Time running out for United's pursuers; Torres gives Blues hope
Manchester United leads the EPL by six points with with four games to play
Chelsea kept pace with United, but its 3-0 win over West Ham was unimpressive
West Bromwich's Roy Hodgson is a good candidate for manager of the year
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:
1. Sun shines on United. Manchester United beat Everton 1-0. It did not score the winning goal until seven minutes from the end. That may sound close. It wasn't.
Everton was unbeaten in seven Premier League games. United fielded a team with Darron Gibson at the heart of midfield and Jon Evans in central defense. Don't expect either to start against Schalke in the Champions League semifinal first leg Tuesday.
Yet Everton barely had the ball. It did not manage a dangerous strike on goal. United dominated. This United team may lack the spectacular individual stars of earlier seasons -- Cantona, Ronaldo, the young Rooney or the younger Giggs -- but there is a pleasing crispness about the accuracy, speed and intelligence with which it constructs attacks. On a gloriously sunny afternoon, United regularly carved Everton open and could well have found the net several times before Javier Hernández again showed his uncanny ability to score from two yards. His header left Tim Howard looking strangely bemused in the 83rd minute to give United a victory that preserved its six-point lead in the standings.
United has four games left, although two of those are against its immediate pursuers: Chelsea and Arsenal.
Before Saturday and before he fielded a rather weakened team, Alex Ferguson, the coach, had played the hype game and insisted the Premier League battle was very much alive. In so doing he was able to take yet another swing at Arsčne Wenger, the Arsenal coach, by specifying that Chelsea was United's only real rival.
On Saturday afternoon, Ferguson struck a very different tone.
"Games are running out for our rivals,'' he told the BBC before taking a dig at the media. "The thing that puzzles me is they keep saying Arsenal and Chelsea have got to play us still, like we're going to lose to them."
It is tempting to say we learned Saturday that United will almost certainly win a record 19th English league title this year. But, like Ferguson, we knew that already.
2. Heavy weather for Chelsea. United's designated challengers kicked off in the early evening in the eye of a ferocious local storm. While other parts of London enjoyed a warm spring evening, it rained so hard at Stamford Bridge that the players appeared to be splashing through a marsh. The ball often refused to roll. Some of the lights briefly cut out and Roman Abramovic, the drenched owner, fled for cover.
Ultimately, Chelsea won 3-0. The Blues did not reduce United's lead but they did trim its advantage in goal difference, the first tiebreaker, to just two. But where United was in total control against a respectable foe, Chelsea lived on the edge against a bad team shorn of its best player. Scott Parker, elected the English Football Writer's player of the year on Friday, missed the big game Saturday with an injury.
Chelsea created plenty of chances against West Ham's mediocre defense, but it also allowed the Hammers quite a few dangerous chances.
Frank Lampard gave Chelsea the lead just before half time. Yet with nine minutes left, that was still the only goal. That is when Chelsea finally brought on its 50 million-pound man, Fernando Torres. El Nino, it turns out, can cope with bad weather. In the 84th minute, as West Ham's defense stood and watched, Fernando Torres spun smartly, throwing up an arc of spray, and smacked a sharp low shot into the corner of the net. It was a natural, instinctive striker's goal from a man who seems to have been shackled by doubts since, at least, the World Cup last summer. It was the Spaniard's first since arriving at Chelsea in January -- in his 732nd minute on the field for the club. It broke his drought and West Ham's resistance.
Even if Chelsea wins all its remaining games, it might not catch United. Nevertheless, the hope that Torres has rediscovered his spark, will give the Blues some hope.
3. Manager of the year? English soccer's annual awards free-for-all has kicked off with the journalists and the players selecting their players of the year (Parker for the former, Gareth Bale for the latter). There are also multiple awards for managers. Last year the league sponsors broke with their tradition of giving their trinket to the manager of the champion, and picked Harry Redknapp. The manager's association picked Roy Hodgson, who was just leaving Fulham for Liverpool.
Hodgson crashed to earth at Liverpool and was fired. Yet if the voters remain bored with Fergie, Hodgson is looking like a pretty good candidate again. So is the man clearing up the mess Hodgson left at Anfield.
On Saturday, West Brom, which was languishing at the bottom when it appointed Hodgson, drew 2-2 at Tottenham. It is 12th, six points clear of the drop zone. It must be safe now.
Meanwhile, Kenny Dalglish, can do little wrong at Liverpool. Andy Carroll, a high-priced January signing, was absent injured for the game against Birmingham. Dalglish has used Dirk Kuyt at central striker. This time he added to Maxi Rodríguez. The Argentine hit a hat trick. Kuyt also scored and, confirming that Dalglish really has the magic touch at the moment, Joe Cole scored the fifth two minutes after Dalglish sent him on.
Liverpool is flying. It is in sixth but suddenly only four points out of fourth place. If the two teams above it, Spurs and Manchester City, keep stumbling, a miracle is not out of the question.
4. Good news, bad news. Sunderland had not won in 10 matches. Its hopes seem to ride entirely on its star striker, Asamoah Gyan. That load increased after 25 minutes Saturday when the only other striker available, Danny Welbeck, damaged a hamstring. Sure enough, after Sunderland fell behind to Wigan, one of the desperate teams snapping at its heels, it was Gyan who levelled. Then, disaster. Gyan injured a hamstring so badly that he had to be carried off on a stretcher. On the sidelines, manager Steve Bruce was a picture of gloom. Yet without a striker, Sunderland scored three times in 11 minutes, two of the goals struck by Jordan Henderson. It won 4-2.
It is now seven points clear of Wigan and danger. Gyan has the summer to recover.
5. Building a grudge. Fulham, according to former manager Roy Hodgson, is one of those clubs for which many fans of other teams have a soft spot. To put it another way, it's a small, harmless club that doesn't kick opponents and is not much of a threat to win any major trophies.
Wolverhampton and its fans do not seem to be among the secret admirers. After Bobby Zamora, the Fulham striker, suffered a broken leg after a tackle by Karl Henry, the Wolves captain, earlier this season, Danny Murphy of Fulham said Wolves were "too pumped up." This week Henry told Murphy to shut up. Though the two kept chattering away as the fans booed Murphy on Saturday. Murphy reportedly ended the first half with a cut on his head.
By then, Steven Fletcher had put Wolves ahead.
In the second half on a hot afternoon, tempers boiled. Mark Hughes, known as Sparky in his playing days, but normally a very calm coach, received a red card after booting water bottles up and down the touchline in a fit of pique. He told the BBC he deserved to be sent off for "missing three of the bottles."
In the stands, Hughes dug out his cell phone and telephoned his assistant to ask for Zamora and Andy Johnson to be sent on. Eighteen seconds after he came on, Johnson collected a header from Zamora to score. Fulham's players and bench celebrated as if Johnson's goal had won the league. In fact, it means little for Fulham, but it cost the Wolves two precious points.
Hughes complained that the match "looked a little much for the officials today.'' But who would have thought that Wolves-Fulham would turn in a rivalry that is too hot to handle?
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.