TEAMtalk picks out some of the key points around the grounds from the 27th round of fixtures in the 2012/13 Barclays Premier League season.
Fulham 1 Stoke 0, by Nick Hext
Dimitar Berbatov was the star man for Fulham and you have to think the Cottagers would be in a very troublesome position without their talisman.
It was a fantastic finish from the Bulgarian to beat Stoke’s ever impressive goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and he provided the rare moments of magic in a contest that never quite got going.
Cottagers number one Mark Schwarzer saved Jon Walters’ penalty but it definitely wasn’t the toughest stop the Australian has needed to produce in his career.
Stoke continue to stay in mid-table thanks to a fantastic home record but they aren’t too hot on the road and that was certainly the case at Craven Cottage.
Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones offered a little bit of spark from the bench but it wasn’t the Potters at their best in this lunchtime offering.
Arsenal 2 Aston Villa 1, by Chris Burton
After the week that Arsenal have endured, the sense of relief around The Emirates on Saturday was almost tangible.
Arsene Wenger has come in for plenty of criticism of late, and cracks have started to appear as the pressure has taken its toll on one of the most distinguished managerial minds in the business.
Wenger will be more relieved than most to have seen his side return to winning ways against Villa, allowing some of the focus to deflect away from disappointing displays in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.
Wenger can point to the fact that Arsenal have now won their last three Premier League fixtures, and four of their last five, and are only a point adrift of Tottenham in the race for a top-four finish.
The Gunners continue to do things the hard way, though, with it looking like it would be another afternoon of moans, groans and boss-baiting at The Emirates as Villa clung onto a 1-1 scoreline for dear life.
Santi Cazorla, who had earlier broken the deadlock, arrived on cue to dig Arsenal out of a hole and put a positive shine on a game which saw Arsenal knocking on the door for much of the second half, only to find no-one at home.
The fact that Villa scored when the Gunners were dominating will concern Wenger, as will the fact that Wojciech Szczesny made such a meal of trying to deal with Andreas Weimann’s low drive – with defensive errors continuing to cause Arsenal unnecessary headaches.
They are, however, back in the winning habit and looking forward to a derby date at White Hart Lane next Sunday which could go a long way towards shaping the respective campaigns of north London’s fiercest rivals.
Norwich 2 Everton 1, by Tom McDermott
Everton’s hopes of securing a fourth-placed finish were dealt a bitter blow in the last 10 minutes of their game against Norwich City at Carrow Road.
David Moyes’ side thought they had done enough for at least a point but in the end they only had themselves to blame for the manner in which they collapsed.
For Chris Hughton and Norwich, it looked for long periods like their winless streak would continue but debutant Kei Kamara injected the kind of fighting spirit Norwich lacked earlier in the game and veteran Grant Holt did the rest in the dying moments.
Moyes’ men had the chances after the break to finish the game off but it looks like the best Everton can hope for this season is a Europa League spot.
QPR 0 Man Utd 2, by Mark Buckingham
‘Routine’ may be a boring word to describe United’s win today, but the leaders were rarely stretched in opening up a 15-point gap at the top. David de Gea had one meaningful save to make and, while United’s passing was not at its sharpest, they showed flashes of quality which proved decisive.
Rafael was at the core of those, scoring a stunning goal to give United the lead before spraying a superb cross-field pass to create a chance for Robin van Persie. Rafael also demonstrated the worth of having a man on the post from set-pieces when clearing Chris Samba’s header off the line. Arguably the best right-back in the Premier League at the moment, Rafael can also lay claim to being one of the most improved players this season after showing greater maturity in his game.
Another key reason for United’s dominance at the top of the table is their ability to score goals from all areas of the pitch, particularly when the strikers are having an off-day. United have had 17 different players score in the Premier League this season, with Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young yet to get off the mark.
United’s goal threat is a stark contrast to the potency, or lack of it, possessed by QPR, who have had nine different players contribute to a meagre total of 19 goals in 27 games. Harry Redknapp believes getting Bobby Zamora and Loic Remy on the pitch will be key to keeping QPR up, but that looks a forlorn hope. Zamora looked well short of match sharpness on his first start since October before going off with an ankle injury on top of his recent hip troubles. Remy, on his first outing since suffering a groin injury, looked lively after coming on as a substitute, but he can’t be expected to single-handedly keep QPR in the top flight.
Another area of concern would be in defence, with QPR’s slack marking presenting United with at least four clear-cut headed opportunities. Samba still looked a bit rusty and there were too many occasions when QPR’s full-backs were too far away from the centre-halves.Reading 0 Wigan 3, by Tim Oscroft
Wigan’s time in the Premier League has often been a precarious one, but the signs are that their regular battle to avoid the drop is under way after their comprehensive win at the Madejski Stadium.
Having soaked up a lengthy spell of pressure, Roberto Martinez’s men took their chances when they came to burst Reading’s balloon just before the break, then killed off the game in expert style just after the interval. Sterner tests are on the horizon, but three consecutive home games, starting with Liverpool, could put the Latics on the road to safety once again – but will the FA Cup prove to be a fatal distraction?
Reading, in sharp contrast, endured a day they will want to forget in a hurry. The Royals’ post-Christmas revival looks like a distant memory, and Brian McDermott’s side failed to force Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi into any meaningful saves.
Not taking advantage of a decent spell in the first half came back to haunt Reading when three goals in quick succession either side of the break put the game virtually beyond reach. Pavel Pogrebnyak’s rash challenge with over a third of the game left made things even worse, and McDermott has a huge task on his hands with 11 games to go.
West Brom 2 Sunderland 1, by Daniel Storey
Is there a striker that is better with his back to goal than Romelu Lukaku in the Premier League currently? With the Belgian’s strength, power and pace continuously causing Sunderland problems it is so easy to forget that Lukaku is just 19.
Do the FA need to make a clarification on penalties awarded for handball? Craig Gardner had his arms in an ‘unnatural position’ but is that enough if the contact is not deliberate? And if arms are by the side of the body (as was the case for Sunderland’s turned down appeal) does that mean no penalty? Both Steve Clarke and Martin O’Neill had markedly different views, but is that just club bias or do they both have logical arguments?