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Sep 22, 2012

Top Toffees: Five Prem takeaways

Everton is the new entertainer of the Premier League.

After Monday's 2-2 hard-luck thriller against Newcastle, the Toffees beat Swansea 3-0 to climb to second and extend their unusually good start to the season. Elsewhere there was relief for Southampton, while Chelsea edged Stoke.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday's action in England.

Tim Howard's contribution Good results for Everton against Swansea are nothing new. The Toffees hadn't lost to Swansea in 14 previous attempts dating back to 1930 and Saturday's early kickoff in Wales extended the run to 15.

A 3-0 score suggests Everton was comfortable but the role of U.S. international Tim Howard between the posts shouldn't be forgotten. An anaemic Swansea, trailing 2-0, woke up for a 15-minute spell late in the first half and early in the second, yet Howard made three good saves to deny Angel Rangel, Michu and Ki Sung-Yueng.

U.S. keepers are especially proficient at saving with their legs, much like goalies in the NHL -- Brad Friedel has done it countless times -- and Howard's stop on Rangel was a fine example. Other keepers may have dived to their right and seen the ball fizz underneath en route to goal.

While Howard did the job at the back, Marouane Fellaini, employed in a more advanced role this season, continued to harangue opposition defenses. Oh, yes, Fellaini used his arm to set up Victor Anichebe's opener, yet he was in the right position in the box and Everton might have been due good fortune after last week's officiating debacle against the Magpies.

Thanks to the big Belgian, Everton coped ably without its top striker, the injured Nikica Jelavic. Fellaini released Steven Pienaar, who set up Kevin Mirallas' second, and Fellaini got the goal he deserved with a deflected header late on. If Fellaini keeps this up, he's right: It will indeed be his last season at Goodison Park.

Second-half Swansea substitute Nathan Dyer, on the pitch for a total of 12 minutes, fully deserved his second yellow card for hacking down Leighton Baines. Already on a yellow, the challenge was silly, but referee Anthony Taylor got it wrong when he blew for an apparent foul by Dyer that led to the first yellow. Dyer subsequently let his feelings be known (and didn't appear overly aggressive) and was booked for dissent.

In the end, Swansea's promising beginning has given way to slight worry -- two straight losses (no goals) and winless in three for Michael Laudrup's men.

Rafa can wait

Rafael Benitez is pining for a managerial return to England. Unable to secure his old spot at Liverpool, he was linked this week with Southampton. According to tabloid the Daily Star, the Saints' ownership was "ready to make an SOS call" to the Spaniard after Southampton lost its four games in the Premier League this season, despite Nigel Adkins engineering successive promotions.

Thankfully for Adkins, whose attacking style is highly watchable, Southampton finally got on the board Saturday with a 4-1 win over Aston Villa.

When Villa took a 1-0 lead, Benitez was probably calling up a real-estate agent looking for a posh place to stay on the South Coast. But led by Rickie Lambert's two goals, Southampton rallied to escape the relegation zone, dumping Liverpool back into the bottom three ahead of Sunday's blockbuster against Manchester United. As for Lambert, he's well on his way to becoming another skilled, big striker who has made the adjustment from the Championship to the top flight, following the exploits of Andy Carroll and Grant Holt.

Villa saw an end to its mini-revival, and U.S. international Brad Guzan might be worried about retaining his spot in goal after hauling down Emmanuel Mayuka in the box to give Southampton a penalty in injury time. Making another change in goal this early in the season, however, could further unsettle Paul Lambert's fragile Villa side.

Fletch lives

Given his record, you can't help but wonder how many goals Steven Fletcher would score if he was with a bigger club. Fletcher produced for Burnley and Wolves, both of whom have been promoted to and relegated from the Premier League in recent seasons. Wolves, in particular, were hardly a creative force capable of giving Fletcher the proper service. He always seems to be in the right place, is equally comfortable in the air or with the ball at his feet and doesn't need an overflow of chances to score one. His goal for Sunderland against West Ham in a 1-1 draw -- granted, West Ham keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen might have done better -- made it four in three games since his move from Wolves. How Scotland fans must hope that Fletcher and Craig Levein can patch up their differences.

However, while Fletcher's performances for Sunderland are a positive, four draws in as many games isn't.

Chelsea does enough

Even with 10 minutes remaining and the game scoreless, was there any doubt that Chelsea would find a winner against poor visiting Stoke in west London? The goal did come, though from an unlikely source (Ashley Cole) as Chelsea ended its three-game winless streak in all competitions to maintain its lead atop the Prem standings.

Manager Roberto di Matteo couldn't drop Oscar after his two-goal heroics against Juventus, but he didn't reprise his sparking form from midweek; while he did test Asmir Begovic with a great effort in the second half, the Brazilian was also booked for a dive.

Long season for Reading

Reading, last season's Championship winner, doesn't possess Southampton's firepower and a lack of goals was once again an issue in a 1-0 loss at flourishing West Bromwich Albion. The Royals mustered a single shot on target; it might still be early in the season, but Reading appears a certainty to return to the second tier.

Happier times for West Brom, whose goal came from the impressive Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukak. The last time the Baggies, now in third place, won their first three home games in the top division was more than 50 years ago.