By MATTIAS KAREN
LONDON (AP) — After sleeping in late, Marcus Rashford helped Manchester United come awake in the Premier League. Manchester City couldn’t find a similar spark as its title defense took another stumble despite Erling Haaland scoring yet again.
Rashford was dropped to the bench for disciplinary reasons after being late for a team meeting but responded by coming off the bench to give a sluggish United side the spark it needed, scoring the only goal in United’s 1-0 win at Wolverhampton on Saturday.
It was enough to lift United into the top four for the first time this season, with Erik ten Hag’s side ending the year on a high after three straight wins.
Another goal from Haaland wasn’t enough to prevent second-place Man City from dropping more points, however, as the defending champions were held to a 1-1 draw by Everton thanks to a stunning equalizer from Demarai Gray. That gives Arsenal a chance to stretch its lead to seven points when it plays at Brighton in the game, having also seen third-place Newcastle held to a 0-0 draw by Leeds.
Ten Hag’s decision to drop Rashford looked to have backfired as United struggled in attack, but the England forward came on after halftime and scored a well-taken goal in the 76th minute. And, unlike Cristiano Ronaldo earlier in the season, he had no problems with the manager’s decision.
“I was a little bit late for a meeting. I slept in, overslept, but it can happen,” Rashford said. “I’m obviously disappointed not to play but I understand the decision and I’m happy we managed to win the game anyway. I think we can draw a line under it and move on.”
Ten Hag also seemed ready to move on, having seen once again how important Rashford is to his team’s attack.
“Everyone has to match the standards and rules. We have to have consequences and it is what I expect on the pitch. He gave the right answer,” Ten Hag said of Rashford. “I was not satisfied with the performance in the first half. We have to be more clinical and we know Rashy can score the goals and that’s what he did.”
Rashford netted his 11th goal of the season after he collected the ball on the left before cutting inside and swapping passes with Bruno Fernandes, then dribbled his way past two defenders to sweep it past goalkeeper Jose Sa.
It was a rare bit of quality for United, with striker Anthony Martial and winger Antony both struggling to make an impact. But after a terrible start to the season, United has now lost just one of its last 15 games since a humiliating 6-3 derby loss to Manchester City in October. And with the Ronaldo saga finally concluded — the Portugal star joined Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr on Friday after being released by United in November — Ten Hag’s team looks ready to challenge for a Champions League place again.
“It’s the first time we are in the top four,” Ten Hag said. “But it means nothing because it’s a long way to go.”
Fulham climbed to seventh place with a 2-1 win over Southampton, while Crystal Palace earned a 2-0 victory at Bournemouth.
Haaland seemed to have made the difference for City once again when Riyad Mahrez slalomed his way through the area and pulled back for the Norway striker, who finished clinically on the turn for his 21st league goal.
But Gray responded for Everton when he burst into the area, held the ball up — and nearly slipped in the process — before curling a sublime effort inside the far post just after the hour.
“Dropping points at home is always tough but I’m always trying to make our game good and we have continued to do it,” City manager Pep Guardiola said. “They made a fantastic goal and when that happens you say congratulations but in general we did really well.”
NEWCASTLE STREAK ENDS
Newcastle was on a run of six straight Premier League wins but couldn’t find a way past Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier.
Defender Fabian Schar had the best chances but wasted three good opportunities as Leeds held firm to end a two-game losing streak.
“The desire was there, the quality was there but the finishing wasn’t there. We had a number of opportunities that normally we take,” Newcastle manager Eddie Howe said.
Still, he called 2022 “a year of real progress” as the team is fighting for a top-four finish under its new Saudi ownership.
“There are big challenges ahead but we look forward to those,” Howe said.
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