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Manchester United showing its toughness at just the right time


Five things we learned in Barclays Premier League action Sunday:

1. Stepping up down the stretch. Alex Ferguson likes to refer to the home stretch in the league season as "squeaky bum time." When the pressure is on, the true contenders hold their nerve. The pretenders fall away.

Manchester City had led the league since the start of October, but Ferguson's United refused to give up the pursuit. It had won eight of its last nine matches. On Sunday, the pressure -- and United -- finally caught up with City, which lost 1-0 at Swansea while United won 2-0 at home to in-form West Brom. Suddenly, with 10 games to go, United is in first place, a point ahead.

City is a very good team with a very strong squad. Perhaps Roberto Mancini, who started the game with one striker, was guilty of trying to nurse his team through a tricky away game, conserving players and energy for challenges to come. Even so, one reason United has won has won 12 Premier League titles under Ferguson is that it is at its best when the pressure is at its worst. This looks awfully familiar.

2. Antics and theatrics in Manchester. Manchester City's season started with Sergio Agüero displacing Carlos Tévez and Edin Dzeko as the club's No. 1 striker. It was a development that contributed to Tévez's snit while sitting on the bench in Munich and his subsequent exile. Now Tévez's chief rival as City's most emotionally erratic player, Mario Balotelli, has taken over as the first choice. At Swansea on Sunday, and for the second league game in the row, the Italian started while Agüero sat on the bench.

Balotelli's football gifts are often overshadowed by his antics. Last week, the BBC had the former Oasis leader Noel Gallagher, himself a City fan and a model of sober public behavior, interview Balotelli. Balotelli offered that he needed to be more mature, which is something of an understatement.

On Sunday, Balotelli's sole contribution in a frustrating first 83 minutes was a silly kick at Gylfi Sigurdsson that earned him yet another yellow card.

Balotelli did raise his game after Swansea took the lead, conjuring one ferocious shot at goal after a mazy run.

His headline-grabbing penchant for mayhem has attracted the disapproving attention of the red half of Manchester's favorite master maverick.

"I dreamt of being a footballer, of doing great things, of crying and laughing after a victory, of exploding with joy. It is about spontaneity," Eric Cantona told a sports conference in Barcelona. Referring to the incident earlier this season when Balotelli scored and then pulled off his top to reveal and undershirt with the words "Why always me?", Cantona said. "I never had anything on a T-shirt, never calculated anything. Every action is unique, every reaction unique."

Cantona knows a thing or two about acting. He has recently been taking time out from his campaign to revive the New York Cosmos by appearing in a touring theatre production in France. It may have been pure coincidence that Cantona was cast as Ubu, the appalling, egotistical, former tyrant, in Slave Ubu.

Cantona ended his run by showing he can still play the diva. Disappointed that his appearance had drawn such a scanty audience at Arcachon in southwest France, he harangued those who had come, calling the "petit bourgeois" among other things before stalking off with one last burst of swearing after an hour.

Sometimes, as Balotelli's yellow card on Sunday showed, even if you know you're immature, growing up is hard to do.

3. What makes Wayne Rooney ... Wayne Rooney. The current Manchester United player most likely to be cast as Ubu is unquestionably Wayne Rooney. On Sunday, he scored both his team's goals against West Brom to take his league tally for the season to 20, second only to Robin van Persie. What makes the number even more impressive is that Rooney spent a chunk of the autumn gumming up the United midfield in a vain attempt to fill the vacant Paul Scholes role. Since then, United has found a better candidate -- Paul Scholes himself -- and Rooney has returned to what he does best.

His second goal Sunday was a penalty. The first showed that what separates Rooney from so many other strikers is not just his skill and power; it is his uncanny instinct for scoring chances. When Javier Hernandez drove the ball into the goalmouth, every other player hesitated. Rooney acted. He reached the ball a heartbeat ahead of Ben Foster, the West Brom goalie, and somehow flicked the ball past the looming Foster. It was the second example of this killer instinct in just four days. On Thursday, as United lost 3-2 at home to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, Rooney opened the scoring after sprinting 25 yards to arrive in the goalmouth at exactly the right place at precisely the right moment to meet the rebound from a Hernandez shot and score.

Rooney is a streaky player. He's making these runs in part because the belief is back. Yet in the art of goal-scoring at least, he does display unequalled football intelligence.

4. The little team that can. Soccer, like life, is a series of trade offs. Manchester City and Chelsea may be able to afford the rare players who are big and fast and skilful; the rest of the league has to make compromises. That reality was spectacularly advertised at Swansea on Sunday as the home team took the field with three of the smallest players in the Premier League: Leon Britton, who is 5-foot-5, Joe Allen, 5-6, and Wayne Routledge, 5-7. Swansea, with its limited budget, has been prepared to sacrifice size to get speed, skill and hard work.

This downsizing strategy, forces another trade off. Even at home Swansea usually plays five in midfield and just one striker. Swansea often enjoys plenty of possession but struggles to score goals. On Sunday, against City, that manifested itself in a statistical discrepancy. Swansea had more than 55 percent of possession, yet the ball was in the Swansea half for 60 percent of the time.

Swansea seemed to have wasted its best chance with Scott Sinclair's limp first-half penalty kick in the first half. But in the 83rd minute, Britton and Routledge carefully created a scoring chance, which Luke Moore buried.

Despite a late City flurry, Swansea deserved the victory. It is now 14 points clear of the relegation places, which is the chief concern for any promoted club. It is punching above its weight.

5. The trouble with Tottenham. Eleven days after Fabio Capello resigned as England manager, Harry Redknapp's Tottenham drew 0-0 at third-tier Stevenage in the FA Cup. David Bernstein, the chairman of the Football Association, which runs the England team, was at the game.

"I bet he was impressed by the football I served up! He's probably thinking 'Who's this geezer?" Redknapp joked after the game.

If Redknapp is auditioning for the England job, he's not doing well. Since the Stevenage game, Spurs have lost three times in the league, their worst run since Redknapp took over in 2009. A month ago Spurs were clinging to the coat tails of the Manchester clubs in the race for the league title; now they are barely ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea. Spurs are again what they were in Redknapp's first two season's in charge: a bubble team scuffling for one of the last Champions League places. That's still pretty good for Spurs, but at the moment this season's apparent progress seems to have been illusory.

Two of those defeats were to traditional powerhouses: away to Arsenal and at home to Manchester United. On Saturday, Spurs became Everton's third consecutive home scalp following Manchester City and Chelsea. Everton did what it does. It pressed Spurs into an error, which led to the only goal in the first half. Then it defended what it had. Spurs dominated but, until Louis Saha hit a post in the dying seconds, rarely truly threatened.

After the game, the normally chirpy Redknapp seemed on the verge of tears, unable to make eye contact with the BBC camera. "We've battered them non-stop in the second half and ended up getting done," he insisted. His words were defiant but the tone seemed deflated, the glazed stare off to side appeared defeated.