Sunday February 14th, 2016

On a day of heavyweight encounters in the Premier League, North London’s two contenders landed late knockout blows to win 2-1.

In Sunday’s early game, Arsenal scored in added seconds at the end of added time to beat visiting Leicester.

Then Christian Eriksen ended a brisk counter-attack with a crisp finish to give Tottenham victory at Manchester City.

The London clubs remain locked together in second and third, but they cut Leicester’s lead to two points. The big loser was Manchester City.

Arsenal’s victory was the deserved outcome after relentless pressure against an opponent reduced to 10 men. The only reason Arsenal had not sealed victory sooner was woeful finishing.

Tottenham took the lead after 53 minutes after Mark Clattenburg showed what an uncannily sharp referee he is by spotting a handball from Raheem Sterling not visible to the naked eye – or to slow motion replays. But City leveled and took complete control before being hit on the breakaway.

Spurs earned their luck by working like dogs, defending with reckless courage and seizing one of the few counter-attacking chances they had. They have now done the double over City after a 4-1 win earlier this season.

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“The mentality was good,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino told the BBC, tacitly acknowledging that City had outplayed his team.

City outlasted the famously fit young Spurs squad. The home team was in complete control by the end. On another day, Sergio Agüero might have had a hat-trick. City was also unlucky that two key late chances fell to center back Nicolás Otamendi.

Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager, was quite clear.

“We played better than Tottenham,” he told the BBC.

The Chilean, usually a model of dignified restraint, blamed Clattenburg.

"It was the same referee as the other game when they score two goals from offside,” Pellegrini said. “This was a shot that hit the back of Sterling, hit elbow slightly and he can't decide the game in that way.”

Pellegrini may be feeling a chill draft. His team fought like a champion but missed a chance to cut the six-point gap to Leicester while dropping four points behind Spurs and Arsenal.

City has already announced that Pep Guardiola will take over in the summer. Reports from Munich suggest Guardiola might become available sooner than expected. Bayern, his current employer, is not happy that the news became public with half the season to go.

Perhaps that motivated City’s furious fightback. Several players, such as Yaya Touré who was booted out of Barcelona by Guardiola, might not be keen to see the new coach arrive early. With City drifting out of touch in the title race, this soap opera could dominate the Etihad in coming weeks.

Unhappily ever after? — For the many fans who have become emotionally involved in Leicester’s romantic pursuit of the Premier League title, Sunday’s un-fairytale finish at the Emirates may have seemed an omen that at the end of the ball, Cinderella’s crystal cleat will not fit.

The question is whether the narrative arc of the 2-1 loss to Arsenal foreshadows the storyline of the Leicester season.

The first act was familiar. Jamie Vardy hit Arsenal on the counter-attack, suckered Nacho Monreal into a bad tackle and then slammed home the penalty. Leicester absorbed Arsenal pressure with resolve and discipline. Then, after 54 minutes, Danny Simpson made a second rash challenge in the space of five minutes and was sent off. Cue scary music.

The second act lasted exactly 40 minutes. Arsenal stormed forward. Leicester resisted bravely, helped by horribly wasteful shooting from the Gunners. Substitute Theo Walcott leveled after 70 minutes. But none of the starters seemed to have a clue where the goal was. Alexis Sánchez had six shots, none on target. Aaron Ramsey took four shots, all of them wide.

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The third act lasted less than a minute. As added time expired, Marcin Wasilewski, who had come on after Simpson was sent off, slammed into Monreal to concede a needless free kick. Mesut Ozil’s delicately floated ball found another substitute, Danny Welbeck. He delicately glanced the ball into the corner of the net to break any faint hearts among those who have climbed on the delirious Leicester bandwagon.

Instead of growing, Leicester’s lead shrunk. Is this to be the story of its season: a plucky sprint for glory falling just short as clubs with greater resources hunt down the Foxes.

"It was a pivotal moment today because the mathematics meant it could be eight points or it could be two points. That is a great change,” Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager told the BBC.

Yet momentum can be illusory. Leicester has lost to Arsenal before this season, and badly. The Gunners won 5-2 at the King Power Stadium in September, to puncture Leicester’s early surge. That seemed pivotal at the time, but wasn’t. In the 18 rounds between that game and Sunday, Leicester amassed 41 points while Arsenal collected 35.

Leicester has picked itself up and charged on before. It has time to do so again. Leicester is out of all the cups. It has a 13-day rest before starting a run of five league matches in three weeks against opponents that are all, with the exception of Watford, in the bottom eight. Perhaps the break will disturb Leicester’s rhythm. Perhaps its counter-attacking style will falter against relegation-haunted teams that park the bus.

Yet while Leicester is recovering, Arsenal must face Hull and then Barcelona in cup games. Its next three league matches include trips to Old Trafford and White Hart Lane.

"We are still top of the table, got two points more. We must carry on and smile,” Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager, told the BBC.

Leicester has regained the initiative before. It can do so again.

England's delicate roses—Hope springs eternal. Aston Villa fans won’t accept that their team has been relegated until there is no arithmetical chance of escape. Fans of England’s national team won’t accept their team has no chance of winning Euro 2016 until it plays its first game on June 11.

The two plot lines converged in a Saint Valentine’s Day massacre at Villa Park. Liverpool played well and won 6-0. Villa looked as if it would struggle in the Championship. Still, it is not officially relegated, yet, and can take consolation from the fact that Newcastle looked almost as horrible as it lost 5-1 at Chelsea the night before. Incompetence loves company.

Liverpool’s victory improves its chances of finishing fifth and securing a coveted Europa League place. That’s about all it can hope for.

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The good news, for Liverpool, and England, was that Daniel Sturridge, making his first start since October 4, scored the opening goal. Sturridge played 62 minutes before being replace by Divock Origi, who promptly scored.

Sturridge’s goal came only a few minutes after Welbeck’s winner for Arsenal. Welbeck had not played for 10 months because of a knee injury. It was remarkable enough that he played 10 minutes Sunday without reinjuring himself. A goal was a bonus –it usually is with Welbeck.

Amid all the fuss about Harry Kane and Vardy, who both converted penalties on Sunday, it is easy to forget that not long ago Sturridge and Welbeck were England’s strikeforce of the future.

England usually celebrates the traditional rite of unrealistic expectation in the weeks between the FA Cup final and the start of a major tournament. But with five England strikers, if one counts another walking casualty, Walcott, scoring in just four hours, this might be a good excuse to enjoy a little frenzy early.

The Sunderland strategy—For large parts of the last three seasons, Sunderland has played quite the worst soccer of any team in the Premier League, yet every season it has survived.

The pattern is repeating under Sam Allardyce. Sunderland, having been horrible for much of the season, suddenly looked unstoppable as it swamped Manchester United at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, and won, 2-1.

That completed a typical Sunderland sequence: a thrashing at Spurs, a lucky point at home to Bournemouth, an undeserved home loss after a strong display against Manchester City and a bizarre draw at Anfield, salvaged after home fans walked out. So, two good performances in five games yielded a haul of five points. That averages out at 38 over the season. In two of the last three years, 38 has been the Black Cats’ magic number. In the other it was 39.

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Managers arrive flame out and are dragged gibbering from the Stadium of Light. The club signs players in bulk and is repaid by occasional glints of promise, before the talent is injured or arrested or loses form or the will to go on. Yet Sunderland survives. It has discovered a simple mathematical truth.

Other clubs talk of giving 100 per cent every week. That does not happen at Sunderland. For the majority of league games, and all cup games, it is so awful it appears to be deliberate. Sunderland plays as a team in the two derbies with Newcastle and, quite randomly, in some 13 or 14 other league games. Take just over 30 points in those games, collect a handful of lucky wins and draws in the other 60 per cent of league games and you’ll accumulate 38 without really trying.

Pity Louis van Gaal who might well lose his job because the latest United mini-revival was punctuated by one of those games when Sunderland looked like a team.

Hair-raising question—Olivier Giroud runs around a lot and likes to head the ball. That makes the sight of his hair at the end of Arsenal’s victory on Sunday even more remarkable. Not a strand in his carefully combed quiff appeared to have moved in 94 minutes of action. Donald Trump must be envious. Perhaps a concern for his coiffure explains why he failed to score in seven attempts on goal, four of them headers. But it seems more likely that Giroud’s inch-high wedge of hair does not budge because it is cemented in place by industrial chemicals. Some might say this is an issue for the fashion police, but it should also concern soccer fans who want to see fair or, in this case, brunet, play. What happens if Giroud heads the ball with that brick of hair and scores? By such fine margins are titles decided.

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