United open 12-point lead, eye title N’Zogbia downs Hammers to boost Villa survival bid

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Feb 10, (AFP): Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie scored the goals as Manchester United opened up a commanding 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League after a 2-0 win over Everton on Sunday. With Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho watching from the directors’ box at Old Trafford ahead of his team’s Champions League tie against Alex Ferguson’s side at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, United took full advantage of second placed Manchester City’s surprise defeat at Southampton on Saturday. Giggs opened the scoring early on with his first league goal of the season, maintaining his astonishing record of having scored a league goal in each of his 23 seasons as a United player, a sequence which now covers every year in Premier League history.

Van Persie got the second just before the break and, with City stumbling of late, the destiny of the title is firmly in United’s hands once again. United should have taken the lead after 10 minutes and would have done so but for an uncharacteristic error by the prolific van Persie, who collected Wayne Rooney’s through ball and rounded goalkeeper Tim Howard only to hit the outside of the post as he attempted to convert. It was a rare slip by a forward just two goals shy of the 20-league goal barrier, but it did not take the Dutchman long to make amends as he set up Giggs for a 13th minute opening goal. Antonio Valencia out-jumped Leighton Baines to head on a long ball from Jonny Evans which van Persie collected. His pass was perfect for Giggs, who had the time to steady himself before clinically placing the ball past Howard.

In response, until Leon Osman’s weak, off-balance shot dribbled into David de Gea’s grasp after 24 minutes, Everton generated little to worry the home defence. De Gea was required to be far more alert just before the half hour, however, when he dived acrobatically to his left to keep out an Osman volley from the edge of the area which appeared destined for the corner of the United goal. Buoyed by their best passage of the game, Everton also asked questions of the United defence when Rafael da Silva was forced into a goal-saving challenge on Victor Anichebe, who looked poised to covert a Kevin Mirallas cross and, again, when Osman flashed a hopeful volley wide after a poor punch from de Gea.

But, on the stroke of half-time, Everton’s tactic of playing a high defensive line to try and catch van Persie offside failed as Rafael played through a perfectly-weighted pass and the Dutchman timed his run superbly. In Birmingham, United Kingdom, Charles N’Zogbia inspired Aston Villa to a crucial 2-1 win over West Ham as the Premier League strugglers climbed out of the relegation zone on Sunday. Paul Lambert’s team have endured a miserable campaign filled with embarrassing cup exits and woeful league defeats, but N’Zogbia’s influential display gave Villa renewed hope that they can at least avoid sinking into the Championship.

N’Zogbia won the penalty that Christian Benteke converted to break the deadlock in the closing stages at Villa Park and the former Wigan winger then curled in a superb free-kick to give the hosts much-needed breathing space. An own goal from Villa’s Ashley Westwood ensured a nervous finale, but Lambert’s men held on for their first league win in 10 matches, a dismal run that stretched back to a victory at Liverpool in December. Villa now sit one point clear of the bottom three but their battle to preserve their long-held top-flight status looks certain to go down to the wire. “I think it will be huge for us. We’ve taken a lot of knocks but football is a funny game and we are only three points behind Newcastle now,” Lambert said. “We know what we have got to do and there’s 12 games to go. Every game is really tough, but that was a huge win for us, especially with the results for the teams around us this weekend.”

After squandering a 3-1 lead in their previous match at Everton last weekend, it was hardly surprising that Villa’s players and fans seemed wracked by nerves in the early stages. They should have been ahead after just two minutes but when Jussi Jaaskelainen spilled Benteke’s shot into Andreas Weimann’s path the Austrian forward somehow fired wide. Villa defender Ron Vlaar came close to opening the scoring with a half-volley from a corner but his effort was narrowly off target. Sam Allardyce’s visitors were slightly more threatening after the break and Villa fans’ anxiety was clear to see when Ciaran Clark headed clear from a corner, prompting ironic cheers from supporters still scarred by their team’s shocking defending from set-pieces this season. But Villa gradually regained the momentum and Benteke lashed just wide before the hosts finally took the lead in the 74th minute.

N’Zogbia was the catalyst with a clever turn in the penalty area that forced Mark Noble to trip the winger and Benteke stepped up to send Jaaskelainen the wrong way with his spot-kick. Villa doubled their lead four minutes later when N’Zogbia curled a fine free-kick over the static West Ham wall and past the flat-footed Jaaskelainen. Even with a two-goal lead there was still an air of tension around Villa Park and the nerves really started jangling when Westwood, attempting to clear a Joe Cole cross, could only loop it into his own net. West Ham surged forward in search of an equaliser, but Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan came to the rescue, blocking a Kevin Nolan shot with his legs and then denying Carlton Cole in stoppage-time.

EPL Results & Standings
LONDON, Feb 10, (AFP): English Premier League Results and Standings  after Sunday’s matches (played, won, drawn, lost, goals for, goals against, points):

United    2    Everton    0
Aston Villa    2    West Ham    1

    P    W    D    L    GF    GA    Pts
Man Utd    26    21    2    3    62    31    65
Man City    26    15    8    3    48    24    53
Chelsea    26    14    7    5    55    28    49
Tottenham    26    14    6    6    44    30    48
Arsenal    26    12    8    6    50    29    44
Everton    26    10    12    4    40    32    42
Swansea    26    9    10    7    38    29    37
Liverpool    25    9    9    7    44    32    36
West Brom    25    10    4    11    34    35    34
Stoke    26    7    12    7    26    31    33
 

    P    W    D    L    GF    GA    Pts
West Ham    26    8    6    12    29    38    30
Fulham    26    7    8    11    36    42    29
Sunderland    26    7    8    11    28    34    29
Norwich    26    6    11    9    25    40    29
Southam.    26    6    9    11    36    45    27
Newcastle    26    7    6    13    34    46    27
Aston Villa    26    5    9    12    25    50    24
Reading    26    5    8    13    33    48    23
Wigan    26    5    6    15    30    51    21
QPR    26    2    11    13    19    41    17

 

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