Liverpool face a real test on Sunday, while Leicester players must hang their heads in shame despite revival, plus a view on Barcelona’s next managerial appointment in this week’s Monday Verdict.
The real acid test for Liverpool comes next Sunday
Liverpool’s convincing 3-1 victory over top-four rivals Arsenal on Saturday marked only their second Premier League win in 2017.
Goals from Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum secured the Reds victory and saw them leapfrog the Gunners into the top four.
A nightmare beginning to the year saw Liverpool slip out of the top four with only three points picked up from four Premier League matches in January.
Only a terrific start to the season – with many tipping Jurgen Klopp’s side to be Chelsea’s main rivals for the title – has ensured that the Reds haven’t slipped further down the standings.
Their only other win came against Arsenal’s north London neighbours Tottenham, a clear indication that the Merseysiders can do it against the big boys.
In fact, Klopp has a stunning record against top six sides with only one loss – against Manchester United over 12 months ago – in 16 matches, including seven victories.
However, the real acid test will come next Sunday when Liverpool host Burnley at Anfield.
The Clarets, who are without a win in their last four Premier League matches, will still provide a stern test for the Reds especially with their recent record against the so-called smaller clubs.
Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have lost to Swansea City, Hull City and Leicester City, while they’ve also drawn with David Moyes’ Sunderland outfit.
Adam Lallana was exceptional against Tottenham and Arsenal with his non-stop closing down and effective dribbling but the same cannot be said of the Lallana that turned up against Leicester.
The same can be said of Mane, Firmino et al. who tore the Gunners apart in the first half with an attacking masterclass and herein lies Klopp’s problem.
It’s hard to make a case for the players needing an international break or more rest in an effort to cope with the high-energy tactics when they play like they did against Arsenal.
Defensively they still have problems, of course, but the real issue seems to be a mental one. Can the players go from the high of beating Tottenham at Anfield to playing Bournemouth at a wet Vitality Stadium the next week?
Sometimes, yes, but if they are to seriously challenge in the future then they need to be doing it a lot more often. And a win against Burnley would go a long way to showing fans they are ready to grab a place in the top four.
Ranieri sacking just the tonic for Vardy and co.?
Claudio Ranieri’s sacking from Leicester City shook the footballing world. How could the Foxes board not put faith in a man who got them first place, to get them 17th place.
The fairytale is over, or as Ranieri put it so bluntly but so accurately, “the dream died”.
As Leicester City cruised to victory over fellow strugglers Hull, the fans sung “We’ve got our Leicester back”. Is this the perfect indication of how fast things can change in football?
Ranieri was controversially sacked on the back of five consecutive Premier League defeats which left the Foxes in the bottom three. Now, City have now won back-to-back games for the first time this campaign.
Some would call it the Shakespeare effect, but those more cynical amongst us would rightly point fingers at the players who refused to perform for a manager who got them a Premier League winners medal.
Forget King Lear, here's King Motson.
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) March 4, 2017
Speaking to Sky Sports after their win over Liverpool, Jamie Vardy said: “We’ve come under a lot of unfair stick with the stuff that’s been in the press lately and the lads wanted to put a reaction in.
“I can’t put my finger on it. We’ve been working hard and it’s not been happening but tonight it has all clicked.
“I’ve been very frustrated with the amount of goals I’ve got this season but hopefully those two goals will push me on and there will be more to follow.”
There are some quite striking comments in those words alone, which point to something more sinister.
Describing the stick as ‘unfair’ is laughable; this was a team that won the Premier League. Saying the ‘lads wanted to put a reaction in’ is disrespectful to Ranieri – where was the desire before? Vardy knows full well he can ‘put his finger’ on what’s gone on, and claims they were ‘working hard’ under Ranieri have been disproven by their recent turn in form.
It looks like the Foxes may just prowl their way out of the woods this time, although they are far from safe, but serious questions have to be asked.
We are really witnessing a Shakespearean miracle, that has transcended from a Shakespearean tragedy.
What next for Barca as Enrique steps aside?
So one of the marquee jobs in club football is once again up for grabs after Luis Enrique announced that he will be stepping down as Barcelona boss at the end of the season.
After three years in charge, which netted two Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles and a brace of Copa del Reys, Enrique admits he is exhausted and is in need of a break from the spotlight that comes with such a huge job.
The big question for Premier League fans, and most likely supporters of Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton, will be if the Spanish giants turn their attentions to these shores or once again look to their own league for Enrique’s eventual replacement.
You could argue that some Arsenal fans will not be too disappointed to see the back of Arsene Wenger after countless false dawns under the enigmatic Frenchman, but his playing style is surely most suited to what the Catalans’ would want? However, you could argue he’s now seen as a manager who no longer has a winning mentality and that would severely damage his chances.
Tottenham fans would clearly be devastated if Mauricio Pochettino swapped north London for Catalonia, but the Argentine enjoyed eight years as a player and four as a coach of Barca’s neighbours Espanyol and the job he has done at White Hart Lane certainly warrants his strong links with the job.
For his part, Pochettino sees Spurs as very much a long-term project and is relishing leading them into their impressive new stadium in 2018-19, so it would take a fairly substantial change of mind for that move to happen. Never say never in football though!
Former Barcelona defender Ronald Koeman is also said to be in the running, and although he would surely be interested, Toffees fans will be hoping that the Dutchman views overseeing a new dawn at Everton as a challenge he can’t walk away from – despite the obvious temptations that a return to the Nou Camp would bring.
Liverpool chief Jurgen Klopp has also been mentioned in some dispatches but his Reds team has been wildly inconsistent at times and the more you read reports coming out of Spain the more likely it is that Barca will turn to a current La Liga boss to lead them come 2017-18.
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Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde is the current favourite for the role, while Jorge Sampaoli of Sevilla is also in the running.
Valverde, 53, seems like the natural choice. As a former Barca player, albeit briefly in the late 1980s, he certainly has an empathy with the club and has probably been earmarked for the job since leading Bilbao to a stunning 5-1 aggregate Copa del Rey final win over Barca in 2015.
Whoever takes over will certainly have a fantastic squad to work with, although whether that will include a certain Lionel Messi is a story for another day!
North-east heading South?
It is not so long since the relegation fight seemed to have six or seven viable candidates and little obvious pecking order, and who knows, maybe it still does.
However, it now seems like the teams that currently occupy the bottom three spots – Sunderland, Hull and Middlesbrough – could very easily stay there unless something drastic happens.
Starting with the bottom side Sunderland, who went down 2-0 to Manchester City on Sunday afternoon. David Moyes seemed spirited by the performance against a team with far more resources at their disposal, but should this be a worry rather than an encouragement?
The Black Cats were never really in the game. Some would say they were inches away from taking the lead through Jermain Defoe, which is true, but City turned it on in the second half through the likes of David Silva and Leroy Sane and Moyes paid the price. It’s hard to see any way back for them.
Then there’s Hull City, who faced what I personally believe was a tough test away at a rejuvenated Leicester City (rightly or wrongly, that’s another story). They went 1-0 up with a perfectly crafted counter-attack that Sam Clucas rounded off, and all was rosy.
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Yet the good start fell apart at the seams. Marco Silva is no miracle worker, and what he has at his disposal is a Championship squad. Their next three home games are against Swansea, West Ham and Middlesbrough – they need to be looking at six or seven points just to even stay in the questioning.
And then there’s Middlesbrough – the team which for the most part of the season has been talked up for their organisation and defensive ability under Aitor Karanka. Now, we are starting to see their weaknesses.
Only Bournemouth have picked up less points in their last five league games (2 for Boro, 1 for Bournemouth), but the Cherries’ have the scalp of a hard-fought draw at Old Trafford to show. Middlesbrough on the other hand look like they simply don’t have the goals in them to stay up, but how crucial their next game against Sunderland is.
Meanwhile, Leicester and Crystal Palace appear to have woken from a slumber as they won against Hull and West Brom respectively, and Swansea are in rich form under Paul Clement.
Their are signs of life in the teams treading above the bottom three, while those in the drop zone are beginning to look dead in the water.