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Premier League hits and misses: Liverpool show mark of champions

Liverpool

Liverpool hit top form at just the right time, Man Utd bounce back in style, welcome signs of progress for Arsenal, Jack Grealish is Aston Villa's main man again and Crystal Palace continue to defy the odds...

Liverpool show mark of champions

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s win over Leicester in the Premier League.

Despite racking up win after win after win, Liverpool have not hit top gear much in recent weeks. That's another accusation they've got ticked off the list after a dominating, ruthless, superb win at Leicester to move 13 points clear, for one night at least.

Liverpool denied their hosts a single shot before half-time and should have been at least two or three goals up by the break. It mattered little, because by full time they were 4-0 up and subjecting the Foxes to their biggest home defeat since May 2017.

Trent Alexander-Arnold sparkled on the right, making two goals and scoring a third, while Roberto Firmino continued his wonderful form after scoring the winner in last weekend's Club World Cup final. Naby Keita finally looks like the player Liverpool spent all that money on 18 months ago, too, taking on more duels and making more interceptions than anyone on his side.

Thirteen points clear and with a game in hand, Liverpool are hitting top form at just the right time in a brutal festive period. After a six-pointer like this, the Reds have one more finger on the trophy.
Ron Walker

Man Utd find their groove

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United’s win over Newcastle

Matty Longstaff struck the winner for Newcastle over Manchester United in October - a real low in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side's erratic start to the season. At one stage on Boxing Day it looked as though the 19-year-old was going to deal the Manchester United boss another major hit with just his second goal as a pro.

But - with some help from Longstaff's team-mates - Manchester United found a foothold and then hammered home their advantage quickly, with a swagger that made you wonder whether these really were the same players who crumpled to the embarrassing defeat at Watford four days ago.

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Newcastle 'keeper Martin Dubravka should have done better with Anthony Martial's powerful equaliser but he could do nothing about Mason Greenwood's crashing drive, which picked up a feint deflection on the way through but still underlined the 18-year-old as a rising star.

Marcus Rashford then took his season's goal tally to a career-best 11 league goals with an uncharacteristic towering header before Martial profited from Sean Longstaff's woeful back pass to finish clinically barely five minutes after half-time.

Manchester United enjoyed over 76 per cent possession in the second period, turning the game into a procession and never gave Newcastle a sniff of getting back into the match. It was commanding, confident stuff, with standout highlights for United's exciting young attackers.

Coupled with Chelsea's defeat at home to Southampton, the win means Manchester United are now just four points off the Champions League places, with Burnley up next. Inconsistency has dogged Solskjaer's side this season - but he will hope to see more of the same on Saturday to surge into the second half of the season.
Peter Smith

Small steps for Arteta's Arsenal

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Bournemouth’s draw with Arsenal

It was not the result Mikel Arteta would have wanted from his first game as Arsenal head coach, but there were promising signs for the Gunners and their Spanish head coach during the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth.

Firstly, the balance of the Gunners' midfield looked better with solid performances from Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka, while Mesut Ozil also produced an encouraging display, starting in the No 10 position.

Secondly, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continued his excellent scoring run to rescue Arsenal's point. The Arsenal captain has now scored 11 of Arsenal's last 16 away league goals, including seven of their last nine on the road in the Premier League.

Finally, Arsenal, who have now won 11 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season - more than any other side - showed plenty of fight and character to respond to Dan Gosling's first-half strike.

On the other hand, there were signs of the task facing Arteta in north London. Some of his players are struggling for confidence at the moment and top of that list is Alexandre Lacazette, who produced a number of poor finishes at Bournemouth. The final ball from Arsenal's wide players was also lacking, while their failure to keep a clean sheet will still be a cause for concern for Arteta and his coaching staff.

However, it is still very small steps for Arteta's Arsenal, who will have much sterner tests to come in the shape of Chelsea, live on Sky Sports on Super Sunday, next and Manchester United on New Year's Day. We will surely get a much clearer view of the job facing Arteta and the changes he is trying to bring in, in the next week or so, but it is a positive first small step for the new head coach at the Emirates.
Oliver Yew

Spurs in the mould of Mourinho

For 45 minutes against Brighton, any remnants of the new-manager bounce which came following Jose Mourinho's appointment looked to have finally dissipated at Tottenham.

With Sunday's defeat to Chelsea lingering in the memory for all the wrong reasons, the last thing the weary Spurs faithful needed was a lethargic performance. But with Aaron Mooy inspired, Brighton caused Spurs problems from the first whistle and it was only a matter of time before Adam Webster stunned the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with a deserved opener. Having unravelled on and off the pitch in identical circumstances four days previous, all eyes were on Mourinho and Spurs to respond - and respond they did with a gutsy comeback that had all the hallmarks of the Portuguese boss.

Two goals of the highest order in 19 second-half minutes from the ever-reliable Harry Kane and the resurgent Dele Alli transformed the mood, but it was the steeliness with which they returned to winning ways that really impressed.
Jack Wilkinson

Hudson-Odoi struggling to repay Lampard faith

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton’s win at Chelsea

It felt like Callum Hudson-Odoi was primed for a big, breakthrough season when he finally committed to a new Chelsea contract in September, but, three months later, supporters are still waiting to see him produce his best form on a consistent basis under Frank Lampard.

The 19-year-old was handed his first start since the end of October against Southampton but endured a difficult afternoon in the 2-0 defeat, losing possession in the build-up to the opening goal and drawing groans of frustration from the crowd with several unsuccessful flicks and tricks.

Hudson-Odoi had three shots - more than any other Chelsea player - but none of them found the target. He has now failed to register a single goal or assist in any of his last 12 appearances in all competitions and on this evidence his prospects of winning back his starting spot are not bright.

Lampard, though, chose to defend him in his post-match press conference, highlighting his work-rate on and off the ball. "I've sat here and I've been relatively harsh on Callum a couple of times," he said. "But I don't think now is the moment to do that because I think I saw today an effort and a desire and I've seen that in training for the last couple of weeks."

Lampard was quick to point out that Hudson-Odoi is still young and that he has come through a serious injury, adding that he will continue to show faith in him. But with the January transfer window approaching, and with the possibility of new attacking recruits joining the squad, he needs to find some form sooner rather than later.
Nick Wright

What did Ancelotti change?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Everton’s win against Burnley

There were interested eyes on Carlo Ancelotti's teamsheet. Would he throw in any tactical surprises in his first game in charge or keep things simple in order to build on the momentum gained from Duncan Ferguson's switch to a more rough and ready 4-4-2? In truth, the Italian did a bit of both.

On paper it seemed Ancelotti would be setting up in a 4-4-2 with Seamus Coleman and Djibril Sidibe linking down the right and that was the case when Everton were out of possession, very much similar to the way the Toffees stifled Manchester United. However, Ancelotti did tweak the system when in possession with Coleman switching to the right side of a back three in order for Lucas Digne to get down the left flank which moved Bernard inside.

That ploy did allow the Brazilian to cause Burnley problems in the pocket although his final pass or finish was lacking against a stubborn Burnley brick wall. That was a common theme throughout in terms of Everton's quality in the final third and this result was a fine example of how fine the lines are in football. Dominic Calvert-Lewin's winner, which was created out of nothing, did not look to be coming but his powerful headed effort means Ancelotti starts his reign showered in positivity. Bigger challenges lie in wait.
Lewis Jones

Grealish the main man again

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Aston Villa’s win against Norwich

Once again, Jack Grealish was Aston Villa's talisman in a nervy, vital victory over Norwich.

Dean Smith changed Villa's system, giving Grealish even more of a free role in a No 10 position, and it seemed to work wonders.

At 0-0, Grealish linked up with match-winner Conor Hourihane, before bursting into the box, drawing defenders and squaring for his team-mate to sweep home. But even without the goal, Grealish was Villa's best player by a country mile.

He wants the ball in every square metre of the pitch, even in his own box in the last minute, and showed an incredible calmness as Villa held on.

The good news for Villa fans, for this season at least? "He can get better still," said Smith. "There's still more to see. He's doing it at the top table in the Premier League, and there's certainly more to come."

The bad news for Villa fans? The better he gets, the more he will be linked with the Premier League's top clubs. He has proved he is good enough for this league.
Gerard Brand

Crystal Palace win against the odds

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Crystal Palace’s win against West Ham

You just cannot keep Crystal Palace down. Their current injury crisis is well documented - particularly in defence - and they were dealt another blow when Christian Benteke was ruled out on Christmas Day. He will be joined in the treatment room by Patrick van Aanholt, who suffered another injury in the second half having only recently returned from a knock sustained against Bournemouth three weeks ago.

Add on top of this West Ham's opening goal and it all looked like a bad Boxing Day for Crystal Palace. But with the ever-enthusiastic Selhurst Park crowd on their side and some good play throughout, Roy Hodgson's side battled back to take a vital three points.

It was the right place at the right time for Cheikhou Kouyate after a knockdown from Jordan Ayew before the striker scored a sensational solo goal, chipping over goalkeeper Roberto in what has to be up there for Crystal Palace's goal of the season.

After the game, Hodgson said: "Everything seemed to be adding up against us today and it could have been one of those days where you sat back, blamed fate and cursed your bad luck, but the players didn't do that. They still believed that at 1-1, the winner was out there and they were right and they got it." That belief will be important as they battle through this busy festive period and beyond.
Charlotte Marsh

The Pearson effect

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Sheffield United’s draw against Watford

Only three teams have survived the drop having been bottom of the Premier League at Christmas. One of them was Nigel Pearson's Leicester in 2014/15.

Bottom on Christmas Day, second-bottom on Boxing Day. Small steps, swift impact.

Pearson claimed he did not know his side were finally off the foot of the table - Norwich rooted instead - after a 1-1 draw at soaring Sheffield United. "I won't spend too much time working out permutations. I'll work on performances," he said.

He is and he has. A narrow defeat against Liverpool was followed by that eye-catching win over Manchester United and at Bramall Lane, where it could well have been different but for Ben Foster's heroics, a creditable, battling 1-1 draw. Sheffield United, while not at their slickest, upped the ante in the second half but found no way through.

"The important thing for me is that we showed some real traits of resilience at what is a difficult place to come," said the satisfied Hornets boss.

Fit-again Troy Deeney set the tone before kick-off when he summed up the mindset change with which he credits Pearson. "This gaffer isn't going to pull any punches. He has come in and all the nonsense has stopped. We've stopped feeling sorry for ourselves."

If the words before the game were Deeney's, the actions during it were Foster's. The goalkeeper "with fire in his belly", as Pearson put it afterwards, was the visitors' outstanding player in South Yorkshire, denying Oli McBurnie, Enda Stevens and - impossibly from close range - John Fleck.

There is a six-point gap to fourth-bottom West Ham but the belief is back.
Kate Burlaga

Stephens the unsung hero in Saints win

Ralph Hasenhuttl called it Southampton's "best performance of the season" and it owed a lot to the man wearing the No 5 shirt in the heart of their defence. Jack Stephens is not a glamorous name, but he was outstanding in their 2-0 win over Chelsea and he is vital to this Saints side.

Together with his centre-back partner Jan Bednarek, Stephens marshalled Tammy Abraham superbly. Abraham came into the game having scored 13 goals in all competitions this season, but he barely had room to breathe up against Stephens, only attempting one shot on goal all afternoon.

Stephens made vital blocks, clearances and interceptions, but the moment that best summed up his performance came early in the second half when he appeared from nowhere to prevent Abraham from running through on goal from a Mason Mount pass, showing superb pace and smart timing to make a crucial challenge.

It is no coincidence that Stephens has played every minute of Southampton's recent resurgence. Continue like this and the 25-year-old might start gaining broader recognition.
Nick Wright

West Ham crash again

West Ham seem to have an all or nothing approach to their recent Premier League games. Of their last eight fixtures, they have won two and lost six and, after a morale-boosting win away to Southampton, they came crashing back to earth on Boxing Day.

It came after an extended break too, with their match against Liverpool last weekend postponed as the Reds played in the Club World Cup, but they could not make that extra rest count against a depleted Crystal Palace team.

Admittedly, they did take the lead through Robert Snodgrass, but, aside from their goal, there were very few chances created and too many mistakes at the other end that saw them throw away another lead. West Ham have now lost 15 points from winning positions this season and for a team just outside the relegation places by a point, that is huge.

It also puts Manuel Pellegrini back under pressure and he needs to get his side focused on the task in hand. West Ham have been dragged into a relegation battle and they are in real danger of finding themselves in the drop zone at the end of the festive period.
Charlotte Marsh

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