Hits and misses: A four-way fight for fourth?

Tired City find a way to keep on winning

Liverpool have lost one and drawn one of their last two Premier League games. Chelsea have drawn three of their last four in the competition. The demands of the festive fixture schedule – perhaps as tough as they have ever been in modern times, given the illnesses and injuries affecting squads – have taken their toll on Man City’s title rivals. When the standards are so high, those small slip-ups can be costly.

Against Arsenal on Saturday, it looked like City may be going the same way.

Afterwards, Pep Guardiola described his group of players as “incredibly tired, mentally and physically”. He pointed to the four academy youngsters on the bench.

But City, somehow, found a way to win.

That was far from certain at various points through the contest, with an impressive Arsenal side – described as the better team by Guardiola – seeing the ball cleared off the line and Gabriel Martinelli hit a post after Bukayo Saka had swept in their opener.

There will be lots of debate about decisions made by the officials in the game around the two key penalty decisions and Gabriel Magalhaes’s red card but, regardless of the controversy, City battled until the very last moment, when Rodri – a key figure for them in midfield this season – emerged as the unlikely match winner.

It’s now 11 Premier League wins on the spin for the defending champions, who are approaching the 15-game winning streak which propelled them to the title last season. Even better, they get to sit back on Sunday and watch Chelsea and Liverpool go head to head.

Whatever the result in that one, City’s lead at the top of the table will still be substantial. Dropped points at the Emirates may have offered some hope to their flagging rivals but, even when they’re exhausted, this City side just can’t be stopped.
Peter Smith

Short spell costs Arsenal – but there’s hope in defeat

Image: Arsenal react after Stuart Attwell sends off Gabriel

Arsenal had just been beaten by Manchester City – nothing new there, of course.

But it was different this time.

The home fans stayed and cheered their team with great gusto, in full appreciation that Mikel Arteta’s men were absolutely superb against the champions in waiting, despite their manager being forced to isolate at home after a Covid positive test. They were the better side for 85 minutes of the match, in fact.

The problems came in the other five minutes midway through the second half. Rarely has a game changed so much in such a short space of time. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it was much of their own doing.

Granit Xhaka’s lazy challenge and shirt pull on Bernardo Silva gave the referee a decision to make for the equalising penalty. Gabriel Martinelli – full of energy and quality – snatched at what was an open goal chance after Nathan Ake’s miraculous clearance off the line. And then Gabriel Magalhaes’s moment of inexperience blotted his copybook when picking up his second yellow card for a needless foul.

Those three incidents defined the result. Elite teams like Man City feast upon such mistakes and although Arsenal were superb in every department, the big moments in the match were gobbled up by the City machine.

“At the end it’s very frustrating but Mikel was very proud of the performance and at the same time frustrated,” said Arsenal coach Albert Stuivenberg, who was standing in for the absent Arteta.

Frustration was the perfect word to sum up the feeling in the ground at full-time. But when the dust settles, those Arsenal fans can look back on a performance that gives the club so much hope and excitement for the future.
Lewis Jones

Lloris shows his worth to Tottenham

Image: Hugo Lloris made a crucial save at Watford

Watford have been defending badly for some time, but for 95 minutes on New Year’s Day you could see why there are at least three sides having worse seasons than them.

Claudio Ranieri’s team have now lost their last six Premier League games, conceding 16 goals along the way, but there was a real determination about their efforts against a Tottenham side that have been reinvigorated under Antonio Conte.

It was expected that Tottenham would find chances easy to come by, but they appeared to have run out of ideas before Davinson Sanchez delivered his final sting in the tail.

“We are alive, and we will survive,” said a defiant Ranieri. “To concede so late is a real pity but I was proud of my players and so should our fans.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Tottenham’s win against Watford

Spurs were almost left frustrated for a second successive game, having had two goals controversially ruled out by VAR in their 1-1 draw at 10-man Southampton on Tuesday, before Sanchez struck deep into almost 10 minutes of added time following a late stoppage due to a medical emergency in the crowd.

It certainly felt cruel on Ranieri’s side, but Tottenham had 74 per cent possession and 21 shots, including nine on target. They deserved to win but might well have lost were it not for the brilliance of Hugo Lloris, whose fingertip save to deny Joshua King at 0-0 proved a turning point.

The 33-year-old Frenchman is out of contract at the end of the season and has hinted that he is ready to return to his homeland, but Conte is determined to keep hold of his captain after proving his worth once more.

When asked about the goalkeeper’s Spurs future, Conte said: “For sure [we’d like him to renew].

Image: Tottenham mob Davinson Sanchez after his winner

“We can see the level of the goalkeeper in this circumstance when for the whole game he doesn’t need to do much but he continued to be focused with the team and for me it’s very important because when I speak with him and the team, the connection between the goalkeeper and the team is very important.

“When you play very high with a defensive line, the ‘keeper has to follow the game and not just stay on the line. Hugo today showed that he’s a top goalkeeper. For us, he’s very important and I’m sure in a short time the club will find a solution because he loves Tottenham and Tottenham loves him.”

What Watford would give for a goalkeeper of Lloris’ quality and quiet leadership, having seen their wait for a first clean sheet of the season extend beyond an 18th game. They remain just outside of the relegation zone. With 20 games remaining, their head is about above water, but for how much longer?
Ben Grounds

Top-four chasing West Ham happy without the ball

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham’s win against Crystal Palace in the Premier League.

After a tricky period of just one point taken from a possible nine before and just after Christmas, West Ham are firmly back in the top-four hunt with back-to-back away victories.

At Selhurst Park, West Ham won without playing particularly well – David Moyes said as much. Yes, that’s a good sign, etcetera, etcetera, but while Moyes’ side have thrilling and interchangeable attacking options – this time it was Manuel Lanzini putting in a MOTM performance, with Pablo Fornals out – their gameplan often centres around surrendering possession.

West Ham had just 37 per cent of the ball on Saturday, the seventh time out of 20 games this season they’ve had possession in the 30s. They’ve won four of those games – against Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and this Palace win – and suffered only narrow defeats against Man Utd and Man City.

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David Moyes was ‘thrilled’ to take all three points from the 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace, but admits his side were not at their best.

In fact, West Ham register more points per game (1.85) this season in games where they have posession in the 30s, than in games where they register over 40 per cent of the ball (1.61).

Four of their most disappointing results this season came in games where they dominated the ball – draws at Burnley and Saints (59 and 58 per cent respectively) and defeats at home to Brentford and Saints (60 and 56 per cent respectively).

They play four of the current bottom six at home in their next six games. On paper it looks a welcome run of fixtures, but they’ll need to show dexterity when the onus is on them to force open gaps on the ball.
Gerard Brand

Source : Sky Sports