PA Anderson scores but he was part of the problem for United
Manchester United

Premier League parting shots

Why Craig Bellamy deserves more credit than Andy Carroll and certainly more than Martin Atkinson; why Manchester United could yet rue not signing Wesley Sneijder. Miguel Delaney reviews the day’s action

A game of inches… or, in Pilkington’s case, yards

And that, really, is the difference.

With 66 minutes gone of Norwich’s trip to Old Trafford, Paul Lambert’s side were congested and content. An admirable 0-0 draw seemed a good bet. Then Andy Pilkington was put clean through on goal and sent the ball a shameful amount of yards wide.

The bear, however, had been poked. United promptly won a corner and effectively forced it home with a series of headers. And, although the game remained in the balance until Danny Welbeck’s clincher, the damage had been done.

It should be emphasised, however, that we’re not castigating Norwich for throwing caution to the wind with Pilkington’s chance. They should be commended for their approach and look well-equipped to finish mid-table let alone stay up.

But we are castigating them for the miss. Essentially, Pilkington bottled it. And you can’t do that against a side of United’s calibre. No matter how badly they’re performing on the day.

On that note, though, this performance did shed further light on a few growing concerns for United.

Granted, we wouldn’t criticise them too much on account of the amount of goals they had previously scored and the amount of injuries they suffered. But there was an awful flatness to their play. A complete lack of invention – no real link between Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez and the central midfielder.

And that does perhaps show why, in the long-term – if not quite against recently promoted sides – Ferguson may rue not signing Wesley Sneijder. Other than Cleverley they lack a payer that combines movement with a wide range of passing in the middle. Indeed, the youngster was key to the early season fluency. And it’s no coincidence that it’s started to fade without him.

Given that this is his first season, and given how badly Ferguson wants to catch Barcelona, it might have been a risk to rely so completely for fluency on his game.

But not, at least, in the league. There, United always seem to have enough. As Norwich realised today.

Carroll singing

So Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez both score in a Merseyside derby win. Exactly what Liverpool fans were hoping for when they signed the two strikers in January.

And there was a notable surge in Carroll’s confidence once he opened his account for the season. He finally used his frame to send Tim Howard flying and had the swagger to attempt a few flicks. His goal was also excellently taken, Carroll doing well to keep the ball down.

In truth, though, this still wasn’t quite a riposte to all of the reservations about the striker partnership. Because, for the majority of the game, Liverpool still tried to hit with futile long balls that just didn’t come off.

It was only when Craig Bellamy got the ball on the left midway through the second half that someone had the foresight to keep it on the deck. In the same position, so many other players would have just attempted to hit Carroll again.

Instead, Bellamy used his pace, playing a fine through ball for Jose Enrique who then did the same himself for Carroll. It was a change of style and, as such, a change of perception for Carroll. But, as much credit as the striker deserves, it’s Bellamy who should get the lion’s share.

Ultimately, though, the question will remain whether that would have been the case had Everton kept 11 men on the pitch. Would there have been the same space?

Because, quite simply, Rodwell did not deserve to go for his tackle on Suarez. It was an incorrect decision. Yet it kept up a trend. But, here, another question must be asked. Why, in the fixture with the highest amount of red cards in Premier League history, did the league pick the most card happy referee to officiate?

It had been the sort of open game where a centre-half Sylvain Distin saw fit to attempt a turn in the Liverpool box. It ended with him kicking the ball against Leighton Baines to set up Suarez as Everton vainly tried to stem the tide. And that was all down to Atkinson. Not Suarez or Rodwell.

City sprawl

At half-time, this trip to Blackburn threatened to be a bit of a wake-up call for City. With Carlos Tevez in disgrace, Edin Dzeko put in his place and Sergio Aguero having limped off with a groin strain, Steve Kean’s side were keeping Mancini’s at bay with a relative degree of comfort.

Then, however, the true extent of City’s options were revealed. Both Mario Balotelli and Samir Nasri stepped up in impressive fashion, the former with his second goal in two, the latter scoring and generally playing superbly. In one short month at City, Nasri has now equalled the seven assists he offered in his entire Arsenal career.

Of course, the key again, though, was David Silva. Whatever happens with Tevez and how many injuries Aguero suffers, it is imperative Mancini keeps this creator on the pitch.

Otherwise, City showed admirable grit.

A different Toon

It was this time last year that Chris Hughton was shamefully working in fear of his job every week. Yet, as unjustified as his sacking was, it simply cannot be denied that Mike Ashley has ensured an upgrade so far. Newcastle are currently in the Champions League places with the best defensive record in the division. Now that Demba has started scoring – as he did again today – their first XI suddenly has a fine balance.

Credit too to their French scout Graham Carr who unearthed such impressive performers in Cabaye and Tiote.

Bruce’s bonus

Steve Bruce will probably never be more than a mid-table manager and Sunderland will probably have exchange if they ever want to fully maximise the money they have at their disposal.

But, today, his team certainly played for him. At 2-0 after five minutes, he looked out of a job. Yet two of his better signings – Ahmed Elmohamady and, particularly, Nicklas Bendtner – saved the game and their boss. The Dane offered up an assist too.

And, despite the doubts over Bruce, given the outlay Sunderland allowed him over the summer and the extent of personnel change, it would feel harsh if they did not at least give him the opportunity to bed them in.

Angel Gabriel

Alex McLeish is notorious for creating tight but unimaginative teams and he’s so far conformed to type at Villa Park.

With one exception. And it’s not Charles N’Zogbia, Stephen Ireland or Darren Bent. It’s Gabby Agbonlahor. As the song goes, he’s fast and scores.

Agbonlahor’s sheer acceleration offers the team a different dimension that their formation otherwise doesn’t. In a team that only scores in patches, McLeish is going to be relying on an extended run of form from the striker. Luckily, at the moment he’s flying.

Keep it up and he could running out at Euro 2012 too.

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