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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 14 December, 2018

Title race far from over and more Premier League talking points

Plus, another clean sheet for Brighton and Ireland defender Shane Duffy.

Manchester United's Jesse Lingard celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal.
Manchester United's Jesse Lingard celebrates scoring his side's fourth goal.
Image: EMPICS Sport

1. Title race far from over as Man United put on an impressive display

MANCHESTER CITY HAVE looked so imperious in the season’s early months.

They have won 12 out of 13 Premier League matches so far, in addition to coasting through the Champions League group stages.

Oddly enough, crisis-hit Everton are the only team to have taken points off Pep Guardiola’s men since the beginning of the campaign.

Given their current form, it is easy to see why some people are getting carried away and practically crowning them champions already.

In the current betting, City are 1/9 on to win the league, with Man United second favourites at 10/1.

Yet with over half the season to go, the gap is only five points as it stands, though City have the chance to extend their lead as they host Southampton tomorrow night.

Nevertheless, United delivered a display this evening that suggested they won’t be giving up on the title race easily.

They faced a potentially tricky away trip against a Watford side who have been enjoying an excellent season, and remain eighth after tonight’s 4-2 loss.

While United were uncharacteristically lax at the back as they threatened to let a three-goal first-half lead slip, they were undeniably impressive going forward.

Ashley Young, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard all scored beautifully taken goals, as they masterfully exploited the generous amount of space afforded to the visitors on the counter-attack in what was a tactically inept performance from Marco Silva’s side.

But what was particularly impressive about United was their ability to get over the line without necessarily having to rely on key men — an out-of-sorts Romelu Lukaku drew another blank and has now managed just one goal in his last 11 matches, while Nemanja Matic was sloppy in possession before going off injured in the second half.

Young, Martial and Lingard have been far from automatic starters at times, but they were all brilliant at Vicarage Road, as the Red Devils ground out a win, emphasising their considerable squad depth in the process.

City are rightly favourites to prevail, but they cannot afford to be complacent, given how impressive their neighbours are playing at present — the Red Devils are enjoying their best start to the Premier League campaign since Alex Ferguson’s retirement.

If the Etihad outfit pick up a few injuries and struggle to cope with the hectic winter schedule, Man United have the grit and determination needed to capitalise.

2. Do critics go easy on Spurs?

Leicester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League - King Power Stadium Tottenham Hotspur's Dele Alli and Harry Kane during the Premier League match at the King Power Stadium. Source: Mike Egerton

Mauricio Pochettino suggested at the weekend that Spurs were out of the title race, and the loss to Leicester tonight seems to confirm that claim.

City will go 16 points ahead of the North London side if they win tomorrow, while Pochettino’s men now trail Man United by eight.

One dramatic collapse seems just about feasible but to expect two top sides to have a nightmare period is surely unrealistic.

Now, it seems, the top four is the best Tottenham can hope for.

Spurs have received glowing praise in the media over the course of the season, and understandably so to a degree — what Pochettino has built, with the club’s emphasis on young English talent and their ability to cope despite lacking the gargantuan funds that most of the other top sides possess, has been impressive to a point.

However, Tottenham have now picked up just one point from their last three Premier League games, and have struggled to replicate the kind of form they showed in a 3-1 win over Real Madrid earlier this month.

If rivals Arsenal failed to beat ordinary sides in the form of West Brom and Leicester City, the knives would be out for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.

Stars such as Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Dele Alli are still relatively young, but their phenomenal performances of the past mean there is now a greater burden of expectation on their shoulders.

Of the trio, only Kane — who went level with Mo Salah at the top of the goalscoring charts tonight thanks to a consolation strike — has performed consistently well this season, notwithstanding the England international’s characteristic goal drought in August. Eriksen and Alli have three Premier League goals apiece, which is not terrible, but not title-winning form either from two of the club’s three primary attackers.

Owing to the fact that it is only recently that they have established themselves as consistent top-four challengers, critics have perhaps been overly generous to Spurs and glossed over their failings to a degree.

But as it stands, they have probably been the least impressive of the ‘big six’ sides this season, and on the basis of their overall performances so far, would do well to finish any higher than their current position of fifth.

3. Another clean sheet for impressive Shane Duffy

Brighton and Hove Albion v Crystal Palace - Premier League - AMEX Stadium Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey collects the ball ahead of Brighton & Hove Albion's Shane Duffy. Source: Gareth Fuller

Is there another Irish player producing such consistently brilliant performances at a high level as Shane Duffy is managing right now? You’d be hard pressed to think of anyone who comes close.

Against Crystal Palace tonight, the 25-year-old picked up his seventh clean sheet of the season in all competitions.

Brighton have built their team around Duffy and central defensive partner Lewis Dunk, and they have overachieved relative to their resources as a result — they’re 10th in the Premier League currently.

Jamie Carragher lavished praise on Duffy recently, while Chris Sutton named the Derry native in his team of the season so far at the weekend.

There has been plenty of soul searching from Irish football followers in recent weeks following the crushing defeat to Denmark, which ended the team’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.

A failure to develop homegrown talent has been one issue in particular that has come under scrutiny. However, Duffy is certainly one anomaly in that regard, as well as being a player with the potential to be a mainstay at both club and international level for many years to come.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Paul Fennessy

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