What did we learn on a pivotal day?

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Saturday encapsulated everything that is great about the Premier League.

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We had shock home defeats for Manchester City and Chelsea to swing the title race in Liverpool’s favor, amazing goals, plus a big win for an unexpected new manager at Manchester United.

Also, there were some huge wins towards the bottom of the table which set things up very nicely for the busy festive season ahead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Here’s what we learned from a potentially pivotal Saturday.


This is Liverpool’s title to lose

Somewhere Jurgen Klopp smile is getting wider and wider. This is now clearly Liverpool’s Premier League title to lose. The Reds will be four points clear at the top on Christmas Day and they are the only team who remain unbeaten in the PL. After Manchester City’s shock home defeat to Crystal Palace, Pep Guardiola‘s men are starting to show cracks. If Liverpool can expose those cracks when the two meet on January 3 then they will be seven points clear of Man City with 17 games to go. Of course, City and the deep squad they have can drag a big deficit back but all of the momentum right now is with Liverpool who have conceded just seven goals all season long. Plus, with the trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, and Xherdan Shaqiri and others chipping in, they look capable of scoring at least twice in every game they play. With Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal far from genuine title contenders, Liverpool’s fans will already be having dreams of seeing Jordan Henderson lift the Premier League trophy at Anfield in May 2019. The only thing lingering in the back of their minds: eight of the last nine teams to lead the PL on Christmas Day have won the title. The only team who failed to clinch? Liverpool in 2013-14. We are about to see how Liverpool can deal with the pressure of being the frontrunners instead of the hunters.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s perfect start at Man United
A 5-1 win away at Cardiff City sounds pretty routine for Manchester United, but given their struggles for most of this season it was a huge step forward for the Red Devils. And it was a perfect start for caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A man revered by United’s fans for his goalscoring prowess as a player, he somehow rejuvenated the entire squad who went out and expressed themselves in the Welsh capital. We have hardly seen them play like that under David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

Solksjaer hasn’t had long at all to work with this team on the training ground. A maximum of three sessions. But the belief he has already instilled in this squad suggests his caretaker role could become something more permanent. Yes, it is Cardiff City. Yes, it is only one game. But certain managers fit certain clubs at certain times. And after the emotional battering many of United’s stars took at the hands of Mourinho in recent years the shackles are now well and truly off. It is going to be a lot of fun to watch United between now and the end of the season, and a top four finish really isn’t out of the question as they’re now just eight points back of fourth with a favorable schedule coming up. The biggest difference we saw under Solskjaer was the full backs pushing high and the likes of Jesse Lingard (two goals) and Paul Pogba (who had three assists, more than in his last 17 games combined) given the freedom to make runs in-behind. Solskjaer’s reign may end in May, but everyone at United is on his side.


Familiar lack of focus for Chelsea

This has been coming for Chelsea as their players have not heeded recent warnings that Maurizio Sarri has given them. They’ve beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in all competitions this season, but they’ve now lost to Wolves and Leicester City this month to all but end their title bid. Now 11 points behind Liverpool after their shock 1-0 home defeat to Leicester, Chelsea’s manager and players continue to use the same word to sum up their problems: “Mentality.” Or, more precisely, a lack of the correct mentality. This Chelsea team is showing the same signs it did under Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte. One minute they can be exhilarating, the next infuriating. Sarri will no doubt be given extra funds to spend in January and again in the summer to try and strengthen this squad, but if this team has a habit of rolling over easily, how easy is that to eradicate? Chelsea are far from title contenders and Sarri-ball is yet to be instilled in the majority of this squad. As soon as they go behind in games they forget to play how Sarri wants them to and panic. Teams who have a chance of winning the league don’t do that.


Southampton might be back

For the first time since April 2017 Southampton have won back-to-back Premier League games. After just a few weeks in charge, the Ralph Hasenhuttl effect is in full swing. Saints ran Huddersfield ragged on Saturday and were clinical in their 3-1 away win against their relegation rivals. Hasenhuttl talked about how important it was to back up their big win against Arsenal last week with a result at Huddersfield. The way his team pressed and used the pace of Nathan Redmond, Danny Ings and Michael Obafemi (who all scored) was a joy to watch as the players are clearly buying into his tactics and benefitting from his tough training sessions. Saints aren’t out of trouble just yet, but they are showing signs that the old Southampton is back. With five academy products in their squad on Saturday and Obafemi becoming Southampton’s youngest-ever goalscorer in the Premier League, Hasenhuttl is showing glimpses that he can return the club to the successful days of when Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman were in charge. A win against West Ham on Dec. 27 (Watch live 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) would cement the notion that Southampton have finally dug themselves out of a huge rut.

Xhaka slams “bulls***” criticism of Arsenal

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Arsenal have been targets for a lot of criticism recently.

Granit Xhaka is usually at the center of it.

The Gunners captain came out all guns blazing after they lost 1-0 at Sheffield United on Monday, as he addressed Patrice Evra‘s comments that Arsenal are “babies” and always will be due to their mentality.

“We have to stop about mental [strength] bulls*** like this. For me, it is the same whether you play home or away – you have to win and show big character and a good game and not to always find the same excuse,” Xhaka said. “A lot of people they speak too much. It is not the first time he has spoken something about us. I have a lot of respect for him as he was a great player but you have to be careful what you say. But it is not only him – a lot of people speak a lot of bulls*** about us. It’s always the same.

“For me it is strange as they were in the same situation as us, they were players as well. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not always good but every week they speak bulls*** like this every week. I tell you the honest truth, I’m not interested in what people say and speak. We have to speak in our group to improve things and work hard and not listen to these people.”

Xhaka and Arsenal have only lost twice this season, 3-1 at Liverpool and 1-0 at Sheffield United.

But aside from being fifth in the table and two points outside the top four, pressure is being placed on Unai Emery and his squad as they’ve narrowly beaten Bournemouth, Burnley, Newcastle and Aston Villa so far. Their performances aren’t instilling confidence in anyone that they can seriously push for a top four finish this season.

Has much changed under Emery in the past 15 months? Nope. This is pretty much the same Arsenal team making the same old mistakes and looking vulnerable away from home. Nothing new here. Sure, some new players have arrived, but David Luiz, Pepe and Sokratis have all been hit and miss so far and it has been left to Matteo Guendouzi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to try and rescue the Gunners each and every week.

Emery was supposed to change their style of play, develop them into a stronger team defensively and improve their chances of challenging for trophies once again.

None of that has happened, and it doesn’t look closer to happening. That is why the critics are circling around the Gunners. Monday was the perfect opportunity to prove their mentality had changed and they are a stronger, more balanced team under Emery. They aren’t and something drastic will have to change for them if Emery is going to win over the fans, and pundits, once again.

Ronaldo not ready for retirement: ‘Age is just a number’

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Cristiano Ronaldo reassured Juventus supporters and his legions of fans worldwide that at 34 he’s not ready for retirement yet.

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“Age is just a number. It does not mean that at 34, 35, 36 you are at the end of your career,” Ronaldo said at a news conference ahead of Juventus’ Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday. “I can show that with my performances, how I play, the way I play, the way I still feel good, sharp, thinking about the game, more mature. This makes the difference.”

In the second season of a four-year deal at Juventus, Ronaldo had sparked concern among his fans when he said in an interview published a few weeks ago that he was starting to enjoy seeing himself “outside of football, so who knows what will happen in the next year or two?”

Ronaldo recently scored his 700th goal as a professional while on international duty with Portugal and has been nominated for a record sixth Ballon d’Or award – which would break his tie of five with Lionel Messi.

But Ronaldo said he’s more interested in winning a treble with Juventus.

“We want to win Serie A, we want to win the Cup, the Champions League,” he said. “Juventus should think big. … We are going to try to win all the trophies, we know it will be difficult, especially the league and the Champions League, but I think it is possible. Everything is possible.

“In terms of individual, I have nothing to say as this is individual. It is not the most important thing,” Ronaldo added. “The most important is the collective awards. If you win the collective awards you have more chance to win the individual awards. … The Golden Ball is for me in second place.”

While retirement may not be on Ronaldo’s mind yet, family time is a big part of his life now.

“To win games, to score goals, to enjoy myself, to arrive home and see my kids happy and say, `Congratulations daddy for scoring a goal.’ That makes me happy,” he said. “This is my motivation to come to train, for the games, to entertain people and the fans with my passion.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Carragher apologizes to Evra over Suarez t-shirts

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Jamie Carragher has apologized to Patrice Evra after Liverpool wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez in 2011.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The day after Suarez was banned for eight games by the English Football Association, who found him guilty of racially abusing Evra, Liverpool’s players put on t-shirts with Suarez on the front and back during their warm up in a Premier League game against Wigan Athletic.

Carragher and Evra were both analysts for our partners at Sky Sports in the UK on Monday Night Football for the clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal, and discussed the current problems with racism in the game.

“There is no doubt we made a massive mistake; that was obvious,” Carragher said.

Liverpool’s former vice-captain asked Evra how he felt regarding the situation with Suarez, and the former Man United, Juventus and Monaco left back revealed his disgust at the way the situation was handled.

“When I saw it I was like, this is ridiculous. This is unbelievable,” Evra said. You put your own club in danger when you do those things. You always have to support your player because he is from your team but this was after the ban. If it was before and we were waiting for the sanction, I would understand. What message do you send to the world? Supporting someone being banned because he used some racist words.”

Click play on the video above for the full discussion between Carragher and Evra.

Italy women’s team awarded for ’emancipating’ female game

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ROME (AP) The Italy women’s national soccer team was awarded the Foreign Press Association’s Invictus award Monday for promoting and “emancipating” the female game in the country with its run to the World Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: Sheffield United beat Arsenal with stellar defensive display (video) ]

Head coach Milena Bertolini and forward Barbara Bonansea were given the award during a ceremony at the Rome-based association.

With soccer dominated by men in Italy and few opportunities for girls, Bertolini recounted how she had to dress up as a boy to play as a kid.

“Now things are changing, thanks to the Italian federation’s school programs,” Bertolini said.

Bertolini and Bonansea lamented that female players are still not considered professionals and therefore are not permitted to earn more than $33,500 per year by Italian law.

“It’s not about the money, it’s a question of rights,” said Bonansea, who also plays for Italian champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Referee officials explain VAR decision on Rashford goal ]

While Italy’s men’s team is a four-time World Cup champion, the women had not played in a World Cup for two decades and entered as a prohibitive underdog during its opening match against Australia in France in June. But the Azzurre came back from a goal down for a 2-1 win courtesy of Bonansea’s two scores , with her second coming in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

“That goal shaped our World Cup, both in terms of results and in terms of promoting women’s soccer in Italy,” Bertolini said. “The strong emotions on the field were transmitted to everyone who was watching. I still get goosebumps now just thinking about that goal.”

The Azzurre went on to win their group then beat China in the first knockout round before losing to eventual finalist the Netherlands.

In a country of 60 million people, a total of more than 20 million spectators watched Italy’s five matches on RAI state TV, setting audience records for women’s soccer game after game.

The Invictus award is dedicated to “promoting the positive effects of sports in terms of integration and emancipation by the vulnerable sections of society.”