United clamp down as EPL goes goal crazy
Goals rained down in the English Premier League on Saturday, but for once Manchester United played it safe to stay seven points clear at the top of the table.
Alex Ferguson's team kept a clean sheet for the first time in six games, beating West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at home in a match that had been in danger of succumbing to the UK's recent wet weather.
By contrast, second-placed Manchester City scrambled a 4-3 win at Norwich, Tottenham came from behind to claim third with a 2-1 victory at Sunderland and Arsenal moved fifth after triumphing 7-3 at home to Newcastle.
All eight EPL matches provided goals -- 35 in all -- with Stoke drawing 3-3 with Southampton, Wigan beating Aston Villa 3-0, Swansea winning 2-1 at Fulham and Reading ending a long winless run by defeating West Ham 1-0.
United edged a controversial seven-goal thriller against Newcastle on Wednesday, showing the defensive frailties that have plagued the 19-time English champions this season, but the return of Nemanja Vidic helped steady the side against a West Brom team that has dropped to seventh place.
The visitors went behind in the ninth minute when Gareth McAuley deflected Ashley Young's cross past his own keeper -- former United player Ben Foster -- and substitute Robin van Persie wrapped it up at the end with a curling shot for his league-leading 14th goal this season.
Ferguson was widely criticized for harassing match officials during the Newcastle match and for claiming that Van Persie "could have been killed" during the 1-1 draw with Swansea, but he kept his comments low-key this time.
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"The pitch was a problem for us with the way we pass the ball -- it slowed our game down a bit," said Ferguson, who turns 71 on Monday.
"We did well in the first half, we dominated at times, but you must give credit to West Brom who had more of the game in the second half and were a threat with their crosses.
"They had quite a bit of possession into the second period so we decided to bring Robin and Paul Scholes on just to settle us down a bit and they did that well.
"It's a good result considering how heavy the pitch was -- that's two games in four days on it and it's not easy. The slowness of it killed our speed."
West Brom boss Steve Clarke agreed with the officials' decision to go ahead with the match after a late inspection of the waterlogged pitch.
"We used to play on pitches like that all the time. You don't look for games to be called off for no reason and there was no reason today," he said.
Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini was not so happy after his defending champions bounced back from the 1-0 defeat by Sunderland.
Recalled striker Edin Dzeko scored twice inside four minutes, but Norwich got back into the game after Samir Nasri was sent off just before halftime following an altercation with Sebastien Bassong.
"Both players came forward with their heads, so if you are going to send off one, then you have to send off both, not only Samir," Mancini said.
"I am disappointed with Samir, and he will pay his fine, but the decision was not correct."
The Italian will go into the New Year trying to retrieve a sizable deficit, though City overhauled United's eighth-point lead last season to win the club's first title since 1968.
"It's not important to look at the table because it's not final but we need only to work, to win and then maybe we'll look again at the table in February," he said.
Dzeko almost had a hat-trick, but his 67th-minute shot hit the post and went into the net off Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn for 4-2, which was ruled to be an own goal.
Russell Martin netted his second on 75, but Norwich stayed 11th after a third successive defeat.
Tottenham moved a point above London rivals Chelsea, who travel to sixth-placed Everton on Sunday.
Sunderland went ahead against the run of play as skipper John O'Shea scored his first goal for the club five minutes before halftime, but Carlos Cuellar headed into his own net after the break and Aaron Lennon's 51st-minute winner left Spurs six points behind City.
However, Tottenham star Gareth Bale -- a reported target for Real Madrid in the January transfer window -- was frustrated after being booked for diving for the third time this season.
"That's three times now I've been clipped and booked for no reason," said the Wales winger, who will miss Tuesday's clash with Reading following his fifth yellow card this season.
"People keep saying I'm diving, but if there's contact it's not diving. Referees need to look more closely."
Theo Walcott bolstered his claims for a regular starting place as a central striker with his second-hat-trick this season in Arsenal's topsy-turvy win over 15th-placed Newcastle, which put the London side two points behind Chelsea.
The visitors leveled three times as Demba Ba netted twice to take his league tally to 13, but Walcott's treble was complemented by a late double from substitute forward Olivier Giroud after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski also scored.
Walcott has yet to agree a new contract, and the England international will have no lack of interest from other clubs after taking his tally to 14 goals in all competitions this season -- only Van Persie has more with 17.
Stoke stayed eighth after coming from 3-1 down against third-bottom Southampton, extending the club's unbeaten home record to nine matches thanks to substitute striker Cameron Jerome's spectacular late equalizer.
Defender Matthew Upson had reduced the deficit to 3-2 before teammate Steven Nzonzi was sent off for a challenge on Jack Cork.
Swansea moved up to ninth as Fulham's stand-in keeper David Stockdale gifted the visitors two goals -- the first to striker Danny Graham, playing in place of the Welsh club's top scorer Michu, and the second to Canadian midfielder Jonathan de Guzman.
Bryan Ruiz pulled one back after Dimitar Berbatov hit the crossbar, and the Bulgarian had a late effort ruled out for offside as the London side ended the year just four points above the relegation zone in 14th place.
Wigan moved out of the bottom three after handing fellow strugglers Aston Villa a third successive defeat that will increase the pressure on manager Paul Lambert after the 8-0 demolition by Chelsea and a 4-0 home loss to Spurs.
Reading stayed second from bottom despite the promoted club winning for only the second time this season, thanks to a fifth-minute goal from Russia striker Pavel Pogrebnyak that extended 12th-placed West Ham's winless run to four matches.