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Early returns from England’s offseason tell a tale of two Manchesters

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How much is Alex Ferguson worth in the standings? Or, more specifically, what will the difference between Ferguson and his replacement, David Moyes, mean to the Red Devils? Because if Ferguson was half as influential as his prodigious reputation implied, Manchester United’s going to take a step back. The big question is how much.

On one hand, trying to determine exactly how much Ferguson means over Moyes is a pointless exercise. We’ll never be able to verify our conclusion. On the other hand, it may be the most important evaluation United makes all summer. Before assessing their needs relative to Manchester City and Chelsea — before determining the financial commitment they need to make to maintain their English standing while improving in Europe — the Red Devils need to decide what they’ve lost. That may not result in a precise number of points they feel they’ve given back to their competition, but it will lead to a general plan of what they’d like to accomplish this summer.

I say “will lead” as if England’s champions haven’t already done this. Undoubtedly they’ve made their assessments and picked their targets, players that will go beyond the project right back they acquired last week. The Red Devils continue to have a need in central midfield. There are concerns wide, where their high-priced talents failed to produce last season. Unless they address those needs, either by getting more out of their players or acquiring new talent, the 11-point gap between them and Manchester City will prove smaller than it seems.

That’s why the relative silence from United should concern Red Devils’ supporters. While links to Marouane Fellaini, Robert Lewandowski, Leighton Baines and (even) Gareth Bale persist, most of those players have been linked elsewhere, with United’s place in the rumors serving as the normal “everybody sounds out Manchester United” part of most high-level gossip. Coming off a season in which they accumulated 89 points, it would be easy for the club to justify a stay-the-course approach.

Meanwhile, in the blue half of Manchester, United’s rivals have already made a number of significant changes. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla may not be a huge upgrade on Samir Nasri’s talent, but stylistically, he offers City a significant difference from the two wide-to-in playmakers they played as winger last season. On the opposite flank of David Silva, Navas gives City a needed alternative – somebody who have beat a man one-on-one, pick out City’s snipers from wide, as well as open up the middle of the field.

Through the middle, that means more space for Silva to cut in and orchestrate. It gives Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez more room to play beneath the back line. It gives Fernandinho and Yaya Touré space to get forward without the side effects that come with keeping Nasri and Silva wide. With Navas, a natural wide player, the team’s balance improves.

The biggest upgrade, though, may be on the sideline, with Manuel Pellegrini replacing Roberto Mancini. Il Mancho is a well-decorated coach, but Pellegrini’s on a different level. Throughout his career, Pellegrini’s never failed to improve the teams he’s joined, be those teams big or small, ambitious or recovering.

Particularly with the acquisition of Fernandinho, City is starting to look like a very Manuel Pellegrini team. The midfield duo will be able to confidently use a possession-based game to dictate play without making compromises defensively. They’ll be able to play patiently, using their variety in attack to test their opposition, with Pellegrini uses the depth assured by City’s finances to mix-and-match over the course of a season.

The bigger concern with Pellegrini is the fact he hasn’t won a title at this level; that he may not know the buttons that need to be pushed to transcend that 11-point gap. But if the early summer moves from Manchestern United’s rivals mean anything, that 11-point reference is far less meaningful than it was at season’s end. With Ferguson gone, Pellegrini on scene, and City having already made two huge moves, surely the quality difference between the two sides is a much more manageable number.

The better part of the summer’s still to play out, but based on initial returns, the offseason’s been a tale of two Manchesters. The blue side has acted quickly to address their needs, while their red rivals are taking a more deliberate approach.

And of course, we can’t forget that resurgent power in West London.

Spurs’ Kane wants to win everything: “We are buzzing”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his penalty with Danny Rose during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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FA Cup, Europa League, Premier League? Yes, please. Harry Kane wants them all.

Kane converted a penalty kick as Spurs bested Manchester City 2-1 on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, moving to within two points of the Premier League’s top spot.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Eriksen’s winner ]

The big striker was euphoric after Christian Eriksen also scored to help Spurs pick up the win, and said the media can decide what it wants about their chances; He knows they can do it.

From the BBC:

“That is up to you lot if we are challengers, we know what we are capable of. We are still in three competitions and we are taking them all very seriously. We are confident we can beat anyone in the league, you saw that today and we came away victorious. We are buzzing.”

Spurs have captured 15-straight points in making their run to second. There’s plenty of time before March 5’s big North London Derby with Arsenal, but we’re looking forward to it.

Before then, Spurs have a pair with Fiorentina in the Europa League, an FA Cup date with Crystal Palace, and PL fixtures versus Swansea and West Ham.

Title race on!

Three things we learned from Tottenham’s big win vs. Man City

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Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday in a tight encounter.

[ MORE: Arsenal beat Leicester late on ]

A controversial penalty kick got Spurs rolling and despite a Man City fightback, Christian Eriksen pounced late on to grab the winner on his birthday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Here’s what we learned as the title picture becomes even more jumbled after an epic day where the top four all met one another.

AWFUL PK CALL COSTS CITY

There’s a debatable handball decision and then there’s the kind of decision which went against Man City on Sunday. At the start of the second half Danny Rose curled in a pretty innocuous cross from the left flank and Raheem Sterling jumped in the air with his back to the ball and was right on the edge of the penalty area. The ball struck his ribs and may have grazed his elbow but he knew nothing about it. PEEEEEPP! What. No way. He hasn’t. He has.

Referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot and Man City’s players looked on in disbelief as the penalty was awarded. Take a look at the video below. It was incredibly harsh and swung the game in Spurs’ favor and overall the decision created a major talking point about what is and what isn’t a handball anymore.

Referees show a severe lack of consistency when awarding penalties for handball. Is it ball to hand? Does the arm have to be in an unnatural position? On and on the debate goes, and from his angle it looked like Clattenburg guessed that it hit Sterling’s arm rather than seeing it actually strike the arm. It cost Man City dear as Manuel Pellegrini‘s side have lost two on the spin at home against title rivals Leicester City and now Spurs. City are six points off top spot now with 12 games to go and they aren’t out of this. However, when you look back at big decisions at the end of the season this one could be the difference between them winning the title or not. That PK call and a huge late save from Hugo Lloris who took the ball off Nicolas Otamendi’s head could be pivotal. Sure, City look better at the back with Vincent Kompany returning from injury but there’s no doubt they’re the outsiders for the title after a seventh defeat of the season.

SPURS’ INTENSITY INFECTIOUS

They hunt in packs. They hunt together. And on Sunday, Tottenham’s players hunted down loose balls with more ferocity than in any other game this season. Snapping into tackles, in the first half City couldn’t get into any rhythm and despite the poor PK call from Clattenburg they deserved to win.

[ MORE: Arsenal fans go wild in USA after Welbeck’s winner

Over the course of the game Tottenham looked more comfortable on the ball, they believed in each other and Spurs secured a fifth-straight PL win at a venue where they had lost on each of the last five encounters. Mauricio Pochettino‘s team are showing a maturity beyond their years. Harry Kane stepped up and was ice-cold with his penalty kick, Mousa Dembele patrolled the midfield with power and panache and Eriksen’s winner was a prime example of the high-tempo approach Pochettino loves to employ. In the 83rd minute Yaya Toure tried to run forward from midfield and lost the ball with four Spurs players swarming him. Erik Lamela then ran at the hart of City’s defense and slipped through a perfect pass to Eriksen. On his birthday the Dane was coolness personified as he took a sublime first touch and slotted past Joe Hart to send the away fans wild. Spurs have only won the title twice in their history and the last came back in 1961. Now, with an easy looking schedule they could transform from the dark horses to the favorites. Pochettino’s player are hungry, have the best defensive record in the PL and have proven themselves in the big games this season.

NORTH LONDON TITLE TUSSLE

Okay, this is actually happening. With Arsenal beating Leicester earlier on Sunday both north London teams are now just two points behind the Foxes. Spurs sit second and Arsenal third as only goal difference separates the two rivals who have 51 points. When they meet at White Hart Lane on March 5 it will be an incredible atmosphere and it could well be a huge game in deciding which half of north London the title goes to on May 15.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule ] 

When you look back at the history of PL title races, there have been only a few instances where direct crosstown or local rivals have gone head-to-head for the title. Man City and Man United have had a few title tussles since 2011 but the fact that two bitter rivals are going at it for the title will only add to the incredible unpredictability. This season it is closer than ever at the top and Spurs and Arsenal now have plenty of momentum as they head into the two week PL break. Get ready for plenty of talk of a “title tussle in North London” over the next 10 days or so.  It’s legit.

WATCH: Lamela finds Eriksen to boost Spurs past Man City

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Spurs are within two points of the Premier League lead after this goal from Christian Eriksen boosted them to a 2-1 win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

[ MATCH RECAP: Man City 1-2 Spurs ]

With the match tied at one, Spurs sub Erik Lamela played a well-weighted through ball to Eriksen, who touched it forward before pushing a shot around a sliding Joe Hart to give Tottenham a lead it would not relinquish over the final minutes.

Manchester City 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Controversy and drama at the Etihad

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Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen scored goals in a big 2-1 away win over Manchester City on Sunday that kept Tottenham Hotspur in the thick of Premier League title race.

Kelechi Iheanacho scored Man City’s goal, briefly tying the match up before Eriksen decided things in the 83rd minute.

The win pulls Spurs into a mass of three teams within two points of the Premier League lead, above derby rivals Arsenal on goal differential and two points behind first-place Leicester City.

For Man City, it’s fourth place: four points out of second and six ahead of Manchester United.

Kane’s goal opened the scoring, and came off a controversial penalty call. Raheem Sterling leapt to block Danny Rose‘s cross and took the ball off his elbow, and Mark Clattenberg thought the elbow wasn’t tucked close enough to the body.

 

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first half featured plenty of cautious play and feeling out from both sides, as well as some testy tackles.

Danny Rose paid for making a great shot block on Raheem Sterling in the 24th minute. The Spurs defender slid hard to get in Sterling’s blast radius and took the shot off his chest.

Rose also pushed forward plenty in giving City’s left side fits.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sterling then conceded a controversial penalty at the whistle of Mark Clattenberg. Rose’s cross hit the leaping City man’s back or elbow inside the 18, and Kane buried his shot up the middle and past Joe Hart.

The goal forced an offensive sub, as Manuel Pellegrini took Fernando off for Kelechi Iheanacho in the 66th minute.

Then David Silva found Gael Clichy‘s overlapping run, and the latter’s cross was buried by Iheanacho from around the penalty spot.

It was a day for impact subs, though, as Erik Lamela played a perfectly-weighted ball through for Eriksen, who slid the ball past a splayed Hart.

A late sliding chance for Silva popped over the frame, and Spurs went back to London with all three points.