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United denied late on; Balotelli responds in style; Spurs return to top four

Last Updated: 28/12/10 10:58pm

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Berbatov: Celebrates with Rooney after putting United in front

Berbatov: Celebrates with Rooney after putting United in front

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Manchester United stay top of the table despite being held to a draw at Birmingham City after a Mario Balotelli hat-trick had briefly fired Manchester City to summit, while Tottenham returned to the top four.

An extremely rare away win eased the pressure on Fulham manager Mark Hughes, but West Ham wasted the opportunity to climb out of the relegation zone in Tuesday's tea-time match.

Steve Kean recorded a first victory since his controversial appointment at Blackburn, however, Sunderland surrendered their impressive home record.

Manchester United look likely to head into 2011 on top of the tree despite being held to another away draw following a 1-1 stalemate at Birmingham.

The Red Devils appeared to be heading towards all three points when Dimitar Berbatov finished off a slick move on 58 minutes before later striking the post.

However, lowly Birmingham snatched a point a minute from time when Lee Bowyer timed his run just right to force home Nikola Zigic's knock-down which appeared to come off the Blues substitute's arm.

Earlier in the day United's neighbours Manchester City had briefly gone top after Balotelli's heroics earned a 4-0 win over Aston Villa.

Having taken a two-goal lead in five minutes against Newcastle on Boxing Day, City required only slightly longer to stamp their authority over Villa as a Balotelli penalty and a Joleon Lescott header carved a comfortable advantage in 13 minutes.

Reports on Tuesday morning had suggested that Balotelli would not play amid speculation that he is struggling to settle in England and wants to return to Italy at the end of the season.

But boss Mancini decided to start his compatriot in place of Carlos Tevez and he was again rewarded in the 27th minute when his £24million August signing from Inter Milan tapped in City's third goal.

Villa were ridiculously ragged, explaining why manager Gerard Houllier is under increasing pressure following a run of two wins in the last 13 Premier League matches, which has dragged the Midlanders into relegation danger.

And in the 55th minute Villa were again punished as Balotelli, calmness personified, converted another penalty to ensure he would take the match ball home.

Tottenham overtook Chelsea and returned to the top four of the Premier League for the first time since the end of October following a 2-0 win over Newcastle.

An uneventful first half was only memorable as a fortuitous combination of Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul and the frame of the goal prevented Roman Pavlyuchenko from heading Spurs into the lead shortly before the interval.

But Tottenham took the lead their performance just about merited early in the second half as Aaron Lennon beat Krul from 18 yards with the assistance of a slight deflection off James Perch.

However, in a repeat of their Boxing Day win at Villa, Harry Redknapp's Spurs were forced to finish the match with 10 men after centre-back Younes Kaboul was sent off in the wake of a 65th minute coming together with Cheick Tiote.

The deficit in personnel again did not stop Tottenham making sure of the points as star man Gareth Bale converted a ruthless counter-attack in the 81st minute.

Chris Baird answered Mark Hughes' prayers as a 2-0 victory over Stoke eased the pressure on Fulham's under-fire manager.

Two eye-catching, long-range goals from Baird, his first for the club, gave the visitors a perfect start at the Britannia Stadium, although there will be a few questions marks against the goalkeeping of Asmir Begovic.

A defeat to West Ham on Boxing Day had dragged Fulham into the relegation zone and increased suggestions that Hughes could be set for the sack less than fives months after his appointment.

But Fulham's first away win in 27 Premier League matches was the perfect response to the former Manchester City, Blackburn and Wales boss' critics as his club moved out of the bottom three.

West Ham wasted the opportunity to climb out of the relegation zone as they could only draw 1-1 with Everton in the 5.30pm game.

Tony Hibbert's clumsy 16th minute own goal gave the home side the lead at Upton Park as the East Londoners aimed to build on Sunday's derby win over relegation rivals Fulham.

But Everton were deservedly level shortly before half-time when, much to the frustration of Avram Grant, another of West Ham's season-long defensive mistakes offered Seamus Coleman an unmarked finish at the back post.

Grant's formerly rock-bottom side had climbed to 19th place on the back of the success against Fulham, however, a solitary point was not enough to improve their position.

Kean took steps towards winning over the doubters of his credentials to manage Blackburn with a 3-1 away success at West Brom.

The Scot had collected just one point since succeeding Sam Allardyce on an interim basis, but he justified the faith of club owners, the Venky's group, with a victory at The Hawthorns.

Kean saw his side make a dream start, with Nikola Kalinic making a mockery of West Brom's unorganised offside trap, but Jerome Thomas equalised 14 minutes later courtesy of Somen Tchoyi's intelligent, low cross.

However, more adrift defending from the home side allowed Kalinic and Mame Biram Diouf to extend Blackburn's lead in the second half.

Kalinic was to go from hero to zero shortly after the hour mark when he was sent off for a petulant, studs-up challenge on the shins of Paul Scharner, but West Brom also ended the match with 10 men after Gabriel Tamas was shown a late red card.

DJ Campbell returned to haunt Steve Bruce as Blackpool inflicted just a second Premier League defeat in 20 home matches on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

Darren Bent and Campbell, who was reunited with Bruce from their time together at Birmingham, were both guilty of wasting opportunities at either end in a goalless first half.

But in the 50th minute and in injury-time Campbell was to show no gratitude to Bruce, having been plucked from Brentford and taken to St Andrews in 2006 by the then Championship manager, to score goals and continue Blackpool's remarkable start to life in the Premier League with a 2-0 win.

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