Three things we learned from Liverpool’s win vs. Tottenham

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Liverpool rode a relentless wave of early attacks to beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at Anfield on Saturday and snapped their worrying slump.

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Sadio Mane grabbed both goals in the battle between the top four contenders as Spurs’ awful record at Anfield continues and Mauricio Pochettino‘s men lost for the first time in 10 Premier League matches.

Here’s what we learned from a frantic encounter on Merseyside.


MANE IS THE MAN

When he’s good, he’s very good. Sadio Mane was the Sadio Mane on Saturday, ripping apart Tottenham’s defense every time he picked up the ball in the first half.

In truth, he could’ve had four goals in about five first half minutes… but he had to settle for two in Liverpool’s first Premier League win of 2017.

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His two goals in two minutes proved to be decisive and the Senegalese forward is a sight for sore eyes for the Anfield faithful. There’s no coincidence that Liverpool’s terrible run of 1 win from 10 games in all competitions (before their victory over Tottenham) coincided with Mane’s absence due to him playing at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal.

Now he’s back, Liverpool’s attack looks so much more dynamic. His pace forces defenders to try and drop deep and when they don’t the first goal happens. One direct ball and bang, 1-0. When Tottenham’s defense then decided to sit back, that gave plenty of room for the likes of Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho to roam in.

[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies- Sadio sinks Spurs ] 

Mane is the missing piece of the jigsaw and Liverpool missed him badly during his time away at AFCON.

Now he’s back, the Senegalese flyer will try and propel them to a top four finish. His tally of 11 PL goals (Liverpool’s highest scorer) will go a long way to doing that, but his electric pace frightens the life out of opposition defenders and allows plenty of space for his teammates to exploit.

Mane showed glimpses of his devastating finishing ability and directness at Southampton over the past two seasons — the fastest hat trick in PL history against Aston Villa in 2015 proved that — but he’s been so consistent for Liverpool this season and the 24-year-old can rip apart opponents in the blink of an eye. He is consistent, quick and is fine-tuning his calm finishing.

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Liverpool buying Mane for $42 million in the summer was an absolute steal.


SPURS HURT BY INJURIES

It’s easy to blame injuries for a lacklsuter performance and defeat, but Spurs were missing two of their key defensive players and it showed.

Both Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen were out for the trip to Anfield and that allowed Liverpool to completely eviscerate the left-side of Tottenham’s defense. Usually, in a 3-4-3 formation, Rose would be the left wing back and Vertonghen the left-sided center back.

Liverpool went down that channel and doubled up on left back Ben Davies time and time again in the first half. They targeted the area and it worked as Liverpool has now gone nine games unbeaten against Tottenham in the PL and Spurs have lost 16 of their 25 visits to Anfield in the PL era.

Yes, Liverpool were missing starting center back Dejan Lovren on Saturday. But that was it. They were at full strength apart from that.

If Tottenham had Rose flying down the flank to counteract the attacking instincts of Mane and Nathaniel Clyne, plus Vertonghen in defense alongside Toby Alderweireld, I’d speculate that this game would’ve ended in a draw. There’s no way with those two on the pitch that Spurs would’ve been caught cold and exposed so ruthlessly for Mane’s two goals.

Those defensive issues spread through the team. Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele were overrun in midfield which led to Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli being isolated in attacking areas. Liverpool did a job on Spurs. That job centered on them getting behind the left-side of their weakened defense.


REALITY CHECK FOR BOTH

This result and the past few weeks have acted as a reality check for both teams.

Liverpool and Tottenham are challengers for the top four. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Now, myself and many others were waxing lyrical about Tottenham before this game and I firmly believe that if Chelsea slip up then Spurs can catch them. Yet after this defeat, if Chelsea win at Burnley on Sunday they’ll open a 12-point gap on second-place Tottenham and third-place Arsenal with 13 games to go. Liverpool and Man City will be 13 points back of Chelsea.

The title is Chelsea’s. Let’s be real.

Now, for Liverpool and Tottenham there should be no shame in challenging for a top four finish. Especially this season.

[ MORE: Mourinho discusses United catching Chelsea ]

With Manchester United gaining momentum week by week as they’re 16 games unbeaten in the PL, plus Arsenal hanging around and Manchester City figuring things out, the race to finish in the top four is intensifying. Five into three doesn’t go and Liverpool and Spurs are two of the five teams vying for a top four finish. Liverpool needed this win big time to keep themselves in the top four hunt after being overtaken by Man United before kick off. There will be plenty of movement in and out of the top four in the final months of the season.

The fight for a top four spot could well become the theme of the 2016-17 season with Chelsea galloping away.

As Klopp and Pochettino continue to mold their young teams into their aggressive, direct philosophy of play, they are still battling side-by-side with the financial powers of Man City, Chelsea and Man United. That notion should not be overlooked.

It’s been a disappointing few weeks for Liverpool and now Spurs will have to pick themselves up for the upcoming FA Cup and UEFA Europa League games knowing their title hopes have faded drastically. That’s okay.

This reality check was much-needed for both clubs. At this stage in their projects, finishing in the top four is bang on schedule.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Leicester face Sevilla; Juve head to Porto

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 05:  Jamie Vardy of Leicester City applauds the crowd in defeat after the Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first legs take place on Wednesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City of the Premier League head to Spain to face Sevilla in the UCL last 16 despite Claudio Ranieri‘s men battling for survival in the Premier League. The Foxes, as always, are the big underdogs in Spain as Sevilla have won the UEFA Europa League in each of the past three seasons and Jorge Sampaoli’s side are battling for the title in La Liga.

As for Leicester, they’re just two points off the bottom of the PL as they haven’t scored in their last six outings and have lost five on the spin as well as being dumped out of the FA Cup by third-tier Millwall at the weekend. So yeah, Sevilla head into this game as the heavy favorites and will hope to take a healthy lead to the King Power Stadium with them in two weeks time.

In the other UCL clash on Wednesday FC Porto host Juventus as the Portuguese and Italian giants collide at the Estadio do Dragao. Porto finished behind Leicester in the group stage, while Juv battled it out with Sevilla and clinched top spot. Massimiliano Allegri’s men remain top of Serie A and will look to Gonzalo Higuain to deliver the goals away from home. It promises to be an intriguing tactical battle in northern Portugal.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Wednesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Sevilla vs. Leicester City – 2:45 p.m. ET
FC Porto vs. Juventus – 2:45 p.m. ET

Man United’s stroll at Saint-Etienne comes at a cost

SAINT-ETIENNE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 22:  Jose Mourinho, manager of Manchester United looks on before the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between AS Saint-Etienne and Manchester United at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on February 22, 2017 in Saint-Etienne, France.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Manchester United beat Saint-Etienne 1-0 in their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg clash on Wednesday, but Jose Mourinho will be more concerned by injuries picked up ahead of the EFL Cup final on Sunday.

[ MORE: Mkhitaryan, Carrick injury updates ] 

The Red Devils advanced to the last 16 of Europe’s second-tier club competition after a resounding 4-0 win on aggregate against the Ligue 1 side but with goalscorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan hobbling off in the first half and Michael Carrick removed in the second half, Mourinho will have some injury problems to sort out ahead of this weekends final against Southampton at Wembley.

Eric Bailly was sent off for two quick yellow cards in the second half but that didn’t impact the outcome as United cruised into the Round of 16 which will be drawn on Friday.

United have now lost just one of their last 25 games in all competitions. They are well and truly on a roll.

[ MORE: Europa League scoreboard ] 

United controlled the early stages and went ahead after 15 minutes when Juan Mata picked the ball up on the left flank, drifted inside and picked out Mkhitaryan’s run as the Armenian playmaker flicked home. 1-0 to United on the night as the Red Devils led 4-0 on aggregate.

Mata again got free down the left in the first half and his cross hit two Saint-Etienne defenders and almost went in, while Mkhitaryan hobbled off soon after clutching his hamstring.

With Marcus Rashford coming on for Mkhitaryan, he almost made it 2-0 as Ashley Young‘s cross just evaded him. At the other end Saint-Etienne barely threatened as Loic Perrin sent a tame header in on goal which Sergio Romero saved easily.

In the second half United spurned good chances as Marouane Fellaini fired into the side-netting with teammates wide-open and then Paul Pogba went down in the box easily under a challenge. Zlatan Ibrahimovic then fired a shot just wide after another good break from Rashford as United dominated proceedings with link-up play between Pogba and Ibrahimovic imperious.

Carrick was then taken off with Bastian Schweinsteiger coming on in his place as it appeared that United’s veteran midfielder had a calf issue.

Bailly was then shown two quick yellow cards around the hour mark (he will miss their next European game) which saw United play out the game with 10-men and that buoyed the home side slightly.

However, United coasted through to the last 16 with Rashford and Ibrahimovic going close to doubling their lead late on in front of a raucous home crowd.

Vietnamese players banned for two years after penalty protest

INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Flag bearer, Hoang Quy Phuoc of Vietnam arrives during the Opening Ceremony ahead of the 2014 Asian Games at Incheon Asiad Main Stadium on September 19, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea.  (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
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The Vietnamese Football Federation has imposed two-year bans on two players and suspended a coach for three years after their team was involved in a bizarre penalty protest during a league match on the weekend.

[ MORE: China or MLS for Rooney? ]

Long An players were furious at a late penalty awarded by referee Nguyen Tr?ng Thu to Ho Chi Minh City when the score was locked 2-2 late Sunday.

After initially walking off the pitch, the players returned to the field but goalkeeper Nguyen Minh Nhut turned his back as the penalty was taken, conceding a goal.

The whole team then stood motionless and allowed Ho Chi Minh City to score two more goals as the margin blew out to 5-2.

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In a statement, the VFF said that Mimh Nhut and captain Huynh Quang Thanh would banned for 24 months, “Due to disrupting the match, not respecting the decision of the referee and causing damage to the reputation and honor of the Vietnam Football Federation.”

Coach Ngo Quang Sang has been banned for three years, as has club chairman Vo Thanh Nhiem, who quit following the game.

Zaza scores stunning goal for Valencia vs. Real Madrid

TURIN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 23:  Simone Zaza (C) of Juventus FC celebrates after scring the opening goal during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and Frosinone Calcio at Juventus Arena on September 23, 2015 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Simone Zaza scored a stunner for Valencia against Real Madrid in La Liga.

Yes, that Simone Zaza.

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The Italian international striker, 25, spent the best part of six months on loan at West Ham United this season and just didn’t look interested as he failed to score in 11 appearances in all competitions. That prompted Slaven Bilic and the Hammers to cancel his loan deal from Juventus and the forward then joined Valencia in La Liga in January.

Fans of West Ham will be scratching their heads when watching the video below as Zaza swiveled and smashed home a perfect volley to put Valencia 1-0 up against Real at the Mestalla on Wednesday.

Simply sublime.