Hits and misses: Man City cantering towards PL title


image[Man City have raised the bar]

It was first versus second but it didn’t really look like that.Chelsea defended well and limited Manchester City to only a handful of chances but City were dominant throughout, barely gave their visitors a look-in at the other end, and won through some individual brilliance from Kevin De Bruyne.

It was almost a repeat of their victory at Stamford Bridge in September and, after completing the double over Chelsea, the 13-point gap between City and their nearest challengers is huge.It’s only January, after all.

Liverpool could close that chasm if they win their games in hand, and they still have to go to the Etihad themselves, but a turnaround now looks highly unlikely.

City are setting incredible standards right now – and it’s no surprise others are struggling to keep up.They have the best attacking numbers and the best defensive record, too.

The 15-game winning streak they put together over the winter period last season took them to the title and seemed unrepeatable but they’re up to 12 wins on the spin now and motoring away from their rivals again.

When other teams have faltered during this busy festive period, City have just kept on winning.Pep Guardiola said his side were facing an “emergency” of injuries, illness and suspensions at the start of December.Fast forward a month and a half and they’re on course to finish the season with over 95 points.

No striker? No problem.A disrupted pre-season – City were the last Premier League club to return to the training ground – may have affected some performances earlier in the campaign, but they’re in their groove now.

Of course, the resources and depth of quality Guardiola can call on is substantial.But the relentless nature of this City team, and the way they’ve adapted to challenges they’ve faced, is down to mentality and coaching.

A fourth Premier League title in five seasons seems a near-certainty now for a team and manager who have raised the bar.

Peter Smith

[Toothless Chelsea surrender title chances]

It was only ever the faintest of chances, but Chelsea kissed goodbye to it at the Etihad Stadium.

Nothing other than a victory would suffice if the prospect of the European champions reeling the runaway leaders, and champions of England, Manchester City back into a title race was to materialise.

The foundation was there for Chelsea to resurrect their title challenge.

A steely and resilient defensive display, marshalled by the evergreen Thiago Silva, weathered the constant Manchester City bombardment, but Thomas Tuchel’s side were found woefully wanting at the business end of the pitch.

For the first time in the German’s reign at the club, Chelsea failed to register an attempt on goal in the first half of a Premier League game, as a front three of Romelu Lukaku, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic failed to gel.By the end of the 90 minutes, Ederson would only be called into action once in the City goal.

Tuchel believed his side’s defensive efforts merited a point but the same could not be said of his attackers.

“We had zero touches in the box [in the first half].

That was a big problem, the performance of the front players,” he conceded.”That was down to a lack of precision, timing, and composure.We can do much, much better and we need to do better.”

Tuchel’s brutal assessment was followed by a similarly blunt response to whether Chelsea could still win the Premier League.”We will never give up, but if City keeps on winning every game, nobody can catch them.”

On Saturday’s showing, Chelsea don’t have the firepower to capitalise on a slip-up from City, however unlikely that might be.

Jack Wilkinson

[Where does the blame lie at Everton?]

It is a question that remains hard to pinpoint, but for many of those who headed back to Merseyside having made their longest away trip of the season, it is clear where the buck stops.

Everton are in freefall and this unhappy marriage with under-fire former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez reached its nadir at Carrow Road.

This was the club’s first away defeat against a team starting the day bottom of the Premier League table since May 2004, having been unbeaten in 17 such occasions coming into the game.

Benitez is running out of time and excuses.Dominic Calvert-Lewin was back in the side following his most recent relapse while Richarlison did have an impact off the bench, but the damage had already been done.

As has so often been the case during this miserable run of one win in 13 league games.

The 2-1 loss to Norwich continued an abysmal record for Everton of conceding the first goal in 16 of their 22 games in all competitions this season, including each of their last nine games.

Against the league’s bottom side, who had conceded the first goal in 16 games themselves this term, Benitez watched his players ship twice before they staged any form of response.For Evertonians, and for Benitez, it feels like Groundhog Day.

He may never be quite as irate as the club’s supporters at the current situation, but the players must also take accountability.

After all, both of Norwich’s goals were of Everton’s own making, with Michael Keane’s own goal coming 92 seconds before Ben Godfrey’s poor pass contributed to Adam Idah making it two.

Benitez said: “We didn’t start the game badly in terms of control, but afterwards we made the same mistakes.

We made a couple of mistakes in a few minutes, we conceded two goals and gave ourselves a mountain to climb again.”

Everton have won just 19 points from their 19 league games this season – only twice previously have they had fewer at this stage of a Premier League campaign.Senior members of the squad must come forward and lead by example, but calls for Benitez to be relieved of his duties will now intensify.

Ben Grounds

[Elanga shows what Man Utd have been missing]

“Manchester United have always had wingers that can sprint in behind defenders,” noted Jamie Redknapp in the aftermath of United’s 2-2 draw with Aston Villa.He was speaking regarding the performance of 19-year-old Antony Elanga, who was given a surprise start by Ralf Rangnick at Villa Park.

Elanga was preferred to £73m signing Jadon Sancho and put in a performance full of pace, direct running and unwavering enthusiasm – all attributes we have yet to see from Sancho in a Manchester United.His first start of the season in the Premier League coincided with United’s best performance under Rangnick – for 80 minutes anyway.

– [How the teams lined up] | [Match stats]

– [Aston Villa 2-2 Man Utd – Report and highlights]

– [Premier League fixtures] | [Table] | [Results]

Of course, Sancho is a completely different type of player who likes the ball to feet and when at his best can cause havoc with his creative play.

But with his confidence at rock bottom, giving a start to someone like Elanga who likes to run, run and run some more was a smart move by the new United manager.His ability to stretch the game gave United a fantastic platform to build from and Bruno Fernandes’ opening goal stemmed from an attack down Elanga’s side.

“He did well and had two great opportunities to score but he showed what I expected of him and why I decided to play him from the start,” said Rangnick.

He may have cost the club £73m but Sancho has a massive challenge in front of him now to convince the manager to give him the starting shirt.It’s Elanga’s for the time being.

Lewis Jones

[Why can’t Newcastle see out a victory?]

Ahead of Saturday’s crucial relegation battle with Watford, there was a buzz of anticipation around St James’ Park.Chris Wood was making his debut – a £25m replacement for the injured Callum Wilson – and this was a must-win game.

Banners and flags were flown in an impressive pre-match showing.

And for an hour, Newcastle responded in kind.They dominated the first half, and four minutes after the break, a superb strike from Allan Saint-Maximin saw Newcastle ahead.

Perhaps it was nerves, anxiety or the need to protect a lead, but the hosts began to sit back and invite the pressure.Watford’s best chances all came after the 60th minute – including the vital equaliser with mere minutes to play that made a draw feel like a defeat for Newcastle.

Eddie Howe’s side have now dropped a huge 21 points from winning positions this season and conceded 11 goals in the final 15 minutes of Premier League games.Newcastle continue to find themselves in this cycle, and it promoted loud booing from the home fans at full-time.

It all begs the question – just why can’t Newcastle see out a victory?

Eddie Howe gave his thoughts: “I think it’s psychological.

There was a thought to protect what we had.It was early in the game, we lost our attacking threat in the match and that should never be the case with so long to go.

“I think that’s linked to confidence and now having won as many games as we would have liked in a long period of time.

The only way to build that is to get over the line and win.We did that against Burnley recently and I hoped that would have been an improvement in that phase of our play.

“But today, we didn’t get over the line and I hope it doesn’t lead to mental scars for the players.I’m sure it won’t because we will go into the game and analyse it and review and do some work to try and change it.”

Whatever the case may be, it’s a worryingly frequent trend.Alongside this, Newcastle only had one shot on target over the entire 90 minutes – Saint-Maximin’s goal – and only two in the second half overall.

Newcastle remain with just one Premier League victory this season, and joint-second league high of nine draws.Each game gets bigger as the season continues, but when there could be only a few points or even goal difference in it, they need to start improving both tallies to stand a chance.

Otherwise, a return to the Championship increasingly beckons.

Charlotte Marsh

[Idah gives Norwich extra dimension]

Norwich manager Dean Smith said he hoped his side have “turned a corner” following this hard-fought third Premier League victory over the season.Everton always had the look of a side that were there for the taking, but the Canaries had only scored eight goals in their opening 20 league games.

To put that into context, it was the joint fewest goals by any side after 20 games of a top-flight season, alongside the Leicester team of the 1977/78 campaign.

Just as in their previous term in the Premier League two years ago, there has been an over-reliance on Teemu Pukki to provide the ammunition, but Smith was rewarded for his bold approach on Saturday.

Josh Sargent was recalled and forced Keane’s mistake for the opener while Adam Idah showed fine composure to notch his first Premier League on his 27th appearance in the competition to double Norwich’s lead in what proved to be the match-winner.

Smith said: “I wanted him to follow up his positive performance on Wednesday [in the 2-0 defeat to West Ham] with another positive one today and he did that.We’ve got a few players who have potential like Adam, and it’s our job to help them fulfil that potential.”

Overall, it was Idah’s first league goal since May 2021, when he scored in Norwich’s final game of their promotion season in the Championship against Barnsley.

“Ourselves and Adam are still finding out what type of player he is.He’s a lad who has got an awful lot of potential, he’s physically strong and he’s just starting to learn how to use his body but I thought he did really well using it.He’s got a great touch, he can finish.

His first Premier League goal was certainly deserved.”

Norwich are yet to strengthen their squad this window but in Idah, they may just have the necessary firepower to help stage an unlikely escape when many critics had already written them off.

Ben Grounds

[Ward-Prowse closing in on Beckham free-kick record]

Southampton may have seen their five-match unbeaten run come to an end at Molineux on Saturday afternoon after a 3-1 loss to Wolves, however, the visitors did score the best goal of the game after yet another in the now long list of sensational James Ward-Prowse direct free kicks.

With the scoreline 2-0 to the hosts and Southampton seemingly beaten, up stepped Ward-Prowse to curl a sumptuous free-kick up and over the wall and into the top righthand corner of the net from fully 35 yards out, with Wolves’ previously unbeatable goalkeeper Jose Sa rooted to his line.

No ‘keeper in the world would have got near Ward-Prowse’s effort, given the shot’s accuracy and speed, although we should no longer be surprised at the Saints skipper’s prowess from dead-ball situations.

In fact, Saturday was the England international’s 12th direct free-kick goal in the Premier League, a haul bettered only by David Beckham (18), with his manager Ralph Hasenhuttl even claiming it was the best he had ever seen from the player, which is quite some statement given his body of work.

Richard Morgan

[Time for Brighton to move on a striker?]

If only it was a game of xG.Yet again, Brighton have dominated a game without winning it.

They have started showing signs they can find the back of the net this season, and their new-found Midas touch launched them into the European places earlier in the season.

But they still have not grasped how to routinely turn territorial dominance into goals.Neal Maupay, often criticised for his wasteful finishing, barely had a chance to prove that wrong and instead it was Jakub Moder, Leandro Trossard and Danny Welbeck who shared the burden of creating another evening of near misses.

It was almost in the script that Palace should score from their first shot on target, showing Brighton exactly how it is done as teams have been doing to Graham Potter’s side ever since he walked into the door.

They have such great control over 80 per cent of the pitch, but the final 20 per cent, the clincher, is still beyond them.The January window is almost midway through, and if the Seagulls are serious about turning their nice play into points for the rest of the season, it is time to act.

This was the sixth time this season they have had an xG of more than double their opponents’ – but on the scoreline, six is also the amount of games they have managed to win all season.

Despite a tough night for Crystal Palace, the teamsheet may be the real winner for them.At an average age of 25 years and 31 days, their 11 starters represented the Eagles’ youngest Premier League line-up since Iain Dowie managed them to a 2-2 draw against West Brom in February 2005.

Andy Johnson was one of the scorers that day – and he turns 41 next month.Steve Parish’s vision to rejuvenate one of the Premier League’s eldest squads is going swimmingly.

Ron Walker.

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