FourFourTwo’s Gregg Davies looks back on an day of Premier League action that saw Manchester City take a significant step towards claiming the title and two clubs taste relegation after Sunderland’s latest surprise win, at Old Trafford...
Not the most thrilling of five-goal thrillers.
That’s probably being a tad harsh on a game that ended dramatically with Everton pushing for a late leveller amid six minutes of stoppage time. But there was strangely subdued atmosphere at Goodison Park, with not the same roar that has inspired wins over Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United this season.
A proportion of the Toffees' support were perhaps not keen on witnessing a home win which would aid Liverpool’s title tilt, although manager Roberto Martinez was quick to praise his players for upholding the club’s integrity.
“The effort, the character of the players, the intention of winning the game was clear for everyone to see from the first second until the last The way we celebrated Ross Barkley's goal is as big a roar as you got at Goodison for the whole season,” he said.
"So I'm proud of the football club that we were very much a team wanting to win. I think it's clear that we tried absolutely everything to beat this Man City side."
Those quietly hoping for a City win eventually got their wish, but not before a stellar show from Barkley had threatened to inflict yet another Goodison defeat on City. The Citizens had lost on each of their last four visits to the blue side of Stanley Park and only won one of their previous 15 games there, and for long periods that run looked like being extended as the champions-elect backed off and dropped deep under late pressure.
With England boss Roy Hodgson watching on, the 20-year-old’s stunning long-range effort after 11 minutes was just the start of an explosive performance that saw him complete more passes than anyone else and run his opponents ragged with 9 successful take-ons out of 12, many of them driving down the centre of the pitch.
Yet it was pantomime villain Edin Dzeko, whose shoulder ‘injury’ created the six additional minutes, who proved the match-winner with strikes either side of half-time. The second was put on a plate for him by Samir Nasri, who completed the most attacking third passes (23/25) on top of setting up no fewer than 8 chances.
Winning their final two home matches against Aston Villa on Wednesday and West Ham next weekend will, barring two huge Liverpool victories, secure a second Premier League title in three seasons and a first major European league title for Manuel Pellegrini.
“It was hard and very intense as well - I was thinking that the Everton players have got a lot of friends at Liverpool," skipper Vincent Kompany joked. "It was tough and we ultimately got a great result. It's just one of those places. When we take the lead it's never finished - they always find a way to make it difficult and they always find a way to score a goal that put them back in the game. Today was the same. I thought until the last minute both teams had to keep giving everything they had to keep in the game."
And so the ‘miracle’ run goes on, as Sunderland registered a third win on the spin that sees them sitting three points above the drop zone and effectively safe if Norwich suffer defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Sebastian Larsson’s first half strike means the Black Cats have taken seven points from a possible nine from trips to United, Chelsea and Man City in the past 18 days, with newly crowned Player of the Month Connor Wickham bagging the assist to add to the five goals in his last four appearances.
“What we’ve done in the last four games is unique, special. Maybe you’d even call it a miracle. Miracle is a word I used a few weeks ago. Apparently every now and again, it happens,” said a jubilant Gus Poyet.
"We were down, down, down, down. We needed something special. After we lost against Everton we needed to win four games. We had City, Chelsea and United away. Expecting to win the three at home, we still needed one special result. The determination of the players has been incredible, the willingness to do things right. I said a long time ago, 'We're going to fight, whoever we play'. Today we showed that again.”
Indeed they did, as although United bossed the possession with almost 64%, they only worked goalkeeper Vito Mannone with 2 of their 17 attempts on goal.
Argentine defender Santiago Vergini played a starring role at the back, winning 5 of his 7 tackles on top of making 7 ball recoveries (the most by any Sunderland player), while Lee Cattermole made a game-high 6 interceptions to break up United attacks.
Ryan Giggs was at a loss to explain the Red Devils’ seventh home league defeat of the campaign, the first time that has has happened since 1973/74. And there was an element of the tactics used by the Welshman’s predecessor on display, with 42 crosses wanged in from the wings but only 8 finding their target.
“There was a lack of quality in the final third, he said. “First half, we got some decent crosses in, we just didn't get enough people in the box. Second half, we had all the possession and just couldn't find that key pass that would have got us back in the game. If we'd have scored one, we'd have gone on to score more."
Sunderland’s latest surprise result on the road consigned both Fulham and Cardiff to the second tier; the Cottagers returning to the Championship after 13 seasons.
After throwing away a two-goal lead at home to Hull last weekend, Felix Magath’s men were never at the races in a game they simply had to win. The tactical replacement of Lewis Holtby for Ashkan Dejagah after just 34 minutes failed to pay dividends as the Potters fired in 23 attempts on David Stockdale’s goal.
Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi was particularly impressive, proving why manager Mark Hughes is so keen to sign the speedster permanently in the summer.
The winger is now fully fit again after a lengthy absence through injury, and Stoke have missed his marauding runs. The Moroccan scored with 1 of his 4 attempts, capping a lethal display in which he completed 14 of his 18 attacking third passes and beat his marker on 8 occasions out of 11 down the left flank.
Steven N’Zonzi was his reliable self, making 89 passes, 11 ball recoveries and succeeding with all 5 of his take-ons, while Marko Arnautovic was also heavily involved, setting up 4 chances in addition to scoring himself. The Austrian was also part of the game’s most frequented pass combination with Geoff Cameron (23 times).
Reviled former Fulham boss Hughes refused to rub his old club’s nose in it, hoping the Cottagers return to the top flight in double-quick time. But Magath was honest enough to admit his side weren’t good enough to remain in the division, although the German is keen to stay after suffering “one of his worst days.”
The Bluebirds follow Fulham out of the division after a single, tumultuous season among the elite.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with just three wins under his belt after replacing Malky Mackay in January, lamented his side’s profligacy at St James’ Park as they squandered several decent opportunities to keep their season alive going into the final game of the season.
"[The game] could have gone the other way. We created an unbelievable amount of big chances, but we just didn't take them," Solskjaer said. "That's the thing in football - you have to take them. First half we should have had three or four. In the second half we should have scored another three or four, at least.”
Newcastle’s win ended a run of six successive defeats and was only the third time in 20 outings that they have netted more than 1 goal in a game. Yet many Toon supporters were not present to see Loic Remy and Steven Taylor add gloss to the success late on after a 69th-minute walkout to protest at the running of the club.
“The most important thing was a victory for our fans," said boss Alan Pardew. "[The fans are] obviously very angry about the recent run. There's no doubt about that. It made it a difficult atmosphere here. I thought they [the players] handled that really well because the pressure was enormous on them.”
While Remy popped 5 shots at David Marshall’s goal, Cheick Tiote ran the show; the Ivorian topping the passing charts (61/68), setting up 2 chances, succeeding with 4/6 take-ons and making a game-high 12 ball recoveries.
There were no boos for Big Sam as the Hammers ensured their survival in the early kick-off with a third win over local rivals Spurs this season.
The contest was concluded by the interval; Younes Kaboul dismissed for upending Stewart Downing and the winger's free-kick passing through a pathetic excuse for a defensive wall.
It was Downing’s first goal for 14 months, when he also scored against Spurs, for Liverpool, in March 2013. He went from strength to strength, setting up 5 chances as well as making a game-high 12 ball recoveries.
Tottenham were given a torrid time by Andy Carroll, who kept the debate over whether he should go to Brazil this summer alive and kicking. The target-man forced the opening goal via the head of Harry Kane and ended the day with 9 efforts on goal, 4 chances created for others and 13 aerial duels won.
Spurs were indebted to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris for preventing a much heavier derby defeat. Manager Tim Sherwood heaped praise on his shot-stopper as well as refusing to question his team’s commitment.
“The passion was there, they were up for it," he said. "It's difficult when you go down to 10 men. You have to give credit to West Ham but at 0-0 it was there for the taking. We showed our class and were more measured in our play. The second period, even with 10 men, we took it to them. We certainly had them on the back foot."
Another side assured of Premier League football next season are Aston Villa, barring two gigantic Norwich wins over Chelsea and Arsenal. (It could happen…)
All the hard work was also done in the first half, with Andreas Weimann’s quickfire double doing the business after Jordan Bowery’s own goal had restored parity.
Although the Tigers enjoyed more possession, the Midlanders were far more effective as an attacking force, a far cry from their previous home outing against Southampton, and got off to the perfect start as Ashley Westwood fired home inside the opening minute.
Villa peppered Hull’s goal with 15 attempts, 9 of them on target, leading boss Paul Lambert to hail a “massive” performance from his players to lift the doom and gloom.
Hull boss Bruce was left to lambast his side’s “awful” defending, saying: “The way we started the game was the way we finished the first half, so sloppy and awful in our defending. The reason we've got to where we've got to is the ability to be resilient and defend right and we were awful in that department.
"It would have been interesting to go in [at half-time] at 1-1, but we have to be honest and say after the way we've played today we didn't deserve anything more than we got."
Hull are yet to be assured of their top-flight status next season, although they will be secure if Norwich fail to win at Chelsea on Sunday.
Two teams with little left to play for; Swansea securing their Premier League status against Villa last week and Saints having sat snugly in eighth for weeks.
And only a third goalless draw in 33 meetings appeared on the cards until Rickie Lambert’s late intervention, sparing Ashley Williams an own goal following his sliced clearance, to secure a seventh away win of the season for Mauricio Pochettino’s men.
Victor Wanyama controlled the play in the middle of the park once again, completing 61/67 passes and making 8 ball recoveries, while the marauding Luke Shaw kept opposing full-back Dwight Tiendalli busy with 9 attempted take-ons down the left wing.
Fifty five points represents a record points haul in the top flight for the south coast outfit, to the delight of their Argentine boss: “We played in the manner that we know how to play, perhaps it wasn't a spectacular game, but we did achieve the three points which helped us to achieve the maximum number of points that we've ever achieved in a Premier League season, and also the maximum number of wins away from home."
Swans boss Garry Monk bemoaned his team’s late defensive lapse with Michel Vorm rarely tested over the course of the afternoon; just 4 of Saints’ 18 efforts being on target.
“I can't actually remember Vorm making a save the whole game. We had the best chances - how we came away from that game with nothing is hard to take,” he said. "It's been the story of our season. Very good defending for 90 minutes and then we let ourselves down with some schoolboy defending."