Daniel Storey: Much to play for in ludicrous league season

Scott McTominay celebrates scoring United’s second against Manchester City at Old Trafford yesterday, boosting their hopes of a top-four finish. It has been such an unusual Premier League season, even Crystal Palace seem to be aiming for European football. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Scott McTominay celebrates scoring United’s second against Manchester City at Old Trafford yesterday, boosting their hopes of a top-four finish. It has been such an unusual Premier League season, even Crystal Palace seem to be aiming for European football. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Solskjaer earns bragging rights as City look limp

There’s something about watching Manchester City play well below their best that is frustrating to the point of making you angry. Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling failing to connect, Rodri too slow in midfield, and every member of the defence looking uncomfortable — it shouldn’t be like this. They have abdicated their league title through performances like these.

But then we must praise Manchester United, who had far more to play for, and capitalised on City’s ineffectiveness. Since the home defeat to Burnley, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has demanded more from his players, and they have delivered. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has kickstarted their season.

But a word too for Anthony Martial, who was thrust into the goalscoring spotlight after Marcus Rashford’s long-term injury. There were plenty of United fans who doubted the Frenchman’s ability to step up to that task, but he is quickly proving them wrong. His finish should have been saved by Ederson, but more impressive was the way he dropped deep to pick up the ball and link play. The split-striker role is not one that necessarily comes naturally to him, but he has made it work.

Arsenal have a shot at season redemption

These were three stolen points. David Moyes has a woeful record as a manager away at Big Six clubs, but he deserved far better at the Emirates. West Ham had three times as many shots on target as Arsenal, who were as stuttering and lethargic as they were against Olympiakos in the Europa League.

But Arsenal won, despite themselves. How often have we said of their teams in years past that they flattered to deceive but didn’t win, or were punished by a more clinical opposition? It’s a whacking great cliche, but getting over the line when performing poorly is a handy habit to pick up, and it’s not one Arsenal have been familiar with.

Arteta will not become an overnight sensation at Arsenal. It would not even be a good thing if that happened, for it would only paper over the cracks. The task of finally taking the club forward after the decline under Arsene Wenger and stagnation under Unai Emery will take time.

But there are signs of progress. Arteta has created a meritocracy where young players like Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah have as much chance to impress as the superstars, and he has quietly taken Arsenal on a run of seven league games without defeat. That allows the game in hand against Manchester City on Wednesday to be used as a free shot to get them right back into the race for the Champions League spots.

Mourinho back lambasting senior players

There is no doubt that Tanguy Ndombele has struggled for fitness since arriving in England. There are rumours of an ongoing injury, but some Tottenham supporters may believe that Ndombele has failed to do everything in his power to improve his chances of lasting 90 minutes. 

If true, that would be intensely disappointing. But that doesn’t make Jose Mourinho calling him out so aggressively in public a good idea. That Sergeant Major approach, shaming players into line by trying to turn the media and supporters against them, now feels anachronistic. Ndombele is Tottenham’s record signing. Is it helpful to risk alienating him at such a crucial time?

It’s hard not to conclude that Mourinho has skipped ahead to the latter stages of his usual management cycle. The sulkiness in front of the cameras, the castigating of individual players so soon after lauding the squad, the management of expectations — including wishing the season was over — and the lack of defensive organisation; all are present. But one of his traits has been summoning a performance when he needs it most. Spurs travel to Leipzig on Tuesday, where they must overturn a first-leg deficit, before they host Manchester United next weekend. After five games without a win, and 12 points from 10 games in the league, Mourinho needs to change the mood.

Hodgson has addressed supporters’ mid-season concern

Crystal Palace supporters are right to stay a little circumspect. They still have a painfully thin squad that is suffering from a chronic lack of goals and a long-term lack of investment. The gap between those coasting in the Premier League and those struggling is wafer-thin. Over a period of two months, with one win in 12 league games, Palace were firmly in the latter camp.

During that run, Roy Hodgson came in for plenty of stick and many — Palace fans included — wondered whether the convenience of this relationship had run out. But Hodgson has responded by making Palace tougher to beat, grinding out three consecutive 1-0 victories. It is the first time that they have won three straight league games since August 2018.

From looking over their shoulder at the bottom three, Palace are suddenly looking up. Patrick van Aanholt tweeted on Saturday evening that he was dreaming of European football, and why not? In this ludicrous Premier League season, them being only four points behind Wolves with nine games left seems just about the right amount of nonsense.

Firmino must come good against Atletico

Jurgen Klopp will continue to insist that Roberto Firmino more than justifies his place in Liverpool’s team because he is a player who makes life easier for those around him. There is no iota of selfishness in his play. If he can make Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané — and therefore Liverpool — tick, then Firmino is doing his job.

But the lack of goal at Anfield must surely be eating away at the Brazilian. He has played 1,361 minutes and taken 53 shots at home this season without scoring. On Saturday, he was given a presentable opportunity, in the middle of the goal and just behind the penalty spot, to sweep home Liverpool’s match-clinching goal and break his home duck. Had it been away from home, he would surely have scored. Instead, he swept it well over the bar.

This matters. On Wednesday evening against Atletico Madrid, Liverpool are unlikely to be given a large number of chances. They may have to make do with half-chances and get the most from them. They are still favourites to progress, but only if they can take those chances that do come their way. Put simply, Firmino may not be able to afford to miss the same chance. Liverpool have been impeccable in their timing this season. This midweek game would be the perfect moment for Firmino to come good.

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