Headlined by a clash of the titans between Arsenal and Manchester United in North London, the Premier League finally got back to a full slate of action this weekend, and there were plenty of intriguing story lines to follow as the January transfer window prepares to slam shut.
Red hot Wayne Rooney led Manchester United into the Emirates to take on Arsenal in a gigantic match between the second and third place teams in the table. A home win for Arsenal would have vaulted the Gunners into second place, past United. It only took the Red Devils 38 minutes to squash Arsenal's hopes. In the 33rd minute, Arsenal goalie Manuel Almunia pawed a Nani cross into his own net in the 33rd minute after a brilliant run by the Brazilian midfielder, and four minutes later Rooney removed all doubt, netting his 20th goal of the Premier League season (and his fifth goal in the last two league games). United finished the 90 minutes with a 3-1 win, and stayed within one point of leaders Chelsea, who narrowly escaped with a 2-1 win against Burnley at Turf Moor on Saturday.
Tottenham were at it again, conceding a stoppage time goal to lose a lead, and had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Birmingham City, wasting a terrific goal by Jermain Defoe. Liverpool moved to within one point of fourth place Spurs, stifling a free-falling Bolton squad 2-0, with Dirk Kuyt leading the way. Manchester City climbed to within a point of fourth place as well, breezing past Portsmouth 2-0 on the strength of goals by Emmanuel Adebayor and Vincent Kompany.
Everton and Aston Villa both won, thanks to clean sheets by their American goalkeepers, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel respectively. The wins gave both sides breathing room in the middle of the table, as Fulham continue to struggle to score goals, and have dropped to 11th place, winless in their last six league matches.
Portsmouth, who seem to have waved the white flag, sit in the basement of the table, with a meager 15 points. Just above them, with 20 points, sit Burnley and Hull City, and that's where it gets interesting. 13th through 19th place are only separated by three points, with Sunderland and Stoke City set for a showdown on Monday night, with the winner separating themselves from the fray at the bottom of the table.
Monday also marks the close of the January transfer window, and the last chance for teams to modify their rosters. Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are all having well-publicized financial troubles, and all three have been very quiet during what has been a relatively dull transfer window. Manchester United added the promising young defender Chris Smalling from Fulham. Tottenham have the money to spend, and have added defender Younes Kaboul from Portsmouth and Iceland striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, while their Irish striker Robbie Keane is on the verge of a move to Sunderland.
There is a glaring lack of big names for sale. The real movers and shakers have been the clubs who are battling relegation, as Wigan, Wolves, Birmingham City, Bolton and Burnley have all added small pieces that they hope will lead to them avoiding a relegation fight.
But there's always a midnight surprise, so what's out there? Like mentioned before, Tottenham seem prepared to sell off striker Robbie Keane and also could strike a deal to send Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko off, likely to Fiorentina. Manchester City are hot on the phones with Middlesbrough, trying to get a deal done to sign young midfielder Adam Johnson, and if Sunderland can add Robbie Keane, Liverpool may be perched to then buy Trinidad and Tobago striker Kenwyne Jones away from the Black Cats.
Unlike the anticlimactic trade deadlines in American sports, sparks always fly right before the window closes, and with Liverpool teetering on the verge of a breakdown, and new money in Manchester City, there has never been more on the line for clubs outside of what has been the top four. Aston Villa, Man City and Tottenham all have legitimate shots at that fourth spot. Who is going to make the key move that gets one of those sides into the Champions League?