Man United's Berbatov headlines goal-fest; Grant survives for now
Saturday's action saw 36 goals, the highest for a single day in the Prem since '95
Dimitar Berbatov's goal explosion coincided with Wayne Rooney's return
Under pressure West Ham coach Avram Grant surives after his team won 3-1
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:
1. Does anyone here know how to defend? In the days before the introduction of undersoil heating and sophisticated drainage systems, English soccer people used to say that mud held up the ball and slowed speedy strikers thus favoring defenses, while hard, frozen fields helped attackers. On Saturday, as temperatures across England slid below freezing and snow and frost freckled many pitches, the number of goals leapt. The eight Premier League games yielded 36 goals, a record for a single day since the league was reduced to 20 teams in 1995.
Manchester United scored seven against Blackburn, but perhaps even more remarkable was West Brom, who had not won for month, scoring four at normally parsimonious Everton. Every one of the 16 teams in action scored -- or, to put it another way -- nobody kept a clean sheet. It was a day it seemed when no lead was safe -- unless it was a seven-goal lead.
2. Crisis, what crisis? Last Saturday, the Gunners gave their bitter North London rival, Tottenham, a soccer lesson for 45 minutes as they took a 2-0 lead, only to lose, 3-2. Victory would have taken them top of the Premier League. Then, needing only a draw in Portugal against Braga to ensure qualification for the knockout round of the Champions League, Arsenal conceded two late goals. It will go into the last round facing the risk, albeit a slim one, of elimination.
It is a cliché that to capture league titles teams need to win when they are playing badly. Repeatedly over recent years, Arsenal has surrendered its title hopes during spells when it has played well and lost.
On Saturday, Arsenal gave another breathtaking passing display as it took a 2-0 halftime lead at Aston Villa. The second half summed up its recent problems. The Gunners continued to carve open a mediocre Villa team but squandered a string of chances and nearly threw the game away. When opponents find a way to punch through Arsenal's cloying five-man midfield, the defense looks soft, especially when the ball is in the air. Villa scored twice, could easily have had a third and with 20 minutes left, had fought back to trail 3-2. Jack Wilshere's first league goal in injury time provided a reward for the quality of Arsenal's play, but it could not entirely disguise the fact that, once again, the Gunners had wobbled when apparently in full control.
"At 2-0, at halftime, you could feel what happened had an impact in their head," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, told the BBC. "We could have crumbled or we could score again -- and we did the latter. We got a good mental response."
And despite its continued fragility, Wenger's team still moved to the top of the Premier League -- at least for a couple of hours.
3. Does Manchester United really need the Wayne Rooney circus? Dimitar Berbatov equaled the Premier League record -- shared by Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Jermain Defoe -- with five goals as United tore past Blackburn 7-1 -- one of the best-drilled of Premier League defenses -- on Saturday to leap past Arsenal and Chelsea and into first place.
With a striker in that sort of form, who needs Wayne Rooney? Well, Berbatov needs Rooney. The Bulgarian had not scored in 10 games, since his hat trick Sept. 19 against Liverpool. It was no coincidence that for much of that period Rooney was absent, recovering from the ankle injury that had hobbled him in the early part of the season.
It is easy to forget after Rooney's limp play in the World Cup, the revelations about his sex life and the his bizarre public contract facedown with United, that when he's vaguely fit, he terrifies Premier League defenses.
Rooney created havoc on Saturday. He helped set up Berbatov in front of an empty net after just 75 seconds -- a crucial goal for a striker whose confidence is so volatile.
Rooney also laid on the second goal for Park Ji-sung and terrified Pascal Chimbonda into the awful back pass that presented Berbatov with the third goal.
"I think it's a good combination,'' Alex Ferguson, the United manager told Sky Television when asked about Rooney and Berbatov, before going on to praise their interchange play.
4. Can Greater Manchester put two teams in the top four? United is top of the league, where it expects to be. Manchester City is fourth, where it, perhaps less realistically, expects to stay. But in fifth, and no doubt hugging themselves in disbelief, are Bolton Wanderers. Its Reebok Stadium, on the fringes of Manchester, is less than 13 miles from Old Trafford but it operates in a different world. Where City can throw tens of millions of pounds at other teams celebrity castoffs year after year and United can break the bank to keep Rooney, Bolton's record signing is Johan Elmander, a striker who cost £11 million ($17 million).
On the face of it, City's 1-1 draw at inhospitable Stoke on Saturday was a better result than Bolton's 2-2 draw at home to newly promoted Blackpool. But, as so often this season, City played badly and failed to win. It took the lead with only four minutes to play with a goal not from one of its high-priced strikers but from Micah Richards, a defender who was already with the club when it was bought by Abu Dhabi investors in 2008. Having scratched out a lead in a game in which it had been often outplayed, City could not hold it. Matthew Etherington leveled in added time. For City, it was two points thrown away.
For Bolton, on the other hand, a draw represented a point won. It trailed by two goals with less than 15 minutes to play. Under former coaches Sam Allardyce and then Gary Megson, Bolton hung around the Premier League by playing low-budget soccer: grinding, disciplined, even thuggish. It has taken Owen Coyle less than a year to conjure some creativity from the squad he inherited. Martin Petrov started the fightback in the 76th minute. Kevin Davies then missed the ball with the goal at his mercy but atoned when he leveled the score in the last minute.
If the other candidates for fourth place -- City and Tottenham -- continue to struggle to find consistency, then Bolton can keep dreaming of European soccer.
5. Will Avram Grant be fired this week? Probably not. As West Ham have limped along at the bottom of the table, the continued rumors from the club have become one of the more tedious tom toms of this English season. The manager's future seemed to hang on every result. Yet, week after week, as the Hammers failed to add to their solitary league victory and stayed nailed to the bottom, his bosses seemingly could not screw up the courage to panic. The fans deemed the match against Wigan as "Save Our Season" Saturday. They chose well. When Wigan is not in the mood, it is the limpest team in the league. Valon Behrami and Victor Obinna gave the Hammers a two-goal lead. But nerves inevitably set in, Danny Gabbidon conceded a penalty but Mauro Boselli pretty much summed up Wigan's afternoon by rolling the kick straight at Robert Green. Scott Parker then settled West Ham's nerves and it won 3-1. And stayed bottom, because, on a day of topsy turvy matches, the team above it, Wolves scored twice in the last 10 minutes to win for the first time in a month, beating Sunderland, 3-2.
So Grant seems safe -- this week. But his team still looks a lot less than the sum of its parts. And those parts, Parker apart, do not look very impressive.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.