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Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Bowyer stops United, Balotelli trio

ESPNsoccernet staff

Manchester United resumed their status as Premier League leaders going into the new year, but they dropped two big points in their bid to become champions as Birmingham City claimed a last-gasp 1-1 draw at St Andrew's. The Red Devils finish 2010 ahead of neighbours City only on goal difference, after Dimitar Berbatov's second-half strike was cancelled out by Lee Bowyer in the 89th minute.

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Birmingham went into the match having not kicked a ball in anger for 16 days, yet there were no signs of rustiness as they matched their more illustrious opponents in a well-contested first half. United's only genuine moment of threat in the opening 45 minutes came when Ryan Giggs miscued his cross from the right, forcing the back-peddling Ben Foster to tip against the woodwork, while at the other end Nemanja Vidic went into the book when his boot found Cameron Jerome's face.

Blues were looking for their first ever Premier League triumph over Manchester United and, more importantly, a result that would lift them out of the relegation zone following Fulham's win at Stoke. They really should have led too when the ball fell to Craig Gardner seven minutes into the second half, but the midfielder could only slash his volley into the arms of Edwin van der Sar.

For fully an hour United looked impotent and lacking in ideas going forward, but in Berbatov they have the Premier League's top scorer, who is more capable than most of producing a moment of magic. Receiving the ball 40 yards out, Berbatov used his heel to flick the ball to Darron Gibson, before striding onto the return pass to slam the ball under Foster for 1-0.

The goal was Berbatov's 14th in the league this season and he almost made it 15 moments later, faking to shoot on the edge of the area before guiding the ball against the base of Foster's right post.

Birmingham looked a beaten side but, just as he did against Chelsea, Bowyer popped up in the right place at the right time in the final minute of normal time to equalise. The goal came with controversy, with shouts of handball in the build-up to Bowyer's finish, but the draw means United continue to search for an elusive second league win on their travels this season.

Manchester City were the new Premier League leaders, if only for a few hours, after Mario Balotelli inspired them to a 4-0 victory over Aston Villa at Eastlands. With neighbours United not kicking off until 8pm at Birmingham City, City took full advantage to assume temporary residency at the top.

There was shock team news prior to kick-off as Roberto Mancini left Carlos Tevez on the bench, citing a tight hamstring after his man-of-the-match efforts in the 3-1 triumph over Newcastle. Balotelli started in the Argentinian's place, and the Italian needed all of eight minutes to make an impact.

The goal was all Balotelli's own work as he drew the foul from Villa right-back Eric Lichaj inside the box, before demanding to take the resulting penalty, which he converted with nonchalant calm for 1-0.

City had only scored two in their previous five home league games, yet they doubled that tally inside 13 minutes as Joleon Lescott quickly capitalised on more woeful Villa defending for the second. Gerard Houllier had restored fit-again midfielders Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker to the line-up, but the organisation of Richard Dunne was conspicuous by its absence as Lescott rose unmarked to direct David Silva's corner in off the woodwork.

Silva has been one of the most underrated performers in a City shirt this season, floating elusively between the lines, and he played another significant part in the third goal of the game, exchanging passes with Yaya Toure before seeing his shot parried by Brad Friedel into the path of Balotelli for his second of the afternoon.

The hat-trick was complete just 10 minutes into the second period, done in style from the spot as he danced his way up to his second penalty of the contest, after Adam Johnson had been felled during one of his mazy runs. The victory margin could have been greater by full-time, but Mancini chose to rest the legs of Silva and Toure ahead of the visit of Blackpool. Chelsea have been shunted out of the top four by Tottenham Hotspur after Harry Redknapp's side were once again forced to finish the game with 10 men as they beat Newcastle United 2-0 at White Hart Lane. Victory lifts Spurs two points ahead of the champions having played the extra game.

Robbed of the services of the suspended Jermain Defoe, Redknapp restored Roman Pavlyuchenko to his starting line-up, but it was Aaron Lennon who found the crucial breakthrough on 57 minutes when he sent a deflected effort into the far corner. Spurs then had to cling on for the final 25 minutes as Younes Kaboul picked up an unnecessary red card for pushing his head towards Cheick Tiote, but Gareth Bale settled the nerves with a late clincher.

At the bottom of the table Fulham recorded their first Premier League away win since the opening day of last season, beating Stoke City 2-0 to immediately escape the relegation zone having plummeted into trouble on Boxing Day. The Cottagers had not won on their travels in 26 attempts, but Chris Baird ended a four-year wait for a goal in style as his brace silenced the Britannia Stadium.

The former Southampton defender produced two crackers inside the opening 10 minutes to calm Fulham nerves, catching a half-volley sweetly for his first before sending a well-worked free-kick into the bottom corner for his second. Stoke responded in the usual manner, throwing in countless corners and long throws, but only once was Mark Schwarzer truly troubled as Fulham claimed a crucial three points.

Sunderland missed their chance to move back up to sixth after they paid the price for a catalogue of missed chances in a 2-0 defeat to Blackpool at the Stadium of Light. Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan were both guilty of glaring misses for the home side, and they were punished in the second period.

DJ Campbell, who scores all of his Blackpool goals away from Bloomfield Road, volleyed home from close range for the visitors after Ian Evatt had glanced on Gary Taylor-Fletcher's header. Sunderland responded by laying siege to the Blackpool goal, but Bent's barren spell extended to five games as he hit the woodwork at the death, before Campbell netted his fifth completely against the run of play in injury-time.

And Blackburn Rovers chalked up their first win under new boss Steve Kean after they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-1 at the Hawthorns. Christopher Samba, recently stripped of the captain's armband, remained absent for Rovers, but he was not missed as the Baggies were condemned to their third consecutive defeat.

Rovers got a dream start when Nikola Kalinic found the net after only three minutes, opening his body to place the ball across Scott Carson. Jerome Thomas quickly equalised when arriving at the far post, but Kalinic restored the lead with his second before Mame Biram Diouf killed the game off from El-Hadji Diouf's excellent cross.

Kalinic ruined a good afternoon's work with a scandalous challenge that earned him a red card with 25 minutes remaining, and both teams finished with 10 men after Gabriel Tamas' professional foul on Benjani.

West Ham remain in the bottom three after they allowed a one-goal lead to slip in 1-1 draw with Everton. The Hammers could have leapt above Wigan with victory, but a draw does at least extend their unbeaten run to three matches.

Avram Grant surprisingly left Carlton Cole on the bench for Tuesday's clash, despite his Boxing Day brace at Fulham, but that did not stop the Hammers taking the lead, although they owed a big debt to Tony Hibbert who diverted Radoslav Kovac's soft overhead kick into his own net. The lead did not last until half-time though as Seamus Coleman volleyed home Tim Cahill's deep cross to level, and neither side could find a winner as Cahill had a late effort ruled out for offside.

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