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.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

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.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.

PL Preview: Three Tuesday fixtures including Chelsea visit to Huddersfield

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As the holiday season nears, the Premier League begins to ramp up. While that can be hard on Premier League managers, it’s great for you, the fan, who now has plenty of options to choose from as you make your way through the work week.

[ PL SCHEDULE: Where to watch all midweek Premier League games ]


Burnley vs. Stoke City – 2:45 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

If Burnley defeats Stoke City on Tuesday, the Clarets would jump Tottenham, Arsenal, and Liverpool en route to a place in the Premier League table’s Top 4. Just pause for a moment and soak that in.

Better?

That’s right, Sean Dyche has his Burnley side on a roll, having won five of its last seven matches. In games where they were earning draws last year, they’re picking up all three points this year. Meanwhile, they face a Potters group that sits just three points above the relegation zone, meaning the heat has turned up on Mark Hughes. What is in store for us at Turf Moor?

INJURIES: Burnley – Tom Heaton (shoulder), Robbie Brady (knee), Jonathan Walters (knee) | Stoke City – Jese (personal leave), Glen Johnson (knee), Bruno Martins Indi (shoulder), Stephen Ireland (leg).


Huddersfield vs. Chelsea – 3:00 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Antonio Conte, in charge of the defending champions, is suddenly on the hot seat. Already 14 points back of leaders and expected winners Manchester City, the Blues are sitting a distant third in the table.

A trip to Huddersfield could be exactly what the doctor ordered. The Terriers started the season well, but had lost four Premier League matches in a row before a 2-0 victory over Brighton turned things around.

Conte has already ruled Chelsea out of the title, with the Blues now fighting for a Champions League place. Can the boss take advantage of the poor opposition form? He will be without star striker Alvaro Morata who is dealing with both back problems and general fatigue, with Conte calling his schedule “impossible.”

INJURIES: HuddersfieldMichael Hefele (Achillies), Philip Billing (ankle), Jon Stankovic (knee), Kasey Palmer (ineligible – parent club) | Chelsea – Alvaro Morata (back), David Luiz (knee).


Crystal Palace vs. Watford – 3:00 p.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

The Eagles hav a chance to pull themselves not only off the bottom of the Premier League table, but out of the relegation zone completely when they host Watford at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace sits a point back of Swansea City on the bottom, but with somewhat improved performances under Roy Hodgson, three points would climb them completely out of the drop.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how Hodgson balances a desperate need to collect points with discipline of his struggling striker Christian Benteke, who remains goalless on the year after missing a critical penalty he wasn’t supposed to take in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth over the weekend.

Watford, meanwhile, is without a win in its last three and desperately needs a result. The Hornets sit ninth in the Premier League table but could see their advantage over the bottom half evaporate with another loss.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace – Mamadou Sakho (calf), Joel Ward, Damien Delaney, Connor Wickham (knee) | Watford – Will Hughes (hamstring), Isaac Success (knee), Nathan Chalobah (knee), Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Craig Cathcart (knee)