It was a strange old evening for Manchester United on Monday Night Football. There was plenty of hype around their recent unbeaten form and performances, but Southampton – themselves on a good run of results – put a dent in their armour when Stuart Armstrong fired home inside 12 minutes.
Then came the devastating United attack. While Mason Greenwood has taken the headlines recently, it was the old guard – or not that old at 22 and 24 receptively – of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial who fired United ahead in the space of three minutes.
Martial in particular netted a brilliant strike, which was his 50th Premier League goal, plus an assist for Rashford’s equaliser. He is certainly loving life at Old Trafford right now – even without the fans – having scored in five successive home matches and with ten goals in last nine home appearances.
With two minutes to play, United were into the top four above Chelsea and Leicester – the latter by two points – but Southampton took advantage of some unfortunate injuries for their hosts when Michael Obafemi turned home late on, securing a 2-2 draw.
Suddenly, United were back into fifth on goal difference and had missed the chance to sit in the Champions League places for the first time since September. After the game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said his side did not take their chances and with the implications the draw could have on their season, it will feel more like a defeat.
But let’s not forget, United remain unbeaten in 18 games in all competitions, matching the same run under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, and have not lost in 11 Premier League games. While it may not have been the same dazzling performance we have been used to in recent weeks, United still look vastly improved and have their Champions League destiny in their own hands – they face Leicester on the final day plus FA Cup and Europa League routes still open.
It will be a tough late blow for Solskjaer’s side to take but there are still positives to be had and one of them could even be a return to Europe’s top table.
Saints rewarded for attention to detail
With Brandon Williams prone on the ground receiving treatment for a nasty head injury, Ralph Hasenhuttl turned to his coaching staff and devised one last plan. Southampton were told to continually probe down the left, testing Daniel James’ willingness to protect a tiring Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and it was from one such foray that Nathan Redmond won a corner.
“Manchester United will need Anthony Martial in that near post space that he takes up,” Gary Neville said on commentary. Hasenhuttl stalked the touchline hoping that the hours he had dedicated on the training ground would pay off with one final throw of the dice.
Jan Bednarek moved towards the same area Martial would occupy, as James Ward-Prowse held his left arm aloft, and the Polish centre-back rose between four red mannequins to find Obafemi alert and in front of the static Victor Lindelof to land a devastating blow to United’s hopes of a top-four finish.
Obafemi told Sky Sports: “Ralph told me what to do when I came on. Dave [Watson] as well, the set-piece specialist. He told me to get in at the back post, which is what I did and thankfully I got the goal.”
Football can be so simple, but Southampton had never gone away, their 52 per cent possession underlying their self-belief. Hasenhuttl’s side have become increasingly emboldened this term and they got their reward for their latest show of character, forged on the training ground.
It may sound strange having picked up two points from five games before the vital 2-0 win over Palace, but Aston Villa have been more solid defensively since the restart.
That says a lot about how open they were before coronavirus halted football. Until March, they were conceding a whopping 18 shots per game on average, and 5.6 on target. Since the restart, that’s down to 10.7 shots per game and 3.71 shots on target.
There was a thought that it had impacted Villa further up the pitch, but they are registering just one shot fewer per game (11 to 10) since the restart.
The problem was their failure to take chances. On Sunday, that changed, as the much-criticised Trezeguet responded with two calm finishes in what was anything but a calm game. Dean Smith called the win the first leg of a cup semi-final, with Everton to come at Goodison Park on Thursday next, live on Sky Sports.
But make no mistake, Palace were woeful. Whether it’s feet up, flip-flops on, on the beach, whatever, Roy Hodgson will be concerned at such a lack of creativity, bite and fight against a struggling side.
Chelsea have been superb at times since the Premier League restart, beating Manchester City last month and winning four of their first five games, but the 3-2 loss at West Ham was a reminder of their enduring frailties and Saturday’s dismal defeat by Sheffield United was another.
The Blues have already strengthened their attacking options in advance of the summer transfer window, agreeing deals for Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, but their error-strewn display at Bramall Lane underlined the need for a defensive overhaul and, even more worryingly, the result might put their hopes of Champions League qualification at risk.
Frank Lampard’s side sit third but remain just a point clear of Leicester despite the Foxes’ recent collapse. And on Monday night, Chelsea could slip further back when an in-form Manchester United play Southampton.
This weekend’s stumble is now more of a problem following Manchester City’s successful appeal against their Champions League ban. A fifth-placed finish is no longer enough to clinch Champions League qualification this season, and that could be a problem for Chelsea on the evidence of their performance against Sheffield United.
With a home game against Wolves and a difficult trip to Liverpool still to come, a Champions League challenge that appeared to be progressing serenely only two weeks ago suddenly seems in danger.
For much of Sunday’s north London derby – the first at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – the Gunners finally seemed to have cracked it. Unbeaten in five ahead of their trip across north London, Arsenal looked on course for another encouraging stride in the right direction under Mikel Arteta.
Alexandre Lacazette rifled them into the lead, and they looked to have got the defensive mistake that gifted Spurs their equaliser out of their system as they mounted a push for a second-half winner, which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came within the width of the post of scoring.
But just as he had during Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery’s reigns, up popped Jose Mourinho once again, only this time – for the first time – he resurfaced in one of two games the Gunners simply have to win each and every season.
The Spurs performance was far from vintage, but the result had all the hallmarks of the Mourinho and what he does best. Mourinho seems to reserve something special for Arsenal, as his now 10-game unbeaten home record against the Gunners will attest.
Winning against Spurs is something Arsenal are accustomed too, but beating Mourinho in his own back yard remains unattainable. For Arteta and Arsenal, it’s back to the drawing board once again.
Leicester are still firmly in the hunt to qualify for next season’s Champions League with three games left to play this season. If you had have offered Brendan Rodgers that position before the season, he would have snapped your hand off for it.
However, the Foxes, whose Champions League fate is now out of their own hands, have badly struggled for form since the Premier League’s restart and following their incredible collapse at struggling Bournemouth, they are in danger of undoing all their good work since the beginning of the season.
Leicester, who were billed as Liverpool’s closest challengers earlier in the season in some quarters, have now lost two of their last three Premier League games against sides starting the day in the relegation zone (W1), which is as many defeats as in their previous 20 such matches, and Rodgers knows he needs a response from his side with three massive games around the corner.
“We’ll be back in tomorrow with a huge disappointment, but we can’t dwell on it because we have a big game on Thursday,” he said following the defeat at Bournemouth. “We missed a huge opportunity to jump into third. I’ve always believed. We have to worry to play better football because we were way off it.”
Leicester will need a quick response because their final three games do not get any easier. Sheffield United are the visitors on Thursday before a trip to Tottenham, both games are live on Sky Sports, before what could be a decisive final day clash against Manchester United.
Should United beat Southampton on MNF, Leicester may need three wins from three to stay in the top four but with Crystal Palace and Aston Villa the only two teams they have beaten since February, the top four is starting to look like a tough ask.
Given that Wolves are averaging fewer than three substitutions since the restart despite now being permitted to make five, Nuno Espirito Santo’s three changes to the starting line-up for the visit of Everton on Sunday represented a dramatic overhaul by his standards.
He was rewarded in style.
Daniel Podence, making his first Premier League start, cleverly won the penalty for the opener before Leander Dendoncker headed in Pedro Neto’s free-kick to double the lead. The trio who had been brought into the team added much-needed energy to Wolves’ play.
The result was a deserved 3-0 victory against an insipid Everton side at Molineux, breathing fresh life into their chase for the Champions League places after two disappointing defeats.
Nuno operates with a small squad but Podence’s impact, in particular, is a welcome reminder that he does have options. The diminutive dribbler has had to be patient in waiting for his chance but he could have a huge say in this final fortnight of the season.
While hopes of lifting the Premier League title were ended a long time ago, Manchester City still hope to add Champions League and FA Cup trophies to the Carabao Cup they won in February.
And they are hitting form at just the right time.
Pep Guardiola’s side have now won their last two Premier League games by five or more goals, the first time this has happened in the Premier League since City themselves did so in three consecutive games in September 2017.
In Raheem Sterling, they also have a player having the best season of his career to date.
The 25-year-old has scored 27 goals in all competitions for City this term. He now has seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions since the restart and he is hungry for more than just goals before this season ends.
“The most important thing to me is the value of these goals, that they add to the team,” he told Sky Sports. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to win the FA Cup final and win the Champions League as well, otherwise these goals don’t really mean anything.”
In this form, it’s difficult to back against Sterling and City finishing the season on a high.
As well as an impressive point for Burnley, Jay Rodriguez’s equaliser at Anfield ensured his team-mate Nick Pope remains on course to clinch the Premier League’s Golden Glove ahead of Liverpool’s Alisson.
There was no shutout for Pope on Saturday – a stunning Andy Robertson header saw to that – but there was yet another string of superb saves, including fine stops to deny Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, which surely must be edging him towards England’s No1 jersey.
That performance at Liverpool came after Pope had made two decisive saves in the midweek win at West Ham and it should be noted that he has had to make 112 saves on his way to the 14 clean sheets which put him top of the Golden Glove standings. Liverpool’s Alisson has been far less busy with 55.
Jordan Pickford has been England manager Gareth Southgate’s preferred choice for some time now but the Everton keeper has looked far less assured than Pope since the restart, while it may be too soon to promote Sheffield United’s standout 23-year-old Dean Henderson to the role. England are next in action in September, so Southgate will be weighing up his options – and two-cap Pope has earned the chance to show he can step up to the international stage.
This was earmarked as one of two fixtures that would define Watford’s season, with West Ham at the London Stadium taking place after facing Newcastle on Friday, live on Sky Sports.
Ben Foster said he expected a battle, where the performance would be secondary to a result, and so it transpired, with Watford making it back-to-back wins for the first time since January.
There was simply no underplaying the importance of this game, with West Ham pulling clear themselves with a convincing win at Norwich. Nigel Pearson may have told his players the scoreline at Carrow Road during the interval with his side deservedly trailing – but then came a response full of character, led by Deeney.
This wasn’t his greatest game – far from it – but it could possibly prove to be his most important in a Watford shirt. The Hornets have now taken 12 more points in their last 18 games than they achieved in their first 17, which indicates they have a squad that can do far better.
The picture can change quickly in the final flurry of matches, and one win could make all the difference. This victory for the Hornets could well mean curtains for the current bottom three.
It has been a wonderful restart for Michail Antonio. He doubled his goal tally in one afternoon and has quadrupled it since coming back from the suspension, scoring against Chelsea and West Ham before Saturday’s showdown at Carrow Road.
It almost felt like Antonio’s four goals against Norwich were an explosion of the promise he has shown in recent weeks. He has always been a huge talent for West Ham and demonstrated it wonderfully this weekend.
All four goals were extremely well taken. His first and fourth goals showed expert placement – slotting home from inside the six-yard box – while the second demonstrated his incredible physicality. The third was more about beating a shaky Norwich defence, who despite his form, allowed Antonio far too much space and did not mark him well enough.
The win, unfortunately, relegated Norwich and is likely to have ultimately secured West Ham’s status in the Premier League for another season. Along with Watford’s win against Newcastle, the pair have pulled six points clear of the drop zone, giving Aston Villa and Bournemouth an almost insurmountable challenge.
In his post-match press conference, manager David Moyes said: “Today has been a good day for him and really good that he got the goals in – not many people do score four goals in a Premier League match.”
With Sebastian Haller not fully fit and lacking form, it is Antonio who is stepping up and driving West Ham over the line. Although traditionally thought of as a winger, he is proving he can be just as effective as a centre-forward and could be the Hammers’ new focus in that position.
Norwich’s relegation felt inevitable long before Saturday’s defeat by West Ham. Daniel Farke’s side were only six points adrift of safety when the lockdown came into force. The gap was not insurmountable, but the players seemed resigned to the drop when the season resumed.
Their fate owes a lot to a lack of experience.
Norwich’s squad contains an abundance of young talent in Todd Cantwell, Emi Buendia, Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis and Ben Godfrey. But all five of those players were new to the English top-flight and they were not the only ones. Of Norwich’s older heads, only Tim Krul and Alexander Tettey had any meaningful Premier League experience behind them.
The lack of know-how was particularly apparent in defence. Norwich’s most-used back four – Aarons, Christophe Zimmermann, Godfrey and Lewis – had an average age of under 23, making it the youngest in the division this season. It is little wonder they were so often overwhelmed by more streetwise opponents, West Ham being just the latest.
Norwich were operating on a budget far smaller than those of their rivals, of course. Their emphasis on youth was a commendable approach. But the sharp end of the Premier League can be an unforgiving place for new arrivals. Norwich found that out the hard way.