One moment can make an awful lot of difference. When Manchester City were awarded a penalty at the end of the first half against Spurs this day last week there seemed a certain inevitability about it. Though the game remained scoreless, City had been almost embarrassingly superior to the home team and the penalty seemed certain to put Tottenham en route to a third league defeat in five games.
But Hugo Lloris's save from Ilkay Gundogan seemed to fill City with doubt and Spurs with hope. The game was entirely different in the second half with Oleksandr Zinchenko being sent off for the visitors before superb strikes from Stephen Bergwijn and Son Heung-min gave Jose Mourinho's side a 2-0 victory. It was one of those game whose significance seemed to extend beyond the bare result.
There was a time when Mourinho v Pep Guardiola was the number one battle in football. Nothing was more compelling than their duel in La Liga when they were unquestionably the two best managers in the world. Guardiola won that contest but hostilities seemed set to be renewed when both ended up in Manchester.
Instead, the United manager was never able to lay a glove on his City counterpart. When Mourinho was sacked by United, an embittered and greatly diminished figure, his reputation was at its lowest ebb. Guardiola's, on the other hand, was enhanced further as City held off Liverpool in the most thrilling of Premier League title races.
No longer rivals in any meaningful sense, they'd become the prince and the pauper of the Premier League. Yet last week's game suggested that their stock is moving in different directions and that this time Mourinho may be the one on the way up.
There's no disgrace in City's inability to keep pace with a Liverpool side whose winning run almost beggars belief. But as it's become clear that retaining the title is beyond them, a certain sloppiness seems to have taken hold of City. Their sixth defeat of the season means there's a bigger gap between Liverpool and the reigning champions than there is between City and 14th-placed Crystal Palace.
The similarity of these defeats, with City enjoying the lion's share of possession but still losing, has become so marked that they can no longer blame misfortune. They have been shockingly vulnerable at the back to an extent which can't be explained simply by the injury which ruled out Aymeric Laporte. Guardiola (pictured) still has hundreds of millions worth of defensive talent to pick from.
And while they remain the Premier League's top scorers, there have been times, for example in their feeble League Cup semi-final second leg defeat to Manchester United, when City have looked short on attacking ideas by their own standards. There is an end of era feeling about City and a sense that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Guardiola may already be wondering about his next challenge. Both team and manager seem jaded.
Mourinho, on the other hand, appears rejuvenated. Watching him enthuse about the fighting spirit of his depleted side after they'd battled back to beat a dangerous Southampton team in the FA Cup on Wednesday, you were reminded of his Chelsea or Porto incarnations.
The bitter cynicism which afflicted him as things turned sour at Old Trafford has vanished. Perhaps that's because for the first time since his Portuguese days, expectations of his team are not all that high. Harry Kane is injured, Christian Eriksen has left, it's become clear that £55m signing Tanguy Ndombele needs time to adjust to Premier League football and various other injuries have weakened a squad which wasn't particularly deep to begin with.
Yet Spurs are in the knock-out stages of the Champions League and the fifth round of the FA Cup and lie fifth in the Premier League, just four points behind Chelsea. Champions League qualification or an overdue trophy would, in the circumstances, represent one of Mourinho's finest achievements and one which could restore his reputation.
Guardiola, on the other hand, needs nothing less than a Champions League victory to avoid his rep taking a hit. No-one's teams have been so aesthetically appealing or so utterly dominant at their best. Yet there's still a question mark over his ability to respond to adversity, partly because he's encountered so little of it.
An awful lot is riding on City's forthcoming clash of the titans with Real Madrid in the Champions League. Spurs' meeting with Red Bull Leipzig will by comparison take place under the radar. It's new territory for Mourinho but he's getting to like it.
Long road back from Shane's famine years
Shane Long’s decline in recent seasons has been remarkable. In the 2015-16 season he enjoyed his best ever Premier League campaign and finished with 13 goals from 34 games. The Tipperary striker seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough, but in the following three seasons he managed just 12 goals in 107 games.
It was a similar story at international level where a player who hit 17 goals in his first 71 internationals has drawn a blank 11 times in a row since scoring against Moldova in October 2016. The slump has cost Long his Irish place and cost Ireland dearly too as a variety of replacements have failed to fill his shoes.
Now he’s finally bouncing back. He’s been a regular on a rapidly improving Southampton team which has climbed the table after a disastrous start and on Wednesday hit the target in their 3-2 FA Cup loss to Spurs.
That was Long’s second goal in his last five games and that’s very good news for Ireland’s forthcoming European Championship play-off with Slovakia. Because while the future belongs to Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly, at this moment in time an in-form Shane Long would represent Ireland’s best striking option.
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One of Kobe Bryant’s lesser known talents was the ability to trash talk in Slovenian, which he employed when watching Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks play against the Los Angeles Lakers back in December. Doncic got a kick out of it, met up with Bryant after the game and has spoken about the sadness he felt when returning to action after the LA legend’s death.
But the 20-year-old is also busy creating his own legend. In just his second season in the NBA he has broken Michael Jordan’s record of 18 successive games with at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds set in the 1988-89 campaign. It’s just one of a string of records broken by a player who’s already being spoken of as a potential all-time great.
Doncic’s standing in the game illustrates the growing strength of international players within the league. In the first 62 years of the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award there was only one non-American winner. The wonderkid from Ljubljana’s win last year made it four out of the last five for the league’s foreign legion.
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Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open victory brought him up to 17 Grand Slam titles, confirmed his status as world number one, and drew a large ‘meh’ from the wider world. That might be unfair but it’s hard to think of another great player in any sport who’s been so utterly lacking in charisma. Even Steve Davis turned out to be a bit more interesting than he was given credit for.
The remorseless machine-like efficiency which makes Djokovic such an irresistible force on the court also lends his victories an inevitable feeling which simultaneously diminishes them in the public eye. As long as the millions are rolling in he hardly cares, but it’s striking how little affection he commands.
Sunday Indo Sport