Man Utd back in the mix; Frank Lampard does the double over former mentor; Make or break for Aston Villa...
Monday 24 February 2020 15:42, UK
It's been a good week for Manchester United. A first league win at Stamford Bridge since Sir Alex Ferguson's final season at the club was followed by a decent, if uninspiring, away performance in Bruges in the Europa League.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side left the best until last, with January signing Bruno Fernandes guiding United past Watford and to back-to-back league victories for only the third time this season to reignite a Champions League qualification challenge that has fizzled out far too many times this season.
With the gap to the top four now a mere three points, Solskjaer has challenged his players to push on into a season-defining run of fixtures. "We've given ourselves a mountain to climb at times, winning games and then losing and not being consistent," the United manager said after Sunday's 3-0 victory at Old Trafford. "So to get six points, two clean sheets in six days in great.
"We want to be in the Champions League. We've got four big games coming up in the league - Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham, Sheffield United - all teams around the top of the table. It's an important month for us."
"I think it was a big day for Manchester United," Gary Neville said on his latest podcast. "I said after United beat Chelsea that it wouldn't have surprised me had United dropped points against Watford but it hasn't happened that way.
"United had too much quality. It was big for Solskjaer because there have been too many moments where there has been a chance to close the gap and get nearer and they've not taken it. We're still waiting to see if they - and others - can go on long winning runs but now is the right time to do it. They're torn in some ways between the Champions League spot via the Premier League or via (winning) the Europa League; they're fighting in both competitions and that makes it a little more difficult because you're having to treat Thursday and Sunday with equal importance."
United's inconsistencies have undermined their cause time and time again, should they fail to address their Achilles heel this time around, you cannot imagine many more opportunities coming their way to salvage something from this season
There was more than a hint of Thierry Henry about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's first goal in Arsenal's 3-2 win over Everton on Sunday. In fact, the finish, clinically side-footed into the far corner from David Luiz's through-ball, was straight out of the Arsenal legend's playbook.
It was Aubameyang's 16th Premier League goal of the season and he took his tally to 17 with what turned out to be the winner just 22 seconds after half-time at the Emirates Stadium. He is now level with Jamie Vardy at the top of this season's scoring charts. Since his arrival in the Premier League in January 2018, no player has scored more goals.
Mikel Arteta described Aubameyang as Arsenal's "most important player" in his post-match interview with Sky Sports, before the questioning inevitably turned to his future. Aubameyang is due to enter the final year of his contract this summer, but the thought of losing him is not one that anybody at Arsenal will be eager to entertain.
"Stats-wise, there is no question about the impact that he has in this team," added Arteta, who also praised the 30-year-old's defensive work-rate and talked up his "commitment" to the club and his team-mates. "As much as I can and as much as the club can, we will try to convince him to stay with us."
Frank Lampard's done the double. Saturday's 2-1 win over Tottenham means his Chelsea boys are the first team ever to beat a side managed by Jose Mourinho home and away in the same league season.
Throw in last season's Carabao Cup win, when Lampard's Derby knocked Mourinho's Manchester United out of the competition at Old Trafford, and the managers' head-to-head record is three from three for the apprentice against the master.
Lampard was humble and keen to downplay the tactical battle between himself and his former Chelsea boss in his post-match press conference but this was a significant victory. While Chelsea's set-up may not have caught Tottenham by surprise as it did in December, their fast, aggressive approach was too much for their conservative, injury-hit opponents.
This win was a timely one too, after a worrying run of results.
Four Premier League games without a win, and a longer streak of just four victories in 14, had seen Lampard's young Chelsea side - hit by inconsistency and injuries themselves - squander what had been a commanding advantage in the race for a top-four finish.
Lampard's reaction was to change formation. It was a move which could easily have been undermined when Mourinho revealed on Friday he had been told about Lampard's plans to switch to a three-man defence - "you don't tell the sources". But it had worked for Chelsea previously this season - most notably at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium - and forced Mourinho to alter his own set-up.
Lampard's other reaction was to change personnel. There were four changes from the defeat to Manchester United, with Olivier Giroud, Marcos Alonso, Mason Mount and Ross Barkley all coming in.
The result was emphatic - even if, as Lampard said afterwards, a VAR error, a late own goal and some missed chances from Chelsea affected the look of the scoreline. Mourinho may have known what was coming but he couldn't find a way to stop it.
Riyad Mahrez was booed by the fans who used to cheer his name at the King Power Stadium on Saturday. The Algerian is arguably the most gifted player in Leicester's history. Nobody was more important to their historic Premier League triumph in 2016. But the manner of his departure did not sit well with the locals and they let him know it.
To his credit, however, Mahrez ended up rising above the jeers and setting up the decisive goal when, with just 10 minutes remaining, he picked up possession and drove at the Leicester defence before sliding an impeccably-timed pass through to Gabriel Jesus to apply the finish. It was a moment of inspiration exactly when his side needed it.
It also capped another excellent all-round performance from a player who is enjoying his best season since moving to the Etihad Stadium. So far, there have been seven goals and eight assists in 22 Premier League appearances. He is averaging a goal involvement for every 90 minutes played.
It is the kind of output that made him so invaluable to Leicester, but now it's Manchester City who are feeling the benefits. Pep Guardiola will hope he is at his inspirational best again when they face Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday.
"This cannot be happening to us again in the same game…"
You can live with having one goal ruled out by VAR. The same can probably be said, just about, for a second. But to have two goals chalked off at crucial moments of a game crucial in a club's bid to avoid relegation, and to couple one of those overturned goals by awarding the opposition a penalty, now that's really testing a club's resolve.
Bournemouth looked to have secured the lead their positive start at Turf Moor deserved when Joshua King bundled in Philip Billing's near-post flick, only for it to be ruled out for a contentious handball call. And when Jay Rodriguez doubled Burnley's lead with a VAR-awarded penalty seconds after Harry Wilson looked to have hauled the Cherries level, it came as no surprise that Bournemouth's capitulation followed.
With 11 games of the season remaining and with just a two-point buffer to the relegation zone, Howe will be hopeful this bruising encounter with VAR doesn't leave lasting psychological damage on a group of players fighting to avoid the drop.
Aston Villa showed next to no attacking threat against Southampton - while the Saints cut through their defence at will.
More worryingly for Villa, though, is that the wheels appear to be falling off exactly when the club should be pulling in the right direction.
Dean Smith's side face what should be the exciting prospect of next playing Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, their first showpiece final since the FA Cup in 2015.
But the manager publicly called out his players' spirit and fight following their lacklustre display against the Saints - a bold move which will no doubt test the tender egos of his squad embroiled in a relegation battle.
After the 2-0 defeat, Smith said: "Certainly a lot of players have played themselves out of the team for next week," before adding, "I just wanted to see more fight in the players - just show me that you care, show a little bit of passion about what you're doing."
This feels like a make or break moment for Villa. On the one hand, the opportunity for silverware provides an exciting new dawn - on the other, it papers over the cracks of a wilting side in desperate need of inspiration.
Villa do have the squad to wrestle free of their Premier League struggles - maybe with a trophy in hand too - but they need to start showing their strength as a collective unit, rather than a collection of talented individuals.
The headlines after Wolves' 3-0 victory over Norwich focused on the performances of the front two - Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez. The former has hit a purple patch with five goals in just four days - a hat-trick against Espanyol followed up by a double versus Norwich. The most impressive thing about his display was his determination to lift his team-mates after a lethargic opening 15 minutes.
One mazy run had already got the crowd on their feet before he opened the scoring with a neat turn and finish. Jota was the talisman at Molineux, and it looks like he is taking his game to the next level. He came so close to notching his first Premier League hat-trick, only to hit the post and see strike partner Jimenez smash in the rebound. That duo will continue to scare defences.
But it can't be overlooked that Wolves kept their third successive clean sheet. That run coincides with the return of Willy Boly to the side after injury and it is their best run defensively in the top flight since 1981! Despite Norwich's position in the table, their movement and attacking play has caused problems for plenty of teams this season. Wolves did not let that happen.
Although Nuno Espirito Santo's side only moved from ninth to eighth, the gap to fifth place is now just two points and it's only one to sixth. Wolves have put themselves right in the mix for another European spot and backed up credible draws against Leicester and Manchester United with a thumping victory over a weaker side.
After a trip to Tottenham on Sunday, Wolves have four games against relegation-threatened sides, and it would be a brave person to bet against them being in one of the European competitions next season. They didn't hit top gear on Sunday and that should worry Spurs, Manchester United, Sheffield United and even Chelsea in fourth.
Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder admitted he may consider reaching the 40-point mark with 11 games left of the season as more of an achievement once the adrenaline of a frustrating matchday had worn off.
And he had good reason.
Brighton's lauded style of flowing football was sacrificed for a towering back five who came to defend - and demonstrated the lengths the Blades have come with the respect visiting teams now pay them at Bramall Lane.
Sheffield United were frustrated at home, not for the first time this season, as they struggled to break down the visitors but still should have won through a fine chance that Oli McBurnie missed after half-time.
Wilder was full of praise for his side's persistence come the full-time whistle regardless, knowing it's exactly that relentless ethic which has forced opposition teams to put men behind the ball, and which could still conceivably see the Blades playing Champions League football next season.
Crystal Palace and Wilfried Zaha's often repeated claims of fouling may frequently fall on deaf or unsympathetic ears, but both Miguel Almiron and Jamaal Lascelles received yellow cards for crude challenges on the winger and Allan Saint-Maximin was lucky not to receive the same punishment for a slide tackle from behind.
However, the Eagles showed their multifaceted attacking prowess, with many attacks stemming from Zaha's strike partners Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke as Zaha combatted his double marking to make space for and feed the players around him.
Roy Hodgson's hitherto goal-shy side scored with their sixth shot on target of the game - surpassing in 45 minutes the five attempts on target they'd managed in their last two games. They also drew level with opponents Newcastle as the joint-lowest scorers in the Premier League with 24, having been the worst in the league.
Hodgson knows, and admitted, the Eagles could and should have converted more clinically and made the game safe long before the last few minutes, but in terms of chances created they were much improved.
On the other hand, the less said about Newcastle going forwards the better. Their attacking threat was less blunt than non-existent and a forlorn Steve Bruce admitted he may finally have to change things up - possibly meaning a move to the wing for misfiring frontman Joelinton and giving more game time to Dwight Gayle, Yoshinori Muto or Andy Carroll in the lone striker role.
Joelinton did test Vicente Guaita with a powerful long-range effort - Newcastle's only two shots on target came from outside the box - but the 23-year-old Brazilian is surely better suited out of the firing line given the weighty Toon expectations on the Newcastle number nine shirt.
FREE TO PLAY: Do not miss your chance to land the Super 6 jackpot for the sixth time this season.