Premier League Saturday Wrap: Chelsea Win; Reading Comeback; & Dour Draws
Business was back to usual after an incredible Christmas period that saw almost every Barclays Premier League team play a mental five games in just 16 days. Add in the third round of FA Cup on top of that and it has been some time since we've seen a normal Premier League weekend.
With Manchester United taking on Liverpool as their title rivals Manchester City traveled to Arsenal in the first real Super Sunday of the season, the firm focus on Saturday's EPL games was the chase for the Champions League places and the battle against relegation.
The two distinctive and separate wars were brought crashing together in the early kickoff where Harry Redknapp, unceremoniously sacked by Tottenham Hotspur at the end of last season, welcomed his replacement, Andre Villas-Boas.
The other Champions League chasing matches saw Everton welcome high-flying Swansea City and Michael Laudrup to Goodison Park, while Chelsea ventured to Stoke where Tony Pulis' side are unbeaten since February.
From there the relegation battle took over as Reading faced West Brom, Sunderland took on West Ham United and Fulham saw Roberto Martinez and Wigan travel to the graveyard that is Craven Cottage.
Elsewhere, arguably the most important match of the weekend saw Aston Villa face Southampton in the latest six-pointer involving both sides. Norwich also saw struggling Newcastle visit Carrow Road where Chris Hughton was looking to pile more pressure on the Magpies and Alan Pardew, the man who replaced Hughton in December 2010.
Put everything together and it promised to be another amazing Premier League weekend.
Read on to find out what happened...
QPR 0-0 Tottenham Hotspur
Having been sacked by Spurs during the summer, this was the first opportunity Harry Redknapp had to restore some personal pride while giving his old team a bloody nose in their race to finish in the top four. Given the likable manager's record against his old clubs, played 16 W-10 D-4 L-2, it would be fair to say that he would be motivated for the visit of his former team.
In recent games Villas-Boas has favoured a 4-4-2 formation, which, it must be said, has helped Spurs move into third. Their manager claimed December's Premier League manager of the month award. With that formation in mind, Harry Redknapp set out to frustrate his old club and played with five across the middle to congest play in midfield.
With space at a premium, Tottenham's superior players provided the only real attacking threat, but their defence has to be on their toes, as Rangers looked to launch counterattacks through the likes of Adel Taarabt and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Julio Cesar was the busier of the two keepers on show and provided a couple of glimpses of his unquestioned class when he denied the on from Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor.
As the game began to stretch and the win looked further and further away, Villas-Boas introduced Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsso into the fray. The moves were an obvious ploy to combat Rangers across midfield who, it must be said, contained and frustrated Spurs for most of the game.
Elsewhere for Rangers, Ryan Nelsen was outstanding in what could be his last game for the club. The New Zealand international was named as the new manager of MLS side Toronto FC last week and their season begins on March 2.
It was hardly the most enthralling of games, but the Rangers will be more than happy with the point, which means they have only lost three from nine since Redknapp took over at the end of November.
Speaking to BBC Sport after the game, Andre Villas-Boas credited Rangers after their stifling display. He said, "They defended very well; we wanted to play with a higher tempo, but they frustrate you. Julio Cesar had a great game. We had some big chances; in a game like this it's important to score first. It was a difficult game for us, but we got an away point so we are satisfied."
Everton 0-0 Swansea
Everton and Swansea City played out a draw that was as frustrating for both teams as it was for the watching fans.
The Swans' obsession with possession and flooding of their right-hand side to deny time and space to Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines left both teams equally stymied in attack.
Swansea, unbeaten since December 16, have just come off the back of a week that saw them draw with Arsenal and beat Chelsea in domestic-cup competitions. With that in mind it was no big surprise to see Michael Laudrup's side try to contain the Toffees while playing on the break.
In a first half where chances were few and far between, Michu hit the crossbar in front of the watching Vicente Del Bosque. But if the Spanish manager uses this game as a template to measure the Premier League against La Liga, he is very unlikely to return.
For his part, the man of the moment, Michu was very quiet throughout. As were all the main match winners from Everton as Swansea set out to frustrate and play for a 0-0 draw.
Having won many admirers this season for their free-flowing football, Swansea will have lost a few after this frustrating draw.
Fulham 1-1 Wigan Athletic
Wigan and Fulham shared the spoils in a disappointing game that saw two brilliant goals break the monotony of the play on show.
Fulham manager Martin Jol picked an attacking lineup that saw Bryan Ruiz drop deep into central midfield as Mladen Petric partnered Dimitar Berbatov up front. However, despite the attacking move, his team failed to create anything of note all game.
Greek international Giorgios Karagounis scored his second goal in two games as the Cottagers took the lead. His terrific shot from outside the box gave Ali Al-Habsi no chance whatsoever in the Latics goal during a dire opening period.
The away side then started to get slightly on top in a messy game that saw both teams give the ball away needlessly. First Shaun Maloney went close before the impressive Franco Di Santo saw his effort fire wide.
As Wigan began to force the play that got them the goal they deserved when, with 20 minutes to go, Di Santo picked the ball up 30 yards from goal. The Argentinean striker cut in from the left wing and ran unchallenged to Mark Schwarzer's goal before scoring in the easiest of fashions.
The goal marked the second real and final moment of quality in an poor game that many will want to forget.
Reading 3-2 West Brom
Reading snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when they came from two goals down with just eight minutes remaining to beat West Brom at the Madejski Stadium, thanks to a last-minute strike from Pavel Pogrebnyak.
The Royals have lost eight of their last 10 league games.
So when West Brom were up 2-0 with just 10 minutes to go, few would have given them a chance of pulling off an unlikely win. But pull off the comeback of the season they did.
The Baggies took the lead through the inspired Romelu Lukaku after the on-loan Belgian striker finished with aplomb, following some good work by James Morrison.
He then added his second with 20 minutes to go after he picked the ball up deep on the left and beat a couple of defenders before firing past Adam Federici to cap off a wonderful individual goal. The striker wasn't finished there, though, and managed to hit the post and another clear chance before Reading launched their amazing comeback.
Jimmy Kébé was the man to start the ball rolling when he nodded home at the far post in the 82nd minute, before Adam Le Fondre's late penalty tied the game after Kébé had been fouled.
Pavel Pogrebnyak then scored the unlikeliest of goals after being set up by Ian Harte to cue wild celebrations amongst the Royals fans and team who mobbed the giant Russian.
The win gives Brian McDermott's team a second win in three and renewed hope of avoiding relegation.
Stoke City 0-4 Chelsea
Jonathan Walters had a 100th Premier League appearance to forget after the Irish international scored two unlucky own-goals and missed a penalty to gift Chelsea a win that belied the gap between the two sides.
Despite the fact that Stoke are unbeaten at home in almost one year, the Potters have not beaten Chelsea since 1975.
The Blues have been rocking after two poor losses against QPR in the league and Swansea in the League Cup semifinal. These poor results have threatened to undo all the good early work of the Rafael Benitez regime.
In the fans eyes, the man to bear the brunt of their growing frustrations was the unlucky Fernando Torres.
The striker was suffering from a virus against the Swans, so it was no surprise to see the more physical Demba Ba take his place at the top of Benitez's 4-2-3-1.
Stoke dominated the early proceedings with the ever-present Jonathan Walters, making his 100th Premier League appearance and his 73rd in a row, a constant thorn in the Blues defence. The Potters should have taken the lead when Kenwyne Jones fluffed their only real chance of that purple match.
When playing against a side of the quality of Chelsea, chances must be taken. Stoke were left to rue those missed opportunities as the Blues took the lead on the stroke of halftime through Walters' first own-goal of the day.
Fifteen minutes into the second half and having been denied a penalty because of an offside decision, the Blues doubled their lead. Frank Lampard's header from Juan Mata's corner bounced off Walters for another own-goal, and all of a sudden Stoke's unbeaten run was severely under threat.
If it was under threat in the 62nd minute, it was truly demolished in the 65th when Mata was taken down for soft penalty by Robert Huth. The outstanding Lampard stepped up and smashed it home to five giving the Blues an unassailable lead.
Chelsea weren't finished though and Eden Hazard, quiet for much of the game, scored one of the goals of the season when he picked up the ball fully, 30 yards from goal and let it fly with a thunderbolt that left Asmir Begovic rooted to the spot.
It was a truly wonderful goal from the little Belgian, especially when you consider that Begovic has been the Premier League's most outstanding keeper this season.
Walters, constantly involved in the action at either end, was then taken down for a late penalty by John Terry and bravely picked up the ball for the spot-kick. However, unlike Lampard's smashed penalty, the Stoke forward ballooned his effort miles over the bar to finish out a day he will want to forget very quickly.
While Chelsea won four nil, their performance was nowhere near their best of this season, but, as ever, they were professional to the core.
Sunderland 3-0 West Ham
A Stéphane Sessegnon-inspired Sunderland side easily brushed West Ham aside as the Black Cats picked up their third win in five.
Out of form, West Ham have won just two of their last 10 fixtures, while Sunderland have only lost four games at the Stadium of Light this term.
From the very moment that Sebastian Larsson opened the scoring with a stunning 25-yard strike in the 12th minute, the result was never in doubt.
Saying that, when the two teams went in at halftime following a first half of almost endless pressure from the home side, many would have given Sam Allardyce's team a chance in the second period.
However, and to their credit, Martin O'Neill's side came out in exactly the same vein and extended their lead in the second minute of the second period. Adam Johnson, enjoying a good run of form lately, scored after some brilliant play by Sessegnon and James McClean, who was unlucky not to score. His stinging shot fell perfectly for Johnson who couldn't miss.
Two goals to the good, Sunderland sensed blood and like all well-drilled teams they went in search of a third. Sessegnon the architect of so many of the Black Cats' forward advances was simply brilliant and seemed to be on a telepathic wavelength with Johnson and McClean throughout.
McClean picked up on yet another of Sessegnon's through balls to kill the game off with just 15 minutes to go, as Sunderland crept up the table to safety.
Aston Villa 0-1 Southampton
Aston Villa have dropped into the relegation zone after a battling performance from Nigel Adkins' side who saw Southampton win 1-0 in controversial terms at Villa Park.
Villa have won just one of their last eight home-league games, while the Saints have only lost two from their last 10. With that in mind and with confidence at its lowest-ever levels at Villa Park, it was of no surprise to see the away side force the tempo in a dour first period.
The home side, seemingly playing for a draw and to frustrate their fellow relegation battlers, barely launched an attack. This is merely down to the massive lack of experience and character and fear of what another defeat would signify for Paul Lambert's young side.
Jay Rodriguez went closest in the first half as the Saints looked to make the breakthrough that eventually came in the most controversial of manners.
Referee Chris Foy awarded a penalty after the impressive Enda Stevens seemingly brought down Rodriguez. But on closer inspection, there appeared to be no contact between the players. Just seconds before that, Brad Guzan brought down Rickie Lambert, but that was outside the box. So whichever incident the referee awarded the penalty for was completely wrong.
That did not stop Lambert, though, and the Saints striker stepped up to fire home his ninth goal of the season.
Villa rallied in the second half with Stevens firing over and Christian Benteke missing a trio of chances that really should have harvested at least one goal. Nathan Baker also got in on the act and cannoned a header off the bar.
But that day, Southampton's and Nigel Adkins' adventurous side were not to be denied.
Norwich City 0-0 Newcastle United
Norwich City and Newcastle United played out a dour 0-0 draw, but in truth both managers will be happy with the point as it brings an end to consecutive runs of defeats.
This time last season, the Magpies were chasing a place in the Champions League.
Roll on 12 months and they are firmly involved in the relegation battle having taken only eight points from their previous 39. Add in the loss of Demba Ba to Chelsea and Newcastle are in all kinds of trouble.
At one stage, Norwich were the form Premier League team this term, but a run of four defeats in a row has seen them slip down the table towards the bottom half.
Looking to end these unwanted streaks, both Alan Pardew and Chris Hughton sent out their sides to give very little away as they went in search of that all important opening goal.
The Canaries dominated opening proceedings as the Magpies camped out on the edge of their own box.
Eventually the game settled into a grinding midfield battle that would only see each team get two shots on goal all game.
The closest the game came to a goal was through Norwich's Anthony Pilkington. The English-born Irish youth international has been one of the Premier League's most outstanding players this term and went close twice but was denied by Tim Krul on both occasions.
In the end, the game couldn't be shaken from the dour groove it was mired in. As if to symbolize the match, the helpless Papiss Cisse ploughed a lone furrow up front for Newcastle and barely received a pass all game.
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