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.