Iain Macintosh picks some heroes and villains from another dramatic weekend in the Premier League.
There is no stopping Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Just when you think that age is finally wearying him or that he’s becoming bogged down by a defence as modest as Sunderland’s, he makes a turn, creates some space and then unleashes something unstoppable into the back of the net. This was the story of his 28th strike, a phenomenal return given his advancing years. It opened the door to a morale-boosting victory for Manchester United, something they might not have achieved with him easing the nerves. He is remarkable.
There’s not much that can stop Romelu Lukaku, either. His brace in Sunday’s 4-2 win vs. Leicester City brought his season tally to 23 in the league alone, one more than Middlesbrough have managed together, as Opta so helpfully pointed out. More importantly, it has restored a little stability to Everton as they continue their push for European football. A place in the Europa League is unlikely to change Lukaku’s mind about moving on in the summer, but at least there’s no sense that he’s downed tools. He continues to be as potent as ever.
They are slowing down now, conceding more and scoring fewer, but Chelsea continue to put points on the board. There were elements of fortune to their 3-1 victory in Bournemouth at the weekend in the deflected opening goal and the extraordinary save by Thibaut Courtois from a wayward David Luiz clearance, but there was grit and determination, too. It was like this the last time they won the title — they roared away from the starting line and plodded over the finishing line — but you don’t get extra trophies for the margin of victory. Chelsea are almost there now…
… and yet Tottenham continue to keep pace with them. An outstanding 4-0 win against Watford, with Son Heung-Min and Kieran Trippier particularly impressive, keeps them five points clear of third-place Liverpool and 14 clear of Arsenal. More importantly, for a time, a very brief time, the gap to Chelsea was down to just four points, and the stomachs of their fans were beginning to swirl with anxiety. Spurs may not be successful in their pursuit of the leaders, but the fact that this is their second genuine title race in as many years is testament to their progress under Manuel Pochettino.
For so long, this looked like another typically infuriating Liverpool display with attack compromised by shambolic defence. But then Simon Mignolet stood up to defy Stoke City, making a string of extraordinary saves to keep his team in it long enough for the forwards to start unleashing howitzers. Roberto Firmino scored the winner — and with some style — but it was the big Belgian who won the game for Liverpool. If they could just make less work of games like these next season, they might have a chance of challenging for the title.
Goodbye, Sunderland. Beating Manchester United was always too much to ask, and with that defeat, surely relegation is certain. If it isn’t, we’re about to see the most unlikely great escape in the history of great escapes, which of course is made up primarily of Sunderland’s previous great escapes. But let’s be honest: if they can’t even score a goal, as they have failed to do for seven games now, they’re not going to win. They are doomed, and they have been for some time.
The misery continues for Middlesbrough. They were bright against Burnley, made good chances and except for a moment of extreme clemency from referee Martin Atkinson, they might have made a numerical advantage count. But it all came to nothing. Again. They haven’t won in the league since Dec. 17. They’ve only scored five goals in their past 12 league games. They are six points adrift of safety and with Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool still to play, it’s hard to see them getting out of this now.
Oh, Swansea. We thought you were safe. Back in March, when you beat Burnley 3-2 to complete your fourth win in six games, we thought our always enjoyable trips to South Wales were safe for another year. Alas, the wheels have come off your recovery and gone bouncing down the road while your screaming chassis grinds to a halt in a shower of sparks. One point from five games is frightening enough. Two goals in five games is terrifying. A flat performance at West Ham, after the heartbreak of that late capitulation to Spurs in midweek, does not bode well.
Swansea aren’t the only team to have only picked up only one point from their past five games. Stoke City are in free-fall, squandering any chance of an improvement on their traditional ninth place finish and piling the pressure on manager Mark Hughes. They really should have beaten Liverpool too, denied by two exceptional saves but also by their profligate finishing. Stoke now have a run of what might have been considered winnable games earlier in the season. Hughes needs to win them or he could be in trouble.
Diving is bad enough but there’s no place for sub-par diving in the Premier League. West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini should remember that he is plying his trade in a league that has been disgraced by so many illustrious names. Wayne Rooney ended Arsenal’s long unbeaten run with a particularly well-executed dive in 2004. Luis Suarez was perhaps the best the country has ever seen, expertly running into defenders and tumbling to the ground as naturally an autumnal leaf. Lanzini’s desperate “effort” on Saturday was, in comparison, the stuff of amateur hour. Up your game, man.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.