For those of us of a Gooner persuasion it was never in doubt that Manchester City would bounce back after their dodgy showing and result away at Newcastle. For our team we simply hoped that it wouldn’t be another one of those embarrassing tonkings away at purported rivals that have been all too common over the last seven or eight seasons. In the end Unai Emery’s men put up a bit of a fight, at least in the first half, but were obviously second best, the reigning champions clearly being at least a level above.
City’s victory turned the pressure over to league leaders Liverpool who travelled to the London Stadium on Monday night to face a West Ham side that are inconsistent at best, if not completely unpredictable. Klopp’s side knew that anything other than a victory in East London could be seen as letting City gain a stronger foothold in the title race. Having previously only dropped points against other members of the Big Six, two 1-1 draws in just six days against teams outside of the elite will rankle with the Anfield club perhaps more than it should.
City then travelled to Goodison Park on Wednesday evening where their 2-0 victory put them ahead of Liverpool at the top of the table, albeit on goal difference and having played a game more, for the first time since mid-December
While Liverpool were never going to be able to sustain the pace and efficiency with which they swatted aside teams from outside the recognised top six, these two recent matches have suggested a slowing down, of the going getting tougher and of perhaps needing to find a way to freshen things up. This weekend Liverpool host Bournemouth away from the glare of the TV cameras, while City entertain Chelsea on Sunday, a comfortable victory might be exactly what the Reds need to calm the nerves and steel themselves ahead of the run-in.
Looming just over the horizon next week is the return of European football even if it is that peculiar split round in the Champions League that allows the Europa League to get the overly bloated Round of 32 out of the way. With no disrespect to any of the other teams still involved, the standout fixtures next week look like being: Man United v PSG and Tottenham hosting Borussia Dortmund.
After ten games in charge, nine of which have been won, it seems as much as by good fortune as deliberate design that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is offering Manchester United’s hierarchy a ready-made solution in deciding who should be next to assume the Old Trafford hot seat. The reinvigoration of the club since Solskjaer replaced the little-mourned José Mourinho has been astounding. The results are better, the style of play is exciting and reminiscent of the counter attacking style made famous by Sir Alex, hell he’s even got Paul Pogba looking like the world class player we were led to believe he was supposed to be!
If rumour is to be believed, should Solskjaer navigate United’s passage past PSG into the quarter finals then he will be offered the job on a permanent basis; although many would suggest he has done enough already. Without Neymar, who is ruled out with a foot injury, the Parisians still boast an impressive array of attacking talent and had up to last Sunday’s defeat at Lyon, pretty much swept all before them at home as well as topping a Champions League group that included both Liverpool and Napoli.
Ever since the Qatari takeover and five league titles in the seven subsequent years it is continually suggested that PSG need to win the Champions League to be regarded as truly being amongst the elite of European football. Yet each time they have found themselves in a good position they have blown it, often in quite amazing circumstances, we need think only of the unforgettably cruel way in which they blew a 4-0 lead against Barcelona in a game that is now known simply as the remontada (the comeback) two years ago. Might the pressure on PSG play into Solskjaer’s and United’s hands, who have been absolutely consistent in their affirmations of taking it one game at a time?
Tottenham take on Borussia Dortmund, a team that they beat home and away in last season’s group stage, but are likely to still be without both Harry Kane and Dele Alli. BVB currently lead the Bundesliga by seven points from their namesakes from Mönchengladbach and perennially dominant force Bayern Munich and are reportedly a much stronger proposition this time out. Boasting an exciting attack that has been in red hot form throughout the season: scoring 61 goals in 26 league and Champions League games, a new seemingly tougher mentality and a clear tactical evolution under new coach Lucien Favre, has had those in the know in Germany suggesting that Die Schwarzgelben are highly reminiscent of the recent glory years under you-know-who now resident on Merseyside.
It looks to be a delicately balanced and difficult to call tie but promises to be open and attacking as neither team seems to know any other way to play (watch it be a drab 0-0 now then!). Rumours abound that Borussia’s talisman, 17 goal Marco Reus, is himself facing a battle to be fit, which may even things up a bit for Spurs.
For those of us marooned in the Europa League it is the aforementioned Round of 32 for us to endure enjoy. Chelsea face Malmö and Arsenal reacquaint themselves with BATE Borisov (and potentially former player Alex Hleb), a team they made short work of in the group stages last season winning 4-2 away and 6-0 at the Emirates. It would be a major surprise, inclement weather aside, if either of England’s remaining representatives had any problems progressing to the next round.
Probably the standout tie of the round pits Lazio against five-times winners Sevilla. As ever, interest will only really come once the chaff is whittled away and we start to get to down to the teams who are capable of winning the competition. Atletico Madrid were the standout favourites and deserved winners last season and this year it is hard to see beyond the two Premier League clubs or Napoli who dropped out of the Champions League as the favourites for the competition and that cherished passage into the Champions League.