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.

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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.

Reports: Mourinho looking into Fellaini, Dzeko signings

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People joked when Jose Mourinho was hired at Tottenham Hotspur. “Just wait until he goes after Marouane Fellaini” they said.

If only they knew.

According to a report by Belgian publication DH, Mourinho is seriously considering a January swoop to bring Fellaini back to the Premier League, wishing for a player of his body and skill profile in his squad. Fellaini was initially a David Moyes signing at Manchester United in 2013, but became a Mourinho favorite thanks to his aerial presence in midfield and his ability to play up front in a pinch.

Fellaini is currently playing for Chinese club Shandong Luneng, having scored seven goals and assisted four more in 22 Chinese Super League matches this season while playing mostly a center-mid role. The club finished fifth in the league table, with the season just coming to a conclusion on December 1. Luneng also played in the Chinese League Cup final, falling to Shanghai Shenhua 3-0.

The Belgian’s popularity at Manchester United never reached the levels of other fan favorites, and he was often seen as symbolic of the club’s struggles to find top-level players. Still, Mourinho persisted with a player he clearly favored, with Fellaini eventually making 89 appearances across all competitions under his Portuguese boss.

Reports also indicate that Mourinho is eyeing Roma striker Edin Dzeko as a January option. The Italian club is currently fifth in the Serie A table, in a tight battle for a top four spot. Still, the Bosnia-Herzegovina international has a contract that runs through the summer of 2022, meaning the club could look to cash in on a player who will be 36 years old at the expiry of his current deal. Dzeko has declined somewhat, but still proves a goal threat, with six scores in 15 league matches this campaign plus another two in Europa League action.

Newcastle win dampened by Saint-Maximin injury

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Steve Bruce has seen Newcastle up to 10th in the table after topping Southampton 2-1, but the news wasn’t all good at St. James Park after the victory.

The Magpies boss confirmed that Allan Saint-Maximin  could be out “for weeks” after pulling up deep into stoppage time, coming off in the 96th minute after all three Newcastle substitutes had been used.

Bruce partly blamed himself for the injury, claiming he nearly rested the Frenchman for the match. “I nearly left him out today,” Bruce said after the game, “and, now, I wish I had done because he could be out for weeks. I’m disappointed with myself. We don’t know how serious it is. I kick myself if he is out for a long time. The way he pulled up – let’s hope it’s not too serious.”

The manager claims Saint-Maximin was “fatigued” but risked him anyways. He could have brought the 22-year-old off at some point during the second half, but with the game level until Federico Fernandez’s 87th minute winner, he chose to risk it further looking for a winner. Bruce used his third and final substitute in the 85th minute to haul off Miguel Almiron still two minutes before the eventual winning goal was scored. And it wasn’t just Steve Bruce who thought he could miss significant time.

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Saint-Maximin struggled with a muscle injuries earlier in the season, missing games against Norwich City, Watford, and Liverpool while getting treatment. Since returning in full in early October, Saint-Maximin has played in every Premier League game for Newcastle, completing at least 80 minutes in eight of those nine games and finishing 90 minutes four times.

The injury is poorly timed with Newcastle set to begin a heavy set of fixtures. They take on Burnley next weekend before games against Crystal Palace, Manchester United, Everton, and Leicester City all in an eleven-day span through the holiday season. Saint-Maximin is a critical player to have go down, with a 7.07 WhoScored rating, ranking third on the team in that metric. He has completed 4.5 dribbles a game this season, which ranks second in the Premier League behind Wilfried Zaha‘s 4.6 despite having played five fewer games and 550 fewer minutes.

Ciaran Clark also went down during the game, with the Newcastle defender hauled off at halftime after suffering a calf injury.

Wolves, Seagulls split spoils at the Amex

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Wolves failed in a bid to pull within three points of fourth place, drawing Brighton 2-2 at the Amex Stadium on Sunday.

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Diogo Jota scored twice in a 4-goal first half, with Neal Maupay and Davy Propper bagging goals for Brighton. The Seagulls remain 12th with 19 points.


Three things we learned

1. Wolves’ blink at Top Four chance: Wolves entered the day with a chance to close to within three points of fourth place Chelsea, and Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men next face Spurs, Norwich City, Man City, and Liverpool. They needed three points here. Not for lack of effort, they couldn’t conjure the magic.

2. Jota calm in the finish: Jota scored his second and third Premier League goals of the season, joining his Europa League success to give him six. He added five assists in the UEL, and is averaging 2.5 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per contest.

 

3. Maupay paying off faith: The French center forward has blossoming into a steady Premier League contributor after his outlandish production in the Championship earned him a big money move to the Amex Stadium. His sixth goal in 16 matches now includes goals against Wolves, Spurs, Everton, and Arsenal.

Man of the Match: Jota.


Brighton had most of the ball for the first half hour, but could’ve solve the Wolves back line.

Jota put Wolves ahead via a clever 1-2 with Raul Jimenez to get behind the line, prodding home for 1-0.

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The lead lasted all of six minutes, as Maupay and Propper struck two minutes apart.

Maupay’s was a fine finish of a long Dale Stephens assist, while Propper headed a Leandro Trossard cross past Rui Patricio in the 36th.

Propper then fell from grace with a miserable pass stolen by Jonny Otto, the wingback finding Jota for his second goal of the night.

Wolves thought VAR might give them a penalty for handball in the 62nd minute, to no avail.

It was Wolves’ turn to give away a huge chance, but Stephens curled the effort wide of the far post in the 72nd minute.

Forster stars as 10-man Celtic beat Rangers, claim 10th-straight trophy

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At some point, Rangers supporters will be forgiven for thinking Celtic doesn’t have all the luck in Scotland.

The Bhoys, second best for most of the day, scored a 60th minute goal and then overcame a red card three minutes later to claim their 10th successive piece of Scottish silverware with a 1-0 win the Scottish League Cup.

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Celtic’s Chris Jullien prodded home a free kick before 18-year-old Jeremie Frimpong was sent off, and Rangers had already controlled the proceedings before seeing a 16-5 edge in shot attempts at the final whistle.

Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, the former Saints and Newcastle man, was outstanding in the win, even stopping an Alfredo Morelos penalty as the Rangers star failed to deliver.

From the BBC:

“It was just one of them days, it went my way today. I’m buzzing. There’s been days when it’s not gone my way, today it has. I can’t say how much it means to me. I didn’t really think about the penalty to be honest. I picked the way it went. I’ll take it.

“That’s why I came back; to play in games like this, to win silverware, to play European football.”