John Walton/EMPICS Sport Ryan Giggs congratulates Javier Hernandez on his winner.
What We Learned

6 thoughts from the St Stephen's Day Premier League action

Another goal-fest involving Manchester United and City lose ground in the title race.

1. United getting the job done… only just

IF ALEX FERGUSON was looking for an immediate response from his side after their lacklustre performance in the 1-1 draw with Swansea, he certainly did not get it during the first half at Old Trafford this afternoon.

Their defensive shortcomings have been evident this season and, just like earlier in the month against Reading, they conceded three goals and had to be bailed out by a late comeback – Javier Hernandez getting onto the end of Michael Carrick’s clipped ball to stroke home a 91st minute winner.

Carrick had a vastly-improved second 45 after being at fault for the first goal but how Ferguson thinks he can play him, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the same midfield is hard to fathom and the introduction of Tom Cleverley on 69 minutes unsurprisingly brought some much-needed intensity to United’s play in the centre of the park.

David De Gea, meanwhile, looked far from assured and was blessed to see a strike he had left come back off the post and into his arms.

It’s incredible to think that United have now conceded just two goals less than today’s opponents yet sit a whopping 26 points (and 14 places) ahead of the Magpies.  They’re also seven clear of City now after the current champions lost out to Sunderland. Convincing it may not be but they are somehow getting the job done right now while providing some thrilling spectacles for the neutral.

2. Gap widens in the title race

How sweet it must have felt for Adam Johnson to hand the club which he failed to make a lasting impact at and a manager who never really rated him their second Premier League defeat of the season.

The winger’s second half strike earned Martin O’Neill’s side the three points and although City felt hard-done by as Pablo Zabaleta wasn’t awarded a free-kick in the run-up to the goal, they only have themselves to  blame for spurning their best chances and lacking ideas when the Black Cats compact backline stood strong.

During a post-match interview, Roberto Mancini’s insisted the gulf which has opened up between them and United is not the problem. Although their inability to score with their two best strikers starting was a worrying sign today, they undoubtedly possess enough talent to make up the lost ground on their city rivals… even if their summer signings so far failed to improve last season’s squad.

3. Goalkeeper protection – Where do you stand?

The debate over the amount of protection goalkeepers receive in football these days raised its head at Loftus Road with Harry Redknapp accusing West Brom striker Marc-Antoine Fortune of a “blatant foul” on QPR goalkeeper for the Baggies’ winner. Referees tend to give the man between the sticks a free-kick for the slightest of contact from the attacking player more often than not and it has got to the stage where they are nearly expected to side with the keeper

So when that didn’t happen, Redknapp was unsurprisingly up in arms. It was a contentious decision and you can make your own judgement on the incident. Personally, I believe that although Green didn’t show nearly enough of a commanding presence, a free-kick should have been awarded for the nudge.

4. Upwards and onwards for Chelsea

A week after stunning Aston Villa by hitting them for eight, Chelsea took a step closer to the top two with the kind of display you’d expect from a Rafael Benitez team. The Spaniard opted for Jon Obi Mikel with the excellent David Luiz in midfield and the visitors kept Norwich’s opportunities at a minimum with a solid defensive performance, then punished the Canaries with a touch of class from Juan Mata.

Everton will be a test for them on Sunday but looking at the current state of affairs it will be interesting to see whether they can make a genuine challenge on the Manchester clubs, neither of whom are currently firing on all cylinders.

5. Irish duo integral to Stoke’s fantastic run

Jon Walters is routinely complimented for his work-rate nowadays.

However, today against Liverpool, he demonstrated his more skillful side, producing two accomplished finishes as his team won 3-1.

And even in the dying stages, when Stoke had the game more or less won, the Ireland striker was chasing the ball down with an incredible level of enthusiasm.

In addition, his international colleague Glenn Whelan also stood out in the midfield, outshining Steven Gerrard among others, with an intelligent and wholehearted display.

Such news will be undoubtedly be of interest to Giovanni Trapattoni, with the much-maligned Whelan in particular recovering extremely well since his disappointing Euro 2012.

6. Give Gareth Bale space and he will score

Villa, perhaps wisely, elected to defend extremely deep in the first half against Tottenham today.

Nonetheless, once Spurs scored early in the second period, the hosts were forced to push forward in search of a goal, and were consequently punished further.

Roberto Martinez recently made the suggestion that Gareth Bale could struggle in La Liga against the invariably deep-lying defences.

However, once Defoe scored, today’s game was made for Bale, who capitalised on the increased level of space available as the game progressed, with three consummately taken goals.

Additional writing by Paul Fennessy

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