A decisive moment to regret for Aston Villa?
If Aston Villa are relegated this season, it will not be down to just one moment. It will be the result of a campaign’s worth of mistakes, missed chances, injuries, dips in form and failure to reach the required standard. But, oh, how Aston Villa fans will continue to look back on Anwar El Ghazi’s miss from two yards against Everton for a long time to come if their side drops back to the Championship.
With Villa holding a rare away-day lead, El Ghazi had simply to prod home Jack Grealish’s superb cross to make it 2-0 and seal a vital three points. Instead he got his finish all wrong and somehow lobbed the ball over the bar with his heel. Eight minutes later Theo Walcott headed in Everton’s equaliser.
All eyes will be on West Ham vs Watford on Friday night. If there is a winner, they will feel confident of staying up but had Villa won at Everton, they would have backed themselves to overhaul the loser at the London Stadium – or either side if it finished in a draw.
There is still hope. Watford have Manchester City and Arsenal to come after West Ham and could well fail to add to their tally. West Ham finish with Manchester United and then Aston Villa themselves. There will be more pivotal moments to come – and El Ghazi will be hoping we are not talking about his miss after the final whistle blows on the season.
Martial’s magical year
If Bruno Fernandes is the restart king for Manchester United with five goals and four assists then Anthony Martial might be the man of 2020. Not only is he one of three players to have outscored his team-mate this past month, he is the top scoring Premier League player in all competitions in 2020 with 12 goals. Ten of them have come in the Premier League itself with Mohamed Salah the only other man in double figures.
There had long been speculation about Martial’s best position. The Frenchman has spent plenty of his United career out on the left wing with Rashford sometimes preferred in that central role but that debate appears to be over. The pair have dove-tailed perfectly.
In fact, the combination play that led to United’s second against Crystal Palace was the seventh time that one of the two players has assisted the other for a goal in this season’s Premier League. Remarkable as it might seem given the success that the club enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson, that is the most of any pairing in a single season for Manchester United.
Thomas makes his mark for Leicester
It is not often that a Premier League side name a player who does not even have his own Wikipedia entry in their starting line-up – in fact it must be a first for one chasing a Champions League place – but Luke Thomas certainly made his mark on his debut for Leicester against Sheffield United.
The 19-year-old academy product, thrown into the side amid an injury crisis, looked assured throughout defensively, winning aerial duels and making important clearances from his position at left wing-back, but it was at the other end of the pitch that he made the biggest impression.
He showed superb vision to pick out Ayoze Perez for Leicester’s opening goal – becoming the youngest English player to provide an assist on his Premier League debut since Marcus Rashford in 2016 – and created a further two scoring chances over the course of the 90 minutes.
Brendan Rodgers revealed he was given a round of applause on his return to the dressing room at the King Power Stadium in his post-match interview with Sky Sports, adding: “He’s got incredible composure. It’s his first game at first-team level, playing against a really good team, and he has the awareness and view of the game to disguise a pass inside like that.”
Luke Thomas. No Wikipedia entry yet, but a name worth remembering.
Everton crying out for midfield reinforcements
Both Everton and Aston Villa scored with their only shots on target during their 1-1 draw at Goodison Park, but while one side still battles bravely to avoid the drop, Carlo Ancelotti will have expected far better than that measly tally following the debacle at Wolves.
Jarrad Branthwaite looked very assured in his only second Premier League appearance, introduced as an early substitute for the injured Mason Holgate, while Everton’s unbeaten home record now stretches to 11 games – but that is more or less where the positives end.
His midfield was bypassed far too easily at times, with Douglas Luiz winning all 10 of his duels to underline Villa’s dominance in this area. Ancelotti was asked about the continued reports of a move for Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and on this evidence it is clear to see just why.
The Everton boss said: “I don’t want to talk about this because I think it is unfair to talk about a player at a different club in this moment.”
Over the past four winless games, Ancelotti has tinkered with his wide players in the four across the middle but it is in the centre where Everton have struggled for control. Southampton value Hojbjerg at £25m, and after the club saw little return from £380m spent over the past three seasons, Ancelotti knows beating Tottenham to his signature must only be the start of another rebuild.
Liverpool’s post-lockdown drop-off costs them points record
To throw criticism the way of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool considering the domestic brilliance they have shown this season seems a bit petty. But we live in a ruthless world.
If the resumption of football in June signalled the start of a new season, then Liverpool would be out of the European spots based on their seven games. Their haul of 11 points from a possible 21 would have them in ninth spot and – up against their usual high-standards – it’s bordering on pitiful if you compare it to the rate of points they had been amassing pre-lockdown. Remember, this is a team that had won 19 of their last 20 Premier League matches either side of a 3-0 defeat at Watford.
Of course, few would begrudge them knocking off slightly for the summer but their drop-off has cost them a chance at creating history. Liverpool’s hopes of breaking the Premier League points record are now dashed with 99 points the maximum they can muster.
But this is probably a case of nit-picking at its finest. Klopp and his boys will not care one iota when that trophy is lifted into the Anfield sky next Wednesday.
Arteta puts pressure on Arsenal owners
Mikel Arteta could hardly have been clearer. He was delighted with the spirit and belief shown by his players in their battling win over Liverpool, but he knows those qualities will only get them so far. If the club want to reclaim their Champions League place in the future, serious investment is required.
He made the point in his pre-match press conference but it was in his post-match interview with Sky Sports that he really hammered it home. “There is no magic,” he said. Arteta has transformed the squad’s attitude, but he cannot work miracles with players who are not up to it. “Enormous,” was how he described the gulf between his side and Liverpool.
Arsenal’s financial outlook is not rosy – and that’s before we even consider the implications of the coronavirus crisis. They are already facing a fourth consecutive season outside of the Champions League. A failure to secure a Europa League place would cost them further revenue.
Arteta knows that, but he also knows Arsenal’s hopes of closing the gap on the teams above them rest on strengthening the squad this summer and beyond. His comments after Wednesday’s game were another clear message to KSE, Arsenal’s American owners: If you want to take the club back to the top, you need to pay for it.
Kane’s consistency shouldn’t be underestimated
There has been plenty of talk about how Jose Mourinho’s style affects Harry Kane but the Tottenham head coach will point to the raw stats. The Spurs striker’s match-winning double in the 3-1 victory at Newcastle makes it 11 goals in 17 appearances under Mourinho. That’s some return.
Perhaps it could be better. Kane’s failure to touch the ball in the Manchester United penalty area in Spurs’ first game after the restart was well documented. So was his failure to land a shot on target against Everton or Bournemouth. He was limited to just two efforts at Newcastle…
But Mourinho will be delighted with the output he’s getting from his main man as he attempts to mould this Tottenham team into the shape he wants. It’s testament to Kane’s brilliance in front of goal that his strike rate remains high despite Spurs’ recent ups and downs – and not forgetting he’s just back from a six-month injury layoff.
Kane’s latest landmark – 201 goals in 350 club appearances – is a reminder that despite the detractors about his form or his manager’s approach, he remains a stellar striker, whose relentless consistency in front of goal should not be underestimated.
Stones, Otamendi fail to seize their chance
Pep Guardiola made six changes as Manchester City hosted Bournemouth, potentially with one eye on this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal. Among other things, it presented John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi with a chance to prove him wrong.
Despite City’s defensive injury problems, this centre-back pairing have been picked together only twice all season – and one of those games was City’s calamitous 3-2 defeat at Norwich back in September. Plenty has been said about the club’s failure to replace Vincent Kompany last summer, and perhaps this was a last-chance saloon for both to stake a claim for their City future.
As it was, despite City’s victory, they did little to suggest Pep has been wrong to entrust even midfielder Fernandinho or 19-year-old Eric Garcia at the back ahead of picking them both. With both full-backs bombing on as usual, the defensive responsibility lay with them – and they struggled with Dominic Solanke, Junior Stanislas and Josh King all evening.
To put it into context, no side had previously managed more shots than City in a Premier League game at the Etihad in Guardiola’s four-year reign. The team to break that duck are third bottom, having previously scored 36 goals in 35 games.
“It may be the last time we see Stones in a Manchester City shirt,” said Jamie Carragher after the game. “He was brought in for big money, and it hasn’t quite happened for him.” Will this be the end? Time will tell, but if any further proof were needed City need additional defensive options, this was it.
When will Dyche get the credit he deserves?
Burnley have lost one of their last 14 Premier League games, a fine run since January which has lifted them firmly into the top half.
This year alone, they have stopped Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Wolves, and their approach is often simple: keep it tight for as long as possible before pouncing.
In fact, Burnley have been goalless at half-time a league-high 13 times, have scored just 17 goals in this 14-game unbeaten run, and have netted just six since the restart.
When you consider Burnley’s spending, and recent injury issues, once again the narrative surrounding Sean Dyche is: should he get more credit?
Dyche had to name four youth team players aged 20 or under on the bench of his depleted side for the 1-1 draw with Wolves, but he continues to work miracles with a thin squad and a tight budget.
The Burnley boss has been at Turf Moor nearly eight years, a lengthy tenure in these days of short-termism, but his continued public criticism of the club’s spending may spell future uncertainty.
Saints keep on marching in strong season finish
Southampton have now picked up two points more than Liverpool since the resumption of the Premier League. Sure, the champions’ form has fallen off a cliff, but consider this is the same side that was getting hammered 9-0 by Leicester and looking prime for relegation a couple of months into the season. Things have come a long way.
That Southampton have nothing to play for but pride, and a couple of positions in mid-table, but still matched an in-form Brighton side not secure of safety themselves, say a lot about how things have changed. Although they looked defensively fragile against the Seagulls – not unsurprising after changing three of their back four – there was plenty to be optimistic about for next season.
Danny Ings was at his best up front, scoring one and nearly getting another with a fine 20-yard strike, young left-back Jake Vokins slotted in for his Premier League debut like a duck to water, and half-time sub Che Adams’ link-up play with his strike partner looked even like having the potential to blossom, at long last.
Blunt Chelsea may need more in home straight
Chelsea had just about enough to get past an unusually resolute Norwich defence on Tuesday night, but it was a familiar story for Frank Lampard’s side who failed to kill the game despite producing a number of chances in either half, but saw Olivier Giroud’s header enough to secure victory.
They were able to see out victory after that goal with ease largely thanks to Norwich failing to register a shot on target across the entire 90 minutes. The Blues still need four more points to guarantee a Champions League spot next season – and against Liverpool and Wolves, two sides far more dangerous than the relegated Canaries, they will not have it so easy.
A fifth consecutive home win, Chelsea’s longest stretch since 2017, should still be a comfort to Lampard, however, with the Blues finding a way to win ugly at least, but on a night where they could conjure only a solitary goal from their 22 shots, they know they must sharpen up in front of goal to guarantee their spot at Europe’s top table.
Bournemouth will not go down without a fight
Eddie Howe will hope it isn’t too little, too late for Bournemouth to keep their season alive. “Absolutely devastated” was his understandable assessment of a superb performance against one of the Premier League’s best ever teams earning his side zero points. He followed it by saying the harsh reality is performances do not matter at this stage of the season.
Three points adrift from safety with two games to play, it’s now or never for the Cherries; if they do end up getting relegated, they can at least say they put up a fight after their last three games. This was not even back to the Bournemouth of old, it was better.
Manchester City had put 28 goals past Bournemouth in their nine previous Premier League meetings, but there was no sign of a repeat performance in the 10th. They were quite easily the superior side at the Etihad, with Junior Stanislas and Josh King’s pace complementing the strong central midfield trio of Dan Gosling, Jefferson Lerma and Philip Billing.
The club’s only regret if they do slip back to the Championship may be why they did not start playing sooner. It’s not a plucky 2-1 defeat against Man City which will have done it, more the likes of the dismal 4-1 home defeat by Newcastle two weeks earlier.
Newcastle injuries take their toll
In his post-match press conference, Steve Bruce regularly used two words – ‘delighted’ and ‘frustrated’. He was delighted with the performance overall but frustrated with some sloppy defending for Tottenham’s goals.
It’s no surprise either considering the mountain of injuries that are once again piling up for Newcastle. Captain Jamaal Lascelles has undergone an ankle operation while Fabian Schar dislocated his shoulder on Wednesday. Florian Lejeune and Ciaran Clark also remain on the sidelines through injury and just when Bruce did not need it, Danny Rose was ineligible against his parent club.
There was another blow too as the influential Allan Saint-Maximin picked up a calf knock with the last kick of the game, with one of Newcastle’s biggest creative outlets and their most vibrant attacking player possibly out for the last two games of the season.
He was the shining star once more against Tottenham, making driving runs at the heart of the Spurs defence that they often could not contain. He won five fouls – the most of any player on the field – and had six shots, although only three were on target.
In fact, Newcastle had a huge 22 shots compared to just eight from Tottenham but lacked a real cutting edge up front. Shots fired high into the empty St James’ Park stands or straight at Hugo Lloris. Only an inspired effort from Matt Ritchie was enough to beat the Tottenham captain and should Saint-Maximin face a spell out, this is only going to decrease their ability to create.
A lot of credit has to go to Bruce for what he has achieved with Newcastle this season when many wrote him off, but he has once again hit a bad patch of injuries that has only been exacerbated by the heavy fixture list. But as the manager himself said, with two games to go, the Magpies must get their heads down, finish as high as they can and try to regroup for the start of next season.
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