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Birthday blues for Fergie; No better for AVB; RVP on target; Spurs slip-up at Swans

Manchester United were not the only side to suffer a hangover on the afternoon before the night ahead as Chelsea slumped to a 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa.

All the talk this week has been of Thierry Henry’s imminent return to Arsenal but there is a new top dog at the Emirates these days and inevitably it was Robin van Persie who inspired Arsene Wenger’s side to victory over QPR with his 35th goal of the calendar year.

If the sign of a title-winning side is collecting three points without being at your best then Tottenham still have work to do, as Scott Sinclair’s goal five minutes from time was enough to earn Swansea a deserved point at the Liberty Stadium.

Stoke and Wigan shared four goals in what was an entertaining and frenetic affair at the Britannia Stadium, Norwich left it to the death to rescue a point at home to Fulham, while Bolton and Wolves could not be separated in a 1-1 draw at the Reebok.

Even without Wayne Rooney, left out altogether due to a series of niggles, Manchester United were expected to steamroll a Blackburn side who were priced at 20/1 to record just their second ever Premier League victory over their North West counterparts.

In the corresponding fixture last season Dimitar Berbatov scored five but it was a case of from hero to zero after his hat-trick against Wigan last weekend, as Yakubu Aiyegbeni coolly converted from the penalty spot on 16 minutes after the Bulgarian pulled down Christopher Samba in the box.

Against a makeshift United backline Yakubu was causing problems and six minutes after the break he stunned a subdued Old Trafford with a second. Taking the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the box the big Nigerian turned both Michael Carrick and Phil Jones before driving under David de Gea. United’s defending will have left Ferguson feeling 90, let alone 70.

As if roused by their visitor’s impertinence United rallied and reduced the deficit just a minute later as Berbatov atoned for his earlier faux pas in stooping low to head in Rafael’s cross-cum-shot for the club’s 1,500th Premier League goal.

With the bit between their teeth there was a sense of the inevitable about the equaliser as Antonio Valencia made inroads down the right flank before pulling back for Berbatov’s sixth goal in his last three games.

Steve Kean has retained an indomitable belief in his own ability in what has been a difficult 2011 but even the beleaguered Scot would concede he did not envisage what would happen next, as De Gea’s failure to deal with a routine corner ten minutes from time culminated in Grant Hanley bundling in the scruffiest of winners. Kean will not have a better day all season; for Ferguson it was one to forget.

Difficult

Chelsea have had a difficult start to life under Andre Villas-Boas and they ended the calendar year outside of the top four after slumping to a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa.

Didier Drogba’s 150th goal in a Chelsea shirt owed much to Richard Dunne as the Irishman’s rash challenge in the penalty area allowed the Ivorian to dust himself down and register from the penalty spot in the absence of the benched Frank Lampard.

Villa were far from cowed though at falling behind at Stamford Bridge and were level before the half-hour mark as forgotten man Stephen Ireland gave his pals something more positive to Tweet about.

The Irishman’s surging run allowed him to exchanged passes with Charles N’Zogbia before at the second attempt, after John Terry stopped his first on the line, he was able to stab the ball past Petr Cech from close range.

It could have got even better for Villa in the second half when Gabriel Agbonlahor hopelessly failed to deliver the finish a fine counter-attacker deserved, but in the end it will be Villas-Boas rather than Alex McLeish who bids farewell to the year with a scowl rather than smile as Chelsea suffered an embarrassing capitulation late on.

Stiliyan Petrov was the first to breach a dozing home backline as his lashed finish from Ciaran Clarke’s through ball gave Cech not a prayer seven minutes from time.

Lampard had earlier been summoned from the bench but his most telling contribution was a negative one as his suicide ball to Ramires was easily picked off by the impressive Ireland, who unselfishly slipped the ball to Villa substitute Darren Bent to notch a third.

Arsenal were far from at their fluid best but were still good enough to take the capital spoils from their clash with QPR in North London.

The home side were guilty of profligacy throughout and none more so in the second half when Theo Walcott missed a gilt-edged opportunity to take the lead, when he was more Lenny Henry than Thierry Henry in limply shooting wide when through on goal.

It was left then, quelle surprise, for Van Persie to show his team-mates how to do it when on the hour mark he smartly swept home Andrey Arshavin slide-rule pass with the trustiest left foot in the business.

For much of the first period Swansea looked more than good enough to pass Tottenham into submission but after failing to turn possession into goals they were made to pay with a classic sucker-punch on the stroke of half-time.

A typically astute forward foray from Benoit Assou-Ekotto down the left ended with the full-back’s drilled cross being hooked home by Rafael van der Vaart, via a fortuitous deflection off Ashley Williams from no more than a couple of yards.

Chances came and went for the home side but with six minutes left Sinclair was on hand to capitalise on a rare Brad Friedel error as the American allowed a deflected cross to escape from his clutches.

Flyer

Fulham got off to a flyer on their trip to Carrow Road as Orlando Sa’s first-ever Premier League goal on seven minutes gave them an opener against Norwich.

The Portuguese front-man showed Zak Whitbread a clean pair of heels before bending a cute low finish past the outstretched hand of Canaries goalkeeper John Ruddy.

It looked to be enough to earn Fulham an impressive three-point haul but in the game’s dying embers Elliott Bennett slung in a deep cross to fellow substitution Simeon Jackson, who did the rest with a fine flick header.

On a day when Bolton badly needed a lift inspiration came from the unlikeliest source as Sam Ricketts gave them a first-half advantage over Wolves with the most stunning of strikes.

Cutting in from the left onto his right foot the full-back bent a sumptuous curling effort into the top corner from a full 25-yards on 22 minutes.

A failure to defend properly has been Bolton’s Achilles heel all season and it flared yet again just four minutes after the interval, when in-form Steven Fletcher was given the freedom of the box to head home a Wolves set-piece for his fifth goal in six games.

Both side sides had chances to win it thereafter but in the end the respective managers had to settle for a point apiece, which was just about right.

Victor Moses continues to catch the eye for Wigan and it was his sure footed finish from Hugo Rodallega’s low cross that gave Roberto Martinez’s side a first half lead at Stoke.

It was an advantage they held until 15 minutes from time when after Gary Caldwell was shown a straight red card for handling substitute Cameron Jerome’s goalbound header on the line, Jonathan Walters kept his nerve to confidently dispatch the resulting penalty.

Jerome further bolstered his chances of starting Stoke’s next game as he rounded off a smart move involving Peter Crouch and Walters with a cool finish beyond Ali Al Habsi to give Stoke a late lead.

Wigan are made of slightly sterner stuff these days though and when Ryan Shotton was adjudged to have pulled Rodallega down in the box, Ben Watson was summoned from the bench to calmly earn his side a point with his first touch from the penalty spot with just a few minutes left on the clock.

 

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