Anyone associated with Tottenham Hotspur has long practice in disappointment. When Chelsea crushed Everton at Goodison in a game that ended just before Tottenham kicked off against Arsenal, that might have deflated Spurs. They keep winning, yet they cannot catch the league leader.
Instead, Tottenham came out and pulverized its ancient enemy, in the last North London Derby at White Hart Lane.
The 2-0 score line barely does justice to Tottenham’s domination on every level: physical, mental and tactical. It peppered the Arsenal goal. Dele Alli and Harry Kane, from the penalty spot, scored the goals early in the second half, but if Alli and Christian Ericksen had not missed the goal from close range with Petr Cech in no position to save in the first half, the victory could have been a rout.
There has been plenty to disappoint Spurs fans this season: a pitiful European campaign (which also seemed to fatally damage league form in the fall), another FA Cup semifinal defeat and, probably, another near miss in the title race. Yet the league table after Sunday’s game shows that this season is already a success.
With four games left, Tottenham has 77 points, five more than it has ever collected in a 38-game season. Given its huge advantage in goal difference over the teams behind it, Tottenham is assured of a top-four finish and needs just one more point to be certain of finishing second for the first time since 1963. Perhaps most symbolically significant is that the victory means it must finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1995. Spurs have been in a position to do that several times in recent years, only to implode in the home stretch. This team does not look like cracking.
The domination was so total on Sunday that when Jan Vertonghen, the Tottenham center back, delivered the most damning possible verdict on the Arsenal players, it seemed that he was merely pointing out an obvious truth.
“We wanted it more than them,” Vertonghen told Sky Sports.
The victory on Sunday suggested that even if Spurs do not catch Chelsea, they have learned to survive disappointment.
ROLLING ON If Chelsea was going to hit a bump in the road on its promenade to the Premier League title it seemed most likely to come at Goodison, where Everton had lost only once in the league all season, by a solitary goal to Liverpool in December.
Instead, Chelsea rolled over Everton like a tank, winning, 3-0.
When Dominic Calvert-Lewin hit a Chelsea post after three minutes, it seems as if the Toffees might prove sticky. After that Chelsea’s defense was impenetrable. Romelu Lukaku, the league’s top scorer who is reportedly hankering for a return to Chelsea, huffed and puffed but failed his audition.
Everton tried imitating the tactic successfully adopted by Manchester United a couple of weeks ago and man-marking Eden Hazard. This time the Belgian, as great players do, solved the problem. He escaped his would-be jailer, Idrissa Gueye, almost at will. Chelsea threatened in the first half, but did not break the deadlock until Pedro flashed a long-range shot past Maarten Stekelenburg in the 65th minute. It was the sort of moment of genius that Chelsea spends the big money to buy.
After that Chelsea picked Everton off at will.
With four games to go, Chelsea still leads Tottenham by four points. A couple of slips might still cost the Blues the title, but on Sunday, it did not look like a team that is going to falter.
LIMPING TO THE FINISH Four days after playing out a goal-less local derby of miserable mediocrity, the Manchester clubs resumed their battle for the fourth place neither seems to much want.
United was fortunate to draw 1-1 at home to Swansea On Sunday. Manchester City, meanwhile, needed a generous penalty as it came from behind twice to earn a 2-2 draw away to dire Middlesbrough.
United has some excuses. It has a Europa League semifinal first leg on Thursday. It also lost two more defenders to injury, the luckless Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly. Bailly was the last center back standing at Old Trafford and United finished the match with a back four made up entirely of specialist fullbacks. The greater problem, as do often at Old Trafford in the league this season was at the other end of the field
City remains in fourth, which brings a berth in Champions League qualification. It is still a point ahead of its neighbor. Yet Pep Guardiola’s first season is petering out in the same way that Manuel Pellegrino’s last season did, with City subsiding once its chances of winning the league, or another cup, died. On Sunday, it dominated possession, as it does, but Middlesbrough managed more shots on target.
The one ray of sunshine for the Manchester clubs was that the two teams below them, Arsenal and Everton both lost. The battle for the fourth prize is between them, if they can be bothered.
GOOD POINT, BAD POINT Normally, a team fighting relegation would be happy to eke out a draw away to Manchester United, yet Swansea could have been forgiven for leaving Old Trafford on Sunday with a sense of disappointment as well as a point.
Swansea became the eight visitor to draw, 1-1, at the Theater of Snores this season. Yet it could have done better. It wasted several good chances in the first half and an excellent one in the final minutes.
Like the other two teams battling to escape the drop, Hull and Middlesbrough, Swansea was hit with a harsh penalty. At the end of a first half Swansea had dominated, Lukas Fabianski recklessly hurled himself at Marcus Rashford’s feet but then withdrew his arms. The United striker, swung out a leg to catch the goalie and trip himself up. Wayne Rooney converted. Swansea could feel sorry for itself.
It was less impressive in the second half, but levelled with a sumptuous free kick from Gylfi Sigurdsson.
For a second straight week, Swansea was impressive. Yet once again, it gained no ground on the team it needs to catch, Hull, or the team it must keep clear of, Middlesbrough. Both also followed victories in their previous games with draws this weekend.
For Swansea, a draw at Old Trafford may turn out to have been a crucial missed opportunity.
GOING DOWN Two events 275 miles and a few seconds apart on Saturday ended Sunderland’s stressful 10-year run in the Premier League.
In the 88th minute at the Stadium of Light, Josh King tapped in to give visiting Bournemouth a 1-0 victory. Then, in the 90th minute at Southampton, Eldin Jakupovic saved a penalty from Dusan Tadic to earn Hull a 0-0 draw. Hull had a point, Sunderland did not and that meant that, with four games to go, Sunderland knew that this time it could not escape.
Sunderland only managed to reach 40 points three times in that decade, and only finished in the top half once, when it was 10th in 2011. In the six years since then the club has changed managers at least once during each season. It has fought stressful relegation battles in the last five. Its heart finally gave out this time.
Sunderland produces young talent but there has been no sign of any long-term planning. The future was always the next game. It is telling that the team on Saturday was anchored in defense by John O’Shea, who is 36, and led in attack by Jermaine Defoe, 34.
David Moyes showed at Everton that he can construct a solid Premier League side, but after his failures at Manchester United, Real Socidedad and now Sunderland he may now be scarred goods. This squad needs a lot of work and it is hard to build for the Premier League team while trying to beat Championship teams. And time will be scarce. Relegated clubs have two years to rebound before the two-year parachute payments for relegated teams run out.
Soon, Sunderland fans may look back at their decade of suffering as a golden age.