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Five things we learned in the Premier League today

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Today proved telling in the Premier League.

Manchester United looked to have broken through against a stubborn Fulham side, only to see it all slip away again at the end.

Meanwhile, one frustrating moment undid Everton at White Hart Lane, but both sides impressed as they search for an outside shot at the top four.

So what did we learn from today’s action? Plenty.

Manchester United gave their critics even more fodder, Tim Sherwood continues to prove his doubters wrong, and Fulham grabbed Premier League safety by the shoestring, but they still have plenty to do as they attempt the Mt. Everest-like climb out of the basement.

1) Manchester United is simply not good enough for the Champions League.

To put it simply, there are too many great teams in the Premier League this season, and Manchester United isn’t one of them. Aging players like Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher wouldn’t start for Arsenal, Chelsea, or Manchester City, let alone captain them.

Fletcher was to blame on Fulham’s first goal, with his horrible tracking of Steve Sidwell, despite looking back at the midfielder three times before his run.  Look at the previous Fulham results to the other top sides: Arsenal won collectively 5-1 over their two fixtures with Fulham.  Liverpool beat them 4-0. Manchester City put up four on this defense. Hell, even Hull City packed it on with six.

This Manchester United side is good, but not great, and the Champions League is for great teams. For the first time in Premier League history, Manchester United will not make the top 4. They’re currently nine points back, and it appears their challenge for Europe’s top competition may be too far out of reach.

2) Fulham are still in deep doo-doo, but they’re not done yet

Fulham showed a ton of heart today at Old Trafford, remaining composed even four minutes deep into extra time.  It’s the first time anyone’s really been able to say that all season. Things still look incredibly bleak for Rene Meulensteen’s bunch who sit four points from safety, but it’s not over just yet.

Being harsh on them today, they probably needed three points to ward off many of the worrywarts, and even Meulensteen may rue the two points dropped today come May. But the performance showed that this team still has heart, and still has fight – something that’s been impossible to say this year before today.

The visitors made EIGHTY-FOUR clearances today at Old Trafford and the Premier League’s most porous defense showed their new look may be a vast improvement.  Add Kostas Mitroglou on the other end in an attack that already boasts the classy addition of Lewis Holtby, and they could possibly make a run.

But first, they have to deal with Liverpool and Chelsea in the next three weeks. Yikes.

3) Tim Sherwood is the real deal

What Tim Sherwood has done at Tottenham Hotspur cannot be understated.  A relative unknown to anyone outside White Hart Lane at the time of his appointment, he has taken a mentally broken side and revitalized them.

There’s a big difference between the temporary boost a team often sees at the time of a managerial switch and what Sherwood is accomplishing at Spurs.  Andre Villas Boas benefited greatly from Daniel Levy’s brilliant summer transfer window, but the Portugese manager never could quite make things fit with the vast quantity of new players.

Sherwood, in under two months, has managed to do what Villas Boas could not.  He’s revitalized Emmanuel Adebayor, slotted Roberto Soldado into a more fitting role (which, with his form this year, has sometimes been on the bench), and has found the key to unlocking Christian Eriksen’s Premier League success.

While Adebayor’s revival will undoubtedly get the headlines, and deservedly so, flying under the radar is Sherwood’s ability to find the proper use of Eriksen.  A lost child in a supermarket under Villas Boas, he’s been freed of his touchline shackles and allowed to roam the pitch more freely under Sherwood and the results have been bright.

Expect more victories under Sherwood, and while it would seem the top four may elude them once again if Liverpool continue on this torrid run, but the future is bright.

4) Everton are a quality side, but…

Today Everton produced enough to challenge a Tottenham Hotspur side, and Roberto Martinez’s tactics relied on pressure and hard work to earn the ball and create chances.

source: Getty Images
Steven Naismith was no Romelu Lukaku up front today for Everton as they fell 1-0 to Tottenham despite playing well enough to earn a point.

Unfortunately, they were undone by one key miss: Romelu Lukaku.  Without a true striker, especially their loanee who’s been stellar up front this year, Everton were forced to start Steven Naismith at the top of their attack, and they paid the price.  Naismith was wasteful, and often undid much of his own hard work with a lack of finishing.

The forward finished without a shot technically, but he botched a few chances, and in the end finished with 10 of his 16 completed passes headed backwards.

Martinez has proved a fantastic hire in replace of David Moyes, and the addition of Lacina Traore will surely help Everton make it through however long Lukaku is out with little damage, but a loss today to a team so close in the table hurts dearly.

Long story short: Everton will be fine, and are easily a top-7 side, but any more wasteful performances and it doesn’t matter who their manager is or how great his plans are fit to beating the opponent.

5) This miserable season at Manchester United still is mostly not David Moyes’ fault

Looking at everything going wrong at Manchester United, little of it has anything to do with David Moyes.  He ultimately may be the sacrificial lamb in a year that is wholly unacceptable by United’s standards, but peering around the squad, Sir Alex Ferguson and the rest of the United front office handed Moyes a group of players doomed to fail.

Nemanja Vidic is aging. So is Patrice Evra. Robin van Persie’s age hasn’t affected his output, but it has affected his ability to stay match fit.  Ashley Young has never fit in at Manchester United despite their refusal to replace him. Shinji Kagawa may not actually be the right style for the Premier League.  And Wayne Rooney can only carry so much on his back.

While his insistence to play Adnan Januzaj on the wing can certainly be criticized (and rightly so), his tactics against Fulham today or mostly throughout the season cannot.  Manchester United pumped a total of 82 crosses into Fulham’s box, and while it took a while to click, it eventually worked, and noting Fulham’s lack of outside defending in recent months, the plan makes perfect sense.  What did United in was a pair of terrible mistakes at the back, something that cannot be fixed by the manager.

Moyes did incredibly well to bring in Juan Mata, and the Spaniard has arguably been the best player at Old Trafford since his arrival, including setting up United’s breakthrough today.  Bringing in Marouane Fellaini was ultimately a failure, but hindsight is 20/20, and at the time they desperately need a physical midfielder (they still do).

If I was a Manchester United fan, I’d be pointing equal fingers at whoever handed Moyes this aging, fragile defensive unit that has let them down time and again this season.

Honorable mention: Dan Burn is the real deal

Whether or not Fulham stay up this season (chances are they still won’t) the 6-foot-5 21-year-old has opened plenty of eyes. He was a force in preventing Manchester United from landing 64 of their 82 crosses.  He made 22 clearances against the Red Devils – a staggering number – including 15 with his head.

What seemed like a desperate move in recalling Burn from his season-long loan spell at Birmingham has turned into a master-class decision by Meulensteen.  The move likely cost Fulham a bit of cash to cancel his loan, and upset a great deal of Birmingham City brass.

However, with Brede Hangeland aging and slow to react, Burn has emerged as not just Fulham’s best defender, but possibly a solid option for a top team in the future.  He’s reminding many Fulham fans of the Hangeland of old, something that many at Craven Cottage could get very used to.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”

UCL: Aguero, Falcao bag braces as Man City edge Monaco, 5-3

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City (C) celebrates with John Stones (L) and Leroy Sane of Manchester City (R) as he scores their third goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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  • Sterling gives Man City an early lead
  • Falcao hits back with a brace
  • Aguero’s brace breathes life back into City

Radamel Falcao and Sergio Aguero bagged dueling braces, while the defenders and/or goalkeepers from their respective sides engaged in dueling disasters, resulting in a bonkers UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg for the ages: Manchester City 5, Monaco 3.

Leroy Sane, David Silva and Raheem Sterling combined to put Man City in the lead after 28 minutes (WATCH HERE). Sane danced brilliantly and effortlessly past four defenders before playing Silva to the endline. The cross was simple for Silva, with Sterling arriving into acres of space in the goalmouth.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

That’s as good as the first half would get for City, though, as their annual Champions League meltdown commenced six short minutes thereafter (WATCH HERE). The Nicolas Otamendi-John Stones-Bacary Sanga triangle of deadly defending fell asleep in unison, which allowed Falcao all the time and space in the world to size up and head home his 23rd goal (in 29 games — all competitions) this season.

Eight minutes later, everyone else in sky blue joined the aforementioned trio for nap time. Fabinho, who also whipped in the cross for Falcao’s goal, dropped the most delicate of long balls onto the foot of Kylian Mbappe, and the 18-year-old fired his first-time shot past Willy Caballero without a single defender five yards from him in any direction.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

The second half began just as disastrously for City as the first ended. Otamendi tripped Falcao inside the penalty, and after discussing with his assistant on the endline, referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz awarded Monaco a penalty kick — City felt hard done by after Aguero wasn’t awarded a clear-cut penalty in the first half — which Falcao then proceeded to hit weakly into the waiting arms of Caballero. The tide had turned back in City’s favor.

Ageuro fired City back onto level terms just short of the hour mark, with many thanks to the horrendous howler of Danijel Subasic. Aguero’s effort on goal was tame, and right at the Croatian international, but the ball went right through his hands and found the back of the net to make it 2-2, a scoreline which lasted all of three minutes.

Stones tried his very best Otamendi impression, which looked like halfhearted defending as Falcao left him for dead and chipped Caballero in the 61 minute. The renaissance of Falcao will almost certainly result in a summer full of transfer stories linking him with a move back to the Premier League.

Aguero brought City back to level terms again in the 71st minute, unleashing a stunning volley from David Silva’s corner kick. Stones tapped home at the back post six minutes later to put City 4-3 ahead, and Sane completed the epic comeback with an empty-net finish in the 82nd minute.

In the end, City still have plenty of work to do in the second leg, having conceded not one, not two, but three away goals. One thing is a near certainty: no extra time shall be needed.

UCL: Atletico Madrid blitz Bayer for 4 away goals, win 1st leg 4-2

Atletico's Antoine Griezmann, front, is congratulated by his teammate Saul Niguez after scoring their side's second goal during the Champions League round of 16 first leg soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Atletico Madrid in Leverkusen, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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  • Four away goals for Atleti
  • Niguez, Griezmann, Gamerio, Torres on the scoresheet
  • Bellarabi, Savic (OG) give Bayer a lifeline

If you spent your Tuesday glued to Manchester City’s thrilling 5-3 victory over Monaco in the UEFA Champions League, you may now direct your attention to the day’s other first-leg festival of goals: Bayer Leverkusen 2, Atletico Madrid 4.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

Saul Niguez opened the scoring with a stunning curler after 17 minutes (WATCH HERE), and Antoine Griezmann doubled Los Rojiblancos‘ advantage eight minutes later to put Diego Simeone’s side in a commanding position with two early away goals.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

Karim Bellarabi pulled one back for Bayer just three minutes into the second half, but Kevin Gamerio converted from the penalty spot to restore Atleti’s two-goal lead just before the hour mark. Stefan Savic gave one back to Bayer in the form of an owl goal in the 68th minute, before Fernando Torres brought the visitors’ away-goals haul to four in the 86th minute.

AT THE HALF: Man City 1-2 Monaco; Atleti lead in UCL round of 16

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Radamel Falcao Garcia of AS Monaco celebrates as he scores their first and equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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We’re only halfway through the first leg of Manchester City versus Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen versus Atletico Madrid, in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, but the goals are coming fast and furious from England to Germany.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

Man City found themselves 1-0 up at the Etihad Stadium, when Leroy Sane turned on video-game mode to set up Raheem Sterling for the opening goal in the 28th minute. But, as City have so typically done in the Champions League, they began self-destructing four minutes later. Radamel Falcao‘s diving header brought Monaco level in the 32nd minute, and Kylian Mbappe’s finish over the head of Willy Caballero put the visitors 2-1 up eight minutes later.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

As for Tuesday’s other round-of-16 tie, Saul Niguez simultaneously opened the scoring and snatched the soul of every Bayer defender who dared to contest him. Antoine Griezmann added a second for Atleti, who hold their 2-0 lead at halftime, seven minutes later.