Premier League hits and misses: Liverpool labour to Aston Villa victory, but win will be vital

Plus: Leeds show they can mix substance and style with Manchester City win; Fulham have all the quality, but no character after defeat to Wolves

Liverpool labour, but win will be vital

Alexander-Arnold completes late Reds comeback 3:17
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool's win against Aston Villa

It has been a Jekyll and Hyde week for Liverpool - so impressive against Arsenal but exposed defensively again by Real Madrid. Against Aston Villa? Arguably somewhere in the middle.

Up until Mohamed Salah's equaliser, you feared it was another disappointing Anfield performance - plenty of chances, some bright moments but unable to score or keep out Aston Villa at the other end.

With the spectre of six successive home Premier League defeats and no league goals from open play at Anfield since December hanging over them, it could have easily gone that way. But Salah was in the right place to turn home, and it was a sensational winning goal from Trent Alexander-Arnold.

It was the kind of quality Liverpool have been lacking, and it was desperately needed against an Aston Villa side who have kept the most away clean sheets in the Premier League this season (8).

"[Liverpool] were the team most likely to [win], but they did huff and puff at times," Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness said after the game. "It was an effort for them, there wasn't that silky, free-flowing stuff that we were used to seeing from them prior to this season… They got away with it today."

To stop any bad run of form - which Liverpool have not been used to under Jurgen Klopp - you need a moment of magic or a result to go your way to spark a resurgence. Beating Aston Villa at Anfield could be that moment.

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And ending their two biggest concerns of recent months at home will lift a huge weight off Liverpool's shoulders. The result temporarily saw them in the top four and while they will not still be there come 10pm on Monday, it gives them a renewed hope - especially with the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid on Wednesday.

Liverpool

"We needed that today… These three points feel really big," Klopp told Sky Sports. "It's a big three points because in our situation, we have to put teams under pressure. The game against Real Madrid will be different again. I didn't think a second about it, to be honest since the final whistle and I will."

With seven Premier League games to play, Liverpool still need a lot to swing their way if they are to secure a Champions League place. But they have made a vital first step and its importance cannot be underestimated.
Charlotte Marsh

Guardiola's balancing act key to Man City's quadruple dream

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leeds United's win against Manchester City

Pep Guardiola is no stranger to rotation and surprise team selections but against Leeds on Saturday - when he left out as many as seven first-team regulars - we saw the first signs of how he is going to have to juggle his line-up over the final two months of the campaign carefully as Man City move towards the business end of their quadruple attempt.

Of course, they have plenty of slipping room in the Premier League and their healthy cushion allowed Guardiola to rest Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, Ilkay Gundogan, Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, and Phil Foden against Leeds.

Afterwards, as Guardiola explained how the Premier League leaders had lost 2-1 to side which played with 10 men for 45 minutes, he defended his line-up and insisted he had picked a team to win this match. But clearly, those regular first-teamers were being spared for decisive games ahead. And those pivotal matches come thick and fast now, with Guardiola himself pointing out three of City's next four games "are like we have finals".

Of course, one of them is - the Carabao Cup final with Tottenham on April 25 - but before then they face Borussia Dortmund in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday, and Aston Villa in the Premier League the following Wednesday.

The defeat to Leeds puts some extra pressure on that Villa game, although City will still be confident of taking the 11 points they need from their final six league games to wrap up the title. But the focus will now be on how Guardiola balances the workload of his key men across four different fronts over the next two weeks. A fortnight key to landing a substantial haul of silverware from this season.

Over the past couple of months there has been debate and speculation about whether City winning the whole lot is possible. That argument will rage on until the final whistle blows on City's season. But if they are to pull it off - or even win a number of major titles - will be down to Guardiola getting his team selections right for the different challenges ahead.
Peter Smith

Best is yet to come for Tuchel's Chelsea

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win over Crystal Palace

On the brink of reaching the Champions League semi-finals, Chelsea's quest to qualify for next season's competition has been emphatically reignited following the debacle against West Brom last weekend.

Crystal Palace were the perfect opponents, assured of their Premier League status and on the proverbial beach during a one-sided first half that saw Chelsea score three times for the first time during Thomas Tuchel's reign.

After unravelling against the Baggies, here it all came together as the manager's decision to play Kai Havertz as a false number nine flanked by the impressive Pulisic and marauding Mason Mount turned Palace's midfield into mannequins.

Tuchel

It was the first time Chelsea had scored more than twice in a game since Tuchel arrival's at the end of January, but he refused to label it as their best display since his appointment as Chelsea moved back into the top four with a comfortable triumph.

"We had very good performances in Tottenham, Atletico (Madrid), Everton and Liverpool; I don't know, I don't see it like this, but it was a very good performance," the German said.

"It was clearly the performance where we created the most chances, the most touches in the opponent's box and scored the most. This is not so hard to say, but you cannot compare it to Champions League matches or our game at Liverpool, you clearly cannot but I am happy with what we played."

There is still room for improvement at Chelsea but following the 2-0 win over Porto in Seville in midweek, this routine victory across London underlined the huge potential in Tuchel's ranks.
Ben Grounds

Leeds show they can mix substance with style

Stuart Dallas put Leeds in front

Was it really a big surprise Leeds United beat Manchester City? Perhaps not. But the tactics they employed to get the job done would have raised a few eyebrows. Marcelo Bielsa's boys are famed for their gung-ho, attack-at-all-costs manner - but this was more controlled and defensive focused than the norm associated with Leeds. There was grit, there was last-ditch tackles and there was plenty of determination.

Bielsa's side, who had to play 45 minutes of the game with 10 men, secured the club's first top-flight away win at City since January 2001 by defending in numbers and hitting with devastating results on the counter attack. It lacked the entertainment factor of most of their previous Premier League encounters this season but it was a style that gave a huge amount of protection to Illan Meslier, who despite facing 29 shots from City over the 90 minutes wasn't overly troubled. Of course, when you defend with such brilliance you need to be ruthless when venturing up field and in Stuart Dallas they had the difference maker.

His goals stood him out from the crowd, both excellently taken, but just as impressive was his work without the ball, especially in the second half when Leeds had to show tremendous mettle to swat away wave after wave of Manchester City attacks. No player covered more ground than the Northern Irishman (12.13km) in a performance that will only further enhance his legendary status among Leeds supporters. It's now official. Leeds are back at the top table of English football.
Lewis Jones

Fulham all character, no quality

Fulham 0-1 Wolves 3:18
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Wolves' win over Fulham in the Premier League

Scott Parker's post-match interview after a fourth consecutive defeat was all about Fulham's character, their resilience, their will to win. But all the will in the world couldn't force Rui Patricio into a real save all night as his side handed the initiative firmly to Newcastle in the relegation dogfight.

The story of Fulham's predicament is a simple one - only Sheffield United have scored fewer goals this season. While the Cottagers have lost only two games more than Leeds, 11 draws and just five wins have halted their push to stay up.

Parker will be praying Newcastle don't take advantage of Fulham's latest slip-up. Steve Bruce's side could have a nine-point gap over the bottom three, in theory at least, if they win both of their games in hand over Fulham.

Realistically, with games against Arsenal and Chelsea next up, Fulham's hope lies in that last-day game with Newcastle in west London. But unless they can get back to their brief resurgence earlier in 2021, get more bodies forward and get Josh Maja and Aleksandar Mitrovic firing, it may well be too late long before then.

Should Fulham stick by their man? Parker's players are clearly playing for him - but two home wins across the majority of a Premier League season, even one unrecognisable amid the pandemic, is really below par.

He can certainly get Fulham fighting for him. It underpins his philosophy, just as it underpinned his post-match comments. But is it enough? Some of the players at Parker's disposal certainly are not being utilised to their best, for whatever reason.

Take Mitrovic - he managed 11 goals in his last Premier League season, even though Fulham picked up only 26 points and finished 19th. This time, the big striker has scored only three times all season.

If the Cottagers do fail to beat the drop, as looks increasingly likely, the answer in the cold light of day might well be that it's time for a different approach.
Ron Walker

Will the drift set in again at Selhurst?

Wilfried Zaha shows his frustration during the 4-1 reverse to Chelsea
Image: Wilfried Zaha shows his frustration during the 4-1 reverse to Chelsea

Crystal Palace fans may well have seen Saturday's heavy home defeat coming.

The Eagles have now lost each of their last seven Premier League games against Chelsea - only against Tottenham (nine consecutive matches between September 2015 to September 2019) have they lost more games consecutively versus a specific opponent in their Football League history.

It was at this stage last season when Palace's solid campaign completely unravelled as they lost seven of their final eight matches. Four points from their last two games have ensured Palace have a strong foundation to avoid any sort of similar spring collapse this time around, but the manner in which they were dismantled in the opening half an hour by Chelsea will certainly see those fears return.

Hodgson admitted afterwards that he got his team selection wrong, but made no excuses for a lack of first-half intensity which saw his side muster just two touches in their opponent's box and not one shot at goal.

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Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson says they need to do some soul searching as their first half against Chelsea was 'nowhere near good enough'

"We're in the same league," he said after the 4-1 loss. "We need points just as much as they do. We have enough self-respect and belief in ourselves to do more than we did today, because the way we approached the first half and the way we played was nowhere near good enough and that's something we must all take responsibility for.

"We could've made life a lot more difficult for them but we played into their hands for large periods during the first half. We did that less in the second, but it was a bit late."

Twelve points clear of the relegation zone, Hodgson's side have all-but secured their Premier League status, but with the European places out of reach - and Hodgson's own future far from clear - preventing the sense of drift from setting in will require a collective effort in the coming weeks.
Ben Grounds

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