It had been a testing week for Manchester United, seeing eternal rivals Liverpool end their 30-year wait to be crowned champions of England. But in the seven seasons since United’s last title triumph, there’s a case for this being the best, or at the very least, the least worst, for Liverpool to finally get over the line.
Imagine how much more painful Liverpool’s coronation would have been had United been languishing in seventh under David Moyes, stuttering under Louis van Gaal or imploding under Jose Mourinho.
Instead, Liverpool’s confirmation was greeted with another reminder of the upward trajectory Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s transformation has taken since the turn of the year, or, perhaps more accurately, since Bruno Fernandes arrived at the club.
January signings aren’t supposed to hit the ground running, as we’re told time and time again, they need time to settle. Well, Fernandes has dispelled that belief, as Brighton will testify.
After years questioning the style of play at Old Trafford, the sight of Fernandes doubling his tally at the Amex Stadium with an emphatic volley at the end of a vintage counter was as cathartic a moment as any Manchester United have produced this season.
The Portuguese has brought an arrogance back on the pitch and belief off it that these testing times will pass sooner rather than later.
When Tomas Soucek’s first-half goal was ruled out by VAR, West Ham fans must have been feeling a familiar mix of frustration and despair. For the second game running they’d been on the wrong end of a controversial VAR call – the video refs had missed a handball in the build-up to Soucek’s own goal in the defeat at Tottenham last time out.
But the West Ham players impressively refused to be distracted or downhearted by the decision, even when Willian rubbed salt in the wounds with his penalty moments later.
Soucek got the better of Cesar Azpilicueta a second time to level things up and the standout Michail Antonio slotted in a second. Even when Willian pulled one back with a fine free-kick West Ham refused to lie down, with Antonio sending Andriy Yarmolenko clear to hit the winner.
That strike sealed a huge three points for the Hammers. Finally their brutal run of fixtures – which has seen them up against the Premier League’s heavyweights week after week either side of lockdown – is over. Next up is Newcastle, Burnley, Norwich and Watford.
Far from easy – especially given Newcastle and Burnley’s form – but they are fixtures where West Ham will have hope of stretching that new three-point cushion on the relegation places even further.
When Chelsea went on a six-game winning streak from September to November, it looked as though, after a shaky start, the Frank Lampard era was about to take off. But since that run, Chelsea have managed back-to-back wins just once – and their defeat at West Ham on Wednesday, which ended their three-game winning streak, summed up the frustrating inconsistency they’ve shown all season.
On one hand, there was the brilliance of Christian Pulisic and the fine finishing of Willian. On the other, there was repeated vulnerability at set-pieces (with captain Cesar Azpilicueta a surprise culprit) and a missing edge to the team’s mentality, which has resulted in them dropping more points from leading positions this season than everyone bar West Ham and Aston Villa.
Yes, this is a young, developing side. Yes, there have been transfer restrictions. And yes, there are exciting times ahead with new arrivals on the way. But Chelsea missed a chance of stepping up to third, they are now looking over their shoulders, and their battle for a Champions League qualifying spot will go right down to the wire.
They’ve shown – particularly in their recent win over Manchester City – they have the capability. But now they must master the consistent application.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was in typically ruthless form for Arsenal on Wednesday night, twice pouncing on Norwich errors to take his goal tally to 22 in all competitions this season and pass a Premier League landmark in the process.
With his opener, he reached 50 Premier League goals in what was his 79th appearance, making him the fastest Arsenal player to reach the milestone – it took the great Thierry Henry 83 – and the sixth-fastest in the competition’s history behind only Andy Cole, Alan Shearer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Fernando Torres and Mohamed Salah.
It places him in esteemed company and it is just the latest reminder of how important it is for Arsenal to tie him down to a new contract. The 31-year-old is entering the final year of his current deal at the Emirates Stadium, meaning a departure is all but certain this summer if he can’t be tempted to commit his future to the club.
Quite how Arsenal would replace him is unclear – he is their leader, remember, as well as their talisman and goalscorer – but Mikel Arteta still hopes they won’t have to.
“He is willing to stay with us,” the Gunners boss said in his post-match press conference. “Auba knows really well what my thoughts are towards him and the project that I want to create, and how much he is part of that. After that, it is not in my hands.”
Will the Arsenal hierarchy present Aubameyang with the contract offer he feels he deserves? Or will he opt to leave the club in order to secure Champions League football elsewhere? Arsenal are showing signs of progress under Arteta, but Aubameyang’s exit would set them back again.
Liverpool and Wolves have taken much of the attention since the Premier League restart but Everton deserve a big mention too. Seven points from three games, one goal conceded and a backs-to-the-wall win over Leicester in a game they would surely have crumbled in earlier this season.
Remember the Newcastle debacle at Goodison Park? None of that on Wednesday night. Carlo Ancelotti could be taking Everton on a European tour when he was more concerned about keeping them out of a relegation battle when he first arrived in December.
They’re now on their longest unbeaten run in four years, looking unusually solid at the back, and should have scored more than the three goals they’ve managed since the restart.
Only a few points off a Europa League spot with six games to go, you’d be a brave man to bet against them now.
If 2019 was a good year for Leicester, 2020 doesn’t look likely to follow suit so far. One win from their last eight games and a woeful defensive display at Goodison Park on Wednesday puts more pressure on their hopes of Champions League qualification, which only a few games ago seemed perfectly assured.
The stats make for grim reading. When Jamie Vardy doesn’t score, Leicester rarely win. With two goals for their talisman this calendar year, perhaps it’s no surprise things have gone pear-shaped. Another blank against Everton added to that unwelcome record.
Leicester’s form is now among the worst in the division. Manchester United and Wolves, who both can’t stop winning, trail them by two points. Getting Leicester into the Champions League would’ve seemed a major achievement for Brendan Rodgers at the start of the season, but throwing it away now would be significant too.
Eddie Howe conceded he was in no position to “sugar-coat” the scoreline after Bournemouth’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Newcastle.
The perilous position Bournemouth find themselves in isn’t for sugar-coating either. Bereft of confidence, riddled with mistakes, the Cherries are a shadow of their former selves and are plummeting towards the Championship at a rate that looks unstoppable.
An eighth defeat in 11 games saw them drop to second bottom in the Premier League, a point from safety with another team now edging out of reach after West Ham’s dramatic late win over Chelsea.
There is still time for Bournemouth, six games to be precise, but with Manchester United, Tottenham, Leicester and Manchester City their next four opponents they’re going to have to conjure up a survival run that would rank among the very best in Premier League history.
At this very moment, though, it’s a struggle to see where that will come from. Howe looks deflated and out of ideas, with the battle seemingly already lost.
Allan Saint-Maximin became only the third Newcastle player in the Premier League history to register three assists in a single game as the Magpies swept sorry Bournemouth aside.
That impressive stat, and the man of the match award, were just reward for yet another sensational attacking display packed full of speed, purpose and, most crucially, end product.
Saint-Maximin’s trio of assists were made all the more remarkable by the fact they came in what was the Frenchman’s fourth appearance in 11 days. A forward that strikes fear into defences alone is a valuable asset, but one who is willing to smash through the barriers of pain and fatigue, now that really is special.
Steve Bruce is getting in tune with his players, and a performance that produced some of the best football of his tenure at the club was further proof of that. Newcastle are heading up the league thanks to Saint-Maximin, who is in a league of his own.