Cham­pi­ons League places look set in Eng­land


Manch­ester City’s dis­ap­point­ing sea­son looks like end­ing with the con­so­la­tion prize of Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion af­ter an un­con­vinc­ing win over As­ton Villa opened a nine-point gap to the fad­ing chasers for the English Pre­mier League’s top four on Satur­day.

An 89th-minute goal by Fer­nand­inho earned City a 3-2 victory that moved the soon-to-be­de­posed cham­pi­ons pro­vi­sion­ally into sec­ond place — above Ar­se­nal and Manch­ester United, who both play on Sun­day. More im­por­tantly, City was nine points ahead of fifth-place Liver­pool and six­th­place Tot­ten­ham with four games re­main­ing af­ter their draws.

Liver­pool drew 0-0 at West Bromwich Al­bion, and Spurs twice came from be­hind to draw 2- 2 at Southamp­ton. For two teams look­ing to reel in what in­creas­ingly ap­pears a locked-in top four, a point isn’t enough at this stage.

“It’ll be very dif­fi­cult now,” said Liver­pool manager Bren­dan Rodgers, whose team was run­ner-up last sea­son.

Le­ices­ter and Hull en­joyed sig­nif­i­cant away wins at the bot­tom of the stand­ings, drop­ping Sun­der­land into the rel­e­ga­tion zone in what looks like a fight to the fi­nal day for sur­vival.

Wat­ford sealed pro­mo­tion to the Pre­mier League af­ter an eightyear ab­sence by guar­an­tee­ing a top-two fin­ish in the sec­ond-tier League Cham­pi­onship with a 2-0 win at Brighton.

City se­cured a fifth straight home win by edg­ing past Villa, but its per­for­mance against a side strug­gling to avoid rel­e­ga­tion again un­der­lined the cham­pi­ons’ re­gres­sion.

Ser­gio Aguero’s third-minute opener — fol­low­ing a goal­keep­ing er­ror by Brad Guzan — and a 66th-minute free kick by Alek­san­dar Ko­larov should have seen City coast to victory.

How­ever, the swag­ger of last sea­son has gone, and goals by Tom Clev­er­ley and Car­los Sanchez — both fol­low­ing mis­judg­ments by City goal­keeper Joe Hart — drew Villa level by the 85th.

There was still time for a City cor­ner to drift through a crowded penalty box to mid­fielder Fer­nand­inho, who chested the ball down be­fore find­ing the net from eight me­ters.

“It was one of our worst games in pos­ses­sion,” un­der- pres­sure City manager Manuel Pel­le­grini said. “It was strange to see the im­por­tant num­ber of passes we lost.”

Liver­pool failed to mark Steven Ger­rard’s 500th league ap­pear­ance for the club with a victory at The Hawthorns, with Jor­don Ibe go­ing clos­est when his de­flected shot hit the goal frame.

There was more en­ter­tain­ment at St. Mary’s Sta­dium, where Tot­ten­ham manager Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino re­turned for the first time since leav­ing Southamp­ton last sum­mer.

Southamp­ton twice took the lead through Graziano Pelle, but goals from Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli kept Spurs a point above their op­po­nents.

With the ti­tle race and the fight for Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion vir­tu­ally wrapped up, the battle to avoid rel­e­ga­tion looks like go­ing to the fi­nal day.

The big­gest game at the bot­tom of the stand­ings came at Turf Moor, where Le­ices­ter scraped a huge win in a match that turned on two in­ci­dents that oc­curred in the space of 60 sec­onds.

Af­ter Matt Tay­lor struck a penalty against the post for Burn­ley, Le­ices­ter went down the other end on a coun­ter­at­tack that ended with Jamie Vardy tap­ping in a re­bound af­ter goal­keeper Tom Heaton pre­vented a cross from be­ing de­flected into his net.

From be­ing ap­par­ent cer­tain­ties for the drop a month ago, Le­ices­ter’s stunning run has al­lowed it to climb out of the bot­tom three, a point above Sun­der­land. Burn­ley is last and five points be­hind Le­ices­ter.

Sun­der­land dropped into the rel­e­ga­tion zone by drawing 1-1 at Stoke af­ter fail­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on go­ing ahead af­ter 59 sec­onds through Con­nor Wick­ham. Char­lie Adam equal­ized for Stoke in the 27th.

Queens Park Rangers stayed next to last, four points from safety, af­ter drawing at home to West Ham. Char­lie Austin had a penalty saved for QPR.

Hull’s sur­vival chances im­proved thanks to a 2-0 win at Crys­tal Palace, with striker Dame N’Doye scor­ing twice in the sec­ond half.

Also in the Pre­mier League, Swansea con­signed New­cas­tle to a club record of seven straight league de­feats by win­ning 3-2 at St James’ Park.

Tran­mere Rovers was rel­e­gated from the fourth tier and into the non-leagues for the first time in 94 years af­ter a loss at Ply­mouth.

Ev­ery match in Eng­land was pre­ceded by a one-minute’s si­lence to honor the 56 peo­ple who died in a fire at Brad­ford City’s Val­ley Pa­rade sta­dium in May 1985. The 30th-an­niver­sary trib­ute co­in­cided with Brad­ford’s fi­nal home game of the sea­son in the third tier.

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