Hits and misses: Slick City set ominous pace

Man City’s feast of goals in Christmas cracker will worry rivals

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win over Leicester

Manchester City look set to end the year how they started it: on a winning streak which propels them towards another Premier League title.

It was a remarkable 15-game run last season which took them clear of the opposition and their Christmas cracker with Leicester on Boxing Day has made it nine on the spin this time around.

They’re only six points ahead of a Liverpool side who have a game in hand and there will be twists to come. But Jurgen Klopp and Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel will be wondering just what their sides will have to do to reel in Pep Guardiola’s formidable force.

Man City were 4-0 up inside 25 minutes in this one. Leicester had chances of their own and their thrilling second-half comeback spread some nerves around the Etihad before the Foxes’ set-piece struggles resurfaced, but that’s now 17 goals in three games for Man City. Who needs a striker anyway?

This Man City side are flying and at this crunch point of the season – when games come fast, squads are stretched and slip-ups happen – they are piling up the points. It leaves no margin for error for their rivals.

Rodri missed this one and Man City looked vulnerable to the counter-attack without him but even with their options restricted – Guardiola complained he only had 14 fit first-team players before the match – Man City still have so many quality players when they’re on the front foot that they are proving too hot to handle right now.

Liverpool and Chelsea – who go to the Etihad on January 15 – will try to hang onto their coattails but, as we saw back in the early weeks of 2021, that’s no easy feat when they’re in this mood.

Peter Smith

Lukaku return gives Chelsea hope

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win over Aston Villa

Romelu Lukaku changed the game for Chelsea at Aston Villa. He may just have rejuvenated their Premier League title hopes too.

After being held to back-to-back draws in the Premier League, and with Man City winning earlier on Boxing Day, Chelsea couldn’t afford another slip-up.

While they gave themselves an uphill battle, with Reece James scoring an own goal before Jorginho levelled from the spot, Lukaku drove them to a vital victory in the second half.

Eleven minutes after his half-time introduction his excellent movement allowed him to head Chelsea in front. Moments before the final whistle, his forceful drive towards goal drew the foul for the penalty to wrap it up.

Injury and illness have prevented him from starting any of Chelsea’s last 11 Premier League games and Thomas Tuchel’s side have struggled to turn dominance into goals without their main man.

Lukaku’s impact at Villa was a reminder of his arrival against Arsenal, bringing quality finishing to an all-too-often wasteful Chelsea attack, and pace and power to the frontline.

His header was his first Premier League goal since September, back when Chelsea won five of the seven league games he has started in this campaign.

Chelsea only dropped points to Liverpool and Manchester City during that run, and they meet those sides again in back-to-back league games at the start of January. It will be the defining moment in Chelsea’s title challenge.

It won’t be easy to reclaim the ground they’ve lost. But with Lukaku fit and finding his form before those blockbusters, Chelsea can believe again.

Peter Smith

Maddison hitting new heights

James Maddison starred for Leicester in their 6-3 defeat

James Maddison starred for Leicester in their 6-3 defeat

On first viewing, Leicester’s surge back into a match they longed looked like they checked out of was triggered by Brendan Rodgers’ tactical switch at half time to switch to a back five. Pep Guardiola made that point in his post-match press conference. Yet, the Foxes incredible 10-minute spell after the break that saw them roar back from 4-0 down to 4-3 against one of the best defences in world football stemmed from the brilliance of James Maddison. He was the catalyst for what was almost the greatest comeback in Premier League history, not Rodgers.

His performance was of such a standard that if you slipped him into the Manchester City side instead of Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne, you probably wouldn’t have noticed. He is hitting those levels in his current form – just look at his contribution for those three goals.

The first, which he got his name on the scoresheet for, was started by a swift change of pace by Maddison to fool Ayermic Laporte. Not done there, he then shimmied around Ruben Dias to release Kelechi Iheanacho before finishing off the counter-attack in clinical fashion. It was then his run that left Fernandinho seeing stars – not for the only time on the afternoon – that opened the space for Ademola Lookman to glide through and score. Not done there, his expert 10-minute spell was capped by a thunderous effort that came back off the crossbar for Iheanacho to make it 4-3. Maddison has now been involved in 11 goals in his last eight appearances in all competitions (six goals, five assists) and has scored four goals in his last five Premier League appearances. He is Leicester’s shining light in a dour season.

Maddison has become a bit of a forgotten man of this generation of English playmakers with Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount all showing high-level consistency in their games taking them to the next level. If Maddison remains in this mood, he has the talent not to only match them but potentially surpass them such is his frightening levels of vision, skill and confidence.

Lewis Jones

Arsenal’s progression continues under Arteta

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal’s 5-0 win at Norwich

It was two years to the day since Mikel Arteta led Arsenal out for the first time. It’s not always been the easiest of rides for the Spaniard since that 1-1 draw at Bournemouth, but the signs of progress are now clearly there for all to see.

The Gunners followed up their super 4-1 win at Leeds with another five goals in a thumping 5-0 win at Norwich.

Arsenal have now scored more goals in their last two Premier League away games (nine) than they managed in their first eight on the road this season (six), while this is the first time they have netted four or more goals in consecutive away games in the competition since April 2009.

This was Arsenal’s joint biggest margin of victory away from home in a Premier League match, level with 6-1 victories at Middlesbrough in April 1999 and Everton in August 2009. And they are doing it with a host of young players, who continue to shine under Arteta’s guidance.

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Mikel Arteta says he’s tasked Bukayo Saka with getting goals and assists in every single match after the England youngster scored twice in Arsenal’s 5-0 win at Norwich

None more so than Bukayo Saka, who has now been involved in nine goals in his 19 Premier League games this season (five goals, four assists), one more than he managed in 32 appearances last season (five goals, three assists). And at 20 years and 112 days, Saka is the second youngest player to score 10 or more Premier League goals for Arsenal, after Nicolas Anelka (19 years 225 days).

It was a year ago that Arteta rolled the dice against Chelsea by bringing Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli into his team to face Chelsea and he was rewarded with a 3-1 victory, which effectively kept him in the job.

But since then, with the likes of Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, Kieran Tierney, Martin Odegaard and more leading the way, it’s a youth policy that has really paid dividends for Arteta.

There will be more bumps in the road, more difficult days ahead, more challenges for Arteta as he contends with the inconsistencies that sometimes come with young players. But as Arsenal, who have played more games than some of their nearest rivals, sit in fourth, six points ahead of north London rivals Tottenham, project Arteta remains on the right track.

Oliver Yew

Moura shining under Conte

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Tottenham’s win over Crystal Palace

Lucas Moura had to make do with a place among the substitutes in Tottenham’s last Premier League game, the 2-2 draw with Liverpool, but Antonio Conte reinstated him against Crystal Palace and the decision paid off emphatically.

The Brazilian was outstanding at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – just as he was in the Carabao Cup quarter-final win over West Ham four days earlier. He scored one goal, heading home Emerson Royal’s cross, and set up Harry Kane and Heung Min-Son for the others.

His speed and industry make him a good fit for Antonio Conte’s hard-running approach and this was just the latest game in which he has caused Tottenham’s opponents serious problems. In six starts under Conte, Moura has three goals and three assists.

Conte enthused about his “great connection” with countryman Emerson in his post-match press conference but he should be just as encouraged by how he is combining with Kane and Son. Deadly in transition and efficient in the final third, Moura is thriving under Conte.

Nick Wright

Zaha’s red mist harms Palace

Wilfried Zaha react to being sent off against Spurs

Wilfried Zaha reacts angrily to being sent off against Spurs

Wilfried Zaha plays on the edge. It is one of the qualities that makes him one of the Premier League’s most dangerous players. But events at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium were a reminder that there is a fine line between competitive edge and loss of control.

Palace needed Zaha to step up after the Covid outbreak which sent manager Patrick Vieira and a string of players into isolation. Instead, he lost his cool, lashing out at Davinson Sanchez to earn a second yellow card and leave Palace, already depleted, with no hope of taking anything from the game.

Zaha had been struggling up until then, his frustration evident not just in the foul on Sanchez for his first booking but his reaction to losing possession. At the time of his dismissal, he had done that nearly twice as many times (10) as anyone else on the pitch.

The 29-year-old remains Palace’s most important player and Vieira will not want him to lose his combustible side entirely, but his petulance against Spurs was the opposite of helpful. Palace will now be without him for Tuesday’s crucial meeting with Norwich as they attempt to arrest a poor run of form.

Zaha’s furious reaction made clear he felt the decision to send him off was unjust but he has only himself to blame.

Nick Wright

Moyes must look to defensive reinforcements

It has been a fine two years that David Moyes has been in charge of West Ham, with the Scot celebrating his second anniversary since he returned to the club later this week.

But having exited the Carabao Cup, the problems are now starting to mount. Michail Antonio ended his own recent goal drought with his first Premier League strike in nine appearances, but that is where the positives ended for the Hammers in their home defeat to Southampton.

Moyes said afterwards that he wasn’t happy with the nature of Tottenham’s goals in that midweek cup defeat, and he was even less impressed by the soft concession of three more in front of his own supporters.

“Overall, we shouldn’t be conceding the goals we conceded today,” he said. “It’s our job to make them better. We’ve got some really good players there so we need to get them playing at the top of their game.”

The issue for Moyes is that Angelo Ogbonna is likely to miss the rest of the season with a serious knee injury while Kurt Zouma’s thigh problem means he will be absent for at least another month.

It leaves him with Issa Diop and Craig Dawson as his only options at centre-back and when the pair are as out-of-sorts as they were against Saints, he has very little room for manoeuvre.

Moyes admitted he might have changed as many as four or five players at the break, but he was in no position to significantly change the make-up of his defence.

“We’ve got to stay in a good strong position and stay on the shirt-tails of those above us. We’ve got another game in two days’ time and we have to get ready for that,” he added.

Since winning four consecutive Premier League games between late October and early November, West Ham have only managed to win one of their last seven in the competition.

It is unclear precisely what shape Watford will be in should that game at Vicarage Road take place, but Moyes will demand a response after this latest poor defensive showing. Otherwise, he may have to re-assess his list of January transfer priorities.

Ben Grounds

Ward-Prowse can help bring Saints consistency

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton’s win at West Ham

You could almost feel the sense of cathartic relief in Ralph Hasenhuttl as he raised both arms in the air upon the final sound of Kevin Friend’s whistle.

Especially after witnessing his side throw away the lead twice already by the time Bednarek met James Ward-Prowse’s sublime delivery to re-establish an advantage for the visitors. During the final 20 minutes of a thrilling encounter with West Ham, the often-trotted out statistic of points lost from winning positions since he took charge in December 2018 will have crossed his mind.

But Southampton would pick up their first Premier League win over the Hammers since August 2017, ending a run of eight meetings without beating them in the competition. In fact, they scored more goals on Boxing Day than they had in their previous eight Premier League games combined.

The fact West Ham subsequently ran out of ideas was in part down to Southampton’s refusal to be breached for a third time. Saints are now only eight points behind West Ham in the table.

Hasenhuttl described Ward-Prowse as his “hands” on the pitch after the Saints captain provided a goal and an assist to secure the three points. Ward-Prowse would be the first to admit that he has slightly dropped below his high standards this term, but he was back to his best in the capital.

“He’s our captain and he’s a very important player in our team,” Hasenhuttl said. “He’s my hands on the pitch from my side and this is what we need to have.”

This was only a fourth league win of the season for Southampton, and one which will give hope that results can match performances heading into the new year.

Ben Grounds