Meanwhile in the Premier League 24th-26th March

Less than ten games left of the 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season and we’re still no clearer as to how things are going to eventually pan out. The race for the title is still wide open, as is the fight for the minor places in the top four, the battle for Champions’ League football next season. Important results at the bottom of the league this week have cast more uncertainty on just who will drop out of the top division at the end of the campaign, and who will be left standing to fight for another year.

Manchester City put in a less than fantastic display against a well organised Stoke City side at the Britannia on Saturday evening. City had the chance to go two points clear of their main rivals Manchester United, with the latter not playing until Monday evening, however they never really looked like doing so in a match of few chances.

The first half produced little in the way of goalmouth action, and in fact, it was Stoke who had the best opportunity five minutes before half time, Ryan Shawcross getting the faintest of glances on a corner, but with Hart beaten, Pablo Zabaleta made a fantastic clearance off the line. Earlier in the half two challenges had set the tone for what would be an intensely physical encounter. Gareth Barry should have received a yellow card at a minimum, and conceded a penalty, for his overzealous tackle on Glenn Whelan which left the Irishman floored for some time. Shortly afterwards an aerial clash between Dean Whitehead and David Silva left the Spaniard needing to be bandaged up before he could continue.

After the break Nasri and Dzeko had efforts saved by Begovic, before Peter Crouch produced a moment of sublime brilliance, which underlines why any England manager should include him in the squad to travel to Poland and Ukraine this Summer. A definite contender for goal of the season, Crouch diverted Begovic’s clearance to Pennant in the 58th minute, his header back to the striker was controlled, spun on, and smashed on the volley, dipping over Hart and into the far corner, from 25 yards. A truly wonderful goal.

Mancini’s men rallied, and Carlos Tevez was introduced to the action, but it was Yaya Toure’s deflected effort that saved City’s blushes. Fifteen minutes from time, the Ivorian strode forward and unleashed a powerful swerving shot from just over 25 yards, his effort flicked off the head of Ryan Shawcross, just in front of Begovic, which left the Stoke stopper with little chance even though he managed to get hands on it. 1-1 the final score, City back on top, but only on goal difference, United in the driver’s seat.

At the other end of the table, Wigan produced their first ever victory at Anfield to give themselves real hope of avoiding the drop again this year. The home side, as has been the case for much of this season, dominated the opening half an hour, but failed to convert their possession and superiority into goals. Wigan took the lead on the half hour, Jamie Carragher, in for the injured Agger, made  a poor clearing header under pressure from Moses, Skrtel, forced into a hurried clearance, produced a clumsy attempt to clear the ball, kicking the Wigan attacker in the jaw; penalty kick, which  Shaun Maloney coolly converted.

Liverpool who brought Carroll on at the break, equalised within two minutes of the re-start. A flowing move and exchange of passes between Gerrard and Suarez, ended with the Uruguayan providing a classy, first-time finish into the far corner of Al Habsi’s goal.  Suarez, who’d been denied by a brilliant Al Habsi stop in the first-half, thought he’d given his side the lead just minutes later, bundling home from close range. Referee, Lee Mason, however, disallowed the goal for handball, much to the disgust of Kenny Dalglish and the Liverpool players, and booked Suarez. It seemed like a very harsh decision at the time as nobody picked up on it, and the linesman did not raise his flag, the replays are, at best, inconclusive and Liverpool and Suarez can feel very hard done by.

That said, Liverpool only had themselves to blame for the poor defending that allowed Wigan to score the winner. A hopeful shot from the edge of the box by McCarthy hit, an unprepared, Jamie Carragher, who didn’t have his best day in a red shirt, it deflected to Caldwell, and the big defender had time to control the ball, sell Andy Carroll a dummy, and finish like a seasoned striker into the bottom corner.

Liverpool huffed and puffed, but failed to inject any real fluency in their play, and this was reflected in their lack of clear cut chances, on the couple of occasions that they did create oppurtunities, they were either well defended or Al Habsi was equal to them. The one positive note for Liverpool was the introduction late on of, youngster, Raheem Sterling. The seventeen year old, who is still thought to be a season away from regular first team football, was drafted in from the reserves due the injury crisis at Anfield; what he did he did well, and he was not over-awed by the occasion, which bodes well for his future. A remarkable win for Wigan, and manager Roberto Martinez was understandably over the moon about the result, which is more than can be said for Kenny Dalglish and the Anfield crowd.

The round-up starts at Old Trafford, where Manchester United beat Fulham 1-0 on Monday evening, ensuring that Manchester City’s return to the top lasted only two days. United began the game well, before going off the boil and allowing the visitors to gain a foothold in the match. On a night when Alex Ferguson had been looking for a barrage of goals to improve his side’s goal difference, United managed just one. It came three minutes before the break, Wayne Rooney converting Jonny Evans’ cutback. The one goal remained  enough to give the Champions all three points though, and they owe a particular debt to young referee Michael Oliver, who failed to award what looked for all the world like a stonewall penalty, for Michael Carrick’s 87th minute foul on Danny Murphy. Just how important a mistake will that prove to be in the race for the Premier League title, as United go three points clear at the top?

Bolton Wanderer’s helped themselves out of the bottom three by recording their second 2-1 victory over Blackburn this season. Two headed goals in seven first-half minutes from David Wheater (28 & 35), were enough to give Bolton the win at the Reebok, on a day that they played for stricken colleague Fabrice Muamba, who is still recovering in hospital. Stephen N’zonzi replied for Rovers (68), but Wanderers held on. Both sides, in the drop-zone for so much of the season, now look like they could stay up.

Queens Park Rangers followed up their miraculous victory in midweek by surrendering tamely to Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. Bendtner (41), McClean (70), who excelled, and Sessegnon (76), back from his ban, scored the goals for the Black Cats, who bounced back after their defeat at Blackburn earlier in the week. Taiwo responded with a tremendous free-kick for Rangers (79), albeit only in consolation, and they had Djibril Cisse sent off for the second time since his January arrival for a two footed lunge; he’ll now miss half of their remaining fixtures. Times are looking bleak at Loftus Road.

Staying with the teams at the wrong end of the table, Wolves threw away a one goal lead at Carrow Road, going down 2-1 to a Norwich side happy to get back to winning ways after a mid-season blip in recent weeks. Wolves took the lead through Matt Jarvis in the 25th minute, but that lead lasted just  a matter of seconds before Grant Holt broke the offside trap at the other end and finished superbly, leaving Hennessey a mere spectator. Holt scored the Canaries’ second from the spot just before half-time, after Eggert Jonsson was deemed to have handled Hoolihan’s shot. Holt was sent off for a second yellow card offence late on, but the big striker’s work was already done.  Norwich go eleventh, Wolves stay bottom, now three points adrift of Wigan in nineteenth, their Premier League status looks to be in severe jeopardy.

Arsenal and Newcastle both scored three goals on their way to routine victories over Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion repectively. Kieron Gibbs’ first goal for the club (16), followed up by Walcott’s 25th minute strike had wrapped the game up for the Gunners’ early on, against a typically poor Villa. Michel Arteta’s 90th minute bullet put the icing on the cake as Arsenal made it six wins in a row, and consolidated third place; Villa will soon be looking over their shoulders’ if they don’t improve quickly. Newcastle had their opponents similarly taken care of early on, first-half goals from Cisse (6 & 34), and man of the match, Ben Arfa (12), took care of Albion, for whom Shane Long replied in the second-half (51). Newcastle impressive, and now eight points clear of seventh placed Liverpool.

Everton new-boy Nikica Jelavic again showed his predatory prowess as he scored his side’s second goal in their 0-2 win over Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium. The home side dominated the opening half but couldn’t find the break-through, but in the 59th minute Leighton Baines’ stunning free-kick gave the visitors the lead, and they didn’t look back. Jelavic tapped in fifteen minutes from time to make the victory safe, after lovely footwork by Fellaini had created the chance. Swansea were poor in the second-half, but Everton were strong, and deserved the victory.

Finally, Chelsea and Tottenham played out a bore draw in their London Derby at Stamford Bridge in Saturday’s lunch-time kick-off. With the teams battling it out for the final Champions’ League spot, it was a game that neither  manager dared to lose, and that showed in the performances and attitudes displayed on the pitch. Tottenham had the better chances, but failed to convert any of them, as their awful run continues, just two points from a possible fifteen beginning with that capitulation at the Emirates. Chelsea’s boost after the sacking of Vilas Boas seems to be wearing off, but they’re still in position to challenge strongly for fourth, should Tottenham’s form not improve.

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