsea (six points behind) and Arsenal (five), which meet today.