SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:
Statement wins for Liverpool just before crucial stretch
WHAT HAPPENED: While league titles are never won before Christmas, last week could prove to be a vital week for Liverpool in their bid to retain their EPL title.
A hard-fought, last-gasp 2-1 win over title contenders Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday (16 December) was followed by a ruthless 7-0 hammering of Crystal Palace on Saturday – the Reds’ biggest top-flight away victory in their long and illustrious history.
More importantly, the two victories lifted them four points clear at the top of the table, just before they embark on the hectic festive schedule, aiming to pull away from the chasing pack just like they did in their triumphant last season.
Traditionally, the crammed festive schedule is where the top teams, with their deeper squads and better recovery methods, tend to fare better than the mid- or bottom-table clubs. With matches coming at an average of once every three days, the top teams are able to rotate their matchday squads without a big drop-off in performance.
And with Liverpool still working through their spate of injury absences, a four-point lead atop the table gives them a buffer to face the festive schedule with some confidence and swagger. Their upcoming games: against West Bromwich Albion (27 December), Newcastle (30 December), Southampton (4 January) and Aston Villa in the FA Cup (8 January) look like games which they should negotiate comfortably.
It all looks ominous for the other contenders, who must had been hoping the Reds would trip up with their injury woes and midweek Champions League commitments earlier in the season. Yet, despite losing stalwarts such as Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara, Liverpool are still top of the league.
Can they be toppled? There is still about two-thirds of the season left to play, but one thing is for certain: it would take a monumental effort from other clubs to knock the Reds off their perch.
WHAT’S NEXT: Liverpool enjoy a one-week break to rest and recharge before taking on struggling West Bromwich Albion, which had just replaced manager Slaven Bilic with Sam Allardyce. While Allardyce will instil a sense of defensive organisation to the relegation-threatened Baggies, Liverpool should have few problems getting a win at their fortress Anfield.
Spurs need frontline support, Foxes progress into cohesive unit
WHAT HAPPENED: Two defeats in four days have plunged Tottenham from top spot to fifth, while Leicester City have moved back into second place following their 2-0 win over Spurs on Sunday – proof of the extra-tight competition for Champions League qualification this season, with just five points separating the second-placed Foxed and ninth-placed Aston Villa.
For Spurs, the double losses have put a dampener on their title hopes, after their superb 11-match unbeaten run earlier in the season rocketed them to top of the table.
It is evident now that, outside of their Dynamic Duo of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min – quite possibly the two best players in the league right now – Spurs struggle to find creative players who can provide inspirational sparks should Kane and Son be shackled tightly by opponents.
Defence-wise, Spurs are also yet to fully master the “reactive football” espoused by manager Jose Mourinho – letting opponents have the majority of possession before hitting them on incisive counter-attacks.
Given that Mourinho is just a year and a half into his current tenure, such deficiencies are perhaps understandable. They have nonetheless put themselves in a great position to fight for Champions League qualification, which counts as a commendable improvement from last season.
On the other hand, it is also evident that Leicester City are progressing wondrously under Brendan Rodgers. In the Northern Irishman’s second full season in charge, the Foxes have developed into a cohesive and formidable unit despite lack of star players outside of evergreen striker Jamie Vardy.
Top-notch performances from the likes of Youri Tielemens, James Maddison and Wesley Fofana have ensured that Leicester stay in the hunt for a top-four finish, despite injuries to key personnel such as Wilfred Ndidi and Caglar Soyuncu.
Last season, the Foxes faded badly at the end of the season to settle for Europa League qualification. This time around, they could very well hang around to qualify for the Champions League.
WHAT’S NEXT: Both Spurs and Leicester have tricky Boxing Day fixtures. Leicester host a Manchester United side buoyed by their current fine form, while Tottenham travel to Molineux for a tough away tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Man United defy critics to storm up the table
WHAT HAPPENED: Have we been too harsh on Manchester United and their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?
A season that started with a 1-6 thrashing by Tottenham – and calls for the Norwegian to go – has since gained enough momentum for the Red Devils to land in third place after a sparkling 6-2 rout of Leeds United on Sunday. They are now unbeaten in seven matches since their 0-1 defeat by Arsenal on 1 November.
What does one make of United? Under Solskjaer, they are capable of long winning or unbeaten streaks, yet also prone to prolonged slumps. Solskjaer has not created a clear footballing philosophy within the unbalanced squad, yet he is really good at shaping his match tactics to precisely attack opponents’ weaknesses.
One can only conclude that United are not yet the finished product, and could take one or two more seasons before becoming truly formidable and consistent.
With the level of talent they have at their disposal, however, Champions League qualification is virtually a must, in order for Solskjaer to convince more top talents to come to Old Trafford.
For now, Man United fans will be pleased at their team’s progress up the table, even though they must be nervous as to when the next slump will come.
WHAT’S NEXT: A showdown against second-placed Leicester will be the litmus test to Man United’s progress this season. A win would leapfrog them right behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand, and make their crunch tie at Anfield on 17 January a must-watch for all EPL fans.
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