United stumbles at Newcastle, Salah shines for Liverpool
Another stumble at St. James’ Park for Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Another goal in an extraordinary season for Liverpool sensation Mohamed Salah.
With a surprising 1-0 loss to Newcastle on Sunday, United ceded some of the initiative in the race for second place in the Premier League and left its manager cursing the “gods of football” on his latest fruitless trip to the northeast.
That’s seven league games without a win for Mourinho at Newcastle, six of which came as Chelsea coach.
Worse was to follow for Mourinho, with Liverpool winning 2-0 at Southampton to trim the gap to second-placed United to two points with 11 games left.
Salah was again the star turn, setting up strike partner Roberto Firmino before scoring himself to make it 22 goals in his debut season for Liverpool. One goal behind Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Salah could yet head to his first World Cup with Egypt as the Premier League’s top scorer.
It looks like being a four-way battle for the three Champions League qualification places behind champion-elect Manchester City, which retained its 16-point lead thanks to United’s slip-up.
Tottenham is two points behind Liverpool in fourth place and Chelsea is two points further back in fifth, with its game in hand against West Bromwich Albion on Monday.
In the other game Sunday, Huddersfield collected its first league win in nearly two months by beating Bournemouth 4-1 to climb out of the relegation zone.
Paul Pogba’s position in Man United’s team is up for debate following the arrival of Alexis Sanchez and the France international had another underwhelming match in center midfield alongside Nemanja Matic.
Pogba lasted 66 minutes before being substituted, seconds after Matt Ritchie put Newcastle ahead. He appeared to be feeling an injury in the warmup and was seen walking gingerly after the match, although Mourinho said there was no problem with the player.
Pogba was also taken off midway through the second half of United’s 2-0 loss at Tottenham on Jan. 31, before being dropped for the victory over Huddersfield last weekend. It is becoming a dilemma for Mourinho as he tries to accommodate Sanchez.
Ritchie’s goal came from a free kick awarded after United defender Chris Smalling was booked for diving. From the set piece, the ball was nodded down to Dwight Gayle, whose flick was met with a first-time finish by Ritchie.
Sanchez squandered United’s best chance, delaying his finish after rounding the goalkeeper and then seeing his shot blocked by sprawling defender Florian Lejeune.
VAN DIJK’S RETURN
“I enjoyed it today,” said Liverpool center back Virgil van Dijk, with a smirk. No surprise there.
Van Dijk was booed on his every touch on his first return to Southampton since moving to Liverpool in late December for $100 million, making him the world’s most expensive defender.
He didn’t put a foot wrong, seemingly thriving in the atmosphere. Salah was accomplished at the other end, too.
Salah passed the ball across for Firmino to finish with a first-time shot in the sixth minute for 1-0. Firmino returned the favor in the 42nd, playing Salah through with a deft flick and the Egyptian made no mistake from a central position 12 meters out.
TERRIERS HIT 4
Huddersfield ended its run of five straight losses in style.
Striker Steve Mounie set up Alex Pritchard for the opening goal for Huddersfield and then scored himself after Junior Stanislas had equalized for Bournemouth. A shot from Mounie was deflected into the net off Steve Cook for 3-1, before Rajiv van La Parra converted an injury-time penalty to seal the victory.
Huddersfield jumped to 17th place and was replaced in the bottom three by Southampton.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80