Liverpool Stutter in Premier League Restart 

The Premier League returned in full force last week and the first full weekend of action for three months culminated on Sunday evening as Everton hosted Liverpool. Liverpool went into the long-awaited Merseyside derby knowing they only needed two more wins to clinch their first top flight title in 30 years. But Everton proved to be a far tougher side to beat under Carlo Ancellotti and their hard working performance at Goodison Park proved that. Compared to the feeble 5-2 defeat in December’s reverse fixture, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Marco Silva, the Toffees were transformed. Seamus Coleman’s performance typified the change in attitude with the captain shackling Sadio Mane for the majority of the 90 minutes.

Liverpool, however, were a far cry from the side we have become accustomed to watching this season. The omissions of both Andy Robertson and Mohammed Salah through injury proved to be the difference. The Reds dominated much of the ball, but without the usual thrust of Robertson and incisiveness of Salah, fell unusually flat. The game was it’s most action packed in the final few moments as Alisson was forced into a smart save late on to push away Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s cheeky flick. But his save only sent the ball into the path of the on-rushing Tom Davies, who’s tight angle shot bounced off the post following a vital Joe Gomez deflection. The Reds can still claim the title as early as Wednesday with a win against Crystal Palace, but it would Manchester City losing against Burnley for tit to happen that soon. Liverpool’s coronation is still all but assured, it’s just going to take a little longer than we all thought.

Elsewhere in the Premier League, the race for European football was reignited as the rest of the top seven were in action. Manchester City returned in ruthless style on Wednesday night, dispatching a defensively inept Arsenal 3-0. The Gunners started the game relatively brightly, but the loss of Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari through injury and the introduction of David Luiz proved to be the turning point. The Brazilian was at fault for two of City’s goals before he was then sent off for a foul on Riyad Mahrez, bringing his future in North London into serious doubt. 

Third placed Leicester were held to a frustrating draw in Saturday’s early kick off by a well drilled Watford side. The Foxes thought they had grabbed all 3 points after Ben Chilwell’s sumptuous left footed drive in the 90th minute. But an acrobatic Craig Dawson equaliser three minutes later was enough for Nigel Pearson to take a point from his former employers. Leicester’s slip up at Vicarage Road meant that Chelsea were able to close the gap on them to 3 points with their 2-1 victory away to relegation threatened Aston Villa. Villa took the lead just before the break through Kortney Hause, but two quickfire goals from Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud after the hour mark was enough to bring the 3 points back to Stamford Bridge. 

While Leicester and Chelsea are engaged in their own personal battle for 3rd place, Manchester United, Wolves and Sheffield United are scrapping it out for what could be an extra Champions League spot. The results of Manchester City’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against their two year European ban are yet to be released, but should it be upheld then the final Champions League spot would move down to 5th place. Manchester United currently sit in 5th following their hard earned draw against Tottenham on Friday night. The re-introduction of Paul Pogba to the team was crucial to the Red Devils earning their point as the World Cup winner was hauled down in the box by Eric Dier, allowing Bruno Fernandes to convert from the penalty spot. United’s draw, however, has opened the door to the ever impressive Wolves whose comfortable 2-0 win away at West Ham has brought them level on points with United. 

Wolves victory also meant they overtook Sheffield United who have struggled somewhat since the season restart. A cagey first game back against Aston Villa should have ended in victory for the Blades were it not for a calamitous error on the part of Hawk-Eye. The goal line technology operator was at direct fault and later apologised for not awarding United a goal after Villa’s Orjan Nyland clearly carried the ball into his own net. The Blades’ misfortune continued on Sunday as they suffered a resounding loss 3-0 away to Newcastle. Sheffield United are now 2 points adrift in the race for Europe, but a season defining game against Manchester United on Wednesday could change everything.

At the other end of the table, the battle for survival was in full swing as the spectre of relegation loomed into view once more. Norwich City made their return on Friday night, hoping to reignite their ever-dimming hopes of survival against a resurgent Southampton. It was not to be for the Canaries, however, who did little during the game, despite ending the match with 55% possession. Goals from Danny Ings, Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond now leave Norwich at the foot of the table 5 points adrift from nearest placed Aston Villa. Villa would have been spurred on by their draw against Sheffield United on Wednesday, but Sunday’s loss to Chelsea was a sharp reminder that there is still a long way to go. Villa are just 2 points away from safety but, with back to back games against Wolves, Liverpool and Manchester United in the coming weeks, the Villains are at serious risk of being cut adrift. 

Bournemouth and West Ham also face uphill challenges if they are to secure safety. The two sides are both locked on 27 points and were subject to 2-0 losses over the weekend. Bournemouth have the trickier run-in of the two teams with games against Wolves, Leicester and Manchester City to navigate. But West Ham’s London derby against Spurs on Tuesday could be equally as destructive with confidence seemingly at rock bottom for the Hammers. Watford and Brighton will be the happiest of those threatened by relegation following this weekend’s action. Watford’s point against Leicester was a small step in their fight for survival, a feat that would be all the more astonishing considering they were rock bottom at Christmas. Meanwhile, Brighton’s victory at home against Arsenal was their first of 2020 and moved them 5 points clear of the drop zone. Saturday’s game at the AmEx was a feisty encounter, with Neal Maupay finding himself at the centre of the action. He was at fault for Bernd Leno’s injury after unintentionally crashing into the Arsenal keeper before he clinched the victory for the Seagulls in the 95th minute. Their victory means Graham Potter’s side are just 8 points away from the magical 40 point mark, while also pouring a substantial amount of water on Arsenal’s faint European hopes.

Madrid Leapfrog Barca 

Barcelona began Matchday 30 in La Liga 2 points ahead of rivals Real Madrid, but their toothless 0-0 draw against Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla opened the door for Zidane’s Los Blancos to close the gap. Quique Setién’s men dominated possession of the ball for swathes of the match, finishing the game with 64% of the ball but they failed to do very much with it. Both sides will be pleased with their own defensive efforts, but it was a frustrating evening nonetheless for the Blaugranes with Messi very lucky to finish the game on the pitch following a confrontation with Diego Carlos. Real Madrid loanee Reguilón could have won it at the death for Sevilla, but his scuffed shot was easy pickings for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal. The point was still good enough for Sevilla who now sit in the final Champions League spot, 4 points above Getafe in fifth place. 

The story couldn’t have been more different for Real Madrid who went into Sunday’s game against high-flying Real Sociedad knowing a victory would take them to the summit of La Liga. A relatively quiet first half gave way to a flurry of goals in the second. Vinicius Junior won a penalty after the Brazilan was challenged clumsily by Diego Llorente five minutes after the break. Sergio Ramos then duly converted from the spot to claim his 7th goal of the season, before Benzema grabbed the second, continuing the rich vein of form that saw him score one of the goals of the season against Valencia on Thursday. There was hope for Sociedad late on with the impressive Mikel Merino smashing home from close range in the 83rd minute, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a second consecutive defeat for the Basque side. 

Elsewhere in La Liga, Atletico Madrid surged up the table following a tepid restart against Athletic Club last Sunday. Since then Diego Simeone’s men have and truly got their act together, beating Osasuna 5-0 last Wednesday and Real Valladolid 1-0 on Saturday. The consecutive victories coupled with Real Sociedad, Getafe and Sevilla all failing to win their last two games means Atleti have marched up to third place. Further down the table, winless games for Espanyol, Leganes and Real Mallorca mean that relegation is now a serious threat as the bottom three now find themselves 3 points from safety. Meanwhile, Real Betis have sacked their manager, Rubi, following a barren run of one win in eleven games. The Andalusian club have struggled to replicate their form of recent seasons since the departure of now Barca manager, Quique Setién, so the exit of Rubi should come as no surprise.

The Championship Returns 

It wasn’t just the Premier League that got back up and running in England, but the Championship as well. England’s second tier has always been good for drama in recent seasons and this year is no different. Leeds and West Brom could have been forgiven for thinking that their position in the automatic promotion spots were relatively safe before Saturday, but their results over the weekend proved their futures were far from assured. West Brom’s 0-0 stalemate against cross city rivals Birmingham City gave Leeds the opportunity to extend their 1 point lead at the top of the table in Sunday afternoon’s clash against Cardiff City. Neil Harris’s side had other things in mind, however, as the Blue Birds walked out 2-0 winners, giving their play off hopes serious fuel in the process. 

Fulham faced off in a West London derby as they welcomed Brentford in Saturday’s early kick off. A victory over the Bees would have left Fulham feeling unassailable in third place, but their 2-0 loss has left the Cottagers within touching distance of the chasing pack. Their game against Leeds on Saturday will be enormously consequential for both sides. Meanwhile, fifth placed Nottingham Forest came up against a Sheffield Wednesday side who walked out 4-0 winners in December’s reverse fixture. Forest thought they had won all 3 points following a fine Joe Lolley finish in the 69th minute, but following a corner in the 3rd minute of stoppage time, Wednesday were able to claw back a point. Forest are still in the playoff places courtesy of a 4 point buffer, but they will want a victory over Huddersfield on Saturday to give them that added bit of security. 

The race for the final playoff spot was truly reignited as seven sides are now well and truly in contention to grab it. Preston’s 1 point lead over the nearest team was cut down following their 1-1 draw against relegation threatened Luton Town. Cardiff’s victory against Leeds pushed them up the table to seventh, separated from Preston by just one goal. Meanwhile, Blackburn Rovers’ 3-1 victory over fellow promotion chasers Bristol City allowed them to leapfrog the Robins, while Swansea’s 3-0 win over Middlesborough – courtesy of a Rhian Brewster brace – gave them added hope of finishing the season in 6th. 

In the relegation scrap, things couldn’t look bleaker for a number of sides. Luton may have drawn, but Barnsley’s victory away at QPR means the Hatters drop down a place to the foot of the table. Charlton’s victory against Hull pulled them out of the drop zone while the Tigers slipped into it, separated from safety by goal difference alone. Of the bottom eight threatened by relegation, five are teams who were in the Premier League at least seven years ago. The drop down to League One for any of them could potentially spell years of financial ruin.