A tough week for Manchester City and Tottenham, two of the rebel clubs in the aborted Super League project, got even more difficult when they fell behind on their return to Premier League action.
Both teams recovered to register vital wins and leave them in good spirits for their next match — their meeting at Wembley Stadium for the English League Cup final on Sunday.
City fought back from conceding a goal after just 20 seconds to beat Aston Villa 2-1 and move 11 points clear in its march to a third league title in four years. A maximum of eight points are needed by Pep Guardiola's team from its final five games.
Each side had a man sent off at Villa Park, with City defender John Stones' straight red card for a reckless lunge late in the first half ruling him out for three matches — starting with the cup final.
Tottenham needed a 90th-minute penalty from Son Heung-min to clinch a 2-1 victory over Southampton and close to within two points of fourth-place Chelsea in the race for Champions League qualification.
It was a great way for Ryan Mason to start his interim tenure as manager, as the replacement for the fired Jose Mourinho. At 29 years, 312 days, Mason became the youngest person to manage a team in a Premier League game, a proud moment for the former Tottenham midfielder who was forced to retire in 2018 after failing to fully recover from a fractured skull sustained during an FA Cup match.
They were the first games for City and Tottenham since they were pressured into withdrawing from a breakaway Super League which they had formed with 10 of Europe's other elite clubs.
A small band of supporters protested outside Tottenham's stadium ahead of match against Southampton, calling for the removal of chairman Daniel Levy and the club's owners, the ENIC Group.
With City losing to Leeds in its last league game and second-place Manchester United winning its last five league games, the gap between the local rivals was down to eight points.
“Losing today would have been dangerous in the last games, for sure,” Guardiola said.
“United is in top form and I have the feeling if they need to win, they are going to win."
City was also coming off a loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinals, ruining its bid for an unprecedented quadruple, so Guardiola knew the importance of the Villa match and fielded his strongest available team.
Phil Foden stood out, the 20-year-old England forward canceling out John McGinn's very early opener for Villa by scoring the equalizer with a volley at the end of a flowing team move involving Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva.
Rodri glanced in Bernardo's deft cross for what proved to be the winner in the 40th.
Stones' red card, for a late and high lunge on Jacob Ramsey, left City vulnerable but Matty Cash picked up two yellow cards in a three-minute span — both for fouls on Foden — to make it a 10-a-side game from the 57th.
“He's been decisive in the final third and he's playing so good," Guardiola said of Foden.
"Right now he's a really important player for us.”
Guardiola said the injury Kevin De Bruyne sustained against Chelsea on Sunday was “less than expected” and that the midfielder could make the cup final.
TIGHT TOP-FOUR RACE
Tottenham climbed into sixth place with the win over Southampton and the fight for the two Champions League qualification places behind City and United looks fierce. Just three points separate Leicester in third from Liverpool in seventh.
Mason's decision to recall Gareth Bale for his first start in more than a month was rewarded when the Wales forward equalized with a curling shot into the top corner in the 60th, canceling out the opener by Danny Ings in the 30th.
Son had a goal disallowed because of an offside against teammate Lucas Moura, before getting handed a chance to win the game from the penalty spot after Sergio Reguilon was fouled just inside the area, thanks to a VAR check.
Son, taking penalties in the absence of the injured Harry Kane, sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.