Man United in full flow; Wigan's Al-Habsi valiant against Arsenal
Despite being unbeaten, United have rarely hit peak form this season
Midfielder Raul Meireles pulled the strings for Liverpool against Wolves
Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was superb against Arsenal but still beaten 3 times
Thoughts on the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League:
Birmingham City's trip to Old Trafford rarely threatened to turn into a real contest, but it was a reminder of what a pleasure it can be to watch Manchester United in full flow -- it is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anyone has been able to do so this season. There was a spriteliness to the team's attitude that seemed to rub off on its interchanges; Dimitar Berbatov may be the official poster-boy for insouciance, but he was not alone in making this look like a bit of fun.
United struck more than 20 shots toward Ben Foster's goal, converting five (in a 5-0 win) of a pic-n-mix assortment that included a Berbatov hat trick, a drilled Nani shot and the pick of the lot from Ryan Giggs (who turned in another excellent performance) after a slick exchange between Berbatov and Wayne Rooney. United was so lively that few reporters can have left the ground without having typed "rampant" or "rampaging" at least once.
That Rooney failed to score even in this kind of match -- and he put a header wide from barely two yards out in the second half -- has not gone unnoticed by those supporters who have yet to come to terms with his negotiating tactics. But the striker was integral to United's performance. Most crucially through his understanding with Berbatov, which is, for opponents, bone-chillingly good, and his touch and vision look to have been restored.
Raul Meireles pulled all the strings in Liverpool's 3-0 win over Wolves on Saturday -- here, finally, was the player we'd been waiting to see since August, when previous manager Roy Hodgson bought him from FC Porto. It's no coincidence that he has hit his stride playing in behind Fernando Torres in Steven Gerrard's absence; he clearly relishes the freedom the role gives him - and the creativity it demands of him.
The standout moment came after 50 minutes, when he watched Dirk Kuyt's header drop in front of him and volleyed it perfectly into the top right corner. By then he had already set up two chances for Fernando Torres and another storming run later on would provide Jonjo Shelvey with an excellent opportunity (put wide). Gerrard's return to the starting XI will not be straight forward. Lucas Leiva and Christian Poulsen, stationed behind Meireles, and Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez out wide, all executed Liverpool's game plan well.
Sponsor Barclays awarded the Man of the Match Champagne to Richard Dunne after Aston Villa's 1-0 victory over Manchester City, and after an impressive (and somewhat fortunate) defensive effort, a number of players attracted praise -- not least Stewart Downing, who was disciplined and effective having been pushed inside with Stiliyan Petrov. But Dunne's defensive partner James Collins was little short of magnificent. A couple of second-half blocks highlighted his readiness to put himself in the way, and his positioning and awareness throughout the 90 minutes were outstanding.
Granted, Wigan's Ali Al-Habsi had to pick the ball out of the net three times, but there was only so much he alone could do to keep Arsenal from running up a cricket score. With Robin van Persie back to full, flying fitness everything clicked for the Gunners, and Wigan's defense got pummeled. Al-Habsi kept a fierce van Persie strike out, tipped a Samir Nasri shot over the bar and got down to a low Cesc Fabregas drive all in the first half. It's not the first time the keeper has been Wigan's man of the match.
It seems only right and proper to tip our hats to two of the weekend's unexpected goal scorers, especially since they took their chances so well. There was a time when Newcastle's Argentina defender Fabricio Coloccini wasn't thought particularly good at the job of defending, but as well as doing that very well against Tottenham on Saturday, he scored an impressive goal. Taking down Danny Guthrie's pass on his chest, he instantly took Spurs' fullback Alan Hutton out of the equation and then struck the ball cleanly on the volley.
Kieran Richardson has played in almost every outfield position since he arrived at Sunderland, but when Steve Bruce decided to move him up front following the sale of Darren Bent, it's unlikely he expected more than some decent support for Asamoah Gyan. Instead it was Gyan who turned provider, keeping the ball as Richardson pelted down field from his own half and then laying on the perfect pass for him to slide beneath the keeper and into the bottom corner.
Junior Hoilett's first Premier League goal wasn't bad, either.
There's been some debate as to whether Frederic Piquionne or the law is the bigger fool, after the West Ham striker was shown a second yellow card for leaping into the crowd to celebrate what looked like being a winning goal. In the wake of his dismissal, Everton equalized, and Hammers manager Avram Grant branded the rule preventing players from running into the stands "a joke."
His comments on fans being entitled to that moment of shared delirium are persuasive but, ultimately, the players know the rules and getting needlessly sent off is the last thing West Ham's front-line needs. By Grant's logic (and he's not alone), a pitch invasion after every goal would be understandable.
Roberto Martinez is clinging grimly on to his post after Wigan made it five games in a row without a win. He won't have been expecting much at the Emirates, but the poverty of his side's performance was disconcerting even so. Wigan plays Aston Villa tomorrow in a match it must surely win if the trap door is to stay shut -- for the manager and his team.
Cameras picked up Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson mouthing: "He's having a f-----g nightmare" after Nani fluffed his lines yet again -- moments before he scored United's fifth goal.
Darren Bent had scored on his debuts for Charlton and Sunderland, but Aston Villa's $38 million man was supposed to be made to look poor value by Manchester City's more cultured $43 million striker, Edin Dzeko.
So it was no surprise to see Bent pounce on Joe Hart's parry and slot home in the first 20 minutes. Dzeko put a hatful of headers off target.
Jonathan Spector scored his first Premier League goal this weekend (and almost added a second while West Ham had the better of Everton), and Fulham's Clint Dempsey added two to his tally in the win over Stoke City -- his touch before being brought down by Ryan Shawcross would have made Dennis Bergkamp proud. Blackburn debutant Jermaine Jones didn't score, but he got extremely lucky when the referee awarded a free-kick outside the area after he'd come through the back of West Brom's Peter Odemwingie.
#sexism -- if you haven't heard the pre-match comments of Sky presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys on the topic of female officials, where have you been?
22 -- the record number of nationalities to take to the field in an English soccer match, set during Blackburn's 2-0 win over West Brom.
Georgina Turner has worked as a sports journalist since 2003. She covers the English Premier League, but also reports on tennis and women's sports for UK magazines.
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi