A few weeks ago, the title race in the Premier League seemed all but over with Manchester City pulling far ahead of all challengers, but the last four league matches saw the defending champions unexpectedly spill five points, drawing 1-1 away to Southampton on January 22nd and losing 2-3 at home to Tottenham Hotspur last week.
Meanwhile, Liverpool continue their stride to close the gap, and they’ve now managed to come within three points behind City, which means that one more stumble from Pep Guardiola’s men might see the Merseysiders actually gain advantage in the race. It was very important for them to beat Leeds United in the match they had in hand on City, and they did so in style at Anfield on Wednesday.
Leeds defender Stuart Dallas handled the ball in his own box and Mohamed Salah converted the penalty consequently given in the 15th minute to break the deadlock. On the half-hour mark, Joel Matip made a trademark run from deep right to the edge of the opposition box, and this time he played a one-two with Salah, broke through and chipped over Illan Meslier to double the advantage. Just five minutes later, Sadio Mane was brought down just inside the box and referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot again, enabling Salah to score his 19th league goal of the season.
With 10 minutes to go, Jordan Henderson whipped in a low cross from the right and found Mane for the fourth goal. In the final minute of the 90, Virgil van Dijk and Henderson combined and the Liverpool captain sent substitute Divock Origi running down the left flank, and as Meslier came out, the ball bounced with a bit of luck to Mane who made no mistake from seven or eight yards. In the end, Van Dijk himself got in on the act, thumping a header into the net following a corner well taken by Andy Robertson.
The top three spots in the Premier League scoring chart belong at the moment to Liverpool. Salah tops it with 19, Diogo Jota is second with 12, and Mane has overtaken Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling for the third place, having scored his 10th and 11th league strike of the season. Interestingly enough, the Reds also have the top three creators in their ranks, as Salah joined Trent Alexander-Arnold on 10 assists, and Robertson close behind with nine to his name.
Liverpool have now scored 70 goals in 26 matches, seven more than City, though the 20 goals they’ve conceded make their goal-difference better by only four. Still, that’s not something to be sneezed at, and it might prove vital in case the two teams finish with the same points tally.
Mane the ‘false nine’
There has been an agenda among pundits and rival fans, and even among the Liverpool supporters themselves, about Mane’s best days being behind him. In the modern game, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays at 40, Cristiano Ronaldo at 37, Luis Suarez at 35, Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema at 34 and Robert Lewandowski at 33, to say that a player is past his best at 29 is simply ridiculous.
As has been said, Mane is currently the third goalscorer of the league, and though an occasional dry spell did occur, he remains one of the best and most complete attacking players in football.
With Roberto Firmino and Jota both out with injuries, Mane was named to start as a central attacker with Luis Diaz covering for him on the left, his usual place. It’s fair to say his performance was superb. He was all over the pitch, running through the middle, down the left, down the right, dropping deep to pick up the ball and organize play, and even cover for defenders who were sometimes given freedom to go further up and join the attack. With his heat map looking quite impressive, he was rated at 9.1 by SofaScore.
Danger signs for Leeds
This probably wasn’t a match where any Leeds supporter realistically expected their team to pick up any points, though they may have hoped it would end less of an embarrassment than it was. Still, it should be said that Marcelo Bielsa’s team started well enough, pushing high from the start and working hard to take the game to Liverpool, rather than just sit deep and defend.
It should also be said that they were unlucky in some moments; the penalties, for instance. There can be no doubt that the referee made the right calls in both situations, but Dallas’ handball seemed more instinctive than deliberate, while Pascal Struijk’s foul on Mane seemed accidental. Still, a foul it was.
Leeds also had a goal disallowed, and that after a wonderfully organized attack which, unfortunately from their perspective, ended with Raphinha getting caught about half a yard offside before he put the ball in the net. Daniel James almost dispossessed Alisson Becker with the goal gaping and probably would have scored, if Matip wasn’t at hand and composed enough to save his goalkeeper the blushes.
Be that as it may, there’s no escaping the fact that Leeds United appear to be in serious trouble. They are currently in 15th place with 23 points, but Everton (16th, 22 points), Newcastle (17th, 22) and Burnley (18th, 20) all have one or more games in hand. Speaking to the press a while back, Bielsa said relegation back to the Championship after two seasons in the top flight would be unacceptable, and that’s probably the way the rest of the club and their supporters feel as well.
There’s a long way to go yet, but Leeds simply must start winning games if they intent to avoid the drop. Their last victory happened on January 16th, away to West Ham.
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