BELATED CHRISTMAS presents for three wizened old men. Few people in the Premier League have experienced as much Christmas football as Arsene Wenger, Harry Redknapp and – chiefly – Alex Ferguson but they won’t have experienced too many St Stephen’s Days as encouraging as this. All of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City dropped points to alter the top of the table to a significant degree. And, most importantly, Manchester United beat Wigan 5-0. Five points behind after their infamous 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford, Ferguson’s side have now reduced that deficit to zero. Indeed, it’s only the five-goal gap from that game which keeps City on top tonight.
Roberto Mancini played a hugely attacking line-up at West Brom and can feel aggrieved not have taken the lead having predictably taken the initiative. But, ultimately, Roy Hodgson deserves credit for marshalling his defence superbly and always giving City enough to worry about at the other end. With Shane Long having been unlucky to not even snatch all three points for West Brom, Mancini was forced to remove Samir Nasri for Gareth Barry to stem the tide. Not ideal with the pressure now increasing.
By contrast, United have now scored 10 goals in their last two games as they also continued their extravagant run against Wigan. Perhaps most pleasingly for Ferguson, he also surfed a surprising team selection. Despite Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia filling in at the back and Wayne Rooney rested, they coasted to victory with Dimitar Berbatov also scoring a hat-trick. In truth, United did benefit from an unfair red card for Conor Sammon. The former UCD striker was sent off went the referee Phil Dowd adjudged that a mere wave of the arm was an elbow in the face for Jonny Evans. Only leading 1-0 at that point through Ji-Sung Park’s opener, United then went into overdrive with Berbatov hitting three and Valencia drilling in the goal of the game.
The hero of the 1-1 draw at Anfield, meanwhile, was stand-in goalkeeper Mark Bunn. Only starting his first ever Premier League game because of a muscle strain for Paul Robinson, the keeper made a point-blank save in injury time from Andy Carroll before Adam Henley cleared off the line from the resulting corner. That exchange only followed a series of saves from Bunn on a frustrating afternoon for Liverpool. Only a Maxi Rodriguez header from close range cancelled out Charlie Adam’s earlier own goal.
And, as much as Liverpool may look to misfortune and another late rally from the defending team, this represents the sixth time this season they’ve dropped points to either a bottom-half or promoted team. They also haven’t scored more than once in a home game since 24 September.
Chelsea, meanwhile, could only claim their third 1-1 draw in a row despite going ahead against Fulham. Previously devoid of ideas and oddly flat, Andre Villas-Boas’s side looked like they would lift it after Fernando Torres teed up Juan Mata for an opener just after-half-time. But with the Spanish striker misfiring again, it just got frustrating for Chelsea after Clint Dempsey equalised within 10 minutes. As it stands, Villas-Boas can’t seem to ever synchronise performances and results on a consistent basis.
At the Stadium of Light, confidence is surging through Sunderland again if they didn’t quite claim another last-minute winner today. But, in truth, the only reason Martin O’Neill’s side were denied a win after Jack Colback’s deflected opener was because of a very dubious penalty awarded by Howard Webb. After Leon Osman appeared to simply trip up, Leighton Baines struck.
No such luck for Bolton who lost 2-0 in a game that was otherwise as miserable as their position in the table. Newcastle, by contrast, ended a six-game run without a win thanks to fine finishes from Hatem Ben Arfa and the on-fire Demba Ba