Rooney, Nani inspired against Wolves; Van Persie strikes again
Manchester United responded to its CL elimination by destroying Wolves
Robin van Persie seemed off sorts but still scored a spectacular goal
Liverpool continues to be wasteful in front of goal but has Luis Suarez to thank
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League.
1. Back on track? Manchester United responded to its elimination from the Champions League by scoring more than one goal in the Premier League for the first time since it beat Norwich, 2-0, at home on Oct. 1. United's 4-1 victory over Wolves on Saturday was its best performance in any competition since it beat Chelsea, 3-1, on Sept. 18. Of course, a dreary one-paced Wolves team at home might have been just the prescription to snap United out of whatever has been ailing it. Wolves were lumbering after shadows all afternoon. Nani and Wayne Rooney both found space and time on the edge of the penalty area to take aim before shooting the goals that put United two up after 27 minutes. Scoring twice was an unfamiliar feeling for United. "Sometimes you get the second goal and it relaxes everyone," Alex Ferguson, the United manager told Sky television. "Getting the second today did that."
United, starting five players who were 21 or less, rediscovered its composure and attacking verve, scored twice more in the second half and might have had more. And, for 90 minutes at least, reports of the death of the United defense following the season-ending injury to Nemanja Vidic, looked exaggerated. Matthew Jarvis tormented Chris Smalling, who is not a fullback, and put over a string of crosses. One was nodded in for the Wolves goal by Steven Fletcher but the United defense, with Rio Ferdinand back to his best, dealt comfortably with everything else.
The last time United was knocked out of the group stage in the Champions League, in 2005, it responded by going on a little tear over Christmas. That's a good omen. On the other hand, it ended the season in second place, eight points behind Chelsea. That's a bad one.
2. Michael Carrick is a midfielder, Wayne Rooney isn't. Injuries and frustration in the transfer market have left United light at fullback and in midfield. That explains why Ferguson again used two players out of position, Smalling at fullback and Phil Jones in midfield. But he ended the experiment of playing Rooney in midfield.
Instead, Michael Carrick played at the heart of the team, while Rooney played in attack and United functioned much better. Carrick may be unspectacular and at 30 he might be slowing, but he made United more solid in defense and more fluent in attack.
Rooney once again showed his eye for the deadly pass behind the fullback, but he can make those dropping off the attack. And playing up front puts him closer to goal. It was no coincidence that, restored to the forward line, he broke an eight-game scoring drought with two sharply taken goals, although Wolves' poor defending probably helped.
Rooney has a reputation as a streaky scorer.
"Hopefully that's Wayne on one of his little spurts now," Ferguson said.
Well, if that's going to happen, Ferguson needs to continue to use Rooney in his natural position.
3. Happy birthday sweet 125. History is one of the English soccer's global selling points. That might explain why Arsenal made such a big deal Saturday of its 125th anniversary. This column does not want to poop the Gunners' party, but 125? What sort of anniversary is that? Presumably in five years, kickoff at the Emirates will be delayed for the 130th anniversary and maybe after that for the 131st and so on. Furthermore, the celebration rather drew attention to Arsenal's relative lack of history. If we count Newton Heath and Manchester United as essentially the same club, 12 of the other Premier League members are older, led by Bolton and Villa who are both 137 (and, hey, their fans could do with a party, maybe their meeting at Saturday could have been turned into a celebration too).
Arsenal's opponent on Saturday, Everton is eight years senior and spent much of the afternoon bullying its younger host, without ever being able to deliver on its threat. Meanwhile, Robin van Persie spent much of the afternoon looking as if he'd consumed too much soda and cake.
"It was not his greatest game," Arsčne Wenger, the Arsenal manager told Sky. "He admits that."
But amid some sickly misses, Van Persie suddenly turned into the party magician pulling a stunning volleyed shot out of thin air and leaving Tim Howard flat-footed.
"We are very happy and grateful," Wenger said. " It was not only a great goal but there were three points at stake."
In October 2002, 16-year-old Wayne Rooney came on as a substitute for Everton and scored a spectacular goal in the last minute to end a 30-game Arsenal unbeaten run. On Saturday, Everton threw on another teenage Liverpudlian, 19-year-old Conor McAleny. In the dying seconds, he burst past the Arsenal defense and hit a volley just wide. Arsenal won, 1-0. Everton, showing the discretion that greater age brings, had proved the perfect party guest.
4. Suarez must score. Just how badly Liverpool pummeled Queens Park Rangers at Anfield on Saturday depends on whose stats you believe. Opta credits Liverpool with 25 shots, eight of them on target. The BBC counted only 21 strikes, but thought 15 of them were on goal. While that's quite a big difference, (and, really, what's so hard about counting shots?) either total is a lot. Luis Suarez was at the heart of almost every Liverpool threat. According to Opta he had seven goal attempts. He also created a string of chances for others, notably Maxi Rodriguez who had five cracks at goal. Liverpool was unlucky. It hit the woodwork. Radek Cerny, QPR's backup keeper played a blinder. But some of the chances should have been put out of his reach. Some of the misses were bad. Suarez actually hit one shot away from goal. As so often happens, when the besieged defense caved, it caved completely. Suarez was left utterly lone barely five yards from goal. It was too good a chance to miss. He headed it in with ease.
Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, insisted on seeing the glass as full and, after all, the 1-0 victory ended a damaging run of four straight home league draws. He drooled about the soccer his team played and complemented his strikers for refusing to lose heart.
"It takes a lot of courage to get in there and have another pop when you've missed a chance," he told Sky before adding that he believes this is just a phase. "Eventually the lot of them are going to score two or three."
That's undoubtedly true, but sooner would be better than later and more than once would be good too.
5. The corpse twitches. After a short, undistinguished history, Wigan, and its small posse of fans, only reached the Premier League in 2005. Somehow it has hung around ever since. For the past two seasons, the club has placed its faith in the eternally optimistic Roberto Martinez and his insistence on passing soccer. The results have been frequently awful. Often this season Wigan has looked dispirited, confused and out of its depth. But that was the case last season too, and, amid the numerous awful results, it took enough points from fellow strugglers, particularly in the final month, to survive. Two weeks ago it eked out a 2-1 victory at sliding Sunderland. It followed that victory by simply capitulating, 4-0, at home to Arsenal. On Saturday, it traveled to, West Brom, another team floating near the relegation zone and rediscovered its fighting spirit. WBA took the lead. Wigan hit back with the first goal Victor Moses has scored in the league for a year and a penalty by Jordi Gómez. Then it clung on to win, 2-1. Suddenly, Wigan was out of the bottom three. On any given Saturday, it's a good bet that Wigan will be the worst team in the Premier League, but don't bet against mixing in just enough good results to ensure it sticks around for another year.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.