Sunday March 20th, 2016

It is a measure of how crazy this Premier League season has been that a Manchester derby in mid-March was less significant in the title race than a game involving Bournemouth.

Though “involving” might be too strong a word for Bournemouth’s match at White Hart Lane.

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Bournemouth had won its last three Premier League matches, but Tottenham crushed the Cherries in a 3–0 win. Spurs took the lead after 46 seconds, and added a second 15 minutes later. It could have been four up by half time. After Spurs scored a third in the 52nd minute they dropped down to first gear. Even though its opponents were walking for most of the second half, Bournemouth didn't notch a single shot on target and only had two shots in the whole match. Under pressure after Arsenal and Leicester won on Saturday, Tottenham dominated a good team. The result kept Spurs in second place. It remains five points behind Leicester and six ahead of Arsenal.

"It was a good day at the office,” Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, told the BBC.

Sunday had started with a newspaper headline guaranteed to press every button for Tottenham fans. The hated Spurs-baiter José Mourinho, who swooped in for Willian after the Brazilian had undergone a physical at Tottenham, has reportedly told the hated Manchester United, which has a history of prying talent away from White Hart Lane, that Harry “he’s one of our own” Kane must be the top summer target.

On Sunday, Kane scored twice. He is the top scorer in the Premier League with 22. He also set up the third for Christian Eriksen with a shot Artur Boruc could not hold. Kane even snuffed out the one moment of danger in the Spurs goalmouth with a sliding tackle that combined perfect timing with a hefty helping  of crunch. 

The summer promises to be interesting for Kane. For now, life is pretty good.

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“We are focused on what we need to do,” Kane told Sky after the game.

What Spurs need to do, as Kane went on to say, is keep winning and hope Leicester slips up, twice. Tottenham’s next two games are at Liverpool and a home to Manchester United. Before that there is the international break.

“The international break has not come at a bad time,” Pochettino said. “It gives us time to relax and analyze.”

But he added: “Ninety percent of the squad is with their national teams.”

That includes Kane, who can expect to some heavy lifting for England against Germany and the Netherlands.

That’s something else for Harry’s adoring fans at Tottenham to worry about.

Creating problems—Life is also pretty good for Marcus Rashford. He scored the winner as United won 1-0 at Manchester City on Sunday. The 18-year-old has now scored five goals in just eight appearances for United.

Rashford also should have won a penalty and handled himself with mature calm as City’s players tried to provoke him.

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“He is a real striker,” Louis van Gaal, the United manager told Sky. “He can make goals but he is also an attacking point and he can run the channels. Still he is 18 years old. We have to wait to see how consistent he is.”

United deserved to win even though City had 26 shots at goal. City huffed and puffed but only three of those strikes were on target.

Rashford created problems for City’s defense. The result creates potential problems for the senior management of the two clubs. Both seem to have committed themselves to high-profile new managers next season. Some people might be having second thoughts.

The result leaves United (and West Ham) one point behind City in the chase for the fourth Champions League spot.

City’s league form is horrible. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that its players think the Champions League, where they face Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals, is the only competition they can realistically hope to win this season.

If City finishes fifth, sixth or seventh and out of the Champions League places, might Pep Guardiola, who has agreed to take over in the summer, think again? Does Guardiola do the Europa League?

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City’s injury problems were exacerbated by the loss of the goalie Joe Hart to injury on Sunday. Its defense is missing Vincent Kompany. Yet United’s injury problems have been even worse.

On Saturday, its attack consisted of three teenagers: Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. United fans love to see young talent. But United has reportedly signed a pre-contract with Mourinho. He has never been prepared to “to wait see how consistent” a young player might be. He assumes the worst.

In some respects, Van Gaal is doing a good job. United, with its depleted squad, has had disasters in the cups. It has also suffered humiliating league losses to Norwich, Swansea, Sunderland and Bournemouth. Yet Van Gaal remains the master of the big game. After Sunday’s derby victory, United has only lost one league game, away to Arsenal, to a team in the top five.

Van Gaal is certainly having a better Premier League season than Mourinho. The United fans have suffered through the period when Van Gaal focused on defense. If the Dutchman guides United into the Champions League again, would it be a good idea for the club to hand him a huge pile of money to go away and another huge pile of money to Mourinho to come in? Mourinho would start again, rebuilding from the back. On past form, Mourinho would also sideline or loan out the youngsters.

Rashford should enjoy his moment of glory.

Thinkerman—Stressed? Nervous? Worried that the pressure might get to you? Call Uncle Claudio! He will calm you down.

On Saturday, Leicester squeaked by Crystal Palace for its third consecutive 1-0 victory and its fourth in five games to increase its lead in the Premier League to eight points. Normally, away fans complain about how long they are kept in grounds after games, particularly when the home security staff are irked because the away team won. On Saturday, Leicester’s fans stayed in Selhurst Park chanting “We’re going to win the league” so long security had to clear them out. The fans are daring to think, and sing, the unthinkable.

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If Leicester keeps winning, it will take the title. The chief danger is that it cracks under the pressure.

After the match, Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager, bobbed up on TV. His grinning face said “isn’t this fun”. His words struck the careful balance between heaping pressure on his players and refusing to offer any excuses for letting up.

"Sometimes I've said we are at the last turn and now we are on the final, home straight,” he told the BBC. “Now I want to see my horses, how they run."

He is like a jockey giving his mount a gentle prod with his heels. He knows its up to the horses to do the work.

Ranieri’s calm and jolly manner gives no hint that he might be under greater pressure than any of his players.

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Ranieri is 64. He is in his 30th season as a manager. This is his 17th appointment. He has never won a league title. He started by working his way up from the Italian lower divisions. Since 1997 he has managed only big, or very big, clubs, some with extremely rich owners: Valencia (twice), Atlético Madrid, Chelsea, Parma, Juventus, Roma, Inter and Monaco. Seven of those eight clubs have won their national league title since Ranieri started managing in 1986. None won the league while he was their manager. He has won Serie C and Serie B in Italy and Ligue 2 in France. He has collected a few junk trophies: Intertoto Cup, Italian and European “Supercups”. The only two grown-up competitions he has won are the Spanish and Italian Cups, once each, back in the mid-90s. Two cups? For Alex Ferguson or Guardiola, that’s a disappointing season. For Ranieri, it’s his career.

Suddenly, Ranieri finds himself in position to fill the blank on his resumé in spectacular style. He can do something Guardiola or Mourinho will never try to do, and win with a club that doesn’t not have the one of the most expensive squads in world soccer. He’s doing it with a smile on his face.

Getty Images

The educator—Aleksandar Mitrovic, Newcastle’s gung-ho striker, might not look like a great teacher, but he offered several lessons in the Tyne-Wear derby on Sunday.

When Mitrovic leapt at the far post to nod in Georginio Wijnaldum’s lobbed cross in the 83rd minute and earn Newcastle a precious 1-1 draw with its neighbor and relegation rival, he demonstrated, yet again, that clubs have a DNA, whoever the players are. That was a classic center-forward’s goal. No club is more closely identified with traditional center forwards than Newcastle.

On Saturday, Scott Dann of Palace had escaped punishment for pulling Robert Huth’s shirt off. When Mitrovic ripped his shirt off in harmless celebration, he received a yellow card. It was proof that referees think of players as grown ups who must take responsibility for dressing, and undressing, themselves.

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In added time, Mitrovic snuck in Lamine Koné’s blind side, leapt into the Sunderland defender’s elbow and went down like a felled lamp post. The light had clearly gone out. The Newcastle medical staff raced on. They helped Mitrovic to his feet. As they led him to the sideline, the striker, his legs wobbling, began to gesticulate that he was fit to continue.

There is an old soccer joke, for which Ron Atkinson, the former West Brom and Manchester United takes credit, about a who has been player knocked out. “He doesn’t know who he is,” the trainer tells the manager. “Tell him he’s Pele and put him back on,” is the reply.

Times have changed. When Mitrovic reached the bench he began to remonstrate with Rafa Benítez. Rafa might have been desperate for a victory, but as the medical staff gesticulated behind Mitrovic’s back, the new Newcastle manager gently guided the striker, straining toward the touchline, away from the field.

At the start of last season, Pochettino bowed to Hugo Lloris’ wishes and allowed the Spurs goalie back on the field with a suspected concussion. Mitrovic taught us on Sunday that English soccer is finally taking head injuries seriously.

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The student—One man who learned a couple of lessons on Sunday was DeAndre Yedlin, the young American fullback Sunderland has borrowed from Spurs.

With Sunderland winning, Yedlin rushed to take a throw in, seemed to change his mind in mid action and released the ball without taking his arms back over his head first. It was a foul throw. Yedlin had turned the ball over cheaply. Sunderland did not touch the ball again until after Mitrovic had put it in the net a few seconds later.

The goal itself offered Yedlin a second, painful lesson. Mitrovic took up a position behind the fullback. Mitrovic has 4 inches and 30 pounds on the American. When Wijnaldum crossed, Yedlin’s only chance of preventing Mitrovic heading the ball cleanly was to leap early and backwards into the striker. Instead, Mitrovic jumped first, pinning Yedlin and leaning over him to head the ball.

Yedlin won’t look forward to watching the video, but if he wants to learn, he will practice his throws and his standing jumps.

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