Once again last weekend, the three top teams in the Premiership all won their fixtures to maintain the two point differential covering them and all of them won their matches by two goals, though all with different score lines. Chelsea had the toughest test on paper as they faced Manchester United – though this iteration of the Red Devils is nothing like that the one that has been challenging for the title consistently over the last two decades – and a hat-trick from Samuel Eto’o gave them a 3-1 victory and made sure that the Blues kept pace with the teams above them in the table. United had briefly looked like they might mount a comeback in the final stages when Javier Hernandez pulled a goal back with 12 minutes to play, but they were unable to break through again and David Moyes finds his team six points outside the top four in his first season in charge.
Nevertheless, Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League next year do like receiving a big boost this week, as they are closing in on the signing of Chelsea’s two-time player of the year, Juan Mata, for a fee of around £40m. The potential transfer has riled Arsene Wenger, who believes that is part of Jose Mourinho’s masterplan to claim the title this season – since Chelsea have already played United twice, while both Arsenal and Manchester City still have to face them in the league again and they will now be stronger with Mata in their side. For now, the Gunners remain top of the pile following their 2-0 home victory over Fulham last Saturday, with Santi Cazorla scoring both, and they remain a point ahead of City, who surpassed 100 goals for the season their 34th match of the campaign, beating Cardiff 4-2 at the Etihad Stadium.
That loss saw Cardiff drop to the bottom of the Premiership on goal difference, below Sunderland who recovered from an early 2-0 deficit to share the points in their game against Southampton at the Stadium of Light. On the same number of points as the Bluebirds and the Black Cats are West Ham, who were beaten at home 3-1 by Newcastle on Saturday; while Crystal Palace moved out of the relegation zone thanks to a 1-0 victory over Stoke, giving manager Tony Pulis the satisfaction of defeating the club he was sacked from last summer. Two other teams moved away from the bottom three as Norwich struck late to beat Hull 1-0 at Carrow Road, while West Brom earned a point in their Monday night match against Everton, though the Baggies did also lose a sponsor as Zoopla said they would be ending their shirt deal with the club, following their refusal to sack Nicholas Anelka for the offensive quenelle gesture he made after scoring against West Ham in December.
Everton’s draw kept them a point behind Liverpool in the race for the top four, as the Reds also had to settle for a share of the points in their home match with Aston Villa, though they did recover from 2-0 down in the game to earn the tie. Spurs moved into fifth place with their fifth consecutive away league win – their most since the 1960/61 season, when they began their double winning campaign with 10 victories in succession on the road – as they defeated Swansea in South Wales, 3-1. The star of the show for Tottenham was someone who was seemingly punished by Andre Villas-Boas – not Emmanuel Adebayor, who admittedly did score two of the goals, but Christian Eriksen, who was blamed and dropped by AVB for a brief spell following the 3-0 defeat to West Ham in November. Once again in this match, Eriksen put in a display full of clever passing, composed touches and hard work, and the Dane played a crucial role in all three of the Spurs goals: he played in a pinpoint cross for the first that Adebayor had to simply get his head onto; then it was Eriksen’s ball inside the left-back that player Kyle Walker in to put in a cross that saw Chico Flores but the ball in his own net; and it was another touch from number 23 that released Danny Rose into space in the Swansea half and the youngster played Adebayor in for his second goal of the match.
This weekend the attention switches away front he league and onto the FA Cup – at least it will for those whose clubs remain in the competition, since Tottenham were beaten by Arsenal in the last round my love of the tournament has waned and will not be rekindled until next January. The fourth round starts with the Friday evening ties between Arsenal and Coventry – the Sky Blues lost 6-1 last season on a visit to the Emirates in the League Cup – and Nottingham Forest’s match against Preston North End. The highlights of the rest of the fixtures sees Kidderminster Harriers of the Conference travel to Premiership side Sunderland; Stevenage of League One take on Everton (a tie which Roberto Martinez ridiculous claimed Stevenage were the favorites for); Phil Brown will face his old club as his Southend team take on Hull; and there are potential upsets on the cards as three Championship teams host top flight opposition: Bournemouth vs Liverpool; Birmingham vs Swansea; Bolton vs Cardiff and Sheffield United vs Fulham. The two teams who will inevitably meet in the final, Chelsea and Manchester City, both have very winnable looking home ties as they face Stoke and Watford respectively.
Finally, the League Cup had its semi-final second legs this week and the two ties could not have been more different in terms of final results. Manchester City followed up their 6-0 thrashing of West Ham at the Etihad with a 3-0 victory at Upton Park, given them a 9 goal aggregate scoreline and taking their total number of goals in all competitions this season to 106 in 35 matches. In the other semi, Manchester United went into the second leg 2-1 down against Sunderland but looked to be heading to the final as they held a 1-0 lead over the Black Cats until the 119th minute (the away goal rule does not come into effect until after extra-time in the League Cup semi-finals) when David De Gea spilled a shot from Phil Bardsley into the net. There was more drama to come however, as United rallied in the final minute and Hernandez found the net and forced a penalty shootout, which turned out to be one of the worst such contests I have ever witnessed. Seven of the ten penalties were missed, as player after player stepped up and looked like they did not want to be on the pitch at Wembley to be thrashed by Manchester City, an honor that will ultimately go to Sunderland who “won” – if you can call it that – the shootout 2-1.