United, Arsenal cruise; Liverpool more relaxed under King Kenny
Both Arsenal and United seem to have hit their stride and are playing exceptionally
David Beckham might have caused a stir with Spurs fans by watching Arsenal
Liverpool is playing with a much more attacking approach under Kenny Dalglish
1. How quickly things change. Presumably quirkiness is part of the programming for the Premier League's fixture computer. This weekend's list of games quickly reunited teams that had met less than four weeks ago on Dec. 28-29. That rapid repeat provided a reminder of why it can be risky to draw definitive conclusions from one Premier League match.
In their post-Christmas games, Manchester United and Arsenal both squandered leads and drew at Birmingham and Wigan. The lost points were seen by some as symptoms of terminal decay. On Saturday, back at home, the only question for United and Arsenal was how big a boost they would give their goal differences.
Dimitar Berbatov had another of his hot days as he hit his third hat trick of the season for United in a 5-0 victory over Birmingham. The match was effectively over after the Bulgarian's first goal in the second minute.
Arsenal, with Robin van Persie back and back at his deadly best, crushed Wigan, 3-0. The Dutchman scored all three. He could have gone one better than Berbatov and also joined the growing list of this season's distinguished penalty missers.
United climbed back into first place. Arsenal stayed close on its heels. Both look in far more robust health than they did less than a month ago.
2. Bent gives title race a twist. Back on Dec. 28, Blackpool suggested that it could be a genuine contender for a place in Europe with a 2-0 victory at Sunderland. Manchester City emphasized that it was a contender, and showed how far Aston Villa had declined, with a 4-0 victory.
The return matches told a different story. Before Saturday, three players --Danny Welbeck, Asamoah Gyan and Darren Bent had scored 21 of Sunderland's 26 league goals. No one else had scored even one. Yet last week Sunderland sold Bent, to Aston Villa. The price, $30 million and rising, was good, but this is a club trying to move up in the world and it was letting go its most prolific striker.
But on Saturday, Bent's move seemed to give a jolt not only to the team he joined but also to the team he left. At Villa Park, Bent pounced after Joe Hart had parried a shot and buried the rebound for the only goal as Villa upset City, 1-0.
For Sunderland, for one day at least, Kieron Richardson, one of the great unfulfilled talents of English soccer, filled the void left by Bent. The left-sided midfielder scored his first two league goals of the season as Sunderland won, 2-1, at Blackpool. Victory cemented the Black Cats grip on sixth place, just one point behind becalmed Tottenham, seven points clear of seventh place Newcastle and nine ahead of Blackpool which is now down to 11th and nearer relegation to the Football League than elevation to the Europa League.
3. King Kenny's crucial edge. In an interview with the BBC last week, Tom Werner, now chairman of Liverpool as well as of the Boston Red Sox,, was grilled on the recent axing of Roy Hodgson, the manager his consortium had inherited. The club's management, he said, "had listened to the fans but not been guided by them.''
Of all Premier League supporters, Liverpool fans are perhaps the most unyielding in insisting on their "ownership" of the club and their role as custodians of its heritage. They never trusted Hodgson,. He made little effort to woo them -- if anything he alienated them with postgame comments. As the team struggled, the relationship soured. That in turn created an atmosphere at games, which only put more pressure on the players.
Dalglish was a great, great player but has a checkered record in his most recent stints as a coach. Since the end of his failed spell at Newcastle over 12 years ago only his hometown team, Celtic, had been tempted to hire him. That experiment ended quickly and badly. Werner clearly is unconvinced. Dalglish has only been hired until the end of the season. But the Scot has one clear advantage over Hodgson. In almost 20 years at the club as player and an initially successful coach, he won seven league and three European Cups. For the Kop he will always be King Kenny. It will take a lot for them to turn on him and his team, as they turned on Hodgson's team in a limp home loss to Wolves back in December.
On Saturday, Liverpool did not look so much a better team as a more relaxed one as it squashed pesky Wolves, 3-0. Liverpool in general and Fernando Torres in particular had been struggling desperately to score. Now they took the time to pick Wolves apart. Torres was presented with two relatively easy chances and finished both with ravenous aplomb.
This is still not a great team. But for the first time this season, the fans, so used to winning in style, could feel that they have their Liverpool back.
4. Mom, apple pie and a few precious league points. It was a pretty good day for Americans. Clint Dempsey scored both goals as Fulham won, 2-0, at home against Stoke. Dempsey scored the first from close range after 33 minutes. After 56 minutes he struck a triple blow. He drew the foul that earned a penalty and for which Ryan Shawcross was sent off, then got up and scored with the spot kick. The victory means Fulham, which had dropped into the bottom three, has bounced up to 14th.
In Liverpool, Jonathan Spector beat Tim Howard to score his first Premier League goal of the season and give West Ham the lead over Everton. West Ham seemed likely to gain a precious away victory when Frédéric Piquionne gave it the lead with four minutes left, but the striker's celebrations earned him a second yellow card, and the 10 remaining West Ham players conceded a very late goal to Marouane Fellaini. The 2-2 draw leaves Spector and the Hammers nailed to the foot of the table.
Brad Friedel meanwhile ended a week, in which he has tottered on the edge of bankruptcy, by locking the Villa vault against Manchester City. City had 24 attempts on goal, yet a combination of blocks, deflections and near misses meant Friedel only had to make one difficult save as his team earned a victory that edged it away from the bottom three.
5. Romeo, Romeo, what scarf is that Romero? Romeo Beckham is too young to remember his father playing in the English Premier League. That may change if, almost eight years after leaving Manchester United, daddy David gets his wish and plays a few games for Tottenham. The L.A. Galaxy, understandably, are not keen on it. Nor, depending on who is holding the microphone, is Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager. Nor are many Spurs supporters. Becks is a veteran "goodwill" ambassador for English sport. He has played in Manchester and Madrid derbies and in the caldrons of El Classico and United-Liverpool. He should know how much fans love to hate.
Yet he may have taken a misstep Saturday in winning over Tottenham fans -- many of whom believe it is better to be dead than red. Earlier this season, William Gallas, who had just arrived at Spurs from despised Arsenal in the summer, made the mistake of playing in red boots. He quickly stopped. On Saturday, Beckham took his son Romeo to Arsenal. That, in itself, may have been forgivable,. Not even Spurs fans would expect Becks to go to Newcastle to prove his commitment. But Romeo, who made a list of Britain's best-dressed men in 2010, turned up wearing a red scarf. Was it a fashion statement? Or, horrors, was he supporting Arsenal? That would be a sure sign of Beckham's unsuitability as both parent and potential Spurs player. But Romeo's lukewarm applause when Van Persie scored suggests that the scarf may simply have been to keep him warm.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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