Premier League Saturday Wrap: Arsenal, Man City, Everton Win Ugly; Spurs Held
In the first matches of a very busy Christmas period, all the main Premier League fixtures fell on Saturday with Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and West Brom all in action.
The early kickoff started at DW Stadium, where Wigan Athletic welcomed Arsenal in a must-win game for both Roberto Martinez and Arsene Wenger.
From there, it was on to the five 3 p.m. GMT kickoffs, which saw on-form Stoke City travel to White Hart Lane, where a confident Spurs side lay in wait.
Seventh played eighth as West Brom took on Norwich City, West Ham faced Everton with direct football firmly on the cards, and Manchester City took on a Reading side with the worst defensive record in the league.
While that was all happening, the first real important relegation weekend of the season saw Newcastle United face QPR, as Sunderland traveled in the opposite direction to take on Southampton. Both games would be huge in terms of the rest of the season for all clubs involved in the relegation dogfight.
The late fixture then saw Liverpool, off the back of a miserable defeat to Aston Villa, welcome a Fulham side who always struggle on the road.
Read on to find out what happened...
Wigan Athletic 0-1 Arsenal
Mikel Arteta scored his third penalty in three games as Arsenal picked up a vital three points at Wigan Athletic.
In what was never more than an intriguing game, the Gunners did just enough to merit the victory.
Arteta's goal came on the hour mark after Wigan's Jean Beausejour was adjudged to have fouled Theo Walcott after a neat one-two with Santi Cazorla. The confident Spaniard duly converted the spot-kick to give the North London side the lead, as they begin what looks like a New Year battle with Tottenham Hotspur for a spot in the Champions League.
The soon-to-be-out-of-contract English striker was deployed in a central role as Lukas Podolski was moved out to the left, while Olivier Giroud was left out of the matchday squad completely.
Despite the fact that Wenger played Walcott in his favoured position, he did very little throughout, and his only real contribution of the day was his part in gaining Arsenal's penalty.
Once the Gunners went ahead, Wigan had to change their game completely. They pushed for the equaliser that would elevate them from the bottom three, but a resolute Arsenal defence kept them at bay, as Wojciech Szczesny made a number of expected saves.
Despite Arsenal's defensive struggles this term, they have only conceded eight goals in 10 games on the road, while Wigan drop into the bottom three for the third time in the last three Christmas periods.
West Ham United 1-2 Everton
Carlton Cole went from hero to villain for West Ham after Everton fought back to win 2-1 at Upton Park. Cole opened the scoring before being harshly sent off as Victor Anichebe and Steven Pienaar scored to gift the Toffees a vital away win.
The Hammers took the lead after a period of dominance for the away side that wrongly saw a Leon Osman goal disallowed. The Toffees midfielder headed in a Baines corner, but the referee somehow ruled that Anichebe had obstructed Jussi Jaaskelainen in the West Ham goal.
Mere seconds later, Matt Taylor played in Cole on the edge of the Everton box, who turned to fire home at Tim Howard's near post. The American 'keeper has made a number of high-profile mistakes this season, and there can be no doubt that his manager will be unhappy at allowing another goal at his near post, despite the good strike.
The goal stole all the impetus from Everton's attack, as West Ham pushed on for a second goal. Cole started becoming the menace he is capable of being and really made John Heitinga look more than uncomfortable during the first period.
To their credit, Everton came out in the second half as they began the first, and it was no surprise when they eventually equalised through Anichebe.
Having gone close a number of times through the likes of Darron Gibson and the off-form Nikica Jelavic, Everton scored through Anichebe, who shouldered/headed Steven Pienaar's centre home.
With Everton firmly on top, Cole's red card then sent the game completely in the away side's direction.
Osman, denied earlier in the game, then turned provider as he danced through the brittle Hammers rearguard to set up Pienaar as the Toffees took the lead.
The game was to take one final dramatic twist as Darron Gibson received his marching orders for a tackle that would have normally carried a yellow card. But with Anthony Taylor having sent Cole off harshly, he had little choice but to issue the same colour card to the Irish international.
Tottenham Hotspur 0-0 Stoke City
Tottenham Hotspur were denied a fifth home win on the bounce by a Stoke City side who stretched their unbeaten run to eight games.
In the end, the result was a fair one.
Spurs, as expected, created the lion’s share of chances, and if it were not for some superb defending and some top-class goalkeeping, they would have won handsomely.
Asmir Begovic was the hero for Tony Pulis' side, as he pulled off top-class save-after-save to deny Tottenham. Moussa Dembele, Gareth Bale, Jermain Defoe, Emmanuel Adebayor and Gylfi Sigurdsson were all victims of the Bosnian's superb athleticism, as he strode to keep his team in the game.
At the other end, Kenwyne Jones proved to be the biggest thorn in Spurs' back line. The ex-Sunderland player went close twice during the first half in Stoke's best chances of the game.
As the game wore on, Spurs' attacks grew less frequent as Stoke's firm defence held out. But a manic final 10 minutes, once again, saw Begovic put in a number of great saves as his team gained their ninth scoreless draw of the season.
Manchester City 1-0 Reading
Gareth Barry snatched victory from the jaws of vital dropped points with an injury-time goal that denied Reading a draw after a superb defensive performance.
Reading frustrated the Citizens, who completely dominated possession for long periods. It was clear that Brian McDermott's side went out to defend, and they literally "parked the bus" in front of their goal as they went in search of a draw.
Going forward, the Royals offered absolutely nothing and only managed one single shot on Joe Hart all afternoon, as their 10-man defence continued to deny City.
If anything, City didn't know how to use the space Reading allowed them, and it was almost like they were playing against 10 players—such was City's dominance.
Mancini pushed his full-backs into midfield as his team went in search of the winner and introduced Edin Dzeko to partner Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez up front.
That only tells half the story, though, because while the away side allowed City to dominate possession, it was they who dictated the game through excellent defending. Importantly, they only allowed City to have three clear chances on goal all match.
In the end, City found the break through Barry, who nodded home in stoppage time following a David Silva cross.
As the game closed out, it was City who reverted to a blanket 10-man defence, but Reading could do little to breach it and the match finished with Roberto Mancini a very relieved man.
Newcastle United 1-0 QPR
Shola Ameobi scored his first Premier League goal in nine months for Newcastle United as Alan Pardew brought Queens Park Rangers' recent unbeaten run to an end.
On a bleak day where the weather had a huge effect on the football on show, it was the Magpies who dominated proceedings. In recent weeks, QPR have strengthened defensively, and against Newcastle they seemed to play only for the point.
For all the possession they had, Pardew's side laboured in the final third and failed to create anything of note until Ameobi's late strike.
QPR, for their part, only managed one shot on target all afternoon. One must wonder if their manager, Harry Redknapp, was saving his team for the upcoming and very winnable home Christmas fixtures against West Brom and Liverpool.
West Brom 2-1 Norwich City
In a hard-fought game where seventh faced eighth, it was West Brom who prevailed as Norwich City's 10-game unbeaten run came to an end.
It was a much needed win for Steve Clarke's side, who were as high as third a couple of weeks ago. Since then the Baggies have lost three and drawn one, so fear was understandably high when the high-flying Canaries came to town.
Romelu Lukaku went close on a couple of occasions in a frantic opening period before a Robert Snodgrass free kick gave the lead to the away side.
Once ahead, Chris Hughton's side defended intelligently while attacking at key moments, and they were in a more than comfortable position when West Brom equalised against the run of play.
Jonas Olsson's header from a corner cannoned off the crossbar and into the path of the waiting Zoltan Gera, who prodded the ball home to leave the game tied on the stroke of half-time.
The second period was a more even affair, as both teams cancelled each other out across midfield, but it was the home side who scored the all-important next goal.
With the clock ticking down, Lukaku latched onto Goran Popov's cross to head home.
The goal stung Norwich back into life, and the Baggies had to endure an eight-minute barrage before they could celebrate their first win in five games.
Southampton 0-1 Sunderland
Steven Fletcher's eighth goal of the season proved enough to beat Southampton at St Mary's Stadium, as Sunderland put breathing space between themselves and the relegation zone.
This will be one of those games where Nigel Adkins and his team look back and wonder how they did not win—let alone not score.
The Saints, playing with an adventurous 4-4-2, dominated the game from start to finish but struggled to create chances in the final third. In contrast, Sunderland played the entire game on the break and allowed the home side to dominate possession, but created far more chances of note.
In the Black Cats' only real attack of the first period, they scored. Stéphane Sessegnon denied a long-range goal in the first minute and wriggled his way into the danger zone before teeing-up Fletcher to score.
The goal brought Sunderland's tally for the season to just 19 goals, with Fletcher scoring eight of those.
The second period saw Southampton push for an equaliser, but they could find no way past Martin O'Neill's defence, who held out quite comfortably in the end.
Liverpool 4-0 Fulham
Liverpool put in their best performance of the season as Stewart Downing inspired them to an easy 4-0 win over Fulham.
The win came courtesy of goals from Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard, Downing and an injury-time strike from Luis Suarez as the Reds climb to eighth place in the Premier League.
Fulham are renowned for being bad travellers, they have only won once on the road all season and have conceded 22 goals from just 10 games. With that in mind, the result was never in doubt after Skrtel's eighth-minute strike.
Man-of-the-match Downing then provided his first assist in 45 games for Liverpool when he set up Gerrard for the Reds' second goal. Collecting the ball from Glen Johnson after his jinking inside run, the ex-Aston Villa man's reverse pass released the Reds' skipper to fire home.
Johnson was a threat throughout, and his constant inside runs caused all manner of problems for the Cottagers. He dove-tailed beautifully with Downing, and it was from one of these positions that the utility player scored his first Premier League goal for Liverpool.
Dominant, rampant and ripping the ragged visiting team to shreds, Liverpool constantly pushed for a fourth but were denied by poor finishing and Mark Schwarzer in goal.
Suarez eventually scored the goal his overall play deserved in injury time. He got onto the end of Jose Enrique's neat cut-back to slot the ball past the hapless Australian.
Liverpool bounced back in the best way possible after a dreadful defeat to Aston Villa last week, but it is this swing in inconsistency that Brendan Rodgers has to halt if his team are to progress in 2013.
Martin Jol's side are now in free-fall having claimed only seven points from their last 10 games. If this slide continues, they may yet be dragged into the relegation battle come next May.