Forget that there’s still 22 games of an arduous season to play. Forget that Liverpool’s goal difference is superior to the tune of eight. Forget the nail-biting moments, the string of David de Gea saves and the missed Aston Villa chances – Manchester United are level on points with leaders Liverpool and, for the first time in a long time, must be considered genuine title contenders.
How long that title challenge lasts remains to be seen, the excitement could well be extinguished by the time the final whistle sounds at Anfield in less than three weeks’ time, but the fact Manchester United are currently in contention is an achievement in itself.
Let’s not forget, it’s a year to the day since United entered 2020 a staggering 24 points off the eventual champions. Exactly two months and 10 games ago, when Arsenal inflicted the last league defeat on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, they were nine points adrift of the champions.
At this stage it would be naïve to declare that United’s recent ascension will cause Liverpool sleepless night, but what it certainly does is add another fascinating element to the race for the title.
Liverpool have had company at the top before, multiple times this season in fact, with Tottenham, Chelsea and Southampton all enjoying spells at the summit. All have been seen off, but, this time, it feels different.
Having strolled imperiously to the title last season, you just wonder how Liverpool will respond to having their arch-rivals – the team whose record of 20 top-flight crowns they are looking to equal come the end of the season – breathing down their necks.
That’s the position Manchester United have put themselves in, but that’s only the start of it – the challenge now is to sustain it right to the very end.
“Aston Villa should now be aiming for a top-six finish,” said Sky Sports’ Darren Bent ahead of kick-off at Old Trafford.
It was perhaps a statement that raised a few eyebrows from those watching on from home – do Dean Smith’s side really have the consistency and quality to be finishing above one of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Leicester or Chelsea? Well, they’ve taken seven points from a possible 12 against those big-hitters this season and the defeat at United only further enhanced Bent’s words that Villa aren’t about to fall away.
United never had a moment to relax in a pulsating fixture with Jack Grealish dancing into space all over the pitch, creating four chances for his teammates – only one of which was taken. Yes, Emiliano Martinez had to be called upon to make seven saves across the 90 minutes but United’s expected goal figure was 2.64, suggesting that he was making stops most Premier League goalkeepers would be expected to keep out. Villa had 15 shots to United’s 19 and wasted numerous set-piece situations – they took 10 corners but failed to create a single chance from them – something Dean Smith will have been disappointed with. On another day, they could have walked away with a result.
This latest performance, following on from the draw with Chelsea, proves that Villa are capable of gatecrashing the top six over the next few months.
Everton’s defeat to West Ham was another reality check. They went into the game on the back of another four-game winning run, just as they had at the start of the season. But a slice of bad luck as Yerry Mina’s deflection zipped into the path of Tomas Soucek to slot home saw Everton beaten in the Premier League for the first time in over a month and end what was a mostly positive festive period.
With Richarlison back in the starting XI and James Rodriguez returning to the bench, there was hope that Everton could rediscover their free-scoring touch that stood them in good stead earlier in the season.
But their attacking play was rather dull and the finishing lacked direction – they had ten shots but only two of these were on target. Dominic Calvert-Lewin failed to find the net for a fifth Premier League game having scored 11 goals in 11 matches previously and is struggling with a lack of service. The striker could only muster two shots – the same as Abdoulaye Doucoure – and Richarlison had one.
But again Everton’s defence had a mostly impressive evening. Jordan Pickford didn’t have too much to do while Seamus Coleman made a welcome return. With Michael Keane rested, Mason Holgate moved into the middle alongside Mina, both taking the top two spots for clearances (six and five respectively). As Ancelotti said: “I think the defence were better than their offensive partners.”
The Everton manager is hoping to have more injured players back in action for their next Premier League game on January 12 against Wolves, which will hopefully improve a lacklustre start to 2021.
Three games in six days is a huge task for anyone, especially with the intensity of the Premier League. West Ham had drawn their previous two games and an away trip to Everton, especially with their recent form, was no easy task.
Since coming back to West Ham, David Moyes has spoken of his desire to improve the mentality of his players as well as their on-field performances. Beating Everton certainly showed that both are on the up, with Moyes saying: “Everton could have gone second top tonight so we’ve come to Goodison and got a result which shows you how well the players are playing.”
It was a battle of the defences at Goodison Park, but West Ham were the better side up front, particularly after the break. Everton didn’t offer much in attack, although Darren Randolph – who was a late addition after an injury to Lukasz Fabianski in the warm-up – did well when called upon.
Tomas Soucek is also proving to be a superb addition, slotting home his fifth goal of the season after Yerry Mina’s deflection fell into his path – he is now West Ham’s highest scorer in the Premier League. Declan Rice also continues to show what a superb talent he is.
When Moyes inherited his West Ham squad just over a year ago, they may not have had the steel to see such a result through. But their improvement is clear as West Ham head into their next two games against Burnley and West Brom with renewed confidence.