This week’s Monday Verdict discusses a hollow victory for Jose Mourinho’s Man Utd, Arsenal papering over the cracks plus Liverpool’s squad limitations and events in Florence.
MOURINHO ‘A SPECIALIST IN FAILURE?’
Jose Mourinho was pretty happy with himself and his team after Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool.
“It was a complete performance by us. Even if people think we don’t deserve I don’t care. Three points
“We won and I don’t care what people say. Three points, very important victory, the boys are happy, I’m happy,” said Mourinho after narrowly seeing off Jurgen Klopp’s men.
In truth though it was far from a “complete performance” and had the officials been a bit more lenient to Liverpool’s penalty calls it would have been a different story, and most probably a different synopsis from Mourinho.
But here are two questions?
-Should closing the gap on runaway leaders Man City to 13 points have been such a point of pleasure for the United boss?
-Can this Man Utd team win the title next year?
The answer to both questions is ‘no’.
United were hardly imperious against Liverpool. They had a game plan, which probably did not involve going 2-0 up so quickly and probably did not involve getting pegged back inside their own half for so long in the second half.
What they did do is expose Liverpool’s frailties and clinically exposed the shortcomings in Klopp’s squad.
But as far as normal service being resumed and United challenging for the title again, they are a million miles away.
They managed just 32% possession and two shots on target against Liverpool and in the second half defended for their lives – and all this at Old Trafford.
Mourinho was heavily criticised for ‘parking the bus’ in the draw at Anfield earlier in the season, but in a performance which was just as unadventurous on Saturday, his team have come away with the plaudits.
Mourinho will point to the fact that he’s still shaping his squad, but with around £300million now spent his side should have more of a look of champions about them.
Man City are streets ahead after destroying just about all laid before them this season, including United at Old Trafford in December, dominating the chances and game with 65% possession.
City will walk away with the title, probably before Easter. Mourinho is chasing second spot – not a position he is used to, but one he will secretly take.
He famously labelled Arsene Wenger a “specialist in failure” – always finding one opponent too good – but that analogy could well be applied to his United side.
Remove City from the equation and United would be leading the table with five points in hand. Fortunately though Pep’s City side are alive and kickimg – a team worthy of winning the Championship.
The time will come though when his United side are expected to take on City and challenge for the title again, but on this season’s evidence that day is a long way away.
Mourinho’s game plan might have worked against Liverpool – just! – be is that style of play sustainable for a Premier League title push….? Not a chance….
A SMALL REVIVAL – BUT WENGER HAS WORK TO DO
As Arsenal were applauded off by those few who had chosen not to beat the Sunday North London traffic, there was a strange feeling of business as usual.
Despite returning to winning ways at AC Milan on Thursday night, Wenger’s side were without a Premier League victory since February 3 as they welcomed the Hornets to the Emirates Stadium, with pressure mounting on the Frenchman.
But goals from Shkodran Mustafi, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were enough to secure a fairly comfortable 3-0 win over Watford, who had a second-half Troy Deeney penalty saved by Petr Cech.
Wenger himself knows though that there is pressure upon his shoulders, and that he has a job to do to win the Arsenal fans back over.
“We have got the win today and overall I believe it was important to continue after Milan to show that consistency,” the Frenchman told Sky Sports.
“Watford came back strong in the second half but overall it was a convincing win and an important one.
“We have had a disappointing period and our supporters suffered like we suffered. But our job is to perform and stick together in important moment and get the fans back on side with our game.”
Suffering is a strong word, but in truth Gunners fans have suffered in recent times. A lot has already said about Arsenal’s recent decline, but it is worth noting that Sunday’s 3-0 win over Watford almost meant absolutely nothing.
In fact, instead of fighting for fifth place and looking up towards the top four, Wenger’s side started the day just two points above Burnley in seventh.
Aspirations of the Champions League had quickly evaporated to threat of finishing below even the Europa League places – that is an indication of just how much things have stagnated.
But – to their credit – Arsenal backed up a very impressive performance at San Siro on Thursday with a professional job against the Hornets.
The headlines had already been written for the trip to Northern Italy on Sunday, but in true Arsene Wenger style the team pulled out an almost heroic performance from absolutely nowhere. Milan’s youthful squad froze under the spotlights in front of almost 75,000 people, and Arsenal were quick to capitalise with a a dominant display.
With the league becoming less and less of an issue by the week, they can now focus on that competition, starting with completing the job on Thursday in the second leg. Don’t put it past Arsenal to mess it up, though.
The win over Watford was far from perfect too. After scoring an early goal through Mustafi, Watford applied plenty of pressure and had chances to level.
The second goal was a good piece of opportunism and a finish that Aubameyang’s price tag warrants, but then a clumsy penalty gave the visitors a chance to get back into the game until Petr Cech bailed them out.
Three-nil is what it said on the scoreboard, and ultimately that’s what counts, but it didn’t tell the whole story of a game that was nothing if not even for large parts. Papering over the cracks, if you will.
Arsenal fans, don’t let results like the last two fool you: the team still needs a lot of work and a collapse against Milan this midweek is not implausible if Gennaro Gattuso’s side bring their A game.
LIVERPOOL SQUAD FALLS SHORT
Liverpool fell agonisingly short in defeat at Manchester United on Saturday in a game which highlighted Klopp’s lack of squad depth.
Mourinho revealed afterwards that he had targeted Dejan Lovren and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Old Trafford. And two goalkicks later United were 2-0 ahead with Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford winning their duels with Lovren and Alexander-Arnold.
They were two avoidable goals from Liverpool’s point of view and two goals which were route one in nature. Lovren twice lost physical battles with the United man and Rashford was afforded too much space to accurately fire past Loris Karius.
Liverpool responded in typical fashion, but they could only muster an Eric Bailly own goal and went on to lose 2-1.
Virgil van Dijk included, Liverpool fell just short and all the mutterings from Anfield suggest they are well aware they will need to spend big again in the summer to maintain their progress.
Mourinho ruthlessly exposed their defensive frailties and for all the attacking talent in the world if you are susceptible from concededing goals from goalkicks, then you’re progress will be halted.
Despite their defeat though, Liverpool can look to the positives and if they can add three players in the summer, they should be well placed to take on United an beat them.
FIORENTINA FITTINGLY WIN ON EMOTIONAL DAY IN FLORENCE
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it’s more important than that.”
The Bill Shankly quote will likely be recited long after you or I are here, such is the passion to one’s club and the beautiful game for which it is associated.
However, events of the last eight days, in which we witnessed the sad passing of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori, 31, and FC Tours defender Thomas Rodriguez at the tender age of 18 shows Shankly’s words, when it comes to the crunch, simply aren’t true.
After the postponement of the Serie A programme last weekend, La Viola got back to domestic action on Sunday in a match full of emotion.
Fiorentina had paid emotional tributes to their captain before and during the game – a match that they fittingly won 1-0 against Benevento at Stadio Artemio Franchi.
Fans unveiled banners in Astori’s honour and players warmed up in shirts bearing his name and number, while the match was halted in the 13th minute for a sustained round of applause.
Vitor Hugo headed the only goal of the game in the 25th minute and celebrated by hugging coach Stefano Pioli before raising a shirt picturing Astori to the crowd.
AND IN CASE YOU MISSED THIS….
That Geordie roar epitomised in one brilliant clip. When those fans are behind you, there’s fewer better stadiums in this country – and this clip brilliantly highlights that passion as Kenedy scored their first against Southampton on Saturday.