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Saturday, March 31, 2012
City takes another hit

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

Sunderland
Did Nicklas Bendtner and Sunderland kill Manchester City's title dreams? City trails United by two points with seven to play, though the Red Devils have a crucial game in hand.

LONDON -- When Manchester City rallied to beat Chelsea 2-1 at home this month, the term "character building" was frequently thrown around.

But that backbone was clearly absent for large parts in Saturday's pulsating 3-3 draw with Sunderland, a result that means Manchester United players -- currently enjoying a golfing retreat in Scotland -- can begin to consider putting the champagne on ice. If United downs Blackburn on Monday, the gap between United and City stretches to five points with time running out.

Here are five takeaways from an eventful, action-packed Saturday in the Premier League, when seven games produced 27 goals.

City in disarray

Martin O'Neill deserves yet more plaudits. After Sunderland was bundled out of the FA Cup by Everton in midweek, the Black Cats could have put in a half-hearted effort at the Etihad Stadium, as at least one writer (OK, me) suspected. But it was quite the opposite, and as such, Sunderland -- which edged City in a 1-0 thriller on New Year's Day -- became the first team to take a Prem point off City in Manchester this season. Even though it blew a 3-1 lead in the final six minutes, Sunderland will take it.

The trio of Stephane Sessegnon, Sebastian Larsson and yes, Nicklas Bendtner, sparkled for Sunderland, which dominated the affair in stretches around the attacking third.

But what of City?

Fernando Torres
Emboldened by his brace against Leicester in the FA Cup two weeks ago, Fernando Torres tallied against Aston Villa on Saturday, his third Prem goal of 2011-12.

Vincent Kompany's return in the center of defense did little to add stability, and City fell asleep at the end of the first half shortly after referee Phil Dowd awarded a controversial penalty when Edin Dzeko went down in the box.

Many thought City boss Roberto Mancini would start Carlos Tevez in the absence of fellow Argentine Sergio Aguero -- despite his lack of total match fitness -- but Tevez only entered deep in the second half. It's all about winning the league for Mancini, and Tevez, despite his poor behavior in Munich, is a better option than Dzeko.

While Mario Balotelli netted twice, he was back to his divisive ways, arguing with Aleksandar Kolarov about who should take a free kick.

Worryingly for City, David Silva had another poor, borderline anonymous outing, a virtual shadow of the player who shone in the first half of the season. Yet without the injured Samir Nasri, there were eyebrows raised when it was the Spaniard who exited for Tevez -- not holding midfielder Nigel de Jong.

United has so often been there and done it in title chases. City hasn't, and it's showing.

Villa can't deliver for Stan

Stricken Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov, diagnosed with acute leukemia this week, gave his teammates a huge boost just by showing up at Villa Park to watch the Villans' clash with Chelsea. A minute's applause in the 19th minute -- Petrov wears No. 19 -- was highly emotional.

But the home side -- infused with youth yet sorely missing the injured Darren Bent -- couldn't deliver, and Villa slumped to a 4-2 loss to get sucked into the relegation battle. Villa, with one win in its last nine, switched off after scoring twice in three minutes to erase a 2-0 deficit.

Fernando Torres missed a wonderful opportunity early in the first half, yet he later got what he wanted: a Premier League goal, as he ended an EPL drought that dated to September. All afternoon, El Nino was involved in plenty of the good that Chelsea offered going forward, and suddenly Chelsea is surging, moving to within two points of idle Tottenham in fourth and five within Arsenal, a surprise loser at QPR.

At least an American played a vital role for Villa. Speedy fullback Eric Lichaj set up James Collins' header with a throw-in and later scored his first Premier League goal to make it 2-2.

Wolves going down

It's been that kind of season for Wolves, who are no doubt dropping to the Championship after a 3-2 loss at home to Bolton.

The game should have been over in the first half, but in Wolves' favor. Steven Fletcher, the Midlanders' savior at the end of last season, was thwarted by Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan, had another header cleared off the line and fired a third effort narrowly wide.

United manager Alex Ferguson's theory that the calls even themselves up won't hold water with Wolves boss Terry Connor. After finally making the breakthrough to take a 1-0 lead, referee Jon Moss awarded Bolton a penalty -- which was converted -- when Mark Davies tumbled with Roger Johnson around him. If there was any contact, it was minimal.

Then Marcos Alonso's tap-in gave Bolton a 2-1 lead in the 80th minute not long after an agonizing miss by Matt Jarvis at the other end.

Joey Barton
Joey Barton and QPR registered a potentially vital home win over Arsenal, prompting many to wonder: What will Joey say about it on Twitter?

Wolves are six points adrift at the bottom of the table, while Bolton has won three straight in the league for the first time this season; beating fellow strugglers QPR, Blackburn and Wolves makes the sequence even better.

Dempsey delight

Fulham had never gone four Premier League games without scoring, and since Norwich was the visitor at Craven Cottage, the Londoners weren't going to fire another blank. Norwich, like Swansea, has entertained since earning promotion from the Championship, yet unlike the Welsh outfit, it struggles to keep clean sheets. On the road, the Canaries have been breached in every game.

It took Fulham a mere two minutes to break the deadlock in a 2-1 win, and was it any surprise that Clint Dempsey was the man? The American lifted his tally to 19 in all competitions, sure to make him even more valuable in the summer transfer window. Dempsey's goal came via his thigh, yet they all count.

Dempsey set up Damien Duff's second with a precise through ball in the 13th minute, after which time Fulham predictably sat back; by the final whistle, Norwich registered more shots and had 62 percent of the possession. Oh, what could have been for the Canaries if they'd been able to call upon the suspended Grant Holt.

Streak over for Gunners

Arsenal's winning streak had to dissipate sometime, yet few would have predicted QPR would be the opponent. Undone by Adel Taarabt and perhaps the small pitch at Loftus Road, Arsenal fell 2-1.

This was a muted performance by Arsenal, and influential central defender Thomas Vermaelen didn't have his finest game. Taarabt skipped past him before unleashing a shot into the corner for the opener -- his first Premier League goal -- and was also culpable on Samba Diakite's winner in the 66th minute.

Loftus Road has suddenly become a fortress for QPR, which recently stunned Liverpool 3-2. Only goal difference separates Rangers from 17th-place Blackburn.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.