- Team of the Week
A Welsh wizard and a bunch of Saints
If a football match only lasted 45 minutes this week's No. 1 jersey would belong to Simon Mignolet, after he made a string of top saves in the first half to deny Arsenal. His display meant that, come half-time, Sunderland somehow still found themselves in the game. Sadly for the Belgian, though, there was another half to go, and his thunder was soon to be stolen by his opposite number, Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole matched Mignolet with a late succession of fine saves, at a time when a ten-man Arsenal side needed to be able to rely on their goalkeeper. Szczesny pips it for inspiring his team to hold on to all three points.
If Everton were going to cause Manchester United problems at Old Trafford, it was always going to be down the left from which most of their attacks would derive. Leighton Baines has been in unbelievable form this season, and many feel he will soon be playing football regularly at the Theatre of Dreams. With Steven Pienaar in front of him, Everton boast a formidable threat on that particular side of the pitch. United, however, had no reason to fear thanks to the performance of Rafael. He nullified the threat and made the pair seem almost anonymous. Going forward he was not bad either, and played the killer ball for Robin van Persie's strike that pretty much settled the game. The young Brazilian has truly come of age this season.
Robert Huth played a huge part in Stoke picking up their first win since Boxing Day, as well as bringing an end to Reading's six-match unbeaten run. He scored a thumping header that any centre-forward would be proud of to break the deadlock, leaving Adam Federici in the Royals goal with no chance. It was his first of the season, and much-needed for a Stoke team that have the fourth-worst attacking record in the division. The German was excellent at the back too, keeping his composure when Reading threatened to come from behind to salvage a point once again.
When Manchester United have Nemanja Vidic in their side they are a better team. Fact. Against Everton he put in a classic Vidic-style performance: Brute strength, no-nonsense, a human wall. With Phil Jones, and then Michael Carrick to a lesser extent, doing an excellent job man marking Marouane Fellaini, Vidic was able to concentrate on his own job, which meant being first to every ball and not letting anything pass him. For all the hard work that Victor Anichebe put in while on the field, he had absolutely no luck against the big Serbian. If United had Vidic to call upon in the corresponding fixture last season - when the Red Devils threw away a two-goal lead to draw 4-4 - they would have won the title.
Bacary Sagna will be the first to admit that his performances since returning from injury this season have not lived up to his usual high standards. Once considered the finest right-back in the country, there is now an argument made by some Arsenal fans that say he is not even the best at his own club anymore. Moved into the middle of the defence against Sunderland - a position far less comfortable to him - he put in his performance of the season. After the Gunners went down to ten men on Saturday, they faced a relentless attacking assault from the opposition, facing ball after ball fired into their box. They need not have worried, however, as Sagna was calmness personified, winning everything in the air and making sure his side the left the Stadium of Light with all three points.
Jason Puncheon has worked his socks off to become quite possibly Southampton's most influential player these days. He produced another fine display against Manchester City that has become typical of the man this season. The Saints forward was involved every time his side went forward and epitomised the in-your-face style they have now come to represent under Mauricio Pochettino. Puncheon played the key role in the build-up to what would end up being his goal, while he could easily have had a couple more. City can count themselves lucky for his departure after the hour mark, or things may have ended up far worse for them.
Frank Lampard's long-running contract saga is becoming one of the most puzzling matters in football. Why Chelsea have not yet offered the midfielder a new deal, only Roman Abramovich could tell you. The fans know it makes sense, the player himself knows it makes sense, even the interim manager, that does not usually speak out against the club's policies, knows it makes sense. It seems Lampard thrives on the uncertainty, and with his performances at the moment, each seems to be better than the last. The Chelsea man showed against Wigan just what an important player to the club he is with his passing, his movement and of course his goals. That was No. 198 for Chelsea - four more to equal the club record.
Rewind to the beginning of the season and Charles N'Zogbia was pretty much a forgotten man at Villa Park, as Paul Lambert's raft of youngsters were given the opportunity to stake their claim. Now, though, the former Wigan man is very much an integral part of Lambert's plans. Against West Ham he showed just what an important role he could have to play in the club's fight against relegation, producing an inspirational man-of-the-match display. His pace and trickery were a constant threat to the Hammers and his class eventually shone in the closing stages of the game. His unpredictability won a penalty for Villa's first goal, before he doubled their lead with a superb free-kick to help lift his side out of the relegation zone. A huge three points.
Gareth Bale just seems to be getting better and better at the moment. Against Newcastle he seemed like a player at the top of his game. On Saturday he was everywhere. His passing and crossing of the ball was top notch, while he scored two fine goals, showcasing his talents from both a set-piece and in open play. The man could have had about five. As comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo increase by the day, Bale continues to put in performance after performance that the Real Madrid player would be more than proud of.
Rickie Lambert was a menace from start to finish against Manchester City on Saturday. Put simply, the make-shift pairing of Javi Garcia and Joleon Lescott at the heart of the champions' defence could not deal with him. Whether it was his presence, his runs or his passing, he had them run ragged. He set up two and played a big part in opening up the defence with his intelligent running for the other. He was deservedly on the winning side. The only unjust thing, though, was that he did not score his 100th goal for Southampton.
There is no doubt about it, Michu is the bargain of the season. But with the striker having gone a month without scoring, there were some whispers that perhaps Swansea had squeezed most of the value they could from the £2 million they paid for him last summer. How wrong they were, as against Queens Park Rangers, he was back to his scintillating best. A thorn in the side of QPR's defence, he exposed them on a number of occasions, showing Harry Redknapp that the arrival of Christopher Samba does not mean guaranteed survival for the club. Michu finished the game with an assist and two goals, taking his tally for the season to 18. Not bad for £2 million.
There is only one man who deserves to bark out instructions on the touchline to this motley lot this week. Step forward Mauricio Pochettino. Not only did the Argentine mastermind his first victory as Southampton boss at the fourth attempt, but he may also have effectively ended the title race. His new-look Saints side are one full of energy, that know how to attack and defend when needed to, and one who are willing to press the opposition for the full 90 minutes. He may not be able to deliver the best English on the touchline, but according to him, his body language is just as important. Who can argue with that after Saturday's display?