West Ham's Grant finds some relief; Bale proves match-winner again
Man United continue to be undefeated despite failing to hit top form
West Ham rides its luck to beat Wolves in key relegation battle
Former Arsenal midfielder Alexander Hleb's career continues to be in decline
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:
1. How to survive the holidays. The crowded Christmas schedule meant four of the Premier's League's top five playing on a Saturday. All four won. The holiday sprint can break even the strongest team's season. In the first two rounds of holiday games, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal had all dropped points. Yet the burst of games can also help teams build quick momentum and develop a winning groove. Both Manchester City and Spurs won, 1-0, at home Saturday for their third holiday victories. United, which also won by one goal, has taken seven points from three games.
The most impressive victor Saturday was the Arsenal, team which had faced the most demanding holiday schedule. Arsenal crushed Birmingham, 3-0. Arsenal's holiday schedule was compressed because its big game against Chelsea was delayed a day for television. It won that, 3-1, last Monday. On Wednesday, its fourth game in 10 days, is at home to Manchester City. For each of the two games in between, Arsčne Wenger made eight changes to his starting lineup. On Wednesday, Arsenal only drew at Wigan, but the victory Saturday means it is just two points behind the Manchester clubs. If Wenger's tactic of resting players produces victory over City, Arsenal will finish the midwinter sprint having dented two important rivals and very much in contention.
2. If you get a chance against Man United, you better take it.When Wayne Rooney threatened to quit Manchester United earlier this season one of his complaints was that the team was in decline. It's easy to see his point. When United last won the league in 2009 it could field an entire team of players who could claim to be the best in their position in the Premier League. But Carlos Tévez and Cristiano Ronaldo have gone. Paul Scholes 36, Ryan Giggs, 37, and Edwin Van der Sar, 40, can still contribute but all are nearing the end and were missing Saturday at West Bromwich. Michael Carrick, 29, and Gary Neville, 35, both started, but seem to be fading.
None of the players Alex Ferguson has bought in recent years has developed into consistent contributors. Dimitar Berbatov and Anderson alternate good days with lost afternoons, like Saturday. Antonio Valencia, bought to replace, Ronaldo is a long-term injury casualty. Javier Hernández is developing the dreaded reputation as a player most useful coming off the bench. As for Rooney, he has been hampered for almost eight months by injury. Yet his ankle problems --he ended Saturday hobbling again -- do not fully obscure a suspicion that he is not growing into the all-around attacking colossus he promised to become when he arrived at United.
For much of Saturday, United looked a mediocre team suffering a New Year's Day hangover. It was dominated by a neat and creative West Brom team that ended the game with 68 percent of possession and 17 shots to United's five. Neville was lucky not to concede a penalty and earn a red card. When Rio Ferdinand did give away a penalty, United was reprieved as Peter Odemwingie dragged the shot wide and threw away his team's chance of famous victory.
For all that it has lost, United still has its dogged determination and its instinct for eking out victory. Outplayed and out of sorts it found a way to win. Rooney scored his first goal from open play since May with a gentle but accurate header that displayed the most precious ability of any striker: the instinct for goal. Hernández, yet again, scored as a replacement.
More than half way through the season United is the only team in the Premier League averaging more than two points a game again. It remains the team to beat and so far this season, no one has.
3. Gareth Bale will find a way. 2010 was a breakthrough year for Tottenham's left-sided Welsh lightning bolt. But Premier League defenses, helped by the permissive attitude of English referees, have quickly found ways to neutralize his thrusts -- chiefly by thumping him at every opportunity. On Saturday, John Pantsil of Fulham, quickly earned a yellow card for hacking down Bale, but largely succeeded in keeping the Welshman from creating danger from the wing.
One mark of a great player is that when one door is shut, he will find another way through. In a tight game, Bale made the difference. When Spurs won a free kick after 42 minutes, Bale had a brief chat with Rafael van der Vaart, then trotted forward, leaving the kick to the Dutchman. Van der Vaart smashed the ball toward the far post. Bale, standing near the penalty spot, flicked his head at the flying ball and deflected it past the wrong-footed Mark Schwarzer. It was an impressive flash of courage, reflexes and fast thinking. Bale could have had a second late in the game, but he lashed a right-foot shot over from close range. Even so, Tottenham's newfound defensive resilience, it kept a second consecutive clean sheet meant his first strike was enough.
4. Avram Grant can take a team out of the bottom three. Since November 2009, when he was at Portsmouth, every Premier League match Avram Grant has coached had ended with his team in the bottom three. That dubious run ended Saturday. West Ham started the day in last place. At home against, Wolves, the team immediately above it, the Hammers rode the luck that had so often deserted them and won, 2-0. West Ham leapt five places. The lugubrious Grant managed to avoid smiling on the sideline but when asked, by the BBC, how it felt to escape the bottom three he broke into a grin. "I cannot deny it is a good feeling,'' he said.
5. You never know when you are well off. During the first half of Birmingham City's 3-0 loss to visiting Arsenal on Saturday evening, the cameras panned to Alexander Hleb on the home bench. The Belorussian appeared to be in the middle of a vigorous internal dialogue as he smiled blankly, bobbed his head and twitched an eyebrow. By the time he came on, with Arsenal 2-0 up and the game lost Hleb could have been forgiven for asking himself what might have been. Hleb played almost 130 games in three years at Arsenal. In 2008, Barcelona called. It seemed like a step up, instead it was a step back. As Barça grew into greatness, Hleb became a peripheral character. By the end of his one season there, Hleb was saying he regretted leaving Arsenal. His downward slide has taken him to Birmingham, a club whose physical style, as he has belatedly noticed, does not necessarily suit him. He complained that he was "embarrassed" by Birmingham's play. His new manager, Alex McLeish has said Hleb is still damaged by his failure at Barcelona. Hleb's facial tics on the bench and his discouraged body language during his brief appearance suggest the boss has a point.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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