Eight things we learnt from the midweek Premier League fixtures
Here's what we learned over the past 48 hours in the Premier League.
1. Brendan Rodgers was serious when he said Liverpool would improve
Liverpool’s form since the turn of the year has been nothing short of magical. Given how much they struggled in the first half of the season, they are beginning to hit their stride when it matters most, but then that won’t surprise Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers one bit.
The Reds’ Premier League form since Christmas reads: played eight, won six, drawn two, lost none. Compared to the rest of the league, there’s not a better record out there and the return to fitness of influential striker Daniel Sturridge has only lifted spirits at Anfield. They still face crucial games against Southampton, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, but they now head into them with a wave of momentum behind them and will certainly pose a threat come the end of the season.
2. Chelsea can grind out the results as well as dazzle
At one point it looked like Everton would be leaving Stamford Bridge with an unlikely point, but then Gareth Barry got sent-off, the Toffees panicked and Willian struck in the closing stages to maintain Chelsea’s seven-point lead at the top.
Their form at their start of the season, not to mention the eye-wateringly attractive performances, has faded away, but they continue to do just enough to win games and lead the way at the top of the table. The addition of Juan Cuadrado looks to be a very good piece of business too. The Colombian has a more direct approach than either Andre Schurrle or Mohamed Salah – who made way for him in January – but he also appears to be bringing out the best in Willian as the two fight for the right-wing position.
3. Just when you thought Arsenal were getting on the right tracks
Not for the first time, Arsenal’s season threatens to be derailed by injuries to crucial players at a crucial time. Having received a boost when Mesut Özil returned to the squad, the Gunners were brought firmly back to earth when Aaron Ramsey suffered a third hamstring injury of the season in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Leicester.
If Arsenal are to avoid another February/March slump that sees their season dramatically unravel, they will need their best players to be fit and available. That isn’t the case at the moment with the Gunners having one of the most injury-hit squad lists in the Premier League, and if they fall behind in the race for the top four as well as lose a fairly straight-forward Champions League tie with Monaco, big questions will be asked once again of Arsene Wenger.
4. How Manchester United sit in third is unexplainable
A 3-1 win over Burnley looks like a comprehensive result on the face of things, but there’s no doubting that Manchester United are performing well below their full capability this season.
Rarely has a United side looked so disjointed and lacking in pace, and the fact that Burnley had a number of chances to lead when the sides were locked at 1-1 says all you need to know about Louis van Gaal’s side.
Critics have already begun tearing apart their performances, but the fans at Old Trafford started to show signs of frustration and disappointment last night, something that won’t do Van Gaal any favours.
The form of Wayne Rooney must also be of concern, with the captain clearly having his impact on the game diminished by Van Gaal deploying him in midfield. Rooney is yet to have a shot on target in 2015, which is all the more surprising given that he began the season in strong form.
5. Return of Toure, Aguero and Nasri gives Manchester City a fighting chance
It took a James Milner free-kick to rescue a point for Manchester City last Saturday, but they showed signs of their natural, attacking selves on Wednesday night as they outclassed Stoke on their way to a 4-1 victory.
So what’s changed? The obvious choice would be the return of Sergio Aguero, with the Argentinian scoring twice last night before being taken off as a precaution. But the creative spark actually came from midfielder Samir Nasri, who played his first game in a month last weekend and looked to be back at his best at the Britannia.
With Yaya Toure yet to play since returning from African Cup of Nations duty and his Ivory Coast team-mate Wilfried Bony to join up with the squad for the first time since completing a £28m move from Swansea, City are beginning to find all the ingredients for a late title charge.
They must make up a seven-point gap to Chelsea at the top, but then the Blues aren’t expected to win all of their remaining 13 games and City will have chances to make up ground.
6. Relegation battle could be decided by key injuries
Queens Park Rangers finally got their first away win of the season – having lost every game on the road this season - in the 2-0 win at Sunderland thanks to goals from Leroy Fer and Bobby Zamora - but news yesterday confirmed that Fer had been ruled out for up to 12 weeks with knee ligament damage.
The news is a huge blow to Rangers, who already lost defender Richard Dunne for the majority of the rest of the season, while Burnley saw Den Marney ruled out for the rest of the campaign with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Hull have already experienced significant injury troubles this season but have a number of players coming back to full fitness, and it could just favour them in the run-in, where having key players fit and available who can change the game in a moment will be integral to deciding who survives the drop and who waves farewell to the top flight.
7. Have Aston Villa left it too late to replace Paul Lambert?
Just as Wednesday’s fixtures got underway, news broke that Aston Villa has sacked manager Paul Lambert, despite him signing a new four-year contract towards the start of the season.
Villa’s form this season has been dreadful, and a run of two victories in their last 21 league outings featuring just nine goals saw Lambert pay the ultimate price with his job
While the hope is that a new manager will inject a bit of impetus into the Villa side, they might just have left it too late for a change at the top. Both West Brom and Crystal Palace made changes at the start of the year and gave Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew respectively the January transfer window to tinker with their squad. The new man at Villa Park will have to make do with what he’s got, and they could find out just like QPR have that the options currently available in the manager market aren’t the most enticing of propositions.
8. Tony Pulis shows the worth of a seasoned Premier League manager
West Brom have taken a commendable eight points from their last five league games in a run of form that, if maintained, would see them save of the drop by some distance.
Manager Tony Pulis will be used to taking credit for turning a club’s run of form around by now, but it has to be mentioned that he has found a way to play both Saido Berahino and Brown Ideye in the same XI successfully.