Had Daniel Levy given Andre Villas-Boas the striker and midfielder he needed last summer, then Spurs would surely have finished above Arsenal. This was a predictable collapse...
The events of the past week have set up an exciting summer in the Premier League, but first, will Spurs leave it late on the final day? And Benitez deserves lots of credit...
Chelsea and Rafa Benitez
A 4-0 victory and two fingers to the Stamford Bridge crowd that has thus far failed to relent in its abuse of the manager.
Saturday's success was Chelsea's sixth away win in a row (not including the Club World Cup), compared to just two wins in the last seven matches at home. It's clear that the atmosphere at the Bridge has had a negative impact on the team, but Benitez was also quick to point out the different challenge of breaking down visiting teams.
"When we are away, they press high and you have more space. At home, they play deep and you cannot find the space," said Benitez after the Blues inflicted Stoke's heaviest home defeat in the Premier League. "It is a different kind of game at home and we have to manage the situation in a different way, but we are still creating chances."
I've covered the issues surrounding the manager in more depth here, and the response to that article suggests Chelsea fans may be coming round to an entente cordiale to aid the mutual cause. It will be interesting to see the reaction on Wednesday against Southampton, when the Blues can move within four points of Man City with a victory.
That fixture is followed by Arsenal's visit on Sunday in a crucial week for Chelsea which could determine whether they are fighting on four fronts or three before a similar test in the League Cup semi-final second leg against Swansea. John Terry's timing is impeccable as ever, with the defender returning from injury against Stoke, and the captain's inclusion in the team could serve as a mediating factor between Benitez and the fans.
Nine goals in 20 Premier League games for West Brom (only eight of which he started). *Predictable comparison alert* - Fernando Torres has seven goals in 21 top-flight appearances this season.
Considering the number of chances they created, United should have beaten Liverpool by a greater margin and Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to pay his opponents too much respect in the final half-hour as the visitors pressed for an equaliser. But United v Liverpool is no ordinary fixture, and it's perhaps unsurprising that nerves slowly began to take hold, especially when Nemanja Vidic was forced off with ten minutes remaining.
Despite several poor team selections so far this season, Ferguson picked his best XI from the players available before the game (which doesn't bode well for the in-form Javier Hernandez) and the team started brightly, in part aided by what Brendan Rodgers described as Liverpool's "tentative" passing. From the early stages, it was clear that the match was United's for the taking and very rarely do they refuse a meal. The visitors were stretched by the excellent movement of Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie and the latter two should have put United out of sight by half time.
The problem with this United team is that if they fail to kill off their opponents while in the ascendancy, the defence is always likely to make life difficult later on. Man City fought back from two goals down in the derby before Van Persie's late winner (Ashley Young's wrongly disallowed goal doesn't dilute the point), Arsenal made defeat look respectable in a 2-1 loss in November, Chelsea came back to win in the League Cup and tie a two-goal deficit in the league before Hernandez struck and even Fulham caused a few hair-raising moments after Vidic's own goal in United's 3-2 victory in August.
The pattern continued on Sunday, with Liverpool buoyed by Daniel Sturridge's smart finish after Rafael failed to react, and in the final 25 minutes the visitors had eight attempts to United's solitary effort. What seemed like a routine victory became a display of uncertainty one usually associates with Arsenal.
"The name of the game is winning," said Ferguson after the match. "There are moments where you have to defend. Today was one of them." It didn't seem as though much defending was occurring when Sturridge missed a simple chance to equalise after United twice failed to clear their lines.
Up to this point Ferguson has seemed pre-occupied with his team's superb attacking options and his boast following the 4-3 win over Newcastle seemed rather incongruous given the nature of the game. However, the manager hinted at his concern at defensive lapses on Sunday when he admitted after game: "I haven't seen the (Liverpool) goal again but it looked a bit soft; once again the keeper has parried one out and nobody is following in the rebound."
That Liverpool were allowed to score so cheaply should be a priority for the manager to address before Sunday's trip to Spurs, but it's difficult to anticipate anything other than a shoot-out in every United match from now until the end of the season. For the neutrals among us, it bodes well for two entertaining clashed against Real Madrid. It must be both exhilarating and exhausting for United fans.
A professional job in a fixture that has previously caused great difficulty. City arrived at the Emirates, took a hammer to the drywall and watched as it crumbled to pieces before leaving with three points and a tap of the champions sleeve from Gael Clichy.
James Milner's cracking effort erased the final memory of DaMarcus Beasley's time at City and the midfielder impressed in an energetic display reminiscent of the performances for Aston Villa that earned him a £26million move to the Etihad. It's just frustrating that he can't pass a ball slower than 70mph.
There were signs that Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez - the odd couple of Premier League strike partners - can form some sort of understanding and Dzeko continued his recent run with a fourth strike in three games. "I told myself after missing the penalty I had to score," said the Bosnian-Herzegovinian after the game. Perhaps he should try that advice before the penalty next time.
At this stage, the title race is all about patience for City and as this column has said previously, their best chance to usurp United may come in the wake of the leaders' return to Champions League action against Real Madrid. "It's important for us to be there, close with them, and we will arrive the moment they lose points," said Mancini on Sunday, his warm breath tickling the back of Sir Alex's neck and making him giggle.
To stay close to United, City may have to dip into the transfer market this month to cover for the absence and inevitable post-Africa Cup of Nations fatigue of Yaya Toure. Daniel Storey covered City's current problems here, and it's perhaps interesting to note that Daniele De Rossi was left on the bench for Roma's 1-0 defeat to Catania at the weekend. The midfielder has endured a frustrating season under Zdenek Zeman and would surely consider a move this month.
Things are looking up at the Stadium of Light after an excellent display against West Ham and a gradual improvement in Stephane Sessegnon's form. The arrival of several new faces this month, starting with Alfred N'Diaye, should boost a squad that requires refreshing.
Saints have now suffered only two defeats in the last 11 matches as their survival push gains momentum.
A superb fight-back victory that proved there is plenty of life left in Brian McDermott's side. The boast on Saturday was that Pavel Pogrebnyak scored with his only effort on goal, but it should be a concern that the striker averages just one shot per game in the Premier League this season. Reading will need to create more chances for the Russian if they are to have any hope of survival.
Franco Di Santo
He may be a target to avoid, but that was some goal against Fulham.
A point gained, but Harry Redknapp desperately needs to improve his attacking options this month.
Newcastle and Norwich
A welcome point and clean sheet for both teams. Newcastle will have problems if Fabricio Coloccini is granted his wish of a return to Argentina.
Everton and Spurs
Wasted chances ensured Everton and Spurs remain as they were, while both will be relieved that Laurent Koscielny blew Arsenal's opportunity to gain ground.
Vicente Del Bosque
The Spain manager flew all the way to England to watch the great Michu everyone has been talking about, but was treated to a tight 0-0 draw. Perhaps the impressive Chico stands a better chance than his teammate of being included in Del Bosque's next squad.
The Old Trafford Pitch
Hardly conducive to a flowing passing game, the bobbly pitch at Old Trafford played its part in a match pockmarked with errors by both sides. Sir Alex Ferguson has said it will soon be relaid as Darren Fletcher, who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in December 2011, is unable to play on the heavy turf. The sooner the problem is sorted the better.
Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers
A 2-1 defeat was neither a bad result nor a good result, and a fair reflection of a game in which United created and squandered the best chances. It's easy to forget such a poor first half after Liverpool ended the match in the ascendency but, as Nick Miller said in 16 Conclusions, the Reds encouraged United to attack from the start by playing so deep before the interval.
Brendan Rodgers' instructions dictate that Liverpool will have plenty of possession in their own half (as Swansea did last season) before drawing their opponent in and attempting to exploit the gaps left behind. But that was a dangerous plan against a team equally capable of retaining the ball and far more adept in the final third.
It would have been better for Liverpool to take leave from their usual approach, to an extent, and turn the screw on a United defence that still has the second-worst 'goals against' record in the top half. However, Rodgers decided to stick to his game plan and preferring Stewart Downing to new £12million signing Daniel Sturridge indicated the manager's caution, which was understandable given the nature of the fixture.
This column has previously praised Rodgers for his in-game changes, but conversely questions must be asked about the manager's pre-match selections. Replacing Lucas with Sturridge (who was impressive aside from his decision to shoot from ridiculously tight angles) at half time demonstrated bravery and intent, but it can be argued that the forward's introduction was 45 minutes too late. And considering Joe Allen's recent form, it wasn't a surprise to see the midfielder struggle against Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick.
The defeat may seem like another occasion when Liverpool played well but failed to get a result, but in truth their performance did not match the unrewarded efforts against United and City at home, and Spurs away. That Luis Suarez was restricted to a solitary effort blazed over the bar before half time rather summed up a tepid 57 minutes before Sturridge's goal injected purpose.
Rodgers claimed Liverpool are a match for anyone before the game and the manager continued this train of thought after the narrow defeat. "There was 21 points difference before this game but it wasn't 21 points in terms of quality, it was 21 points in terms of the depth of the squad," he said.
There is no point denying the gulf in quality between the two teams (last season ended with a 37-point gap), even though the visitors were certainly competitive in the second half. However, six of the 12 teams below Liverpool in the table have also lost to United by only a single goal this season, while Swansea and Norwich have collectively earned four points from the league leaders. Rodgers can argue that Liverpool didn't look a side now 24 points behind United, but neither did Reading look 22 points behind in their 4-3 defeat on December 1 and Newcastle 23 points behind on Boxing Day.
In many ways it's ridiculous that Rodgers feels the need to talk about closing the gap between the two clubs. "Once we close the gap in the squad I have great hope we will be able to challenge. Today's an example of that," said the manager after the game, but we are now in the 22nd season since the Reds' last league title and only twice in the intervening years have they truly challenged. There are more immediate issues to focus on.
The biggest concern for Rodgers, who noted United's experience after the match, will be that his own experienced players looked off the pace for long periods. Pepe Reina again made several unforced errors, while Welbeck had the beating of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger was fooled by the simplest of movements for Van Persie's opening goal. There were several occasions when a straightforward chipped ball over the top caused all sorts of problems in the Liverpool back-line and if the team are to improve on their current standing, the experienced players will need to lead by example.
The next match against Norwich provides a chance to return to winning ways, but Liverpool then face trips to Arsenal and Man City in the space of four days. The team should be relishing the challenge to prove they can not only perform but gain a result in those fixtures.
Similar to the Gunners' victory over Spurs in November, few conclusions can be drawn from a game in which one team was reduced to ten men so early on. Indeed, it was a surprise to hear Arsene Wenger regretful of a "timid" first ten minutes, when if it were not for Koscielny's moment of madness Arsenal would probably have grown into the match to test City as they did in the 1-1 draw at the Etihad.
Mike Dean, who is something of a jinx for Arsenal (they've won just one of the last 17 Premier League games with Dean as the referee), should be commended for his excellent spot of Koscielny's rugby tackle on Dzeko, and there was no choice but to issue a penalty and a red card. That Dzeko missed the subsequent spot-kick underlines the reason for the rule that dictated the defender's dismissal. If the striker's 'goalscoring opportunity' had come when he was clean through on goal and Koscielny had taken him out Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-style would there have been any objection to the red card? Of course not, so why the different reaction when the striker was only five yards from goal? Boo hoo, Koscielny was stupid, let's all move on.
Except in that match there is little to move on to. It was always likely that City would end their Emirates hoodoo after Koscielny saw red, although Arsenal could have defended better on both goals. Perhaps something the Gunners should take from Sunday is City's lesson in tactical fouls, with the influential Jack Wilshere scythed down on seven occasions - the joint-most number of fouls any player has suffered in a single league game this season. It might have been a cynical tactic, but it was certainly effective and demonstrated the rough edge that Arsenal lack.
It was encouraging to see Abou Diaby return from injury, but the dreaded "three weeks" prognosis for Mikel Arteta's injury further highlights Wenger's mistake not to replace Alex Song in the summer. The Gunners are clearly lacking resilience both in strength on the field and squad depth, and a new defensive midfielder should be sought this month.
The worrying thing for Wenger is that it feels as though cries from some Gooners that the sky is falling in may not actually be a hysterical reaction. Arsenal have fewer points at this stage than in any of the manager's previous seasons, while Wenger's admission that he knew United would lead the way when he sold them Van Persie is also cause for irritation. This is not to say that the manager's hand wasn't forced by Van Persie's decision, but surely he should have found a more proven replacement for the striker.
Olivier Giroud has done well so far in his first season in the Premier League, but that he is Arsenal's best option in the centre-forward role (only option? The more Theo Walcott plays there, the more he looks like a winger) is indicative of a club happy to accept fourth and enjoy a panoramic view of the title race. Quite simply, it's time for Wenger and the club to try and redress the balance in the transfer market, otherwise the manager's last defence of always qualifying for the Champions League could join all that is already lost.
At the start of the season it seemed Arsenal had too many options at centre-back, with the Gunners' defence leading the way in the Premier League after ten games. But the recent form of Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen is a real concern for Wenger, who still has time to veto Sebastien Squillaci's proposed exit this month.
Manchester United's Right Wing
No-one from either United or Liverpool ceded possession more times than Ashley Young on Sunday - even though the winger was subbed at half time - and Antonio Valencia continued his poor form in the second half. It would be a mistake to sell Nani.
Vincent Kompany doesn't know how to tackle! Can you believe it? The captain of the champions! Blimey.
If Kompany had stayed on his feet, Wilshere would have bounced off him into next week, but similar to Jonny Evans, the Belgian has a tendency to go to ground in head-on challenges. It looked awkward, it looked dangerous and most of all, as Nick Miller said here, it looked foolish from a player who should know better. If City's appeal is approved, I'll comb Miller's hair for a week...again.
Four defeats and only one victory in the last six Premier League matches. Did Sam Allardyce really think Marouane Chamakh would solve the Hammers' mini-slump?
Aston Villa and Paul Lambert
Villa's mission to drop into the bottom three was accomplished on Saturday with another inept performance that Lambert failed to disguise with his rant at Mark Halsey. The 3-1 victory at Liverpool seems a lifetime ago.
Lambert claimed Halsey should feel "embarrassed" at his decision to award Southampton a penalty, but there was only one man with a red face at Villa Park on Saturday. Actually, Jack Cork's face has a curious glow after 60 minutes of huffing and puffing.
Jay Rodriguez has been blasted for his 'dive', but I would argue that the striker deserved his penalty. Law 12 of the rules of the game states that a direct free-kick is to be awarded when a player 'kicks or attempts to kick an opponent' or 'trips or attempts to trip an opponent'. Contact is not a consideration, and if Rodriguez hadn't moved out the way he would clearly have been brought down and the penalty would have been awarded anyway. He's within his rights to avoid a kick on the ankle and the standard argument that 'anywhere else on the pitch that would be a foul' stands.
(Apropos of nothing, this is the only thing I've written on Suarez and diving this season: 'Suarez was starting to earn some sympathy for repeatedly being denied genuine penalty claims this season, but his dying swan act against Stoke only served to enhance his costly reputation.')
Possibly the worst performance in Premier League history. It's a surprise he didn't cap his two own goals and missed penalty with a red card.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.