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Arsenal rues dubious calls against Sunderland; City show tired legs


Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:

1. The price of success. Manchester City's huge expenditure on players has begun to pay dividends. Just count the games: a Premier League game last Sunday, an FA Cup game on Wednesday, another Premier League game Saturday, off to frozen Kiev for a Europa League game Thursday, another FA Cup game next Sunday, Kiev at home on the Thursday and Chelsea in the Premier League three days later.

Roberto Mancini, the manager, who needs to win, and keep winning, to retain his job, is not entirely happy. "It is impossible to play every three days,'' he said. On Saturday, City won 1-0, but seemed to be trying to beat Wigan without actually running. Kolo Touré, who is suspended pending a hearing after a positive drug test last week, watched from the stands. The player says he took dietary supplement being used by his wife, a well-tried excuse that suggests that the drug is a stimulant. Perhaps these things -- the manager's attitude, the team's play, Touré's misfortune -- are in some way related?

City showed flashes of menace in the first half Saturday. But it needed help to take the lead. Ali Al Habsi, the Wigan goalie, made the basic error of not kneeling to take a low straight shot from David Silva. The ball squirmed through his hands and between his legs to give City the lead after 38 minutes. After that, City seemed to go into energy-saving mode and handed the bottom team in the Premier league the initiative. Antolín Alcaraz hit the post. James McCarthy forced a flashy flying save from Joe Hart and Conor Sammon, who came on for his Premier League debut in the 84th minute, narrowly missed scoring the equalizer.

So City tightens its grip on third place. It got away with playing like a team that it believes it is tired. But it's a risky approach.

2. Arsenal's missed chance. Boos rang round the Emirates as Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, stalked furiously into the player tunnel, and his bemused players shook hands with their happy opponents. An up-and-down week for Arsenal had ended in a disappointing 0-0 draw with Sunderland. Last Sunday, Arsenal missed its first chance this season to end its six-year drought when it lost, 2-1, to lowly Birmingham in the final of the normally trivial League Cup. On Wednesday, it rebounded, crushing even lowlier Leyton Orient in an FA Cup replay. In between, the team it is chasing at the top of the Premier League, Manchester United, lost to Chelsea. On Saturday, Arsenal had a chance to cut the gap to just one point, and it blew it.

Striker Robin van Persie's knee injury last Sunday, means Arsenal is without its best attacker, its best defender, Thomas Vermaelen, who has been out since September, and its best midfielder, Cesc Fabregas, who is suffering one of those mystifying short-term injuries where the return date seems always to be a week or so away.

The Gunners took a while to get going, but as the desperation level in the second half, besieged the Sunderland goal. Again and again, Arsenal players shot straight at Simon Mignolet, the Sunderland goalie, though Marouane Chamakh added some variety by heading against the bar. Andrey Arshavin did put the ball in the net, but the flag was already up for offside. Arsenal also believed it should have had a penalty for a challenge by Titus Bramble on Arshavin.

Asked about the decisions by the BBC after the game, Wenger, a tetchy loser, said: "I'm too disgusted to talk about it, frankly.''

Yet Sunderland, which had lost its last four games, had not come simply to defend. It could have won near the end when Wojciech Szczesny, the Arsenal goalie, got desperate, clawing fingertips to a shot by Danny Welbeck.

Arsenal remains second in the league, within striking distance of United. It leads Barcelona in their Champions League matchup and it is in the quarterfinals of the cup. Still the fans booed.

3. Hangover blues. Maybe Arsenal was suffering a hangover Saturday from its League Cup disappointment six days earlier. It certainly looked as its conqueror, Birmingham City was in a 3-1 loss to West Brom.

Birmingham, which suffered a slew of injuries in the League Cup final, made five changes for its home game against its local rival. But the new players were just as lackluster as those who had helped the Blues win their first trophy since 1963.

"A bit flat," Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, told the BBC.

Birmingham, which is also in the last eight in the FA Cup, has won more games in cups this season than in the league. The defeat dropped it into the bottom three.

West Brom dominated the second half. It had one brief blip, allowing Jean Beausejour for Birmingham to level less than 60 seconds after Youssouf Mulumbu's opening goal. But James Morrison quickly restored the lead. Paul Scharner added a third.

The victory propelled the Baggies up to 16th place. They have not lost in the league since the unpopular firing of Roberto di Matteo at the start of February, although, until Saturday, it had not won either -- drawing three straight. Maybe Roy Hodgson is instilling some steel into the worst defense in the Premier League, but Birmingham was poor and, in any case, has the lowest-scoring attack. But the victory does improve Hodgson's dismal away record: he had coached only one road league victory in his previous 29 games at Fulham, Liverpool and West Brom.

4. Seeing yellow. A small thrill of excitement ran through the soccer blogosphere when Birmingham's veteran midfielder Lee Bowyer received a yellow card for an innocuous challenge against West Brom. Some statistical sites had clicked Bowyer's Premier-League yellow-card count up to 100. Turns out that Bowyer has only 99. Still he has a comfortable lead on Kevin Davies, the Bolton striker who is on 92. Third, among active players, is Paul Scholes, on 88.

Part of Bowyer's achievement is simply down to longevity. He is 34 and has played 388 Premier League matches -- but that is only 23rd on the all-time list. He has made up ground on those who have had more opportunities with a special cocktail of personality traits -- untamed competitiveness, anger management issues and an apparent total lack of concern about the well-being of others -- that, off the field, has also brought him into contact with the police on more than one occasion. He seems to have calmed down a bit. He has just five yellows this season. Even so, it's difficult to imagine that he won't make the overeager statisticians happy and pass this milestone by the end of the season. When he does we might say that it couldn't happen to a nicer bloke. Then again, maybe not.

5. Whoops. Aston Villa fans, particularly those who made the trip to Manchester on Wednesday night, were furious when their club's manager, Gerard Houllier, rested eight starters and fielded a weakened team against City in the FA Cup. Villa lost, 3-0. Houllier apologized to fans saying he should have warned them, in advance. But he said his team couldn't have beaten City -- an attitude guaranteed to infuriate fans who always travel in hope. The manager might have earned some measure of forgiveness if his rested starters had won at Bolton on Saturday. Villa already led, 2-1, when Ashley Young took a penalty kick in the second half, but Jussi Jaaskelainen, something of a specialist in these things, saved. Gary Cahill, a Bolton defender leveled, before Ivan Klasnic won the game for the home team with four minutes left. The victory pushed Bolton back up to sixth. It left Villa only three points ahead of the relegation places and its traveling fans facing another journey home with a bad taste in their mouths and the manager's name on their lips.

Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.