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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.

Three things we learned: Leicester v. Liverpool

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Liverpool beat Leicester City 4-0 on Boxing Day to extend their lead atop the Premier League table to 13 points, as the Reds also have a game in hand over the Foxes and have taken 52 points from a possible 54 points.

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Man City sit in third and 14 points behind Liverpool as the halfway point in the season is almost here and at this rate Liverpool will have the title wrapped up by March…

Jurgen Klopp‘s side were dominant throughout as Roberto Firmino set them on their way, James Milner scored a penalty kick and then Firmino and the brilliant Trent Alexander-Arnold finished things off.

Here’s what we learned from a one-sided encounter at the King Power Stadium.


FIRMINO HAS FOUND HIS MOJO

In the last week the real Roberto Firmino has returned. With winning goals in the Club World Cup semifinal and final, he helped Liverpool become world champions and his powerful header and calm finish on Boxing Day at the King Power Stadium has gone a long way to making Liverpool Premier League champions. Before this purple patch Firmino had scored just once in 17 games in all competition for Liverpool, as his excellent early season form had evaporated and it was put down to a busy summer with Brazil at the Copa America.

Firmino has rediscovered his mojo and his penchant for delivering in the big moments has returned. Seeing his pearly whites on full show is always a good sign that he is back to his best and he even popped up with a few other chances on Boxing Day but didn’t bury them. Firmino’s hunger, and mojo, has returned.


FOXES FLAT AS TITLE HOPES ALL BUT OVER

They’ve now drawn with Norwich and been hammered by Man City and Liverpool in their last three games and Leicester City’s bubble has burst. They may still finish in the top four this season, which would be an incredible achievement, but against Liverpool they were their own worst enemies as they gave the ball away time and time again and never looked like threatening the league leaders.

This was a humbling day for former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, as the focus will now switch to regrouping and making sure they can finish in the top four with a solid second half of the season but they are only 10 points clear of fifth place Tottenham. The way they were battered by Liverpool could be more harmful than just a single defeat, and it will be Rodgers’ job to now pick his young side up after so many had off days, with the likes of James Maddison and Youri Tielemans totally dominated. This Leicester side had the best defensive record going into this game but they were simply ripped to shreds.


FIT-AGAIN KEITA, TAA ADD EXTRA DIMENSION TO RAMPANT LIVERPOOL

Liverpool’s machine continues to roar on as they took a huge step towards winning their first league title in over 30 years. They were dominant throughout against Leicester and a few different players are stepping up time and time again this season. Naby Keita has been sublime since returning from injury, while Trent Alexander-Arnold’s form has been otherworldly. His goal and two assists were added to by his incredible long-range passes, and TAA is still just 21 years old, which is amazing.

He and Keita add an extra dimension to Liverpool and even though Salah and Mane were fairly quite on Thursday, it didn’t matter. With Jordan Henderson digging deep in midfield, Keita’s forward runs and dribbling add an extra cutting edge. We often focus on individuals but this is a total team effort. Liverpool have lost just one of their last 57 Premier League games and have won 26 of their last 27 PL outings, with the only dropped points coming away at Man United earlier this season. They are a winning machine and key cogs, and new ones, are coming to the fore time and time again.

Three things learned: Arsenal v. Man City

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LONDON — Manchester City swept Arsenal aside on Sunday in the Premier League to win 3-0 as festive cheer was in short supply amongst the home fans at the Emirates Stadium.

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Kevin De Bruyne‘s masterclass saw him score twice and grab an assist as Man City ran riot in the first half and Arsenal’s injury-hit defense never recovered.

Here’s what we learned as interim Arsenal boss Freddie Ljungberg saw his side dominated by Pep Guardiola‘s Man City.


DE BRUYNE ON ANOTHER LEVEL

KEVINNNNN! Kevin de Bruyne was on another level on Sunday as he ripped Arsenal apart in the first half. He scored twice, cracking finishes with either foot, forced a superb save from Bernd Leno who tipped his shot onto the post, and he set up Raheem Sterling as City destroyed Arsenal. KDB has been fit for most of this season and he is the main reason why you think City could still surge towards an unlikely title push in the second half of the campaign, or more likely have a serious chance of winning the UEFA Champions League.

A fit and fired up De Bruyne is exactly what Man City need right now.

We’ve all seen the clips of him getting angry in the past (“Let me talk! Let me talk!”) and when the Belgian wizard is fired up he’s a joy to watch. In the second half Arsenal’s fans let out gasps as he nutmegged Guendouzi on the left flank to find Raheem Sterling who was 30 yards to his left and behind him. His vision is incredible and his driving runs scythed through the heart of the Gunners time and time again. Whatever Man City win, or don’t win, this season the main positive is that Kevin de Bruyne is fully fit and back to his best. Everyone’s a winner (except their opponents) when KDB is firing on all cylinders like this.


LJUNGBERG FAILING HIS ARSENAL AUDITION

Arsenal’s fans aren’t angry at their team anymore. They are just disappointed. Any teenager who’s had a similar run in with their parents can tell you exactly how horrible that feels.

Freddie Ljungberg has drawn against Norwich and Standard Liege, beat West Ham and now lost to Brighton and Man City in his first five games in charge. It’s hardly promising stuff from the Arsenal interim manager. His two week audition has seen Arsenal reignite their attacking prowess, one of his core philosophies as a coach, but defensively they remain woeful. Yes, injuries at the back, which now include Sead Kolasinac, have hampered the team but they are too naive, too idealistic. Ljungberg wants them to attack but this is no different than Arsene Wenger and the same as Unai Emery. Nothing has changed. Instead of setting his team up to be tough to beat and battling for every ball, they are too easy to pass through. There is no ‘going back to basics’ but instead the status quo remains intact.

Whispers around the press room before the game suggested that Ljungberg will be given until the end of the season to lead the Gunners while the hierarchy wait to appoint the perfect candidate. With a top four place still, quite remarkably, on the line, Arsenal’s dilly-dallying will surely cost them any chance they have to reach the top four. Tottenham’s rapid response to fire Mauricio Pochettino and hire Jose Mourinho has worked, with Spurs just three points behind fourth-place Chelsea and building momentum. Arsenal are just seven points off the top four but stuck in neutral and will be until Ljungberg is either given the rest of the season or a new man arrives. The team, fans and the entire club is stuck in limbo.

The fans seem to have checked out already. On Sunday it was so quite that at times you could heard the Arsenal players, mostly Calum Chambers, calmly giving out instructions to other defenders. There was an acceptance that Man City were so far and above Arsenal that the home fans might as well stick around to watch City play. They ignored the chants/taunts from the away end telling them they should have “gone Christmas shopping!” and watched on in despair as Arsenal’s injury-hit defense crumbled and their managerless side limp on. The damage was done in the first half and although it was 0-0 for the second half, that was more about Man City coasting than Arsenal improving.


CITY CAN STILL SALVAGE THEIR SEASON 

Man City are still 14 points behind leaders Liverpool but they’re now able to eat away at that gap a little with Liverpool on Club World Cup duty next week. They face Leicester City next and can move to within one point of the second-place Foxes with a win at the King Power Stadium. Pep Guardiola’s men will never stop believing they can win every single game between now and the end of the season, and they could quite easily do that.

Defensively they weren’t that troubled on Sunday, but they still have up gilt-edged chances as Gabriel Martinelli was denied early on and Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had chances in the second half. The back four of Kyle Walker, Fernandinho, Nicolas Otamandi and Benjamin Mendy just did okay, and that was enough thanks to the brilliance of Kevin de Bruyne. But Mendy in particular was suspect defensively and City still have a soft underbelly. Their squad strength will come to the fore in the next few weeks over the festive season and in early January, just like last season, we will get a better idea as to whether or not they can salvage their season by becoming genuine contenders in the Premier League and Champions League.

Three things we learned: Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — Manchester United beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, with the Red Devils ripping apart the reigning Premier League champions on the counter.

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Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial scored the goals for United in the first half as City huffed and puffed but uncharacteristically failed to have a cutting edge in the final third, as Nicolas Otamendi’s late header was no more than a consolation.

Pep Guardiola‘s side are now 14 points off leaders Liverpool, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Man United are five points off the top four and have basically ended the title hopes of their crosstown rivals.

What did we learn from a wild Manchester Derby?


UNITED’S COUNTER ATTACK UNSTOPPABLE

Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial were all denied by Ederson in the first 15 minutes and Marcus Rashford was the chief architect of United’s rapid counter attacks. It was a sign of things to come. Rashford dazzled throughout as his pace and killer passes took City’s entire defense out of the game.

United plan to be a counter-attacking team under Solskjaer and this was the perfect example of what they can become under the Norwegian coach. Everything clicked going forward as the movement and pace of Martial, James, Rashford and Lingard was a thing of beauty. United were unstoppable.


VAR CONTROVERSY ONCE AGAIN

For Man United’s penalty kick which led to their first goal VAR worked a treat. Rashford was clipped by Bernardo Silva and replays showed there was clear contact. You can have no arguments that a penalty was awarded, even though a decision going against them seemed to totally put them off their game. Then, for City, they felt even more aggrieved.

For a penalty decision right on half time VAR didn’t work so well…

Fred handled the ball in the box with his outstretched arm while he was on the floor and his hand clearly blocked the path of the ball which would have gone into the box and towards Man City’s attackers. Pep Guardiola and his players were livid, and rightly so, as VAR was put in place for key moments like this. In the first half it delivered, in the second half it did not.


CITY’S TITLE HOPES OVER; AGUERO BADLY MISSED

Man City are now 14 points behind leaders Liverpool and that is pretty much that for their hopes of winning the Premier League title for a third-straight season. All season their defensive injuries and general shoddiness at the back has suggested a title win was unlikely, and that come to the fore on Saturday as Man United ruthlessly exposed their defensive weaknesses.

At the other end, scoring goals is never usually a problem, but they missed all-time leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero. His injury meant that Gabriel Jesus was thrust into the spotlight and quite incredibley the Brazilian striker hasn’t scored in any home game this season. All seven of his goals have come away from the Etihad and his movement was just off as Man United’s center back pairing of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire marshalled him with ease.

Jesus sent a diving header wide from Kevin De Bruyne‘s superb cross in the first half, then David Silva missed a chance off balance at the back post and Riyad Mahrez couldn’t bundle home from a similar position. Usually Aguero finds a way, especially in the big games, and nobody stepped up to fill his shoes on Saturday. City are now probably best set on focusing on winning the UEFA Champions League this season and to finish in the top four.

Three things we learned from USMNT-Canada

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The USMNT reclaimed its driver’s seat status for the CONCACAF Nations League with a 4-1 defeat of Canada in Orlando on Friday.

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Here’s what we gleaned from 90 minutes near Disneyworld.

Berhalter returns the tactical beatdown

Canada coach John Herdman opted to take his most electric attacker, Alphonso Davies, and play him at left back. Yes, he’s played there for Bayern Munich — who is in a defender crisis — but considering what Davies did to the USMNT last month in Toronto, well, what a let off!

Berhalter would’ve learned that he had to punish Canada’s back line, an untested group he didn’t test last month. So while it turned some heads that Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola got start over Josh Sargent and Tyler Boyd, they combined with Jordan Morris to bring industry in spades.

It also helped that Weston McKennie was much better, and that Sergino Dest and John Brooks were available, but credit Berhalter for flipping the script after October’s Ontario humiliation. While his seven changes to the lineup were an exaggerated change — he certainly would’ve preferred to play injured Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic — but it’s good to see the coach recognize the errors of his ways.

Gyasi Zardes flummoxes most of the USMNT fandom

Look: It seemed like next level trolling when Gregg Berhalter called upon his longtime Columbus Crew striker to start over Josh Sargent, but it turned out to be a risk well-rewarded.

The athletic, powerful American striker was a handful for the aforementioned, overmatched back line.

Yes his second goal was deflected past Milan Borjan, and no he’s never going to be the club’s best striker. But considering how often many of us have criticized the continued call-ups of Zardes, he’ll be having an ice cold pint water of water and clinking glasses with Berhalter after the match.

Dest delivers

Ajax right back Sergino Dest is now an American player (“Sandlot” voice) for-ev-er, and the recently-minted 19-year-old was absolute dynamite going forward.

Dest presents a variety of 1v1 moves, as evidenced on a lightning counter that finished short of a goal when he dragged a shot wide of the far post.

If there was any question that the Yanks scored a victory in getting him to commit to the U.S., he answered them all positively. Good on you, Earnie Stewart and Berhalter.