By Neil Leverett
- Liverpool retain 22-point Premier League lead after narrow Game-week 26 win over Norwich City
- Manchester City plunge West Ham into deeper trouble, as Aston Villa throw away point against Spurs
- Leicester and Wolves play out stalemate, Sheffield United maintain European hopes as Chelsea lose at home again versus United
PREMIER LEAGUE, UK – As Liverpool home in on the title and with the relegation pressure cooker beginning to simmer, what did we learn from Premier League Game-week 26?
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Reds’ train running out of steam?
As Liverpool picked up their 17th league win on the bounce against Norwich City in Game-week 26, the signs are perhaps beginning to show that the Reds’ locomotive may not be at full-steam on their way to their first Premier League title.
Romping toward ending their 30-year wait to lift the league crown once more, Jurgen Klopp‘s men have been involved in three consecutive 1-0 scorelines in the FA Cup, league and in Europe midweek against Atletico Madrid.
That result in particular bares out a few concerns for the Merseysiders, and after Diego Simeone‘s men inflicted Liverpool’s first defeat since last September – also away from home in the Champions League to Napoli – are the season’s often exhaustive exerts finally taking their toll on the champions-in-waiting?
Rolling up to Carrow Road last weekend with all and sundry expecting a rout, it took substitute Sadio Mane‘s second half goal to register their latest league win, and while a 1-0 win may have had more to do with conserving energy for their impending trip to Madrid, defeat to Los Coloncheros would have been a concern.
With frustration playing out at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday night, Liverpool have it all to do at Anfield in the return leg, but as relegation-haunted West Ham visit the Kop on Monday night back in the league, goals could be back on the menu in Gameweek 27. If the hosts again fail make significant in-roads into that scoreline, it would be further evidence that the Reds may be running on empty – relatively.
Attack + attack = … stalemate
As Wolves and Leicester City picked up the baton for the second weekend of the Premier League’s inaugural winter break, much was expected of the meeting between two of the top flight’s most attractive and attacking sides in the land. What we got was something very different.
Whilst it would be true there is top flight precedent for two sets of vibrant, offensive sides to rather cancel each other out, predicting a goalless game with the Foxes competing in it would have fetched you long odds.
In hindsight, after both sides had been sunning themselves in warm weather training, the winter break rust was a major factor in a lack of cutting edge for the duo, with the Black Country burners in particular having lost their flame.
Not only was the power light extinguished for Wolves, but Jamie Vardy too, who after a prolific run of form earlier this term – as the Leicester hit-man threatened his own successive scoring record – is now eight games and counting without finding the target.
In terms of standings in the league, it is hard to yet establish what a dropping of two points apiece may look like come May, but for the visitors in particular who face their top two rivals in Manchester City, Brendan Rodgers will be looking for an improved showing in Gameweek 27.
Bailly return timely for Red Devils
Since Manchester City’s impending two-year European ban was handed down last week, the battle for the top four – now expected top five – is beginning to heat up. As Chelsea and Manchester United did battle at Stamford Bridge, its was the Red Devils who again inflicted home defeat on Frank Lampard‘s men who are finding life on their own patch beset by troubles.
At the heart of the visitors’ deserved 2-0 victory was their back line and though Harry Maguire headed in his first Premier League goal for United, it was the returning Eric Bailly who provided the perfect foil for the England centre-back – with Victor Lindelof absent through illness.
The Ivorian who was brought in three summers ago form Villarreal for a fee in the region of £30m, has been plagued by injury after an impressive start to life at Old Trafford last season, and again slipped back into the Red Devils’ defence with aplomb versus the Blues.
Mobbed by his teammates on denying Mateo Kovacic with a goal-saving tackle, Bailly is clearly a popular and vital cog in the United engine room and as the stakes are upped as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer begins to juggle Europa League and top flight commitments, Bailly’s return to the fold could be vital in the coming three months to close out the campaign.
Engels the Villanous hero
Game-week 26 for Bjorn Engels will be a fixture to forget for the Aston Villa defender. As the hosts fell to a last-gasp 3-2 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, the Belgian centre-back fully completed a Sunday afternoon tale of villain to hero, to villain once more.
After the Villans had taken an early lead, Engels was guilty of fouling Steven Bergwijn in the area for the concession of a penalty. Though Son Heung-min‘s spot-kick was saved by the industrious Pepe Reina, the Belgian’s blushes were not spared as the South Korean followed in for the rebound. But Engels was set to pick up the spotlight again.
As the hosts racked up the corners, Jack Grealish sent in a pearler from the left and Engels bent on redeeming himself, nodded in unmarked from the centre of the six-yard box for his first league goal for the Villans – completing his short-term redemption.
Indeed, redemption was the flavour of the day at Villa Park, with Toby Alderweireld also scoring his first of the season after putting into his own net, but this day with to be dominated by Engels and as the final seconds of stoppage time ticked by, for all the wrong reasons.
With barely 30 seconds to play, a hopeful ball forward was knocked on and found the safety of the Villa defender – or so it seemed. With Engels attempting to snuff out the danger, the ball slipped under his foot as Son raced away on goal one-on-one with Reina and slotted home to stun the watching home crowd.
As the final whistle blew shortly after, the Belgian was the picture of decimation; sunk to the Birmingham turf, disconsolate. Villa had surely done enough to earn what could a vital point in their drive to avoid an immediate return to the Championship at the end of the season, but after Engels eventful afternoon, the hosts’ last-minute concession could yet be telling.
Sharp cements cult status
As Valentine’s Day anchored Game-week 26, there was room for romance at Bramall Lane as Sheffield United fought back from a goal down at home to AFC Bournemouth, with Billy Sharp claiming the winner and cementing his status as a Blades cult hero.
Having scored on the opening day of the season away to Bournemouth, Sharp has been a bit-part player in Chris Wilder‘s side this term. However, after a run of minutes in the past four games, the hometown boy sealed a special moment in the club’s history to take all three points – to the ecstasy of both fan and player alike.
Sharp, 34, has spent three separate spells with the Yorkshire club and was named in Championship Team of the Season last year but netting his second top flight league goal in front of his own adoring fans, will be a moment to savour for Sharp.
With Callum Robinson having moved on loan to promotion-chasing West Brom in the second tier and with both Lys Mousset and Ollie McBurnie both inconsistent at best, could Sharp now be set for further chances to add to his tally this season? Regardless, after the striker’s often heart-breaking journey during his footballing career, the Blades’ striker has surely now cast his reputation as a club legend in stone.
Premier League Game-week 27 begins on Saturday lunchtime as Chelsea host Tottenham Hotspur, kick off 12:30 UK time.
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