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Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko (right), attempts a shot past Crystal Palace’s Danny Gabbidon during their English Premier League soccer match at the Etihad Stadium,
Citizens edge Palace to go top United win again

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Dec 28, (AFP): Edin Dzeko’s second-half strike sent Manchester City to the top of the Premier League table as his side earned a narrow 1-0 victory over strugglers Crystal Palace on Saturday. City manager Manuel Pellegrini decided to make six changes from his side’s victory over Liverpool on Thursday and their 100 percent home record looked in danger until Dzeko’s strike with 24 minutes to go. Nonetheless, the 2012 champions are now top of the league for the first time since the opening weekend of the season, with previous leaders Arsenal not in action until Sunday. With City unbeaten at the Etihad Stadium in the league this year, visiting their ground is a daunting task for even Europe’s top sides, let alone relegation candidates Palace.

Tony Pulis’s side may have won four of their last seven games, but City’s ruthlessness on their own turf meant that most Palace fans travelled north expecting a damage limitation exercise. But City lacked something in the opening half, with the absence of midfielder Yaya Toure notable as he was rested by Pellegrini and looked on from the bench. David Silva did create an early chance for Dzeko and he flashed a shot wide in the best of the first-half openings. City probed for the opening 45 minutes with the majority of the possession, but they did not have the same zip to their play that has seen them put six goals past Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur on home turf this season. They were limited to long-distance efforts, with Silva, James Milner and even centre-back Vincent Kompany having a go from range, only to be either off target or have their shots easily saved by Julian Speroni in the Palace goal.

Palace rarely ventured out of their own half, but when they did it ended badly for forward Cameron Jerome, who had to be taken off after colliding with City goalkeeper Joe Hart. England international Hart received a nasty cut under his eye for his troubles. That led to a lengthy delay and in the first-half stoppage time that resulted, Fernandinho forced Speroni into a decent stop with a powerful header. After the restart, it was Hart who was tested first when Jason Puncheon fizzed an effort towards the bottom corner that the City goalkeeper pushed away. That prompted Pellegrini into a double change as Fernandinho and right-back Dedryck Boyata were sacrificed for the more attacking Samir Nasri and Alvaro Negredo. Pellegrini’s decision to rest some of his big names in the busy festive period, having complained about fixture congestion recently, looked set to backfire.

Frustration was creeping in among the home fans, who had been treated to so much better in their side’s previous home games. And the hosts even started to look vulnerable on the counter-attack, with Puncheon curling just wide and Mile Jedinak forcing Hart into a good save with a dangerous swerving effort. But the tension that was filtering around the Etihad was released in the 66th minute when Palace failed to clear and Jesus Navas crossed for Dzeko, who lifted a shot into the roof of the net from 12 yards. Soon after, Joel Ward forced Hart into another save before the Palace defender headed wide from close range from Barry Bannan’s cross. Dzeko went close in second-half stoppage time as he headed just over, but a second goal was not needed in the end for City, who can look down on their title rivals for a few hours at least.

United 1, Norwich 0
In Norwich, Danny Welbeck came off the bench to maintain Manchester United’s recent revival as his second half goal clinched a hard-fought 1-0 win over Norwich at Carrow Road on Saturday. United rode their luck at times and Welbeck’s goal had an element of good fortune about it, but the champions held on for their sixth successive victory in all competitions. The reigning Premier League champions are up to sixth, two points short of a top-four place, although four of the five clubs above them now boast a game in hand. United boss David Moyes made several changes to the side that fought back to win 3-2 at Hull on Boxing Day. Wayne Rooney, who scored his 150th United goal in that game, did not travel because of a groin strain and Antonio Valencia missed out through suspension as Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young started.

Norwich, who beat United 1-0 at Carrow Road last season, also changed their starting line-up following a 2-1 home loss to Fulham, with Wes Hoolahan, Russell Martin and Ryan Bennett coming in. The struggling Canaries looked nervous and were unable to hold on to possession in the early stages.
United, with Ryan Giggs controlling midfield, tested the hosts on both flanks and Japan midfielder Kagawa saw a shot from a tight angle blocked by Canaries goalkeeper John Ruddy. The home side calmed their nerves eventually and almost took the lead in the 20th minute when Russell Martin, having played a one-two with Robert Snodgrass, forced David de Gea into a parrying save. Chris Smalling made a mess of clearing the rebound at the back post but was able to hook the ball away before Wes Hoolahan could pounce.

United had to soak up some intense pressure after that, which saw Gary Hooper’s fierce drive saved by de Gea and Snodgrass twice fail to hit the target. Referee Phil Dowd then booked three players in the space of a few minutes - Giggs and Hernandez plus Norwich midfielder Leroy Fer - but did not award Norwich a penalty when Tom Cleverley brought Bradley Johnson down while trying to clear. Norwich continued to dominate and de Gea had to get behind a header from a corner from Sebastien Bassong before Snodgrass shanked the last chance of the half wide. Welbeck replaced Giggs at the break as United switched to a 4-4-2 formation and that proved a key moment. Young perked up and a run ended with a shot that only just cleared Ruddy’s crossbar.

Nathan Redmond was inches away from opening the scoring at the other end but it was United who found the net in the 57th minute through Welbeck. The substitute blocked Bennett’s clearance, with the ball then bouncing off Hernandez and allowing Welbeck to round Ruddy and score. United now looked the more likely to add to the score-line and Ruddy had trouble dealing with a Hernandez long-range strike. Norwich boss Chris Hughton made his last roll of the dice, with Ricky van Wolfswinkel replacing Hooper to derisive jeers from the unhappy home fans. Netherlands international van Wolfswinkel was unable to make much of an impact as United saw out the closing minutes with little alarm.

Hull 6, Fulham 0
In Kingston Upon Hull, Hull ended a disappointing run of form in emphatic style on Saturday as they recorded their best-ever result in the Premier League with a 6-0 hammering of struggling Fulham. Hull, who had won just twice since September prior to the game, scored all their goals in the second-half to move seven points clear of the relegation places while the visitors remain third from bottom with their defence once again having let them down. They have conceded 41 goals in 19 games, the worst in the Premier League, and must hope to get positive results at home to fellow relegation candidates West Ham and Sunderland early next year to ease their plight. Hull dominated the first-half without managing to beat David Stockdale, deputising for first choice ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, who failed to recover from a calf injury.

Tom Huddlestone rattled the post with a fierce free-kick while Stockdale did brilliantly to deny George Boyd. Egyptian international Ahmed Elmohamady also went close for the hosts but his long-range shot was saved easily by Stockdale as Hull ended the half having had seven shots to the visitors’ two. Hull kept up the pressure on Fulham straight after the break, Huddlestone again going close with a fine effort that crept over the bar. Stockdale then did brilliantly in denying first Yannick Sagbo and regathered himself to save from the rebound which fell to Slovenian Robert Koren — but his efforts were to be in vain seconds later. Huddlestone’s corner was only cleared as far as Elmohamady, who made no mistake from the edge of the box with a crisp effort.

From then on Fulham wilted and Hull rubbed in their all-round superiority with two goals in three minutes around the hour mark as first the impressive Koren got on the scoresheet, converting Sagbo’s cross. Boyd grabbed Hull’s third, although it was more about woeful defending than Boyd’s ingenuity. Jake Livermore’s long ball fell to Boyd but he was surrounded by four defenders and somehow managed to shrug them all off to beat Stockdale. Hull had the bit between the teeth and while in the first-half nothing could beat Sotckdale, now everything they tried came off — Huddlestone crowning a dynamic performance with a fine effort in the 67th minute to make it 4-0.

Huddlestone, who moved from Tottenhham for around £5million (6 million euros, $8.2 million), honoured his word, too, as he had promised to have his hair cut once he ended what had become a two-year goal drought and he stopped by the dugout during his celebrations to have a lock of it cut by a member of the backroom staff. If Fulham hoped Hull’s desire for goals was sated they were to be sorely disappointed as Matty Fryatt poked home the fifth after Huddlestone’s extraordinary 40-yard free-kick had been tipped onto the bar by Stockdale. There was even time for Koren to add his second as the 33-year-old fired home from close range after Stockdale’s reflex save from Danny Graham had fallen to him.

 Swansea 1, Villa 1
In Birmingham, Aston Villa endured another frustrating outing on home turf as Swansea hit back to rescue a 1-1 draw at Villa Park on Saturday. Paul Lambert’s team were on course for a rare success in front of their own fans when Gabriel Agbonlahor opened the scoring early in the first half. But Swansea’s Roland Lamah equalised before the interval and the hosts were unable to snatch a winner. That meant Villa have now won just one of their last seven home matches, although the draw did at least end a miserable run of four consecutive Premier League defeats. Villa are four points above the relegation zone, with Swansea, who are without a win in their last six games, a further point ahead of Lambert’s side in the table.

Villa had left the field to jeers after losing at home to Crystal Palace on Thursday but they began positively, pressing high up the pitch and wasting no time breaking forward.  They got their reward after seven minutes as Andreas Weimann picked up the ball on the right and played in Agbonlahor, who exploited dreadful positioning by the Swansea defence and found himself all alone on the edge of the penalty area. Agbonlahor initially seemed to hesitate, but then showed good composure to slot his shot under Swansea goalkeeper Gerhard Tremmel. Swansea’s first chance to equalise came in the 17th minute when Pablo Hernandez cut inside and tested Brad Guzan, who spilled the ball before gathering at the second attempt. Three minutes later the visitors should have been level but Ben Davies headed the ball into the ground and over the bar from six yards when he was picked out by Jonathan De Guzman’s corner.

However, Michael Laudrup’s team drew level in the 36th minute when Jonjo Shelvey found Hernandez on the left and his cross was headed in at the back post by Lamah. Guzan was called into action early in the second half, tipping over De Guzman’s free-kick, before Wilfried Bony fired well over the bar. Villa rarely looked like winning it and even Fabian Delph’s well-struck shot was straight at Tremmel. That turned out to be the final chance and Villa’s angry fans responded to the final whistle with more boos.

West Ham 3, West Brom 3
In London, West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion each squandered opportunities to move away from the Premier League relegation zone in a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at Upton Park on Saturday. After Joe Cole put West Ham ahead in the fourth minute, Nicolas Anelka scored his first two West Brom goals to give the visitors a 2-1 half-time lead. Substitute Modibo Maiga equalised for West Ham and then teed up Kevin Nolan as the hosts went in front, but Saido Berahino struck two minutes later to earn managerless West Brom a point. West Ham have won only once in 12 league games and the dropped points prevented them from climbing out of the relegation zone, while West Brom remain in peril after seeing their own winless run extended to nine matches.

West Brom caretaker coach Keith Downing gave Anelka his first start since late October in a new 3-5-2 formation and his side made a positive start, with Chris Brunt volleying into the side netting from James Morrison’s cross.However, from the resulting goal kick West Ham went ahead, with Carlton Cole flicking on Jussi Jaaskelainen’s high ball for Joe Cole, who exchanged passes with Nolan before drilling a low shot past Ben Foster. West Ham then lost James Tomkins to a groin injury, with Guy Demel taking his place, but the hosts continued to push forward, with Demel striking the outside of the post and Mark Noble bending a free-kick narrowly wide. West Brom had not mustered a shot in anger since falling behind, but in the 40th minute they drew level, with Anelka racing onto a lofted pass from Brunt and coolly clipping a low shot past Jaaskelainen.

It was a sucker-punch, and West Brom hit their hosts with another in first-half injury time, as Anelka poked home from close range after Jonas Olsson’s header was blocked on the line by Carlton Cole.
Maiga replaced Carlton Cole at half-time and after seeing Berahino flash a shot just wide, West Ham set about restoring their lead. Foster repelled Maiga’s first effort of note with a fine diving save, but moments later the West Ham substitute found the back of the net with a low curling effort that the England goalkeeper should probably have saved. Maiga came to the fore again two minutes later, nodding down a cross from Noble for Nolan to hook home, only for Berahino to equalise almost immediately with a low drive that went in off the right-hand post. West Brom came closest to snatching all three points, but Brunt could only shoot straight at Jaaskelainen from a promising position and Berahino saw an 81st-minute free-kick come back off the post.

Cardiff 2, Sunderland 2
Cardiff’s chaotic week ended on a frustrating low note as Sunderland scored twice in the final minutes to snatch a dramatic 2-2 draw on Saturday. Malky Mackay was sacked as manager by Cardiff owner Vincent Tan on Friday following the acrimonious breakdown of their relationship. Malaysian tycoon Tan claimed he had no choice but to axe the popular Mackay because the Scot was revealing too much about the behind-the-scenes power struggle at the Premier League club. Just 24 hours after Mackay’s departure, the Bluebirds, led by caretaker bosses David Kerslake and Joe McBride, were unable to ease the angst in south Wales after blowing a two-goal lead at the Cardiff City Stadium. Goals from Jordan Mutch and Fraizer Campbell had put Cardiff in control, but Steven Fletcher got one back with seven minutes left and Jack Colback capped a remarkable finish with an equaliser in the final seconds.

Cardiff remain 16th, two points above the relegation zone, while Sunderland stay bottom of the table.
The controversial Tan clearly had no intention of keeping a low profile and he emerged into the directors box before kick-off wearing Cardiff’s bright red home shirt The response from Cardiff’s fans to Mackay’s sacking wasn’t quite as furious as expected, although there were banners held up displaying slogans that read ‘Thank you Malky’ and ‘Tan out’. Mackay’s departure didn’t seem to have shattered his former players’ morale and they made a flying start in the sixth minute. Campbell stole possession in midfield and Mutch seized on the loose ball, surging towards the edge of the penalty area before driving in a powerful strike that took a slight deflection off Modibo Diakite as it flashed past goalkeeper Vito Mannone.

Tan celebrated with a broad smile and a thumbs up gesture to all corners of the stadium. There was real energy about Cardiff and South Korean midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung forced Mannone to tip over with a fierce long-range effort. Sunderland finally found some momentum and should have been level before half-time. Ki Sung-Yueng’s deflected shot was pushed out by goalkeeper David Marshall to Jozy Altidore, who had the goal at his mercy but could only scuff his shot wide from close-range. Fabio Borini’s long-range strike was well saved by Marshall soon after and the Italian was denied by an even better stop when the Cardiff ‘keeper turned away his first-time shot.

Former Sunderland forward Campbell appeared to have killed off his old club in the 58th minute.
Mutch whipped over a cross from the left and Campbell, given far too much space by Sunderland’s sloppy marking, pounced with a clinical close-range finish. But Fletcher reduced the deficit when he poked home from Emanuele Giaccherini’s cross in the 83rd minute. That set the stage for a tense finale, with Sunderland’s Valentin Roberge denied an equaliser by Marshall’s reflex save. Sunderland kept pressing and they were rewarded in the fifth minute of stoppage-time when Colback’s shot clipped off Steven Caulker and looped into the net, leaving Tan and Cardiff’s players stunned.

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