Fulham's Dempsey on target again; Chelsea fortunate against Wigan
Chelsea got lucky with both its goals in a 2-1 win over Wigan
Clint Dempsey took his season tally to 21 goals in all competitions
Liverpool continued to show a woeful inability to put the ball in the net
Five things we learned in Barclays Premier League action Saturday:
1. Chelsea rides its luck. When Chelsea desperately held off 10-man Benfica on Wednesday to reach the semifinal of the Champions League, it wasn't just the fans at Stamford Bridge who were cheering them on. Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle, Chelsea's three rivals in the battle for the two remaining places in next season's Champions League will also have wanted them to win. (After all, no one really believes that Chelsea can beat both Barcelona and Real Madrid to win the competition and steal an automatic place).
On Saturday, Chelsea faced Wigan at home in the Premier League to start a run of nine matches in four weeks. Chelsea had already signaled its worries about fixture congestion by launching a forlorn attempt to have next Sunday evening's FA Cup semifinal against Spurs moved to Friday, to allow it more time to prepare for its home match against Barcelona. On Saturday, it again demonstrated its fear of exhaustion by making eight changes form the team that had started against Benfica. It should have paid dearly for taking resurgent Wigan so lightly, but instead escaped with a highly fortuitous 2-1 victory that closed the gap on Spurs to three points.
In the first half, Chelsea struggled horribly in midfield where the three replacements, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and Raul Mereiles, simply could not cope with the blossoming Victor Moses. Even so, when Chelsea did attack, Juan Mata and the still menacing Didier Drogba repeatedly threatened the Wigan goal.
In recent weeks, Branislav Ivanovic has shown an uncanny knack for appearing in the right place at the right time. He scored twice from close range at Aston Villa last week. On Saturday, he did it again to poke in the first Chelsea goal, or maybe that should be the wrong place as he was clearly offside when the ball arrived. After a pause, while a crowd of Wigan players calmly explained the laws to the referee, the game restarted. Moses sliced through the Chelsea defense. Franco di Santo shot, but Ivanovic, again in the right place, cleared off the line.
Wigan did level with a ferocious strike by Mohamed Diamé. Then, instead of defending the precious point, charged after victory. With time running out, Gary Caldwell, a center back, joined the attack but wasted his chance. Chelsea exploited the gap in the Wigan defense ruthlessly on the counterattack. Fernando Torres, who had fallen over the first two times a shooting chance beckoned, hit a volley with sweet power but true to his luck it struck the post. The rebound cannoned into Mata and bounced back into the Wigan net.
The result left Roberto Martinez, the Wigan manager, with a "feeling of injustice."
Torres meanwhile recorded his fifth assist, his highest tally in a Premier League season. That is not why he's in the team. He might have been left with the feeling that he would prefer the sort of garbage goal that Mata and Ivanovic scored.
2. Tired Tottenham. It is perhaps a mark of respect when your opponents set out from the start to defend even though it is playing at home. That was Sunderland's approach against visiting Spurs on Saturday. And Spurs can take consolation from the fact that it was not hit with the sort of sucker punches with which Sunderland tripped Manchester City and, in the FA Cup, Arsenal, at the Stadium of Light.
Yet the 0-0 draw continues Tottenham's slow slide away from a seemingly certain third-place finish. Its formation was also cautious as it started with an extra midfielder. Worse its passing was slow and hesitant. Tottenham has lost its verve. On Saturday, it rarely looked like solving the problem Sunderland posed, a problem Spurs will need to solve regularly if they are to become a genuine contender. Instead it failed to score for a third straight away game. It did not help that Tottenham's few good chances fell to Rafael van der Vaart, who seems to have lost his scoring touch.
The good news is that the average position of the teams that Tottenham faces in its last six league games is 14.5 in a 20-team league, with only Fulham, which visits White Hart Lane on the last day of the season in the top half, and it is in 10th place. For now, Tottenham seem to be running in mud.
3. Dazzling Dempsey. The big time might finally be beckoning for Clint Dempsey. The American is reportedly a summer target for Arsenal, where Arsène Wenger seems to have abandoned his obsession with saving money buying players who are cheap because they haven't yet reached their primes and is now prepared to save money by buying players who are cheap because they are passing their primes.
This season, Dempsey has taken one of those sudden leaps with can characterize an athlete's learning curve. The game seems to have come into even sharper focus for a player who was always smart and hard working. He has gone from journeyman to borderline star.
On Saturday, Dempsey revealed a rarely seen but valuable weapon in his armory when he put Fulham ahead at Bolton from a free kick. He added a second with a trademark far post header after a late run. He also had a strike ruled out for offside and missed a chance for a hat trick. Dempsey also played a role in the buildup to Fulham's final goal in a 3-0 victory.
The two goals took Dempsey's tally for Fulham this season to 21. He has scored 15 in 31 Premier League games, close to the gold standard of a goal every two games, even though he has frequently started in midfield.
At the relatively advanced age of 29, Dempsey seems to be entering his prime.
4. Liverpool touch wood. When Luis Suarez hit the Aston Villa post with a glancing header in the second half at Anfield on Saturday it was, the BBC reckoned, the 33rd time that Liverpool had hit the woodwork this season.
On that occasion the ball bounced tantalizing along the line to a surprised Shay Given. The Villa goalie flapped the ball away.
But Suarez is clearly a quick learner. When Daniel Agger headed the ball against the post a few minutes later, the Uruguayan was waiting to head in from close range.
Suarez's goal rescued a 1-1 draw for Liverpool. That is hardly a distinguished result. Villa has been in free fall. After Chris Herd gave it a smart early lead, it offered very little. It is the sort of foe that should be devoured at Anfield.
This column has wondered before how it is that the various statistical services can vary so wildly on their numbers. Opta calculates that Agger's header was only the 28th time that Liverpool has collected splinters, but even so, says that number is nine more than any other club. The problem is that Liverpool is wasteful in every way. The BBC and Opta disagree wildly on how much possession Liverpool had (50 percent or 69.5 percent, take your pick) and how many shots (21 or 24) but both agree that Liverpool managed only five shots on target. That's pretty meager. Liverpool is going to finish in midtable because it is no better than a midtable team.
5. Hair raising. This column is hip. It fully understands the importance of fashion to the rich, fit, young males who populate the Premier League. Since everyone has bright boots and tattooed arms these days, the easiest, and most visible, way to make statement is with a wild hairdo. But the column is at a loss to decipher the statement Meireles was making on Saturday. The Chelsea midfielder clearly doesn't put as much effort into maintaining his avant-garde coiffeur as Mario Balotelli. Meireles seems to have lost control of his hair. His Mohawk is running wild. He seems to have a drowned squirrel glued at a rakish angle across his head. it is a gruesome but fascinating sight. He is going to be hard to beat in the fierce contest for the most embarrassing haircut in the Premier League.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.