Leicester and Sadio Mane heroic,
Liverpool and Newcastle villainous
Matchday 37 of the Premier League is nearly complete, so it's time to run the rule over the Heroes and Villains of the weekend.
What a way to end a season. On April 4, Leicester City were marooned at the bottom of the table with just 19 points. Six weeks later, survival has been ensured with another 19 points won from just eight games. If you ever play pool with Nigel Pearson and he starts giving away fouls, resist the temptation to put money on the game; it may be a trap. A combination of a late shift to a back three and continued belief in his players has proved critical, and while it would be hard to argue that he has remained cool and level-headed throughout, Pearson deserves great credit for this.
Dick Advocaat wasn't everyone's idea of a perfect firefighter for Sunderland, but this weekend's point was almost enough to put the blaze out for good. The Dutchman has been bold since his arrival, frequently fielding three strikers in a bid to galvanise a team that looked doomed under Gus Poyet. The recovery hasn't been as dramatic as the one at Leicester, and the Black Cats have certainly enjoyed a little luck along the way, but they've earned it. Advocaat's no-nonsense approach has paid dividends.
Sadio Mane might have looked like just another a tricksy, Nani-esque forward when he arrived but there's more to him than that. He's a terrier when he wants to be, he snaps at the ball, he hassles defenders, he's like a headache that won't go away. That's why he scored his record breaking hat trick against Aston Villa; because he was always there, looking to make something happen. In a way, he typifies Ronald Koeman's Southampton: underrated talent allied with ferocious desire. Robbie Fowler's record stood for 21 years. Mane's may never be beaten.
While everyone else argues about David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois, Joe Hart served notice of his right to belong in the "best goalkeeper" debate. A series of ridiculous saves kept Manchester City in Sunday's game against Swansea and prevented what might have been an embarrassing defeat. Hart has been excellent this season, head and shoulders above many of his teammates, and Manuel Pellegrini has no doubts over his merits. "He's the number one in England," said the Chilean boss. But he would say that, wouldn't he?
For reasons you can doubtless guess, this column has always valued commitment far more than it has talent and there's a special place in its heart for Phil Jones. Say what you like about his lack of natural grace, his failure to fulfill his potential or his face like a melted Picasso, you can't question that man's desire. With limbs skittering like a spaniel on a freshly polished floor, he never gave up his pursuit of the ball, boldly lowering his face to the turf in an unconventional attempt to bring it under control. We've been bandying the word "hero" about all season, but step forward, Phil. You've earned this.
It's very rare that a team can be obliterated 6-1 and still think of it as one of the most wonderful days of the season, but you can always count on Tim Sherwood to provide something a little different. If Arsene Wenger was watching Aston Villa on Saturday, he will have been laughing his head off and clearing a space in the trophy cabinet for another FA Cup. Though it was a day when other results secured their Premier League status, Sherwood's side were a shambles, easily intimidated by Southampton's pressing and far too quick to collapse when the goals began to fly in. Some of the defending was absolutely astonishing and not in a good way. Sherwood deserves great credit for saving Villa. Now he has to rebuild them.
A penalty in the final moments of a delicately poised clash at Anfield supplied most of the elements of a classic Steven Gerrard anecdote, with one crucial oversight: the penalty was awarded to Crystal Palace, not Liverpool. As farewell tours go, this one has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Gerrard has served his club well, but this year, his club have let him down. There was no title, no Champions League, not even a piddling FA Cup. A final chance to get one over Manchester United ended with a red card, the final Merseyside derby was a damp squib and the last appearance at Anfield ended in embarrassment. Frankly, you shudder to think what disaster awaits at Stoke next Sunday.
Newcastle may yet be saved by Hull City, who seem intent on hurling themselves into the abyss. Having capitulated at home to Burnley last weekend, they roused themselves against Tottenham but still fell short, losing 2-0. Hull are hardly one of the most glamorous names in English football but they did spend over £40 million last summer. Still, no pressure. All they have to do to survive is beat Manchester United next week. "I haven't beaten Man Utd in 17 years of management!" said manager Steve Bruce on Saturday. Oh dear.
It's not quite happening for Eliaquim Mangala. Manchester City's £42 million defender has endured a difficult first season in England; after recent improvements, he slipped back down against Swansea. He should have been culpable for a goal in the first half when he allowed Nathan Dyer to dispossess him. Joe Hart saved him that time. He was culpable for a goal in the second when he failed to reach Jazz Richards' cross. Manuel Pellegrini insisted that his young centre-back needs a season to settle. Next season, he'll need to step up.
All Newcastle United had to do to survive was hold onto a lead against Queens Park Rangers, the only misbegotten club in the Premier League that can hold a candle to the Magpies for their commitment to incompetence. But no, even that proved too much for John Carver's empty shirts. QPR are a shambles, a spectacular waste of a foolish man's fortune. So what on earth are Newcastle? Ordinarily, you'd look at a fixture like West Ham at home and barely give it a moment's thought. But life is far from ordinary at St. James' Park. Right now, you wouldn't back them to defeat the West Ham players' children.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.