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Premier League hits and misses: Liverpool leave door ajar for their rivals, Bukayo Saka leading youthful Arsenal

Have Liverpool let the Manchester clubs back into the title race? Plus: Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe show the way forward for resurgent Arsenal and Marcus Rashford caps an extraordinary year with another Manchester United winner

Liverpool give rivals hope - including Man City

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Newcastle's draw against Liverpool

If the seven goals that Liverpool conceded against Aston Villa in October revealed a surprising vulnerability in last season's runaway Premier League champions, the seven goals that Jurgen Klopp's side scored in thrashing Crystal Palace looked to draw a line under it.

Virgil van Dijk or no Virgil van Dijk, that victory at Selhurst Park put Liverpool five points clear at the top of the table with an inviting festive fixture list that served up games against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle. Remarkably, they have contrived to win neither.

Had they done so, the lead would now stand at seven points. As it is, Manchester United can move level on points if they win their game in hand against Aston Villa on New Year's Day. The title race is alive and Liverpool have given unexpected hope to their great rivals.

How has it happened? With some bad fortune, for sure. Karl Darlow was the man of the match at St James' Park, pulling off two impressive first-half saves from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino before riding his luck amid the ricochets after the interval.

But Klopp will have expected the shooting of Salah, in particular, to have been more decisive. Twice he ran through on goal in his favoured position in that right channel and twice he was unable to deliver the trademark finish. It was uncharacteristically sloppy.

How concerned should Klopp be? There does not appear to be anything fundamentally wrong with Liverpool's performances. The expected-goals data suggests the chances created against Newcastle would yield an average of 1.4 goals per game.

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But it still feels like a bad moment to have failed to ram home the advantage. United are the team closest to Liverpool and that will be the story for now given the great rivalry between them. But Manchester City, lurking down in eighth, can move within a point if they win their two games in hand. That underlines how open this title race now is - and how much work is left for Liverpool to do.
Adam Bate

Bruce's early birthday gift: What Newcastle want

Karl Darlow's heroics in the opening period kept Liverpool at bay
Image: Karl Darlow's heroics in the opening period kept Liverpool at bay

The question of what Newcastle supporters want has already made its annual appearance on the agenda after the club's dispiriting Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Brentford at the quarter-final stage. It will be another year, a 52nd, without a trophy for the Magpies.

The anger of some fans intensified when Steve Bruce admitted following the 2-0 defeat at Manchester City that owner Mike Ashley told him his remit was to ensure survival rather than the top 10 finish he spoke about in pre-season.

But the team's performance in their hard-fought 0-0 draw with Liverpool was the perfect demonstration of precisely what supporters want to see. Had St James' Park been packed out for the final Premier League game of 2020, the locals will have arrived through the gates fully expecting their team to have around the 27 per cent of possession they achieved against the champions.

But the heart and fight shown by those in black and white to deny Jurgen Klopp's team victory will provide the Toon Army with plenty of encouragement heading into the new year. When asked if he will look to strengthen his squad in January, Bruce said: "We'll scour the market. We're already doing that. We've got one or two things that we might progress hopefully and if it improves us, we'll try and be in a position to act."

With Callum Wilson back leading the line following an ankle injury, Bruce already has his focal point and talisman, while Karl Darlow showed once more that he is a safe pair of hands as Newcastle kept their first Premier League clean sheet in 14 games against a side starting the day top of the table. A day short of his 60th birthday, Bruce provided fans with what they really want.
Ben Grounds

How high can Leeds go?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leeds’ win at West Brom in the Premier League

After their emphatic 5-0 win at West Brom, Leeds United have now won seven of their 16 games in the Premier League this season. Only six newly-promoted teams in the competition's history have picked up more victories at this stage of a season.

The three points at The Hawthorns continues Marcelo Bielsa's side's rise up the Premier League table. They now sit 11th with 23 points, but after another all-action performance, the question is how high can Leeds go?

Bielsa has urged caution. "We have only been in this league for 16 games and there are still many challenges and many tests we have to pass before we can legitimately say we belong. Every game in this league is a challenge, all the teams have secrets and capacities. There are few games you can think of where there are very few difficulties to resolve.

"We have to keep doing the same and keep doing it over a longer period of time. We have had a lot of highs and lows. Only two games ago we had an important defeat and our idea is to play in a consistent manner."

Opta stats - Leeds march on...

  • Leeds United have now won seven of their 16 games in the Premier League this season – only six newly-promoted teams in the competition’s history have picked up more victories at this stage of a season.
  • Leeds equalled their biggest margin of victory in a Premier League game, winning by five goals for the sixth time in the competition. This was also their joint-biggest margin of victory away from home in their league history.
  • They have now scored 30 goals in the Premier League this season - the only newly-promoted team in the competition’s history to have netted more after their first 16 games of a season was Newcastle in 1993-94 (31).
  • Bielsa's side led by four goals at half-time in a Premier League game for the first time since May 2001 vs Bradford City (5-1 at HT and 6-1 at FT).

Of course, Bielsa's side will face much sterner tests from now until the end of the season than they did at West Brom and he is right to urge caution, but if they continue to produce the kind of attacking displays that put Sam Allardyce's side to the sword, they are certain to add to their seven wins so far this season.

With the table very congested at the top, Leeds now find themselves just three points behind fifth-placed Aston Villa and a consistent run of results could see them continue their rise up the standings. How high will come down to consistency and whether Bielsa's side can last the pace.

But whatever happens, there will not be a dull moment along the way watching this Leeds side.
Oliver Yew

Saka, Smith Rowe show the way for Arsenal

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal's win over Brighton in the Premier League

It was no surprise to see Mikel Arteta keep faith with the young players who shone so brightly in the 3-1 win over Chelsea for Tuesday's trip to Brighton. Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli went straight back into the fray at the Amex Stadium.

None of the trio shone in the first half, admittedly, with Arsenal fortunate to go into the break level having only had one attempt on goal. But Saka's second-half display earned him the man-of-the-match award and Smith Rowe was similarly impressive.

The highlight of Saka's performance, of course, was the outstanding run and cut-back to set up Alexandre Lacazette's winner. But there were plenty more eye-catching moments.

The 19-year-old's speed and movement caused problems for Brighton all night, with no player creating more chances. His form over the last two games is all the more impressive when you consider he has been playing in an unfamiliar role on the right flank rather than the left.

Saka appears capable of shining wherever he plays, a testament to his tactical intelligence as well as his undoubted quality, but Smith Rowe is busy establishing himself at No 10.

Arsenal's creativity issues are not over - their first-half performance was proof of that - but Smith Rowe has certainly proved he can help.

His willingness to run at defenders and take risks with the ball at his feet is something this Arsenal side has badly lacked this season. And, like his young team-mates, he offers plenty of energy and industry off the ball too. At the Amex, he covered more ground (11.4km) than any other Arsenal player.

The Gunners are still a long way from where they want to be. It has been a tumultuous year for them. But the future suddenly looks a little brighter.
Nick Wright

Rashford caps his 2020 with the winner

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United's win over Wolves in the Premier League

Manchester United toiled away at Old Trafford but it did not look like the winning goal was going to come against Wolves. It did in the 93rd minute courtesy of Marcus Rashford.

The United forward has scored better goals on this grand stage and the player his left-footed strike deflected in off, Romain Saiss, was probably the man of the match. But there could have been no more fitting scorer than Rashford. In this most miserable of years, he has stood out for standing up off the pitch - and he has also grown as a footballer on it.

This was his 14th Manchester United goal of the season - joint-top scorer with the man who provided the pass for it, Bruno Fernandes - and his 20th for the club in the calendar year.

That combination of Rashford and Fernandes gives Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hope for the new year. Thanks to their late intervention on Tuesday evening, United are just two points behind leaders, rivals and defending champions Liverpool at the 15-game mark.

Improbably, they are in a title race. Despite falling behind in their first six away games of the season - and winning the lot of them. Despite failing to find their fluency here and leading for only a matter of seconds. They are finding a way and Rashford is helping them find it.

He has had many more remarkable moments than this one in 2020. But make no mistake, there would have been plenty among the stick-to-sport crew prepared to ungraciously and unfairly suggest he had neglected the day job had his form wavered for an instant.

Instead, he finished 2020 just how he finished 2019 - with a last-minute goal. A lot has happened in the 12 months in between, not a lot of it good. But Marcus Rashford MBE signs off with another reminder that he has so often been Manchester United's MVP too.
Adam Bate

Allardyce's problems deepen

Sam Allardyce
Image: Sam Allardyce watches on as his West Brom side are thrashed by Leeds

"I was shocked to see such a poor performance and we have to work hard to put it right," Sam Allardyce said after his West Brom side's big defeat to Leeds. "Consistency is everything for us. We can't seem to get a consistency of attacking and defending right. Life will get difficult if we can't get results quickly."

If Allardyce had any doubts as to how big a job he has on at West Brom, they have certainly gone now.

The 5-0 defeat to Leeds at The Hawthorns is the biggest Premier League home defeat of Allardyce's managerial career in the competition. He has now lost consecutive home games by three or more goals in the Premier League for the first time since November 2007, while in charge of Newcastle United (1-4 vs Portsmouth and 0-3 vs Liverpool).

West Brom have won just eight points in the Premier League so far this season - only in 1985-86 have they amassed fewer points after 16 games of a top-flight campaign.

Life is starting to get difficult for Allardyce and West Brom and time is certainly of the essence if they are to turn around their fortunes.
Oliver Yew

Forward thrust key for West Ham

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton’s draw with West Ham in the Premier League

David Moyes clearly was not impressed with his side's diabolical first-half showing against Brighton and shuffled his pack with five changes to his starting XI at Southampton - albeit also resting players for their second game in 48 hours.

Notably, out went Jarrod Bowen and Mark Noble - the two who were hooked at the London Stadium two days ago at half-time when Moyes' side was fortunate to emerge with a point.

While their replacements, Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko, failed to assert the same influence this time out, the Hammers certainly found their groove after an uncomfortable opening 20 minutes.

West Ham remained inferior on the ball and often slipped into their all-too-familiar habit of retreating and inviting opposition without countering - but that changed as the second half progressed.

An injection of forward-thinking endeavour, fuelled by positive substitutions, drove the Hammers into opposition territory as they began to take the game to their hosts.

By the full-time whistle, the Hammers deserved three points, carving the lion's share of chances, while the return of Michail Antonio on 77 minutes from a hamstring injury also provided a noticeable lift.

West Ham should be satisfied with the progress of mid-table standing at this stage and the glimpse of forward thrust suggests a positive trajectory - which almost paid dividends as the game petered out into a stalemate at St Mary's.
Adam Smith

Burnley doing Burnley things

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Burnley's win over Sheffield United in the Premier League

It has become a bit of a tradition for Burnley to pick up around the new year and a run of one defeat in six for Sean Dyche's side has carried that on into 2020/21.

That kind of upturn is becoming as routine as the image he has built his side in, which was on full display as they ground out a 1-0 win over hard-working Sheffield United.

It was not particularly pretty or free-flowing; it is not meant to be. Josh Brownhill and Ashley Westwood protected their back four manfully, Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes chased everything and Ben Mee popped up when it mattered. Three points kept at Turf Moor.

"We offered a different kind of performance, I don't think we were as good as we were against Leeds, but we got the result with our shape and our work," said Dyche.

The Clarets are now five points clear of the bottom three, and looking firmly up the table.

That in itself is a positive, but the fact Dyche and his side are back to doing what they do best - despite a threadbare squad being tested to its limits - offers even more encouragement, especially with the club's takeover seemingly on the verge of completion.
Ron Walker

Luck won't wait for Sheff Utd

Chris Wilder again shook off any solace of 'fine margins' contributing to Sheffield United's latest defeat at Burnley.

There was a case that his side had been unlucky, falling behind to a Ben Mee header from a corner in a game of few chances where they would have been easily worthy of a point.

"The reaction's always okay, when you lose 11 out of 14 by a single goal that doesn't show an attitude problem," was Wilder's one positive to take - but goal difference will be the least of his worries if the Blades' form does not pick up drastically.

Fine margins were often going in Sheff Utd's favour this time a year ago; seven of their 14 wins in 2019/20 were by a goal to nil.

Now the tide has turned and, while luck has not been on his team's side during their horrible run of two points from 16 games, there is no guarantee it will even out. Luck has no memory.

Even if it does, it will need a lot more than fine margins to bridge an 11-point gap in 22 games. The Blades have scored fewer goals than any other team this season.

Wilder was left frustrated with their final-third play at Turf Moor, with Nick Pope only forced into one serious save all night. It is going to take a major turnaround in January. The manager's targets are already "with the board". They might prove the final throw of the dice.
Ron Walker

Lampard changes tack

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea's draw with Aston Villa in the Premier League

Just 48 hours after laying into his players following the 3-1 defeat at Arsenal, Frank Lampard went for a change of approach, publicly at least.

He used the post-match press conference from Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Aston Villa to insist he "couldn't ask for more" than what the players gave, but the six changes he made only brought a reaction in spurts.

"The changes were to try and keep a bit of balance in the team, and to try to freshen up. I was pleased, I'm not disappointed with anything tonight other than the fact we conceded that goal, and didn't score another."

But Lampard was being kind to his players in his assessment. Villa were first to everything at Stamford Bridge - in fact, Chelsea's duel success rate of 38 per cent was not only their lowest under Lampard, but their lowest since January 2017. With just 37 per cent possession, Chelsea made 16 fouls. Villa made just three.

Villa were very good value for their point, and though Chelsea did improve from Boxing Day, it was a low bar. Lampard's side could have done more to win the game, and the midfield battle was the key again.

They allowed man-of-the-match John McGinn to run the game - Jorginho was largely anonymous - and though Chelsea have an embarrassment of riches up front, their midfield three is susceptible to drifting too far apart to function.
Gerard Brand

Villa's energy shines through again

Anwar El Ghazi celebrates with his team-mates after equalising for Aston Villa against Chelsea
Image: Anwar El Ghazi celebrates with his team-mates after equalising for Aston Villa against Chelsea

Despite two games in three days, Dean Smith made just one change to his starting XI for the draw at Chelsea, and that was enforced as the suspended Tyrone Mings was replaced by Ezri Konsa.

Villa have the youngest average starting XI in the Premier League at 25 years and 165 days, they have made the fewest starting XI changes at 13, and have used fewer players than any Premier League side at 19.

In a season where more teams are suffering from a packed schedule and short pre-season, Villa have remained relatively injury-free - Ross Barkley aside - but Smith's side picks itself at the minute.

In Ollie Watkins they have a forward willing to run channels from minute one to 90, and despite not scoring since early November, the goals from him in particular are almost secondary in this well-drilled unit.

McGinn showed both his battery and cunning at Stamford Bridge, winning fouls at perfect times when Villa needed to settle, while Douglas Luiz is a classy operator just in front of the defence.

The fittest sides will prosper in the Premier League this season of all seasons, and Villa are clearly in fine fettle.
Gerard Brand

Barnes shines but Iheanacho fails to take his chance

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Crystal Palace's draw with Leicester in the Premier League

It was another positive display from Harvey Barnes, who is growing in his role in Leicester's attack. He was one of only four players to keep their places from the match against United, in which he also scored.

Barnes had a whopping six shots - double that of the next highest Leicester contribution. One of them made it home too, and it was a superb run across the top of the area with a low, hard finish. He has now scored eight goals in 21 games in all competitions this season - one more than he netted in 42 appearances for the Foxes last term.

He also provided for his team-mates, making superb, direct runs and sending in four crosses. Barnes racked up the same number for interceptions too as he took advantage of some slack Palace passing at times. In the absence of Youri Tielemans and Jamie Vardy from the start, it was Barnes who provided Leicester's attacking threat, along with Ayoze Perez.

However, the same cannot be said for Kelechi Iheanacho on only his second Premier League start of the season. His penalty was poor with too much hesitation allowing Vicente Guaita to save rather comfortably. Later in the half, he had a gilt-edged chance from close range but skewed his header.

He was replaced by Demarai Gray in the second half and despite having golden opportunities against a side who shipped 10 goals in their last two games, he did not take his chance.

Manager Brendan Rodgers told his post-match press conference: "He's a boy that gives everything in training. He doesn't get too many opportunities, he's shown that in the Europa League where he's performed really well for us.

"It was a great opportunity for him [the penalty], but he just seemed a little bit hesitant with it. He had another good chance at the near post, but it just didn't quite fall for him today."
Charlotte Marsh

Signs of improvement for Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game
Image: Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha celebrates scoring against Leicester

It had been a confidence-sapping week for Crystal Palace. Losing two games by an aggregate score of 10-0 is enough for even the best heads to drop. But Roy Hodgson made five changes - three of which came in defence - and Crystal Palace finally returned to some defensive solidity, on the cusp of a second clean sheet of the season.

Leicester dominated in terms of shots - having 17 to Crystal Palace's four - but only one made it through the Eagles' defence. James Tomkins made eight clearances, Nathaniel Clyne made four tackles - both the highest in the squad - while young Tyrick Mitchell did well on his return at left-back. Let's also not forget Vicente Guaita's good save from Kelechi Iheanacho's poor penalty.

Attack has not always been Crystal Palace's most fruitful area, but it was a moment of magic from talisman Wilfried Zaha that saw them score for the first time in two games. He started and finished a counter-attack against one of the Premier League's best counter-attacking teams, scoring with Crystal Palace's only shot on target.

There were bright moments in attack, the second-half performance was good and Hodgson's changes did what was needed. The signs of improvement are there.

But Crystal Palace have ultimately failed to follow up on their emphatic 5-1 win against West Brom, now drawing three games 1-1 and of course, those well-publicised defeats. Hodgson will be hoping another three points awaits them in 2021.
Charlotte Marsh

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