City survives a test at QPR; Blackburn still under pressure
Man City trailed for the first time in a game this season but still won
Liverpool had problems finishing its chances in yet another draw
Blackburn manager Steve Kean remains under pressure after another defeat
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:
1. Surviving the test. Manchester City had not trailed in any game in the Premier League this season until Jay Bothroyd headed Queen's Park Rangers ahead in the 29th minute on Saturday. Inspired by a crazed crowd at compact Loftus Road, Rangers were harrying City out of its stride. The home team dominated the midfield battles. Almost every time QPR put a high ball into the goalmouth, City struggled. Yet as halftime approached, City rediscovered its poise. Edin Dzeko scored the sort of goal that justifies the huge sum of money City paid for him. After halftime, Dzeko set up David Silva for the sort of goal that justifies the only slightly less huge sum City paid for him. QPR came again. Heidar Helguson scored without knowing much about it. Once more, City rose to the challenge. Yaya Touré restored the lead. On its previous visit to west London, City drew at Fulham. QPR came close to earning a draw when it hit the woodwork. This time, City escaped with a 3-2 victory. QPR exposed a weakness, particularly against high balls, in the heart of the City defense. Near the end, with his team one goal ahead, Roberto Mancini acknowledged the problem by bringing on Kolo Touré in place of Dzeko, finishing the game with three center backs. The problem should be temporary. City was without its captain and defensive organizer, Vincent Kompany. At 6-foot-2 he wins a lot of the balls that on Saturday Micah Richards couldn't win and the 20-year-old Stefan Savic didn't seem to want to. In any case, City showed that it is good enough to overcome its mistakes. It took a couple of solid blows to the chin and is still standing, still five points clear.
2. A torturous anniversary. Manchester United celebrated the 25th anniversary of Alex Ferguson's reign as manager by naming a stand after him. The match that followed was anything but a party. United beat Sunderland, 1-0. The only goal came from one of the many players Ferguson has developed in his time at United, Wes Brown. Of course, Brown is now playing for Sunderland, but his former manager wasn't complaining. United's display was fitful at best. Wayne Rooney again started in midfield. The experiment with Rooney in midfield is not, so far producing an attacking spark. Instead Rooney appears to be replicating the Paul Scholes role of filling United fans with dread every time he launches himself, with complete abandon, into a tackle. Rooney made a lot of tackles on Saturday, but did not collect a yellow card. Indeed, he rather exemplified the United display: toothless in attack, comfortable in defense. It was United's fourth consecutive clean sheet since its 6-1 mauling by Manchester City. This time, they could not be said to have lived dangerously.
Ferguson, eager as always to praise a team managed by Steve Bruce, one of his former players, insisted Sunderland "hustled and played hard," but it was effort devoid of inspiration.
"Sometimes we have these emotional occasions," Ferguson told Sky television, by way of explaining the low-key display of his own players. "And sometimes it gets through to them."
Last week, after United beat Everton, Ferguson said it was nice to get a 1-0 victory. This week he seemed less sure of the virtues of such a result. "The last 15 minutes were torture," he said.
Ferguson wasn't very interested in looking back over 25 years. He just wanted to look ahead to the "pivotal" next three months. What his team needs to do, is "kick on. Kick on."
3. Under pressure. Blackburn, sick of its fans campaign against their own manager, forbade banners from Ewood Park on Saturday. It didn't do any good. A plane flew overhead shortly after kick off trailing a banner that repeated the mantra of the Rovers' fans: "Steve Kean out."
Kean wasn't the only manager under pressure. Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, is not known for his patience with coaches. Two consecutive league losses, including last week's 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal had brought Andre Villas-Boas a volley of criticism. He was called a "Muppet" on Twitter by Kevin Pietersen, a former England cricket captain, which is a first for the Premier League. He responded on Saturday by starting five midfielders. The result was a first half in which neither side wanted to lose and neither had a clue how to win.
"The first half was played to a low intensity by both teams,'' Villas-Boas told the BBC. It was dire.
Things improved a little in the second half. The Blackburn defense stood politely aside as Frank Lampard headed the only goal from close range. Chelsea's defense then creaked under pressure but was saved by Petr Cech, who had suffered a broken nose in the first half, Ramires and, right at the end, the crossbar. Both Villas-Boas and Kean ended with the results their fans expect of them. Villas-Boas was the happier. "We desperately needed to get back to winning ways," he said, a sentiment he repeated several times in his postgame interview. It was another unimpressive Chelsea display, but, with the pressure on, the result was the most important thing.
4. The joy of nil. Unlike Sunderland and Blackburn, Swansea had offer a little more than just hustle as it took on one of the Premier League's traditional Big Four on Saturday. Swansea passed crisply and attacked with pace that Liverpool often couldn't handle. The home team, meanwhile, threw everything at Swansea. Michel Vorm may have been unknown to English fans when he arrived at Swansea in the summer, but the goalie was on the bench for the Netherlands in the World Cup final. He showed why on Saturday as he saved every shot Liverpool put on target. Mark Gower wasted the best of Swansea's chances, shooting over from close range. Between them the teams produced that soccer paradox: the thrilling 0-0 draw. Swansea showed, once again, that it is good enough to achieve its target and survive in the Premier League. Liverpool, the only top seven team playing Saturday to drop points, suggested, once again, that it may not be good enough to achieve its target and finish in the top four.
5. The confidence trick. Confidence, athletes often say, is crucial to success. Of course success builds confidence. For Newcastle, this season has already brought unexpected success. The Magpies started Saturday both unbeaten and third in the standings. The confidence that is flowing through the players was visible in their victorious display at Stoke on Monday. Belief has also infected the fans. With the crowd at St James' Park roaring on Saturday, Newcastle tore into Everton. The display contrasted sharply with the nervy home draw Newcastle eked out against Arsenal in its first league game of the season. That was before the Magpies found confidence.
On Saturday, Newcastle raced into a two-goal lead after 29 minutes thanks to an own goal by Johnny Heitinga and a rainbow shot by Ryan Taylor. But confidence is not enough on its own. A team needs players. Newcastle started Saturday without two injured midfielders, Cheik Tiote, who is developing into one of the Premier League's dominant central midfielders, and the more erratic Gabriel Obertan. After 39 minutes another of Newcastle lost another midfielder when Yohan Cabaye, so impressive so far this season, limped off.
Newcastle's forward momentum largely evaporated. Jack Rodwell scored one for Everton, but the Newcastle defense, the meanest in the Premier League, held firm fairly comfortably. After the international break next weekend, Newcastle will play the two Manchester Clubs and Chelsea in consecutive weeks. Tiote should be fit for the next game, but Alan Pardew said after the game that Cabaye has a groin injury and will miss the next game. That will be at Manchester City, a team which can certainly match Newcastle for confidence.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.