Week 26 in the English Premier League gave champions Manchester City a great chance to put pressure on arch-rivals and runaway leaders Manchester United by playing 24 hours before the Red Devils entertained Everton in the big match on Sunday, although Roberto Mancini’s side knew they would face a hard test on the South Coast at relegation-threatened Southampton in what was the day’s late kickoff.
Elsewhere, in-form Tottenham Hotspur hosted struggling Newcastle United in the early kickoff in front of the TV cameras. In the all-important race for the Champions League places, Chelsea were at home to lowly Wigan Athletic, and Arsenal faced a tough trip to Wearside to take on Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Queens Park Rangers were looking to continue their recent good form at high-flying Swansea City; another in-form side, Reading, travelled to mid-table Stoke City; and Norwich City hosted Fulham.
New Saints head coach Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed his first victory since replacing Nigel Adkins in the St Mary’s dug-out as the champions crashed to a shock defeat on the South Coast that all but ends their already slim hopes of retaining their Premier League title.
Roberto Mancini’s side still trail leaders and city-rivals Manchester United by nine points. However, they have now played one more game than the Red Devils, who will move a mammoth 12 points clear of City with just 12 matches of the season remaining, should they overcome sixth-placed Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Right from the off in this evening televised fixture, the visitors looked out of form and listless, with Jason Puncheon taking advantage of a Gareth Barry mistake to give the home side a seventh-minute lead.
And when Steven Davis made it 2-0 midway through the first half following another error, this time from City keeper Joe Hart, an upset looked well and truly on the cards, only for City striker Edin Dzeko to pull one back on the counterattack just before half-time.
However, the visitors’ misery was well and truly complete when Barry scored a comical own goal minutes after the break. The relegation-threatened Saints easily held on for a deserved three points that lifts Pochettino and Co. six points clear of the drop zone.
The North Londoners maintained their excellent recent league form with a convincing win over the struggling Geordies thanks to two more goals from in-form winger-cum-attacker Gareth Bale. The win keeps Andre Villas-Boas’s side fourth in the standings, four points clear of arch-rivals Arsenal in the race for that last coveted Champions League spot.
The home side did not take long to open their account, immediately bringing back memories of their best performance from last season when they destroyed Newcastle 5-0 at White Hart Lane, with Wales international Bale firing home a 25-yard free kick past a helpless Tim Krul.
However, Alan Pardew’s men were determined to put on a better show than last year and were soon rewarded for their efforts. New boy Yoan Gouffran’s deflected shot pulled the visitors level midway through the first period, although the man from Bordeaux would later be forced to leave proceedings with a shin injury.
And as the minutes ticked away, it appeared as though Newcastle would frustrate their high-flying opponents and return to the North-East with a valuable point, only for Bale to latch on to full-back Kyle Walker’s long hopeful ball over the top, before controlling it and firing the winner low past Krul.
The 23-year-old wing wizard has now scored four goals in his last three top-flight matches and 13 in total in the league this season. His side have gone 10 matches without defeat, a run that both keeps them on the coat tails of London rivals Chelsea, in third, and ahead of the fifth-placed Gunners.
Rafael Benitez’s inconsistent side moved back into third place in the table after Tottenham Hotspur’s earlier victory, thanks to a rare Premier League win at Stamford Bridge, although the final scoreline was harsh on the Latics.
The Blues were desperate for a victory, any kind of victory. Their nerves were settled midway through the first period when Brazil midfield player Ramires gave Ali Al-Habsi in the visitors’ goal no chance with a shot from distance.
And when returning playmaker Eden Hazard swept home Cesar Azpilicueta’s low centre ten minutes after halftime, the match as a contest appeared well and truly over, especially given the fact that Wigan had never previously won in the league at the Bridge.
However, Roberto Martinez’s struggling outfit showed great character by hitting back almost immediately when the outstanding Shaun Maloney managed to break clear of the home defence, before rounding the advancing Petr Cech and sliding the ball into an empty net.
Suddenly, one could feel the tension ratchet up amongst the Chelsea fans, who could sense yet more dropped points on the card, only for two late goals to seal a vital win. The third, which effectively ended the match, came via a sweet 16-yard strike from captain Frank Lampard. The goal, his 11th in 13 games this season, moved the 34-year-old midfield player to within just four goals of Bobby Tambling’s all-time club goalscoring record of 202.
And when substitute Marko Marin headed home in the final minute, Chelsea had amazingly recorded back-to-back home Premier League wins for the first time since October.
Arsene Wenger’s side had to survive a sending-off and a subsequent late onslaught from the Black Cats to record their third league win in their last four matches, a result that moves them above Everton into fifth place in the table, albeit temporarily.
The visitors took a deserved 35th-minute lead following good approach play from Theo Walcott, who set up Spaniard Santi Carzola for a shot that went through a sea of bodies and past a stranded Simon Mignolet from 15 yards for what was the Gunners’ 50th Premier League goal of the season.
However, after influential England international Jack Wilshere limped off five minutes into the second half, the momentum of the match shifted significantly, even more so when 21-year-old full-back Carl Jenkinson was sent off moments later. He picked up his second yellow card for a foul on Stephane Sessegnon, the 93rd red card of the Wenger regime.
The North Londoners somehow held on to their slender 1-0 lead, although they had Poland international goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to thank following three outstanding saves late on to deny Steven Fletcher, Sessegnon and Adam Johnson, preserving a vital three points.
Harry Redknapp’s side remain six points from safety after this thrashing in South Wales, while the home side can look forward to their upcoming Capital One Cup final with Bradford City at Wembley in two weeks’ time with the utmost of confidence.
The West Londoners were unable to call upon the services of France international Loic Remy due to injury, although in truth it is hard to see how much difference the front man would have made to the final scoreline had he been fit.
Swansea were good value for their 2-0 lead at the break thanks to strikes from Spanish duo Michu and Angel Rangel inside the first 18 minutes, only for QPR substitute Bobby Zamora to pull one back for the visitors three minutes after the restart.
However, any hopes that Redknapp may have had of maintaining their recent five-match unbeaten run were ended almost immediately when a third Spaniard , Pablo Hernandez, was on hand to score from an impossible angle past Julio Cesar, who had gone into this match having kept four clean sheets in his previous five outings.
And when the in-form Michu grabbed his second, and 15th Premier League, goal of the season, midway through the second half, there was no coming back for a QPR side that had found the back of the net just once in their past four top-flight encounters, especially at a ground where they had not tasted victory since 1981.
The mid-table Potters deservedly overcame their relegation-threatened opponents to register their first victory this year, while also ending the visitors’ impressive recent unbeaten run in the process with their first Premier League loss in 2013.
However, Tony Pulis’s side were forced to wait until midway through the second half to open the scoring by some dogged and determined defending by the Royals. Finally, giant centre-back Robert Huth crashed home a header off the underside of the bar following Glenn Whelan’s corner.
And when substitute striker Cameron Jerome drove home a second with just nine minutes of the match to go, Reading’s recent four-match unbeaten league run was all but over, despite Adrian Mariappa’s reply just two minutes later giving Brian McDermott and Co. hope of yet another amazing comeback.
A fair result at Carrow Road as both sides remain level on points in the table, although they have now moved eight clear of the drop zone thanks to this draw.
In fairness, this was a dire contest in East Anglia between two struggling outfits that have both found scoring hard of late, with the home side handing new striker Luciano Becchio his debut as a result, the ex-Leeds United player having arrived during the January transfer window.
The Argentinian had a wonderful opportunity to make himself an instant Canaries hero after just five minutes of the match, only to shoot straight at Mark Schwarzer from five yards out when it seemed easier to score.
Incredibly, that turned out to be the best opening of the whole game as the Cottagers left satisfied having kept their first clean sheet in 12 contests. For Chris Hughton’s men, this draw made it now nine games without a win.