Man City ooze class to beat Wolves while Man Utd show how far the gap is to their rivals – and what has happened to Jamie Vardy?
Since beating Burnley a shade under two months ago, Manchester United have dropped points in seven of their 10 Premier League games in between.
Their three wins have come against Fulham, Southampton and Newcastle, three sides either close to the relegation zone or in freefall. That’s three out of 10, which wouldn’t be far off their rating across the same period, during which time Manchester City have moved from being behind their nearest rivals to 14 points ahead.
That is the mark of champions. This is something else entirely. In some ways, it is hard to be too harsh on Manchester United, because they would have taken second place in an instant on the opening day of the season, and especially after defeat to their midweek opponents, Crystal Palace, at Old Trafford.
But they certainly did not look out for revenge at Selhurst Park. On the one hand, this added to their 20-match unbeaten league run away from home, which Gary Neville hailed on the back of Sunday’s draw at Chelsea.
On the other, they were playing a Crystal Palace side 17 points behind them and missing their best player, yet their only shot on target came in the 12th minute.
United looked lethargic, but they have not had any harder treatment than their rivals. Pep Guardiola called the winter schedule “hell” earlier this week, but his side have racked up 21 straight wins in that period. United have just not managed to find the extra gear when it mattered most.
Second place would still be an excellent return, although even that is far from guaranteed now. Even if it is United’s stuttering form, against the likes of Sheffield United, West Brom and Crystal Palace, coincidentally all beaten by City since this poor run of results started, shows how far they would still be from making that final, most important leap.
It’s not easy for any player after two successive defeats, but for a player like Kasper Schmeichel who prides himself on his professionalism, losses to Slavia Prague and Arsenal would have stung.
But against Burnley, he produced a world-class performance just to remind everyone of the quality he has, taking home the Sky Sports man of the match award.
Let’s move the elephant in the room first – there was no clean sheet. But there was little Schmeichel could have done about a poor pass from his team-mates followed by a rollicking finish from Matej Vydra.
But what followed – along with Kelechi Iheanacho’s stunning goal – kept Leicester from a third successive defeat. He made vital saves from Chris Wood and James Tarkowski in the first half, the latter seeing him well-placed to keep the ball from going all the way over the line.
His most stunning stop though came almost immediately after the break as Burnley threatened to score early once again. Wood – a former Leicester loanee and team-mate of Schmeichel – overpowered Nampalys Mendy to power a header goalwards, but the Leicester captain made an incredible leaping save.
He continued in this vein right until the end, helping to earn Leicester their 31st point away from home in the Premier League season, edging ahead of Manchester City to top the table in that respect.
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said: “He’s one that is constantly there. He’s been brilliant for me in my time here. There are moments when you’re certain it is going to be a goal and then he pulls off a save. His concentration and desire to stop the ball going into the net is so good.
“He always produces for us. He was absolutely outstanding when he had to be tonight and that’s why he’s one of the top goalkeepers at this level.”
Andy Cole, who played with Schmeichel’s dad Peter at Manchester United, told Sky Sports that his save from Wood’s header was reminiscent of the talent of his father in his heyday. Based on Wednesday’s game, it’s hard to disagree.
It was another quiet evening from Jamie Vardy. Last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner has only scored once since Christmas in nine Premier League appearances.
Admittedly, this has been punctuated by absences due to injury and a hernia operation, but even his current return is unlike him after lighting up the league since Leicester’s promotion.
There was not much improvement against Burnley either. Vardy had only one shot late in the game, and that was blocked. He made 11 passes – although nine were done so successfully – and had just 16 touches of the ball. 69th-minute substitutes Wesley Fofana and Marc Albrighton registered higher numbers in both categories.
Could Leicester’s lengthy injury list be having an impact? Creative players like James Maddison, Ayoze Perez and now Harvey Barnes are limiting the balls that can be played into Vardy. His trademark drive on goal after a neat throughball has been lacking.
While it will be a worry for Vardy, he remains a hugely influential player for Leicester, even if he isn’t scoring every week. His movement to drag defenders away so Iheanacho could be sent through for his goal was wonderful to see, especially with his team-mate’s finish.
Vardy has never been short of a Premier League goal and all strikers go through a dip in form. One thing is for certain is that Vardy will not be kept at bay for long.
Sunday’s defeat to Tottenham would have been a real deflation for Burnley. They were unbeaten in four and on the up from the relegation places, but were out-played by clinical Spurs side and surprising emergence of Gareth Bale.
But to use the football cliché, Burnley had to ‘go again’ against another top-four hopeful in Leicester and matched them every step of the way. While they only had 29.9 per cent possession in the first half, they forced some ingenious saves from Schmeichel and five of their six shots were on target.
It was the start of the second half though where they really excelled. They dominated possession and forced one of the saves of the season for Schmeichel as Wood headed this way. Ashley Westwood hit the post too as Burnley continued to impress.
They did well defensively too, even when Leicester roared into life at the latter ends of each half. Burnley were only beaten by a sensational Iheanacho strike, with Charlie Taylor in particularly good form at the back.
Speaking to Sky Sports, Sean Dyche said: “In the second half, I thought we were terrific… We came off a tough one against Tottenham with some question marks, but that was a really strong performance against a really strong side.
“[Schmeichel being man of the match] is pleasing in the sense that we made him work, creating chances against a side who are joint-top away from home so they’re certainly a decent outfit.
“Mainly the reaction from a tough day on Sunday… Today, the whole feel of it, the attitude, the mentality, our defending shape was good. In attack, I was really pleased with that because we did offer enough to maybe score another goal.”
Burnley have two tough games against Arsenal and Everton in the next few weeks and will need to take the same gutsy performance into those matches with Premier League safety almost in sight.
Chris Wilder wrote in his programme notes that he wouldn’t be found waving the white flag, accepting his side’s precarious position, but a performance full of Sheffield steel, courage and determination could yet spark the greatest of Premier League escapes.
Phil Jagielka’s red card following VAR review might have acted as another turning point in a season of marginal calls against Wilder’s men. But the hosts redoubled their efforts to hold on to only a fourth victory of the season. The win means Derby County will still hold the record for the lowest ever points total in the Premier League; the 11 they mustered during the 2007/08 season.
Aston Villa had 83 per cent of the ball in the second half and 10 shots to Sheffield United’s one. The Blades completed 35 passes in that period. But Aaron Ramsdale continued his improved form to secure only a second clean sheet of the campaign.
So often the South Yorkshire club have been on the wrong end of a one-goal margin – 14 of their 21 league defeats this term have been by the odd goal. But in simplifying the message, and eradicating the individual errors, they earned this slender victory.
“It’s everything you want out of a performance,” Wilder said afterwards. “We’ve defended at times pretty poorly this year in terms of being architects of our own downfall, but we saw some top-drawer defending late on. We showed an unbelievable desire to keep the ball out of the net.
“I said to the players I’ll celebrate for them tonight. They have another game on Saturday. All the beers they might have drunk tonight, I’ll do that for them. I’ll give it a good go.”
Wilder hasn’t lost any of his humour nor ruthless streak, shown in substitute Oli Burke – who had replaced Rhian Brewster on the hour – being replaced with two minutes remaining.
Twelve points adrift of safety with 11 games remaining, hopes of survival remain wafer-thin, but a repeat performance and result against Southampton on Saturday, live on Sky Sports, would certainly make things intriguing.
Jack Grealish was conspicuous by his absence as Aston Villa failed to break down 10-man Sheffield United at Brammall Lane. Dean Smith’s side had 72 per cent of the possession but struggled to carve out clear chances without their injured talisman.
“We found it difficult to provide a decent ball tonight and the one time we did, Ollie [Watkins] ended up hitting the bar,” said Smith in his post-match press conference. “With all the possession we had in the final third, we needed better quality runs and balls.”
It’s Grealish, of course, who usually provides those runs and passes and while Villa proved they can win without him against Leeds on Saturday, he was sorely missed at Brammall Lane, where Villa spent much of the contest launching hopeful crosses into the box.
Sheffield United had few problems dealing with those crosses and on the rare occasions Villa did find a way through, they weren’t clinical enough to beat Aaron Ramsdale.
They needed Grealish, with his six goals and 10 assists, to provide a spark and the good news is that the 25-year-old could return for Saturday’s meeting with Wolves. The bad news, though, is that they approach that game having lost ground in the race for Europe.
Manchester City won this game twice. In the first half, their dominance of Wolves was so total that the away team barely registered a touch of the ball in the final third of the pitch let alone the opposition penalty area. And when a set play allowed Wolves back into the match, City cut through them to show how they can devastate teams late on too.
Riyad Mahrez was magnificent all evening, tormenting Jonny Otto and then Ki-Jana Hoever. Is there a silkier first touch in football than that of the Algerian? His ability to bring that ball down from the sky in his stride was enough to find space in behind the Wolves defence for the opening goal. He ended any hopes of a comeback by scoring the third himself.
Gabriel Jesus scored the other two – a reward for his unselfish work leading the line for Pep Guardiola. Elsewhere, Joao Cancelo was excellent again, this time at left-back, while Bernardo Silva’s role in raising the tempo of the team’s play in the opposition half cannot be underestimated. The in-form Ilkay Gundogan was only required for eight minutes.
Twenty-one consecutive wins tells the tale. Those autumn doubts about the method and the mood are long forgotten. Confidence is oozing from the team and the depth is so good that any number of changes to the starting line-up do not appear to affect the fluidity of the football. It has crept up on many during a miserable winter, but this is a great City side.