Premier League still must share English stage; Fergie roll continues
Manchester United, the only top-six team playing Saturday, knocked off Wigan
United is not functioning well, yet Sir Alex Ferguson keeps emerging victorious
Starting the day in last, Wolves trounced Blackpool to move ahead of three teams
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:
1. Why fans need to pay attention to the calendar - The Premier League is lurching into its final third with the action curtailed, for the second straight week, by the demands of the two English cups. Last weekend there was only one league game, the action pre-empted by the FA Cup. This Sunday brings the League Cup final, in which Arsenal faces Birmingham, meaning Spurs, who were due to host Arsenal, and Chelsea, scheduled to play Birmingham, get the weekend off. When Spurs, out of both cup competitions, face Wolves next Sunday, it will be only their second league game in over three weeks. The rhythm of the league season has been further disturbed by the Europa League. Manchester City and Liverpool both played in that competition Thursday and so could not play Saturday. Both will play Sunday. The upshot was that Manchester United was the only team in the top six playing on Saturday. It made the most of its chance to steal a march on its rivals.
2. Fergie knows a thing or two - Dimitar Berbatov is the top scorer in the Premier League with 19 goals. Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, has at times this season omitted the Bulgarian to play a five-man midfield. But with Manchester United's lead down to one point, Ferguson could not play it safe for Saturday's visit to unpredictable Wigan. United started with two strikers, but instead of Berbatov, Javier Hernández, a perennial benchwarmer, lined up alongside Wayne Rooney.
United's players started badly, unable to keep the ball or their tempers. Rooney struck Wigan's James McCarthy. Normally it would be a red card, but Mark Clattenburg, the referee, just gave naughty Rooney a quick lecture. As Wigan pressed, Edwin Van der Sar, the United goalie, turned away several close-range shots.
"For the first 20 minutes it was all Wigan,'' Ferguson told Sky television. "We have to thank our goalie for two or three tremendous saves"
After 17 minutes, United broke away. Nani surged down the wing. El Chicharito was perfectly placed to turn in his pass from close range.
"Getting the goal settled us down a bit,'' Ferguson said.
In truth, United only took control after its second goal in the 74th minute. Wigan did not cope with Van der Sar's long clearance. Rooney passed it through a gap and Hernandez scooted in to score his second. Wigan subsided. Rooney scored only his second away goal in more than a year. Fabio added the fourth.
United is not functioning smoothly, yet Ferguson keeps conjuring victories. This time he deftly switched his shells to uncover the Little Pea.
3. Quadruples all around - After Arsenal came from behind to beat mighty Barcelona, 2-1, in the Champions League, Arsčne Wenger let the word "quadruple" pass his lips. Maybe he was succumbing to the euphoria of the evening, or maybe it was irritation at the constant reminders that Arsenal has not won a trophy in six years. Arsenal's form is good. It has lost just one of its last 17 games, avoiding those mini-dips that have sabotaged its recent campaigns. But the road to four trophies would be long.
To complete a sweep of England's two domestic cups, the Premier League and the Champions League, Arsenal would have to play at least 22 games between Sunday and May 29 (the date of the Champions League final). That total could rise to 23 because an FA Cup quarterfinal, and Arsenal would probably play Manchester United at Old Trafford in that round, can go to a replay. Eight of those games could also conceivably go to extra time. Many of Wenger's squad will also play two games for their countries in the international break at the end of March.
At the moment, Arsenal has only three open midweeks between now and May 22, when the Premier League season must end. It already has a league game at Spurs to fit in somewhere. It is scheduled to visit Liverpool on April 17, the date of the FA Cup semifinal, so that game would have to be rearranged as well. It will be an intense and draining marathon.
Wenger will also need luck with injuries. His team cut United's lead in the Premier League to one point as it eked out a 1-0 home victory over robust Stoke on Wednesday. But the game also claimed two casualties: Cesc Fŕbregas and Theo Walcott. Fŕbregas will miss the League Cup final but should be back against Barcelona. Walcott may be out longer. In the past, Wenger has fielded teams of reserves in the English cups. Maybe it's a sign of his desperation, this season he has played much stronger teams in the previously despised League Cup. But facing Orient, a team two-and-a-half divisions below Arsenal, in the FA Cup last week, Wenger rested some regulars. His team paid the price when Orient leveled in the dying seconds to force a replay.
It is a measure of how seriously Wenger is now taking the League Cup that on Friday he declared Robin Van Persie as captain for Sunday's final. The opponent will be another robust team, Birmingham. If there is one player he might have been tempted to protect for later in the season it is the fragile striker. Since his latest return from injury, the Dutchman has turned an Arsenal team that always floats like a butterfly into one that consistently stings like a bee. Even if Arsenal wins on Sunday, it will end the day counting casualties and games as well as trophies.
4. The day's biggest winner - Everton, which beat Sunderland, 2-0, and Aston Villa, who thumped Blackburn, 4-1, continued to draw away from the scrum at the bottom of the table, but the biggest winners, in every sense, were Wolves, who trounced Blackpool 4-0.
Wolves started the day in last place. The victory catapulted them out of the bottom three and also improved their goal difference. It is now superior to any of the three teams below.
The issue for the teams at the bottom is not whether they can win games. It's whether they can win two, or even three, straight. Wolves beat Manchester United at the start of the month then failed to win either of its next two. It followed an earlier victory over Chelsea with three straight losses. Blackpool ambushed Spurs on Tuesday to arrest its plunge toward the bottom, but was woeful against Wolves. What both showed Saturday is how consistently inconsistent they are.
5. The immutable law of the ex - Players move around so much nowadays that it is almost inevitable that any Premier League game pits players against former clubs. Yet there was a satisfying sense of inevitability on Saturday when Kevin Nolan, who played 10 seasons and 345 games for Bolton, scored after 13 minutes to give Newcastle the lead against his former club. Yet there was also a sense of the inevitable when Newcastle turned yet another home game into a white knuckle ride for its fans. First, Danny Sturridge leveled. Since it was his third goal in three games since arriving on loan from Chelsea, that too had an air of inevitability. Then Newcastle was reduced to 10 men when Ryan Taylor, only playing because Joey Barton had injured himself in the warmups, was sent off early in the second half. Newcastle again showed its resilience by holding on for a draw. The Magpies may not be going nowhere, but they are taking an adventurous route.