At the start of the week, you probably wouldn’t have thought that West Ham United-Tottenham Hotspur, a game between the 14th- and 16th-placed teams going into the weekend, would wind up overshadowing the big Manchester City-Chelsea showdown for third place. But that’s what it did, thanks to Tottenham’s stunning firing of Mauricio Pochettino and even more surprising hiring of Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho’s new charges ran out to a 3-0 lead at the Hammers, before hanging on for a narrow 3-2 victory, Spurs’ first league win in almost two months. The three points vaulted Tottenham five places up the standings to ninth.
But it was another pair of results that said far more about the course of this season, and how it’s likely to play out.
Sergio Aguero (left), Pep Guardiola and Manchester City may have won Saturday, but there’s a different feel about this season. (REUTERS/Andrew Yates)
In Manchester, the back-to-back champions City had a harder time than anyone expected of beating the Blues 2-1, avoiding a second league loss in a row – after the cataclysmic-seeming 3-1 loss to leaders Liverpool before the international break. Chelsea, for its part, saw its six-game winning streak ended, a run that had turned its season around after a middling start.
There was a sense that Chelsea, in spite of finding itself in third place, a spot above City, would be overmatched. Yes, there were those six wins, but they’d come against Brighton, Southampton, Newcastle, Burnley, Watford and Crystal Palace, only one of whom sits higher than 12th in the table. And as recently as Feb. 10, City had battered Chelsea 6-0. Since then, Chelsea has been transfer-banned and lost star forward Eden Hazard to Real Madrid.
Yet here came the Blues, relying on young, homegrown products and players they had perhaps written off already, going toe-to-toe with big, bad City, star-studded and bottomless-pocketed. Any honest accounting of the first half hour made Chelsea the better side, keeping pressure on City’s unconvincing back line with quick transitions and a harrying press.
Chelsea got its reward, too, as N’Golo Kante somehow scrambled his finish through Benjamin Mendy and goalkeeper Ederson. Before halftime, City set things right through Kevin de Bruyne’s deflected shot and a brilliant individual effort from Riyad Mahrez. And the margin could have been bigger, had Kun Aguero not hit the upright with an open shot from a wretched Kepa clearance, or if the Video Assistant Referee had allowed Raheem Sterling’s injury-time goal to stand.
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Certainly, City expertly sucked the oxygen out of the game after taking the lead, and the second half didn’t much threaten Pep Guardiola’s side. Yet Chelsea being competitive at all, let alone going ahead and having the better of the first half, on balance if not the scoreboard, is a testament to the job first-year manager Frank Lampard has done in deeply challenging circumstances.
But the contrast with last season’s equivalent fixture was sharp nonetheless. Chelsea was, on paper at least, much better equipped to handle City then. But that was also a very different City, rampant and on its way to a near-record point haul. This incarnation, in spite of consisting almost entirely of the same squad, hasn’t nearly been as sharp or as incisive – already dropping 11 points in a third of a season, after spilling only 16 in all of last season.
Which brings us to Liverpool’s late win at Palace earlier in the day. Wilfried Zaha’s 82nd-minute equalizer threatened to turn this into just the second game all season in which the Reds had dropped points. But Roberto Firmino quickly answered with a winner, preserving Liverpool’s eight-point lead over Leicester City in its long campaign to win a first league title in three decades.
Liverpool, in truth, hasn’t hit the heights of last season yet either. Of its 12 wins, more than half were by just a single goal. But the Reds have been efficient, clawing out results when they didn’t come easy. And it felt poignant that they came through at Palace, which is the exact fixture where the 2013-14 title push fell apart. Back then, in the penultimate game of the season, Liverpool squandered a three-goal lead in the last 12 minutes, handing City the Premier League trophy on a platter. This time around, there would be no such capitulation, even though we’re at a very different stage of the season.
Taken together, Saturday’s events painted a vivid picture of this campaign. Of a City team that is somehow both largely the same and visibly vulnerable and a Liverpool that is gutting out the results that had eluded it in all of its last 29 attempts to win the league.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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