Man Utd return to top-four hunt in name only
What a weekend of results for Manchester United. Their two major top-four rivals lose and they move three points behind Tottenham in fourth.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Ralf Rangnick’s side laboured again to a 3-2 win over basement club Norwich, who had scored only 20 goals all season but could have had a hatful at Old Trafford.
Come the full-time whistle, the celebrations were muted at best and the most passionate reception was arguably reserved for Paul Pogba, who was booed loudly on his way down the tunnel.
All had not been well at United all afternoon, with protests against the Glazer ownership overshadowing the build-up to the game and a large collection of fans waiting until the 17th minute to take their seats to signify the 17 years since the Americans took control of the club.
The performance seemed the perfect reflection of their complaints – laborious and underwhelming, and all the more frustrating given the players were already aware Tottenham had handed them an opportunity by losing to Brighton in the early kick-off.
United are back in the hunt but in name only. Scraping wins over a team almost certain to be relegated will get them nowhere, and repeat performances against Liverpool and Arsenal over the next week will end their top-four charge as quickly as it has been rejuvenated.
Mane takes centre stage from Salah
As the Mohamed Salah contract saga rumbles on, it is easy to forget there is another member of Liverpool’s attack with only a year remaining on his deal. Sadio Mane surely merits just as much fuss.
Saturday’s thrilling FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City was the fifth game in a row in which Salah has failed to find the net but his dip in form matters little when Mane continues to deliver performances as devastating as this.
The Senegalese international, who triumphed over his team-mate at AFCON in February before then helping his country beat Egypt again for a place at the World Cup, followed up his crucial goals against Benfica and in the Premier League against City last weekend with a match-winning double at Wembley.
His first goal rewarded his relentless work-rate as he closed down Zack Steffen and bundled the ball into the net, and he then displayed sensational technique when he guided a volley into the bottom corner from Thiago Alcantara’s lofted pass for his second.
City could not live with him, instead resorting to fouling him five times across the 90 minutes – no player won more free kicks – and he left the field to rapturous applause from the delirious Liverpool fans inside Wembley when he was withdrawn in the closing stages.
In the end, his goals kept Liverpool’s hopes of a quadruple alive. They were also a reminder that, while he may not attract as much acclaim as his fellow attacker, he is no less influential. Resolving his future must be a priority too.
Man City must heed Liverpool’s Wembley warning
Manchester City’s treble hopes ran aground at Wembley Stadium on an afternoon where the Premier League leaders were comprehensively beaten on the pitch and in the stands.
Liverpool’s victory was three dimensional. A flawless performance on the pitch was inspired by the staggeringly passionate and vociferous support from their travelling fans.
Manchester City didn’t stand a chance – and did themselves no favours.
Pep Guardiola’s team selection undoubtedly contributed to Liverpool’s devastating first-half performance, with returnees Nathan Ake at fault for Ibrahima Konate’s opener, and stand-in goalkeeper gifting Sadio Mane his first and Liverpool’s second.
Guardiola pointed to fixture congestion and fatigue as reason for his pre-match alterations, but the defeat owed as much to City’s insipidness in attack in the first period as it did the errors. The Spaniard’s reluctance to turn to his bench until the 83rd minute for his one – and only – change only exacerbated City’s plight.
With the Premier League title run-in yet to unfold, and with a potential third and final instalment of City and Liverpool’s rivalry to come if both sides reach the Champions League final, this was a startling and sobering reminder of the threat Liverpool pose in one-off games, and even spells of matches.
Supported to the hilt, and capable of blowing any team in world football away, this Liverpool performance should serve as a warning to City that while they may well overcome their adversaries over the stretch of a Premier League season, discovering the sprint finish or knockout blow may be required to prevent Liverpool from getting their hands on the prizes they crave.
Tottenham’s long-term lesson from Brighton defeat
Perhaps come the end of the season, we’ll look back on this weekend as the moment Tottenham let Manchester United back into the top four race. The focus immediately after their defeat at home to Brighton was the prospect of Arsenal drawing level if they could win at Southampton. Some poor finishing from Mikel Arteta’s side spared Spurs from that but United are now back in the contest.
Whether this round proves to be a let-off or a costly slip-up, Antonio Conte was keen for his Tottenham players to learn their lesson.
“Once you reach a good position in the table you have to try to keep this position,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to cope with pressure. When you’re [in a team that’s] winning the league you have to cope with pressure from other results and this is a good opportunity for these players, who needed these kinds of exams for improvement.”
For Conte, it’s about building the blocks of experience for this Tottenham team to achieve greater things in the future. After all, this is a manager who is more accustomed to fighting for titles than fighting for fourth.
The mistake they made on Saturday, he said, was being too anxious to push for victory in the final stages – and leaving the space for Leandro Trossard to grab a late winner at the other end. Playing in the lunchtime kick-off, Spurs’ players felt the pressure to put down a marker before their rivals kicked off.
“A lesson we can learn today is that there are games that if you’re not able to win, you’re not to lose,” said Conte. “It was very clear that today wasn’t our day. I understand we want to try to get three points before our other rivals for the race in the Champions League but sometimes we need to feel.”
There are plenty more twists in this top-four race to come and every point will count.
Brighton back to their best
“Forty points with six games to go. Not so bad considering it was Armageddon three games ago!” Graham Potter took enjoyment in Brighton’s return to form in his press conference following the win over Tottenham. There was a dig at the critics who point to their struggles to score goals, too.
After a long, bizarre and perhaps tricky to understand run of one win in 13 matches (inside 90 minutes), Brighton have two in two from doing a north London double over Arsenal and Spurs. Watching them up close in both matches, it’s hard to believe how a team so well organised could have had such an awful streak.
At the back, they prevented a Spurs side, which had scored at least twice in each of their last seven, from having a single shot on target. Lewis Dunk did an excellent job in limiting Harry Kane’s involvement. Ahead of him in midfield, Yves Bissouma was superb, with and without the ball.
It’s in the final third where Brighton have had their biggest struggles this season – as referenced by Potter – but with a slick drop of the shoulder and prod into the bottom corner, Leandro Trossard came up with the moment of quality to deliver a first win at Spurs since 1981.
A historic goal and perhaps a historic performance. There was talk in the press room afterwards from long-time Brighton watchers that it may have been their best display since they came up to the Premier League. Potter’s view was it was certainly a step up from their display at Arsenal.
However you want to rank it, Brighton have ridden through the tough moments this season and have come out the other side with two significant wins. They’re back to their best and a strong finish to the season beckons.
Faltering Arsenal fail to capitalise on opportunity for fourth
When questions were being asked of Antonio Conte’s position at Tottenham following a 1-0 loss to relegation-threatened Burnley in February, very few people would have predicted the standings would now favour Spurs in the race for fourth place.
With six games to play – seven for Arsenal – Spurs hold the fourth and final Champions League spot, but only because teams around them have proceeded to crumble just as they have found some renewed form.
Arsenal have wasted chances against Crystal Palace, Brighton and now Southampton to wrestle ascendency in the battle for a top-four finish – it’s as if they no longer want it.
Mikel Arteta conceded that his side’s form is a ‘worry’ entering the backend of a defining campaign for the Gunners – with this being their third run of three straight defeats under the Spaniard.
What’s worse is they have now opened the door to Manchester United. What was a two-horse race is now three.
A season that promised so much is unravelling quickly for Arsenal, who now need a result from Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night to restore some conviction in their Champions League bid.
Arteta’s praise of Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster was merited – he kept Saints in the game – but Arsenal did not do enough to dissolve the stopper’s purpose.
Undoubtedly, there will be further surprises in the race for fourth, but what’s certain is that if Arsenal don’t improve swiftly, it will not be them playing Champions League football in 2022/23.
Slow first half costs Watford
A smattering of boos at half time told you everything you needed to know about Watford’s first-half performance against Brentford.
The Hornets were 1-0 down, had mustered one shot on target and were second best in all areas. It was a display that befitted a team winless at home since November.
To their credit, Watford were much better in the second half and had Imran Louza not wasted a great chance in the 92nd minute, the Hornets could well have completed a superb comeback win.
But such is the way it is going for Watford at home this season, they conceded a last-minute Pontus Jansson winner that saw them crash to a record 10th consecutive home loss – the worst record in the club’s history.
For Hodgson, the defeat was all down to that sluggish first-half.
He said: “We really needed each and every player right from the very first minute to be at the top of his game. Now that was by no means the case.
“We did remedy, to some extent in the second half, some of the worst aspects of our first half performance, and we gave ourselves a chance; we equalised and we could even have got that winner.
“But it would have been nice if we could have done it from the very first minute because then maybe we wouldn’t even been behind at half time.”
The defeat, which leaves Watford second bottom and six points adrift of safety, edges them closer to an immediate return to the Championship.
Hodgson’s message for their final six games, starting next Saturday at leaders Manchester City?
“One has to believe, one has to keep faith, one has to take some sort of heart from their desire and commitment and effort during the second half,” the 74-year-old said.
“You just have to hope that six times 95 minutes more, they’ll be able to do that and maybe, who knows, we will pick up points we aren’t expected to and we will get ourselves back in the race.”
Brentford to have big say on top-four race?
Brentford are one of the form teams in the Premier League right now. Their last-gasp win at Watford was their fifth victory in six games – only Liverpool have taken more points than the Bees in that period.
It means their next two fixtures against Tottenham and Manchester United now look far more complicated for those two top-four chasing clubs than it did at the end of February, when defeat at home to Newcastle had left Brentford winless in eight games.
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But any concerns that the resurgent Bees are likely to take their foot off the gas now that they are all-but safe from relegation, were immediately dismissed by head coach Thomas Frank after the win at Vicarage Road.
“I’m happy that we are on a decent amount of points, but I want more,” he declared.
“We’re now on 39 points, we’re trying to keep focused on winning the next game and finish as high as possible.
“It’s been a crazy season for us, a remarkable season.”
Things could get even crazier for Brentford though if they were to beat either Tottenham at home next Saturday, live on Sky Sports, or Manchester United at Old Trafford on May 2, also live on Sky Sports.
Sunday 24th April 11:15am
But Frank knows they will have to perform at a better level than their win at Watford if they are to have a say on the top-four race.
“I think in the first-half we were a tiny bit better than Watford, without being fantastic,” he said. “In the second-half, Watford had the momentum and were a little bit more on top of the game.
“In football it’s very rare that you have these top performances and you win week-after-week. There’s also days where you are six or seven out of 10 in terms of performance, and I think that was today.”