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Three things learned: Tottenham v. Wolves

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LONDON — Wolves beat Tottenham 3-2 in north London on Sunday as Nuno Espirito Santo‘s side continued their surge up the Premier League table as they outclassed Jose Mourinho’s injury-hit Spurs and deserved the win which boosts their chances of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.

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An end-to-end encounter saw Spurs take the lead early on through Steven Bergwijn who slammed home after Serge Aurier teed up Dele Alli but his show was saved by Rui Patricio. That opener sparked Wolves into life and they grabbed a deserved equalizer when Ruben Vinagre crossed for Matt Doherty to finish.

Spurs retook the lead before half time as Aurier rifled home a shot with his left foot which flew into the top corner but Wolves almost levelled at the start of the second half as Diogo Jota flicked a header just over. Dele Alli then headed inches wide as he spurned a glorious chance and moments later Wolves were level again. Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez and Doherty combined to set up Jota to tap home on the line.

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Jimenez then sealed the comeback and the win as he finished up a counter as Jota played him in and Mexico’s star striker finished with extreme composure to stun the home fans and secure a massive victory for Wolves as they move two points ahead of Spurs and are now just three points off the top four.

Here’s what we learned from a wild clash in north London on Sunday as Wolves and Tottenham put on a show.


WOLVES HAVE MOMENTUM IN TOP FOUR RACE

They have a small squad, played away in Spain in the Europa League on Thursday as they reached the last 16 and still they wouldn’t quit. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were dogged at Tottenham as they twice pinned the hosts back and dug deep to secure a huge win. With hefty challenges, rapid counter attacks and total commitment they kept their Champions League dreams well and truly alive and this game summed up everything that is great about this Wolves side. Jimenez and Traore ran themselves into the ground, while the in-form Jota was a brilliant pest and even when they coughed up goals their belief never wavered. Wolves went to Tottenham and grabbed a statement win which took them above Spurs in the table and kept their momentum going. Wolves have lost once in their last seven games, that was a narrow defeat against Liverpool, and they now face only one team who sit above them in the table in their final 10 games of the season. That is fourth-place Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, on the final day of the season. Wolves are three points off the top four and Chelsea can feel Wolves breathing down their necks.


3-4-3 NOT THE WAY FOR SPURS TO GO

It wasn’t pretty and the 3-4-3 system doesn’t really suit Tottenham. Given the absence of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son up top, Jose Mourinho keeps going back to it and although they had more of a cutting edge in attack they lacked defensive stability as strangely both Vertonghen and Alderweireld were left on the bench. Given their recent displays, what else could Mourinho do? Going forward Bergwijn, Lucas Moura, Goivani Lo Celso and Dele Alli can all operate centrally and combine in the final third, but it isn’t Kane, Alli, Eriksen and Son in their prime when former boss Mauricio Pochettino preferred 3-4-3 in their title pushing seasons a few years ago. Dele Alli missed glorious chances and there was just no direction in the final third and no belief without Son and Kane. Defensively there is so much work to do as Mourinho abandoned any kind of formation late on and he doesn’t appear to have a plan with this group of players. Tottenham have now lost three games in a row in all competitions and they are in freefall. The negativity Mourinho is spreading about injuries is in the psyche of his team. This is not good, at all. Spurs look very unlikely to make the Champions League next season and Mourinho will have some big questions to answer, injuries aside.


JIMENEZ BACK IN FORM

Wolves’ Raul Jimenez has now scored 13 goals in 28 Premier League games this season. That is the same amount he scored in 38 games last season. Mexico’s star striker is having an even better season this time around and after a run of four goals in 11 games (a rough patch, for him!), Jimenez was back to his menacing best against Spurs. Early on he had a few loose touches but he managed to work his way into the game and he set up countless counter attacks to set up another second half comeback fro Wolves. Jimenez is a hero in Wolverhampton and Mexico and if he leads this side to the Champions League he will be able to shine on the biggest stage of all, which he truly deserves. In the last two seasons he’s scored 39 goals in all competitions, assisted 18 times and has become the highest-scoring Wolves player in the Premier League. His 13 Premier League goals this season have been worth 16 points to Wolves, the joint-most won thanks to a player’s goals alongside Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. That is why Jimenez is well on the way to becoming a Wolves legend.

Three things we learned: Real Madrid v. Man City

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Man City beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg in the Santiago Bernabeu as Pep Guardiola‘s tactical masterclass left Zinedine Zidane scratching his head.

After Isco gave Real an undeserved lead, Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne struck late on to make it 2-1 as the reigning Premier League champions take a crucial lead back to Manchester for the second leg.

Here’s a look at what we learned from a superb away display from Man City as they sealed their first-ever win against Real Madrid.


GUARDIOLA’S BOLD CHOICE PAYS OFF

Sometimes it seems like Pep Guardiola is too smart for his own good but this is why they pay him the big bucks. Man City’s manager left the experienced trio of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho on the bench alongside the fit-again Raheem Sterling and everyone was left scratching their heads with his team selection. Pep’s bold choice paid off. Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva operated as two false nines centrally, while Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus played out wide and did plenty of tracking back as they pinned back Real’s wingers and full backs.

Mahrez and Jesus would make runs in-behind Real’s defense whenever KDB and Bernardo got on the ball and it worked a treat. The only problem was that Mahrez and Jesus only took one of the big chances they were handed because they could have scored four or five. Guardiola’s side conceded after being undone by a sloppy defensive error which epitomizes their 2019-20 campaign but Pep’s bold choice paid off. Man City were the better, and more dangerous, team for vast swathes of this game and got the away win his ingenuity deserved. The decision to sacrifice the positioning of his two best playmakers in Bernardo and De Bruyne worked a treat as the displays of Mahrez and Jesus justified leaving Aguero and Sterling on the bench. Man City’s master tactician risked being ridiculed and labelled as an over-thinker once again. It was a risk which paid off.


REAL’S ATTACK ONE-DIMENSIONAL

Zinedine Zidane was without the injured Eden Hazard, while Gareth Bale started on the bench and there was a severe lack of creativity in the attacking third of the pitch. Karim Benzema lead the line and had one header on target in the first half but that was about it as he had 18 touches in the entire game. 18. Vinicius and Isco both failed to get the better of the Kyle Walker and Mendy respectively and without that extra spark Hazard or Bale could provide at the drop of a hat, Zidane’s side were predictable.

Real caused their own problems as Casemiro was the spare man and precision passing isn’t his best trait as City were dangerous on the counter. Real Madrid were timid and rigid and that isn’t something you’d expect from a Zinedine Zidane-side on a big European night like this. Zidane has made Real more pragmatic this season and Vinicius and Isco did make the most of a Man City defensive error to put the Spanish giants ahead before two late goals from Jesus and De Bruyne gave Man City the edge heading into the second leg. Real will need to take more chances at the Etihad and as their defensive display showed on Wednesday, they are not capable of shutting down City’s attack and Sergio Ramos will not play in the second leg due to his red card. Real are in big trouble and for once their failure to go all-out for the win cost them dear. That is very unlike Real.


DE BRUYNE LEADS DEFIANT CITY

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Kevin de Bruyne wore the captains armband with class in the Bernabeu and he was the beating heart and pulsating brain of this composed, yet brave, victory.

“We are only halfway there,” De Bruyne said afterwards.

With Aguero, David Silva and Raheem Sterling left on the bench, all eyes were on KDB and he delivered. He played as a false nine but instead of shrugging his shoulders playing in an unfamiliar role he embraced it and could be seen cajoling his teammates and demanding more in key moments.

De Bruyne’s display summed up his season so far: Brilliant.

His mood also summed up the defiance in Man City’s display as they lost Aymeric Laporte to injury and Fernandinho stepped in and made key blocks, while Ederson was also at his best as City’s defense only slipped up once. With a two-season European ban looming large, this City squad know this could be their last chance to win the European Cup until the summer 2023 when many of them won’t be around. Kevin de Bruyne would be coming up to 32 years of age then, if he is still at City. The defiance he and City’s squad played with proved they want to win the Champions League right now and put the UEFA ban to one side as their appeal is heard in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the coming months.

 

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Man United

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LONDON — Man United beat Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Monday night to breathe new life into their top four hopes.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side beat yet another top four side as headers in each half from Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire did the damage.

Frank Lampard and his Chelsea side were upset with the officiating as Maguire was lucky to not be sent off for kicking out at Michy Batshuayi with VAR used in the first half, while in the second half VAR chalked off Kurt Zouma‘s goal for a push in the box and Olivier Giroud‘s late strike was also millimeters offside.

Here’s what we learned from a wild clash at Stamford Bridge.


VAR WORKS IN UNITED’S FAVOR

United should have been down to 10 men in the first half as captain Harry Maguire kicked out at Michy Batshuayi. In a near identical incident in December, Heung-Min Son was sent off for kicking out at Antonio Rudiger. VAR should have sent Maguire off and he ended up scoring a superb header which sealed the win.

Chelsea also had complaints over Zouma’s goal which was ruled out for a push on Brandon Williams by Cesar Azpilicueta but replays showed that Azpilicueta was pushed by Fred first. That said, Apzilicueta’s two-handed shove wasn’t really needed after the initial push from Fred. There was also an incident where Willian was booked for going over on the edge of the box when Bruno Fernandes dangled out a leg as Chelsea’s coaching staff were livid. As for Giroud’s late goal, half his foot was offside and it just wasn’t Chelsea’s night when it came to all of these close calls plus injuries.


WASTEFUL CHELSEA IN ‘TOP FIVE’ DANGER

Chelsea had better chances than Man United in the run of play but Michy Batshuayi had a nightmare, plus Willian and Pedro had games to forget on the wing. With Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi out injured there weren’t many options for Lampard to choose from but perhaps Giroud showed enough as he scored (but it was ruled out by VAR) in his brief cameo and surely he will now start if Abraham is out long-term. Chelsea are still in fourth but have won just four of their last 14 games in the Premier League and with Spurs (who they host on Saturday) just one point behind them and United three points behind them, the chasing pack are closing in. All season long Chelsea have squandered chances and even if the Champions League qualification goes down to fifth place due to Man City’s European ban, they may still miss out. They were unlucky with injuries to N’Golo Kante and Andreas Christensen in this game but Chelsea were wasteful and a fired up Man United made them pay.


UNITED’S COUNTER STUNS ANOTHER GIANT

With Chelsea pinning their hopes on a rusty Giroud, Man United’s top four hopes are being held together by plenty of wins against top six teams (albeit a fortuitous one this time) as their main forward Martial delivered when his team needed him most. The Frenchman has been a little inconsistent in Marcus Rashford‘s absence through injury but he stood tall against Chelsea with a fine header and he, along with Bruno Fernandes, showed that extra bit of quality in the final third which Chelsea were missing. Man United’s season is well and truly alive thanks to their first-ever Premier League double over Chelsea and it came thanks to another fine counter-attacking display against a side who took them lightly. Imagine what they can achieve with Paul Pogba and Rashford back in the team.

Three things we learned: Arsenal v. Newcastle

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LONDON — Arsenal beat Newcastle United 4-0 at the Emirates Stadium and it is time to have a look at three things we learned from Mikel Arteta‘s second home win as Gunners boss.

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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe struck in quick succession in the second half to surge past a spirited Newcastle side who hit the post and looked a threat on the break throughout but Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette finished things off in style late on.

Here are three things we learned from north London.


STRETCHED ARSENAL FINALLY THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND

Arteta has brought in a new pragmatism to Arsenal but it seems like they’ve gone too far to the defensive side of the spectrum. They started with pretty much six attacking players on the pitch if you count Bukayo Saka who is operating out of position at left back but had no real attacking spark in the first 45 minutes.

Arsenal were slow, predictable and languid in possession and with Arteta wanting them to press high up the pitch the gap between midfield and attack was just too big. Yes, they were playing against a Newcastle side who put 10 men behind the ball whenever they could but there was a severe lack of intensity. Newcastle threatened with counters as the pace of Almiron and Saint-Maximin caused problems but Arsenal were playing it safe with plenty of sideways passes and didn’t take enough risks. Then it all changed.

Whatever Arteta said at half time worked a treat as Arsenal were a totally different team in the second half and their increased intensity caught Newcastle cold. In the space of a few minutes Saka tricked his way past several tackles, Pepe scored one and set up and another, Aubameyang nodded home and Nketiah hit the bar and should have had another. It will take time for Arteta to turn this Arsenal side into what he wants them to be but he has improved them defensively. They have conceded just four goals in their last six Premier League games and Arteta is making Arsenal hard to beat, while knowing they have the attacking weapons to fire them to victories. They are seven points off the top four and six off fifth (which now looks likely to secure Champions League qualification given Man City’s European ban) and Arsenal have lost just once in eight PL games under Arteta. They are becoming tougher to beat and Arteta’s message is getting through to the players, at least for a 20-30 minutes at a time.


CEBALLOS CAN BE ARSENAL’S TEMPO SETTER

Dani Ceballos doesn’t possess the pace to have a huge impact in the final third but in a deep-lying role he is pretty effective. The Spanish midfielder is finally fit and Arteta lined him up in a defensive midfield role alongside Granit Xhaka. Ceballos demanded the ball at every opportunity and has the quality to see passes and find the likes of Ozil with ease. Having the right partner alongside him in the engine room will be key to seeing if he can flourish is a No. 6 role with Lucas Torreia and Mateo Guendouzi more defensive-minded. Granit Xhaka was alongside him and he isn’t exactly the true destroyer who would allow Ceballos to pick up the second balls and get attacks going. If you look at Man City’s midfield, Ceballos can be Arsenal’s Ilkay Gundogan. The difference is, Gundogan has Fernandinho alongside him breaking up the play. Arteta has clearly taken inspiration from his last three seasons as an assistant coach at Man City as his decision to push Ceballos a little deeper looks like it will work. Ceballos has to be playing regularly if he’s going to play for Spain at EURO 2020 and that dangling carrot will also benefit Arsenal as he tries to secure a permanent move from Real Madrid as his loan spell is over in January. Ceballos is finally fit and it seems like he has finally found his spot in the Arsenal lineup as he received a standing ovation when he came off with 10 minutes to go and got a big huge from Arteta.


ALMIRON, SAINT-MAXIMIN A JOY TO WATCH

On paper, Newcastle under Steve Bruce should not be exciting to watch and for vast swathes of the game they aren’t. That said, whenever Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin pick up the ball the excitement is palpable and those two alone make it worthwhile watching this Newcastle side. Time and time again they broke free, surged upfield and took on four Arsenal defenders on their own only to look up and not have another teammate within 25 yards of the goal. Joelinton just can’t keep up with their speedy attacks and if Newcastle had a forward who could keep up with them, he’d get four or five big chances per game. Saint-Maximin hit the post late on and Newcastle were unlucky to not be ahead after a fast start and several superb counter attacks led by the aforementioned duo.

Three things learned: Liverpool v. Man United

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LIVERPOOL — The title procession continues for Liverpool as they beat Manchester United 2-0 at Anfield on Sunday.

Virgil Van Dijk‘s early header and Mohamed Salah‘s late goal was enough to make it 21 wins out of 22 for Jurgen Klopp‘s side who missed several glorious chances as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s injury-hit United somehow hung in there.

For the first time this season Anfield sung loud and proud: “We’re going to win the league!” The Liverpool fans now realize this is as good as a done deal as it gets.

What did we learn from a tense clash as bitter rivals collided?


MAN UNITED HUMBLED BY BITTER RIVALS

Chants from Liverpool’s fans early in the game reminded their counterparts from Manchester United that they are the current Champions of Europe and the World. Nobody connected with United needed reminding of that after this utterly dominant display. How Liverpool didn’t win 5-0 is beyond me but United at least kept grinding away despite the obvious gulf in class between the two teams. Sadio Mane was denied by David De Gea, Liverpool had two goals chalked out by VAR, Henderson’s shot was pushed onto the post by de Gea and Salah missed a glorious chance. The manner in which Liverpool cut through United’s midfield like it wasn’t there and created chance after chance showcased just how far they’ve climbed ahead of their rivals.

United were without arguably their two best players in Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford and they hung in there with a 5-4-1 formation which had Luke Shaw at center back and Brandon Williams and Aaron Wan-Bissaka providing the width. United played scared in the first half, like most teams do against Liverpool, but the sheer lack of control they had on the game until the final 20 minutes was astonishing. They only looked dangerous in attack when Liverpool gave the ball away and in two spells just before half time and in the final 10 minutes. United have a plan to get back among the Premier League’s elite but on this showing that is much further away from happening than we all thought. Man United have now failed to win on any of their last five trips to Anfield and even though they had a few moments where they showed promise in attack, the scoreline severely flattered them.


VAN DIJK’S DOMINANCE STILL SURPRISING

When Virgil van Dijk rose into the scarlet sky above Anfield to power home a header to make it 1-0 time seemed to stand still. As he so often does, VVD defied gravity as he hung longest in the air to beat Brandon Williams (a severe mismatch) and also Harry Maguire to score. Van Dijk’s dominance is somehow still surprising and awe-inspiring. It shouldn’t be. The man who finished only second to Lionel Messi in the Ballon d’Or voting led Liverpool to UEFA Champions League glory last season and since his arrival from Southampton in January 2018, Liverpool have become a totally different team. One which feeds off and now exudes the same confidence their silky Dutchman displays every single time he steps on the pitch. In tight situations he has held their defense together and he makes everybody around him better. They have now secured seven-straight shutouts with Joe Gomez alongside him as Joel Matip has been out injured.

If Liverpool, as expected, win the Premier League this season and make a deep UCL run, there’s no doubt Virgil van Dijk will be crowned the best player on the planet when all is said and done in 2020. His positioning is flawless, he is calm on the ball and he pushes on the team when they need it. When we look back on the success of this Liverpool team, the arrival of Virgil van Dijk will usurp that of Salah, Mane and Firmino.


TIME TO ORDER THE RED RIBBONS

Liverpool are 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League table with 16 games to go and they have a game in hand. They are going to win the title for the first time in over 30 years. We all know that, even if their fans and everybody around the club refuses to admit it. When the notion of winning the title was raised in the pubs around Anfield before the game, people were told to be quiet. But others are so confident they are predicting a title win after a win at Everton on March 14. Liverpool have lost just one Premier League game in their last 61, away at Man City last season, and they’ve now gone 39 games unbeaten.

There is just no way this Liverpool side will cough up the kind of points they need to in order to let their grasp on the title slip, plus they know Man City are out of form and out of luck with injuries, while Leicester City have totally come unstuck. If you are a Liverpool fan the final months of the season are about to be as much of a cakewalk to the title as possible and this brilliant, perfectly balanced, dynamic and devastating team will receive the guard of honor for the final two months of the 2019-20 campaign. Records will tumble, unbeaten runs will continue and Liverpool will win the title.