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May 8, 2011

Team of the Week

A narrow defeat for Birmingham at Newcastle would have been far worse but for the agility of Ben Foster. Not for the first time this season, the former Manchester United stopper kept his side's abysmal goal difference from sliding further into the red with a string of majestic saves from Kevin Nolan, Peter Lovenkrands and Nile Ranger. He could do nothing about the goals that did find the net, from the penalty spot, and via a bullet header from Steven Taylor.

Blackburn defender Chris Samba was linked with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham when he demanded a transfer in December in solidarity with Big Sam. A few months later, though, he was signing his future over to the Steve Kean Revolution and, with Rovers still hovering just above the relegation zone, it's lucky for them his loyalty proved so fleeting. West Ham would have marked down a home game with Blackburn in the much-vaunted 'Save our Season' category, but they had to settle for a 1-1 draw as Big Chris flung himself at the ball at every available opportunity, notably denying Carlton Cole in the dying moments.

Taking a point from Spurs may lack the kind of cachet it offered earlier in the season, but Blackpool - whose total annual spending comes in at slightly less than the cost of that Gareth Bale animation - can be highly satisfied with a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane. Centre-back Ian Evatt was vital. There was nothing he could do about the 89th-minute 25-yarder from Jermain Defoe, but before that his string of blocks and clearances provided a constant thorn in Tottenham's already deflated Champions League hopes.

Mike Williamson's freak arm fracture in Newcastle United's gym opened the door for Steven Taylor to return against Birmingham and the central defender offered glimpses of the form that once saw him touted as an England international of the future. Taylor was solid alongside Fabricio Coloccini and got on the scoresheet too, nodding Joey Barton's corner into the net for the Magpies' second goal.

There was a time when Taylor and Lee Bowyer were team-mates, but the former Leeds United midfielder was afforded no sentiment back at St James' and was mercilessly booed throughout the game. His performance warranted applause though, as he drove Birmingham on after they had been reduced to ten men, halving the deficit before the interval and consistently getting into good positions in Newcastle's penalty area.

Ryan Giggs delivered yet another midfield master class as Manchester United became champions in all but name after a resounding win over Chelsea. Giggs moved effortlessly from box to box, linking play with all the wisdom his 37 years at the highest level has afforded him. His role as chief string-puller also extended to a delicious turn and cross to allow Nemanja Vidic to nod home United's crucial second. Another superb display from one of the finest players ever to grace the Premier League.

Either side of Giggs, Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung were also outstanding for Manchester United. Though it was Park who set up Javier Hernandez for the early opener, Valencia gets the nod in our team of the week after tormenting Ashley Cole down the right flank. Time and time again Valencia beat England's left back, delivering quality balls into the box, encapsulated by the brilliant drilled cross late on that should have been gobbled up by Hernandez.

There is a definite air of depression hanging over Villa Park, after a dismal campaign only saw them banish thoughts of relegation with a point versus Wigan. Allied to that, their manager is convalescing after a heart scare and their best player, Ashley Young, could be on his way out in the summer. The England international proved why he'd be such a loss if he were to jump ship with a tireless display, including a goal from a free kick. Young is truly the heartbeat of Villa's side.

The latest person to twist the knife into the rotting corpse that is Arsenal's season was old boy Jermaine Pennant. The winger won the free kick that led to Kenwyne Jones' opener, as his cross was ignored by Arsenal's defenders, while the second was all of his own making as he cut inside and fired a dipping shot into the net, via a deflection off Johan Djourou. He even managed a dust-up too, going head-to-head with Jack Wilshere, after being on the receiving end of particularly meaty challenge from the youngster.

Things didn't look too cheery at Wolves when, with the club sitting in the relegation zone, star striker Kevin Doyle was ruled out for the rest of the season. But Steven Fletcher has stepped up the plate in fine fashion: having scored two goals in his previous three games, on Sunday he provided a brace and an assist to secure a rare victory over Roy Hodgson's in-form West Brom. Real Madrid will no doubt finally be kicking themselves that they didn't follow up their interest in the then Hibs striker 2006.

In the absence of any fit strikers, Sunderland again turned to Stephane Sessegnon to lead the line against Bolton, and the former PSG star responded by creating two goals. The opener came with a defence-splitting ball for Boudewjin Zenden, who rounded the goalkeeper to slot home, and the winner, in the final seconds of the game, came when Sessegnon slid the ball into the area for Sulley Muntari to find the net, via a touch of help from Wanderers defender Zat Knight.

It will come as no surprise that this week's gaffer is Glasgow's finest, Sir Alex Ferguson. Whatever the Scot said to rally his troops before kick-off should be bottled and sold, such was the impetus with which his charges began the match. Having made the bold decision to rest most of his first-choice team against Schalke, United swarmed over Chelsea, scoring inside 36 seconds, and landed an important blow in the race for the title. After 23 minutes, it was 2-0 and the contest was effectively over. As Fergie left the pitch, he bowed in front of the Stretford End, to a rapturous ovation, as he savoured the thought of notching up his 19th title and knocking Liverpool off their perch.

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