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  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic powered Manchester United to a 3-0 win over Sunderland to stay in chase for fourth place in the English Premier League.
By Peter Berlin
April 09, 2017

Sunderland’s fate was probably sealed before Seb Larsson lunged into a couple of tackles near the halfway line in the dying seconds of the first half at the Stadium of Light.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put Manchester United ahead on the half hour with the untroubled ease of a man playing against boys. It was his 250th goal since turning 30. Sunderland had not scored in six matches, so that was likely to be enough.

Then Larsson challenged for a bouncing ball with Paul Pogba. Both men raised their boots as they battled for possession. Larsson was stronger and the ball broke his way but toward Ander Herrera. The Swede gave chase and threw himself to the ground, raising a boot and thrust his studs over the ball and into the Spaniard’s shin.

Craig Pawson, the referee, and showed an incredulous Larsson a red card.

The player gesticulated angrily as he walked reluctantly off the field.

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Sunderland’s fate was sealed. It lost, 3-0, it remained 10 points away from safety with seven matches to play. United hopped past Arsenal, which plays on Monday, into fifth but remains four points out of fourth place at the start of a big week which brings the first leg of a Europa League quarterfinal against Anderlecht and then a Premier League game against Chelsea.

Stud-first lunges and stomps have become the signature challenge of modern soccer. They are nasty, dangerous and cowardly. It is only proper that referees are trying to, ahem, stamp them out. As nasty, dangerous and cowardly challenges go, Larsson’s was not that bad, which might explain his indignation at being sent off. It does not explain what was going through his mind.

Maybe, despite almost 440 appearances in midfield or defense for Arsenal, Birmingham, Sunderland and Sweden, Larsson has simply never learned to tackle properly. It seems unlikely that no one has ever tried to teach him to put the side or top of his boot behind the ball to transmit the maximum power through it while retaining control of his body and, potentially, the ball.

It is, of course, difficult to keep your feet down while falling onto your butt to make a sliding tackle. But Larsson is an international soccer player because of his technique and because of the fast-twitch control he has over his feet. He could have moved his boot a couple of inches to avoid hitting Herrera in a way that could have caused injury.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It would be nice to think that players feel some solidarity with fellow-pros and do not want to injure each other. But the regularity with which challenges end with a sneaky stamp or kick suggests that they live in a more brutal world.

Yet even if Larsson was motivated purely by self-interest, it’s hard to see how the possible gains outweighed the potential cost. Yes, Herrera is himself a particularly nasty operator, which might be why he saw what was coming and jumped slightly away from the challenge. Maybe Larsson was merely defending himself against the possibility that his opponent would also attempt to break his leg.

Yet the best Larsson could hope for was winning the ball in a harmless area. The worst was a red card that would leave his struggling team playing with 10 men and bring him a suspension.

Referees are human and inconsistent. They do not punish every studs-first challenge with a red card, but they do it often enough. What is remarkable is that players do not learn. Larsson took a gamble, with his continued presence on the field and with the integrity of Herrera’s tibia, he can hardly complain that he was then dealt the worst possible card.

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TALKING WITH GOALS Perhaps someone had a word with Romelu Lukaku at half-time on Sunday as Everton beat Leicester, 4-2.

After he headed Everton’s second goal in the first half at Goodison, Lukaku’s celebration consisted of returning a hug from Idrissa Gueye and then walking back to the half way line. He did not even smile.

It is the sort of reaction–or non-reaction -- that has led to accusations that Lukaku lacks passion. An accusation that might suggest to his club’s fans, that, given his refusal to sign a new Everton contract, he is heartless mercenary.

The cameras that follow modern sport feast on hammy emotion. Critics suggest that Lukaku’s failure to oblige explains why he sometimes disappears on the big occasion. He was invisible during Everton’s recent derby humiliation at Anfield. It is of course possible that his anonymity might have had something to do with poverty of the team-mates; over-run and unable to supply him.

Lukaku says that he regards himself as a thinking player. Even so, the argument runs, his lack of visible fire explains, in some way, why he thrives against weaker teams and struggles against better ones – though he has scored twice against Manchester City and once against Spurs this season.

On Sunday, Leicester, resting a host of regular starters, including Wilfred Ndidi, Riyad Mahrez and both fullbacks ahead of its Champions League match with Atlético Madrid and without centerback Wes Morgan, clearly qualified as softer-than-usual Premier league opponent.

Lukaku shone. He was energetic and effective in his team’s build up play. He also scored a again, in the second half. This time he reacted as he is supposed to, running towards the fans, leaping and punching the air. The message was that he does care. That means he is a better player.

Yet refusing to celebrate also sends a message. The two goals on Sunday took Lukaku to 23 in the Premier League this season, four more than the second-best scorer, Harry Kane. After failing to score in Everton’s first three games of the season Lukaku has 30 in 34 games in all competitions, including one in the FA Cup and six in four World Cup qualifiers for Belgium. That’s almost a goal a game. Other players might act as if they are surprised or have done something remarkable after scoring. Lukaku’s stoicism says, “doing my job is no big deal -- it’s only remarkable if I don’t score.”

MODEST MASTER Tottenham rolled on, opening the weekend by routing Watford, 4-0. Even though the second half was often an energy-saving stroll in the spring sunshine, Spurs could have won by more. They hit the woodwork four times.

After the match, Mauricio Pochettino sidestepped the first question about the return of Kane for the last 30 minutes by saying “players and managers” “are a topic” for the media. Instead he stuck firmly to his team-first script.

“Football is a collective matter it is not about names,” The Tottenham manager told Sky Sports. “Twenty-four or 25 players need to feel they are part of the team.”

The only name he would mention was Britney Spears, which, even given the deplorable musical taste of many soccer professionals, will not do much for the manager’s dressing-room credibility.

Pochettino was not just deflecting attention away from individual players, he was deflecting it away from himself. His team is functioning like a well-engineered machine, but one of the striking is how much the individuals have improved under Pochettino. They are all fit, focused, smart, tough and, for now, confident.

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Of course, young players will improve. Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier may well have flourished under other coaches or at other clubs, though they have been fortunate that Pochettino is prepared to trust youth.

Elsewhere, Jan Vertonghen has shed his occasional defensive flakiness. Christian Eriksen uses his skills to ever-more dangerous purpose.

Perhaps most impressive is how much players who don’t start regularly, improve under Pochettino. His work on the training ground shows on the field.

Vincent Janssen may be suffering the yips in front of goal, he was guilty of one Roberto Soldado-sized point blank miss on Saturday, but he now contributes in other ways. He helped turn the game as a sub at Burnley on Wednesday, distracting the defense for the first goal and helping set up the next two.

Even more impressive is Kieran Trippier. When he first came to Spurs, he struggled to stop wingers one-on-one. On Saturday, he was impeccable in defense and devastating in attack, creating one goal and setting up four more clear chances which Janssen, Son Heung-Min and Kane squandered.

Maybe Pochettino has improved his team too quickly for Tottenham’s good. The club plans to move into its new stadium the season after next. Instead of being primed to compete in its new luxury home, Tottenham may struggle to hold on to Alli, Kane, goalie Hugo Lloris, fullbacks Danny Rose and Kyle Walker and, above all, Pochettino over the next two summers. The quality of the individual players, and coaches, does matter.

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IN GOOD HEALTH  Spurs sent a message. Chelsea answered.

Last week, Bournemouth drew at Anfield. At home, it had scored three against Arsenal and four against Liverpool. Chelsea allowed the home team one shot on target over 90 minutes and won, 3-1.

Unlike some of his rivals, Antonio Conte knows his best starting eleven. With Victor Moses returning from a brief injury, the Chelsea manager was yet again able to start that team. Calculating how many matches players lose to injury is tricky, because managers and clubs are not always entirely honest, but according to the Injury League web site, only one Premier League team has lost fewer appearances this season than Chelsea. That, curiously is the club with the oldest average age and the most physical approach in the league, West Brom.

Chelsea’s success has a lot to do with the fact that Conte can keep selecting the same players.

The manager might be benefiting from the work he and his staff do off the field. The way the team plays probably helps. On Saturday, as against Manchester City on Wednesday, Chelsea turned down the pressure and settled back into immovable defense in the second half. Conte also inherited a team, that unlike the two North London and the two Manchester clubs, had not qualified for Europe. In the fall, while his rivals were squandering their stamina on midweek matches and international flights, Chelsea players were resting or learning the Conte way on the training ground.

Avoiding injuries can be simply a matter of statistical good fortune. Yet, that tends to be a pattern for teams that win titles. As Eden Hazard told the BBC, when asked about the horrible deflection that gave Chelsea an early lead: “We have to have some luck if we want to be champion.”

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RED FOR DANGER Liverpool has not been so lucky with injuries. Already without Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané, it started at Stoke on Saturday without Roberto Firmino, who told manager Jürgen Klopp that he was exhausted, and Philippe Coutinho, who had been ill.

Perhaps their issues should not be a surprise. In 12 days between March 23 and last Tuesday night, Coutinho had started two league games for Liverpool and two World Cup qualifiers for Brazil, one at altitude in Lima, Peru, the other in Sao Paulo. Firmino was on the bench for the first of those Brazil games, but had still had to fly to and from South America. David Luiz, of Chelsea, was not included in the squad and so did not have to put in the miles on long-haul flights or the minutes on the field.

On Saturday, Klopp started Ben Woodburn, who is 17, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, 18, instead. It did not work. Liverpool was losing at half time.

Klopp yanked the youngsters and brought on the Brazilians.

“It is not nice but it is the job,” Klopp said after the game.

The switch worked. Coutinho levelled after 70 minutes. Less than two minutes later, Firmino scored the winner with a dazzling half-volley. Liverpool won, 2-1.

After the game, Klopp blamed the other starters for not “helping” the two kids. He could also have blamed them for not helping in other ways.

Liverpool could have lost if Stoke had accepted the chances the visiting defense kept offering. Just before half-time, Ragnar Klavan, on the right of a back three, charged out to meet Xhedran Shaqiri and was beaten like an egg. When the winger lobbed a cross to Jon Walters, in front of goal, neither of the other centerbacks, Joél Matip and Dejan Lovren, was in the postcode. Walters, a Liverpudlian, scored.

In the second half, Georginio Wijnaldum, who gave Bournemouth a goal with an awful backpass on Tuesday, headed the wrong way trying to clear a corner playing four Stoke attackers onside in the six-yard box. One, Saido Berahino, whiffed. A second Charlie Adam smashed the ball goalward. Somehow Simon Mignolet saved. After 74 minutes, no Liverpool’s defender was in sight as Berahino had another close-range chance. Mignolet made an even more miraculous save.

The victory kept Liverpool in third place. It has taken 18 points from losing positions this season.

“This was massive, it's absolutely massive.” Klopp said.

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