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One area where Mourinho was right: Man Utd badly needs center backs

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Big Manchester United wins and losses, especially post-Alex Ferguson, have a tendency to get overstated at both ends of the spectrum, but there’s plenty to take away from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s recent struggles at the helm of the Red Devils.

[ MORE: Recap | Solskjaer reacts ]

For one thing: Jose Mourinho wasn’t right about much this Manchester United season, but he knew he needed better men in the back.

Everton’s beautiful opener in the first half of Sunday’s 4-0 pummeling of the Red Devils may tempt some to wash over the defending, but heading below the surface shows more problems.

The opener saw Richarlison score a terrific overhead kick after Dominic Calvert-Lewin flick a Lucas Digne throw-in to the back post. Beautiful, for sure, but Smalling never gets up to thwart Calvert-Lewin’s powerful jump.

Now that’s certainly just one example, but United’s slide is a feature of a few things.

Nineteen goals conceded in 17 PL matches is a clear upgrade from the 29 in 17 under Mourinho, and let’s not pretend United hasn’t been better with Solskjaer at the proverbial wheel.

Throw in a very average season from David De Gea — which in his case is far below standards — and it’s not a surprise that United is flailing away from the Top Four. The Alexis Sanchez move has been poor, Romelu Lukaku‘s form has dipped save back-to-back braces against a pair of unremarkable defenses, and Paul Pogba remains mercurial. He’s a monster of the midfield at his best, and a drifting object in the wind at his worst.

There’s a comparison to made with where Liverpool was under Brendan Rodgers somewhere, a legendary club not quite sure of how to fit its standard to its standing. Marcus Rashford needs room to grow, not constant comparison to Romelu Lukaku. There are a lot of extra pieces in the squad, the guys you like as a luxury for a great team but are either too old or too green to be reliable.

Of center backs to play in 10 or more Premier League matches this season, Phil Jones ranks 16th, Chris Smalling is 38th, and Victor Lindelof is 44th. Only 57 are ranked. Advanced stats aren’t foolproof, but they help (Jones and little-used Eric Bailly, for what it’s worth, were well-rated last season).

The club needs a big rebuild, to be sure. De Gea is a suitable goalkeeper for a team with top end ambitions, and we know that Lukaku and Pogba at their best can dominate (whether either is capable of doing it consistently under anyone is a debate).

But really, perhaps De Gea’s amazing 2017-18 and Mourinho’s defense-first system papered over something that’s been evident for some time. There’s neither a Aymeric Laporte or Toby Alderweireld at United, let alone a Virgil Van Dijk.

Player ratings from Man City 1-0 Spurs

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The goal were scarce, but Man City and Tottenham Hotspur went on with their ability to entertain in a bounce back win for City at the Etihad Stadium.

[ MORE: Match recap | ]

A flop from either would’ve been understandable given the 7-goal thriller at midweek, but both provided fine accounts of themselves as Phil Foden was the match-winner.


Manchester City

Ederson:  9 – *Man of the Match* here was plenty of luck in his thwarting of Lucas Moura‘s late deflected strike, but the Brazilian will enjoy a clean sheet following Wednesday’s second leg.

Kyle Walker: 6 – Would VAR have him conceding a second half penalty for handball?

John Stones: 6 – Not terrific, though his partial block that led to Ederson’s last big save was bigger than we realize.

Aymeric Laporte: 7 – A notable error between Laporte and Stones late takes this down a point, but he was huge along with Ederson in the early stages.

Oleksandr Zinchenko: 7 – Is City in the UEFA Champions League semifinal with a healthy Zinchenko in place of Mendy, Delph, et. al.

Kevin De Bruyne (Off 38′): N/A – His injury will be alarming for City, given recurring knee troubles this season.

Ilkay Gundogan: 6 – An unspectacular display as time ticks down on his career at City.

Phil Foden: 8 – The fifth-minute header could hardly have been a more important first Premier League goal.

Bernardo Silva: 8 – A delightful dribble and cross to the back post set up the opener, as the Portuguese playmaker continues a fine season.

Sergio Aguero (Off 66′): 7 – Perhaps a bit quieter than usual, but his headed assist was what City needed early at the Etihad.

Raheem Sterling: 7 – Absolutely in the discussion for Premier League Player of the Season, and has been switched on from moment one.

Subs
Fernandinho (On 38′): 7 – Easy to applaud anyone who comes on for an hour off the bench and doesn’t miss a beat. Broke up some serious Spurs threats.
Leroy Sane (On 66′): 7 – Short spell, but effective. Should’ve collected an assist for his set-up of Sterling

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Tottenham

Paulo Gazzaniga:  7 – Solid enough and made a great point-blank save in the second half from Sterling.

Juan Foyth: 7 – A little lost at right back early on, but worked hard and made some important tackles against Sterling and improved as the game went on.

Davinson Sanchez: 6 – See above. Solid on his return to the starting lineup. Maybe could have done better on the goal as Aguero peeled off him.

Toby Alderweireld: 7 – As dependable as ever. Good block from Aguero in the second half, which had a hint of handball, but the Belgian knew nothing about it.

Jan Vertonghen: 7 – Dominant display and tried his best to get Spurs moving forward when he could.

Ben Davies: 6 – Struggled to cope with Bernardo Silva, but then again most defenders have this season.

Eric Dier: 5 – Has been out with injury for a while, and looked rusty on his return to central midfield.

Christian Eriksen: 7 – Some lovely balls forward for Son, and he was denied by Ederson in the first half when he should have probably scored.

Dele Alli: 6 – A few majestic flicks in the first half, and appealed for a penalty kick on Kyle Walker. Looked a little jaded, which is understandable.

Lucas Moura: 7 – Hurried and chased all game long, and nearly got in to score in the second half but Ederson denied him.

Heung-Min Son: 6 – Another sharp display, but will be disappointed he didn’t score after having three big chances in the first half. Led Spurs’ charge on the counter attack.

Subs
Danny Rose: 6 – Did okay and brought his usual energy to the left back position.
Victor Wanyama: 5 – Booked. Did his best to provide a better shield than Dier in front of the Spurs defense.
Fernando Llorente: 5 – Hardly touched the ball in his brief cameo on the pitch. No hip/arm touches today…

Three things learned: Man City v. Tottenham

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Manchester City edged out Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, as Pep Guardiola‘s men won their 10th straight Premier League game to return to the summit.

After Spurs knocked Man City out of the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, the reigning champs responded with a resolute display and dug deep as Phil Foden‘s early goal kept their title bid on track.

What did we learn from a tight, tense encounter?


CITY RESPOND, FOUR WINS FROM TITLE GLORY

Manchester City have won 10-straight games in the Premier League, but this was one of the most nervous victories they’ve had. We learned a lot about this Man City side on Saturday, as the crushing disappointment of having their quadruple hopes dashed by Tottenham in midweek was put behind them and Guardiola’s boys delivered. Starting Foden for just the second time in the PL was a risk, but the 18-year-old delivered the game-winner and didn’t look out of place.

With a massive Manchester derby at Manchester United on Wednesday, Guardiola rotated his squad well and City did just enough to get past a resilient Spurs. It wasn’t a classic Man City display, and they showed some nerves in the first half when leaving Heung-Min Son too much space to hurt them on the counter. But all that matters is the victory, and City need to win four more to secure back-to-back titles. City’s display was all about grit rather than panache and they got their mentality right to take a big step towards the title. If they beat United, Burnley, Leicester and Brighton, they will be PL champs. It is as simple as that. But it never really is, is it?


DE BRUYNE’S INJURY A HAMMER BLOW

Kevin De Bruyne‘s return to full fitness has been a huge bonus for City over the past few weeks. Seeming him crumple to the floor in the first half after tweaking his left knee is the last thing Pep Guardiola wanted to see ahead of the final few weeks of the season.

De Bruyne, 27, could have just gone off as a precaution, especially with a massive game at Man United coming up in four days time. However, his reaction suggested it was another setback in a season of setbacks. De Bruyne has twice spent lengthy spells on the sidelines this season and the Belgian playmaker has been sorely missed by City. Guardiola will be hoping this latest injury is a minor one, and City’s fans will be waiting with bated breath to find out what the problem is.


SPURS WASTE CHANCES ON THE BREAK

Tottenham were dangerous on the counter throughout and Heung-min Son could have had a hat trick in the first half alone. Twice he broke free but was denied by Aymeric Laporte and Ederson, while Christian Eriksen was denied by Ederson as City’s defense was caught flat-footed but Spurs didn’t make the most of their opportunities. Lucas Moura had another chance on the break in the second half but Ederson came up big again, as this game had a lot of chances but unlike their heroic Champions League performance in midweek, Spurs didn’t take any of them.

With the defeat at Man City, Tottenham’s top four hopes have taken a hit. However, with three of their final four games at home against Brighton, West Ham, Bournemouth and Everton, Spurs will fancy their chances of getting maximum points to dovetail with their UCL semifinal games against Ajax. Whatever happens now, Spurs have hung in there admirably this season amid injuries, stadium moves and no money spent. If they reach the UCL final and finish in the top four, that will have been beyond Pochettino’s wildest dreams at the start of the campaign.

Man City edge past Tottenham, go top (video)

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  • Foden’s first-ever PL goal the winner
  • Man City go top of the table
  • Spurs lose ground in top 4 race

Manchester City held their nerve to beat Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, as Pep Guardiola‘s men won their 10th straight Premier League game.

Teenager Phil Foden scored his first-ever PL goal early, and that was enough for City to go back to the top of the Premier League table.

With the win City move one point clear of Liverpool who play against Cardiff City on Sunday, as City then play their game in-hand at Manchester United on Wednesday. Spurs remain on 67 points and look likely to lose ground in their top four battle.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Man City got off to the perfect start early on, as Bernardo Silva‘s brilliant ball to the back post found Aguero and his header across goal saw Foden meet it with a diving header to send the ball home.

The teenager, still just 18 years old, celebrated his first-ever Premier League goal as City dominated the early stages in the sun in Manchester.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

But Spurs did have their chances in the first half, as Heung-Min Son went close at the near post after a mistake from John Stones, then Ederson and Aymeric Laporte denied Christian Eriksen and Son who both went clean through on goal after City’s defense were caught out.

Silva had a decent shout for a penalty kick before the break as Jan Vertonghen caught his standing leg in the box as the Tottenham defender cleared. But then a really worrying moment arrived for Man City in their title bid, as star midfielder Kevin de Bruyne was forced off with what looked like another left knee injury.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The second half was a tame affair as both sets of players seemed a little exhausted from their midweek exploits.

Laporte flicked a header over and at the other end Kyle Walker could have given away a penalty kick as the ball hit his hand in the box.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Late on Spurs had a couple of decent chances, as Lucas Moura forced Ederson to save but a nervous Man City held on for a massive win.

After their devastating disappointment in midweek, City dug deep for the win to keep their title bid on track.

Three things: Man City v. Tottenham

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This will go down as one of the greatest, and most dramatic, games in the history of the UEFA Champions League.

In their quarterfinal second leg at the Etihad Stadium Manchester City beat Tottenham 4-3 on the night but drew 4-4 on aggregate and lost on the away goals rule, as their dream of winning an unprecedented quadruple is over.

Spurs will play Ajax in the UCL semifinals, and Man City were knocked out at the quarterfinal stage by a fellow Premier League club for the second-straight season.

After two goals a piece from Heung-Min Son and Raheem Sterling kicked off a wild opening 21 minutes where five goals were scored, VAR drama in stoppage time saw Man City score, as they thought they had won 5-4 on aggregate. But Sterling’s goal was chalked off and Pep Guardiola‘s men were beaten by Mauricio Pochettino‘s battling Spurs who were without top goalscorer Harry Kane but Son and Fernando Llorente delivered the goods.

Good news for neutrals: Man City host Tottenham on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a crucial Premier League game for both clubs.

Here’s what we learned from a wild encounter, which will go down as one of the most incredible 90 minutes in the history of European action.


HISTORIC START SETS TONE FOR INSTANT CLASSIC

Five goals were scored in the opening 21 minutes of the game, which set a new record for the quickest time five goals have been scored in a single Champions League game. Aside from that wild opening period, which ended in Raheem Sterling putting Man City 3-2, the entire game was played at a frantic pace which will see it go down as one of the greatest games in Champions League history. Both teams threw caution to the wind and just went for it.

This was playground football. One team scored, another went up the other end to score. One team attacked, the other then launched a counter. Guardiola and Pochettino will have been far from happy with the standard of defending throughout, but this was one of those games people will be talking about for years and was a real “I was there” moment for anyone at the Etihad Stadium.

Man City went 4-2 up, and thought they had it in the bag, then Fernando Llorente made it 4-3 after a lengthy check with VAR, and then came Sterling’s hat trick goal in the 93rd minute which sparked pandemonium inside the Eithad… only for VAR to correctly show the goal was offside.

This game had it all and it will be shown again and again for the next few decades.


STERLING, KDB SUBLIME BUT CITY’S QUADRUPLE DREAM OVER

Raheem Sterling is having the season of his life and has now scored four goals in his last two games, and on top of Sterling’s goals, the return to form and fitness of Kevin De Bruyne has been a huge bonus for Guardiola’s side despite their heartbreaking exit to Spurs. De Bruyne has now assisted on six of City’s last eight goals, with the Belgian midfielder taking games by the scruff of the neck and making up for lost time after his lengthy spells out this season.

City thought they had sealed yet another dramatic late win, one that would rival Aguero’s amazing last-gasp goal to win them the Premier League title in 2012, but it wasn’t to be. They dominated the game and beat Spurs fair and square in the second leg, but Aguero’s missed penalty kick in the first leg and slack defending from Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte in the second leg ended their chances of winning a historic quadruple.

City’s Champions League jinx has continued for another season, and it was made even crueler by knowing they deserved to go through and thought they had before VAR denied them. Guardiola has long been a fan of VAR technology, but he must feel sick to his stomach as City once again came up short in Europe. He will hope that disappointment will now fuel them to complete the domestic treble, but it is likely this defeat to Spurs over two legs will haunt this group of players for at least the next few months, if not years.


SPURS, SON, DEFIED BELIEF

Losing Harry Kane in the first leg and Moussa Sissoko in the second leg hit Spurs hard in both games, but with Heung-min Son stepping up to score three of their four goals and almost adding a few others, the South Korean star and Tottenham didn’t really deserve to get knocked out of the Champions League.

This was the moment Son truly arrived as a world-class player. He has been criminally underrated in the past few seasons and has stepped up in Kane’s absence again, big time. Llorente, only on for the injured Sissoko, turned out to the hero for Spurs, as they dug deep and rode their luck at City.

As for Spurs’ run to the Champions League last four, for so long it looked like the “Spursy” tag would strike again in this second leg after they chucked away a 2-1 lead by giving up three-straight goals. But they did it. And they’re in the semifinals of the European Cup for just the second time in club history. This is Pochettino’s greatest-ever achievement as a manager, and many will forget that Spurs didn’t win any of their opening three group games, and were 12 minutes from being eliminated but rallied to beat PSV at home in their fourth group game.

Given their injury-hit squad, not playing at their home stadium until the final weeks of the season and not signing a single player in the past two transfer windows, Pochettino has worked miracles. They beat Man City, the favorites to win the Champions League, fair and square over two legs and despite Ajax’s young stars stunning both Real Madrid and Juventus in the last two rounds, Tottenham will be the favorites to advance to the UCL final in Madrid on June 1.

Write this Tottenham team off at your peril.