Heroes & Villains: the weekend's winners and losers
Who left their mark and who hit the skids this Premier League weekend? Mark Booth investigates
RESULTS (click team name for web-wide club news feed) Sat 21 Jan Norwich City 0-0 Chelsea; Everton 1-1 Blackburn Rovers; Fulham 5-2 Newcastle United; Queens Park Rangers 3 -1 Wigan Athletic; Stoke City 1-2 West Bromwich Albion; Sunderland 2-0 Swansea City; Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-3 Aston Villa; Bolton Wanderers 3-1 Liverpool Sun 22 Jan Manchester City 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur; Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United
Winning the Premier League requires a broad range of skills. Back in the first third of the season, Manchester City showed fluency as they put opponents to the sword with freewheeling football drawing admiration from all quarters. The Christmas period was a test of their mettle which City just about passed, but for their latest victory, the league leaders must thank the lords of fate.
Not only did Tottenham's Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe conspire to waste a golden opportunity to win the match in injury time, but the Premier LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs foremost protagonist left his mark on the game in predictably idiosyncratic style. ItÃ¢ÂÂs impossible to read Mario Balotelli at the best of times but the did-he-didnÃ¢ÂÂt-he-mean-it argument on his Scott Parker tread will remain a mystery to all but the striker. Had any other player been responsible there would be no debate but Balotelli invites controversy upon himself at every turn.
As it was, Balotelli stayed on the pitch and was the coolest man in the stadium when he sidefooted home in the 94th minute to seal the three points. CityÃ¢ÂÂs next five games (Everton A, Fulham H, Villa A, Blackburn H, Bolton H) look relatively straightforward when compared to Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs (Stoke H, Chelsea A, Liverpool H, Norwich A, Spurs H) and they will be relieved to escape this, one of their trickiest remaining assignments, with their title credentials intact.
Danny Welbeck & Antonio Valencia
Welbeck's performance at Arsenal showed exactly why he might feel that he deserves a better contract. It wasnÃ¢ÂÂt just his match-winning finish but his link-up play with Valencia and willing running that characterised a hugely impressive performance from the striker. It was another efficient win from Manchester United, who seem to have the happy knack of winning games without playing particularly well.
Over the course of a season any successful side needs individuals to take responsibility and in Welbeck and Valencia, United have two players who will do just that as they look to hang on to CityÃ¢ÂÂs coat-tails. If the teams keep matching each other point for point as they have been doing, their meeting at the Etihad Stadium on the 28th April might just be the match that decides matters.
Norwich CityÃ¢ÂÂs backline
NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs 22nd match since returning to the Premier League brought their first clean sheet. While Chelsea certainly looked the likelier to break the deadlock at Carrow Road, it was credit to the Canaries defence that the score remained level. John Ruddy was handed the man of the match champagne but there should be a glass each for his defenders. Daniel Ayala, Zak Whitbread, Kyle Naughton and Russell Martin worked in tandem to nullify the threat of Fernando Torres, who was withdrawn after 77 frustrating minutes.
Andy Johnson & Clint Dempsey
After Danny Guthrie gave Newcastle the lead just before half-time at Craven Cottage it looked bleak for one of the leagueÃ¢ÂÂs most inconsistent sides. Fulham had offered nothing in the first half to suggest that they could get back into the match, but the introduction of Andy Johnson changed the game. Johnson's direct drive into the heart of NewcastleÃ¢ÂÂs defence created FulhamÃ¢ÂÂs second, while the fourth was a penalty won by Johnson after taking the ball around Tim Krul, who was left with no choice but to take him out.
Dempsey, meanwhile, notched a hat-trick Ã¢ÂÂ and if the first goal was fortunate, the second two were goals of the highest quality, both of them clinical thrashes across Tim Krul into the far corner. A wonderful servant, Dempsey has now scored 51 goals for the club.
Like he was never away. The Aston Villa loanee was largely anonymous against former side Wolves but popped up when it counted with two excellent finishes to fire Villa to 11th on manager Alex McLeishÃ¢ÂÂs 53rd birthday. A move to the ever-improving MLS might not be the semi-retirement it once was but KeaneaÃ¢ÂÂs match-winning performance suggests that the LA Galaxy forward might have crossed the Atlantic at least a season too soon.
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs no doubt that KeanÃ¢ÂÂs players are standing firmly behind their manager and itÃ¢ÂÂs paying dividends as Blackburn climbed out of the bottom three with a draw at Everton. David Goodwillie has shown in flashes that he might prove to be a smart acquisition for Kean, who is turning the volume down on his critics with each passing week.
It seemed the eyes of the country were on Loftus Road for QPR's relegation showdown with Wigan Athletic and Mark HughesÃ¢ÂÂs side didnÃ¢ÂÂt flinch, securing a convincing 3-1 win. There was a lot of nonsense being spouted in the lead-up to the match, unsurprisingly centring around Joey BartonÃ¢ÂÂs Twitter account, but the players kept their focus and Hughes picked up his first three points as manager. With reinforcements being lined up from across the world on Tony FernandesÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂlimitlessÃ¢ÂÂ budget, the Rs can start looking up the table at last.
When Gardner revealed this month that he was suffering from homesickness, it looked like his days at Sunderland were numbered Ã¢ÂÂ especially after being linked with a loan back to former club Birmingham. "I don't think that anybody wants him to leave the football club,Ã¢ÂÂ said Martin OÃ¢ÂÂNeill after seeing Gardner score the goal of the day on Saturday Ã¢ÂÂ a beautiful dipping 25-yarder that sealed yet another win for in-form Sunderland. OÃ¢ÂÂNeillÃ¢ÂÂs powers of persuasion may still be tested before January is out, but given the Ulsterman's Clough-like ability to foster team spirit, Gardner would benefit from seeing things through to the summer as the Black CatsÃ¢ÂÂ ascent up the Premier League table continues apace.
Gareth Bale & Jermain Defoe
A stupid, crazy end to the game began as the hapless Stefan Savic allowed Bale and Defoe to break clear. Bale put too much on his sidefooted pass across to Defoe, who failed to adjust his legs and could only slide the ball wide. This was SpursÃ¢ÂÂ golden opportunity to truly join the title race but it wasn't to be after Ledley King subsequently took out Mario Balotelli Ã¢ÂÂ who might himself heave a sigh of relief at not being in this section Ã¢ÂÂ and now the Manchester clubs have pulled clear of Spurs. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs no shame in leaving the Etihad Stadium empty-handed this season but the manner of this defeat clearly hurt Tottenham who looked shell-shocked at the final whistle.
The Arsenal support
This wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a case of a few isolated idiots; there was widespread booing at Arsene WengerÃ¢ÂÂs decision to replace the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with the out-of-form Andrei Arshavin. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs no doubt that it was a baffling decision but quite what the Arsenal fans hoped to achieve with their emphatic reaction to the substitution is a mystery. After two disappointing defeats, and facing champions who knew they had to keep up with their cross-city challengers, the last thing a team needs is a chorus of negativity from their own supporters Ã¢ÂÂ and targeting Arshavin will have done nothing but further damage the playerÃ¢ÂÂs ailing confidence.
That said, it was a terrible substitution that might have cost them a point.
God knows what happened at half-time at Craven Cottage but Newcastle were every bit as bad as Fulham were excellent in the second half. Whether the Magpies thought the game was won or not, their defending was erratic to say the least, as Andy Johnson and Clint Dempsey were given a license to breach their defence at will.
Alan Pardew has deservedly won praise for his masterminding of NewcastleÃ¢ÂÂs expectation-defying first half of the season, but he was too slow to react to FulhamÃ¢ÂÂs reshuffle when Brian Ruiz was removed from the centre of midfield and they were overrun for most of the second half, shipping four goals before Pardew looked to his bench to change things. Even then, it was a negative substitution, a recognition that the game was up, and Newcastle slipped to a heavy 5-2 defeat.
Save for one genuine moment of inspiration when Torres had Ruddy at full stretch with a flick of the outside of his boot, it was another disappointing showing from the ÃÂ£50m striker at Carrow Road. He's now gone 15 hours without a goal Ã¢ÂÂ his longest dry patch in English football Ã¢ÂÂ but the most troubling aspect of TorresÃ¢ÂÂ performance was the second-half performance in which the Spaniard looked lethargic and ponderous, finding blind alleys with overambitious dribbles that were easily snuffed out by NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs resolute defence.
After a more encouraging display last time out against Sunderland, the striker saw his frail confidence take another hit after another missed sitter from 10 yards saw him withdrawn for Romelu Lukaku on 77 minutes. The consensus thus far has been that Torres needed games to restore his confidence, but how long can Villas-Boas Ã¢ÂÂ hardly in the world's safest seat himself Ã¢ÂÂ stick with a player whose misfiring is so obviously costing his team valuable points towards a Champions League berth?
In an unhappy Saturday evening for Liverpool at Bolton, Johnson was found wanting on numerous occasions, either failing to stop Martin Petrov getting past him or, worse, going completely AWOL. Yes, Johnson gets forward readily, but too often he is found to be positionally naive and caught too high up the pitch to fulfil his defensive responsibilities. Any England supporters looking forward to the summer should be hoping Fabio Capello finds a cure for his Micah Richards-phobia or get used to heart palpitations come June.
Your heart has to go out to the on-loan midfielder, who may now face another three months out of action after fracturing a cheekbone against Aston Villa. ItÃ¢ÂÂs bad news for Arsene Wenger, too, who would have been hoping for the 20-year-old to pick up some valuable first-team experience at Molineux. After spending last season on the treatment table, itÃ¢ÂÂs another season of frustration for Frimpong who will be hoping more Ã¢ÂÂDENCHÃ¢ÂÂ times lie ahead in 2012/13.
Not an inspiring co-commentary spell from the new Wales boss, who namechecked Mario Bolochelli, Sergio Ramos (he meant Juande) and David de Silva. Fingers crossed he has an easier time remembering his own players' names.