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Manchester United broke Arsenal hearts with a late goal to complete a rather epic double over their north London rivals. No, it wasn't the 8-2 hammering of August, but this was pretty devastating in its own right. The Gunners were clearly outplayed in the first half and deservedly went down a goal after Ryan Giggs swung the ball in for Antonio Valencia to head past Wojciech Szczesny, but the hosts replied in the second half.
Although Robin van Persie's miss after Tomas Rosicky had carved open the United defence was a minor atrocity, it was a clear sign that Arsenal were coming back into things. Better, after all, to create chances and miss them than not create anything at all, which was the story of the first half. A goal was coming, and it looked like the hosts were going to be the ones getting it, despite Danny Welbeck coming very close to making it 2-0 before Per Mertesacker cleared expertly off the line.
When Arsenal's time to strike came, it did so with lightninght speed, the ball taking about six touches between Laurent Koscielny winning possession off Rafael da Silva in his own penalty box and van Persie slotting home brilliantly at the far post, a first-time effort following a gorgeous reverse pass by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was a great moment for Arsenal, and one which was instantly defused when Arsene Wenger opted to remove Oxlade-Chamberlain for Andrei Arshavin.
It was an unpopular move (Robin van Persie shouted out in dismay when he saw who was coming on and off), and one that was to backfire as Arshavin had some involvement in Danny Welbeck's 81st minute, failing to track or challenge Valencia as he caused chaos on the right wing before linking up with Park Ji-Sung and cutting the ball back for Welbeck in the centre. With the whole goal to aim for, he couldn't miss. He didn't.
With the 2-1 loss, Arsenal remain in fifth, five points back of fourth place Chelsea. 36 points from 22 games is the Gunners' worst showing since Wenger took over more than a decade ago, and the pressure is building fast on the long-term manager. United, meanwhile, keep pace with Manchester City in second - they're just three points back of the top spot.
Seconds after taking off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal came quite close to being down another winger. Some neat play around Anders Lindegaard's box ends up with Theo Walcott going into a flying challenge with the goalkeeper. The England man lost, ending up flying head over heels and smacking his face quite hard into the Emirates turf. That, in medical terminology, looked like an ouchy. Walcott's on the ground for some time but after some treatment manages to continue.
Instead of losing a winger, however, Arsenal have ended up down a goal. Lackadaisical defending by Andrei Arshavin allowed Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia to combine, and the latter pulled back for Danny Welbeck with basically an open goal to aim at. The striker makes no mistake, blasting past Wojciech Szczesny to put Manchester United back in the driver's seat. That's pretty unfortunate for Arsenal - they've looked the more likely to score since Robin van Persie's equaliser and have had a good second half, but this is right back to square one.
What a goal by Robin van Persie! The Dutchman makes up for his earlier miss with an excellent counterattacking goal. Wayne Rooney and Rafael da Silva look like causing the Arsenal back line real problems, but Laurent Koscielny steps up, wins the ball, and immediately picks out Tomas Rosicky. The Czech midfielder passes forward to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who takes a few touches before sending in a beautiful reverse pass to van Persie, making a diagonal run towards the left. Arsenal's captain hits it first time, with Anders Lindegaard able to do little more than tip the brilliantly-aimed shot onto his far post and in.
So, it's 1-1 and the Gunners are right back in the game. Both teams can win this now, and there are fifteen minutes left. What does Arsene Wenger do? He takes off Oxlade-Chamberlain, his best attacking player, and replaces him with Andrei Arshavin. The crowd at the Emirates, so delirious after the goal, is unhappy. Meanwhile, Nani limps off after a Koscielny stamp, but it looks like he'll be ok.
Arsenal really are all over Manchester United now. The visitors are on the back foot and being forced into some last-ditch defending to keep their narrow lead intact. Robin van Persie, who's by and large responsible for the Gunners not having scored a goal, did much better work on the left, cutting the ball back for Tomas Rosicky, a sequence of play that eventually led to Aaron Ramsey blasting the ball against Patrice Evra's chest. There are other shooting chances by Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but at this point the hosts haven't forced Anders Lindegaard into a serious save.
As if to point out that even a defensive United are capable of causing serious danger to Arsenal's back line, Danny Welbeck burst clear of Per Mertesacker and beats Wojciech Szczesny with a dinked effort that looks like it'll make things 2-0. Mertesacker, however, was having none of that, and the German import pulled off a spectacular sliding clearance just as the ball was about to cross the line.
This is a fun game now.
Good grief. Arsenal should be level just minutes into the second half, but they've contrived to throw away an absolutely glorious chance for an equaliser. Tomas Rosicky did brilliantly to catch Manchester United out and surge forward, and they're two-on-two with Rosicky and Robin van Persie against their guests' young centre backs. Rosicky feeds the captain, van Persie does well to force Jonny Evans to go to ground, waltzes around him, waits for the opening to appear at Anders Lindergaard's near posts, and then blasts the ball well wide. That was utterly, utterly dreadful.
Anyway, better to be missing chances than not having any at all. Aaron Ramsey's just blasted over after good work from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and although the hosts are still having defensive problems (despite replacing the terrible Johan Djourou with youngster Nico Yennaris at right back) they look like they're going to give United a run for their money. Still 1-0 to the visitors at the Emirates though.
Yeah, that was coming. Manchester United are 1-0 up over Arsenal and it's all about the wingers. Nani and Ryan Giggs combine to tear apart poor Johan Djourou, and Giggs spots Antonio Valencia's late run towards the back post. A sweet cross finds the Ecuadorian unmarked two yards out, and it's simplicity itself for Valencia to nod home to give the visitors the lead. Where Thomas Vermaelen was, I'm not really sure.
That goal, incidentally, came in first half stoppage time and was virtually the last action of a half which featured little but said goal and Phil Jones managing to get himself hurt while marking Theo Walcott. It's not been a great advert for Premier League football, but the goal will change things - Arsenal are going to have to commit more to the attack rather than simply relying on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to try to do everything on his own. Robin van Persie will have to do more if the Gunners are taking anything away from this one.
That's a waste. Manchester United work hard down their right and Antonio Valencia finds himself clear of the nearby defenders. Instead of driving towards Wojciech Szczesney's goal, the Ecuadorian instead passes back to Ryan Giggs, and although he manages to get a pass off to Wayne Rooney the opportunity is gone, as evidenced by Rooney's rather opportunistic dive when tugged by Alex Song. The England man's penalty appeals are rightly waved off by Mike Dean.
Now there's a another chance for them to waste, coming from the other flank. A mistake by Johan Djourou sees Nani completely in the clear down the left, and the Portuguese drives in on Szczesny's goal and looks certain to at least draw a save from the young Polish goalkeeper. Instead of trying to slip the ball between Szczesny's legs or blast in at the near post, Nani opts for a cute finish into the far corner, which is hit so poorly it doesn't even manage to go out of play.
Arsenal are losing their discipline a little bit here now. Alex Song's lucky to get away with a flying elbow on Rooney and Aaron Ramsey's just been booked for a foul on Giggs. We're getting close to the end of the first half, and it's 0-0. Both teams could be doing much better.
Now there was a decent chance that broke down so far away from a shot nobody will remember it. Arsenal build well from the back and Robin van Persie, playing very deep, is able to release Aaron Ramsey on the left. Had the midfielder taken the ball in his stride, he'd have been behind a stretched defence and able to cross. Instead, he fails to do much of anything with it and Chris Smalling is able to mop things up.
At the other end of the pitch, Manchester United build a strong, sustained attack, taking advantage of some defensive naivite from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Patrice Evra manages to get into the box on the ball and is in prime position to cut the ball back to Danny Welbeck only for the Arsenal defence to recover and just about clear the danger. Nani tries something similar a few minutes later, and the same thing happens again before Evra gets the ball and Nani's finally able to get a shot away. Wojciech Szczesny saves at his near post, but United are definitely in the ascendency here. May not remain 0-0 for long.
Better from Manchester United now. If the defending champions are going to win this match and keep pace with Manchester City, they're going to have to exploit their major advantage over Arsenal - their wingers vs. Arsene Wenger's fullbacks, who are actually centre halves pretending. They're working very hard down both wings, with Nani and Antonio Valencia causing problems and slinging in plenty of crosses, and the home side's defence has looked hardly convincing in dealing with them.
But that's good from Arsenal, too, who once again are inspired by teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who blows past Patrice Evra as though the Frenchman isn't there before squaring the ball to Theo Walcott, who does Theo Walcott things before the ball eventually ends up in row Z. That whole move was started when Alex Song obliterated Wayne Rooney in midfield, much to the delight of the one fan in the stadium who makes noise. We're still at 0-0, but it looks like there are goals in this one.
That's a huge blow for Manchester United and it came from absolutely nothing. No, it's not a goal - it's worse. Right back Phil Jones has gone down in a heap while trying to keep pace with Theo Walcott, and worse, he collapsed with no contact whatsoever. The resultant attack is eventually cleaned up by Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, but Jones is in huge distress and a stretcher is signalled for. It looks as though it's an ankle injury, but we'll have more news on that later.
Rafael da Silva is the man to replace the teenager (and a very competent replacement at that), and he immediately gets involved as Arsenal look to break down the left with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A flying tackle from the newly-introduced Brazilian stops the attack in its tracks, and United will be looking to calm down after a relatively poor start. The visitors might be down one of their better players, but it's still 0-0 and 11 vs. 11, so anything can happen.
So far so good for Arsenal against Manchester United - their midfield's looking very comfortable against the less-than-dynamic duo of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. If you'd said that Giggs would be starting as a central midfielder in this fixture against Arsenal 20 years ago, someone would probably have committed you. He's a remarkable player and has had a brilliant career, but deploying him like this might not be the wisest thing in the world.
Anyway, we've had our first shot of the match, and it's Welsh Aaron Ramsey who tries it with a long-range effort against Anders Lindegaard. Unlike compatriot Gareth Bale, who scored in amazing fashion during Tottenham's earlier 3-2 defeat, Ramsey gets nothing on his kick and Lindegaard is easily able to gather. A few minutes later, Theo Walcott cuts inside and tries exactly the same trick. He gets exactly the same result. We're still at 0-0 here at the Emirates.
We're off and running at the Emirates where Arsenal are hosting Manchester United. It's the visitors who kick us off in their blue and black away kits, and they managed to kick the ball out of play within the first thirty seconds for a goal kick. They win Wojiech Szczesny's long punt forward, but immediately turn the ball over to the Gunners defence, who then pass the ball back to their keeper and so we get to do the whole thing over again a few more times.
Finally Arsenal get bored of not attacking and it's youngster Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain who provides the impetus, robbing Phil Jones as the right back tried to break down the wing. Oxlade-Chamberlain did well to get into the area and in good position to cross, but with Robin van Persie lurking at the far post the delivery was unconvincingly hacked clear by Jonny Evans. Good start for Arsenal, but United are sure to reply.
Time for the weekend's biggest match. While Manchester City vs. Tottenham may have had more ramifications at the top of the table, it can't compete with the raw emotion of Arsenal vs. Manchester United. Arsenal are wounded but wanting to take revenge after the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford, and with United once again being forced to field a fairly weak midfield they may well get it. Rio Ferdinand does not make the lineup, meaning that Robin van Persie gets to go against Johnny Evans and Phil Jones. Could be interesting.
Arsenal lineup (4-3-3): Wojciech Szczesny; Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Johan Djourou; Alex Song, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott.
Arsenal substitutes from: Manuel Almunia, Park Chu-Young, Sebastian Squillaci, Andrei Arshavin, Yossi Benayoun, Ignasi Miquel, Nico Yennaris.
Manchester United lineup (4-4-1-1): Anders Lindegaard; Patrice Evra, Johnny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling; Nani, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia; Danny Welbeck; Wayne Rooney.
Manchester United substitutes from: David de Gea, Rafael da Silva, Fabio da Silva, Paul Scholes, Park Ji-Sung, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez.
Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur contrived to put all of the excitement of an entire football match into a period spanning no more than ten second-half minutes and then injury time. Quite why they did this is unclear, because it meant the rest of the game was fairly dire, but it made for interesting watching thanks to the five goals scored when the teams were actually doing anything interesting.
After nothing happened for almost an hour, the game burst to life when Samir Nasri raced onto a through ball played by David Silva and lashed past Brad Friedel, and City looked set to seal an easy win when a corner kick was bundled home by Joleon Lescott. Spurs weren't planning on going down without a fight, though, and a terrible attempted back header by ersatz centre back Stefan Savic gifted Jermain Defoe with the chance to race around Joe Hart and roll into an empty net.
The visitors were right back in the game at 2-1, and better was to come. Nothing much looked like happening when Gareth Bale received the ball at the edge of the box, but the Welsh dangerman opened up his body beautifully and sent a curling effort that dipped over Hart's outstretched hand and made the score 2-2.
At this point, both teams apparently decided that they were bored of playing, and the rest of regular time was marked only by Lescott elbowing Younes Kaboul in the face for no reason as well as a possibly deliberate Mario Balotelli stamp on Scott Parker's heroic head of heroic hair. Neither looked very fun for anyone except Lescott and Balotelli. The time between the four goals, incidentally, was a mere nine minutes.
With neither team looking threatening all the way into injury time, it fell upon Bale to bring things back to life. The winger burst through the City centre, skipping clear of the defenders and squared for Defoe to tap in, but the pass was a little too far ahead of the striker and he was only able to divert it inches past the post. Then the ball went up the other end and Balotelli managed to goad Ledley King into fouling him in the penalty box.
It was Balotelli who ended up with the chance to preserve City's 100% home league record. He took the spot beautifully, and the home side won 3-2. Big, big win there, and City are now six points clear at the top of the table - at least until Manchester United take on Arsenal momentarily.
A poor match finally got a much-needed spark at the Etihad Stadium where absolutely everything is happening. After there being one shot on target in the opening 56 minutes, four goals were scored in the next nine, and it's now Manchester City 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur.
First up was the hitherto invisible Samir Nasri, who burst into the centre with a clever diagonal run before being expertly picked out by David Silva's through ball before blasting the ball straight past Brad Friedel. Two minutes later the league leaders' advantage had been doubled when Joleon Lescott somehow contrived to bundle in a corner without knowing where the ball was.
It looked like game over for Spurs, but they came roaring right back when Jermain Defoe capitalised on a hideous Stefan Savic error to round Joe Hart and roll into an empty net, and then Gareth Bale drew the visitors level shortly thereafter with a lovely first-time curler that the England goalkeeper couldn't quite keep out. This sure did get interesting in a hurry.
A crucial match in the Premier League between two very capable teams is completely unsurprisingly a snoozefest so far. We're now at the halfway point in Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur, and here's what's happened so far as first place hosts third:
Arsenal look to avenge the most embarrassing loss anywhere in the Premier League this season when they host Manchester United on Sunday.
Well, what a Super Sunday this should turn out to be! There are no real surprises in the lineups -- the Toure brothers are missing due to the Africa Cup of Nations, while Emmanuel Adebayor can't play for Spurs due to his loan from City. Here are your lineups:
Tottenham Hotspur Starting XI (4-4-1-1) Brad Friedel; Kyle Walker, Younes Kaboul, Ledley King, Benoit Assou-Ekotto; Aaron Lennon, Luka Modric, Scott Parker, Gareth Bale; Rafael Van der Vaart; Jermain Defoe.
Game Date/Time: Sunday, January 22, 8:30 AM ET, 1:30 PM local
Venue: Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England
TV: Fox Soccer Channel (USA, English), Fox Deportes (USA, Spanish), SkySports 1 (UK), Sportsnet World (Canada)
Manchester City take on Tottenham Hotspur in the first of two huge Sunday matches.
The 'Sky Six' has been broken. Liverpool have struggled and played dull football for most of the season, but this was perhaps their worst performance yet, and it's become obvious that they are no longer in the category of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Save for one great run and finish by Craig Bellamy, there were very few positives to take out of the match against Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium. The home side was just flat-out better, and they were just solid, not spectacular, in a 3-1 victory.
Bolton's three goal-scorers were Mark Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker and Gretar Steinsson, which should tell you just about everything you need to know about this match. All three goals came on brilliant finishes, but also on abysmal defending. Davies' goal came just three minutes on a brilliant run and finish in and Reo-Coker made it 2-0 from close range in the 29th minute.
Bellamy's goal was an impressive one. Running onto an Andy Carroll header, the speedy Welshman took the ball 40 yards before finishing past Adam Bogdan in the 36th minute. That would be their last goal, however, and there felt like there was no way back for the Reds when Steinsson netted a nice half-volley goal off of a corner kick in the 50th minute.
Liverpool look allergic to the penalty area, and Kenny Dalglish has a lot of work to do to get anything positive out of this season.
It had been 30 years since West Bromwich Albion won at Stoke City, but they've broken their hex thanks to a couple mistake by Thomas Sorensen. The Stoke keeper allowed a couple soft goals, giving West Brom to win 2-1 at the Britannia after losing 13 times and drawing five in the last 30 years at Stoke.
A 30-yard strike by James Morrison opening the scoring a little after the half-hour mark. A long run got him within shouting distance of goal, then a last second swerve on the shot fooled Sorensen and resulted in a goal that the keeper should have saved.
It took until the 71st minute before Stoke found a way to get level when the referee gave Jonathan Walters a penalty he didn't deserve after he ran into Gareth McCauley. Justive was served though when Ben Foster saved his penalty. Even so, Stoke equalized through Cameron Jerome in the 86th minute.
With the match looking destined for a draw, Graham Dorrans saved West Brom. A free kick from distance beat Sorensen as his poorr day continued and the Baggies came away with a win they deserved at Stoke.
While other teams were having fun and/or playing good football in the Premier League, Everton and Blackburn Rovers were not doing a whole lot of either. This game probably should have been accompanied by a 90-minute loop of Yakety Sax as countless chances were wasted and defenders fell all over each other. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, as there were two occasions in this game where attackers did not trip on their own feet.
Tim Cahill scored the opener in the 24th minute, his first goal since December of 2010. Marouane Fellaini provided the assist, but handled the ball to bring it down before passing to Cahill, which the referee didn't spot.
David Goodwillie was the man who found the Blackburn equalizer on the end of a comedy of errors by the Everton defense and goalkeeper Tim Howard. On a set piece, Howard came out for the ball and completely whiffed. Cahill attempted to clear off the line, but cleared right to Goodwillie, who finished. The defense was nowhere to be found.
Fellaini had two golden chances to win the game for his team from inside of 10 yards in stoppage time and managed to put neither of them over the goal line. It was the perfect end to a poorly played match.
For more on the Toffees, head over to Everton blog Royal Blue Mersey.
Fulham and Newcastle played a rather lifeless first half of football, finally brought out of their sleepy and conservative strategies by an absolutely stunning 43rd minute goal from Danny Guthrie. The Newcastle midfielder hit a ridiculous shot from 25 yards that almost broke the back of the net, sending Newcastle into halftime up 1-0. From then on, it was Clint Dempsey and Fulham's game.
The equalizer came on a penalty by Danny Murphy, drawn by Andy Johnson in the 52nd minute. The go-ahead goal was a sloppy and slightly lucky one, with Dempsey touching a saved Bobby Zamora shot into the back of the net with his midsection in the 59th minute. That gave his team a lead that they would not relinquish, as they went on to win 5-2.
Dempsey's second was much better, a great right-footed strike to the far post from 15 yards in the 65th. The fourth goal was also a penalty, and an incorrectly given one at that. Johnson dove comically when Tim Krul made incidental contact and the spot kick was inexplicably given, with Zamora converting.
Hatem Ben Arfa pulled one back with an absolutely brilliant 85th minute goal, but the Cottagers would have the last laugh. Their fifth was the goal that completed Dempsey's hat trick, with the American finishing off a pass by Zamora on a counter attack in the 89th minute.
Robbie Keane's brace lead Aston Villa over 10-man Wolverhampton Wanderers in an exciting West Midlands Derby.
Once threatened by the drop and in the drop zone, Sunderland are now comfortably mid-table after yet another win under new manager Martin O'Neill. In typical MON style, they didn't play the prettiest or most open game, but frustrated Swansea City, defended well and scored two brilliant goals. The Swans had 70 percent possession, but Sunderland executed their gameplan well and deserved their 2-0 win.
It was always going to be a tough road back for Swansea after Stephane Sessegnon's 14th minute goal. At the end of a brilliant give-and-go with James McClean at the edge of the penalty area, Sessegnon placed a brilliant strike into the top corner at the far post from a narrow angle. From then until the end, the game featured mostly half-chances and shots on target. Craig Gardner sealed the win with a brilliant half-volley goal in the 85th minute, assisted by Sessegnon.
This game had one unfortunate incident before the first goal in which Angel Rangel kicked Nicklas Bendtner in the face. Bendtner was subbed off and left the pitch covering his eye, appearing to have his vision impaired to some degree.
For more on the Black Cats, check out Sunderland AFC blog Roker Report.
Quite often, there are games in the Premier League where a mid-to-lower table side squeaks out a draw against one of the big sides because of some great defending and/or an unlucky goal. The big team batters the goal and gets tons of bodies into the box, but can't find the breakthrough. This was not one of those games.
Instead, Chelsea were impossibly boring against Norwich City at Carrow Road. They were the better side, but hardly looked like they were very capable of scoring a goal in a dull 0-0 draw. John Ruddy didn't have to make any stunning saves and there were no dramatic clearances off the line.
Fernando Torres missed one sitter and didn't have a great game, but this result can't be blamed on his poor finishing. The entire team was poor. Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge, who have had excellent seasons, did very little for the Blues on Saturday afternoon.
Frank Lampard had to come out injured in the 37th minute, and his replacement Florent Malouda did not perform well. Torres got subbed out for Romelu Lukaku in the 77th minute and the teenager was better than the £50 million man. But hey, Michael Essien got another quick substitute appearance, so that was cool.
Chelsea are very much out of the title race at this point. Their goal should probably be third place and automatic qualification for Champions League, though their main worry has to be holding off Arsenal and keeping the Gunners out of the top four.
For more on the Blues, check out Chelsea FC blog We Ain't Got No History.
Chelsea and Norwich City open the round of Premier League matches with a lunchtime kickoff on Saturday.
The real fun comes on Sunday, but the Premier League weekend begins with a fun trip to Carrow Road for Chelsea.
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