Weekend review

23 March 2009 10:10
Manchester United may not be emulating Devon Loch just yet, but they are certainly stumbling into the final furlongs of the Premier League title race. Sir Alex Ferguson once used the analogy of the famous racehorse which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during the closing stages of the 1956 Grand National in an attempt to psyche out former Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish during the 1994/95 title race. His mind games failed on that occasion as Rovers held on to clinch the crown, and 14 years on it is the Red Devils who have seen their seemingly impenetrable lead whittled down to just one point by a resurgent Liverpool. Back-to-back defeats are a rarity for United, but last weekend's 4-1 home humbling by Liverpool was followed by Saturday's 2-0 defeat to Fulham at Craven Cottage where the visitors ended the match with just nine men on the field. Ferguson took predictable aim at referee Phil Dowd after Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were sent for early baths, although what punishment the Scot expects for a deliberate handball which denies a goal and an obvious display of dissent is unclear. For my money, the red card for Scholes and the second yellow for Rooney were spot on, with the former England midfielder glumly accepting the inevitable. Hot-headed striker Rooney, unsurprisingly, was somewhat less gracious. Suspensions are a concern now for the Red Devils, with Nemanja Vidic, who was dismissed against Liverpool, Scholes and Rooney all ruled out of the forthcoming meeting with Aston Villa. Having breathed new life into the title race with their Old Trafford romp, Liverpool gleefully seized on United's Craven Cottage crumble as they demolished a fading Aston Villa side 5-0 the following day. Steven Gerrard grabbed his first Premier League treble as Rafa Benitez's men continued their recent red-hot form after four-goal triumphs against United and nine-times European champions Real Madrid. Despite recent results United know the title remains in their hands given their slender advantage and the benefit of a game in hand, while Benitez will be concerned that the international break could stall his side's impressive momentum. But the final stages of the title battle promises to be an enthralling affair, although it now appears to be a two-horse race after Chelsea's defeat at Tottenham on Saturday afternoon. Guus Hiddink's impressive record of six victories and one draw since taking charge at Stamford Bridge was brought to a halt at White Hart Lane as Luka Modric swept home the winner and much-maligned goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes performed heroics to keep out everything the Blues could throw at him. Spurs have now effectively banished any fears of relegation, and with seventh place likely to be enough for a place in Europe, Harry Redknapp's hopes of continental competition could yet come to fruition. Eight teams realistically remain threatened by the drop, with West Brom ever-more likely to occupy one of the three unwanted slots as they now stand seven points away from a position of safety following their 1-1 home draw with Bolton. Gary Megson, who was sent to the stands late on during his return to his former club, can breathe a little easier but is experienced enough to know that a five-point cushion can swiftly be whittled away. Stoke were the weekend's big winners in the relegation stakes, with Middlesbrough being pushed closer to the drop as they became the latest club to fail to deal with Rory Delap's long throws. Gareth Southgate had drilled his men through the week in a bid to nullify the threat of Delap and they held out until six minutes from time before Ryan Shawcross got a crucial touch as his team-mate hurled the ball deep into the Boro box at a bouncing Britannia Stadium. North East misery was compounded on Saturday evening as Newcastle were pushed into the drop-zone by Stoke's success and remained there after suffering a 3-1 home defeat at the hands of Arsenal. Obafemi Martins' first-half penalty miss proved to be a turning point as his weak kick was saved by Manuel Almunia and the Gunners struck three times in 11 second-half minutes, rendering an initial response from Martins meaningless. With Chelsea the next club to visit St James' Park before a testing trip to Stoke, these are worrying times for the Magpies and owner Mike Ashley, with manager Joe Kinnear still convalescing after major heart surgery. Any glee Sunderland fans gained from seeing their bitter rivals in the bottom three will have been tempered by Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Manchester City, although the early dismissal of George McCartney was harsh on Ricky Sbragia's side. The Northern Ireland international saw red as he tangled with Shaun Wright-Phillips as they chased a through ball, but Sbragia insisted the City winger would not have reached the ball ahead of goalkeeper Marton Fulop despite the minimal contact from McCartney. Robinho passed up a glorious opportunity to break his 2009 scoring duck as his poor penalty was later easily saved by Fulop, who saw through the striker's stop-start run-up, before Micah Richards headed home after the interval. Blackburn are very much in the thick of the dogfight and slipped to 17th, two points above Newcastle, on the back of Saturday's 1-1 home draw with West Ham as Keith Andrews cancelled out Mark Noble's sublime opener. Sam Allardyce has made Rovers tough to beat, with just three defeats in his 13 Premier League games at the helm, but they are also struggling for victories with only four garnered in the same spell. Hull City cannot be discounted from the battle at the bottom with a 1-0 reverse at Wigan keeping the pressure on Phil Brown, while Steve Bruce is dreaming of guiding the Latics into Europe after they edged into seventh on the back of Ben Watson's clever winner. Wigan's success this season has been built on a sound defence, in which Titus Bramble has excelled, although one agricultural tackle on Richard Garcia on Sunday suggested Fabio Capello was right to resist calls for the former Newcastle and Ipswich man to earn an England call up. Everton full-back Leighton Baines did gain an international nod on Sunday evening, but his personal success was overshadowed by Saturday's 2-1 defeat for the Toffees at Portsmouth. Baines had opened the scoring with a superb free-kick before Peter Crouch's headed double gave Pompey's hopes of beating the drop a major lift and seriously dented David Moyes' UEFA Champions League ambitions.

Source: SKY_Sports