Manchester United running away with title, Arsenal rebounds
1. United Cruises On: Manchester United is so dominant in the Premier League this season that it rarely deigns to pay opponents the compliment of the delivering the knockout punch.
On Saturday, United flicked aside QPR, 2-0, and scored the goal that ended the home team's illusion of points with 10 minutes left.
United took the lead after 24 minutes when Rafael hit a half-volley from outside the penalty area with such ferocity and accuracy that Julio Cesar, the QPR goalie, did not even have time to turn and wave as it flashed by. It was the 12th goal by a United defender in the league this season.
For the next 65 minutes, on a lumpy surface, United hardly threatened, but QPR, even though it had parity in possession, could barely lay a glove on its opponents. Loïc Remy managed one good shot that was well saved by David de Gea.
"We were in the game," Harry Redknapp, the QPR manager, told Sky the British cable channel, without much conviction.
Alex Ferguson told Sky, that it was a "scrappy game" but that he was pleased with "the defending part which we did very, very well,"
After 80 minutes, Ryan Giggs, who has been scoring goals at Loftus Road for 20 years, scored to secure the victory.
The two teams immediately behind United, Manchester City and Chelsea meet on Sunday. Even if City wins that and all its remaining games, United, which leads by 15 points, needs only to win seven and draw one of its remaining 11 games to clinch the league.
"Is it over?" Fergie was asked. "We're in a better position today than we were yesterday," he said with a grin before adding, without much conviction: "The only way we can approach it is to win the next game.
2. Arsenal Rebounds: With United strolling toward the title, the interest in the Premier League turns to the battles lower down the table.
One is the fight for spots in next year's Champions' League spots. Everton's chances seem to be vanishing after it conceded two late goals to lose, 2-1, at Norwich. It is six points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, which plays West Ham on Monday. Everton's promising season is crumbling.
Arsenal, which now only has the league to worry about, stayed in the hunt as it eked out a 2-1 victory at home over Aston Villa. It is one point behind Spurs.
Santi Cazorla scored five minutes after the start and five minutes from the end as Arsenal rebounded from two humiliating home cup defeats. Yet in between Cazorla's two goals, the Gunners put their fans, and their manager, through the wringer again.
Aston Villa is a team with a potent attack and a fragile defense. It created a series of dangerous opportunities in the first half but failed to take any. On the other hand, its desperate defending held Arsenal out and continued to do so even as the Gunners took control in the second half. But Arsenal's defense can also be brittle. After 68 minutes, Andreas Weimann simply ran at the middle of the Arsenal back four and was unchallenged as he shot low into the corner from outside the penalty area.
Over the course of the game, Arsenal had 26 attempts on goal. Olivier Giroud was particularly wasteful.
"You could see we were on the nervous side," said Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager. But his team's style often wears opponents down. When Cazorla hit the winner, it was the 23rd goal Arsenal had scored after the 80th minute this season, the most of any team in the Premier League.
Against a team in the bottom four, it was hardly impressive, but it was a victory.
"The most important thing was to get the three points," Wenger said. For one week at least, Arsenal did not leave the field to the sound of their own fans booing.
3. Them's the Breks: Brek Shea's Premier League debut came earlier than he might have expected Saturday. When Matthew Etherington, Stoke's left winger, limped off after 24 minutes, the American, on the bench for the first time since his January arrival from Houston, came on.
Shea had few chances to shine in attack, because Fulham dominated possession. The home team won the game, 1-0, after a breathtaking goal by Dimitar Berbatov.
Like Etherington, Shea is notionally a left winger, but he is a completely different type of player. Etherington is a tricky dribbler whose primary attacking job is to provide crosses on which the tall men in the middle of Stoke's attack can feed.
At 6-foot-3, Shea is another big body. He did not beat his fullback once. His most dangerous contributions came when the ball was swung in from the other flank. He won headers. He flashed a shot past the post. His flick from inside the penalty area drew an unnecessary, reflex handball from Ashkan Dejagah and won Stoke a penalty. Not for the first time this season, Jon Walters wasted it.
In defense, Shea sometimes dropped into the center of midfield and sometimes stayed wide on the left. This was Shea's first game since foot surgery in November. In defense, he rarely moved at more than a jog and usually failed to get close enough to opponents to apply pressure. Shea made just one tackle and one interception in his 65 minutes on the field. The question is whether he will be able to impose himself when he has played himself to full fitness.
4. Another MLS import makes a mark: Kei Kamara is only passing through at Norwich. The striker from Sierra Leone is on loan from Sporting Kansas City.
Saturday was not his Premier League debut. He played four minutes against Fulham earlier in the month. On Saturday he made a more significant mark. Kamara came on after 58 minutes with Norwich a goal down and struggling at home to Everton. Kamara narrowly missed one header. Then, with six minutes left, Kamara scored with a header after a corner. Norwich was inspired. Grant Holt scored a second in the fourth minute of three advertised injury time minutes to give his team a 2-1 victory.
Norwich can exhale. It had not won in its previous nine league games and had started looking down with some trepidation. But the victory lifted it eight points above the relegation places. Kamara has done his job.
5. That sinking feeling: One Premier League story line that could again run until the final weekend of the season, is the battle to avoid the drop.
Two of the bottom seven, Newcastle and Southampton meet on Sunday. For most of the others it was a grim Saturday. Wigan was the one winner. It walloped another struggling side, Reading, 3-0, to jump two places and out of the bottom three, ahead of Aston Villa on goal difference.
The one team that seems to be losing touch is Queens Park Rangers, which is seven points from safety. If you are not a QPR fan its season has provided a certain ghoulish fascination. It is like watching a man caught in quicksand. The more he thrashes around in search of safety, deeper he sinks.
QPR has changed managers, grabbing for the life belt that Redknapp claims he is. It has tried to float itself away from the bottom on a raft of cash it probably doesn't have. Saturday's loss to Manchester United showed that it has not bought itself a Premier League team.
Chris Samba is a committed center back and a threat in attack, he is neither quick enough nor skilful enough to justify a £12 million (or $18.3 million) fee or a £100,000 wage. The other big purchase, Remy, does look good enough, when fit.
Now, QPR must deal with bloated salaries and likely relegation. This will present a problem next season if Redknapp's squad is relegated.