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Mancini's tactical masterstroke

Few of us like Mondays but The Fifth Official does, for it brings with it a chance for him to point the finger and laugh. Here he pulls out the pretty, the puzzling and the downright pig-ugly from the past week in football.

Gareth Barry: Goal machine

In a weekend of respectful tributes to staunch and heroic acts of resistance, patience finally ran out for Roberto Mancini's thin blue line at home to Birmingham. Widespread disgruntlement morphed into open revolt, as flimsy City failed to fashion anything resembling a new front when faced with the 'one-season wonders' led by flame-haired Fergie wannabe Alex McLeish.

Despite Adam Johnson feeling the full wrath of Mancini's pidgin English before the game, he was afforded a rare start, as if the gaffer was daring him to produce the form he promised he would when playing spin the bottle at whatever university the squad have been boozing at this week.

But it was the decision to haul off the homesick Carlos Tevez that lit the sky-blue touch paper, despite the fact the Argentine has been whimpering about his dead leg for weeks and would far rather spend four days a week with his face pressed into Diego Maradona's armpit in Buenos Aires than train with his City team-mates.

His simple, almost dignified, eyebrow lift said it all, as he was removed on 83 minutes to be replaced by the goalscoring machine that is Gareth Barry. After a hearty round of booing, the City faithful then made a polite enquiry from the stands - "What the f**k is going on?" - summing up perfectly why the rest of the Premier League dislikes them so: they got rich quick, and sold out even quicker.

Fergie's thermometer

It looks as if Manchester United's flu epidemic is lingering on after they were fortunate to escape from Villa Park with a draw against keen but untested youths such as Jonathan Hogg, Eric Lichaj and Chris Herd - a collection of chaps I didn't know existed until Saturday lunchtime.

After a relatively even first half, it appeared that the lurgy had spread through the United dressing room, or that Fergie had perhaps insisted his midfield neck a bottle of Night Nurse each at half time. Either way, a sluggish performance followed, particularly from his defenders, who played like they had been forced to play the remaining 45 minutes with a thermometer tucked into a particularly warm crevice of their choosing.

Ashley Young, Marc Albrighton and Stewart Downing led Fergie's men a merry, Lemsip-fuelled dance and should have put the game to bed, tucked in neatly beside a host of those weary warriors in white.

But all that changed with the introduction of a pair of United starlets in the shape of Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan, as United battled back from the brink to claim a creditable point. And with Fergie going gung-ho by unleashing Chris Smalling up front for the final five minutes, I'm sure I could hear a small man weep, as Michael Owen realised there is now yet another person to negotiate his way past in the strikers' pecking order.

Bridge over troubled waters

Could it be that the derby pummelling Sunderland suffered at St James' Park a few weeks back is the best thing that has happened to them all season? I'm sure their fans would react in disgust at such a statement but, since their humiliation by Kevin Nolan and co, they've beaten Stoke, claimed a draw at Spurs and dismantled the reigning Premier League champions in their own backyard.

Let's not beat about the bush: this was about as perfect an away performance as you will see all season. Heck, even clodders like brainless Lee Cattermole and hapless Titus Bramble oozed confidence. The game should have been over at half-time as Sunderland squandered a host of chances, but when the breakthrough arrived it showed just what Chelsea lack when captain JT is missing, as Nedum Onuoha negotiated his way through the heart of their defence with all the deftness and relentless determination of a Boxing Day bargain hunter on Oxford Street.

The unusual sight of Chelsea's fans squirming in their seats was a joy to behold. As soon as they went behind there was barely any encouragement from their moneyed supporters, just moans and groans for every misplaced pass, a volley of boos for questionable substitutions and a mass exodus after the third goal went in.

Also rejoicing in Sunderland's win was a certain Dominic Raynor, who having failed to submit his wager for this weekend's Betting Zone, was handed the 200-1 long shot of a 3-0 Black Cats victory by another member of the ESPNsoccernet team, who no doubt chuckled heartily at the long shot he'd selected. It is Dom who is laughing all the way to the bank though, as he now stands proudly at the top of the leaderboard, with a handsome gap to second place of £907.

Baled out

I've kept my counsel for the last few weeks while the world and his dog proclaimed Gareth Bale the finest footballing creation since Socrates proved he could swerve 30-yard free kicks into the net with the same precision that he could execute Pythagoras' theorem. Or was that Archimedes? Who cares, stick either ancient Grecian on the wing and they'd also do a better job than Aaron Lennon.

Even though some oracle - a former temporary management consultant at a former Premier League club - described the Welshman as having the best left foot in the world, and can look forward to a telegram from a certain L. Messi landing on his doorstep anytime soon, Bale had yet to contribute anything on the domestic stage since his sublime volley at Stoke back in August.

Luckily for him, Blackburn, led by the next Real Madrid or Inter Milan manager, had shot their bolt fully during the midweek grudge match with Newcastle, where Big Sham masterminded a turgid victory utilising a uniquely negative 3-6-1 formation - one sure to go down especially well when he finally lands at the Bernabeu or San Siro.

Bale was afforded the freedom of the flank and the penalty area, as he nodded, crossed and poked Rovers into a weak submission. After last week's ultimate Euro hangover at Bolton, and a chorus of boos from their fickle fans after a draw with Sunderland on Wednesday, 'Arry was Baled out in style by Gareth, the toast of White Hart Lane.

Back to the future

It seems the wecent wespite for Woy is well and truly over after Liverpool returned to their form of early season with a spineless showing at Stoke. It also appears any whiff of a sub-standard performance from Hodgson's charges will result in a bank of Red fans quietly singing the name of Kenny Dalglish.

Quite why some Liverpool fans think they'd be better off with a chap who has been out of the managerial game for ten years and fluffed his last two jobs, at Newcastle and Celtic, I'm not sure. Anyway, Kenny has more important things to worry about, like getting to grips with Twitter, though most of his early updates seem to revolve around how many pies he's been eating. How he would be able to change the fortunes of the 11 pies that regularly get in the Merseysiders' starting line-up remains a mystery.

Stoke battered their opponents from start to finish. It was akin to watching the school bully take on the feeblest fresher, as ball after ball was hoofed into the visitors' penalty area. Very little grace and practically no charm were involved, but who cares when teams wilt so easily in the face of an aerial bombardment?

Liverpool's charlatans got a lesson in 'want' from Tony Pulis' fired-up mob, and if they don't learn from it, perhaps the relegation dogfight we all long to see could be back on again.

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