Drama-filled, fickle Premier League slate leaves City in trouble
There were 27 goals in the seven games, eight coming after the 80th minute
Manchester City was outplayed by Sunderland but fought back for a 3-3 draw
Chelsea's Fernando Torres scored his first Premier League goal in 1,035 minutes
Five things we learned in Barclays Premier League action Sunday:
1. A wild afternoon. On a rare Saturday when all the games kicked off together at the traditional time of 3 p.m., the Premier League, for once, lived up to its reputation for unpredictability and excitement.
There were 27 goals in the seven games, eight of them came after the 80th minute with dramatic late swings at Manchester City, Wolves and Villa, where Fernando Torres finished off a 4-2 Chelsea victory with a sweetly taken goal, his first in 1,035 minutes of Premier League play (that's 17 and a quarter hours of futility).
It was a topsy-turvy afternoon. Four of the bottom-five teams won, and the two top-four teams in action did not. It was a bad day for Belgians -- Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen looking suddenly vulnerable at the hearts of the City and Arsenal defenses and Simone Mignolet, the Sunderland goalie, left strangely flat-footed by late shots into the middle of his goal. It was a good afternoon for Americans -- Clint Dempsey ended Fulham's goal drought while Eric Lichaj inspired Villa's vain fightback, setting up one goal and then scoring his first Premier League goal.
There was a lot of surprising fare for English fans to digest with their afternoon tea.
2. Good news for Manchester City. After being outplayed for 80 minutes by a sharp, smart and disciplined Sunderland team, Manchester City showed the heart of a champion to fight back and earn a 3-3 home draw.
Despite being deprived of Sergio Agüero by what manager Roberto Mancini has described as a "stupid injury," the attack looked menacing throughout. Carlos Tévez returned and showed he has not lost his instinct or appetite for action. More significant might have been the brief cameo of David Pizarro, whose appearance in the 81st minute coincided with City's late revival. City has been almost totally dependent on David Silva for midfield guile and creativity; Pizarro showed he, too, has an eye for a subtle pass.
On Monday, United escaped Fulham with a victory after the referee declined to give Fulham a late penalty. Alex Ferguson's crowing about the decision and leading questions from the BBC lured Patrick Vieira, now a City coach, into agreeing that referees were helping United over penalties. On Saturday, City's first equalizer came from a softy penalty awarded after Craig Gardner impeded Edin Dzeko. It was City's league-leading eighth penalty of the season. So Vieira and City can take consolation from the fact that maybe the referees are helping them.
3. The bad news for City. The draw brought to an end City's 20-game home winning streak. In November, City, briefly, led the standings by eight points. If United wins at Blackburn on Monday, City will trail by five points.
City's success this season has been built on the foundation of a rock-solid defense. On Saturday the defense was dire. Sunderland cut easily through the midfield and then, repeatedly, found time and space in front of goal. When it led 3-1 it was a fair reflection of the play.
Silva looked jaded. Dzeko and Mario Balotelli were fractious and irritable -- although that didn't stop Balotelli scoring twice. The return of Tévez may add a potentially valuable weapon on the pitch, but it cannot be good for team spirit or for the authority of Mancini.
Mancini summed up the match: "It was very important to play well but we didn't. We defended very badly. We made mistakes. I'm not happy with our performance."
City showed courage in salvaging a point but, for 80 minutes, it was outplayed at home by a mid-table team. It is in trouble.
4. Same old Arsenal. A run of seven straight victories -- six of them in the league -- had sent Arsenal soaring up the standings. Just when the high-performance machine seemed to be humming sweetly once more, the wheels fell off, yet again, with a 2-1 defeat at Queens Park Rangers.
The Gunners were outfought by a team struggling in the bottom three. The difference was epitomized by the way the Arsenal defense was bullied by Bobby Zamora, a robust 31-year-old journeyman center forward. Vermaelen was caught out for both goals, although the first had a lot to do with a brilliant matador's turn by Adel Taarabt, an ex-Tottenham player, who then finished with style for his first Premier League goal.
After the game, Arsène Wenger essentially told the BBC that his team had lacked the appetite for a battle.
"It was a team that played football against a team who played fighting to survive. I believed that extra special focus in every fight from the first to the last made the difference," Wenger said.
5. Villa subsides. In a season that had already provided a stark reminder that even the apparently blessed and heroic young athletes of the Premier League are mortal, too, the game at Villa Park was played under the emotional shadow cast by the news that Stiliyan Petrov, a Villa midfielder, has acute leukemia.
Petrov said he was inspired by a photo sent out on Twitter on Friday that showed Fabrice Muamba sitting up in bed for the first time since suffering a heart attack playing for Bolton on March 17.
Muamba has not attended a Bolton game since, but Petrov was in the crowd at Villa Park where he could be seen waving as both Villa and Chelsea fans applauded when the game clock reached 19, his shirt number.
Since Muamba's heart attack, Bolton has won both its league games. It won 3-2 at Wolves on Saturday. It is tempting to simply say that Muamba, like the Gipper, has inspired his teammates. Yet the three-game winning run that has lifted Bolton out of the bottom three, started the week before his heart attack and has come against three of the worst teams in the division. Indeed, among these complicated and mysterious emotional tides, Martin Petrov, no relation but a friend and Bulgaria teammate, seems to have drawn inspiration from Stiliyan. Martin revealed a "Be strong Stan!" undershirt after putting Bolton ahead.
Petrov's situation made no immediate difference to Villa's dire form. On Saturday it lost 4-2 at home to a mediocre Chelsea team. Villa was nonexistent as Chelsea built an early two-goal lead. Chelsea's attack wasted chances to increase the lead while its defense repeatedly handed Villa chances to come back. Finally, late in the second half, James Collins and Lichaj accepted their opportunities to draw Villa level.
The stage was set. Surely Villa would surge forward on the waves of crowd support, momentum and emotion. Instead, the home team simply sunk like a stone. Branislav Ivanovic was again ignored by the defense at a corner and scored his second slightly fortuitous goal. With the match won, Torres rediscovered his cool and applied the coup de grace.
There are five teams below Villa. Blackburn was idle. Last-place Wolves lost. The other three, Bolton, QPR and Wigan, all won. Villa has a cushion. It is 15th place and on 33 points, four more than 16th-place Bolton. This time last year Villa's near neighbor, Birmingham, was 15th on 34 points. It was relegated. Maybe its manager at the time, Alex McLeish, has learned something from the experience. Or maybe he is simply going to repeat the trick as Villa manager.
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