Heroes & Villains: Lucky generals, willing foot-soldiers and reluctant sharp-shooters
RESULTS Fri 6 Apr Swansea City 0-2 Newcastle United Sat 7 Apr Sunderland 0-0 Tottenham Hotspur; Bolton Wanderers 0-3 Fulham; Chelsea 2-1 Wigan Athletic; Liverpool 1-1 Aston Villa; Norwich City 2-2 Everton; West Bromwich Albion 3-0 Blackburn Rovers; Stoke City 2-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers Sun 8 Apr Manchester United 2-0 Queens Park Rangers; Arsenal 1-0 Manchester City Mon 9 Apr Everton 4-0 Sunderland; Newcastle United 2-0 Bolton Wanderers; Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Norwich City; Aston Villa 1-1 Stoke City; Fulham 1-1 Chelsea
Roberto Di MatteoConsidered to be a caretaker at Chelsea until the summer, Roberto Di Matteo is doing his reputation no harm in this spell. Many felt that Di Matteo wasnÃ¢ÂÂt given enough time to turn things around when he was in charge at West Brom, but after Roy Hodgson came in and improved their results overnight, the Italian was the forgotten man when vacancies arose elsewhere.
While itÃ¢ÂÂs not beyond imagination that Roman Abramovich will offer Di Matteo the job at Stamford Bridge long-term, chances are that summer will bring the usual big-name recruitment drive, while Di Matteo will have made himself eminently employable.
In beating Wigan and resisting a determined Fulham fightback, Chelsea occasionally rode their luck but looked to have rediscovered that resilience and bankability they once enjoyed at home. It also looks to be a happy, united camp, which is a remarkable transformation from those dark days under Andre "AVB" Villas-Boas.
They say if you canÃ¢ÂÂt be good, be lucky. Chelsea might just have stumbled upon a manager who is both. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Mikel ArtetaThe matchwinner on a day to remember for Arsenal against Man City. The Gunners were every bit as good as City were shoddy in this one-sided 1-0 and their winning goal befitted the Arsenal performance. Arteta left Everton to play in matches of this prestige and with his classy, unfussy brilliance, he proved that heÃ¢ÂÂs well worthy of the bigger stage of the Emirates Stadium.
While CityÃ¢ÂÂs best players either went missing or were marked out of the game, Arsenal gave an expressive, confident display that proved the QPR defeat was a blip. A familiar scoreline for Arsenal, then, but had there not been Joe Hart heroics and world-class performances from Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, this could have been a hammering.
Wojciech SzczÃÂsny barely had a save to make behind the completely unflustered Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen, who in turned owed their calm to ArsenalÃ¢ÂÂs midfield. Arteta, Alex Song, and Tomas Rosicky ran the show to overturn the carping of critics who compared them unfavourably to last term's Fabregas-Wilshere-Nasri trio. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Manchester UnitedTitle No.20 looks in the bag now for Manchester United as they put eight points between themselves and their city rivals. They were helped on their way on Sunday by one of the most generous refereeing decisions youÃ¢ÂÂll ever see but this was a display of total domination against a QPR side who would probably have accepted a 2-0 defeat after 15 minutes.
Over the past six games United have collected 10 more points than City to completely alter the complexion of the title race. ItÃ¢ÂÂs UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs to throw away now and one canÃ¢ÂÂt help but feel it was Paul ScholesÃ¢ÂÂ reintroduction in January that turned the tide. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Luis SuarezLiverpool havenÃ¢ÂÂt got much left to play for in the Premier League but the fourth successive defeat that seemed likely for long stretches at Anfield on Saturday would have left morale at a very low ebb indeed. For that reason, Luis SuarezÃ¢ÂÂs point-saving late equaliser against lowly Aston Villa was worth its weight in gold to Kenny Dalglish.
Liverpool fans might tell you that had all of their shots that hit the woodwork this season had gone in theyÃ¢ÂÂd have amassed 13 more points; however, even that hypothetical would only raise them one league position and in the harsh world of Premier League football, a shot that hits the crossbar is still off target. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Grant HoltIt's a fair punt that The New Kevin Davies has been in the Heroes section more times this season than anyone else. Once more, against Everton on Saturday he dug Norwich out with his 13th Premier League goal of the season; two days later he intelligently led the line as the Canaries carved out a deserve win at Spurs. Wayne Rooney is the only Englishman to have scored more league goals than Holt, so weÃ¢ÂÂll say it again: get him on that plane. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Alan PardewIt seems that being linked with the England job sends managers spinning off-axis. In spring 2006, the beauty parade did Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough, Sam Allardyce's Bolton and Alan Curbishley's Charlton few favours; six years on, since the week after Fabio Capello's exit Harry Redknapp's Spurs have been on relegation form with six points from eight league games.
With that in mind, perhaps Alan Pardew's early withdrawal from the one-horse race Ã¢ÂÂ mocked at a time when Redknapp's coronation seemed imminent, inevitable and irrefutable Ã¢ÂÂ was yet another masterstroke from the Newcastle manager. Despite being in the top seven all season, the Magpies have somewhat flown under the radar compared to the media-dominating teams around them.
Using inherited players judiciously and adding to them with wise buys like Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, Pardew has taken a club in danger of implosion to a realistic chance of Champions League football. And if the best teams are marked by their ability to win even on a sluggish day through individual brilliance or teamwork, their Easter Monday win over a surprisingly threatening Bolton team marks them out as a genuine threat to the three London teams squabbling over the lower Champions League positions. Ã¢ÂÂ GP
StokeFar be it from us to deal in clichÃÂ©, but you really can't relax against Stoke, even if they're playing their 51st match of a stamina-sapping season. For the second time in three days Robert Huth equalised against a team with far more to fight for; although Villa outdid Wolves in holding on for a draw, their smallest home crowd of the season vocally aired their displeasure with players, manager, football and life. The Potters' five remaining fixtures include two (more) against drop-dodgers and two against Champions League aspirants: none can expect an easy ride. Ã¢ÂÂ GP
Paul Lambert The fact that Norwich Ã¢ÂÂ already safe and with seemingly little to play for bar 'pride' Ã¢ÂÂ were the more determined, hungry and composed side at White Hart Lane on Monday afternoon says as much about the Canaries and their manager as it does out-of-sorts Spurs and Harry Redknapp.
Having stuttered somewhat in recent weeks, taking just five points from their previous seven, it seemed as though the Premier new boys had their eyes on the beach after all but securing their top-flight status in the first six months of the season. But motivation didn't seem like an issue as they put a major dent in Tottenham's Champions League hopes, while also securing perhaps the most memorable victory of their own season.
Lambert's pro-activeness and touchline enthusiasm was in stark contrast to his opposite number, with Redknapp spending most of the game slouching in the home dugout seemingly unable to turn the tide in his team's favour. The Scot has instilled a tactically flexible City team with a determined work ethic and uses his squad intelligently according to the opponents.
While Brendan Rodgers has enjoyed huge praise for Swansea's superb showing this term, Lambert has perhaps been left in the shadows somewhat, despite taking his team further up the league ladder. Norwich fans may actually see this as a good thing, especially with the Ã¢ÂÂmanagerial merry-go-roundÃ¢ÂÂ likely to be in full swing this summer, including in North London. But with Norwich now four points and league places ahead of the Welsh side, perhaps he is a better candidate for manager of the year. Ã¢ÂÂ JM
Victor AnichebeSome Toffees fans remain undecided about Big Vic, Everton's top league scorer and the third-deadliest in the league on a minutes-per-goal basis. Overshadowed by Nikica Jelavic and no stranger to boos from the Goodison faithful, he refused to celebrate after putting Everton 4-0 up against Sunderland. Some might call this petulant, but we'd prefer to say it was an acknowledgement that the goal was clearly deflected in off luckless Jack Colback Ã¢ÂÂ and that after Anichebe's airshot from the first attempt. To wildly celebrate a goal like that would take the self-obsession of, say, Tim Cahill. Ã¢ÂÂ GP
Mario BalotelliIt looks like Roberto Mancini has finally run out of excuses for not-so Super Mario. From the kick-off at Asenal Balotelli looked like a red card waiting to happen and should have seen red after just 20 minutes for his horror tackle on Alex Song. Martin Atkinson probably would have done City a favour had he seen the potential leg breaker and dismissed the Italian; such was his lack of application.
The Balotelli sideshow is just one factor of many in CityÃ¢ÂÂs likely failure to win the title. An over-reliance on David Silva, a lack of width and an increasingly emotional manager have probably done for CityÃ¢ÂÂs title charge but itÃ¢ÂÂs such a shame to see genuine professionals like Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, Joe Hart and Sergio Aguero so badly let down by one of their team-mates in this encounter.
Kompany will probably lift the Premier League trophy eventually but you increasingly get the feeling that he wonÃ¢ÂÂt be passing it along the line to Mario, after his manager admitted that heÃ¢ÂÂs likely to have played his last game for City. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs a good player in there somewhere, but there's no greater indication of how far Balotelli's stock has plummeted than that many City fans would prefer to see Carlos Tevez at the club in August. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Lee MasonWeÃ¢ÂÂre not in the habit of hanging referees out to dry after a decision made in haste and reviewed at leisure... but thatÃ¢ÂÂs exactly what weÃ¢ÂÂre going to do this week. On Sunday at Old Trafford, Lee Mason didnÃ¢ÂÂt just make one bad decision; he made three for the price of one.
Not only was Man United's Ashley Young at least a yard offside, it was the faintest of touches from QPR's Shaun Derry and the harshest of red cards after just 15 minutes. Forget video technology: if referees are going to make knee-jerk decisions and players are going to dive, then weÃ¢ÂÂll still be debating bad decisions for decades to come.
Even more bizarrely, Mason seemed to make up his mind instantly rather than to take a second to discuss it with his assistants. As Jamie Redknapp put it, Ã¢ÂÂhe couldnÃ¢ÂÂt wait to send him off.Ã¢ÂÂ
Young shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt escape without any blame, either: he has previous for making the most of minimal contact before hitting the ground, like those other pesky foreigners Adam Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney... Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Mike Jones & Dave BryanIt wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a good weekend for officials elsewhere either, with assistant referee Dave Bryan failing to spot that Branislav Ivanovic was at least two yards offside before he gave Chelsea the lead against Wigan. It was cruel on the Latics, who deserved at least a point out of the match, and it was a decision that left Roberto Martinez furious.
"I don't want to go into the debate that it's very easy to referee against little Wigan," said the usually calm Spaniard, "but unfortunately, I believe this is the best league in the world and we should get better decisions than that." It remains to be seen if Martinez will be punished for his comments but one would hope common sense prevails and heÃ¢ÂÂs forgiven for his justified anger. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Mark HughesIt's hard enough to win at Old Trafford with your best players, and with just seven matches left for QPR to preserve their Premier League status, you might have expected Mark Hughes to give his side the best possible chance of causing an upset. No disrespect to Jay Bothroyd, but surely the Rs needed Bobby ZamoraÃ¢ÂÂs strength and leadership upfront.
Hughes also left Joey Barton out of the team toÃ¢ÂÂ¦ well, weÃ¢ÂÂre not exactly sure but it was something to do with saving BartonÃ¢ÂÂs suspension until later in the season. When they will probably need the points even more. After they picked up none at Old Trafford. RightÃ¢ÂÂ¦ Ã¢ÂÂ MB
Gary CaldwellMore evidence, if needed, of what a cruel game football can be. At Stamford Bridge, Caldwell made an uncharacteristic burst forward just minutes after DiameÃ¢ÂÂs equaliser for Wigan and was presented with a golden opportunity to notch what might have been the winning goal for his relegation-threatened side. Instead of going with his head, the defender Ã¢ÂÂ who a fortnight earlier had calmly notched a winner at Anfield's Kop end Ã¢ÂÂ tried to chest it down and the opportunity was quickly gone. Within seconds, Chelsea broke away and scored. Caldwell will be hoping that wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a season-defining moment in WiganÃ¢ÂÂs battle to defy gravity once more. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
WolvesThe weekend could have gone worse for Wolves Ã¢ÂÂ the teams closest to them all lost, too Ã¢ÂÂ but time is running out for Terry ConnorÃ¢ÂÂs men, six points adrift with six games left after six straight defeats.
Saturday's tea-time kick-off at Stoke gave them the knowledge that Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan's losses meant they could halve the gap. They were even given a leg-up with a fortuitous opener when David Edwards's run and air-shot sufficiently confused Asmir Begovic to let Michael Kightly's through-ball bounce past him.
But this seems a side without self-belief. ConnorÃ¢ÂÂs admission that he didnÃ¢ÂÂt feel there was a foul in the lead up to StokeÃ¢ÂÂs winner was admirably honest in this blame culture era but perhaps it also revealed a weakness that has permeated onto the pitch: an acceptance of their fate. Ã¢ÂÂ MB
SunderlandGoing anywhere nice for your holidays, lads? Not yet you aren't. After tearing up the table in Martin O'Neill's first couple of months with seven wins in his first 10 league games, Sunderland have only won two of the last 11 games in an all-competition run incorporating a Hawthorns hiding, a Blackburn beating, late surrenders to Man City and (painfully) Newcastle, and a chaotic Cup exit at home to Everton.
The Toffees again twisted the knife on Easter Monday, winning 4-0 with a much-changed team. A goalless Easter leaves Sunderland back in the bottom half, only a point below eighth place but only three points above 14th, much less glamorous Ã¢ÂÂ and miles behind their Europe-chasing neighbours. Ã¢ÂÂ GP