United, City begin 2013 with big wins
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini fears losing out to archrivals Manchester United for the signature of Robin van Persie could prove the difference in this season's English Premier League title race.
The prolific Netherlands striker did little to dispel that theory yesterday.
Van Persie ushered in 2013 by taking his league-high tally to 16 goals with a brace in United's 4-0 win at Wigan, maintaining the team's seven-point lead over City. Javier Hernandez also scored twice, but Van Persie stood out again, scoring a sublime strike with his weaker right foot for the pick of the goals.
"We expected him to be a major player and add something to us, and that is exactly what he has done," said United manager Alex Ferguson, who spent 24 million pounds (then $38 million) on signing Van Persie from Arsenal in August.
"Robin is a completely rounded footballer."
City also made a statement of intent to kick off the new year, easing past Stoke 3-0 at home, but are now relying on some slip-ups from United. At the moment, they don't look like coming.
"We have just got to continue to win football matches," City assistant manager David Platt said.
Goals by Pablo Zabaleta, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero at the Etihad Stadium ended Stoke's 10-match unbeaten run. However, a hamstring injury sustained by Aguero late on saw the game end under a cloud for City.
Tottenham climbed provisionally to third, above Chelsea by a point, by beating Reading 3-1 after having fallen behind in the fourth minute. Arsenal are provisionally fifth after a disappointing 1-1 draw at Southampton, needing an own goal to earn a point.
At the bottom, struggling Aston Villa ended a run of three heavy defeats by drawing 2-2 at Swansea, but will rue conceding an equaliser deep into stoppage time by Danny Graham.
Out-of-form pair Fulham and West Ham both won 2-1, against West Bromwich and Norwich, respectively, to stop their slide toward the relegation zone.
Van Persie, who could have signed for City last summer, showed once again why he could be the determining factor in this season's title race.
His goal that made it 2-0 was thunderously struck into the corner and arguably his best this campaign, and he rounded off a dominant win at the DW Stadium with his 19th goal in all competitions.
"He came to us at the very peak of his career," Ferguson said. "His ability to make and take goals is fantastic."
With Wayne Rooney still absent because of a knee ligament injury, Hernandez was given another opportunity up front and he didn't waste it, displaying his predatory instincts with goals in the 35th and 63rd minutes. It left Wigan with no chance of repeating their surprise home win over Ferguson's side last season.
Another second straight clean sheet also pleased Ferguson, whose defence has been heavily criticised this season after conceding more goals than any other team in the top half.
City did their job by crushing Stoke to keep the pressure on their neighbours, although it proved to be a bittersweet match for Aguero.
The Argentina striker completed the scoring by converting a 74th-minute penalty, but hobbled off with a hamstring injury that is likely to keep him out for City's next two matches.
Mancini, though, will be happy with the way his team comfortably saw off an opponent that hadn't been beaten in their previous 10 games. Aguero could easily have come away with a hat-trick, only to find Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic in fine form, before his resistance was breached by right back Zabaleta in the 40th.