THERE CAN BE no illusions about a point gained or any joy about returning to the top of the table.
Should Manchester United beat Fulham at home on Monday, then they will be three points clear of Manchester City after the latter’s 1-1 draw at Stoke, which only illustrated a lot of Roberto Mancini’s increasing problems in this run-in: tiredness, a lack of ingenuity, an inability to scrap to late victories and poor away form.
City have now only won two of their last nine away games and may well have lost their fifth today – only a Ryan Shawcross deflection from a Yaya Toure long-range strike saved a draw at Stoke. Indeed, Tony Pulis’s side were the side who looked likelier to get a winner having been the better team for long passages of the game and initially going ahead through a Peter Crouch wonder goal. Teeing up a header without letting the ball touch the ground, the striker volleyed into the top corner from well outside the box.
There was no such creativity from City with only Samir Nasri really offering a spark. David Silva looked a shadow of the player that was so luxurious early in the season (although he did receive a blow to the head early on) while Carlos Tevez couldn’t affect a change when he was eventually introduced.
Roberto Mancini refused to be interviewed after the game as he apparently couldn’t trust himself not to get into trouble. If he was aggrieved with his players, he had a right to be. Not to mention himself. Despite the difficulty of going to Stoke, it’s the stage of the season now when the venues should be immaterial. All that matters is victory. And City are really struggling to get any on the road. Not to mention create openings.
There are suddenly a few more openings at the bottom of the table, though. In the day’s most surprising result, Wigan beat Liverpool with relative ease while Bolton Wanderers paid fitting tribute to Fabrice Muamba by defeating Blackburn 2-1 at home. That brings Rovers right back into it while, in 19th, Wigan have suddenly pulled themselves level with QPR after Mark Hughes’s side lost 3-1 at Sunderland in rather desperate manner.
Those words, however, could also be applied to Liverpool. The club have seemed to be on autopilot after the Carling Cup victory as life was made very easy for Wigan at Anfield. Most damningly, Roberto Martinez’s side didn’t even have to work very hard for a victory they badly needed. After Luis Suarez had equalised Shaun Maloney’s opening penalty in Liverpool’s only promising passage of the game, Gary Caldwell illustrated the open nature of the match as he found himself one-on-one with Pepe Reina before expertly side-stepping him to finish.
With Liverpool in apparent freefall, Kenny Dalglish has to ask questions of his squad. While progress has undeniably been made – symbolised by that cup win – it seems upgrades are needed in both attitude and a fair few positions. Most worryingly, it seems that most of the manager’s most expensive signings – Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam (who was absent today) -need replacing if the team is to move to the next level.
Wigan, by contrast, have really come to form over the last few games and the hope for Martinez is that they will finally start converting their good play into actual goals. Suddenly, though, a late escape such last season doesn’t seem as unlikely.
That’s not the case for Wolves, though, who were beaten 2-1 by Norwich in a game which saw Grant Holt score twice but also get sent off. Djibril Cisse also saw red as his QPR team were easily beaten 3-1at Sunderland. James McClean was once again superb, setting up goals for Nicklas Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon and scoring another. At the least, Taiwo’s free-kick for QPR was a thing of beauty. Scant consolation though.
The tribute to Fabrice Muamba at the Reebok Stadium.PA
The same applies to Steven N’Zonzi’s goal at the Reebok. Although it allowed Blackburn to pile the pressure on Bolton in a crucial relegation play-off, Owen Coyle’s side – determined to give Muamba a performance he could proud of – held out. David Wheater’s two earlier – and uncharacteristic – goals from set-pieces proved enough.
As it stands, however, it remains very difficult to pick anyone to go down other than the woeful Wolves.
Aston Villa, it should be said, are just fortunate they have such a points cushion as they were thoroughly embarrassed by a superb Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s team won their seventh game in a row to go a long way to securing third place. And 3-0 victory was all the more impressive given that none of the goals came from Robin van Persie. Instead, Kieran Gibbs opened the scoring before Theo Walcott sealed the points,with Mikel Arteta then topping it all off with a blistering free-kick from 25 yards.
The result put Arsenal three points clear of Tottenham Hotspur who could only manage a dull 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge. And, although that result may superficially seem to arrest Spurs’ slide,they really only managed to claim such an away draw because Chelsea are in a period of transition and devoid of creativity themselves.
Finally, Everton claimed a creditable 2-0 win away to Swansea City with Leighton Baines scoring a fine free-kick and Nikica Jelavic following up.