WITH their top strikers absent, there were concerns that Manchester United and Tottenham could stumble in their push for Champions League qualification from the English Premier League (EPL).
No need to worry.
United defied the absence of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic — and fatigue because of its hectic fixture schedule — to beat relegation-threatened Middlesbrough 3-1 away in a match that ended with player bust-ups on and off the field.
Tottenham has lost top scorer Harry Kane for up to five weeks because of injury and the team’s attacking midfielders stepped up to fill the void, with Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli scoring in a 2-1 win over Southampton. It was Spurs’ 10th straight victory at home in the league.
With Manchester City and Liverpool drawing 1-1 in an end-to-end game of numerous chances at Etihad Stadium, the race to finish in the top four behind likely champion Chelsea is too close to call.
Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola said it was “one of the happiest days of my career as a manager” after seeing his team fight back to salvage a point against a direct rival for the top four.
Tottenham is in second place, 10 points behind Chelsea and two points ahead of City. Liverpool is a point further back in fourth and four clear of fifth-placed United, which has two games in hand.
United has finished each of the last 19 weeks in sixth place in the Premier League, but finally climbed a spot with its win at the Riverside Stadium. Arsenal, which lost 3-1 at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, has slipped to sixth place.
There were two noteworthy goals from United — Jesse Lingard’s spectacular 25-meter strike and Antonio Valencia’s injury-time walk-in after a slip from Middlesbrough goalkeeper Victor Valdes — but they were overshadowed by bust-ups on and off the field around the final whistle.
In stoppage time, just before Valencia settled the result, tempers flared when Middlesbrough’s Rudy Gestede and United’s Eric Bailly grappled with each other. Players from both teams piled in. The pushing and shoving continued in the tunnel after the match, with Bailly and teammate Ashley Young looking particularly aggrieved.
Marouane Fellaini opened the scoring for United, which won despite Jose Mourinho fielding a weakened team missing Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and playing after competing in the Europa League on Thursday night.
After weeks of chasing, the top four is suddenly in sight for United, although Mourinho said he would prefer to secure Champions League qualification by winning the Europa League.