Once again with almost Nostradamus-like powers of prediction, yours truly’s proclamation last week that the title race “looks very much like it is going to go right down to the wire” and “it feels very much a case of waiting to see which one of the protagonists will blink first“ (https://football-nerd.org/2019/01/25/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-the-title-race-mexican-standoff-continues/), proved as prescient as ever!
A mere four days after uttering those words, Manchester City lost at St James Park to a Newcastle United side whose season thus far could best be described as uninspiring if we were being kind, abject if less so inclined. Prior to Tuesday night’s game, Newcastle had won just 5 of their 23 Premier League games and were hovering just one point above the dropzone; yet they proved to be more than a match for Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions.
Finding themselves a goal down after just 24 seconds of play would have had most managers tearing up their pre-prepared game plan and trying to re-organise their players to avoid the kind of shellacking that had seen City score 28 goals without conceding in their last 6 games in all competitions. But the wily Benitez stuck to his counter-attacking principles, seemingly happy to concede possession to a team that relishes control of the ball more than almost any other, but somehow it worked.
Second half goals from Salomón Rondón and then Matt Ritchie from the penalty spot secured the victory for a team whose own manager had suggested not so long ago that it would be “a miracle” if they managed to stay up this season.
That was City’s fourth defeat of the campaign and it is probably fair to say that they aren’t dominating teams or playing quite the same high-tempo, slick, fluid football that saw them romp to the title last season breaking record after record on their way. As a result there is a feint air of vulnerability about the reigning champions and they are making much harder work of this season’s challenge.
While it would be presumptuous to suggest that Guardiola’s men have been found out by others, Chelsea before they forgot who they were and how they play, Crystal Palace, Leicester City and now Newcastle have demonstrated an approach to exposing the fragility on the Catalan’s footballing philosophy.
The following evening table-toppers Liverpool failed to capitalise fully on City’s latest slip, being pegged back to a draw by a Leicester City side that have risen to the big occasion in recent weeks with wins over City and Chelsea and now achieving a creditable draw at Anfield.
Just as City had taken an early lead at St James Park, so Sadio Mane put Liverpool ahead after just 2 minutes, however a save from Kasper Schmeichel from Firmino and a missed header by Mane meant that the pacesetters failed to capitalise on their early dominance. Uncharacteristic shakiness in playing out from goalkeeper Alisson on a couple of occasions gave the Foxes a sniff that there might be something in the match for them. So it was to prove when Harry Maguire, who could have been shown a red card for pulling back Mane moments earlier stabbed home in first half added time.
For some peculiar reason the Anfield groundstaff opted only to clear the snow from the penalty area at the half-time break, however any advantage they were seeking wasn’t found as a penalty shout for a challenge on Keita and a couple of other half chances were about all they could muster.
While being held to a draw at home and failing to establish a 7 point lead over their closest rivals might be seen as an opportunity spurned, Liverpool have still increased their lead at the top of the table to 5 points.
This weekend City again play first, hosting Arsenal on Sunday afternoon while Liverpool follow with a Monday night trip to the London Stadium to face an unpredictable West Ham side, more dropped points for either challengers may give us a further indication of how the title race might play out. However given this author’s track record of predicting how things might play out, expect wins for both!
Meanwhile amongst the also-rans, Chelsea were humbled 4-0 at Bournemouth that had manager Maurizio Sarri fuming for the second Premier League game in a row, following the capitulation at Arsenal, once again suggesting that he is struggling to motivate his players.
The manager himself remains steadfastly committed to his self-styled football philosophy, ‘Sarri-Ball’, so much so that his two major signings Jorginho and Higuain have been brought in based on having played within this system under Sarri at Napoli. Yet as Tottenham with Dele Alli showed in October, as Aaron Ramsey repeated two weeks ago and young David Brooks did on Wednesday night: stifle Jorginho and you halt Sarri-Ball.
Equally it probably isn’t helping that the Italian continually deploys two of the best players in their positions in football in roles to which they are not entirely suited. To not play N’Golo Kante at the base of the midfield and at the same time to expect Eden Hazard to suddenly gain the attributes of Diego Costa or Didier Drogba and lead the line is tantamount to tactical suicide.
Arsenal were far removed from the team that put Chelsea to the sword the other week, yet scraping a 2-1 win over a poor Cardiff City combined with Bournemouth’s fourth goal was enough to put the Gunners in the Champions League places on goals scored. Manchester United dropping points at home to Burnley, and for the first time under Solskjaer, means that the battle for the top four is also heating up.