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Rooney to Everton should remain rumour


And then there were three...

Two corners, two mistakes, two goals. Forget technical expertise or individual brilliance, it was that simple.

The broadcasters who assembled the best four teams in the country on one, much-hyped day, saw them decided by the prosaic and the mundane. That was indicative of the nature of the clashes between Liverpool and Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea which engrossed more for their compelling drama and the shared sense of urgency than the quality.

But the importance is apparent. This was a day when four became three which, in turn, could soon be reduced to two. Liverpool are 10 points adrift of Arsenal, albeit with a game in hand, and Chelsea six behind them.

For those who wanted a four-horse title race, Liverpool's failure to track Wayne Rooney - leading to Carlos Tevez's winner at Anfield - and Petr Cech's inexplicable inability to claim Cesc Fabregas' corner, preceding William Gallas' goal at the Emirates, led to the worst possible outcome.

For the footballing purists, however, its rightful upshot.

Arsene Wenger had said that in the meetings of the 'big four' - and it is a depressing indication of the superiority of the quartet that such a description is becoming part of the sport's vocabulary - defeat could determine the division's final standings. Now a mini-league table shows Manchester United top with seven points from three games, followed by Arsenal (five), Liverpool (two, but from a trio of home fixtures) and Chelsea (one, from a distinctly fortunate draw at Anfield). Should Wenger be vindicated, the pair who have reasserted themselves as the league's dominant duo, Arsenal and Manchester United, will contest the title.

Neither were at their most fluent but their speed on the counter-attack, while not yielding a goal, provided an indication of their capabilities. Instead, it was a day when star billing was ceded to the supporting cast. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Owen Hargreaves and Anderson excelled for United, forming two obdurate double acts to frustrate Liverpool. Chelsea found Kolo Toure and Gallas in similarly defiant mood. Indeed, having denied United two points and Chelsea one, Gallas is having a significant say in the destination of the title.

And, for an 18th successive season, it is unlikely to be Anfield. Liverpool, capable of overcoming anyone in knockout football, possess a mediocre record against the three major challengers in the league. Now the bare minimum requirement is an away win at one of Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or the Emirates Stadium; a trio of victories may still not suffice.

As ever in defeat, the same issues reappear. Indeed, Rafa Benitez exists in a private version of Groundhog Day where certain subjects - squad rotation, zonal marking, Steven Gerrard, Peter Crouch - recur with unfortunate predictability.

Marrying individual inspiration with collective excellence is a difficulty. A recent flurry of goals has been a consequence of some magnificent moments conjured by Gerrard and Fernando Torres. But, on a day when the captain's finest contributions were defensive and the Spaniard struggled rather than sparkled, others were unable to rouse Liverpool.

Benitez therefore entered his meeting with co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks with both a weakened bargaining position, even if there was sufficient evidence of why Javier Mascherano remains an essential purchase. His team remain a work in progress, though recent games indicate they are advancing.

Manchester United, in contrast, resemble the finished article yet with the knowledge that, given the youth of several of their creative players, they can still improve. Even on a comparatively subdued day for Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, possessing the finest defensive structure in the division enabled them to maintain an outstanding recent record at Anfield though, whereas Cech's mishap was costly, Edwin van der Sar's errors went unpunished.

Beyond the acquisition of another striker in January, Sir Alex Ferguson has little to worry him. Nor does Wenger, now that the central triumvirate of Alexander Hleb, Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini have returned. They remain the most exhilarating team but their resolve, as much as their distribution, earned them victory.

But the short-term prognosis for Chelsea is bleakest. Now deprived of the totemic presence of the injured John Terry and the fearsome spearhead Didier Drogba constitutes and shorn of the energy Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel provide when the African Cup of Nations arrives, their team in January could compare unfavourably with their rivals'.

The absentees may be partially offset only by the imminent return of Ricardo Carvalho and Florent Malouda. The indications, however, are that it is about to get still more attritional. There was a lack of invention at the Emirates Stadium and, at times, Chelsea bordered on the spiteful, showing greater appetite for pitched battle than free-flowing football. If Avram Grant truly believes he has implemented a more aesthetically-pleasing style of play, then he has deceived himself.

Because a lack of invention was telling. Though this was far from Andriy Shevchenko's worst match, he is an inadequate deputy for Drogba, while Shaun Wright-Phillips' continuing inability to select the right option frustrates, though a startling miss with a quarter of an hour remaining presumably irritated Chelsea more.

Now their impressive unbeaten run under Grant will be reassessed, the question of how many awkward opponents they have overcome being posed. He has only suffered two defeats, but they have been inflicted by Manchester United and Arsenal. There is no disgrace in that, but it outlines why they are threatening to pull away from the bottom half of the big four on a day when two corners were turning points in the title race.

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