Liverpool stand on the edge of greatness. While football can make fools of all of us, it feels like this is their time

Spurs go all Spursy again.

Spurs played all 95 minutes without even having a single shot on target. That is a shocking statistic for any home side. Their previous good form completely evaporated on Saturday and they looked labored and ordinary against a Brighton side that came with a plan and successfully stuck to it.

Everyone knows that if Harry Kane plays well, so does Tottenham, so Brighton put Yves Bissouma in front of the back three to close down Kane’s operating space, denying him the opportunity to act as creator. It worked. Without Kane’s creative input Spurs couldn’t get any purchase in the game and Brighton began to boss them. VAR should’ve seen Kulusevski throwing an elbow and ensured he got a red card, but for unfathomable reasons, VAR was blind to the assault.

The Seagulls had four shots at goal and when Leandro Trossard scored Brighton’s winner on 90 minutes, it was deserved. Graham Potter did a number on Spurs, successfully identifying a way to stop them playing. Coming on the back of a win at Arsenal, Brighton seem to like playing in North London. It was as though this was an entirely different Spurs to the one that has been on such a good run of form and once again, their top four finish now looks in the balance. If you were looking for a definition of Spursy, this was it.

Predictable Manchester United.

This was United’s chance to make up ground on fourth place with what should’ve been an easy game against Norwich City. It was all very predictable. Predictable that United would make hard work of the game. Predictable that Cristiano Ronaldo would score a hat-trick against a poor side, predictable that United would take a two-goal lead, predictable that Norwich would be let back into it to level the scores and predictable that United would score a winner. So predictable in fact that I wrote all of this before the game. It’s OK, I’m not a wizard or seer, it’s just that United’s games often follow very similar patterns. What I didn’t predict was that one of CR7’s goals would be from a free kick. He is absolutely rotten at free kicks and hasn’t scored one since July 2020 despite taking well over 70. Even he looked shocked when it went in. Why the commentator said it was a ‘trademark’ strike, I don’t know. It is one of those hive mind defaults that the football media has: Ronaldo is great at free kicks. But he isn’t. He’s terrible. But he remains in the paradoxical position where he is both holding United back and keeping them afloat. Still, at least United won, something Arsenal and Spurs couldn’t do. The win puts them in fifth, within touching distance of Spurs but with Arsenal on their tail. All three teams are capable of rank bad performances and for the neutral that at least keeps the run-in interesting.

Predictable Arsenal.

The 1-0 defeat at Southampton makes it four losses in five games for the Gunners and even though their opponents had let in 19 goals in the last six games, six last time out, Arsenal could not find a way through them despite 75% possession and 23 shots at goal (though only six on target). They are the most frustrating side to watch. They have so much potential and in the middle of the season, they looked like an excellent team that was clicking into gear, but in the last month it has fallen apart. Mikel Arteta is under some pressure once again and needs to arrest this decline. Part of these failings is down to the inconsistency of their young players, but their biggest problem is that the back four defensive players are not good enough, often enough, especially with Kieran Tierney out. Fraser Forster was in fine form but Arsenal should’ve scored at least once. They end the season with a very tough run of seven games, playing Chelsea, Manchester United, Spurs and Leeds. They’re now in sixth and fourth seems a little less possible, their only silver lining being that Spurs also lost.

Conor Gallagher.

The 22-year-old Crystal Palace loanee is under contract to Chelsea and an agreement was made at the start of the loan that he would not play against the Blues. This meant he missed the Cup semi-final. It’s time that such clauses were outlawed. If you want to loan a player out, loan him out, don’t loan him out but make stipulations when he can and can’t play. If they’re that scared of him playing against them, don’t loan him out in the first place. This was potentially a great moment in Gallagher’s career which Chelsea completely spoiled. He may never get to a Cup semi-final again, he helped his side get there, to be denied a starting position was unnecessary and more than a little unfair.

Burnley are Sean free.

While the football world was rocked by Sean Dyche’s departure, readers of this column were perhaps less so as it had seemed clear to me all season that Dyche was growing disinterested, the players were not responding to him any more and he’d likely be off at the end of the season. It’d been nice if he could’ve chosen the time of his departure but Burnley’s owners care nothing for such niceties. They’re only interested in protecting their investment, acquired in part by using £ 90 million of Burnley’s own money. Don’t think about that for too long, it’ll make your brain hurt. It was odd that they sacked him on a Friday though without a replacement waiting in the car outside Turf Moor.

Without him at the helm, Burnley didn’t look any worse. A 1-1 draw at West Ham is decent enough in a game that lost much of its spirit with the bad injury to Ashley Westwood. It is not impossible to think that Dyche was holding them back. There is a default ‘he’s done a great job’ that has fallen out of the mouths of too many pundits for too long. He may well have done a good job a while ago, but nothing is forever and just clinging to a notion you established in your mind 10 years ago is frankly dumb. His time was up and Dyche knew it himself.

Burnley badly needs a reboot. They are a club without any ambition except to do it all again next year and that’s all the owners care about. But just playing for 17th every year is dispiriting and pointless, so getting rid of Dyche is not a bad idea per se, but have the owners got any good ideas? I doubt it very much

Where did the real City go?

It was a most peculiar FA Cup semi-final. Someone appeared to have stolen the real Manchester City and replaced them with a fake who tried to play like the real City but were absolutely rubbish at it. To see them making so many mistakes in the first half trying to play the ball out but failing time after time felt like cognitive dissonance. For the first goal it didn’t help that Ibrahima Konate was seven inches taller than Gabriel Jesus who was marking him, five taller than Nathan Ake who tried to challenge him. That match was a gift to Liverpool. Did Pep Guardiola not spot this before the game? It was an obvious mistake.

Zak Steffan made a hapless error to gift the Reds a second goal and went down in installations for their third which started with the sort of difficult cross-field ball by Trent Alexander Arnold, delivered with nonchalant ease. Liverpool took City apart. Thiago was immense throughout.

While City recovered a little in the second half, playing a 4-2-4 and scoring early, the game was already lost and the final scoreline flattered Manchester City with Mo Salah and others missing several chances. Had Pep Guardiola picked the wrong team? Should he have played Edison in goal? Had he over-thought his selection in a big game once again? Or was it just a bad day at the office?

Whatever the answer is, they need to put this shockingly bad performance behind them quickly. Meanwhile, with a maximum of 11 games left, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool stand on the edge of greatness. When they click, there is something utterly magnificent about every aspect of their team. While football can make fools of all of us, it feels like this is their time.

Crystal Palace’s defensive tactics.

In the other FA Cup semi-final, Palace played Chelsea. Palace have taken four points from Manchester City and Arsenal this season and can be dangerous opponents. However, they can’t do it every week so you never quite know which Palace will turn up. Chelsea had already beaten them twice this season.

Patrick Viera opted for five at the back without the ball, making them defensively secure in an unadventurous game. Cheikhou Kouyate missed a good chance after 60 minutes which was punished by Ruben Loftus Cheek’s deflected goal five minutes later, his first for the club, remarkably, in three years.

The match needed a goal but Palace struggled to shake off the defensive mode and take the game to Chelsea. It’s often the case when a team has been defending deep in numbers for the majority of the time. Vieira had no option but to throw caution to the wind, took off both defensive midfielders James McArthur and Jeffrey Schlupp and introduced Christian Benteke and Michael Olise. Briefly, Palace were a threat, but Mason Mount’s goal poured cold water onto their newly found ambition.

Chelsea did not play scintillating football, partly because Palace would not let them, but they always dominated the ball and in truth Palace did not offer any extended period of threatening football. Late on, from an Olise corner, Joachim Anderson agonizingly headed wide from four yards out.

It was obvious why Vieira opted for a defensive formation, but he has an exciting attacking side and that has been a big part of their success this season, so it would’ve been nice for them to take Chelsea on more. OK, the result may have been the same but after the game ended, it felt as though Palace had not really given it a proper go and that was most unsatisfying.

So it’s a Liverpool v Chelsea final, same as the League Cup. Liverpool will be favorites and, if they play their best game, rightly so.

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