Publish date:

United resilient against Bolton; Almunia blunder costs Arsenal

1. True Grit. The old man in the stands looked on impassively as things went from bad to worse for his team. Manchester United had been struggling for 78 minutes to impose itself on Bolton, the sort of midtable team that for so long has been flicked aside at Old Trafford. Suddenly it would have to do so with just 10 men. Jonny Evans, recalled because of a string of injuries to United defenders, lungedinto Stuart Holden with a tackle that opened a nasty gash on the midfielder's leg. Holden, who suffered a broken leg in March last year playing for the United States against the Netherlands, was carried off. Evans was sent off. Evans will be banned for at least three games. High above the action, Alex Ferguson, serving a ban of his own for criticizing referees, simply reached for his telephone. United played on with just one central defender. It was almost punished. Matt Taylor, the man who had replaced Holden, found himself unmarked in front of goal. He headed his chance straight at Edwin Van der Saar. Somehow, United seized the initiative. In the 88th minute, Nani shot straight at Jussi Jaaskelainen. The Bolton goalkeeper parried the ball into the path of Dimitar Berbatov who scuffed it into the back of the net for the winner.

Maybe United was simply more desperate than midtable Bolton. Perhaps the long years of success have bread a belief that Bolton lacks. Perhaps the United players were terrified of the old man in the stands talking with deceptive calm into his phone.

2. Dropped points. Arsenal was already 1-0 down at West Bromwich when Manuel Almunia came charging out to meet a long ball apparently not noticing that one of his center backs, Sebastien Squillaci was charging back. At the last moment, the two Arsenal men saw each other. Both stopped. The ball broke to Peter Odemwingie, the West Brom striker, who rolled it into the empty net . At the end of February, a similar confusion between Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal's goalie that day, and Laurent Koscielny presented Birmingham City with victory in the League Cup final. Since then, Arsenal's season has begun to unravel. It was knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona and out of the FA Cup by Manchester United. Yet it started Saturday just three points behind United in the league, with a game in hand and a home game against the leader on May 1.

Where United has been losing center backs, Arsenal has suffered a bad run of injuries at goalkeeper. Szczesny suffered a dislocated finger against Barcelona. With two other keepers, Vito Mannone and Lukasz Fabianski, both injured, Arsenal turned to Jens Lehmann, who is 41 and was available because he did not have a club. Lehmann spent five seasons at Arsenal. He was part of the ''Invincibles'' team that won the league in 2004, Arsenal's last league title. But he lost his place for a while to Almunia the next season and left in 2008 after the Spaniard appeared to have permanently supplanted him in Arsène Wenger's affections.

After Almunia's error on Saturday the camera panned to Lehmann, who appeared to be working hard to remain stone-faced at the back of the bench.

Like United, Arsenal showed character. It struck back with goals by Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie. But could only salvage a 2-2 draw. Two goalkeeping errors, one at Old Trafford, and one at the Hawthorns, combined to give United a four-point boost in the title race.

3. Goal-shy. With the two teams immediately above it, Chelsea and Manchester City, meeting Sunday, Tottenham had a chance to make up some ground in the three-team race to fill the last two Champions League places. Yet Tottenham's mini-slump continued. It drew 0-0 at home to West Ham. That was the third straight league match in which it has failed to beat a team near the foot of the table. One problem in that little run has been an inability to take its chances. On Saturday it had 23 shots, including three that struck the woodwork.

The worst culprit was Jermain Defoe. He had scored his first two Premier League goals of the season in the previous match at Wolves in a style that suggested he had rediscovered the rocket in his right foot. But he hit the post from close range near the end of that match. A goal then would have sealed victory, completed his hat trick and would have been his 100th for Spurs and his 100th in the Premier League.

On Saturday, he had an early chance to complete those centuries, when Aaron Lennon's shot struck the post and bounced to Defoe a yard out. He missed. In the second half he hit another close-range chance too close to Robert Green and hit a couple of other chances over. After the game, Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, said Defoe might have been distracted by the death of a grandparent the night before.

SI Recommends

"Jermain was up half the night due to a family bereavement," Redknapp said. "I wasn't sure whether to play him but he wanted to.''

Yet Redknapp left Defoe on for the full 90 minutes, maybe because none of other starting 11 looked capable of scoring either.

4. The relegation tension mounts. The already tight battle to stay out of the bottom three places grew even tauter on Saturday. Only three points separate the bottom eight teams after a day on which only two of them, the two Birmingham clubs, lost.

Birmingham City fell, 2-1, at last-place Wigan when Maynor Figueroa scored for the home team two minutes into added time at the end of the game. That defeat dropped Birmingham to 19th, only one point ahead of Wigan, which had appeared to be losing contact .

At Blackburn, David Hoilett scored three minutes into added time to give the home team a 2-2 draw with Blackpool. That goal was worth four places in the standings to Blackburn, which stayed 13th instead of dropping to 17th . It is ahead of three other clubs, including Blackpool, on goal difference.

West Ham's winter spree seems have paid quick dividends. It rode its luck at Spurs, but it confirmed that it has, with surprising rapidity, transformed itself from a shambles into a team with the help of he recent additions -- Demba Ba, Gary O'Neal and Wayne Bridge -- and the finally-fit Thomas Hitzlsperger.

Wolves, another team that looked out of its depth, is beginning to find some consistent form. Matt Jarvis scored the only goal as Wolves won at its local rival, Aston Villa, for the first time in 31 years. Wolves stayed in the bottom three, but is within one point of the five teams above it, including Villa who after three straight losses, appear to have become the out-of-form team at just the wrong moment.

This brawl has a long way to go yet.

5. Lost in the middle. With five teams slugging it out for the various prizes on offer at the top and eight embroiled in the battle at the bottom, it was tough to find a match that had no immediate bearing on either end of the table. But there were two. Stoke thrashed Newcastle, 4-0, and, as luck would have it, the evening televised game pitted 10th placed Everton against 12th place Fulham. Everton won, 2-1, to climb a place in the standings. Clint Dempsey scored Fulham's goal. It was his 10th of the season, the American's best single-season tally in England. Louis Saha scored one of Everton's goal, Seamus Coleman, a 5-foot-10 fullback, scored the other as Everton again showed its knack for engineering heading chances for shorter players.

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