MANCHESTER, England â€” 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.
No need to worry.
United defied the absence of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic â€” and fatigue because of its hectic fixture schedule â€” 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.
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.
Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s three games:
MIDDLESBROUGH 1, MANCHESTER UNITED 3
There were two noteworthy goals from United â€” Jesse Lingard’s spectacular 25-meter strike and Antonio Valencia’s injury-time walk-in after a slip from Middlesbrough goalkeeper Victor Valdes â€” 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.
“The Europa League gives us the same, gives us Champions League football, but gives us a trophy, gives us prestige, gives us a European Super Cup,” Mourinho said.
TOTTENHAM 2, SOUTHAMPTON 1
Son Heung-min started up front in place of Kane but it was Eriksen and Alli who delivered.
Eriksen drove home the opening goal from the edge of the area in the 14th minute and Alli converted a penalty in the 33rd after he tumbled under Steven Davis’ challenge following a series of poor clearances by Southampton.
James Ward-Prowse celebrated his call-up to the England squad with a 52nd-minute reply for Southampton.
MANCHESTER CITY 1, LIVERPOOL 1
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.
Guardiola said his players had been “so, so sad” in training this week after City’s elimination from the Champions League by Monaco on Wednesday. A defeat to Liverpool four days later would have been particularly damaging to morale.
City needed a 69th-minute equalizer from Sergio Aguero to prevent Liverpool from collecting a sixth win this season over a rival from the top six.
James Milner, a former City player, put Liverpool ahead from the penalty spot in the 51st and both teams spurned great chances in a riveting final 20 minutes as they went on all-out attack.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press