Thoughts on the
The title race is Officially Back On. Arsenal may be an outside bet to cross the line first but cut across Manchester United's path like a stumbling steeplechaser with yesterday's 1-0 win at the Emirates, allowing Chelsea, 2-1 winners over Tottenham Hotspur, to push right up on to United's shoulder as they round the final bend. With a meeting at Old Trafford to come this weekend, the photographers are steadying their lens at the finish.
Before we stretch the race metaphor too far, we should probably move on to explore a few other pertinent points, like: how poor has United's away form been this season? (Answer: uncharacteristically; it hasn't ranked so low on the road in 20 years.) Or the extent to which Alex Song, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, making his first home start since coming back from a broken leg, bettered United's trio of Michael Carrick, Anderson and a deep-lying Wayne Rooney. Or whether Didier Drogba's disappointing performance on the right of Chelsea's front three actually counts as a kind of on-the-job protest. It certainly looked like one.
One of the major things to come out of these two games (and others) was, once again, refereeing. In North London on Sunday, Chris Foy and his assistants failed to spot a deliberate handball by Nemanja Vidic that took Theo Walcott's cross away from Robin van Persie's head, and a penalty area foul on Michael Owen by Gael Clichy. In West London a day earlier, Andre Marriner and his assistant failed to spot Frank Lampard's shot, fumbled by Heurelho Gomes, crossing the line -- because it didn't -- but gave the goal anyway.
What does FIFA mean when it says it's "looking into" goal line technology? And where is it looking -- other planets? Using a Smarties tube instead of a telescope? If there's any dissatisfaction with microchips inside balls, well, we already have cameras that can confirm or deny a goal within seconds. If FIFA's objection is one of principle, then it should just come right out and say it. Though it's not the kind of organization from which "Just because" is likely to be well received.
Blackburn Rovers, hovering precariously over the relegation zone this time last week, has looked to be lacking life at times in the second half of the season, let alone attacking quality. A good time for fullback Martin Olsson, playing on the left of midfield, to turn it on then. We've seen flickers from Olsson before but on Saturday he tormented Bolton's right-hand side from start to finish; every time he cut inside, David Wheater's face offered a visual shriek and he never got close enough to Olsson to prevent the low shot that beat Adam Bogdan after 20 minutes.
Charles N'Zogbia's first touch, having been played in behind the Everton defense by a cute little dink from James McCarthy, was horrible. It encouraged Tim Howard to step off his line and challenge the Wigan forward for the loose ball, and the two collided. N'Zogbia claimed it but stumbled, with his back to goal at a tight angle and the chance seemingly gone: in other words, a Prime Flopping Opportunity. The DW Stadium held its breath, but N'Zogbia got the ball out of his feet, rounded back toward goal -- still from an angle that favored the keeper -- sent it in to the far side of the net without so much as a glance at the referee.
My taxi driver on the way to Blackpool vs. Stoke on Saturday said he feared the worst for Blackpool, which was only being kept out of the relegation zone by goal difference, but at least, he added, you have to score a goal to get anything out of the Seasiders at home. In 17 matches at Bloomfield Road, 60 goals had been scored, with no team failing to score. So imagine everyone's surprise when 90 minutes passed without the nets being ruffled by more than a stiff coastal breeze.
"All we do is encourage them." Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish's steadfast refusal to take credit from his players after another resounding victory -- Newcastle was beaten 3-0 without putting up a fight -- is almost as charming as Liverpool's return to form. Lucas Leiva was unflappable in midfield and the combination of Luis Suarez, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez is as exciting as they come.
Michael Mancienne's attempt to head the ball back to his goalkeeper, as Wolverhampton Wanderers sought to protect a slender lead against local rival Birmingham City, was all kinds of terrible, allowing Sebastian Larsson the chance to equalize. Even in a game of several hotheaded moments, Mancienne's blunder took him straight to the top of the Goat of the Week podium. Craig Gardner also made a play, by diving so obviously over Jody Craddock's foot that it's possible that the referee sent him off to spare him some embarrassment. All off which helped bury the fact that Larsson has now scored twice in recent games (add this to the one he bagged against Sunderland) by not giving up on forward balls that looked to be under the defense's control.
It's impossible to encounter West Ham manager Avram Grant without wondering if there's a small boy somewhere directing a playground kickabout with startling authority, the two having switched bodies as part of a B-Movie plot that's gone horribly wrong. His quiet, mumbling demeanor means he always seems to be waiting for someone to tell him what to do next, so the last thing he needed was for his match notes to be blown all over the pitch at Manchester City yesterday. Even when the home team, now with a seven-point cushion in fourth place thanks to a 2-1 win, became dangerously complacent, West Ham couldn't get it together well enough to really threaten. City goalkeeper Joe Hart made a reflex save from Manual da Costa in the second half, but nothing disrupted the Farah Fawcett-esque flicks in manager Roberto Mancini's hair.
After being pounded 3-0 by Fulham, Sunderland boss Steve Bruce would quite like to wake up and find himself in someone else's body.
0.47 -- Peter Odemwingie's goals per game ratio since joining West Bromwich Albion last summer. His strike in the 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Saturday was his fifth in six games.