Sunderland turn Premier League relegation race on its head
Out of the three teams looking to fight of relegation, Sunderland emerged as the big winners with their 3-2 comeback win against Chelsea. Meanwhile, Newcastle failed to make the most of their visit to Aston Villa in a 0-0 draw, while a lack of quality doomed Norwich City in a 1-0 loss to Manchester United.
Here are three thoughts from a pivotal Saturday in the fight to avoid relegation.
1. Defoe and Sunderland turn battle on its head
A thud of the right boot, a 15th league goal of the season, and Jermain Defoe had turned the relegation battle on its head. If Sunderland defeat Everton at home on Wednesday evening, they will stay up and consign bitter rivals Newcastle -- as well as 19th-placed Norwich City -- to the Championship, completing their latest great escape and perhaps the sweetest in what seems to be an interminable series of Houdini acts.
This was a testament to the resolve instilled by manager Sam Allardyce into a side that for so long has seemed bereft of hope. Diego Costa's 14th minute goal, converted neatly from an angle after the ball had broken kindly for him, was the worst possible start and it seemed vital that Sunderland responded before half-time.
They did with a moment of genius from Wahbi Khazri, who has blown hot and cold since his transfer from Bordeaux, but he scored possibly the goal of the season at the Stadium of Light. A shot hardly seemed on when he ran onto a defensive header beyond the left corner of the Chelsea box, but an astonishing first-time volley gave Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois no chance and breathed life into the Black Cats' hopes.
Or so it appeared. Nemanja Matic finished well just before the interval and it might have been easy for Sunderland to carry that disappointment into the second half. Instead, their men for the big occasion came up trumps again. First it was ex-Chelsea striker Fabio Borini, scorer of a winning penalty at Stamford Bridge as part of a season-saving run of goals two years ago, whose shot clipped John Terry before squirming past Courtois.
Defoe's winner 20 minutes from time, controlling just beyond the penalty spot and firing a trademark finish crisply into the corner, sent the crowd into raptures. The noise went another notch upon news of Newcastle's surprise stumble at Aston Villa, and upon full-time the roof was raised as -- completely against the odds at the start of the day -- survival went from possible to probable.
2. Newcastle waste their big opportunity
What a missed opportunity this was for Newcastle, and how severe the consequences are likely to be. This should have been the easiest test in a demanding end-of-season run that had been negotiated expertly by Rafa Benitez's side so far. Instead the Magpies toiled against a serially abject Aston Villa, missing second-half chances but hardly doing enough to win, and probably undoing all of the last seven weeks' improvement.
If anybody had expected the visitors to come out flying at Villa Park after Norwich's defeat, they were to be left nonplussed. A sterile opening period was, like Norwich's tussle with man United at Carrow Road, contested at a sluggish pace and short on genuine chances. Moussa Sissoko's tempting right-sided cross, 18 minutes in, was the first moment of genuine excitement, but Papiss Cisse was not on his toes to attack it.
Five minutes later, Cisse could not control a through ball from the impressive right-back Vurnon Anita, and the pair combined again later for a volley that the striker could only volley into the ground. The benefit of the doubt said that this was understandable patience from a side that has come on strongly in recent second-halves -- such as the 2-2 draw at Anfield a fortnight ago, when the Magpies came back from two goals down.
Jack Colback should have underlined that impression when he volleyed a clear chance over the crossbar from 10 yards out within a minute of the interval. That was as close as Newcastle had come, and Benitez sought a sharper edge when replacing the disappointing Cisse with Aleksandar Mitrovic shortly afterwards.
As the hour struck, Mitrovic spurned another excellent opportunity, lofting over Villa goalkeeper Mark Bunn but also a yard above the crossbar when Cheick Tiote's ball caught the Villa defence pushing out after a cleared free-kick. Holding midfielder Tiote was then replaced by Ayoze Perez as Benitez, sparked both by the urgency of the situation and the relative regularity with which chances were now arriving, went for the win.
Georginio Wijnaldum was denied well by Bunn almost immediately, before Mitrovic got about Ciaran Clark to loop a header wide. But the openings dried up despite six minutes of added time and Newcastle, so buoyant a week ago, may now find the chance to save their season has gone too.
3. Norwich going down with a whimper
Norwich are going down with a whimper. This was by no means the most damaging defeat of their Premier League season -- that honour probably goes to 3-0 humbling by Sunderland at Carrow Road three weeks ago -- but in the circumstances it was one of the most disappointing, an unusually flat performance rarely troubling a similarly low-key Manchester United.
The shortcomings are glaringly obvious. Had Cameron Jerome not headed a wonderful chance straight at United goalkeeper David De Gea after some excellent fourth-minute work from Nathan Redmond, Alex Neil's side would have got off to the perfect start against under-strength opponents who were there for the taking. Had Sebastien Bassong not got his bearings wrong when trying to clear a straightforward ball down the right channel, Wayne Rooney would not have been allowed to run clear and tee up Juan Mata's winner, and Norwich might at least have had an extra point to cling on to.
But that has been the story of the Canaries' season. Norwich often look a decent side, energetic and purposeful, even if those qualities generally deserted them on Saturday. They have, though, lacked badly at both ends of the pitch and it says plenty that their joint-top goalscorers, Redmond and Dieumerci Mbokani, have only five each. If there has been ill fortune in last month's injury to Timm Klose, the impressive Swiss centre-back who arrived in January and had begun to make a difference before damaging his knee ligaments, the lack of attention to their goalscoring problems has owed less to poor luck.
Only West Brom and Aston Villa have scored fewer goals than Norwich, whose centre-forward berth rotation ofJerome and Mbokani has had little positive effect. The limited impact of expensive winter buy Steven Naismith has not helped either, and it looks as if they will regret their inactivity last summer, when Neil admitted their recruitment structure "wasn't in a place where it should have been," and insufficient quality was added to the side.
That said; it is worth pointing out that Norwich were six points clear of the relegation places on Jan. 2, 20 games into the season. Their collapse since has been dramatic, picking up just eight points from the next 16 matches and losing their last four without scoring. It brings back memories of their last relegation, in 2013-14, when six defeats in their final seven games eroded a position of relative stability. The outcome will almost certainly be identical this time around.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.