Premier League hits and misses: Man City’s title charge starts here, Liverpool reminded of levels, Spurs bemoan VAR


2:59 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win against Liverpool in the Premier League.

There were fireworks heard early on for the champions around the Etihad, but the only fireworks on the pitch were going off around Liverpool’s goalmouth. It was four, but it could have been eight.

City were simply outstanding in the middle and final third against the newly-crowned title winners, the perfect way to wipe the slate clean as they look to win the Premier League back next term. Don’t be thinking these psychological boosts won’t have an impact for the coming season.

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Ironically, City’s downfalls this season were actually evident early on; a defensive line sitting too high, zig-zagged in shape and welcoming to Liverpool’s front three. They came close to falling behind, but looked miles ahead at the other end of the pitch.

There are tangible things City need to keep up a title challenge next season. The first is a leader at the back, a conductor for a defence that so often crumbles when faced with a counter attack. That’s been missing since Vincent Kompany’s departure.

The second is to keep Sergio Aguero fit. Even in a 4-0 win, Gabriel Jesus was lukewarm; City can opt for no striker, such is the attacking talent of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and even Phil Foden. But the Argentine’s condition will be key to their success again.

Liverpool’s success, by whatever margin, does not mean the end of this City side. Far from it. They look as blistering as ever in at least two-thirds of their game. Next season’s title race is likely to be epic.
Gerard Brand

Liverpool reminded of the relentless levels they need to be at

3:59 Jurgen Klopp insists his team’s attitude was not the reason for Liverpool’s 4-0 defeat to Manchester City.

It was so strange to see. The always reliable Andy Robertson, rash, out of position, exposed. The rising talent Joe Gomez, twisted up, clumsy, losing his man. Trent Alexander-Arnold inaccurate with the ball, Mohamed Salah wasteful, Sadio Mane off target.

The previously relentless consistency of these Liverpool champions made their off night at the Etihad feel odd to watch. “We didn’t behave like somebody who became champions a week ago,” insisted Jurgen Klopp as he defended the attitude of his players. But something was missing, the edge wasn’t as sharp.

And those small percentages matter against a force like Man City. Pep Guardiola’s side are 20 points behind Liverpool but they’re not really. This brilliant, hungry team will come back strongly next season in the Premier League.

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On one hand this was a reminder to Liverpool of the power city possess. But perhaps this was also a reminder to the Liverpool players of the standards they’ve been at during this campaign. Those slip-ups at the Etihad just won’t have felt right.

Defending the Premier League title has proven to be a huge challenge for champions over the past decade. Perhaps one advantage of Liverpool winning this one so early is they have a chance to reassess, refresh and be ready to go again.

Because as Thursday showed, they will need to be back to their best when 2020/2021 comes around to see off this City side again. The journey to rediscover that level begins now…
Peter Smith

Handball law exposed by VAR

2:58 FREE TO WATCH: Sheffield United punish Spurs after VAR controversy

When Jose Mourinho said in February that he wished he could go straight to July, this was not what he had in mind. A 3-1 away defeat to Sheffield United that leaves Spurs back below the Blades down in ninth spot. Here, they were also cursing their misfortune.

Harry Kane appeared to have equalised in the first half only for Lucas Moura to be adjudged to have been ‘guilty’ – if that is the word – of a handball in the build-up to the strike. In fact, he was pushed to the ground before the ball ricocheted off him into Kane’s path.

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VAR was the subject of supporters’ ire on social media but its main problem is that it is exposing the flaws in football’s laws. Any contact with the hand of an attacker means the goal cannot stand. That is the law but the law is not satisfactory in this instance.

“I get the letter of the law but we have to show common sense,” Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports. “You can see that it is an obvious foul and it has ricocheted off his arm. That is a horrendous decision. One of the worst decisions that I have ever seen.”

The calls for common sense are understandable but common sense and consistency are not necessarily compatible. VAR is applying the law with rigour, accuracy and every single time. It just so happens that this law does not fit with the idea of what many deem to be just.

“So many of these decisions contravene the spirit of the game but the law is the law,” said Andy Hinchcliffe on co-commentary for Sky Sports. “If you don’t like the law then change the law.” It is a thought. But it will be little comfort to Tottenham supporters right now.
Adam Bate

Blades return to form in style

What a response from Sheffield United. Just as their spectacular season seemed in danger of ending with a whimper, they produced one of their most emphatic victories of the campaign in storming to a 3-1 victory over Tottenham at Bramall Lane.

There have been some special displays on their return to the Premier League and how the fans would love to have seen this one up close. But this was a result to remind everyone that their success owes as much to organisation and quality as it does to atmosphere.

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Disciplined in defence, tactically aware, and with energy in midfield, here they also showed the cutting edge in front of goal that had been lacking since the restart.

After not scoring in their three previous games – despite Orjan Nyland carrying the ball over the line against Aston Villa – they got the better of Spurs on three occasions. This is only the third game all season in which Sheffield United have found the net that many times.

How heartening this return to form must be for Chris Wilder. He has appeared frustrated of late and left two spaces on his bench vacant here – a reminder of the resources with which he is working – but this win lifts his side back up to seventh. The European dream is alive.
Adam Bate

Future is bright with Fernandes

3:01 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United’s win against Brighton.

It had been a testing week for Manchester United, seeing eternal rivals Liverpool end their 30-year wait to be crowned champions of England. But in the seven seasons since United’s last title triumph, there’s a case for this being the best, or at the very least, the least worst, for Liverpool to finally get over the line.

Imagine how much more painful Liverpool’s coronation would have been had United been languishing in seventh under David Moyes, stuttering under Louis van Gaal or imploding under Jose Mourinho.

Instead, Liverpool’s confirmation was greeted with another reminder of the upward trajectory Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s transformation has taken since the turn of the year, or, perhaps more accurately, since Bruno Fernandes arrived at the club.

January signings aren’t supposed to hit the ground running, as we’re told time and time again, they need time to settle. Well, Fernandes has dispelled that belief, as Brighton will testify.

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After years questioning the style of play at Old Trafford, the sight of Fernandes doubling his tally at the Amex Stadium with an emphatic volley at the end of a vintage counter was as cathartic a moment as any Manchester United have produced this season.

The Portuguese has brought an arrogance back on the pitch and belief off it that these testing times will pass sooner rather than later.
Jack Wilkinson

Hammers hope after dramatic win

2:56 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham’s win against Chelsea.

When Tomas Soucek’s first-half goal was ruled out by VAR, West Ham fans must have been feeling a familiar mix of frustration and despair. For the second game running they’d been on the wrong end of a controversial VAR call – the video refs had missed a handball in the build-up to Soucek’s own goal in the defeat at Tottenham last time out.

But the West Ham players impressively refused to be distracted or downhearted by the decision, even when Willian rubbed salt in the wounds with his penalty moments later.

Soucek got the better of Cesar Azpilicueta a second time to level things up and the standout Michail Antonio slotted in a second. Even when Willian pulled one back with a fine free-kick West Ham refused to lie down, with Antonio sending Andriy Yarmolenko clear to hit the winner.

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That strike sealed a huge three points for the Hammers. Finally their brutal run of fixtures – which has seen them up against the Premier League’s heavyweights week after week either side of lockdown – is over. Next up is Newcastle, Burnley, Norwich and Watford.

Far from easy – especially given Newcastle and Burnley’s form – but they are fixtures where West Ham will have hope of stretching that new three-point cushion on the relegation places even further.
Peter Smith

2:05 James Collins and Ashley Cole analyse the controversial VAR decision to rule out West Ham defender Tomas Soucek’s opener against Chelsea.

Chelsea talented but lacking consistency

When Chelsea went on a six-game winning streak from September to November, it looked as though, after a shaky start, the Frank Lampard era was about to take off. But since that run, Chelsea have managed back-to-back wins just once – and their defeat at West Ham on Wednesday, which ended their three-game winning streak, summed up the frustrating inconsistency they’ve shown all season.

On one hand, there was the brilliance of Christian Pulisic and the fine finishing of Willian. On the other, there was repeated vulnerability at set-pieces (with captain Cesar Azpilicueta a surprise culprit) and a missing edge to the team’s mentality, which has resulted in them dropping more points from leading positions this season than everyone bar West Ham and Aston Villa.

2:41 Chelsea boss Frank Lampard says he’s frustrated by his team’s lack of consistency following their 3-2 defeat to West Ham.

Yes, this is a young, developing side. Yes, there have been transfer restrictions. And yes, there are exciting times ahead with new arrivals on the way. But Chelsea missed a chance of stepping up to third, they are now looking over their shoulders, and their battle for a Champions League qualifying spot will go right down to the wire.

They’ve shown – particularly in their recent win over Manchester City – they have the capability. But now they must master the consistent application.
Peter Smith

Auba inspires Arsenal but what’s next?

2:59 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal’s win against Norwich.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was in typically ruthless form for Arsenal on Wednesday night, twice pouncing on Norwich errors to take his goal tally to 22 in all competitions this season and pass a Premier League landmark in the process.

With his opener, he reached 50 Premier League goals in what was his 79th appearance, making him the fastest Arsenal player to reach the milestone – it took the great Thierry Henry 83 – and the sixth-fastest in the competition’s history behind only Andy Cole, Alan Shearer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Fernando Torres and Mohamed Salah.

It places him in esteemed company and it is just the latest reminder of how important it is for Arsenal to tie him down to a new contract. The 31-year-old is entering the final year of his current deal at the Emirates Stadium, meaning a departure is all but certain this summer if he can’t be tempted to commit his future to the club.

4:44 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang became the fastest Arsenal player in history to score 50 Premier League goals, achieving the landmark in his 79th appearance for the Gunners. Here’s a selection of his best league goals for the club.

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Quite how Arsenal would replace him is unclear – he is their leader, remember, as well as their talisman and goalscorer – but Mikel Arteta still hopes they won’t have to.

“He is willing to stay with us,” the Gunners boss said in his post-match press conference. “Auba knows really well what my thoughts are towards him and the project that I want to create, and how much he is part of that. After that, it is not in my hands.”

Will the Arsenal hierarchy present Aubameyang with the contract offer he feels he deserves? Or will he opt to leave the club in order to secure Champions League football elsewhere? Arsenal are showing signs of progress under Arteta, but Aubameyang’s exit would set them back again.
Nick Wright

Remember the Newcastle debacle at Goodison Park? None of that on Wednesday night. Carlo Ancelotti could be taking Everton on a European tour when he was more concerned about keeping them out of a relegation battle when he first arrived in December.

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They’re now on their longest unbeaten run in four years, looking unusually solid at the back, and should have scored more than the three goals they’ve managed since the restart.

Only a few points off a Europa League spot with six games to go, you’d be a brave man to bet against them now.
Ron Walker

2:42 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Everton’s win against Leicester.

Foxes look nervously over their shoulders

If 2019 was a good year for Leicester, 2020 doesn’t look likely to follow suit so far. One win from their last eight games and a woeful defensive display at Goodison Park on Wednesday puts more pressure on their hopes of Champions League qualification, which only a few games ago seemed perfectly assured.

The stats make for grim reading. When Jamie Vardy doesn’t score, Leicester rarely win. With two goals for their talisman this calendar year, perhaps it’s no surprise things have gone pear-shaped. Another blank against Everton added to that unwelcome record.

Leicester’s form is now among the worst in the division. Manchester United and Wolves, who both can’t stop winning, trail them by two points. Getting Leicester into the Champions League would’ve seemed a major achievement for Brendan Rodgers at the start of the season, but throwing it away now would be significant too.
Ron Walker

Bournemouth fighting a losing battle

Eddie Howe conceded he was in no position to “sugar-coat” the scoreline after Bournemouth’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Newcastle.

The perilous position Bournemouth find themselves in isn’t for sugar-coating either. Bereft of confidence, riddled with mistakes, the Cherries are a shadow of their former selves and are plummeting towards the Championship at a rate that looks unstoppable.

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An eighth defeat in 11 games saw them drop to second bottom in the Premier League, a point from safety with another team now edging out of reach after West Ham’s dramatic late win over Chelsea.

There is still time for Bournemouth, six games to be precise, but with Manchester United, Tottenham, Leicester and Manchester City their next four opponents they’re going to have to conjure up a survival run that would rank among the very best in Premier League history.

At this very moment, though, it’s a struggle to see where that will come from. Howe looks deflated and out of ideas, with the battle seemingly already lost.
Jack Wilkinson

2:50 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Newcastle’s win at Bournemouth.

Allan the main man for Newcastle

Allan Saint-Maximin became only the third Newcastle player in the Premier League history to register three assists in a single game as the Magpies swept sorry Bournemouth aside.

That impressive stat, and the man of the match award, were just reward for yet another sensational attacking display packed full of speed, purpose and, most crucially, end product.

Steve Bruce is getting in tune with his players, and a performance that produced some of the best football of his tenure at the club was further proof of that. Newcastle are heading up the league thanks to Saint-Maximin, who is in a league of his own.
Jack Wilkinson


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