The big guns were blazing early at Old Trafford on Sunday, but it was the unassuming figure of Park Ji-Sung who wound up the hero for Manchester United. The Korean international’s second-half goal gave Man U a 2-1 win over Liverpool, and put the Red Devils atop the Premier League standings.
Liverpool stunned the home crowd when Fernando Torres headed in a Dirk Kuyt cross in the fifth minute. But just seven minutes later Wayne Rooney had the hosts level. Antonio Valencia was brought down in the box by Javier Mascherano, and the referee whistled the penalty. Rooney’s initial shot was saved brilliantly by Pepe Reina, but the rebound fell kindly back to the United striker, who made no mistake the second time around.
Park then won the game in the 60th minute with a picture-perfect diving header from six yards out. It completed a sweeping United play, as Rooney found Valencia on the right side, and the Colombian’s whipped cross was coolly met by his Korean teammate.
Man. United's lead over floundering Chelsea is now four points -- the Blues' efforts to keep pace in the EPL title race suffered a major blow when they gave up a late goal to El-Hadji Diouf and finished in a 1-1 draw at Blackburn Rovers. Chelsea couldn't make Didier Drogba's sixth-minute strike hold and have now won only four times in their past nine matches. With 65 points, they sit four behind United and two behind Arsenal, but with a game in hand.
In Sunday's other EPL match, Clint Dempsey couldn't replicate his midweek magic at Craven Cottage as Fulham fell 2-1 to Manchester City on goals by Roque Santa Cruz and Carlos Tévez. Dempsey came on as a sub in the 52nd minute but the Cottagers were perhaps stuck looking back at their Europa League victory over Juventus last week and looking ahead to Wednesday's FA Cup quarterfinal replay vs. London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Lionel Messi turned in a second hat trick in as many games in a dazzling individual performance as Barcelona topped Real Zaragoza 4-2 to pull even on points with first-place Real Madrid.
The defending FIFA World Player of the Year opened the scoring with a header off Pedro Rodríguez's cross in the fifth minute. Then, in the 66th, he left fans' jaws agape by stealing the ball near midfield and slaloming past almost the entire Zaragoza defense on the left side of the box before slotting it past keeper Roberto Jiménez. To top it all off, the Argentine magician sent a curler over Jiménez's right shoulder in the 78th for his La Liga-leading 25th goal of the season.
Messi bagged a hat trick in Barça's win last weekend over Valencia and has now scored eight goals in his past three league games. That total is in addition to his midweek brace against Stuttgart's Jens Lehmann in the Champions League. Madrid and Barcelona are even with 68 points, but Real leads on goal differential.
Elsewhere, Valencia remained in a distant third place with a 2-0 win over Almería, while Mallorca leapfrogged Sevilla into Spain's final fourth-place Champions League position with a 4-1 win over Atlético Madrid.
AC Milan missed a golden opportunity to take over first place in Serie A when they slumped to a 1-1 draw with Napoli at the San Siro. Pippo Inzaghi tied the match in the 26th minute by heading in a Ronaldinho cross, but the Rossoneri squandered a handful of scoring chances after that. First-place Inter Milan had left themselves exposed after a 1-1 draw at Palermo on Saturday. With the tie, Milan have 59 points, one less than their stadium rivals.
Rangers won the Scottish League Cup final 1-0 over St. Mirren at Hampden Park with an 84-minute winner by Kenny Miller. U.S. international Maurice Edu was inserted into a three-man back line after halftime as manager Walter Smith elected to go with a more attack-heavy formation, and it paid off. The Scottish Premier League leaders' dream of a domestic treble remains very much alive.
Schalke missed a chance to steal first place in the Bundesliga after a 2-2 draw with Hamburg. Ivan Rakitic gave the Miners the lead with a penalty kick in the 68 minute, but Hamburg found an equalizer nine minutes later from substitute Jonathan Pitroipa. League-leading Bayern lost at Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 on Saturday, their first loss in 19 Bundesliga matches. Schalke have 55 points, still one behind the Bavarians. In Sunday's other match, last-place Hertha Berlin routed Wolfsburg 5-1.
U.S. national-team striker Eddie Johnson scored in the 11th minute, but Aris Salonika couldn't hang onto the early lead and drew at Panionios 1-1. Fellow American Freddy Adu made Aris' game-day roster, but remained on the bench. In Athens, Olympiakos beat archrival Panathinaikos 1-0 on Matt Derbyshire's putback in the 67th minute to climb within four points of the league leaders.
Bordeaux rallied for a 3-1 victory over Lille, snapping the Ligue 1 leaders' spell of three games without a victory. Marseille moved into fourth place with a 2-1 win over Lyon at the Stade Vélodrome thanks to an 81st-minute winner by Nigerian international Taye Taiwo. Montepellier remained in second place with a 2-1 victory over Valenciennes.
Luis Suárez scored a brace as Ajax Amsterdam routed RKC 5-1 to keep the heat on Eredivisie leader FC Twente. Steve McClaren's crew sits in first place with 71 points after drawing with PSV Eindhoven on Saturday.