Edinson Cavani has still started only one Premier League game – Manchester United’s 3-1 win away over West Ham when he was hooked at half-time with the team a goal down. But after his latest impact off the bench in the 2-2 draw at Leicester, the case for the Uruguayan striker to be entrusted with a more important role in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side is growing.
“He made an impact straight away with a great pass,” said Solskjaer afterwards. It came within moments of his introduction as a second-half substitute – toe-poking the ball through to Bruno Fernandes. It would have been the winner but for Axel Tuanzebe’s late own goal.
Cavani’s contribution was in stark contrast to that of Anthony Martial, whose nine Premier League starts so far this season have yielded just one goal – against Sheffield United. If both are fit, is there a case for going with the more experienced man, the more natural striker?
Solskjaer is prepared to be patient. “Edinson has been away injured for a little while,” he explained. “He played a full game, a physically-demanding game for him against Everton on Wednesday night, so we decided to have him on the bench.
“It will just have to be that way with him for a while as he gets used to the English football, and the demands of this season as well, because it is very stop-start with a game every three days. He made a great impact today.”
Cavani only signed a one-year contract but, even at the age of 33, there are signs that Manchester United might have a use for his talents beyond the end of this season.
There won’t be many more comfortable 2-0 wins this season than Manchester City’s efficient dispatching of Newcastle.
With a storm blowing in, no striker starting for the hosts at the Etihad, and there always being that air of unpredictability about results on Boxing Day, Pep Guardiola looked a little twitchy in the first half. He needn’t have worried.
City were in cruise control when Ferran Torres tucked in to make it 2-0 on 55 minutes and their defence – which racked up its 13th clean sheet across all competitions this season, the best tally in Europe – was rarely troubled.
Guardiola’s team are beginning to find their form and with Sergio Aguero gaining some more minutes off the bench as he returns to full strength, the City charge feels like it’s starting to gather steam. And it needs to be, with a key run of games coming up.
Next up for City are Premier League trips to Everton (Monday) and Chelsea (the next Sunday), followed by a Carabao Cup semi-final at Manchester United on January 6. It’s a crucial triple-header.
City will then be heavy favourites to win their next five in the league, against Brighton, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sheffield United, and Burnley, before facing Liverpool at Anfield on February 6.
So if they can put three victories together, they will be in a cup final and well placed to run into that game with Liverpool on a long winning streak. Are City back to the level where they’re Liverpool’s strongest challengers again? We’ll have a clear idea in about 11 days’ time…
Being unemotional on the football pitch can be a key weapon. Leeds United are the masters of it, whenever a goal goes in or a big decision goes against them, their focus doesn’t shift. Aston Villa seem to possess the same psychological mental toughness, too, as Dean Smith’s side continued their charge towards the top end of the Premier League.
When Tyrone Mings was dismissed with Villa 1-0 to the good and in control of the match, they could have panicked. But they remained confident and played very smart on the counter-attack against a predictable Palace team that froze when tasked with breaking down this Villa team.
Ollie Watkins provided their platform to play with a tireless display but up the other end, Matt Targett was the standout performer as part of the mean Villa defence. They have now kept eight clean sheets in the Premier League this season, more than any side, while their run of four shutouts in a row is their best in the competition since February 2010.
No player made more tackles in this match than Targett’s six as Palace found absolutely no route to goal down his side. This performance was another Villa sign that they are a force to be reckoned with.
The stage was set for Frank Lampard and Chelsea, and the task on their Boxing Day trip across the capital to Arsenal looked a simple one.
The prize for extending Arsenal’s miserable winless run to eight games was to emerge as chief challengers to leaders Liverpool’s Premier League crown. What transpired was an alarmingly abject performance that shook Chelsea’s title credentials to their very core.
With hindsight, Lampard’s insistence to downplay Chelsea’s title chances was as accurate as Granit Xhaka’s thunderbolt of a free-kick, or Bukayo Saka brilliant lob that moved Arsenal into an unassailable three-goal lead at the Emirates.
But while the Chelsea boss was best placed to make such an assessment of his team, their third-consecutive away defeat has given clarity to those on the outside.
Chelsea’s unprecedented summer splurge in the transfer market and their subsequent spells of brilliance convinced many they could compete at the very top, but as long as a performance like that at Arsenal remains in their system, that will remain a target just beyond reach.
Out with the old, in with the new?
Alexandre Lacazette, Granit Xhaka, and Bernd Leno with a late penalty save made sure that end-of-year-mantra did not quite fit Arsenal’s big Boxing Day win over Chelsea, but their streak-busting victory over their London rivals was driven by an injection of youth.
After no Premier League win in seven and a Carabao Cup quarter-final defeat just a few days before Christmas, Arsenal were on their knees as Chelsea travelled to the Emirates.
Defeat would have piled the pressure onto boss Mikel Arteta and left the Gunners wobbling perilously above the relegation zone.
But step forth 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe, and 19-year-olds Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. The young Gunners rose to the challenge – and, crucially, pulled their team-mates along with them.
The toothless, wounded Arsenal we have become familiar with in the past few months were reinvigorated by these three talented, energised players who make the future at the Emirates look a damn sight brighter than it was before Christmas.
Everton surprised everyone with their unbeaten start to the season. In the Premier League, they won their first four games before a draw against Liverpool in the Merseyside derby. After a blip in form, have once again won four in a row, the latest against Sheffield United.
At the start of the season, Everton were scoring plenty of goals but also leaking them at the back. Now, the defence has tightened up considerably, having only conceded twice in their last five games and keeping three clean sheets. Only one of their victories has been by more than one goal.
Have we seen Everton play better? Absolutely. But in the Steel City, they showed just that to edge past a Sheffield United side who did everything for vital points, but continue to struggle up front. Everton just had that extra slice of quality – even without attacking stars Richarlison and James Rodriguez.
Such is the nature of this year’s Premier League, Everton have gone from mid-table to second place, trailing their local rivals Liverpool by just two points. Carlo Ancelotti has insisted his aim remains European football rather than a title race, but Everton are certainly crashing the party.
Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl said he could “live with the point” following a 0-0 draw with Fulham which saw his side have just three shots, their joint-fewest on record in a single Premier League match since Opta started collecting such data in 2003-04.
The visitors were denied by two marginal offside decisions as finishes from Shane Long and Theo Walcott were correctly chalked off but Hasenhuttl will take plenty of encouragement from his team’s defensive display in the absence of the injured Jannik Vestergaard and suspended Oriol Romeu.
The Austrian opted to field Jack Stephens in place of the Danish defender meaning summer signing Mohammed Salisu was again an unused substitute. Since his £10.9m arrival from Real Valladolid, Salisu is yet to play a single minute with Hasenhuttl opting to stick with a settled starting XI wherever possible.
Hasenhuttl has described the Ghanaian as Southampton’s future, insisting his emergence in the first team will take time, but it is curious that he is currently fourth-choice.
Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens performed well to keep Fulham at bay, and the FA Cup home tie with Shrewsbury on January 9 should offer Salisu the perfect opportunity to belatedly make his debut.
But with Vestergaard expected to be out for at least a month, Hasenhuttl is happy to go with experience in the league for now.
Fulham have gone 450 minutes without conceding in open play and it is a sign of their progress that assistant manager Stuart Gray revealed a disappointing dressing room after the goalless draw with Southampton. The visitors to Craven Cottage were seeking a 10th successive victory against a newly promoted side, and while Fulham rode their luck at times, this was a fair result.
Only Manchester United (36) have taken more away Premier League points than Southampton (30) in 2020, but they were limited to just three attempts all afternoon. Teams are now having to think a lot more about how to stop Fulham rather than focusing on their own game.
Scott Parker will be back for Wednesday’s trip to Tottenham after being forced to self-isolate, but he will have been impressed by the continued threat of Ademola Lookman. The 23-year-old was involved in half of Fulham’s 10 shots against the Saints, having two attempts and creating a further three for his team-mates, and Southampton frequently doubled up on him without the ball as they battled to a point.
Too often the final ball deserted Fulham, and Kyle Walker-Peters was excellent in nullifying Lookman’s threat. But having now equalled the same number of home clean sheets as achieved throughout the 2018-19 campaign, Parker’s return comes with his side’s momentum intact.
It was the same old story for Sheffield United against Everton. A narrow defeat – 10 of their 13 defeats have been by a single goal – but without very much happening up front. The Blades remain the Premier League’s joint-lowest scorers, along with Burnley (8).
Chris Wilder brought Oliver Burke and Ben Osborn into the side after they impressed as substitutes in last weekend’s draw against Brighton. Rhian Brewster and David McGoldrick also started, Oliver McBurnie, Oliver Norwood and Lys Mousset were the substitutes.
And yet, Sheffield United only looked like scoring on a handful of occasions – Burke and McGoldrick went close in the first half, while McBurnie spurned two glorious chances in added time. Only two of their 10 shots were on target.
After the game, Chris Wilder said: “When it’s our turn to play and have an opportunity to hurt the opposition, we never feel as if we can build that momentum up. The players are playing in a manner and form that doesn’t allow that to happen.
“Yet again, I’ll go home, scratch my head, and try and pick the right team for Burnley.”
Sheffield United’s trip to Burnley is now a huge game. The Blades need a spark and some form – and quick.