Liverpool are doing all they can; all hail them
There has been plenty of talk of Liverpool ‘bottling’ this title race, largely from those who wish ill upon them. But we can put that to one side for now. Facing Chelsea at Anfield, five years after Steven Gerrard’s fateful slip and on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Hillsborough, created a pressure that would make many teams crumble. But not them.
This wasn’t the perfect performance; the 2-0 scoreline might even have flattered Liverpool. But you cannot doubt Liverpool’s conviction in the biggest moments, and nor can you doubt their desire and hunger to push Manchester City to the very end. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah scored the goals (and Salah’s was magnificent), but Roberto Firmino’s neverending running was just as important. So too was Jordan Henderson’s surging runs from his new position further up the pitch. They even had time for an Andrew Robertson slip, as if somehow exorcising the ghost of 2014.
Henderson was the only member of the class of 2013/14 on the pitch for Liverpool, and you bet he intends to make amends for that failed title challenge. In the last few weeks, he has been Liverpool’s leader by example. They may not win this league title, but my goodness they deserve praise for the attempt.
Sarri got his big decisions wrong
The biggest criticism of Maurizio Sarri this season is the manner in which he ignored Callum Hudson-Odoi to the point that the youngster seems determined to leave Stamford Bridge. But on Sunday, did Sarri show too much faith in him?
Sarri changed his Chelsea system to accommodate Hudson-Odoi and Willian, playing Eden Hazard in a central role where he struggled to influence play in the penalty area. When Chelsea conceded two goals in quick succession, Hazard was moved back out to the left and immediately had a more positive impact on the game and should have scored twice. Picking players in their best position; it’s a novel approach.
But even when Sarri did make a change, he still made a mistake. Gonzalo Higuain may have been a wonderful centre forward in his career, but his movement in the box is simply not sharp enough and he is carrying some timber. Hazard has repeatedly spoken about enjoying playing with Olivier Giroud, who is in far better form than Higuain. Would a front three of Hazard, Willian/Hudson-Odoi and Giroud not have got far more joy?
Result is king for Solskjaer, but…
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will point out that if there is one time of year when only the results matter, it is the final stretch of the season. If we can reasonably conclude that Manchester United are unlikely to win the Champions League this season, their pursuit of a top-four place is vital. Three points is three points. Take a deep breath and move on.
Even so, United’s performance against West Ham was abject. Declan Rice was given oceans of space to surge forward in the middle, and Felipe Anderson given just as much on the left. The number of clear-cut chances United afforded was alarming, and that was just the ones Michail Antonio had after coming on.
If United were saved by Paul Pogba’s two penalties, they cannot expect to benefit from the same good fortune against Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City in forthcoming league games. If they are going to compete in the Champions League next season, a vast — and quick — improvement is required.
Rondon the perfect striker for Benitez’s system
It was the perfect performance from a Rafael Benitez team. Newcastle defended stoutly, harried and hassled in midfield and created chances on the counter-attack. After the full-time whistle, Newcastle supporters chanted for a full 15 minutes as they celebrated their side confirming their stay in the Premier League.
Newcastle’s power lies in the strength of the team, but their strategy is nothing without the magnificence of Salomon Rondon. Jamie Vardy might lay the best claim to be the best striker outside the Big Six, but Rondon can lay his own claim. His ability to hold up the ball, hold off multiple defenders and bring teammates into play despite often being left isolated is truly exceptional. It might even be unsurpassed in the Premier League. Newcastle’s obvious summer priority is to secure the future of Benitez, but making Rondon’s loan move permanent comes next on the to- do list. Will Mike Ashley make funds available for a 29-year-old?
Hughton must now fend off disaster
Chris Hughton has done a remarkable job at Brighton, but he is now under significant pressure for the first time since his appointment in 2014. Reports surfaced this week that some supporters were growing concerned about Brighton’s general poor form and negative tactics. Those worried would hardly be allayed by the worst performance of Hughton’s five-year reign.
Bournemouth’s away form had been sketchy, but they were embarrassingly dominant at the Amex. Brighton looked terrified every time their opponents ventured forward, and were humbled by Ryan Fraser, David Brooks and Callum Wilson. Anthony Knockaert’s disgraceful challenge made a bad afternoon worse.
Hughton’s first task is to avert the lingering threat of relegation, which could be achieved with victory over Cardiff City on Tuesday. That gives Brighton the chance to immediately make amends in front of their own supporters. But he must also rid the club of the negativity mood that seems to have engulfed it. They have won three league games since December 4.