United extend advantage
Manchester United opened up a ten-point lead at the top of the Premier League table on Saturday with a convincing 2-0 victory over Fulham at Old Trafford. Arsenal can cut that advantage to four points if they win their two games in hand, but at this stage of the season Sir Alex Ferguson's men have a daunting stranglehold on the title race.
Ferguson made eight changes from the side that beat Chelsea in the Champions League midweek, with only Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Antonio Valencia keeping their places in the starting XI. With Wayne Rooney suspended, Dimitar Berbatov was given a role as lone striker, and the Bulgarian responded with a 12th-minute opener.
Nani was the creator, drawing defenders as he attacked the heart of the Fulham rearguard, exchanging a one-two before sliding the ball to Berbatov, who slotted home from a marginally offside position.
Nani was in electric form for the Red Devils, and he did everything but apply the final touch as Valencia made it 2-0 on the half-hour. The entire Fulham defence, including the goalkeeper, were outfoxed by Nani's dart down the left flank, but his shot was nodded off the line straight to Valencia, who simply directed the ball back into an empty net.
Moussa Dembele almost halved the deficit for Fulham in the second period, but it turned into a stroll for United, who managed to give Michael Owen 17 minutes of football towards the end.
Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti dropped under-fire striker Fernando Torres to the bench for the visit of Wigan, but he had to call on the Spaniard before the Blues found a breakthrough in their 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge. Ancelotti's men remain 11 points behind United, but crucially they move back into third ahead of Manchester City in the chase for Champions League places.
There was a surprise prior to kick-off from Ancelotti when he left John Terry out of the matchday squad, rested for the second leg of that Champions League quarter-final tie against United. However, it was the other end of the pitch that continued to cause concern as Chelsea struggled for an opener, Florent Malouda finally poking home with 23 minutes remaining.
Torres had three fine chances to end his goal drought, but he wasted all three and Chelsea were thankful for a late save from Petr Cech to deny Franco Di Santo.
Tottenham's hopes of a second season in the Champions League are still alive after they defeated Stoke 3-2 at White Hart Lane. The result means Harry Redknapp's men are three points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with seven games remaining, and it owed everything to midweek villain Peter Crouch.
Redknapp kept faith with Crouch, despite his mindless red card against Real Madrid, and the striker repaid his manager's faith in almost the same amount of time as it took him to be dismissed at the Bernabeu. Meeting Roman Pavlyuchenko's cross on 11 minutes, Crouch showed great desire to meet the header and put Spurs into the ascendency.
It was hardly surprising that Tottenham scored so early, with Tom Huddlestone's long-awaited return contributing to a forward-thinking midfield including Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric, and it was the latter who doubled the lead on 18 minutes. The Croatian danced his way past the Stoke defence, swapping passes en route, before bamboozling Asmir Begovic for a superb individual goal.
A rout appeared to be on the cards, but Stoke halved the deficit on the half-hour through Tottenham old boy Matthew Etherington when he out-stripped Vedran Corluka before firing through the legs of Heurelho Gomes, who might have done better. Spurs responded instantly through a second header from Crouch, and that proved enough despite Kenwyne Jones' 20-yard curler.
At the bottom end of the table, West Ham turned in a dire display as their relegation nightmares loomed larger, capitulating 3-0 against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium. The result means the Hammers remain in the bottom three, one point adrift of 17th-placed Blackpool who have a game in hand.
Owen Coyle's Bolton side started sharply in front of their home fans, with Daniel Sturridge bending a delightful 14th-minute effort into the far top corner to leave Rob Green helpless. Chung-Yong Lee then doubled the advantage six minutes later, heading home Martin Petrov's cross as West Ham's defence went absent without leave. Sturridge then completed a fine day for Bolton by slamming home his second after the break.
West Brom twice came from behind to beat Sunderland 3-2 as Roy Hodgson extended his unbeaten run as manager of the Baggies. Asamoah Gyan was the creator of the opening goal for Sunderland, crossing for Nicky Shorey to inadvertently direct into his own net, but Peter Odemwingie levelled matters with an opportunist strike.
Within three minutes the Black Cats restored their advantage, courtesy of Phil Bardsley, only to see Youssouf Mulumbu peg them back once again. Paul Scharner then won it with a brilliant team goal for West Brom, lifting them seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Birmingham look set to end their trophy-winning season with Premier League survival after they drew 1-1 with Blackburn at Ewood Park. Both sides now find themselves three points above the drop zone. Lee Bowyer was in the right place at the right time to open the scoring for Blues, but Blackburn found an equaliser deep into first-half injury-time when Junior Hoilett rounded Ben Foster.
In the day's early game, Everton moved to within a point of Merseyside rivals Liverpool and put a major dent in Wolves' survival hopes with a 3-0 victory at Molineux. Jermaine Beckford, Phil Neville and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov all produced fine strikes to inflict a crushing defeat on Mick McCarthy's men, leaving them 19th in the table with only six games remaining.
In fairness to Wolves, they made the much brighter start on home soil, but they were rocked by Everton's 21st-minute opener, which was beautifully crafted by Leon Osman. The elusive midfielder glided down the right flank before whipping in a wicked cross to the near post, where Beckford arrived on cue to glance past Wayne Hennessey.
The Wales international goalkeeper then pulled out a superb reaching one-handed save to prevent an own goal from an Everton corner, but there was nothing he could do when the rebound worked its way to Neville, who arrowed a shot into the far top corner as Wolves' defence capitulated. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov then produced an even better third, unleashing a 25-yard howitzer as Everton killed the game before half-time.