Premier League Saturday Wrap
Opening day of Week 27 in the Premier League resulted in a number of enticing matches decided by memorable goals—many of which were netted by surprising sources.
Did Manchester United extend their lead at the top?
Which relegation candidates secured vital points?
Important players and key moments often define Premier League football, and Saturday's matches were just confirmation of that.
Fulham 1-0 Stoke City
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Martin Jol needed key players to assert their influence over a Fulham side that lacks consistent quality this season.
Dimitar Berbatov's recent goal drought has been cause for concern, especially as the Cottagers found themselves teetering above the relegation zone prior to the weekend's early game.
The match began with a flurry of activity.
Bryan Ruiz, John Arne Riise and Glenn Whelan all shot over from long range.
Ruiz was once again involved with 11 minutes gone when a lofted free kick fell onto the head of the forward. Instead of tucking the chance away, he handled the ball in hilariously obvious fashion and received a booking for his cheekiness.
Fulham continued to probe as the first half progressed.
Stoke resisted with typical astuteness for the most part, until Ryan Shawcross' poor clearance landed in the path of Berbatov. The Bulgarian—who was making his 200th Premier League appearance—smashed home a superb volley just before the break.
Stoke were awarded a penalty after Ashkan Dejagah handled in the area, but Jonathan Walters failed to convert from the spot. Mark Schwarzer quickly got down to his right to save a tame effort from the Republic of Ireland international. Another blow during a tough few weeks for Walters, who is usually so influential in the Potters attack.
Brek Shea whistled a half-volley just wide with half an hour left, but Fulham never looked like conceding.
The home side kept hold of the ball well and managed to frustrate Stoke into another disappointing result.
Ultimately, this game was won from two moments of Fulham magic. That influence I mentioned at the beginning? Berbatov and Schwarzer showed it here.
West Brom 2-1 Sunderland
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Romelu Lukaku is proving to be quite a hit in the Midlands. Chelsea's unwanted youngster once again thrust West Brom to victory, keeping their European hopes alive in the process.
Steven Fletcher curled a low shot against the post with 23 minutes gone. Although the ball bounced back into the path of Sunderland's top scorer, he blasted well over the bar from the edge of the box.
Minutes after this incident, Craig Gardner conceded a crucial penalty after handling in the area. Lukaku stepped up and coolly side-footed his shot down the middle. Simon Mignolet dived to his left and had no chance of stopping this once the decision was made.
The Black Cats had a huge chance shortly after half-time.
Sebastian Larsson's corner wickedly whipped beyond the onrushing Ben Foster, who came off the line and missed the ball completely. Stephane Sessegnon loitered at the back post and steered his shot toward the open net.
Unfortunately for Martin O'Neill's men, Youssuf Mulumbu was in position to clear.
Even though West Brom's second goal was a tad fortuitous, Lukaku deserved all of the luck he was given. Foster started an incisive counterattack by bowling the ball toward Lukaku in his own half.
The Belgian—who found himself one-on-one with John O'Shea—was forced wide after a heavy first touch.
He knocked the ball beyond O'Shea on the halfway line and sprinted toward the opposition's area with pace. Despite retrieving possession, Titus Bramble played a soft back pass to his goalkeeper, who could only launch his clearance into Lukaku's foot. The ball flew past Mignolet and into Sunderland's net.
Lukaku should be praised for showing great determination.
Sessegnon managed to reply with a well-placed finish beyond Foster, but Steve Clarke's men held on for a second successive Premier League win.
Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa
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Two of the Premier League's biggest enigmas met at the Emirates. Arsenal fans—who have been taught to fear the worst in recent weeks—welcomed a Villa side who started the day one point ahead of the relegation zone.
Arsene Wenger's men quickly put the 3-1 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich behind them. Santi Cazorla buzzed throughout and opened the scoring with five minutes on the clock.
A poor clearance bounced toward the Spaniard in the area. From here, he excellently blasted between two pairs of legs and away from the grasp of Brad Guzan.
Villa improved after the early setback.
Paul Lambert's side looked sharp on the counter and possessed great pace across the forward line. Charles N'zogbia burst into the box with 25 minutes gone, but Wojciech Szczesny brilliantly parried his rising attempt away. Andreas Weimann picked up on the loose ball and failed to deliver at the near post.
Weimann became far more important in the second half.
The Austrian showed snippets of quality throughout the match—none more so than his equalising goal. He picked the ball up just in front of the halfway line and forced Arsenal's defence onto the back foot. Weimann powered the ball past a helpless Szczesny after skipping up the field with no challenge coming his way.
The Emirates crowd became tense after this moment.
Olivier Giroud's pinpoint header was pushed over by Guzan, who once again showed why he is the rightful Villa No. 1. The clock ticked away, but with five minutes to go, Arsenal's former Malaga players combined to win the match.
Jack Wilshere sent Nacho Monreal free on the left. The newly acquired defender squared the ball across goal and toward Cazorla, who easily slotted home.
Although Villa played well against an anxious Gunners outfit, they now find themselves in the relegation zone.
Reading 0-3 Wigan Athletic
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Villa's late stumble could be a massive result as we head into the latter stages of the season.
Reading played host to Wigan in a match that was billed as an old-fashioned six-pointer.
Roberto Martinez will enjoy his weekend, that's for sure. Wigan have played some fantastic football this campaign and will feel they deserve to be higher up the league.
Franco Di Santo started brightly. His long-range shot was turned past the post on the three-minute mark by Adam Federici—a sign of things to come.
Reading barely threatened and were deservedly undone as the first half came to an end. Wigan had time to bounce the ball around the opposition's area from a deep corner. Maynor Figueroa's header found Arouna Kone in the middle.
He was never going to miss from two yards out.
The Ivorian striker chested into the back of the net, but two minutes later he notched a fantastic second. Jean Beusejour split the Reading defence with a perfect pass toward the right flank. Kone sprinted onto the ball and entered the box with one thing on his mind: dinking the ball over Federici. A stunning goal from the visitors.
Brian McDermott's struggling team continued to surrender possession in the second half.
Figueroa performed admirably and was rewarded with a goal two minutes after the restart. He played a majestic one-two with Di Santo and passed the ball between Federici's legs.
A terrible day for the Royals was rounded off when Pavel Pogrebnyak decided to lunge toward Figueroa.
The Russian was deservedly shown a straight red for a needless moment of rashness.
Queens Park Rangers 0-2 Manchester United
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Harry Redknapp's mission impossible got a little more difficult this weekend.
Old 'Arry wouldn't have been expecting points against Manchester United, but another game without a goal will worry the experienced manager.
Both teams started slowly. Javier Hernandez made contact with Ashley Young's cross with 15 minutes gone, but saw his opportunistic effort turned over by Julio Cesar. QPR offered little threat on the counter and struggled to shut United's midfield down.
Adel Taarabt looked characteristically sloppy in possession. He gave the ball away and started a string of events that would lead to the first goal. Robin van Persie had a right-footed cross turned away by Cesar.
Rafael de Silva received the ball 35 yards out and crashed an unbelievable volley into the top corner.
The little Brazilian—who scored a great goal at Anfield earlier in the season—summed up United's entire day. His goal of the season contender was just the beginning for a young defender who continues to improve.
He cleared a QPR effort off the line shortly after scoring and then played a tremendous pass to Van Persie, whose volley was saved by Cesar.
United fans will have winced just before half-time.
Persie appeared to pull up with a problem, and after taking painkillers on the pitch, he made way for Danny Welbeck. The influential Dutchman collided with a cameraman on the sideline and was taken off as a precaution. You can keep up to speed with his fitness here.
The visitors continued to control in the second half. David De Gea responded when called upon. Loic Remy forced the Spaniard into his only meaningful save of the day with 30 minutes left.
Nani—who put in a great shift at Loftus Road—passed the ball toward Ryan Giggs, who cleverly shot into the corner of the net.
A professional job from United. Pressure on City.
Norwich City 2-1 Everton
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Mark Bunn's reaction says it all. In the most dramatic game of the day, Norwich scored two late goals to beat Everton at Carrow Road.
The Canaries started with confidence and pressured Everton in the early moments.
Sylvain Distin—who became the first overseas player to make 400 Premier League appearances—slid in to deny Robert Snodgrass (via Opta).
Everton dominated as the first half progressed. Steven Pienaar linked with Leighton Baines, who swung a pinpoint cross onto the head of Leon Osman. The Englishman put Everton 1-0 just before the break in a match that was only simmering at this point.
Chris Hughton threw on Kei Kamara in the second half.
The game quickly changed as the Sierra Leone striker proved why his Premier League career fills cinemas back home (via BBC Sport).
He nodded wide shortly after coming on, but powerfully headed past Howard with six minutes left. Kamara became the first player born in Sierra Leone to score a goal in England's top division.
The excitement didn't end there. Indicated injury time had passed shortly before Norwich floated a cross into Everton's box. Grant Holt found the ball at his feet and bundled beyond Howard, sending Carrow Road crazy in the process.
A huge goal for the home side.
Let me know what you thought about today's Premier League games in the comments section below. Be sure to follow me on Twitter.