Manchester United took a big step towards the Premier League title with an emphatic 2-0 win over Clint Dempsey’s Fulham Saturday to open up a ten point lead atop the table. Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal also collected wins ahead of a massive Monday game between Liverpool and Manchester City.
United might not always be pretty, but they are displaying a combination of guile and self-belief that makes them look unbeatable. Saturday, they took only 12 minutes to open up a sub-par Fulham side behind Dimitar Berbatov’s 22nd goal of the season, and only twenty more minutes to fully settle it when Nani found Antonio Valencia alone to head home at the near post. It was a characteristically professional show by a Manchester United side missing not only manager Sir Alex Ferguson but striker Wayne Rooney as well to suspensions. Both men will also be watching from the stands next week as United face rivals City in an all-Manchester FA Cup semifinal.
Chelsea were far less assured at home against bottom-boys Wigan, needing a controversial goal from Florent Malouda to take the points. Sub Fernando Torres was seen to elbow keeper Ali Al Habsi, taking him out of what became a goalmouth scramble. Ref Howard Webb either missed the incident or didn’t care, and the goal stood much to the frustration of the Latics’ coaching staff. Once again, the day was overshadowed by the continuing foibles of the Blues’ strike force: Torres of course has yet to score, but Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba look badly out of sorts as well, ill omens for their key Champions League clash on Tuesday.
Sunday, Arsenal overcame more goalkeeping drama to collect their first win in four games at Blackpool’s expense, 3-1. Manuel Almunia was involved again of course, but this time, he didn’t even take the pitch: the Spaniard was a late scratch reportedly due to a knee injury suffered in warm-ups. In his stead came 41-year-old Jens Lehmann, making his return to first team football from retirement, and while he was lucky to escape a red card, he was by far more assured. Goals from Abou Diaby, Emmanuel Eboue and Robin van Persie kept Arsenal seven points off the top of the table and with that, retained some slim hopes of taking the title.
Elswhere, an injured Stuart Holden watched Bolton whip Johnathan Spector’s West Ham 3-0. The result left the Hammers back in the drop zone, and puts renewed pressure on manager Avram Grant. Tim Howard backstopped Everton to a cozy win over Marcus Hahnemann’s Wolves by the same 3-0 scoreline; Wolves look nigh certain of going down. Michael Bradley did not make the game-day 18 for Aston Villa, but Brad Friedel had little to do in a 1-0 win over Newcastle that eased the Villans’ relegation fears.
In a so-called six-pointer, Jermaine Jones’ Blackburn had to share points with Birmingham after a 1-1 draw that left both teams only a whisker outside of the relegation zone. Tottenham withstood a battling Stoke side to escape with a 3-2 win thanks in part to two goals from midweek goat Peter Crouch. Spurs’ defense remains a worry ahead of their pending date with Real Madrid. And Roy Hodgson’s revival at West Bromwich Albion continued, with his club coming all the way back to down Sunderland away 3-2.
In Germany, Borussia Dortmund’s seeming unassailable Bundesliga lead is eroding as they were held to yet another draw, this time by Hamburg. Jakub Blaszczykowski nicked a stoppage time equalizer to save the point for the leaders. Leverkusen took advantage Sunday, rebounding to take down St. Pauli 2-1. The results mean that Dortmund is now just five points clear atop the league with five to play. Next up for Leverkusen is a meeting at Bayern Munich; Dortmund face midtable Freiburg.
Steve Cherundolo’s Hannover got a solid 2-0 win over Mainz while chasing Bayern Munich were held to a draw, 1-1 with Nurnberg. Cherundolo collected a yellow card in the match. On Sunday, Bayern finally pulled the trigger on lame-duck manager Louis van Gaal, sacking him. Club president Uli Hoeness also let the door hit van Gaal on the way out, saying that the coach had alienated everyone at the club, and calling the idea that the players were behind him "a fairytale." Hoeness is under severe fan pressure himself after giving financial aid to crosstown club 1860 Munich.
Elsewhere, Ricardo Clark was an unused sub as Frankfurt drew 1-1 on Friday with Bremen. Freiburg overcame Hoffenheim 3-2 despite seeing Pavel Krmas ejected after only 33 minutes. Schalke pipped Wolfsburg – and their ex-manager, Felix Magath – 1-0 to round out a good week for them. Moenchengladbach got a big boost with a 5-1 win over Koln to give themselves some slim hope for survival.
In Italy, AC Milan kept up their title quest with a solid 2-1 win over Fiorentina thanks to Clarence Seedorf and Alexandre Pato but Napoli kept up their pursuit, winning 2-0 over Bologna thanks to goals from Giuseppe Mascara and Marek Hamsik. Milan’s lead is but three points and the result was tarnished by yet another red card for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, sent off for mouthing off to the assistant with three to play.
Inter recovered from their midweek disaster with a 2-0 win over Chievo while Lazio got an important 2-0 win over Parma. Udinese were not so lucky, stumbling at home to Roma thanks to two goals from Francesco Totti to slide to fifth. In the depths, Bari drew Catania 1-1 while Lecce edged Sampdoria 2-1 and Cagliari were held 1-1 by Brescia.
In Spain, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi scored twice to seize the golden boot lead with his 29th of the season to take the Catalans past Almeria 3-1. The win was costly: 20-year-old winger Bojan Krkic is out at least 8 weeks after tearing a knee ligament. Kaka had a pair for Real Madrid as they routed Bilbao 3-0.
Roberto Soldado and Juan Mata got two apiece to lead Valencia to third place with a massive 5-0 win over Villarreal. It seems almost cruel to note that they are nonetheless 27 points behind Barcelona, but such is the nature of this year’s chase.
Elsewhere, Atletico Madrid KO’ed Sociedad 3-0 to close in on fifth after Sevilla were held 2-2 by Mallorca. Hercules got a valuable 0-0 draw with Espanyol and Sporting tweaked Osasuna 1-0.
In France, Lille were stunned by Monaco, throwing off their stroll to the title. Park Chu Young scored the only goal of the match to take the principality out of the relegation zone. It was just Lille’s fourth loss of the season, but they were lucky that Marseille could not take full advantage, being held to a 2-2 draw.
Lyon racked up a 3-0 win over Lens late Sunday to rise to third, taking advantage of Rennes’ 2-0 loss to Brest on Saturday. Carlos Bocanegra’s St. Etienne drew Auxerre Friday 2-2; Paris Saint-Germain won 2-1 over Caen while Montpellier were held 1-1 by Nice.
In Holland, Oguchi Onyweu’s Twente needed a late rescue at the spot from Theo Janssen to get a 1-1 draw with Roda JC. PSV Eindhoven also stumbled, earning a 2-2 draw with Heerenveen. That allowed Ajax, 2-0 winners at Groningen to close within three points of Twente atop the Eredivisie.
In Scotland, Celtic, Hibs and Dundee United collected wins while Hearts were held to a scoreless draw by Motherwell. Maurice Edu’s Rangers pipped Hamilton 1-0 to cut Celtic’s lead to two points.
Midweek, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Schalke all recorded convincing wins in the Champions League while Manchester United edged Chelsea 1-0 away. In the Europa League, slaughter was the theme as Portuguese pair Porto and Benfica remained on course to meet in the finals with convincing wins over Spartak Moscow and PSV Eindoven, respectively. Villarreal whipped Onyewu’s FC Twente 5-1 while Braga drew at Dinamo Kiev 1-1.
In world news, FIFA is considering granting Japan an extraordinary exemption to allow the quake-hit nation an opportunity to participate as a guest at the Copa America. As a rule, clubs are not obligated to release their players to the national team for a guest appearance, and with the J-League suspended after the quake, five rounds of matches would conflict with the July tournament. However, JFA president Junji Ogura said he had been told FIFA would relax the rule, which would also apply to European teams which carry Japanese players, because of the circumstances.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.