For the first time since Opta has been gathering the data a team failed to record a single shot on or off target in a Premier League match. The fact that it was Eddie Howe’s usually progressive Bournemouth side made it even more puzzling. Howe has in the past, on several occasions, stated that he would never sacrifice his football philosophy and beliefs to win ugly, but then they don’t normally face a team capable of monopolising 82% of the possession and stringing together a staggering 810 passes!
Despite their scarcely believable dominance Manchester City managed to beat Artur Boruc in the Bournemouth goal just once, with what Howe later described as “probably the ugliest they will score this season.” More worrying for the rest of the Premier League was that Pep Guardiola thought it was “an incredible performance, one of best played in our time together”, and “we have worked on this [playing against ten men defending deep] and now we are starting to see things coming to fruition.” If they remain a work in progress we can only shudder to think how good they can become. The one down note was the loss of Kevin De Bruyne to injury once again.
City’s win forced the pressure back onto Liverpool ahead of the Merseyside derby on Sunday afternoon. Jürgen Klopp’s men were left frustrated as their local rivals produced an obstinate defensive performance that saw Liverpool drop two more points. Anyone at Anfield would refuse to use the ‘b word’ in describing their recent performances, but four draws in their last six matches, certainly looks and feels very much like a blip, such is the level to which City have raised the bar so that draws are almost as damaging as defeats. More concerning, they now find themselves playing catch up to Manchester City in the title race for the first time since the 7th of December.
With nine games remaining the race is nowhere near over, but it does feel as if the momentum may have edged slightly down the M62 to the Etihad. That was Manchester City’s fifth straight league win, consigning the debacle at St James Park at the end of January to merely a bad memory. Looking ahead though City do have two pivotal games looming just over the horizon towards the end of April when they host Tottenham and then travel to Old Trafford within the space of four days. Liverpool for their part host both Tottenham and Chelsea before then.
After a poor week that saw them lose at Burnley, then at Chelsea and then held at home to North London rivals Arsenal, even the most optimistic of Spurs fans would probably suggest that their aspirations of making the title race a three horse affair are probably now over. Perhaps most worrying for Tottenham was the way that Unai Emery’s team nullified their attacking threat for the most part, with a surprisingly organised and resolute defensive display.
In a strangely muted atmosphere, which may be explained in no small part by Spurs’ continuing exile at the national stadium, the only drama came through controversial decisions. First Harry Kane’s equalizer from the penalty spot with just over quarter of an hour to play would most likely not have happened next season when VAR is in long-overdue use, as there were a number of Tottenham players offside before Shkodran Mustafi had another of his all-too-common moments of madness, inexplicably pushing the Tottenham striker in the back.
A last minute penalty which even most Gooners would concede was soft to say the least, was wasted when Aubameyang, who has never looked comfortable from 12 yards, shot tamely and allowed Lloris to save comfortable low to his right. The fact that it felt frustrating not to have won at least provides some consolation for us Arsenal fans who are beginning to see Emery’s influence on the team as well as the belief that things are beginning to get better.
In the Champions League it seemed for all money that the stand out result was Ajax’s stunning 4-1 win at the Bernabeu which brought to an end Real Madrid’s reign as European Champions after a total of 1,012 days. Even as a long-standing Feyenoorder I felt a big sense of pride at our bitter rivals’ achievement. After the first leg an Ajax supporting mate of mine was bemoaning their qualification to the knockout stages suggesting that he would rather his club continued to operate as a relatively bigger fish in the smaller Europa League pond, I wonder what his thoughts will be when the draw is made at the end of next week?
If that wasn’t enough excitement, Manchester United went one better the following evening: overturning a 2-0 first leg deficit for the first time in the history of the competition thanks in no small part to a controversial VAR decision. Marcus Rashford duly converted to seal United’s unexpected progression to the quarter finals. The only remaining question over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s position is what more he has to do to have it made permanent?