But that was nothing compared to the comedy of errors that had preceded Liverpool's opening goal, after five minutes. Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere and Sagna again all whiffed on chances to clear before Luis Suárez punished them.
In a dazzling game, Arsenal hit back with a sweetly constructed headed goal by Olivier Giroud in the 64th. It leveled when Theo Walcott ended another pretty move with a ferocious shot in the 67th.
Yet Arsenal nearly gave it away in the last minute. Santos, playing the ball across the defense, passed to the wrong color shirt. The attack finished with Wojciech Szczesny desperately pushing away a shot by Suárez with his fingers to save a 2-2 draw.
Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, accepted that his defenders look nervous, particularly at home. It was an opportunity lost for both clubs to draw closer to Tottenham Hotspur for fourth place and a guaranteed Champions League spot.
"You can sense it from outside," Wenger told Sky TV. "We have to get rid of that psychological factor when playing at home, defensively. It's a bit contagious."
Crisis, what crisis?
Within five minutes, Wayne Rooney leveled. After 27 minutes he put United ahead. That was that. United could have scored more in the first half. It coasted through the second. It won 2-1.
Alex Ferguson insisted that his team was not to blame for the poor start and average final score over the league's 16th-best club. He said the drying surface made it difficult for and that "in the second half Southampton were the best team to play here this season."
He could afford to be generous. United's lead is now seven points over Manchester City, which drew Tuesday.
The gap to third-place Chelsea is 13 points. Even before Wednesday, Chelsea's title chances existed only in the minds of its most bedazzled fans. Then Adam le Fondre scored twice in the last three minutes as Reading staged yet another comeback to draw 2-2 at home. United usually kills opponents off. Chelsea doesn't.
If United keeps picking up 2.5 points a game, it's going to be hard to catch. Yet, as it showed again today, it does like making things difficult.
Gareth Bale can be a frustrating player. For such a big, strong lad, he does seem to fall over easily. He also seems to have a low pain threshold. When he hits the ground, he does writhe a lot. His decision-making can be lazy. He often shoots when he should pass and frequently fails to find teammates when he does.
Yet he can do things that no one else in the Premier League can do. In the first 79 minutes at Norwich, Tottenham struggled horribly in attack. It created only one good scoring chance, which was squandered by Jermain Defoe. It trailed 1-0 after a 32-minute goal by Wes Hoolihan. Then, Tottenham cleared a Norwich free kick. The ball fell to Bale deep in his own half. He could easily have gone down under the first challenge and won a free kick. This time, he stayed on his feet and accelerated. He slashed through the defense and smashed a shot into the Norwich goal.
Tottenham gained a 1-1 draw that kept it in fourth place, though only one point ahead of Everton, which won 2-1 against West Brom. Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are fighting it out to make Champions League.
Tottenham has only two strikers -- a fact that every club that might sell it a forward knows. One, Defoe, is nursing a pelvic injury. The other, Emmanuel Adebayor, will be away at the Africa Cup of Nations a little longer. The club needs Bale, now its joint top scorer, to keep finding the net.
Some argue that clubs that buy in January invariably pay too much for mediocre players. If you absolutely need a player in January, it's usually pretty clear. Selling clubs can smell your desperation. In any case, why should clubs sell good players in midseason?
Andy Carroll, who joined Liverpool for £35 million ($55 million at current exchange rates) two years ago, is the poster boy for bad January deals. But Liverpool, flush with its Fernando Torres cash, also bought Suárez, admittedly for £22.7 million at the same time. The same rule applies to January signings as summer signings: you win some, you lose some.
Yet what has been striking about these January sales is just how cheap good players can be. One reason is clubs tend to budget for success. For many, it's clear by January that those hopes aren't going to be realized. Then they sell.
It helps to shop in the right markets. Newcastle, which lost Demba Ba to Chelsea for just £7 million, has spent less, probably considerably less than £20 million, to buy five French players. They include three full internationals, the oldest of whom, Mathieu Debuchy, is just 27, and two players who have represented France at various youth levels.
Newcastle bought one each from Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lille and Montpellier, all of which are mired in mid-table in Ligue 1, already out of touch with the three leaders. Lille and Montpellier were also knocked out in the group stage of the Champions League. The fifth, Massado Haïdara, came from Nancy, stone last in Ligue 1. Their seasons are over. Better to start planning for the future.
For Newcastle, looking to avoid relegation, the dividends were immediate. Moussa Sissoko set up the opening goal on Tuesday night as Newcastle reversed its scary recent slide with a 2-1 victory at a club that hasn't spent, Aston Villa. Villa reacted on Wednesday by going out and bidding for an even cheaper Frenchman of their own, Yacouba Sylla from Clermont of Ligue 2
France is one place to shop for bargains. So it seems is the MLS. Wigan, forever rummaging for the bargain bins of world soccer, signed Roger Espinoza, whose contract with Sporting Kansas City had just ended, for nothing. The U.S. citizen who plays for Honduras had some strange moments Tuesday but set up both goals as Wigan fought back to draw 2-2 at Stoke.
Stoke, which bought Geoff Cameron from the Houston Dynamo in the summer for a very reasonable £1.6 million, is apparently drilling for more talent in Texas. Brek Shea, of FC Dallas, underwent a medical Wednesday. The fee was $6 million. Like so many of the deals this January, that's small change in the Premier League.
For their money, City got 30 goals in 80 games and a lot of headaches. Everyone else enjoyed unending entertainment from an ill-tempered but endearing goofball who, among other exploits, set fire to his own house with fireworks.
On one occasion, Balotelli removed his shirt after scoring to reveal a T-shirt that asked "why always me?"
Super Mario provided a clue Wednesday. He was surrounded by a media circus as he returned to the city where he played four years for Inter. The blue and black half of Milan can hardly be happy to see their prodigal son returning to play for the hated enemy. Balotelli, typically, hardly helped things.
"It's been a long time that I've wanted to play for Milan, but obviously I was playing for other clubs so I couldn't come here,'' he said. "Now I had the opportunity and I ran."
If he wanted a quiet life in Milan, that was not the way to go about it, but the Premier League will miss him and his headlines.